VII: Abby’s Children

So last time I said a sad thing and a happy thing had happened with the snakes, and the sad thing was Roscoe moving back to Brazil.  Now for the happy thing, which is about Abby.

I   first heard about it from Aretha.  She came to me one day a few months ago and told me that Abby was feeling kind of tired, but that she was very hungry.  This was unusual – snakes are usually hungry and active, or tired and not much interested in eating.  I   asked Aretha if Abby could be sick, and she said no, not sick exactly, but could she have a double ration of meatballs just for the time being, and an egg?  When I   asked why, Aretha acted mysterious and wouldn’t say.  But of course I   told Antoine to give Abby whatever Aretha thought she should have.

I   went to check up on Abby the next day, and asked her what was happening.  You’ll remember that Abby is a shy snake, so shy she won’t even tell us her personal name.  So when I asked her about this she wouldn’t answer.  But although snakes don’t usually do this, I thought I saw her blush a little, and while they don’t do this either, I’m sure I saw the hint of a shy smile.  So I thought: could Abby be getting ready to lay some eggs?

Well, that’s what it was, of course.  I went back to Aretha and she confirmed it.  When, I   asked?  Soon, she said.  Do we need a veterinarian?  Aretha said no, snakes usually lay eggs without difficulty, but she and Lakshmi would keep an eye on her.  Aretha and Lakshmi had laid a lot of eggs in their lives and knew how it was done, so I left it to them, and told Antoine to  make sure Abby had what she needed.

Trixie and Olga made a nest for Abby from some fresh towels.  I   later learned that the nest was in a cool, dark, quiet place under the stairs.  Mud snakes prefer to lay their eggs in mud, of course, but we didn’t have any mud except what the cold winter rain was making outside, not a good place for egg-laying.  The female snakes took turns sitting with Abby; Maria de Gracia, who could read (very unusual for a snake), read to her from Serpent Poems and from What Every Snake Mother Should Know.  Male snakes were politely but firmly discouraged from hanging around the nest.

And then a couple of nights later Abby delivered her clutch, as a group of snake eggs is called by snake experts (I am getting to be a snake expert myself).  There were 14 of them.  Then we had to wait for them to hatch, which took about two months (I didn’t want to tell you about it until I knew they had hatched safely).  Abby didn’t have to sit on them like birds do – she just had to lay them and hope no one bothered them, which of course no one in my house would ever do, and anyway they were way down under the stairs.

Daisy was fascinated by the whole thing and tried to learn as much as she could, looking forward to the day when she would lay eggs of her own.  She was very startled to learn that garter snakes don’t lay eggs, but give birth to live snakelets.

finally the day came when the eggs hatched.  Human babies, as you know, are born entirely helpless, and it is many years before they can manage on their own.  You, for example, are nearly seven, but you would soon be in real trouble if you had no one to take care of you.  There are some kinds of snakes, cobras for instance, that take care of their young ones and look after them, at least for a while.  But most snakes are born, or hatch, more or less ready to go.  And so it was with Abby’s hatchlings.

They took a little while to get used to being in the world rather than in an egg, but within an hour or so it was “Thanks, Mom, we’ll take it from here, which way are the mice?”  And Abby had the same casual attitude.  I didn’t hear her exactly, but the sense seemed to be “Hi, kids, glad you made it ok. Mice are mostly outside, plus a few in the walls and ceiling, but they serve meatballs and kibble in the dining room.  Enjoy!”  And that was it.  It’s not that Abby was a bad mother, but she’s a snake, and that’s how they do things.  No hard feelings.

Abby laid 14 eggs, but only 11 hatched.  This too is quite normal.  Snake eggs are soft and leathery, not like chicken eggs, and the ones that didn’t hatch, Abby ate.  I told you snakes are unsentimental.

But that left 11 newborn snakes.  Were they boys or girls?  And what should we call them?  It’s very hard to tell a male mud snake from a female one without a close physical examination, so we just asked them what they were. There were seven girls and six boys.  Abby didn’t name them – they’ll figure it out, she said – but I couldn’t stand their not having names so I   named them after California counties. The girls are Angeles, Barbara, Clara, Mariposa, Merced, Shasta and Sierra, and the boys are Benito, Bernardino, Diego, Francisco, Joaquin (pronounced Wakeen) and Luis.1)I left off prefixes like San [Francisco], Santa [Barbara], and Los [Angeles].

We were glad to welcome these new snakelets of Abby’s, but they presented two problems.  First, how could they hunt?  The snakes we already had were gobbling up the mice and insects in the back yard – the area couldn’t support twice as many snakes.  And second, suddenly having 12 mud snakes (Abby and 11 snakelets), and only 11 of all the other kinds together, could lead to difficulties and conflict (mud snakes against everyone else).  But it all worked out — I’ll explain in my next letter what happened.



References   [ + ]

1. I left off prefixes like San [Francisco], Santa [Barbara], and Los [Angeles].