As slowly as the start of the tide, he moved the back of his hand closer and closer to the snake’s darting tongue.
His hand moved so slowly I didn’t know it had stopped. The snake’s tongue touched his skin again and again. The snake stopped as the hand slowly started to turn palm up. And moved closer.
The flicking began in earnest then, dabbing the skin of his palm with the cadence of a sewing machine needle. The snake’s head rose, almost like a cobra out of a basket, and the most extraordinary thing happened. He moved his hand just beneath the snake as if he was going to scoop it up. Instead the snake slithered forward and coiled into his palm. He stood up and brought the snake closer to his face for a better look. On that face was the smile of a boy who just got the best Christmas present ever.
That man was Van Egan. Former biology teacher at Carihi, noted author of several books, flyfisher extraordinaire, and a guardian of all things great and small. Van had written his thesis for university on garter snakes. He and wife Maxine actually camped in snake-infested areas “only for a week or so” to help his research.
Thinking of him now on that trail to the river, doing that, with the last dew of morning dancing to vapor in the sun; I have one question.
Who would have thought Van Egan was a Slytherin??!!
Ravenclaw, yes. Of course! Griffindor…? Maybe. But surely, surely the Sorting Hat would have said Hufflepuff?
I watched him, mesmerized by how close to his face he held the snake and how he stroked it with the forefinger of his free hand. All the energy of forest and river and this miraculous demonstration made me feel kind of warm and fuzzy. Then ice cold water was poured down the back of my neck with his statement; “Your turn,” he said setting the snake down with care.
I’m sure I’m not alone in my aversion to snakes. Seeing one almost makes me pee my pants, being near one is close to cardiac arrest. So touching one was out of the question. But it wasn’t. Van, like the teacher he was, took me past the veils of misgiving into the realm of a foe vanquished, a fear resolved, and a scale of measurability.
What Van had utilized in his demonstration was the snake’s sensory cells in its tongue; they are how it makes sense of the world. The back of the human hand, said Van, has far fewer scents than the palm. So letting the snake lick the back of his hand first, prepared the snake for what could be alarming scents on the palm, but still comfort it with the known scents of the back of his hand. And then there was the warmth of his outstretched palm, like a rock in the sun.
The snake’s tongue actually tickled. Again and again it tasted me. “Now,” whispered Van. I turned my hand like it was in quicksand, my palm coming up to face the world and that tongue. Flick, flick, flick. Breathe. Flick, flick, flick. Don’t run. Flick, flick, flick. Did I just tinkle?
The snake’s head lowered and he moved into the palm of my hand, coiling. I could barely stand the combination of revulsion and euphoria. I had done it. I had overcome my fear. I was reveling in that heady elixir when the snake’s head disappeared — up the sleeve of my wading jacket!
I became the scarecrow with his arm on fire. I thrashed around and flung my arms about like a helicopter with one blade. The snake flew off and into the deer fern. It was several seconds before I stopped shivering and found Van looking at me like I was a piece of a puzzle he had never completed.
A hint of a smile was on his face. There was no indication of disapproval. We made our way down the river trail without saying much until I gushed out I was sorry and that I hoped he wasn’t disappointed in the way I reacted.
He stopped and turned to me. “You did well. That dance you did was interesting and a perfectly natural reaction, but…”
“But what?” I asked.
“That screaming was a little much.”