By Conrad Shumaker
My world has almost always included chickens. They were around as I grew up in Arizona, and they’re still part of our lives in the Arkansas hills. When I think of chickens in Arizona, I mean “around” literally, since no coop ever seemed to hold them for long. They would hang out on the front porch of our old adobe house, fight the cats for the meager bowls of cat food we put out, catch insects and lizards in the overgrown yard that my brother and I inevitably put off mowing, and even compete with the cats for perching space. The kitchen windowsill was a particularly attractive spot for one cat and one hen, for example. Washing the dishes, I would often see a cat lying there contentedly for a few minutes; then there would be a noisy scuffle and the cat would be replaced by a hen. A few minutes later the scuffle would be repeated and the cat would be back. Once my mother left the kitchen window open for a couple of hours and came back to find a freshly laid egg in the dish drainer. Usually, though, gathering eggs was like an Easter-egg hunt; my brother and I had to scour the brush and high grass around the house and find them before they went bad in the desert sun. In short, chickens meant adventure and entertainment.
So one of the first things I did after moving into a house in the hills a few miles south of Conway was to build a chicken coop and stock it with hens and occasionally a rooster, depending on how I happened to be feeling about loud crowing at 3:00 on a summer morning. I love fresh eggs, and I don’t like to support the treatment of hens that produces most supermarket eggs, but mainly I just like having chickens around. Even as I write this, I can hear the high-pitched announcement by a hen that she has laid another egg for us. That’s real country life.
But, as anyone knows who has raised hens in the south, if you have eggs you have snakes. The big black kind that are called rat snakes by some, chicken snakes by others, and less printable names by anyone who goes to gather the eggs and finds that they have all disappeared. At least once a summer a large snake finds our nest boxes, and I have to hope I’ll be lucky enough to go out to gather while he or she is at work so I can catch the culprit.
Now, I generally like snakes. In fact, when I was a kid, I liked them much too well for my mother’s peace of mind, catching king snakes and gopher snakes and sneaking them into the bedroom my brother and I shared. Whenever they escaped, we could depend on my mother to find them for us and announce the discovery with a loud scream so we could come and collect our adopted pets. But I don’t like to have snakes eating our eggs, and I’ve largely outgrown the pleasure of keeping them in the house, so I catch them and give them a long one-way ride to a new home deeper in the woods. That’s the general plan. But I never know when I’ll be lucky enough to catch a new snake in the act, and I have to act quickly before the snake disappears through the nearest hole in the chicken wire or crack between the henhouse floorboards, so in practice the plan is less like a plan and more like an improvisation. I grab the snake behind the head and go toward the house yelling for my wife Sara to bring some kind of bag or pillowcase to put it in, and then we rush to the nearest vehicle with the writhing bag and decide which direction to drive this time. Sara isn’t quite as fond of snakes as I am, but she’s a brave and resourceful woman, so that strategy usually works. It doesn’t always work perfectly, of course; for example, the first time we tried the plan, I forgot to tell her that snakes are surprisingly strong, so she relaxed her hold on the bag just a little, and about half of the five-foot snake shot up into the space between her and the dash of the car. It was a bit of a challenge to push the snake back into the bag and reassure her that she hadn’t actually married a maniac, all the while driving on a curvy country road, but we managed to bring the experiment to a successful conclusion.
In any case, I was gratified one afternoon a few summers ago to discover a large dark-colored snake lying in one of the nest boxes with an incriminating egg-shaped bulge behind its head. Here was the thief who had been devouring our eggs once or twice a week for the last month. I grabbed the snake just above the bulge and started heading toward the house, calling for Sara as I went. While most of my mind was intent on executing the usual plan, however, a voice from some corner of my brain was busy making observations. “That’s interesting,” this other voice said, “this snake isn’t trying to wrap itself around my arm the way constrictors like rat snakes usually do.” This observant part of my mind also watched the snake open and close its mouth repeatedly, seemingly gasping for air because of the egg trapped just behind its head. “That’s interesting,” the voice said, “I’ve never noticed how pearly and satiny the inside of a rat snake’s mouth is. It’s really kind of pretty.” Meanwhile, I had reached the front porch, where Sara had appeared in response to my yells, holding an old pillowcase. I don’t think that she can explain to this day exactly what made her react the way she did, but she stood in the doorway of the house and refused to come any closer. “No,” she said, “something’s not right about this.” I was puzzled and frustrated by her response, and I was worried that the poor snake was strangling—after all, it kept opening and closing its mouth as if it was getting desperate—so I carried the snake to the gravel driveway and set it down so it could get some air. It immediately coughed up the egg, so I reached down and picked up the egg—about three inches from the snake’s head.
Meanwhile our dog had come to see what the commotion was about. He trotted in the direction of the snake, stopped and sniffed suspiciously, then yelped as if he’d been stung and departed the scene with great dispatch. Yes, I know that this offers clear evidence that every sentient being on earth is smarter than a human male who is busy executing a plan that has worked for him in the past, but at the time even this behavior by our faithful dog didn’t clue me in. It was only as I prepared to catch the snake again that I saw clearly the shape of its head, now unobscured by the egg-shaped bulge, and realized that I had been carrying around a cottonmouth.
As I stood on the front porch asking myself the obvious questions about my level of intelligence and what I should do next, the snake settled the matter. It moved directly toward me, not throwing itself into the usual sinuous loops that characterize snake motion, but crawling with its belly scales so that its body was absolutely straight. Maintaining this posture, it moved under the part of the porch I was standing on precisely between my feet and disappeared for good, since I wasn’t inclined to follow it. Now I know that a biologist might find a perfectly rational explanation for the snake’s movement, but I am nevertheless convinced that that snake was flipping me off with its whole body. I’m also pretty sure that it never came back to steal eggs again because it was convinced that it had encountered a person who was dangerously insane.
When people have expressed their fear and loathing of snakes, I sometimes tell them that our culture’s fears of the serpent kind are misplaced and that in my experience only people who are very unlucky or very stupid get bitten by venomous snakes. Apparently you can even fall quite firmly into the “very stupid” category and still not get bitten. In any case, I now look very closely at any snake in the nest box before I pick it up.
Conrad Shumaker grew up on a cattle ranch/cotton farm outside Tucson, Arizona. He completed a BA in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, an MA in English at the same university, and a Ph.D. at UCLA.
After finishing his doctorate, he moved to Conway to teach American Literature at UCA and continued writing the occasional poem and story. He built his own house in the hills outside Conway (with the help of a builder who actually knew what he was doing and a couple of students). Though he kept in touch with his Southwestern roots by taking students out to reservations in New Mexico and Arizona to read and discuss American Indian literatures and cultures in the places where the poems and stories originated, he also grew to love the Arkansas hills and forests. He retired after 38 years at UCA, and now lives with his wife Sara, his son Greggory, and an ever-evolving flock of chickens on 12 acres of woods.
His scholarly and creative works have appeared in such journals as American Literature, The Arizona Quarterly, The Journal of American Culture, Slant, The Cave Region Review, The Sky Island Journal, The Redneck Review of Literature, and many other places. He also published a book on teaching Southwestern American Indian Literatures.