The school bus had long since disappeared over the last hill toward the main road one afternoon when I set my books on the kitchen table and hurried into the living room to talk to my mother.
Mom was sitting in her favorite easy chair by the picture window, and her crutches were laid neatly on the floor next to the chair where she could reach them.
Outside the window, the air was so clear everything shimmered and sparkled. The fence posts. The plum trees. The lilacs. But even though the sun was shining and the grass was as green as the bottle of food coloring in the kitchen cupboard, a chilly wind blew out of the west. I would never tell her so, but I was glad my mother had insisted I put on my red button-down sweater before I left for school this morning.
“Mom?” I said. “Is it all right if I ride my bike?”
As I waited for her to answer my question, she looked up from the newspaper and peered at me through her black-rimmed reading glasses.
“You won’t have much time before supper,” she said. “Why don’t you go out and find Dad instead?”
Since there were no other children in the family for me to play with, and no neighbor children close by, going outside to see Dad was even more fun than riding my bike.
There was only one problem.
“Isn’t he in the field someplace?” I asked.
For the past month, Dad had been plowing, disking and planting. He often didn’t arrive home until it was time to put the cows in the barn and feed them. If Dad was out in the field, then he would be too busy to talk to me.
My mother shook her head. “He’s finished with the fieldwork. He came in for coffee this afternoon for the first time in I don’t know how long.”
“Yipee!” I said.
Mom smiled and went back to reading the newspaper.
A little while later after I had changed out of my school clothes and had put on my denim chore coat, I opened the porch door and saw our old, battered, green pickup truck backed up by the granary.
The driveway made a circle past the buildings, and in the middle sat the garage, a round, wooden grain bin, and the red gasoline barrel shaded by a large silver maple. Another silver maple grew in the front lawn, and a row of silver maples lined the lawn in back of the house. One time Mom had told me the silver maples were planted by my great-grandfather after he homesteaded the farm in the late 1800s.
The granary, which had little windows in the peak near the roof that looked like a square tipped on end, stood across the driveway from the gas barrel. The position of the pickup truck told me that Dad was inside the granary, loading oats into burlap bags, and that he planned to go into town tomorrow to grind feed. About once a week he loaded the truck and made a trip to the feed mill.
I stood on the porch and watched as Dad lifted a burlap bag of oats into the back of the truck. My father made it look as though the bag of oats weighed no more than a ten-pound bag of sugar, but I knew better. A bag of oats weighed about a hundred pounds. Dad had put one on a scale once so I could see how much it weighed.
As my father disappeared into the granary again, I smiled to myself, happy in the knowledge that I knew right where he was, so I wouldn’t have to wander around the buildings, yelling for him.
I sat down on the porch steps. All afternoon, the concrete steps had been soaking up sunshine, and beneath the seat of my jeans, the top step felt almost hot. Dandelions filled the lawn, as if someone had scattered handfuls of gold coins, and big, white clouds that looked like giant cotton balls floated across the sky, pushed by the wind.
Only a few days of school remained, and I could hardly wait for summer vacation to begin. We usually got out of school the third week of May if we didn’t have too many snow days to make up. And on the last day of school, we always had a picnic. Everybody took their plates outside, and we sat on the grass instead of eating in the cafeteria.
I wasn’t looking forward to the picnic quite as much as I did other years, though. Last year on the last day of school, I had no more than settled down with my plate when a garter snake had slithered out between my feet. The mere thought that I had almost sat on a snake still made my stomach do flip-flops.
As I sat there thinking about the school picnic, one of the barn cats rose to her feet, arched her back and stretched, and then climbed the steps to sit beside me. She had been sprawled in the grass, sunning herself, and beneath my hand, her brown tabby fur felt warm and soft.
In a couple of minutes, the cat went back to sunning herself, and I headed for the rope-and-board swing hanging from the clothesline poles. While cloud shadows slipped across the fields, I swung higher and higher, my arms wrapped around the thick rope tied over the crosspiece. The rope had come from an extra coil stored in the haymow. Dad used the same kind of rope for letting the big door down so he could put hay into the barn during the summer.
When I had gone as high as I could go, I sat quietly while the swing moved slower and slower and slower. More puffy clouds drifted across the sun, and in the field behind the barn, clumps of alfalfa rippled in the cold breeze. The thought crossed my mind that maybe I should have put on a stocking cap. But then reason prevailed. It was May, after all.
I hopped out of the swing and strolled toward the granary just as Dad brought another bag of oats and heaved it into the truck.
The maple trees around the lawn were now covered with green leaves, and as I passed beneath the maple tree by the gas barrel, I was close enough to the truck to see the crack in the upholstery on top of the seat behind the steering wheel.
I had no more than lifted my foot to take another step toward the truck when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye.
I looked down.
And there, coiled in the grass by my feet, was the biggest snake I had ever seen.
I had come within inches of stepping on it.
The snake watched me with beady black eyes – and then its forked tongue flickered in my direction.
Before I had time to think, I drew a deep breath … turned … and took off for the house.
As I raced past the garage, I became aware of someone screaming. Blood curdling screams that were enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
Then I realized the screams were coming from me.
Seconds later, I cleared the porch steps in one leap and barged into the kitchen, startling my mother, who, by this time, had left the living room.
“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” Mom gasped, as she turned away from the sink.
“Snake!” was all I could say before collapsing against her.
Mom grabbed the cupboard to steady her balance and then put her arm around me. “Where was the snake, honey?” she asked, patting my back with one hand as she held onto the kitchen counter with the other. “Did you see a little grass snake?”
Before I could answer, I heard the porch door open and then the kitchen door.
It was Dad.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, sounding slightly breathless. “What happened? Is she hurt?”
“She saw a snake, that’s all,” Mom replied.
I still had my face pressed tightly against her, but I thought she sounded exasperated.
“It was a BIG snake,” I sniffled.
Hah! I wondered how calm Mom would be if she had almost stepped on a fifty-foot boa constrictor. We had learned about boa constrictors in science class, and even the smaller ones could eat rabbits in one swallow.
“Oh,” Dad said. “I thought maybe she’d hurt herself.” He quietly closed the kitchen door and went back outside to finish loading oats.
As I stood there leaning against my mother, I became aware that she was trembling.
I took a step back.
Mom wasn’t trembling.
She was laughing – laughing so hard she had tears in her eyes.
I drew a shaky breath. “What’s so funny?”
“Hee-hee,” she spluttered. “Tee-hee.”
“It is NOT,” I said, drawing myself up to my full height, “funny.”
Mom nodded her head. “Yes, it is.”
She made her way over to the table and sat down.
Wouldn’t you just know it. I was almost dragged away and killed by the biggest snake I had ever seen, and all my mother could do was laugh. Now that I’d had time to think about it, the snake by the granary was at least as long as the handle of the push broom we used to sweep the barn aisle.
I was beginning to wonder if my mother was ever going to stop laughing when she finally started to wipe her eyes.
“What,” I asked once again, “is so funny?”
“Your poor father,” she said, as fought back another snicker “There he was, out there in the granary, loading oats, minding his own business … and then … well … ”
Dad? My mother was laughing because … ?
She was laughing because Dad must have run to the house as fast as I did. If not faster.
The thought of Dad running almost made me forget about the snake.
I had never seen Dad run anywhere. Sometimes he walked pretty fast. But I’d never seen him run.
“He probably wondered if you fell out of the tree and broke your arm, or something,” Mom explained.
“Oh,” I said.
In a little while after I calmed down, I ventured outside again.
The truck was still parked in the same place, but this time, I approached the granary with extreme caution.
I even squatted down to look under the pickup truck.
I didn’t see the snake anywhere.
Not in the grass.
Not by the truck.
And not by the granary step.
Then, and only then, did I consider it safe to squeeze past the tailgate and climb into the granary.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said, waiting for my eyes to adjust after the bright sunshine outside.
“That was a bull snake,” Dad said while he continued bagging oats.
My father had a funny way, sometimes, of knowing what I was going to ask before I could say it – except that knowing what kind of snake it was didn’t make me feel any better.
“He’s a good snake,” Dad added. “I’ve seen him around here a lot. He helps us. He hunts mice, like the kitties hunt mice. We want him to be around the granary.”
“He’s a good snake?”
As far as I was concerned, there was no such a thing as a ‘good’ snake.
“Will he bite?” I asked.
I had watched the cats hunt mice, and I understood why Dad didn’t want mice in the granary. He said the cows wouldn’t eat the feed if it had mouse droppings in it. I didn’t blame them. Who would want to eat something that had mouse droppings in it?
“No,” Dad said, dumping another shovel of oats in the bag, “the snake won’t hurt you. I suppose he was taking a sunbath when you saw him. The sun is warm today, but that wind is awfully chilly.”
By now, I was starting to feel a tiny bit guilty about my terrified, screaming reaction to the snake. If my father said he was a good snake – and that he was only taking a sunbath, just like the kitty by the porch had been taking a sunbath – then maybe it wasn’t quite so bad.
“Tell you what,” Dad continued, using a short section of string to tie the bag shut with a miller’s knot, “whenever you’re around the granary, keep an eye out for the bull snake. That way, the next time you see him, he won’t be so scary.”
“Are you sure he won’t bite?” I asked.
Dad heaved the full bag of oats into the truck.
“No, kiddo,” he said. “The snake won’t bite. In fact, I’d even be willing to bet that you scared him more than he scared you.”
I seriously doubted the snake had been more scared than me, but I kept it to myself.
For a long time after that, whenever I went near the granary, I looked for the bull snake.
But I never saw him again.
And neither did Dad.
“What do you suppose happened to that snake, Daddy?” I asked one day a few weeks later when he was loading oats again.
“I think you scared him away,” Dad said, taking another burlap bag and hooking it over a nail to hold up one side while he shoveled oats into it. “He probably decided to go live someplace else where it was quieter.”
“Do you really think he moved?” I asked. “Just because of that?”
My father nodded solemnly. “Snakes don’t want to be where there’s a lot of commotion. You wouldn’t like it if someone screamed just because they saw you, would you?”
I thought about that for a few moments. “No, Daddy. I wouldn’t like it.”
I hoped, then, that the snake had found a nice place to live, a quiet place where his afternoon sunbath wouldn’t be interrupted by blood-curdling screams of terror.
And with any luck at all, it would also be someplace where I wouldn’t almost step on him again.