We live surrounded by fields and creeks. The occasional snake through the yard is neither a great surprise nor a great alarm. Nor is finding, as we do, the occasional shed snake skin. Were any of the snakes we've seen poisonous, we'd surely feel differently, but so far they've all be speckled king snakes or black rat snakes or ring-necks or ribbon snakes or a particularly fetching brown mottled, friendly little variety whose name I've mislaid for the moment. All good neighbors, if a bit startling to encounter unannounced.
I thought nothing of it, then, when The Younger Daughter came in after playing outside the other afternoon, and announced that she'd found another snake skin besides the one her father had found the day before. Two was unusual, but not necessarily shocking. I went with her to examine the new treasure. Sure enough, it was a second skin, nearly as long as the first: three to three and a half feet or so in length and still in one piece. You could even see where the eyes had been.
While The Younger Daughter examined her prize more closely, I stood gazing up into the tree above us. The trees in our yard are Paradise Trees or Trees of Heaven. They are huge and wonderfully shady, but these trees are short lived and most of them are at least partially hollow. Snakes have used them for homes before, one particular fellow one summer grew to nearly five and a half feet long: my own height. I was looking for snakes on the branches, but what I saw was another skin dangling from the limb several feet overhead. I pointed it out to The Younger Daughter, and she danced a happy little jig. "Three!" she exclaimed, "There are three of them!" She watched the skin swaying gently in the breeze, head over one side of the limb, tail further up, then went back to her two skins on the ground.
I walked around the other side of the tree, still looking up into the branches by the trunk. The lowest limb was now brushing the top of my head with its leaves. I didn't see anything and was about to go back in the house when a drop of water fell past my nose. I looked up to see a fourth empty skin directly overhead within inches of my face, dripping with the last bits of the afternoon's rain shower. My heart beat a bit faster, and I stepped a little to the side. I like nature, mind you, but I'd rather it not happen on my head, and this was getting a bit eerie. Four snake skins. That meant four snakes, all around three foot long, judging by their cast-off suits.
I was about to call The Younger Daughter to see this latest discovery when she yelled from the other side of the tree. "Mom! Here's another one! Right up there in the branch! It was right over my head!" She was right. There it was, waving languorously in all its ghostly reptile grace. Five.
We didn't find anymore, although I circled the tree warily several more times. I did see a slender black head followed by the rest of a slim black body emerge from under the cover of an old well in the backyard a couple of days later. I cannot describe the grace of it, although I can describe the caution with which I've been walking in the yard of late, especially under the trees: extreme.