Mack Williams: Slither up for conversation

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 4, 2011

By Mack Williams
for the Salisbury Post
In my old home, on the Old Concord Road, our old front porch of cemented slate, brick columns, and steps of granite slabs had a few cracks that had developed over the years. Sometimes, ants and spiders would be seen exiting crevices in the porch into which they would later disappear.
On occasion, little lizards known as five-lined skinks could be seen on the rock, only to quickly withdraw into the safe shadow of a crack upon human approach.
These kind of lizards, when attacked by a predator, drop their tail as an offering, and then run away to live another day, growing another tail in the meantime. Such safety achieved within the rock kept the wary lizard from creatures who would prey upon it, reserving the sacrifice of its tail only for the direst of emergencies when there was no sheltering rock to be had.
One day, while I was at college at Appalachian in the early 1970s, something slithered out from the shadows below the front porch, then upward up through one of the porch’s cracks to warm itself on the stone above. It wasn’t eight-legged like a spider, six-legged like an ant or four-legged like a lizard. In this sort of countdown, the number of this creature’s appendages equaled zero, because it was a black snake!
Sometimes, snakes can also be found hiding in the coolness of woodpiles on a hot summer day. Many times, they use sun-warmed stones to warm themselves, later taking a cooling break in the crevices within and spaces underlying the stones if they feel that they may be in danger of overheating. Being cold-blooded, a good part of what consciousness they do have has to concern itself with temperature, something about which warm-blooded creatures don’t have to give a passing thought.
The day that the black snake crawled up out of the crevice in the granite, my mother saw it lying on the stone, motionless. She told me that she wasn’t afraid, and didn’t desire to kill it, letting the snake continue in life.
As it seemed unthreatening, she left its rock-bathing undisturbed. Since there was no one else there, she would sometimes talk to the black snake. She said that it seemed to look at her as if it were attentive to what she was saying.
By that time, my father was away in death, I was away at college, and my brother Joe had married Sheila and moved away, so the snake was the only one who wasn’t away and seemed to make itself available for conversation (although one-sided).
I remember my mother telling me that she would see it out there each week with the seeming consistency of an old visiting neighborhood friend.
It was probably fortunate for the snake that both my brother Joe and I were not there, because I remember an old black-and-white photograph of me holding up a dead black snake that Joe had killed.
Its length was almost as much as my height as a 10-year-old boy.
When there are no similarly intelligent beings close at hand with whom to share our thoughts and feelings, simpler creatures will suffice, with their seeming, quiet understanding.
For the give and take of opinion in conversation, only beings with an overall resemblance to the reflection in the mirror meet the pre-requisite of what is needed.
For the basic feeling of imagined empathy, a much simpler creature, with not so swelled a brain, nor so warm a blood, will do.