Snake Season


It seems normal now, because it has become familiar,
and what’s familiar will, of course, in time, come to seem harmless.

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by Rilla Askew

For those of us raised up on Revelation in this part of the country, the year 2011 seemed oddly familiar: earthquakes in diverse places, floods and fire and wind. Torturous heat. Crippling cold. Plagues of grasshoppers and serpents. Drought. By late October the lack of rain had leached all the color from the valleys of the Sans Bois, the small mountain range in southeastern Oklahoma where my family lives. The ridges were gray with naked oak trees. In the ditches, the tall grasses whispered, dry and thin as sloughed snakeskin. No hay for the cattle, no pasture. The ponds were disappearing. You could see the weedy, cracked outlines of their former selves. My dad said drought was why we were seeing so many snakes then.

One Sunday morning before church my sister Ruth went out to feed and water her chickens. She and her husband live across the pond from our parents’ place on land that’s been in our family for generations. Ruth knows not to stick her hands where she can’t see—we all know that rule in this snake-ridden country—but what’s familiar also comes, in time, to seem harmless, and that morning my sister was in a hurry. She shoved her fingers beneath the plastic trough to tip out the old water so she could hose in the fresh; the trough came up off the ground just high enough for her to see the fat, full-grown copperhead coiled underneath. Whoomp! Ruthie dropped the trough in an instant. Then she went in the house to call Dad.

In those days I divided my time between upstate New York and our second home in Oklahoma, but I happened to be visiting my parents that weekend, and I was the one who answered the phone. Before Ruth even got the words out, I knew why she was calling. Her voice had the snake-edge. I can’t describe what it is about that pitch, that edge of fear and excitement, but I recognized it in my sister’s voice that morning, along with a little hint of apology. She hated to be asking Daddy to come kill a snake before morning worship. But Ruthie’s husband wasn’t home, and the snake was in the chicken pen, and it had to be killed. I turned and yelled down the stairs, “Daddy! Ruth’s got a copperhead in the yard!”

Our dad was in his late eighties then, and by nature a slow, methodical man. When it came to snakes, though, our daddy moved fast. He had his cap on and his holstered pistol strapped over his sweatpants and his .22 rifle fetched from behind the basement door by the time I’d tugged on my boots and grabbed the truck keys.

We bumped across the pasture in his pickup, me driving, and when we pulled into Ruthie’s yard we saw her standing outside the chicken pen with a flat, big-snouted gun in her hand. Daddy took the gun from her, said, “You girls stay back out of the way.” Ruth followed him into the pen anyway, but I wisely stayed outside the fence, positioning myself to get a good look at the snake.

Daddy tipped up the trough, held it high with one hand, snake-gun in the other. The copperhead was no longer coiled but stretched out at the edge of the trough’s shadow as if it had been trying to crawl away, though it lay perfectly still now, disguising itself against the dirt in the chicken yard. It was good-sized for a copperhead, maybe three and half feet long, thick around as four thumbs—large enough that its bite could kill a laying hen sure, make a hefty human sick. For the brief millisecond I saw it alive, that snake was beautiful, its back mottled a lovely dusky-pink and copper, the chevron markings perfect. Then, blam, its head was blown off, and the body lay writhing and twisting in the dust, headless, as snakes will do. We stood watching it a while, and then Daddy scooped it up with a shovel, tossed it out in the field behind the chicken yard for the crows to eat, and he and I drove back across the pasture to get ready for church.

On our way into town, Daddy said, “I studied on that gun for two years.”

“Yes,” Mama said, “and then gave it away.”

My sister and I laughed. He was talking about that snake-gun. It’s a plain-looking derringer, hardly larger than a man’s palm, and it shoots .44 caliber bullet or .410 shotgun shells—a shotgun derringer, basically, very lethal at close range, but not much good for anything except shooting a close range assailant, or killing snakes. The safety mechanism is designed to keep you from shooting your hand off, so it takes a while to reload—too long, if you’ve missed your first shot—which is why Daddy studied on it for two years. He’d been trying to conjure a way to make the gun reload more quickly so he could use it for hunting. He never found a way to do it safely, so he gave the gun to Ruth’s husband Les to shoot snakes with. Most generally Les used a shovel to kill snakes, but that snake-gun was a good backup, especially for venomous snakes. He might have used it that morning if he’d been home. But he wasn’t home, and so naturally Ruth called Dad.

The fact is, we’d been calling our daddy to come kill snakes all our lives—not just me and my sisters but also our mom. Mama had a way of screaming Daddy’s name that made any of us within earshot turn to each other and say, “Snake.” She was what our daddy called “snaky,” by which he meant her fear of snakes was outsized—it went past normal fear or trepidation all the way to hysteria. But Mama’s tone was humorous in the car that morning, indulgent; she meant her quip to be funny, and it was funny, and my sister and I laughed. The exchange was just so them, our parents: a man who would ponder the mechanics of one gun for two years, and a woman who would know that about him, and who would know, too, that he would, in his ultimate bafflement, give the gun away. We all laughed, driving to church on the gravel road that runs from our family’s land to the highway, with great clouds of dust billowing behind us and the end of our world bearing down upon us and the bare-naked ridges in front of us gray and ugly with drought.

That same afternoon Ruth and I were walking the gravel road, our feet kicking up dust. The air crackled with dryness. The weather was too hot and sear for October. These days, we’re not surprised to see summer’s heat in autumn, but back then—little more than a decade into the new century—it seemed beyond passing strange to feel such warmth in the fall. It made us uneasy. My sister saw it before I did. “There’s a copperhead,” she said, and I jumped. The snake was a young one, maybe ten inches long, no bigger around than a fat pencil, wriggling fast from west to east across the road. It felt our footsteps on the earth and stopped, reared back, turning to face the perceived danger, head lifted, tongue darting. Fascinated, we circled around it, our feet crunching gravel: we’d step this way, and whiiipp, the little snake snapped this way; then we’d step that way, and whiiipp, it flipped that way, head darting as if to strike. I knew if we got close enough, it would strike. Even a small copperhead can make you sick. I once knew a pregnant hippie lady who reached out to caress a young copperhead somebody was holding, murmuring, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful?” till the snake whipped loose and bit her on both thumbs; her arms swelled to thrice their size, turned black to the elbows; she was sick for a week, although her baby, when he was born, turned out to be okay. I knew to be cautious, even with a pencil-sized copperhead.

The rule of the land in snake country is that you always kill venomous snakes when you see them, even baby ones. But Ruth’s and my rule is: if it’s not an immediate threat to your family or your livestock, let it go. I’ve never killed a snake, except a few I’ve run over with my car. I don’t think Ruth has either. Our parents, though, would have crushed that baby copperhead in a second. That’s a little known truth about our mother: she loathed and feared snakes beyond telling, but if Daddy wasn’t around to do the deed, she’d take after the snake herself. I’ve seen her hack a blacksnake to pieces with a hoe, chopping at it with such terrorized ferocity it would make your blood chill. She was, in fact, a bit like that young copperhead herself, fierce beyond all measure of her size and power; if she felt threatened, she wouldn’t cower but would lash out, fearless, even when she was full of fear. My sister and I watched the young thrashing snake. We were giants in the road. We could crush it with a rock, smash it with a stick. I said, “You think we ought to kill it?”

“Nah,” Ruthie said. “We’ll just wait till it shows up in my yard, and then I’ll call Daddy.” We laughed and started on to the house. After a moment I realized my sister was crying, silent tears running down her face.

“What?” I said.

“One of these days,” she said, “he won’t be here for us to call to come kill our snakes.”

I was quiet a minute. Then I said, “I know.”

And I thought I did. But I didn’t. Not really. No matter how inevitably and forcefully you understand it is coming, you don’t truly know grief until it is here.

The next Sunday I was back in New York, driving toward my house upstate after visiting my godchildren in Brooklyn. Headset on, I called the folks to see how they were doing. “I can’t talk now, Shug!” Daddy said, and there it was in his voice: the snake-edge, that telltale rip of excitement. “I got to get over to Ruth and Les’s, they’ve got a rattlesnake under the porch!”

“Call me!” I said. “Daddy, call me as soon as it’s finished! Be careful! Let me know how it goes!”

“Yes, all right.”

“Be care—”

He was off the line before I could tell him another dozen times to be careful, be careful! It was already dark in New York; I knew it must be near dusk in Oklahoma—a bad light to be hunting rattlesnakes in. I wanted to phone Ruth to see what was happening but I didn’t want my call to be distracting, so I waited to hear, driving north over the Whitestone Bridge onto the Hutch and the Cross County to the Thruway, and north and north, until finally I could stand it no longer and called Ruthie’s house. Her voice didn’t have the snake-edge when she answered. I instantly relaxed. “Tell me everything,” I said.

Their llama had been acting up in the carport, she said, making a weird, agitated, snuffling sound like they’d never heard before, and just the fact of the llama being in the carport was weird—ordinarily he stood sentinel in the pasture or the side yard—and then one of their little dogs inside the house started yipping, then the other dogs took up the commotion, and Les went outside to check. In two seconds he burst back into the house and headed for his .22. “Snake,” he said. Ruthie rushed outside behind him; they stood on the porch. In the yard, their cross-eyed Siamese Manx sat on her haunches on a little stone rise, watching. A few feet away, a humongous rattler was coiled, tail lifted, rattling. The snake’s attention was riveted on the cat. Ruthie said she knew that if the cat moved at all, even a twitched whisker, the snake would strike. But the cat sat frozen, hunkered down, watching the snake, entirely motionless, a timeless standoff, until Les raised the rifle. Well, the thing about that snake-gun Daddy gave him: to use it, you had to get in close. Les didn’t favor walking up to within a few feet of that riled and rattling rattlesnake, so he’d fetched his rifle instead. He stood on the porch, aimed, fired, and missed. The cat leapt away, and the rattler uncoiled at once and started crawling—not away from the house but directly toward it. Within a few very long, helpless seconds, Ruthie said, that five-foot diamondback disappeared under the porch. So that was when Ruth went in the house to call Dad.

This time Daddy came armed with his twenty gauge. The twilight was fading, Ruth said, and they didn’t know where under the house the snake was hiding. Their porch is three feet off the ground, skirted by lattice, the dark space underneath crowded with old farm tools and pieces of lumber. All along the lattice edge, the drought-choked weeds and zinnias were thick enough to provide plenty cover for a big snake. And here was our eighty-six-year-old daddy crouched low, easing along the porch, poking in the weeds with his gun, trying to locate that rattler, his face and hands no more than a foot or two off the ground. He crept gingerly back and forth, trying to pierce with his eyes the darkness underneath. Ruth brought a flashlight. Les pointed to a large wooden pallet on the soft ground behind the lattice, not far from where the snake had crawled under, said, “I’ll bet he’s under there.” Daddy said, “I’ll just bet he is.” They pried loose the lattice on one end and Les held it back and Daddy poked his shotgun beneath the pallet, let loose with both barrels at once, and shot that snake all to pieces. He used the gun barrel to prod the writhing halves out into the yard. “Why, Ruth,” he said, his voice edged with excitement, “that’s a diamondback.” My sister said, “Daddy, I know.” Under ordinary circumstances a diamondback rattlesnake will not crawl down from the mountains into a domestic yard filled with dogs and humans and a llama. But these were no ordinary circumstances. This was unprecedented warmth, searing drought. This was summer in autumn. This was the seasons turned inside out, upside down.

By the end of the year, the plague of snakes was notorious in our part of the country. Stories of close encounters ran rampant—farmers and ranchers and folks who lived in the mountains all finding deadly snakes in their yards: copperheads, ground rattlers, velvet-tails. There were stories of a weird hybrid being sighted, the bastardized offspring of copperheads mating with rattlesnakes—an unheard of lethal kind of snake with the silent stealth of a copperhead and the deadly venom of a rattler. In November my husband and I returned to Oklahoma to spend the winter at our house on a ridge thirty miles from my family’s land. On Thanksgiving day, my three young nieces, out for a walk in the seventy-degree weather, crossed paths with a six-foot diamondback sunning itself in our yard. They rushed back to the house to tell us. Daddy leapt out of his chair and took out after it with a frog gig and a shovel, but the steel prongs of the gig couldn’t penetrate the rattler’s hide, they just bounced off, and the rattler disappeared beneath a large rock. We had to call a neighbor to come shoot it because nobody at my house had a gun. And the drought and the record warmth continued, on into the next season, and the next, and the next year after that.

“It’ll rain sometime,” our daddy kept saying. “It always does.”

And of course it did rain. Eventually. A little at first, and then torrents. But that didn’t stop the heat or the drought or the seasons’ inversion. The next year turned out to be the hottest on record in Oklahoma. Ninety-five percent of the state was declared to be under extreme drought. On October 8, Oklahoma City had its earliest freeze ever. The next year Tulsa got snow on May 2—the latest observed snowfall there since record-keeping began. That May, tornados swept through Shawnee, Newcastle, Moore, Oklahoma City, wave after deadly wave. The widest tornado ever recorded swept through El Reno on May 31, tossing semis along I-40 like toys, killing three veteran storm chasers, drowning women and children in the flash flooding that accompanied the torrential rains. In July, a derecho-like storm swept through Tulsa with wind gusts of eighty miles per hour. Widespread tree damage and downed power lines left one hundred thousand without power. Rain, in that ordinarily dry month, caused flash flooding throughout the eastern half of the state. We’re used to erratic weather in Oklahoma. We’re used to torrential toad-stranglers and choking dust storms and prairie wildfires and twisters and searing summer heat. But the inversion of the seasons—the late snowfalls, early frosts, high heat in winter—that’s new. Or it was new. Not anymore. It seems normal now, because it has become familiar, and what’s familiar will, of course, in time, come to seem harmless.

On Christmas Day 2000, the first year of the new millennium—a dozen years before this snake season I’m remembering—a slow, drizzling rain began to fall over southeastern Oklahoma. The temperature hovered right at freezing. We were all gathered at my folks’ house for Christmas dinner. The forecasters were adamant: an ice storm was coming—significant accumulation, they said; widespread outages, they said; be prepared—but it was hard to believe them. The rain was so gentle, and the day was so warm. My husband wanted to go back up to our house on the mountain, but it was Christmas, and I wanted to stay with my family. So Paul went on to our house alone, driving slow in the cold rain in our car without four-wheel drive. By mid-afternoon the roads were becoming slick, but still the temperature hovered. I called Paul. “Don’t you think you ought to come back down here? You know how we always lose power up there.”

“I’ll be all right,” he said. By late afternoon, though, we could see what was coming. Perhaps if the forecasters had not used the word storm, we might have paid attention. Paul and I were used to winter storms, living in upstate New York; we knew the sound of howling blizzards, muffled snowfall, the sense of overwhelming power descending. Certainly, as a daughter of the southern plains, I’d been used to crashing thunderstorms, torrential downpours, the fierce, erratic destruction of tornados. This was not a storm. This was a slow, deceitful rain, not cold, not wind-driven, just a gentle accumulation of ice on the branches, the gravel, the eaves. Paul called. He had lost power already; there would be no water, no lights, no way to cook on our electric range. Daddy said, “C’mon, Shug,” and he drove me in his four-wheel-drive truck thirty miles along the steadily icing highway, and then up the mile-long drive to the top of the ridge to our house to get Paul. Daddy to the rescue, always, just like when we called him to come kill snakes. The three of us crammed into the cab of his pickup, and we drove back, slow and slow on the icing roads, creeping along at ten miles an hour back to my family’s land. By early evening, we’d lost power there, too.

Before it was over, ice would sheathe the better part of three states. Half a million homes would be without power. We wouldn’t get ours back for seventeen days. But we were together, we were family, we cooked meals and boiled coffee in the fireplace, and Ruth and Les came over and brought food from their rapidly defrosting freezer, and we all ate together and read stories aloud by lamplight and went to bed at seven o’clock, because it had already been dark for two hours by then and there was nothing to do; it felt primitive, it felt endless, and also like an ending. It felt like something had shifted, like the world had changed forever, like it would always be this way.

In the night I’d awaken to the sound of crashing tree limbs—a sharp crack, loud as a gunshot, followed by the whooshing, thunderous fall as great branches broke under the weight and fell to the earth. Sometimes it was the sound of whole trees toppling, undermined by the slow accretion, those thin sheathes of ice built layer upon layer to the breaking point, and it had all been so subtle, so quiet, no noise as the freezing rain fell, a silent, almost imperceptible beginning of the end. That’s what it felt like—the end of the world as I knew it, the same as I’d been hearing about in Revelation all my life, except without violence, without Armageddon or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Just that slow, deceitful, gentle rain.

Our parents’ aging was like that. A slow accretion of signs and changes, an incremental buildup, a gradual transformation. Oh, I could mark certain turning points, the accidental falls, the compression fractures, the obsessions and muddled conversations, forgotten medicines, lost billfolds and purses and keys, but most of it was both more alarming and more subtle than that. The first time Daddy stood in the living room holding his toothbrush, baffled about how to use it. The first time Mama asked me to open a can of green beans and then a few seconds later asked me again, and then, a few seconds later, asked me again. The gradual accretion, the slow build toward the point of no return, one diminishment added to another, until losses that would have disturbed or frightened us a few weeks earlier had become normal, had become the unsurprising, acceptable condition of my parents’ inexorable walk toward death.

I wonder if the end of the world will be like that. Not cataclysm, not apocalyptic flood or fire or wind, but a slow accretion like a freezing rain, gentle at first, normal—nothing to fear, really, no matter how much the weather forecasters keep shouting their warnings. Just a slow incremental buildup, crystalline sheathes mounting, layer upon layer, until we lose power, until the trees and the powerlines and the towers that connect us all come crashing down.

“Snake Season” appears in Flock 18. Explore more of the issue here.

Rilla Askew

For those of us raised up on Revelation in this part of the country, the year 2011 seemed oddly familiar: earthquakes in diverse places, floods and fire and wind. Torturous heat. Crippling cold. Plagues of grasshoppers and serpents. Drought. By late October the lack of rain had leached all the color from the valleys of the Sans Bois, the small mountain range in southeastern Oklahoma where my family lives. The ridges were gray with naked oak trees. In the ditches, the tall grasses whispered, dry and thin as sloughed snakeskin. No hay for the cattle, no pasture. The ponds were disappearing. You could see the weedy, cracked outlines of their former selves. My dad said drought was why we were seeing so many snakes then.

One Sunday morning before church my sister Ruth went out to feed and water her chickens. She and her husband live across the pond from our parents’ place on land that’s been in our family for generations. Ruth knows not to stick her hands where she can’t see—we all know that rule in this snake-ridden country—but what’s familiar also comes, in time, to seem harmless, and that morning my sister was in a hurry. She shoved her fingers beneath the plastic trough to tip out the old water so she could hose in the fresh; the trough came up off the ground just high enough for her to see the fat, full-grown copperhead coiled underneath. Whoomp! Ruthie dropped the trough in an instant. Then she went in the house to call Dad.

In those days I divided my time between upstate New York and our second home in Oklahoma, but I happened to be visiting my parents that weekend, and I was the one who answered the phone. Before Ruth even got the words out, I knew why she was calling. Her voice had the snake-edge. I can’t describe what it is about that pitch, that edge of fear and excitement, but I recognized it in my sister’s voice that morning, along with a little hint of apology. She hated to be asking Daddy to come kill a snake before morning worship. But Ruthie’s husband wasn’t home, and the snake was in the chicken pen, and it had to be killed. I turned and yelled down the stairs, “Daddy! Ruth’s got a copperhead in the yard!”

Our dad was in his late eighties then, and by nature a slow, methodical man. When it came to snakes, though, our daddy moved fast. He had his cap on and his holstered pistol strapped over his sweatpants and his .22 rifle fetched from behind the basement door by the time I’d tugged on my boots and grabbed the truck keys.

We bumped across the pasture in his pickup, me driving, and when we pulled into Ruthie’s yard we saw her standing outside the chicken pen with a flat, big-snouted gun in her hand. Daddy took the gun from her, said, “You girls stay back out of the way.” Ruth followed him into the pen anyway, but I wisely stayed outside the fence, positioning myself to get a good look at the snake.

Daddy tipped up the trough, held it high with one hand, snake-gun in the other. The copperhead was no longer coiled but stretched out at the edge of the trough’s shadow as if it had been trying to crawl away, though it lay perfectly still now, disguising itself against the dirt in the chicken yard. It was good-sized for a copperhead, maybe three and half feet long, thick around as four thumbs—large enough that its bite could kill a laying hen sure, make a hefty human sick. For the brief millisecond I saw it alive, that snake was beautiful, its back mottled a lovely dusky-pink and copper, the chevron markings perfect. Then, blam, its head was blown off, and the body lay writhing and twisting in the dust, headless, as snakes will do. We stood watching it a while, and then Daddy scooped it up with a shovel, tossed it out in the field behind the chicken yard for the crows to eat, and he and I drove back across the pasture to get ready for church.

On our way into town, Daddy said, “I studied on that gun for two years.”

“Yes,” Mama said, “and then gave it away.”

My sister and I laughed. He was talking about that snake-gun. It’s a plain-looking derringer, hardly larger than a man’s palm, and it shoots .44 caliber bullet or .410 shotgun shells—a shotgun derringer, basically, very lethal at close range, but not much good for anything except shooting a close range assailant, or killing snakes. The safety mechanism is designed to keep you from shooting your hand off, so it takes a while to reload—too long, if you’ve missed your first shot—which is why Daddy studied on it for two years. He’d been trying to conjure a way to make the gun reload more quickly so he could use it for hunting. He never found a way to do it safely, so he gave the gun to Ruth’s husband Les to shoot snakes with. Most generally Les used a shovel to kill snakes, but that snake-gun was a good backup, especially for venomous snakes. He might have used it that morning if he’d been home. But he wasn’t home, and so naturally Ruth called Dad.

The fact is, we’d been calling our daddy to come kill snakes all our lives—not just me and my sisters but also our mom. Mama had a way of screaming Daddy’s name that made any of us within earshot turn to each other and say, “Snake.” She was what our daddy called “snaky,” by which he meant her fear of snakes was outsized—it went past normal fear or trepidation all the way to hysteria. But Mama’s tone was humorous in the car that morning, indulgent; she meant her quip to be funny, and it was funny, and my sister and I laughed. The exchange was just so them, our parents: a man who would ponder the mechanics of one gun for two years, and a woman who would know that about him, and who would know, too, that he would, in his ultimate bafflement, give the gun away. We all laughed, driving to church on the gravel road that runs from our family’s land to the highway, with great clouds of dust billowing behind us and the end of our world bearing down upon us and the bare-naked ridges in front of us gray and ugly with drought.

That same afternoon Ruth and I were walking the gravel road, our feet kicking up dust. The air crackled with dryness. The weather was too hot and sear for October. These days, we’re not surprised to see summer’s heat in autumn, but back then—little more than a decade into the new century—it seemed beyond passing strange to feel such warmth in the fall. It made us uneasy. My sister saw it before I did. “There’s a copperhead,” she said, and I jumped. The snake was a young one, maybe ten inches long, no bigger around than a fat pencil, wriggling fast from west to east across the road. It felt our footsteps on the earth and stopped, reared back, turning to face the perceived danger, head lifted, tongue darting. Fascinated, we circled around it, our feet crunching gravel: we’d step this way, and whiiipp, the little snake snapped this way; then we’d step that way, and whiiipp, it flipped that way, head darting as if to strike. I knew if we got close enough, it would strike. Even a small copperhead can make you sick. I once knew a pregnant hippie lady who reached out to caress a young copperhead somebody was holding, murmuring, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful?” till the snake whipped loose and bit her on both thumbs; her arms swelled to thrice their size, turned black to the elbows; she was sick for a week, although her baby, when he was born, turned out to be okay. I knew to be cautious, even with a pencil-sized copperhead.

The rule of the land in snake country is that you always kill venomous snakes when you see them, even baby ones. But Ruth’s and my rule is: if it’s not an immediate threat to your family or your livestock, let it go. I’ve never killed a snake, except a few I’ve run over with my car. I don’t think Ruth has either. Our parents, though, would have crushed that baby copperhead in a second. That’s a little known truth about our mother: she loathed and feared snakes beyond telling, but if Daddy wasn’t around to do the deed, she’d take after the snake herself. I’ve seen her hack a blacksnake to pieces with a hoe, chopping at it with such terrorized ferocity it would make your blood chill. She was, in fact, a bit like that young copperhead herself, fierce beyond all measure of her size and power; if she felt threatened, she wouldn’t cower but would lash out, fearless, even when she was full of fear. My sister and I watched the young thrashing snake. We were giants in the road. We could crush it with a rock, smash it with a stick. I said, “You think we ought to kill it?”

“Nah,” Ruthie said. “We’ll just wait till it shows up in my yard, and then I’ll call Daddy.” We laughed and started on to the house. After a moment I realized my sister was crying, silent tears running down her face.

“What?” I said.

“One of these days,” she said, “he won’t be here for us to call to come kill our snakes.”

I was quiet a minute. Then I said, “I know.”

And I thought I did. But I didn’t. Not really. No matter how inevitably and forcefully you understand it is coming, you don’t truly know grief until it is here.

The next Sunday I was back in New York, driving toward my house upstate after visiting my godchildren in Brooklyn. Headset on, I called the folks to see how they were doing. “I can’t talk now, Shug!” Daddy said, and there it was in his voice: the snake-edge, that telltale rip of excitement. “I got to get over to Ruth and Les’s, they’ve got a rattlesnake under the porch!”

“Call me!” I said. “Daddy, call me as soon as it’s finished! Be careful! Let me know how it goes!”

“Yes, all right.”

“Be care—”

He was off the line before I could tell him another dozen times to be careful, be careful! It was already dark in New York; I knew it must be near dusk in Oklahoma—a bad light to be hunting rattlesnakes in. I wanted to phone Ruth to see what was happening but I didn’t want my call to be distracting, so I waited to hear, driving north over the Whitestone Bridge onto the Hutch and the Cross County to the Thruway, and north and north, until finally I could stand it no longer and called Ruthie’s house. Her voice didn’t have the snake-edge when she answered. I instantly relaxed. “Tell me everything,” I said.

Their llama had been acting up in the carport, she said, making a weird, agitated, snuffling sound like they’d never heard before, and just the fact of the llama being in the carport was weird—ordinarily he stood sentinel in the pasture or the side yard—and then one of their little dogs inside the house started yipping, then the other dogs took up the commotion, and Les went outside to check. In two seconds he burst back into the house and headed for his .22. “Snake,” he said. Ruthie rushed outside behind him; they stood on the porch. In the yard, their cross-eyed Siamese Manx sat on her haunches on a little stone rise, watching. A few feet away, a humongous rattler was coiled, tail lifted, rattling. The snake’s attention was riveted on the cat. Ruthie said she knew that if the cat moved at all, even a twitched whisker, the snake would strike. But the cat sat frozen, hunkered down, watching the snake, entirely motionless, a timeless standoff, until Les raised the rifle. Well, the thing about that snake-gun Daddy gave him: to use it, you had to get in close. Les didn’t favor walking up to within a few feet of that riled and rattling rattlesnake, so he’d fetched his rifle instead. He stood on the porch, aimed, fired, and missed. The cat leapt away, and the rattler uncoiled at once and started crawling—not away from the house but directly toward it. Within a few very long, helpless seconds, Ruthie said, that five-foot diamondback disappeared under the porch. So that was when Ruth went in the house to call Dad.

This time Daddy came armed with his twenty gauge. The twilight was fading, Ruth said, and they didn’t know where under the house the snake was hiding. Their porch is three feet off the ground, skirted by lattice, the dark space underneath crowded with old farm tools and pieces of lumber. All along the lattice edge, the drought-choked weeds and zinnias were thick enough to provide plenty cover for a big snake. And here was our eighty-six-year-old daddy crouched low, easing along the porch, poking in the weeds with his gun, trying to locate that rattler, his face and hands no more than a foot or two off the ground. He crept gingerly back and forth, trying to pierce with his eyes the darkness underneath. Ruth brought a flashlight. Les pointed to a large wooden pallet on the soft ground behind the lattice, not far from where the snake had crawled under, said, “I’ll bet he’s under there.” Daddy said, “I’ll just bet he is.” They pried loose the lattice on one end and Les held it back and Daddy poked his shotgun beneath the pallet, let loose with both barrels at once, and shot that snake all to pieces. He used the gun barrel to prod the writhing halves out into the yard. “Why, Ruth,” he said, his voice edged with excitement, “that’s a diamondback.” My sister said, “Daddy, I know.” Under ordinary circumstances a diamondback rattlesnake will not crawl down from the mountains into a domestic yard filled with dogs and humans and a llama. But these were no ordinary circumstances. This was unprecedented warmth, searing drought. This was summer in autumn. This was the seasons turned inside out, upside down.

By the end of the year, the plague of snakes was notorious in our part of the country. Stories of close encounters ran rampant—farmers and ranchers and folks who lived in the mountains all finding deadly snakes in their yards: copperheads, ground rattlers, velvet-tails. There were stories of a weird hybrid being sighted, the bastardized offspring of copperheads mating with rattlesnakes—an unheard of lethal kind of snake with the silent stealth of a copperhead and the deadly venom of a rattler. In November my husband and I returned to Oklahoma to spend the winter at our house on a ridge thirty miles from my family’s land. On Thanksgiving day, my three young nieces, out for a walk in the seventy-degree weather, crossed paths with a six-foot diamondback sunning itself in our yard. They rushed back to the house to tell us. Daddy leapt out of his chair and took out after it with a frog gig and a shovel, but the steel prongs of the gig couldn’t penetrate the rattler’s hide, they just bounced off, and the rattler disappeared beneath a large rock. We had to call a neighbor to come shoot it because nobody at my house had a gun. And the drought and the record warmth continued, on into the next season, and the next, and the next year after that.

“It’ll rain sometime,” our daddy kept saying. “It always does.”

And of course it did rain. Eventually. A little at first, and then torrents. But that didn’t stop the heat or the drought or the seasons’ inversion. The next year turned out to be the hottest on record in Oklahoma. Ninety-five percent of the state was declared to be under extreme drought. On October 8, Oklahoma City had its earliest freeze ever. The next year Tulsa got snow on May 2—the latest observed snowfall there since record-keeping began. That May, tornados swept through Shawnee, Newcastle, Moore, Oklahoma City, wave after deadly wave. The widest tornado ever recorded swept through El Reno on May 31, tossing semis along I-40 like toys, killing three veteran storm chasers, drowning women and children in the flash flooding that accompanied the torrential rains. In July, a derecho-like storm swept through Tulsa with wind gusts of eighty miles per hour. Widespread tree damage and downed power lines left one hundred thousand without power. Rain, in that ordinarily dry month, caused flash flooding throughout the eastern half of the state. We’re used to erratic weather in Oklahoma. We’re used to torrential toad-stranglers and choking dust storms and prairie wildfires and twisters and searing summer heat. But the inversion of the seasons—the late snowfalls, early frosts, high heat in winter—that’s new. Or it was new. Not anymore. It seems normal now, because it has become familiar, and what’s familiar will, of course, in time, come to seem harmless.

On Christmas Day 2000, the first year of the new millennium—a dozen years before this snake season I’m remembering—a slow, drizzling rain began to fall over southeastern Oklahoma. The temperature hovered right at freezing. We were all gathered at my folks’ house for Christmas dinner. The forecasters were adamant: an ice storm was coming—significant accumulation, they said; widespread outages, they said; be prepared—but it was hard to believe them. The rain was so gentle, and the day was so warm. My husband wanted to go back up to our house on the mountain, but it was Christmas, and I wanted to stay with my family. So Paul went on to our house alone, driving slow in the cold rain in our car without four-wheel drive. By mid-afternoon the roads were becoming slick, but still the temperature hovered. I called Paul. “Don’t you think you ought to come back down here? You know how we always lose power up there.”

“I’ll be all right,” he said. By late afternoon, though, we could see what was coming. Perhaps if the forecasters had not used the word storm, we might have paid attention. Paul and I were used to winter storms, living in upstate New York; we knew the sound of howling blizzards, muffled snowfall, the sense of overwhelming power descending. Certainly, as a daughter of the southern plains, I’d been used to crashing thunderstorms, torrential downpours, the fierce, erratic destruction of tornados. This was not a storm. This was a slow, deceitful rain, not cold, not wind-driven, just a gentle accumulation of ice on the branches, the gravel, the eaves. Paul called. He had lost power already; there would be no water, no lights, no way to cook on our electric range. Daddy said, “C’mon, Shug,” and he drove me in his four-wheel-drive truck thirty miles along the steadily icing highway, and then up the mile-long drive to the top of the ridge to our house to get Paul. Daddy to the rescue, always, just like when we called him to come kill snakes. The three of us crammed into the cab of his pickup, and we drove back, slow and slow on the icing roads, creeping along at ten miles an hour back to my family’s land. By early evening, we’d lost power there, too.

Before it was over, ice would sheathe the better part of three states. Half a million homes would be without power. We wouldn’t get ours back for seventeen days. But we were together, we were family, we cooked meals and boiled coffee in the fireplace, and Ruth and Les came over and brought food from their rapidly defrosting freezer, and we all ate together and read stories aloud by lamplight and went to bed at seven o’clock, because it had already been dark for two hours by then and there was nothing to do; it felt primitive, it felt endless, and also like an ending. It felt like something had shifted, like the world had changed forever, like it would always be this way.

In the night I’d awaken to the sound of crashing tree limbs—a sharp crack, loud as a gunshot, followed by the whooshing, thunderous fall as great branches broke under the weight and fell to the earth. Sometimes it was the sound of whole trees toppling, undermined by the slow accretion, those thin sheathes of ice built layer upon layer to the breaking point, and it had all been so subtle, so quiet, no noise as the freezing rain fell, a silent, almost imperceptible beginning of the end. That’s what it felt like—the end of the world as I knew it, the same as I’d been hearing about in Revelation all my life, except without violence, without Armageddon or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Just that slow, deceitful, gentle rain.

Our parents’ aging was like that. A slow accretion of signs and changes, an incremental buildup, a gradual transformation. Oh, I could mark certain turning points, the accidental falls, the compression fractures, the obsessions and muddled conversations, forgotten medicines, lost billfolds and purses and keys, but most of it was both more alarming and more subtle than that. The first time Daddy stood in the living room holding his toothbrush, baffled about how to use it. The first time Mama asked me to open a can of green beans and then a few seconds later asked me again, and then, a few seconds later, asked me again. The gradual accretion, the slow build toward the point of no return, one diminishment added to another, until losses that would have disturbed or frightened us a few weeks earlier had become normal, had become the unsurprising, acceptable condition of my parents’ inexorable walk toward death.

I wonder if the end of the world will be like that. Not cataclysm, not apocalyptic flood or fire or wind, but a slow accretion like a freezing rain, gentle at first, normal—nothing to fear, really, no matter how much the weather forecasters keep shouting their warnings. Just a slow incremental buildup, crystalline sheathes mounting, layer upon layer, until we lose power, until the trees and the powerlines and the towers that connect us all come crashing down.

“Snake Season” appears in Flock 18. Explore more of the issue here.


Rilla Askew is the author of four novels and a book of stories. She’s a PEN/Faulkner finalist and the recipient of a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Tin House, World Literature Today, Nimrod, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and elsewhere. Askew’s most recent book is a collection of creative nonfiction, Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.