So this is not one of those stories my wife is especially happy for me to be sharing and it won’t help our home resale value, but here goes. About three years ago I was cleaning off the shelf that sits above the stairs down to our basement. This shelf tends to collect tools that I have brought from the barn to the house to use for various projects. Periodically it gets cluttered with these tools and needs to be cleaned off.
As I am gathering the pliers and screwdrivers and hammers to return them to the barn I uncover a snake shed – the shed skin of a snake. It’s a beauty – fully intact – right there next to an electric drill and a saw and a bottle of nails. There also happens to be a yardstick among the collected debris and I measure the shed at 42 inches. It occurs to me that is a pretty big snake – especially since it is only a few yards away from the door to the kitchen.
Now about our basement – let’s just say it’s not exactly the kind of place you would put a ping pong table and entertainment theater. The house was built in 1848 and the 20 ft. by 20 ft. basement was dug out under the kitchen probably is a root cellar. Most likely the site was also blessed with the thick gray clay that was baked into the mud bricks used to build the house. It is lined with giant sandstone blocks and at some point an owner added a cement floor. The original sandstone stairs led to the outside behind the house. When an addition was added to the back the floor was installed over those stairs.
The basement is not exactly air tight. On the south side there was a pair of grated window slots 8-inches or so wide for air circulation. They have since been filled in. There are many gaps in the stones where mice find their way in in the fall. What can I say, it’s an old house. The main purpose of the basement is to house the hot water heater, the furnace, the water softener, the well pump. We use it for storage, but about everything we store has to be wrapped in plastic because of dust that comes from the sandstone walls and the webs from spiders.
It’s not surprising that a snake would find it attractive. After finding the snake skin I decide to have a little look around with a flashlight. There is only one bare light bulb in the center of the room, so you need a flashlight for just about any activity. One of the things that strikes me right away is how many electrical wires there are in this basement. They run up along the beams and joists. Many are that black plastic that looks pretty much like a snake, if your imagination is inclined that way.
Over in one corner I see what could be a long clear plastic wrapper, but it’s not. It’s another snake skin shed. I measure it, and, sure enough, it’s 42 inches long. Back behind the water heater draped over a pipe I find still another shed from the same snake. And alongside the furnace there is yet another one. I look carefully along every ledge under every old chair and into ever crevice, but I do not find the snake himself.
The next day I take these sheds to my favorite pet store Seat Tide Aquarium. Sea Tide’s owner is a great guy named Wayne. He lives on a farm near Shade in Athens County and has vast stories about all of the critters he has raised. Oh sure, he tells me nonchalantly, that looks like a black snake shed. That’s not unusual, he adds. I’ve had them living in my basement too. He suggests I put a heat lamp over an aquarium with a box in it for the snake to hide in and see if the critter crawls in.
Wayne also asks what my wife thinks about it. Needless to say I explain that she really doesn’t need to know about the snake in the basement, and he confirms that’s a good idea. However, he also suggests I check under the refrigerator periodically because the snake might like to hide there to get warm.
So that was three years ago. Frankly I didn’t really want to share the story with a lot of folks, but every few months I would look around and find another snake skin shed in the basement. At some point I showed the collection of skins to my kids who enjoy this kind of natural history moment. I swore them to never let their mother know. We would chuckle about her being ignorant of this situation and shake our heads at what might happen if she found out.
Well, imagine my shock one day when I am whispering to one them about it and she overhears and asks if we are talking about the snake in the basement. Yes, how do you know about it, I ask. Oh one of the kids said something, and I’ve seen that collection of skins over your workbench, she replies. I ask if she’s worried. No, she says. It’s probably just a black snake. She comments that we’ve had fewer mice than usual lately and that’s a good thing. Just don’t tell our guests, she adds.
In the meantime the snake has become like a ghost. I call it Sammy the snake. I look for it with the flashlight every week or so. One time I actually see about an inch of it curled deep into a crevice that had been dug to run water pipes to the new bathroom. I try to hook a coat hanger around him but he just buries deeper into the hole. Otherwise it’s just a new shed here and there – which by the way have now grown to 44 inches long, although frankly the width of the sheds seem to be getting thinner. The little shelf is still a favorite location, but I can’t seem to surprise him there or anywhere.
Until yesterday. I was home to get lunch and pick up a notebook I had forgotten and thought I better check the salt level on the water softener. I take the flashlight as usual and as I scan the edges of the basement, I see the tail of a snake sticking out behind the water heater. I notice right away it’s not a black snake. It’s a corn snake. Maybe you don’t know or care about snakes, but corn snakes are very docile. They got their name from hanging around corn cribs and feeding on the rats and mice. They are sold in pet stores regularly and not inclined to bite.
OK, it could be a copperhead, I don’t really know snakes that well.
As I approach he slides under the water heater which is held up off the ground by some bricks. I shine the flashlight into the dusty cob webs and there he is looking right back at me. I can tell by the shape of his head and the color of his eyes that he’s not a copperhead. So I get a broom and slide the handle under the water heater to get him out. He’s pretty relaxed about the whole thing and just sort of slides along. I reach a hand out to pick him up and he actually lifts his head towards my hand kind of like a dog that wants a sniff. He sticks his tongue out at my arm. I hold my hand steady and he works his way further up my wrist and forearm and then I gently reach down and pick him up. He’s not bothered by this in the least. He wraps himself around my wrist. He looks up at me as if to say, “Please get me out of this hell hole.”
I head up the basement stairs through the kitchen out in the sunlight with a 44 inch snake wrapped around my arm. This seems unusual to me. Like someone should be there with a video camera to record the moment. In fact there should be an army of paparazzi to publicize the event. After all Sammy has been a resident of the basement for 36 months and has shared the intimacy of shedding this skin with us no less than 14 times. The dog raises his head for a moment and sniffs the air, but immediately goes back to sleeping.
I take the snake to the far end of the pond – way, way away from the house. I let him down onto the grass. He is sleek and shiny. His skin is clean, slick and fresh. His scales are flawless with rich reddish-orange and black saddles across his back. He looks thin like he could use a frog or two. He slowly releases from my arm and slides into to the leaves. In a few seconds he is gone.
And so ends the saga of the snake of in basement. Only a handful of shed skins remain to tell the tale.