Today I want to do something different. I’m going to tell you a story. A story that is, in fact, more than a little symbolic insofar as it represents the daily battle between the forces at war for our souls – and the need to call upon supernatural help when we are faced with an obstacle — however small — that we are unable to overcome.
A couple years ago, my youngest brother, who was about 15 at the time, was bitten by a copperhead on the front steps of my house. It was after dark. It had been raining all day. It was a warm summer day, and he was barefoot. He took two steps down — never intending to leave the front stoop — and put his foot right onto the snake, lurking in the shadows cast by the lights next to my front door.
Copperheads are allegedly shy. But like all pit vipers, they have heat vision, so they can see prey in the dark. Shy or not, they are reported to bite more people than any other venomous snake in North America.
My brother spent the next three days in the hospital, getting pumped full of antivenom. His foot was hugely swollen. He couldn’t walk properly for a while. He was on crutches for a long time. It was an incredibly painful experience.
Since then, I’ve been more wary when I go outside. In total, I’ve killed five copperheads in the five years I’ve lived here. There was a sixth that I missed. He turned up while I was stacking firewood on my back patio. As I moved the split logs from one pile to another, there he was, just hanging out beneath the He was hiding in the pile of split logs, and when I saw him, and realized that I had two small children only a few feet away, I opted to get them moving rather than put an end to the threat. Just in case I got him angry first. While I was busy with them, he took off.
We have no street lights on our road. We live in the woods. It’s very dark. I don’t always remember to grab a flashlight when I go outside at night, usually to take out the trash. This past Monday was one of those nights. As I started to walk down the steps, I remembered the copperhead problem. It was about this time of year that my brother got bit. Figuring I should play it safe, I started a prayer to my guardian angels, just in case. “Angels of God, my guardians dear, to whom God’s love…”
That was when I heard the unmistakable sound of a snake rattling its tail.
While rattlesnakes aren’t unheard of in Northern Virginia, they’re not common where I live. This sounded an awful lot like that, though. I was wearing athletic shorts with no pockets, so I didn’t even have my phone. No source of light at hand. I knew that whatever was making that sound was very near to me, but I didn’t know where.
I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying trash bags low to the ground in whatever hand I’m carrying them. You might laugh at the thought, but I do this to shield me from exactly this scenario. I figure that a big trash bag makes a pretty effective block against a flanking strike. You see, we have a long set of back steps are made of bricks, hemmed in by landscaping timbers. These descend from the level of our deck all the way down to the driveway, a good ten or fifteen feet below. On either side are shrubs, flowers, and ornamental grasses. By this point in the summer, the brush is pretty thick. Hiding spots for small predators abound. We have solar landscaping lights, but the sun had been down for a while, and they’d gone mostly dark. Fortunately, I had grabbed this particular trash bag with my left hand, and the rattle was definitely coming from my left. I dropped the trash bag right where I was and backed away slowly. I finally made it out in the light from the kitchen windows, coiling to strike. Definitely a copperhead, and right up against the side of the trash bag.
I made a wide arc around the trash bag and back up to the house. I grabbed my phone (only light I had handy) off the counter, and found my pellet gun. The gun is a break-barrel model, which means only one pellet at a time can be loaded. It’s scoped, and pretty powerful, shooting its tiny projectiles at about 1200 feet per second. I had no idea if I could hit a snake with it in broad daylight, let alone in the dark, but I didn’t want to waste time looking for a more suitable weapon and let him get away. I leaned over the deck railing and took a shot, hoping my scope was still sighted in after months of disuse. It must have hit, because he took off like he was bitten, sliding under the brick steps. A chase ensued, him under my back deck, then around and out. I fired at him a couple more times during the pursuit, to no effect. I chased him back under the deck with the hose. Finally cornered by an overturned flowerpot, I loaded another pellet. The scope had already fogged up in the unusual heat and humidity, and it was even darker under the porch than out on the steps. There was almost no chance. I held my phone awkardly as a flashlight in my left hand, bracing the gun with that hand and grabbing the trigger and stock with my right.
I realized the futility of my situation, but I wasn’t about to give up.
“Lord,” I said. “I need to protect my family from this thing. I can’t let it get away, or it might bite one of my kids. Please help me kill it.”
I sighted it in, blurry and indistinct in the crosshairs against the dirt that matched its camouflage.
The snake’s whole body straightened, then relaxed. From what I could see, it wasn’t moving, and it had changed its position from coiled, ready to hide or strike, to laid out flat. I chucked a rock at it. I sprayed it with the hose. Certain it was dead, I pulled it out with a rake put it in an empty box so I could get it in the light and examine it.
There was one shot clear through the body, but that wasn’t what did it. Somehow I scored a headshot on a two-foot snake, the 5.5mm pellet demolishing one whole side of his face. That tiny piece of shaped lead, not even the size of a pencil eraser, somehow hit a snake head not much wider than a dime. I’ve killed these things with cars (running them over on purpose) and shovels, and they do not die easily. They’re really, really tough. It makes me think of trying to kill a zombie. The head usually has to come off before they give up, and even then, they keep moving. But once I had him cornered, it was one shot, one kill. I expended four total pellets in the battle.
I am very, very grateful that I did not get bit. Perhaps even moreso, that this guy didn’t get away to hide under the steps so that he might later get one of my kids. I’m a decent shot, but there’s no way I did that one without help. Lucky doesn’t begin to describe it. So the moral of the story is: never underestimate the power of prayer, even in the unlikeliest of circumstances. I owe a debt of thanks to my guardian angels, and to the guiding hand of The Lord.
Now today, I found this hanging from the ceiling of my basement (the owner nowhere in sight). It’s over four feet long (yes, I measured.) But that’s a story — and a battle — for another day.