snakes in a car

I walked out of the grocery store Saturday morning, rolled the cart to the car, and opened the rear driver’s side door to put in the bags. A black snake was poking his head out from behind the rear seat. He darted back. As did I.

“Whoah!” I said out loud, and a man in a t-shirt with a gun on it gave me a look.

“There’s a snake in my car.”

“That would freak me out!” he said.

And we don’t want that, I said to myself, and he kept on walking.

I thought for a minute. He’s a black snake and totally harmless. I drove over here with him. I might have been driving around with him for days. I might as well drive home with him. Or her. Or them.

So I put the groceries in the back seat and texted my brothers.

One of them replied, “Have you considered burning the car?” Followed by, “Nobody needs Doritos that bad.” The other wrote, “Be safe driving back. If you get in a wreck, you would hate for the accident report to read it was due to a reptile dysfunction.”

And you wondered why I texted my brothers.

I took a breath, got in the car, looked over my shoulder once, and drove away. It’s ten minutes on a curvy road from the grocery back to the house. A little over halfway there, on a straightaway, something said to me, you should look down, between your feet. Which I did, and there was the snake.

Does it say something about intuition that something said look down and the snake was actually there? Maybe.

Does it say something about the body-brain’s capacity for confusion, absurdity, and ambivalence that my left foot jerked up from the floor mat, instantly, while my right foot stayed steady on the gas pedal and did not even flinch? Maybe more than maybe.

The creature without two feet, however, responded with absolutely no ambivalence. It drew back and disappeared.

I bet I looked down at the floor mat fifty times over the next five minutes.

When I arrived home, I got out of the car, rather quickly, then opened the rear door, rather slowly. There was the snake, looking up from the floor. This was my first good look at it. It was three or four feet long, not a baby but not full grown either. I watched for a minute, then thought to take a picture. Then I thought, Maybe I should try to get it out. I went for a rake.

I reasoned that an approach from the front would make the snake run away from me (or whatever a creature without feet does), back into the car. So I opened the passenger-side rear door, behind it, and reached the rake toward the snake to push it out. But it turns out that approaching a snake from behind will also drive it away, and it darted beneath the front seat.

I ran around the car and opened the front door again. No snake. It must have slithered up into the engine, so I popped the hood.

You may not have looked beneath the hood of a Prius recently. I hadn’t either. But there are more tubes and hoses in there that look like a black snake than you would think. I inspected them all, visually, and none of them was moving. I reasoned that the snake was somewhere between the gas pedal and the engine.

I took the groceries inside and put them away. My brother sent me an email, titled Samuel L. Jackson, with a link to an article about turning the heat on in your car for 15 minutes and making it so hot the snake would leave. That may be a good idea—or not—but I figure if the snake likes my car, there’s nothing I can do to keep it out.

Rationally, I know we live in the midst of wild creatures all the time, unawares. I have no idea how many bears, foxes, and coyotes have eyes on me as I go running in the dark in the mornings. Or how many mice share this house with us. Or how many snakes. That said, there’s something about looking beneath your feet on a drive home from the store and seeing a snake that engages a non-rational part of yourself.

I read that 29% of the world’s greenhouse emissions come from vehicles. And I guarantee you, if everybody in the world saw a snake in their car, even once, we would solve the climate crisis overnight.

My wife, Jeanine, has a book about animal medicine, the way American Indians have of seeking meaning and healing from the appearances of different animals. It says this about the snake: “It is the knowledge that all things are equal in creation, and that those things which might be experienced as poison can be eaten, ingested, integrated, and transmuted if one has the proper state of mind” (Sams and Carson, Medicine Cards, p. 61)

It continues: “Look at the idea that you may fear changing your present state of affairs because this may entail a short passage into discomfort. . . . [T]o glide beyond that place which has become safe but nonproductive, become Snake. Release the outer skin of your present identity. Move through the dreamlike illusion that has insisted on static continuity, and find a new rhythm as your body glides across the sands of consciousness, like a river winding its way toward the great waters of the sea” (p. 62).

It’s a snake that comes as tempter into paradise in the book of Genesis, of course. Commenting on this story, Valentin Tomberg says the serpent is the symbol of human consciousness on the horizontal plane, separated from vertical consciousness, or consciousness of God (Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, p. 132).  

I am thinking on these things this morning, 24 hours later: shedding my skin, integrating what seems dangerous, remembering God.

From inside my house. Not in my car.

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