H-Town diary

Growing Up Among the Lizard People

O brother’s snake, where art thou?

By Catherine Matusow June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Dan Page

When I was 11, I had a Guns N’ Roses poster on the wall in my bedroom, a pink bedspread-covered futon stationed under a windowsill filled with knickknacks, and a bedside table adorned with a pink jam box and a stack of cassette tapes. One night, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up to the sound of tapes crashing to the ground. A lifelong heavy sleeper, I picked my head up, squinted into the dark, saw nothing, and went back to sleep. It was hours before I would awaken and spot it in the corner: a thick, brown-and-yellow ball python curled up in a perfect circle, looking like it owned the place. My eyes traveled from the snake to the floor full of tapes, to the displaced knickknacks on the windowsill. The conclusion was unmistakable: a snake had been inches from my head, slithering along the sill. I screamed for my mother. Back in its aquarium it went.

I grew up with three brothers, which meant untold numbers of snakes, which led to an ophidiophobia that haunts me to this day. The bedroom is gone, the pink bedspread off in some landfill, and the Guns N’ Roses poster turned to dust, but my fear of snakes remains pristine, in mint condition. The snakes too remain. They’re everywhere in fact, like right over there!

Sorry, it’s just a garden hose. 

When you are a Louisa May Alcott child, or a teddy bear child, or a baker child, it is mostly inadvisable that you grow up near a bayou. This being Houston, however, that is mostly impossible. Not a complete nerd, I occasionally made a foray to Brays Bayou, which lurked just at the end of our dead-end street, with a girlfriend or two—one eye out at all times, of course, for snakes. But our taste for danger was limited, and we existed only on the periphery of the universe inhabited by my brothers and male cousins. For them, the murky waterway was a neighborhood perk, an amenity, a coming-of-age movie, an adult-free zone where the F-word flowed as steadily as the stinky water didn’t. Forty-ounce beers, cigarettes, graffiti, pipe bombs, daredevil stunts, fistfights, make-out sessions—the bayou was the place for all of these. It was also where the natural world came alive for the boys, thanks mostly to turtles and snakes. 

As regards my brothers’ reptile addiction, turtles were the gateway drug. We had red-eared sliders, snapping turtles, mud turtles, musk turtles, spiny softshell turtles, all of them dragged home from the bayou in sloshing buckets by boys who’d spent whole days tramping through slimy water. Back and forth to the aquarium shop my dad went, purchasing habitat after habitat to accommodate his sons’ cravings. Box turtles, some found and some bought from the pet store, came next, and a pen was set up in the backyard. Apart from the time that one of them got loose and was run over by the lawnmower—scarring me for life—turtles were a mostly acceptable hobby, I felt, acceptable because turtles were not by and large escape artists. That was the snakes’ territory.

And I wasn’t the only one who dreaded their escapes. I’ll never forget the morning when my younger brother Joe, probably 6 at the time, woke up to find his prized rat snake missing. He hiccupped, he cried, he screamed, he pleaded. Watching Joe go through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief before my eyes—over a snake—I never again had to be told that boys and girls were different.

“I’ll find it,” my mother said, the anguish palpable. “I promise I will find it.” This was no act. As soon as my sniffling brother was off at school, she dismantled Joe’s room, combing through every last Lego bin and looking under every toy car, driven onward by a mother’s magical powers of empathy. 

At last there it was—a snake. Not the snake, you understand, but a snake nonetheless, although just barely. Mom discovered the poor creature, emaciated but alive, curled up on the shelf among my brother’s toys, a mere six months after it had escaped its cage. 

However much Houston builds, however crowded and concretized the city becomes, there’s always a sense that nature here has been barely contained—that if we all went away for a year or two, we’d return to a city grown over with green and teeming with predators. I’m convinced that the snakes know this—that they’re on the side of the angels—and are just biding their time. Their march toward domination is a slow one, but steady too, courtesy the boys they’ve co-opted.  

Thanks to my brothers, I shared my home with pythons, cottonmouth snakes, hognose snakes, rat snakes, and grass snakes, not to mention the live mice that cowered in the corners of some of their aquariums, waiting to make their way down the snakes’ digestive systems in great traveling lumps, and the frozen mice (“frodents,” in family parlance), which were defrosted in the microwave. Some snakes were purchased, some were retrieved from the bayou, and all of them seem to have escaped at one time or another. We would discover them in the bowels of the sofa, bunched up inside a car door, curled up in the closet. My Aunt Shirley once woke up to the sight of a snake hovering over her head, dangling from her bedframe. Another time, her son Jack’s boa’s dozen eggs hatched into a dozen snakes, which promptly took off in all directions, some perhaps never to be found, one found sunning itself on a neighbor’s porch. 

Boys are reptilian enablers, as I say, and they continue to be so long after they’re no longer boys, incidentally. My oldest brother Eric, for one, has a turtle, Rosie, in his home at this very moment, and would have an iguana, the five-and-a-half-foot, aptly named Iguana, too, if it hadn’t died of old age a few years back. My cousin Jack actually married a herpetologist, although, as he explained to his mom by way of introduction, “she’s more of a poison dart frog person.” And when Joe moved out of the house, he moved in with a 10-foot ball python, Snake-omnitron. One day it disappeared into the ether, never to be found again. I know. 

As for me, I still dream of snakes of every shape, size, and color, just as I always have, of snakes dangling from trees, of snakes accidentally stepped upon, of snakes that spring at me, fangs bared. My husband and I fell in love with a house in a little neighborhood called Forest West last year, buying it despite its location just blocks from White Oak Bayou, the thinking being that … well, I don’t know what we were thinking, that I’d face my fears? We’ve already found a garden snake swimming in the pool, which, of course, I knew to be harmless and allowed my husband to release in the yard. But I was still freaked out. 

As for our old home down the street from Brays, Tropical Storm Allison flooded it with six feet of water in 2001. My parents moved away, the house was torn down, and a McMansion sprang up, which is probably for the best, come to think of it. There could have been anything lurking in those walls. 

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