We didn’t mean to catch snakes, but alfalfa spread like an invitation down to the creek.
"Quick! The pan!"
It was ours after Mom burned popcorn in it. Flames pushed against the cupboard overhead, smoke filled the house, and she threw the pan out the back door. It clattered against the patio, metal on stone ringing in the November night. Always the scavenger, I squirreled it out of the trash. It was handy to haul mud and scoop up tadpoles. I wore it Johnny Apple Seed-style through the woods with a foxtail to chew on, and felt almost male.
"Quick, quick, quick! I got one!" Tom danced from foot to foot keeping a wriggling garter snake stiff-elbowed away from himself. I held out the pan but he grimaced--"No, you'll never keep it in there! It'll crawl right out! On the ground! Turn it over!"
Its tail looped serene. Tom squeezed behind the head and its mouth opened, tongue sniffing the air.
"Don't hurt it!"
"I'm not hurting it! Look, when I put it down, you slap the pan over it."
"What if I miss?" I backed away.
"You won't miss--slam it down fast--Come on!"
"What if I hit it?" I stepped away again. "What if I cut it in two?"
"You get that pan over this snake and then sit on it hard." He stretched his whole body like he was lighting a fuse. When he dropped the snake I smashed the pan onto the alfalfa and dirt and squatted onto it.
Had I decapitated it? Was it laying there bleeding? The stale scent of cooking oil and burnt corn rose from the pan. On the right, next to the heel of my sneaker, came the head of the garter, slithering, nosing, curling against the battered aluminum. Thoughts tumbled like clothes in a dryer while my lungs filled: Can't get up, it'll crawl up my jeans leg. Can't sit here, it's coming up the pan. Can't crush it: sit still.
Billy had another one. Even as I yelled I was amazed: they thought I'd get up and let them put another snake under me like a brood hen sitting on eggs. Dad bolted out of the gloom. I couldn't stop screaming until he grabbed me up.
"What are you kids up to?" I breathed Brylcreme and motor oil, tightened my arms around his neck, and listened to the tone of his voice.
Billy dropped the snake. "Nothing."
"You leave the snakes alone. They're right where they belong. Leave em alone now." Tom tipped up the pan and shook his head. The snake was long gone.
It happened before I could stop it: high and safe, carried home, big girl of almost six years, while the boys trudged home on their own power under the fresh stars. I could almost see then that it was over.