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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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Several friends think our cottage is too friendly with nature and won’t visit. Our 40-year-old rustic building is indeed out in the woods but we’ve installed running water, electricity and a filter assuring potable drinking water. We’re only an hour’s drive from Kingston, but also three kilometres down a winding gravel road and there’s no cell reception. Our friends won’t come because for them, it’s not so much a summer cottage as a co-op: with snakes. We live inside and the snakes inhabit the outer wall. This year, the local we’d asked to open up the cottage for us fled before getting as far as the spare key. Two snakes lounged on the deck.

“Snakey Haven,” as one friend calls our place, had been empty for 10 years before we began to spend summers there. Knotholes had opened and the wood cladding outside had warped in the weather. Sowbugs, wood roaches, spiders, mice and, inevitably, snakes, had moved in. In other words, we had to admit that the representatives of an endangered snake species had squatters’ rights.

As long as I don’t mention how large our cottage’s eight-legged to no-legged creatures grow, our ecologically minded friends aren’t bothered. But they don’t want to hear, for instance, about the spiders who are almost too big to capture under a water glass to move them outdoors. Telling potential guests that these spiders live mainly at the dock almost makes it worse; guests like to picture themselves in bare feet and bathing suits. What seals our friends’ refusal to visit, though, are the three black rat snakes, also officially called grey rat snakes, who live in the cottage walls. The one we’re proudest of is almost six feet long, or close to two metres if we’re getting nervous.

We discovered this surprising ecosystem with our first house guest at the end of her stay. When Alison went into her bedroom to finish packing, I saw her hesitate at the door. She called me over. I called my husband to come see. What we came to know as our biggest rat snake was curled up in the middle of Alison’s sleeping bag. The snake moved and we stampeded out.

We should have known better than to think the snake would be frightened by our screams and scrambles, and leave by whatever way it had come in. The next day, our human house guest having departed, my husband John and I were embracing and preparing for bed when the serpent showed up again. We managed to sweep it into another room and close the door. John found an old board, rushed in, angled the board to form a ramp at an open window and ran out. I immediately slammed the door and stuffed pillows under it to close the gap. The next morning we were once again alone in our cottage, except for the several hundred mosquitoes that had come in through the window. But at least the snake problem had been solved.

Another night, when I was alone in the cottage, a rat snake appeared at 2 a.m. My experience with the pillow technique to cover gaps under doors paid off. Until the week a snake came in through the fireplace. Snake suitors came calling and, unfamiliar with the co-op, somehow found themselves in our half of it.

Rat snakes are not harmful to humans. They’re not poisonous, but are constrictors! They kill only what they can swallow, such as small rodents. Which explains why we had found four dead mice arranged under the bed in Alison’s room, and if we had stayed and looked, undoubtedly a bulge in the relaxed rat snake’s belly.

Snakes are slithery creatures that trigger our primal fears. Snakes can startle us into a moment or a lifetime of shivering panic. I know these reactions are not simply unwarranted phobias. The invited guests who tell us “sorry I’m busy that weekend” are aware that poisonous rattlesnakes live if not in our Ontario cottage then in areas nearby. It can be frightening, just as the particular ability of our non-venomous rat snakes to hang from trees while they steal chicks from birds’ nests. I remember well the day I opened the basement door too quickly, and the feel of the rat snake dropping on my shoulders. Slithering bodies and darting tongues are not for everyone.

After two decades, it’s the rat snakes themselves who have succeeded in de-escalating our own shivers. The snakes have not charmed us – how easily old snake images come to mind – and we haven’t quite fallen in love with them. We’ve learned to live with them. We’re not born-again herpetologists, we’re just cottagers watching in fascination at how the snakes “walk” down our steps to the ground, or drink from a puddle on the deck.

Last summer, I had the intimate if rather prurient experience of watching two rat snakes making torrid love on our deck. They coiled around each other, their bodies twining and curling and their tails untwisting in balletic curves. I saw all this from four feet away. A bravely close vantage point but a comfortable distance both for me and the snakes because, standing still behind a glass door, I wasn’t a threat to their territory and they weren’t in mine. For my city friends, on the other hand, a safe distance meant miles.

Do I feel safe enough with these snakes that if one of them gets into the house I’d pick it up in my hands like a field naturalist and carefully place it outdoors? The short answer is no. I’m still shocked by a snake suddenly appearing.

But I’ll always remember, too, this rare glimpse of the natural world that two amorous snakes bestowed on me. I regret it’s one extraordinary chance my friends, my almost-guests, will never have.

Miriam Clavir lives in Godfrey, Ont., and Vancouver.