From "Snakes: An Anthology of Serpent Tales" edited by Willee Lewis, published by M. Evans & Co. in 2003.
My Father was a large, handsome man who worked downtown. We lived then – in the 50s – in a house at the top of a long, broad lawn that sloped down to the street. In the back of that house, there was a rectangular yard of grass and behind it, a terrace that angled up to a stone wall. At the back of the yard, at the beginning of the terrace, there was a child's swingset that appeared before I have a memory of it not being there and disappeared one day when I was more enamored of baseball and other sports and so I have no memory of it being taken away either.
When this story occurs, I am about four. I am swinging on the flat, suspended seat attached to the swingset by chains, swaying and bucking to get the seat higher and make the arcs longer. I hear my Father's car come up the long driveway from the street and move into the garage. He goes into the house by the kitchen door and then emerges to walk over to me. He has on a tan colored suit, a white starched shirt and a light-colored tie. He approaches me and then stops and turns and walks back into the house, as if he'd forgotten something. And I am swinging higher and higher. He comes back out the door, still in his business suit, but holding a garden hoe slack in his right arm, like a carbine. I slow my swinging. The perisarc gets shorter. He comes closer to the swing. I'm almost stopped now. He raises the hoe above his head, now grasping the handle with both hands and then, without any strain or really much effort, brings the face of the hoe down quickly just in front of the swing past my face, just parallel to my knees and slices into the grass below. He reaches over, picks me up off the swing – my feet never touching the ground – and gently brings me back into the house. He puts me in his big, green, leather chair, takes off his coat and drapes it across the arm of a sofa. He tells me he'll be right back; he just wants to put away the hoe and dispose of the coral snake.
Austin, our hometown, lies in Travis County which boasts the distinction of having all four types of poisonous snakes found in North America. At various times in the years to come I will encounter cottonmouths (water moccasins) swimming around a small boat from which I am fishing, rattlesnakes in the rocky shoals above the creek that runs through Fredericksburg where I spend summers playing baseball, copperheads on the grounds of the house I will buy when I return from New York to begin teaching at the University, but never again will I see a coral snake. Its venom is the deadliest of the four, and it belongs to the class of cobras, kraits and mambas whose toxins attack the neurological system. "Red on black, venom lack/red on yellow, kill a fellow" is the cowboy's rhyme that is meant to spare the more ubiquitous and benign species that are easily confused with the colorful, banded coral snakes who are usually nocturnal and are seldom seen.
My father, the least violent of all men, will never lose my blind trust. One day we will fail to save my Mother from a savage predator – a cancer that consumes its host with such fury that it kills itself with her death – and one day Father also will move beyond the protection I want to cloak him with as he once cloaked me.
It is unlikely I will ever have another relationship with any person so total in its faith as the one I had with Father. But perhaps some day, this: that I shall give to a child of my own, if I ever have children, the same grounds for trust as Father always gave to me.