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Georgianne Nienaber

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Atchafalaya: Floods, Fear, Snakes and Murder

Posted: 06/30/08 05:07 PM ET

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Image: Outrunning the Fear


Blood coagulated between the eyes of the water moccasin like the Hindu bindi as its flaccid five-foot length dangled from the outstretched arm of the boy. One BB shot was all it took as the boy proudly presented the kill to the writer before he dropped the serpent in to the depths of the bayou. The writer wanted to dive in amidst the alligators and retrieve the creature. In those last moments she recognized beauty and knew she had done a terrible thing....

The serpent haunts the writer whenever she is on the bayou. The image is relentless and ruins Louisiana mornings that are otherwise stunning in the sultry warm that wraps itself around the body like a sheltering blanket. Globes of water hang like holiday ornaments on the low slung branches of the cypress tree that shades the floating dock, but her eyes drift to the bank where the needless crime played out in the senseless murder of the innocent.

A day spent on the green waters of the Atchafalaya Basin did nothing to drown the persistent image of the serpent. As she poled the boat deep into the backwaters of the bald cypress swamp where blue dragonflies with green lips rested on her arms, the snakes were slithering through the waters--taunting--forcing remembrance of the unforgivable crime.

The captain of the boat warned the writer to avoid the cypress branches that brushed the bow because the snakes would rest there. This admonition caused the obstinate writer to lean into the branches--begging for a fair fight in which she would wrestle a serpent hand-to-hand and allow god or nature to decide who should live and who should die.

She looked into the compound eyes of the blue dragonfly that lingered with her and laughed as it cocked its head in an urgent staccato toward the cypress trees hanging to port. Bayou culture honors the belief that dragonflies are the protectors of the snake and will follow them as guardians, piecing them back together if they are injured, her southern companions tell her. They knew nothing of the murdered moccasin.

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Image: Home of the serpents

As the heat began to suffocate, a squall line pushed across the basin from the west, forcing a retreat back to the fish camp. Leaning across the bow, the writer saw the snakes watching the craft, swimming defiantly in its path and submerging in the final seconds before they would be overrun. The water snakes were not taunting; they were a remembrance....

It was April and the writer was "home" in southern Louisiana, tracking the spring flood warnings that forced the opening of the Bonnet Carre' spillway for the first time in eleven years. The National Weather Service had issued a flood warning for New Orleans as record snow melts and spring rains flowed into the Mississippi River Basin. Feeding on strong northerly winds that carried record cold into the delta, rapid river currents combined with a southerly shift in the winds. This increased tidal flow in New Orleans and surrounding backwaters, pushing and squeezing the water to "official" flood stages.

As the waters rose, the creatures that lived there were suddenly visible in backyards and along roadways and on docks. Armadillos, alligators, rats and snakes were duly noted in areas where they now preyed upon the mind of the humans who shared the water and land with them.

A neighbor knocked upon the door of the cottage where the writer worked and warned her that an aggressive water moccasin was seen in the neighborhood. It was a huge, fierce snake and would chase humans, so she should be aware. The writer initially laughed at the warning from the man, because she had never been afraid of snakes. Even when she was a little girl and the taunting neighborhood boys had tossed the garden snake on top of the books she cradled in her arms on the way home from grade school, she was undaunted by any serpent. The child writer gently held the green snake behind the head as her father had taught her and released it into the grass. The boys never bothered her again.

But this warning did something to her mind. She had never before heard of a snake chasing a person and did some research on this idea that was an anathema to her. It was true. Water moccasins could be very aggressive and the deadly things would indeed kill her. She resolved that she could and would live with this "threat," since she was certainly smart and capable enough to outrun a snake should the occasion arise.

But, as the spring waters rose around her little cottage and she was forced to wade through ankle deep water to reach the refuge of the vista on the beautiful bayou, the fear began to take hold. She had seen many snakes swimming lazily around the dock, but now one of them was an enemy. But which one? Killing any living creature was never a possibility--until now.

Day after day, the fear built and she would stomp her feet and make all kinds of noise on the way to the dock. Small snakes would slither away, but the fear grew and palms began to sweat with the idea that something was stalking her.

One afternoon, the writer with the journalist's eye saw the huge bulk of snake curled in the flooded garden tub at the base of the wooden walkway. Immediately calculations were made as to whether the serpent could escape the tub fast enough to hunt her down and kill her. A snake had never before chased her, so the answers were born in imagination.

After days of this imagining and fretting, the answer became clear. The situation had become intolerable and the snake had to die. The young girl who inhabited part of the writer's mind was certainly not afraid, but the grown mother had a responsibility to defend the innocent children of the neighborhood from the monster that inhabited the garden tub

The writer was a good shot with a 20-gauge shotgun, but who wouldn't be? It would obviously take out half of the dock at close range. She was not as good a shot with a semiautomatic, but had become reasonably proficient with an Astra-Constable 9mm and thought one of the neighbors must certainly have a smaller pistol that she could borrow. This was southern Louisiana after all, and she knew that shooting snakes was a common blood sport. The act of killing the hideous monster would mark her once and for all as part of the local culture.

The boy who answered the door said a pistol was certainly not necessary and that he would be happy to use his BB gun and kill the monster that was terrorizing the neighborhood.

The boy marveled at the bulk of the serpent, took aim, and with one clean shot marked the water moccasin curled up in the garden tub with the bindi.

As the boy held up the kill for approval and in those last moments the writer recognized beauty and innocence and knew she had done a terrible thing....


 
 
 

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