My dad's experience explains the enormity of my mother's reaction to her own confrontation with a slithering reptile. The image of Dad stepping over the log and saying, "Honey, I think I just got bit," and his subsequent misery were no doubt still fresh as Mom knelt in our family garden later that summer, tending the bean plants and unaware that she had company.
I feel some guilt in the telling of this episode, for I remember our dad adjuring my siblings and I to help her before he left to work a neighbor's farm.
We kids were being particularly unproductive, listening to music and rocking on the couch or the floor in a general state of ennui when Mom burst open our front door and said, "Oh, s--t! There's a copperhead in the garden!"
All four of us froze in horror, not because of the presence of a snake in the garden, but because of the word which had escaped our virtuous mother's lips. It was Vinca who finally stuttered, "Wha-waa-what did you say?"
Mom omitted the word and cut straight to the point before adding in wide-eyed frenzy, "I need something...anything! I've got to kill it!"
It was very unfortunate that Mom spotted the rifle on the living room shelf. She ran out of the house with it and the ammunition before we could prevent her. Nate was close on her heels, however, urging her to let him shoot it (he was a good shot and had actually handled it before).
"Stand back, all of you!" she ordered.
After promptly doing so, we kids watched as our mother blasted not only the bean plants, but the corn and tomatoes as well. Upon inspection, the snake was found to be unscathed. Having depleted the sparse ammunition, Mom demanded rocks to throw at it.
My sister Annie dragged an enormous rock from the flower bed wall, laughing and winking at me and Nate as she lugged it between her legs. Our mother, still powered by adrenaline, lifted the considerable weight over her head and hurled it like She-Woman in the general direction of the bean plants.
But the snake, not surprisingly, survived the bombardment of stones, though it had lost much of its cover. Our flattened garden was a sad testimony to the presence of the iniquitous reptile that had, despite the assault, hardly moved from its original position. Mom decided the time had come for close combat. She marched to the side of the house, grabbed the hoe propped there and returned to the very place where she had first discovered the copperhead while kneeling in its proximity. She then did what she should have done at the first by quickly and precisely chopping off its head.
By the time Dad returned home that evening, our mother was her usual calm and ladylike self, and we kids were impatient to relate the story of our adventure. We met him at the car, and Mom stood behind us with folded arms as we all spoke at once. Somewhere in the telling, one of us burst out with, "And Mama said a bad word. She said the s-word!"
"I did not," Mom spoke firmly.
"But, Mom, you did," said Nate. "When you came in the house."
"I would never say that word." Her voice was very quiet, and her large eyes were narrowed. We didn't dare argue with her.
At least not until she went back into the house. Then we all turned to Dad and began whispering, "She said it, Daddy. She really did."
Dad was skinning the miscreant snake in the driveway. He looked up, and his pale green eyes were bright with amusement when he said, "I believe you. But it's our secret, okay? Don't make your Mama angry."
It's strange that our mother's use of a bad word should capture our imaginations more than the image of her firing a rifle into the bean plants. I can only say it is a testament to her beautiful manners, and I need not add, I have never heard her say it since.