by Wendy Goddard
As roommates go, Mark the Stonemason possessed many qualities to recommend him, none more crucial than his being the recipient of my friend Charlotte’s love. Mark could size up a stack of rocks and envision paddocks bounded by fieldstone walls, multi-chimney houses with corners cleanly pointed, broad sweeps of terrace overlooking natural streams, the swell of the Blue Ridge in the distance. “Good color,” he would say, or “More slabs,” while clients whipped open their checkbooks, restoration-ready. I would leave home to cater another wedding and return to new porch steps erected off the kitchen in shades of blue granite, the errant crumbling fireplace surround freshly mortared, the back garden neatly spaded and odorous with manure hauled from the decrepit dairy barn. Yes, as roommates go, Mark did very nicely when we moved as mere acquaintances into the century-old farm manager’s house sprawling creek-side at Oak Knoll Farm. But the bonus prize turned out to be Nina.
Having spent my youth mourning the loss of sibling long-haired dachshunds, transported swiftly by my father to his grandparents’ farm in Illinois when a series of scratch and swipe tests pronounced me allergic to nature and all its occupants, I was thrilled that Mark came with a dog. Ninety-five pounds of jowly, muscular Rottweiler loyal and well-trained, Nina balanced calm and menace, ever obedient to Mark and those Mark deemed deserving. We passed long winter evenings after dinner by firelight, Charlotte and I deep in books while Mark crouched beside Nina on the oiled floorboards, his fingers plucking ticks from Nina’s ears and burrs from the folds of her great neck. In good weather, Nina accompanied Mark to work, waiting in the yard anxiously every morning for Mark to drop the tailgate on his truck and say the words she longed for, “Nina. Come.” In less than good weather, Mark left Nina home with me. Charlotte often called later to say Mark would be staying in town with her and would I be okay with the dog?
Once the winter holidays passed, catering jobs thinned substantially. While I polished and wrapped and stowed silver platters into the built-in cupboards of the kitchen anteroom, Nina slept at my feet, guarding the threshold. Her footpads dropped quietly behind me when I moved about the house, crossing the sagging kitchen floor of the original log wing, through the adjoining knotty pine entry room that served for dining and into the high-ceilinged living room, the wainscoting and tall windows a counter-point to the humbleness of the kitchen. Whenever the old furnace shivered awake, Nina echoed a growl, and I would take her outdoors and check the oil level in the buried tank while she attended to her toilet.
The house stood upon a low rise at the back of a thirteen hundred acre working farm, the land rented out by a farmer the next town over to graze his cattle and grow feed for the herd. The silence, the isolation, the lack of any form of light at night other than stars in the sky, the rumble of the furnace, the moan of the cattle, the occasional snorts and exhaled whistles of the dog sleeping by my bedroom door—no newly-divorced woman could have been ushered into a newly-single state with more comfort, more safety, more gentleness.
Spring arrived not so gently, flowers and bushes busting out new growth amid the rains and mud, our circular driveway sluiced with gravel, runny clay and who knows what kind of leavings drifting across the puddles from the old dairy barn. The front door stood open most days as we mopped muddy tracks and swept decomposed leaves back to the yard. One bright morning, Charlotte lingered on the raised landing of the dining room entryway, talking to me across the lower expanse of the kitchen, dressed for lunch and shopping with the girls, awaiting the arrival of her ride. I turned from the stove to see a five-foot long snake spiral up behind her, threatening to strike.
She ran to me as I noticed Courtney’s car pull up to the sidewalk.
“Quick Charlotte, go out the back door to the spring house where we store the yard tools. Grab the shovel and hand it to me through the kitchen window. I’ll warn Courtney not to come in the front door.”
I dashed to the window, hauled up the groaning sash and punched my fists through the plastic covering adhered to the frame, our budget-wise wintering solution to no-storm-windows-in-an-old-house. I hollered, “Courtney, don’t come in. There’s a snake in the house!”
I heard the slap of Charlotte’s espadrilles as she rushed through the damp grass. She thrust the handle of the shovel over the window ledge. I urged the girls to go, assuring them I would be all right. Watching them drive away, I remembered Nina left with her master that morning. And I was alone in the house with the snake.
“Ok, old girl,” I whispered to myself. “You can do this.”
Wearing thick wool socks and chef’s kitchen clogs, I figured my feet and ankles sufficiently protected as I advanced the length of the kitchen and anteroom, pushing head and shoulders first into the front room, shovel balanced across my open hands. No snake. I leaned around the stairwell landing, scanning the treads and glancing into the living room. No snake.
My feet swiveled in my clogs, a toe dancer sans toe-shoes, as I reared up ready to thrust and swing. No snake. Rather, there in the entry room, stalking along the hot water baseboard heaters with deadly intent, hunted George, my semi-runaway, antisocial, don’t-even-think-about-petting-me yard cat.
“Okay, old boy,” I urged him. “We can do this.”
One register at a time, George tracked, back arched, orange rows of hair standing vertical, spitting as he prowled, then stopped. I balanced my stance and with measured motions pushed the point of the shovel into the gap at each end of the register. Pop! Snap! The front cover fell away to reveal a sweaty water pipe. No snake. George advanced to the next register. I summoned my inner Sigourney Weaver, shovel gripped tight to my abdomen, ready to blast The Alien beast. George hissed again as I wrenched off the next register cover. The snake coiled itself around the water pipe not unlike the movie’s monster curled against the ceiling of the escaping space pod. With George as my wingman, I pried the creature loose, laid the snake forcefully out on the floor and smashed its head with the shovel. George and I marched out the front door, snake held out before us, the body hanging limp over the end of the handle. I launched that snake far far out into the high grass, towards the pond and away from the house.
Later that afternoon the tailgate slammed and Mark called my name from the yard. He had taken Nina for her constitutional out in the fields and returned to the house, I supposed, ready for another cooking lesson while I prepared dinner. But that was not Mark’s intent when I met him at the front door. Nina stood behind him, the dead snake in her jaws.
“Wendy, is this the snake you rescued Charlotte from this morning?” he asked. “Wendy. It’s a black snake. Black snakes are our friends. They kill barn rats and field mice. No way was Charlotte in danger.”
“Whatever,” I replied, wiping my hands on my apron as I returned to the stove. “But get rid of it, please. I don’t want that thing in the house.” I motioned to the door, “Nina. Out!”
After dinner, George crawled up in my lap while I sat reading. He purred, kneaded my thighs, flipped over and bestowed upon me the ultimate gift, baring his stomach for a good scratch. George dined on tuna that evening, not field mice. And not snake.