The snake was 5 feet long — exactly 5 feet long. I know this because I measured the skin he left in the hosta bed right outside my back door; the skin he left in a soft pile, like dirty clothes he expected his mother to pick up and toss in the laundry; the skin I picked up with a broom handle and stretched across the cool concrete carport, careful not to touch it, because, well, you just never know.
I stood there and stared at it for a couple of minutes, thought about the snake wriggling and writhing and slipping out completely dressed in brand new skin, wondered where exactly he’d gotten to after his costume change and congratulated myself on having waited two days since the discovery before venturing close enough, with the broom handle, to examine what he had left behind. It was highly unlikely, I reasoned, that he would have hung around under the hydrangeas for two days, cool and damp though it would have been.
I was pretty sure it was a rat snake — not because I am particularly adept at identifying reptiles, but because every time I’ve engaged Daddy to expedite the departure of a snake from the immediate environs of Sandhill, his swift and sure work has been accompanied by the remark, “Well, Doll, ain’t nothing but a rat snake,” and they have all looked like this one. But pretty sure was not good enough, because, well, this snake was still alive — somewhere.
So, that is why I measured it, went inside and pulled from the drawer by the telephone my Stanley 25-ft. Locking SAE Tape Measure, chrome-plated and outfitted with a wide clip on the back to fit on a tool belt, an instrument one can trust when exactness is important. I stretched it out the length of the snake skin, feeling the metal flex and flatten against the concrete and locked it down where the skin splayed out in a ruffle where the snake’s head had once been. Five feet, exactly. I measured again just to make sure. Five feet.
My various Audubon guides are lined up on a chest by the front door, propped between sandhill crane bookends. I pulled out “Field Guide to the Southeastern States” and flipped to the reptiles sections. On page 271, there it was: eastern rat snake, elaphe obsoleta. “Gray race of se GA west to MS valley is gray, with diamondback-like white-edged dark blotches.” I peered through the thick plastic of the gallon Ziploc bag into which I had gingerly dropped the snakeskin upon bringing it into the house. The tiny overlapping scales, laid out like bathroom tiles, were the color of a summer thundercloud trimmed in unginned cotton. He certainly seemed to fit the description. But it wasn’t enough.
Number — I wanted a number. And there it was: 5'. The National Audubon Society had declared that rat snakes were 5 feet long. My snake was 5 feet long. Ergo, my snake was a rat snake. Held breath expelled.
There is some part of our humanness that makes us want to measure; to define with numbers; to identify in SAE terms — not a bad thing when one is building a house or designing a rocket or even identifying a snake. It occurred to me, however, as I reshelved the Audubon guide and dropped the tape measure back into the drawer, that the ease of using numbers to distinguish one thing — or one person — from another can easily rob us of the other parts of our humanness.
Test scores that admit some students and leave out others without regard for abilities and characteristics other than test-taking aptitude, ticket sales that determine what is deemed to be art, descriptions like “age-appropriate” that can not possibly be defined — they all ignore kindness and compassion and curiosity and courage and all the other numinous and luminous qualities that ultimately make those houses and rockets, that produce schools and churches and families, that result in creatures a little lower than the angels, crowned in glory and honor.
I will leave my tape measure in the drawer by the door. I will keep the scale in the bathroom. I will maintain my checkbook register and watch my cholesterol and keep track of the time. But I will not be defined or limited or made afraid by numbers — not even the ones attached to a snake.