01 May 2015

Don't Go In The Basement!

My brother made a snake cage once.

It was a scout project and the plans for it came out of an old Boy Scout Handbook and consisted of a box made of thin plywood on four sides and measured one foot square and eight inches high.  The front was screened as was the top lid.  The hinges were pieces of old leather belt and a hook-and-eye clasp kept it closed and locked.  JW hung a light over the cage so we could watch our captives, and to provide warmth.

I was five or six and JW was eleven and we filled the bottom of the cage with newspaper and grass clippings and populated it with seven garter snakes captured in a near-by vacant lot.   They were young snakes with gray bodies, pale cream bellies and all with a colored stripe running lengthwise.  Some stripes were red and some were yellow.  We gave them names.

 JW kept the cage in the basement and I helped him feed and water the critters.  I think we used turtle food flakes.  We caught them in August and they seemed to be doing well until October came around and JW summoned me to the basement and pointed to the cage.

"What did you do with them?" he demanded.

"Do with what?" I wasn't sure what he wanted.  It was dark at the cage; the light bulb had burned out.  My brother shined his scout issue green angled flashlight with the belt clip through the top screen.

"The snakes are gone.  What did you do with them?  Did you take them out?"

I looked in the cage and instead of seven eight-inch legless reptiles slowly slithering over and under each other and perking up their little heads waiting for a dosing of dried fly bits, there was...  nothing.  Nothing but grass and a small water bowl and the fresh layer of newspaper.   There was also a short dry fir branch I broke to fit the box, for the snakes to drape themselves on like I'd seen big pythons do in jungle movies, but I never saw ours do any draping.

"I didn't take them out," I protested.

He undid the clasp and opened the lid and poked around the floor of the cage with the branch, moving the clippings aside.  No snakes.

"You left the latch off."

Even with the latch unhooked the lid was tight-fitting.  They couldn't have moved that lid even if they all pushed with their little snaky heads at the same time.

"Maybe you left the lid open."  But he knew better and I just shook my head.  I had been really careful of my charges.  I religiously freshened the water and fed them.  I also came up with a nifty way to change the soiled paper lining without having to transfer everything to a shoe box temporarily and then back again.  Instead I put down ten layers of newsprint, cut to size, and every week I would just reach in and gently tug one spotted sheet out from under them.

"Maybe the girls... " but even as I suggested it I knew it was absurd.  My sisters were deathly afraid of the snakes and hadn't even set foot in the basement since JW set up the terrarium.

We looked for holes in the screens, or  a loose corner, but the box was tight as a bathyscaphe.

They hadn't escaped, but somehow they had vanished.  Then it hit me.

"I know what happened," I proclaimed with certainty.  "They ate each other.  Snakes are cannibals."

JW frowned while he considered this.  He nodded and then shook his head.  "There would be at least one snake left; a big fat snake."

And that was that.  We were out of ideas.  It was a mystery and would remain so.    Huey, Louie, Dewey, Screwy, or whatever we named them had made the jump to light speed, or maybe there was a rapture just for reptiles.   We climbed back upstairs and thought no more on it... until five days later.

But first I have to tell you somewhat about the basement of the house on 77th.  This was not a finished basement or a full basement.  It was ill lit and dark even at noon day, even though there were a couple of small windows up high.  It did  have a rough concrete floor and an oil furnace and concrete walls on the north and south, and one door to the outside.  But on the west and east sides were dirt banks.  The ceiling was open to the floor joists.

There was a washing machine and a double concrete utility sink that weighed as much as a Volkswagen.  My mother hung up laundry to dry down there, during the rainy season.

There was a switch at the top of the stairs that would turn on one bulb down in the dark.  The other two lights operated on pull strings, so you had to feel around in the gloom for them.  It was not a pleasant place and way more daunting then Kevin's basement from Home Alone.  

So, it is evening, late October and I am sitting upstairs in the living room watching TV with my brother and sisters and there comes a terrible hair-starching cry from the basement.  It is my mother, but I had never heard such a sound come out of her before, nor since.  I'm thinking she has been attacked by some gruesome monster.   All us kids look up from the television set as we hear her frenzied steps on the basement stairs.  We hear her stumble and then the basement door fly open and slam against the wall and she is breathing heavy as she comes in and switches off the TV set.

I am checking her over for knife wounds or claw marks.  My dad is not home and I am not looking forward to fending off the creature in the cellar.  Maybe we can give it one of my sisters to chew on. Mom  grabs JW and myself by our upper arms and hauls us to the kitchen.  My sisters gather at the doorway listening in, goggle-eyed.

"You two," she pants holding one hand to her chest as if trying to calm her hammering heart, "get your flashlights (deep breath) and go downstairs and (another breath) you are going to go through every box and (breath) and look in every corner (gasp)" and then she sits down at the kitchen table and puts her head in her hands.

I am really frightened.  Something in the basement has really upset my mother.  This is an adult woman who has birthed five children.  Whatever is down there will certainly make short work out of me.  And it is nighttime.

Then JW asks the obvious question.  "What are we looking for?"

"Your SNAKES!"

Mom was in the basement going through a box of old magazines and one serpent was about five covers down.  It was alive and squirmed away, deeper into the box.  Mom decreed that the TV was to remain off until the creepers were all found.  With that incentive JW and I strove mightily.

That night we found three and another two the next day during daylight hours.  The two remaining we figured made it to the dirt walls and tunneled to freedom.  Or being chilly outside maybe they just hunkered down in a hole and hibernated until Spring.  I don't know what snakes do.

I do know that we were forbidden to ever bring snakes into the house, again, and that the TV was allowed to glow once more and things got back to normal.

"But how did they get out?" you ask.

They were there the whole time in the bottom of the cage, under the newspaper.  When the light burned out and the basement got chilly they burrowed for warmth.  We thought they were gone and left the lid open when we went back upstairs.

Another mystery solved.

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