Jim Minick is the author of the forthcoming memoir The Blueberry Years (Thomas Dunne of St. Martin's, August 2010). He has also written a collection of essays, Finding a Clear Path, two books of poetry, Her Secret Song and Burning Heaven, and he edited All There Is to Keep, poems by Rita Riddle. Minick has won awards from the Appalachian Writers Association, Appalachian Heritage, Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, and Radford University, where he teaches writing and literature. His work has appeared in many publications including Shenandoah, Orion, San Francisco Chronicle, Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Conversations with Wendell Berry, The Sun, Appalachian Journal, Bay Journal News, and Wind. He lives, hikes, and gardens in the mountains of Virginia with his wife and four dogs.
On an evening in early June, two weeks after the big freeze wiped out that year’s blueberry crop, the sky becomes so overcast that no last rays from the sun squeak through. I stand at the kitchen sink, washing supper dishes, listening to the news on the radio. Then I hear a too-familiar bark. It starts as a low growl, hesitant at first, and then it escalates to yowls that repeat and grow higher and higher. They come from Little B, our youngest dog, a husky-shepherd mix, and this is her signal to tell us she’s cornered something that slithers, something that bites. This is her snake bark.
I run out the door to the state road that separates our house from the barns. There in the road’s bare dirt all three of our dogs circle. They have become a mass of fur and edginess, hackles high, steps quick, like they’re dancing around a fire. But this fire has no ashes and only one flame, a twisting body of sinewy muscle. It is a copperhead, coiled and ready to bite.
The dogs are too focused on the snake to listen when I shout their names. They scurry in a wide circle, tails rigid as they look for a way in, a moment to attack and kill. When they get too close, the copperhead lunges. The mutts leap back and the fangs grab only air. But I know this dance will not last long.
A hoe, I say to myself, I need a hoe now, so into the shed with growls and barks echoing in my head. Back outside and running to the fray, I see the copperhead lunge once more. This time it strikes flesh, and Grover, the poodle-terrier, smallest of our pack, screams a high-piercing yelp. He keeps shrieking as he runs to me. But I can’t grab him, can’t comfort him, not yet.
Again I yell at the other two dogs, this time a fiercer, “Git.” They step back, seeing my hoe, but they don’t leave. They just make a wider circle around us, around me and the snake. The viper has coiled, its tongue flicking, scenting me, searching for an escape or another soft spot to strike.
Do it quick, do it now, I whisper to myself. All I see is the snake’s wavering head, its slits for eyes. All I feel is the cold heat of its fire.
The hoe has no heaviness, my arms no weight. I raise the tool and swing it down hard. As the blade arcs close, the copperhead strikes, hitting the handle. Then the metal cuts skin, severs muscle and vertebrae to thunk on the hard-packed dirt. And even after I know it is dead, I keep chopping, keep hacking this bloody body. The head must be severed, I think, or it might strike again, its nerves twitching, especially when another dog’s nose touches it.
Then I kick it into the ditch and search for Grover.
I find him in Sarah’s arms. When she hears his screams, she knows. She comes running to grab him and try to calm his shivering body, quiet his constant groans. “Call the vet,” she directs, but I’m already dialing the number, grabbing my keys. We head out, the car tires crunching over the bloody spot where just five minutes ago a snake and a dog should not have met.
This is not the first time, or even the second or fourth. This copperhead bite is our seventh. When we bought the farm over a decade ago, one of our new neighbors told us to watch out, he’d seen lots of copperheads down in that hollow. Back then we shrugged off his warning. Now we know better.
The first time also happens to Grover, but the next two snakes strike Little B, and the last two bite Becca, a lab-shepherd mix. All six of these strikes hit the dogs in their faces or front legs, and all but this last one happens by surprise, the dog unaware. One time Little B simply leaps over a brush pile and lands on a resting copperhead. Another instance, Becca sticks her nose down into what she thinks is a rabbit hole.
Every time, the dogs howl in pain and the injured muzzle or leg instantly swells. Every time we ride this hurried half-hour to the vet’s.
Grover won’t let Sarah look too closely, but we guess the fangs entered his neck. On the shiny stainless steel table in her office, the vet confirms this. She parts his tangled curls to give him shots including a tranquilizer to calm him. Then she gives us a slew of other medicines and directions.
“The bite won’t kill him,” she tells us, “but the swelling might.” She fears the venom will inflame the muscles around his throat, constricting it. “The inflammation might suffocate him,” she warns, so she advises us to check on him through the night to make sure he’s still breathing. And she cautions that eventually his hair will fall off and the poisoned flesh will blacken and also slough away. But she too understands that we already know this. We have become too well-known for our snake-bit dogs in this town.
But I haven’t told you about the seventh bite. The time the fangs found me.
It happened sometime after the first or second dog got struck, in the summer of 1993, before we even had cleared the field or planted blueberries. I wanted to pick raspberries, like I did as a kid, and the best picking was along Lost Bent Creek. I put on old sneakers, grabbed a bucket, and headed to the upper reaches of the stream where brambles grew thick. There I slowly filled the white pail with the dark stains of this sweet fruit.
The purple canes covered both creek banks, arching over the shallow water. The easiest way to pick, I soon saw, was by wading, so into the coldness I went. The clear stream had a constant low whisper of a gurgle that filled the wooded hollow, and its wetness soaked sneakers and pants to cool me and make this summertime ritual even more pleasant. I worked down the branch, picking from both sides, stumbling on the slick rocks, humming while the dogs worried a bunny in the nearby brush. Ahead, a tree had fallen across the creek, a barrier between me and the other berries I could see farther downstream. No way there but to climb the steep bank and hike around the tree.
I scrambled up the shaley bank, grabbing roots with one hand while holding my bucket level with the other. And there as I worried about sliding back into the stream or worse, spilling all of these fine raspberries, I felt something at my leg.
It didn’t really hurt. It felt, instead, like a giant bee sting. When I reached a level spot, I looked down, expecting to see some yellow jackets around my calf, but spotted nothing. I looked over the bank, and again nothing, no snake, no swarm, no thing except my trail and the rippling water below. Then I lifted my pants leg and there on the shin two puncture wounds, small pinhead-sized holes about an inch apart. Definitely copperhead, I thought, as once more I searched the steep bank. I never did see the snake.
So what next? I said aloud. Where’s the incredible pain I’ve read about and witnessed in my dogs? Where’s the swelling? And why doesn’t this hurt?
I hiked back home, put the berries in the fridge, grabbed the newspaper and an ice pack, and sat on the porch. I figured if it hadn’t swelled yet, I must’ve somehow got lucky and I’d be all right. So I propped my leg up on the banister, wrapped the ice in place, and read the paper. Every ten minutes or so, I checked the two fang marks, mainly just to make sure they existed. I still had trouble believing all of this.
A half-hour later, Sarah drove home from school, and as soon as she saw me, asked, “What’s wrong?” She could tell something had happened, so I told her my story. Like a good wife, she panicked. “Let’s go to the doctor’s now. You should be there already.” I tried to protest, but she called our physician and he said yes, he’d wait an extra few minutes past closing time just to see us.
When I sat on his examination table, the spectacled doctor looked at my leg and nodded. “Yep, that’s a snake bite for sure.”
“But why so little swelling and hardly any pain?” I asked.
“Must’ve been a dry bite.”
I said I never heard of such, and he explained that after a poisonous snake has struck and just eaten, it often takes awhile for the venom to refill the little sacks behind the fangs.
“So, if it has to strike again before these sacks are replenished, it’s called a dry bite. Which means that you, my friend, are very lucky.”
He gave me a tetanus shot, told me to never pick berries there again, and sent me home.
So ten years later, we once again have to keep Grover by our bedside at night, confine him to the bathroom during the day, dope him up on painkillers and antibiotics, and wait until his immune system slowly dissolves the copperhead’s venom. We take the other pooches for our evening hike, staying on the road, keeping them out of the brushy areas near the stream, the places the snakes seem to like.
And since last month’s late freeze, we also avoid the blueberry field. Who wants to see again the ground littered with the waste of our fruit? That image already has slipped into our sleep to never leave.
Instead, we sit by the pond in the quiet of the day and try not to think about copperheads and blueberries. The sunset’s glow soaks into every nook of this world—the soft leaves, the surface of the pond, the air itself—all of it hums. This glow even seeps into us, into the corners of our eyes, into our stillness.
Sarah glances at me, then stares back at the pond. Finally she interrupts this blue reverie. “You know, Jim,” she says. “I’ve been thinking.”
I stop rocking, wait for more.
After a pause, she asks, “Do you ever wonder about that place we almost bought with my brother?”
I am stilled by her complete and sudden confession, by this recognition of a door that has stood ajar for both of us despite our efforts to close it.
And I too touch the latch of that door with the simple reply, “I think about it all the time.” About its hill covered in trillium and the heart-shaped deer tracks that dimple the trails. About its streams, how they join to form a giant “Y” visible on any topographical map I search. About its long views of whole mountain ranges, and its close views of miterwort and hepatica, plants I never knew until I hiked that land we had hoped to buy with Matt and Melanie, our kinfolk. And always, I remember that first time Sarah and I sat on the hill together, that cold day in April, the clear sky holding nothing but a single osprey gliding over us, marking us with the shadow of its wings.
“Yeah,” I repeat, “I think about that place all the time.”
“We could buy it on our own, you know,” Sarah says after a long silence, and again, I shake my head, thinking the same. “And I could go back to teaching full-time.” This surprises me even more, makes me realize how much she too has been bitten, not by any poisonous snake, but by a love of this new place and by a chance to dream again.
That night, almost a year after we last looked at this land, we call the owner. He tells us that the property has gone through two other failed contracts, and yes, it is still for sale. The next day we call the banker and lawyers, and a month later, we own a new farm.