Slither and Hiss

By Ed Staskus

   He wasn’t all in about living in a sewer but what could he do? He was too big by far to live out in the open. Trying that when he was young almost cost him his life. Nobody ever said a kind word to him. They called him a yellow dog. Whenever they spotted him, they tried to chop him up, starting with his head.

   Jake was a giant sewer snake, born and bred in damp muck. He grew up in a sewer, spent the best years of his life in a sewer, and expected to retire in a sewer. At least, until it all went wrong.

   His distant relatives soaked up the sun, but the sun gave him heatstroke. He had lukewarm blood in his veins and shadows were warm enough for him. Other snakes ate mice frogs bird eggs, but he was a big guy and needed big food. He lived on unsuspecting rabbits and lost possums. He had teeth, but never chewed. He swallowed breakfast lunch dinner whole. He used his teeth for grabbing and hooking whatever was on the menu.

   His favorite was garbage rats, who were plump and delicious and satisfied his appetite, but then the new plastic garbage cans and bins started popping up. They were the kind that critters couldn’t get into, and the rats started to get smaller and smaller. His dinner table was suffering.

   He was suffering in another way. The more houses there were the more crap came his way. He started seeing things in the sewer he had never seen before and never wanted to see again.

   Then his home and hearth came under attack.

   It started in the middle of April, when he woke up one day to rumbling. The ground shook slightly. After the noise petered out, he slithered upwards until he poked his head through the grate in his attic and took a look around.

   “Holy smokes,” he hissed.

   There was a backhoe with a shovel on the front and a hoe on the back. There was a loader used to move asphalt, debris, dirt, gravel, and rock. There were a bulldozer and two humongous dump trucks. A trencher was being moved into place to dig trenches.

   There were three-foot-around concrete sewer sections being unloaded by a crane from a flatbed truck. New drainage was coming to collect sewage and stormwater from everybody’s houses and the catch basins in the streets, connecting to trunk sewers taking it all to a wastewater treatment plant.

   The snake could tell the men in their lime green vests meant business. He didn’t like it, not one bit. What they were up to do would put him out of house and home. Everybody thought snakes weren’t territorial, but like all his lizard friends, he was. He didn’t want to move out.

   He didn’t want to end up on the wrong side of life and death either. His cousin in Florida had been hooked by a plumber working on a street side pipe and drain. When push came to shove the plumber called in the artillery and that was the end of his cousin.

   The middle of that night he crept out of his sewer and went to work. Even though he didn’t have arms or legs, he moved easily using his flexible body. He had a long spine with more than 400 ribs attached to it. The muscles connected to the ribs were what made him able to crawl, climb, and swim. His belly scales gripped the ground. He was so big he could push on both sides of himself at the same time.

   He wasn’t as fast as the black mamba, who held all the gold medals in the speed events, but he was plenty fast enough.

   He attacked the tires on the loaders and dump trucks, but even though his fangs were as big as could be, he couldn’t puncture the thick rubber. Frustrated, he started flattening any tire he could find. By the time he was done more than two dozen cars and pickups parked outside for the night had one or more flat tires. He slinked home with a bad taste in his mouth.

   When Oliver’s dad tried to drive to work in the morning, he discovered both rear tires on his Chevy Colorado were flat as flounders. “Grrrrr,” he growled. He only had one spare. When he called the tire store, he told them he thought it was vandalism.

   Oliver was already in the driveway with his magnifying glass. He was the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County and had a hunch there was more to the story than hooligans. When he examined the tires, he knew he was right.

   “Dad, those punctures were made by the fangs of a giant sewer snake.” He showed his father the distinctive bite marks. “I thought the wildlife removal folks had gotten rid of all of them years ago,” his father said.

   “Maybe he was small, nobody noticed him, and he got left behind,” Oliver said.

   “How big do you think he is now?” his father asked. 

   “If he’s as big as I think he is, he’s gigantic.”

   “He has got to go. There are too many families and kids and pets for it to be safe.”

   “I have a plan,” Oliver said.

   It had to wait, though. He and his sister gulped down breakfast and jumped on the school bus. It was the last day of school before summer started for real. Emma was finishing third grade and Oliver was finishing first grade. Emma was Oliver’s monster hunting right-hand man. It was only after they got home that they were able to put their scheme to work.

   First, they went to see their friend the honey badger who lived in the woods behind their house. Boom Boom wasn’t a snake charmer. He had once duked it out with a puff adder, one of the deadliest crawlers in the world. Its venom melts human flesh. A half-dozen bites made him groggy so after he put the snake out of commission, he took a nap. The fangs that cook life and limb could do nothing against his badger hide.

   “I’m your man,” Boom Boom said after Oliver explained the plan.

   Oliver and Emma knew the snake liked to lay out in the open at sunset, soaking up the mild dusky rays. They knew the spot because they always avoided it that time of day. They quietly hid behind a hundred-year-old pin oak. When the snake showed up and curled up, they waited some more until he was good and drowsy.

   By the time the snake knew what was happening, Oliver and Emma were in front of him explaining he had to get out of town. When he protested, Boom Boom, sneaking up from behind, clamped his jaws onto his rear end and started pulling. There was nothing the snake could do because everything he tried failed. His poisonous fangs were useless. He flailed this way and that. He curled himself round and round the badger and squeezed with all his might.

   Boom Boom ignored everything he tried and dragged him to Oliver’s Monster Capture truck. Once he was under lock and key Oliver ran to find his dad. When his father saw the sewer snake, he took two steps back.

   “Holy cow, that thing is big!”

   He got behind the wheel, Boom Boom joined him in the passenger seat, and they drove to Elderwood in East Cleveland. Elderwood was once a happy community full of life and laughter. Over the years it became a run-down shadow of itself, and everybody moved out. Now there were no signs of life except for squatters.

   When they opened the back of the Monster Capture truck, Boom Boom didn’t have to say a word. The snake wiggled out fast and headed for the nearest sewer. The dope fiends didn’t know it, but they had a new neighbor.

   Back home in Perry, Boom Boom tipped his hat and trotted home to the forest.

   Over dinner, after his dad explained where they had taken the snake, Oliver said, “It was turning to snake eyes for him here, but a musty old neighborhood with lots of leftover sewers sounds like just the place for Jake.”

   “They are always shedding their skin, so I think he’ll be OK in his new home,” Emma said, taking a day’s work well done hefty bite of her stove-top grilled cauliflower and chicken.

   “Yum,” she said.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Ohio Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”