The International Writers Magazine: Snakes & Ladders
We finished building our new house in the French Alps about a year and a half ago. All in all, the construction, including the permits and such, took about two years. In American time, this translates to at least a quarter of a lifetime. But in France, this schedule is pretty decent, and neighbors expressed surprise and admiration that we were able to move in so fast.
Move in we did, but the house was still not exactly finished. We were able to paint most of it ourselves, and my husband, who is handy, did a lot of the interior and exterior. What remained, though, and what still remains, is the landscaping around the house. By landscaping, I do not mean pretty bushes, trees, and flowers. I'm talking grass, asphalt, land that is level.
Our house backs up to a wooded area, not to mention a couple of neighbors who make hillbillies look neat and organized. So, not only is the immediate area around the house still unfinished, but there's also real wildlife not too far away. The woods tempt the area's hunters during hunting season, when you cannot go walking there, not without an orange vest and a rifle. They are teeming with deer, wild boars, and maybe even a mountain goat or two. And snakes. Snakes.
Some of you might be bothered by the rocky jungle that is our backyard. You might have even decided to do something about it before installing a new pool. But we had to have the pool. Had to. Weeds will be there tomorrow, but a pool you can enjoy today. So that's what we did, and we put a beautiful new swimming pool amidst the vegetation. A little strange, maybe, but if you think so and tell us about it, we might not invite you over to swim.
Back to the snakes.
I don't like snakes. Does anyone, besides seven-year-old boys? It give me the willies just writing about them, and if one day, I'm ever truly surprised by one, I believe that my life will be changed in a permanent, bad way. My husband also really hates snakes, maybe even more than me, and was even willing to give up the wood terrace he wanted for what seemed like a better anti-snake alternative – outdoor ceramic tiles. He heard one story about a snake creeping up through a neighbor's wooden boards, took a look at our wild and woolly backyard, and promptly went out and bought about fifteen hundred square feet of tile. The snakes were not getting in.
He's only seen one since we moved in. He was walking the back border of our property when he saw its thin green nastiness weave its way through the grass. He ran back inside for a shovel and returned to bludgeon it to death. I don't remember if he actually did this or not, but he definitely had some mean intentions. All told, we were pretty lucky. Instead, we had happy families of lizards who lived on each windowsill. My daughter named her favorites Rusty and Abby Rose. When it was warm, they basked in the sun, and when it got cold, they vanished completely until the next burst of hot weather. Lizards were fine, as long as they were not longer than five or six centimeters, and brownish or yellowish. Anything green was unwelcome.
We all lived in peace together, us and the creepy crawlies, until the completion of the pool. After this, some memo must have circulated through the animal and bug community at large, and as soon as it was finished, the critters came out to play. The lizards (the brown ones were less charming once underfoot, rather than on the opposite side of double glazed windows), slithered merrily in and out of every crack in the concrete, every hole in the wall. They dove into the pool. Sometimes they came back out, and sometimes they just sank to the bottom in a watery, lizard mass grave. There was occasional cat shit on the pool's hard cover. You had to be mindful of opening it, that an unexpected pile didn't slide off and fall into the blue depths. There were crickets and ladybugs, grasshoppers and bees. Mercifully, there were no snakes.
We've ignored the more unpleasant visitors – the cats, the bees—and my children began a delightful little game called “Animal Hospital.” They are on a mission to save the “cute” insects, which include the ladybugs and grasshoppers. The beetles and ants can die, and that's fine with everyone. This was sweet for about half an hour, while the children were doing it on their own.
“David!! Alert! Alert! A ladybug neeeeeeds us!” screeched seven-year-old Justine to her four-year-old brother, who was really just looking for an activity that did not involve actual swimming. Most of her speech is screeching, these days. Justine manned the In Water rescue team, while David did triage on the deck. This worked well until the victim made its way into the deep end, where Justine was no longer able to swim well, and scoop ladybugs simultaneously. She abandoned her rescue mission, and called for reinforcement.
“MOMMMMMMMYYYYYY! You have to go help that ladybug!”
Now, the first thing that crossed my mind was that I did not want to go help some stupid ladybug, dammit, that I wanted to be left alone to read my book. After finishing my page, though, I slowly stood up to get the net. Once I fished out the ladybug, I returned to my towel and book, but by the time I was back to my comfortable spot, my first aid skills were needed once again.
“MOMMMMMYYYYY! She's missing a leg!”
Yawn. “Errr, doesn't she have a bunch of legs? And wings? She'll be totally fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Definitely. Now let mommy read her book.”
Needless to say, there were at least ten other ladybugs who Needed Our Help. The Animal Hospital was booming by the time the sun started to set, and at least half of the patients were up and about by then. The other half had jumped back into the water to drown. This was the essential problem with rescuing our creepy crawlies. They were all so dumb that as soon as you pulled their yucky asses out of the pool, they'd just get right on back in there. It just seemed simpler to let nature have its way with them, and to let our new automatic pool robot take care of the corpses.
The other night, I was feeling exceptionally motivated, and was doing some cleaning out by the pool. In order for this to happen, the inside of the house must have been so dirty that I just gave up on it. But there I was, and there were an awful lot of dead crickets floating on the water. I got out my trusty net and went to work. The darnedest thing, I would scoop them out, and they would magically revive and fly away. I scooped and liberated for a while, before despairing and remembering that there were no small, judging paramedics watching and waiting. I continued anyway. Sure, some of them just did a 180 and went right back into the pool, but I kept going. It started to feel a little like the hopelessness of Schindler's List, “I could have got more out! I could have got more!” Leaving one behind no longer seemed like an option. I continued until the pool was clean, and most of my haul was alive.
As I write, a bulldozer is destroying the miniature jungle outside. I imagine this will deal a blow to the Insect Party next to the pool. They seem to have a pretty good communication system going, so I trust they'll all be able to make it back to the woods. Soon, we'll have fresh, neat grass around the pool, which, despite a possible improvement in the lizard and cricket situation, probably won't stop the cat shit. Our buggy friends will find another overgrown backyard. Tonight, I think I'll listen more carefully than usual to the chirp of the crickets from my open bedroom window. Are they rejoicing, celebrating my decision to scoop rather than close the cover? Are there cricket lovers reunited, cricket mommies clinging to cricket babies? I can't be sure, but it does sound awfully loud, that symphony of little voices out there.
© Amanda Callendrier September 2010
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