The Snake and the Fish

snake-fishFor much of the summer, I’ve been taking my kids out to Quarry Park and parking behind the main baseball field. Only a hundred feet away, a branch of the Rivanna River flows and there is a recently installed bridge that goes over it and that is so fortified with its rusty beams and thick wooden planks that an Abrams Tank could ride across it. Instead, I stand up there while 6yo B and 3yo G toss rocks through the slatted railing and watch them fall thirty feet and splash into water so shallow you can clearly see the brown bottom.

Quarry Park is named after an actual rock quarry that existed about a quarter-mile upriver but supposedly due to some drunken swimming accidents it was filled in 20 or 30 years ago. To do so, a concrete bridge was hastily poured that allowed the heavy vehicles to go across the water up to the quarry and when they finished filling it in they never tore the cement pass down. While that stretch of the river is normally only a foot or two deep the bridge acted as a sort of dam and the water that shoots through its two metal culverts dug a pool so that the water on the other side is around six feet deep right in the center. In the years since, it became a bathing spot for the homeless and an out-of-the-way swimming hole, and I even took a dip there once which is how I know about it.

One morning a few weeks ago, I decided to forgo the usual throwing session off the new bridge and take B to the old concrete bridge, leaving little G behind this time because he always wants me to carry him if we’re going to walk anywhere. I parked our old station wagon in the usual grassy spot but when I got out pointed B in the opposite direction. “We’re going this way,” I said. He turned and looked quizzically. An old gravel and dirt road led to a paint-flecked metal fence, the kind you see at farms to keep out cattle or vehicles. A narrow path went around the side where we found some wild berries and stopped and picked. “Alright, c’mon, let’s get going,” I barked. “That’s enough. We’re not out here to eat berries.”

He jumped up and we set off down the road. Crushed bits of brick lined the path and he kicked at them until we rounded a bend of trees and the path had turned into paved concrete. “Here’s the quarry,” I said as we walked on to the bridge and stopped in the middle. The sun was out but not overhead yet. The water was blueish green and right below us. B picked up a few rocks and threw them up and in. They made a small splash and we watched them sink until they were lost to the deep.

“C’mon, let’s go up here,” I said, and pointed up a hill on the other side of the bridge and another gravel path that was overgrown with trees and low-lying thicket. “I don’t wanna,” he said. He just wanted to stay at the bridge and throw rocks. I wanted to explore, though, and started to walk up the path. “I’m not going,” he said, so frustrated with me, and squatted down. “Alright, whatever, man,” I said, smiling, and kept walking up until I was obscured by the branches. He started to panic. “I’m coming. Wait,” B said, and ran after me. “Wait.”

15 or 20 minutes later we returned after humping along a bum path that looped back. The sun was beating down on us and we were both sweating. B decided to take his shoes off and dip his feet in the water. At one side of the bridge the concrete sloped down into shallow water and he walked down until his ankles were submerged. “Don’t go over there,” I said, pointing to his right. “That’s where snakes live.” B looked over to the side of the river and to a little cove where water stagnated. “You’re alright over here, though.”

We were cautious of snakes. Just a few weeks before, he’d been standing in a couple of feet of water in a different branch of the same river when a water snake swam right up to him. He’d screamed and jumped out and we’d left. Last fall, on a hike, he’d nearly stepped on a humongous corn snake and started shrieking while it coiled around a nearby rock. I ran over and grabbed him and we hustled out of there. We were both wary of another serpentine encounter when he slipped his shoes back on and joined me up on the concrete bridge again.

“Holy shit!” I said, the obscenity escaping my lips. “Look at that.” I put my hand on the back of his head and turned it in the direction of the left bank of the water. There in the shallow side a snake was writhing, twisting and turning over itself. “Whoa,” I said, excited. We both stared. The snake stopped to float for a second. In its mouth was a fish, probably a Bluegill or a Sunfish, white and lifeless.

The snake itself was brown with some kind of pattern on its back. Like a lot of boys his age, B is a reptile expert and said it wasn’t poisonous because its head was not diamond-shaped. I knew of his expertise but left room for the possibility anyway. Regardless, watching it struggle with the fish was horrific. The snake was having trouble carrying it and twisted spastically, almost as if it would wrap itself in knots, and at different points sunk down into the water, only to re-emerge, fish in mouth. It seemed determined to take its catch to the other side. “That’s incredible,” I kept saying. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

There are a couple of large metal culvert pipes that run through the bridge so the water flows through and not over. When the snake neared their current it overpowered it and sent it rolling but still it held on to the fish. Hell bent, it kept swaying, cutting a wobbly “S” through the water as it finally began to get the hang of swimming with the fish.

B paced back and forth, disturbed and entranced. I would come over and grip him by the shoulders if he got to close to the edge. We kept watching until the snake reached some rocks on the other side of the river, crawled atop one and collapsed. I think it was exhausted. So were we and after another minute or so of watch, we left for home.

The amazing sight of the snake holding the fish clenched in its mouth stuck with us and for the next couple days I told everyone I came across. “It was like something out of an Old Testament prophecy,” I said to one friend. “Have you ever thought,” he responded, pausing for dramatic effect, “that the prophecy was not intended for you but B?” “Hmmm,” I replied, not sure what else to say. I don’t really care why snakes keep appearing before us, I thought. I just wish they’d stop.


Hard Knock Life

One of the pleasures of being a SAHD is that I can go to the pool at 11 a.m. on a weekday. While most people are working in an office I am floating in the water, splashing around with my three-year-old, B. Or taking pics of my baby G with a bandanna on his head while waiting for the pool to open.

But the highlight of the day was by far my and B’s late afternoon trip to our local river, the Rivanna, with a bag of toy trucks and tractors, because he said he wanted to play in the sand with them. As usual, though, we spent most of the time in the water, which is one to two feet deep in most spots. It was a glorious day, sunny but with a strong breeze, and shady in many spots.

B is usually cautious in water, but something about being out in nature emboldened him and at a certain point he took to either squatting or sitting in the water, almost completely immersed. With his long blond hair and the pastoral scene—for much of the time it was just us and a far-off duck quacking—I was reminded of old photos of Woodstock, when the hippie kids bathed in the nearby river. Yet, this was much more pure and ideal, just a small kid with no cares in the world completely lost in a satisfying moment and me, his father, relishing the shared experience.

For instance, at one point, I sat on a rock with my feet submerged and B walked over and then sank under water, only his head exposed. “I’m cooling off in the nice, good water,” he said, then tried to get me to do the same. I demurred—I didn’t feel like getting sopping wet—but my reluctance didn’t alter the great feeling. I sat there just watching B, realizing this was one of those times that make the whole stay at home experience worth it.