There it is, the truth of the matter. It may not look it, but this boy is ecstatic. This is the first time in his life where an actual living, breathing snake will twist and tangle itself through the boy’s fingers. He’s had other opportunities to do so, but that was before. This is now. Specifically, it’s been almost a month since he first brought home a book on snakes to read for homework. He couldn’t quite describe it back then, but his parents were sure it was some kind of mixture of fangs, scales, patterns, colors, venomous vs constrictor madness that sent him into his latest obsession. And now, after weeks of reading, watching video, sketching, and sculpting of serpentine clay models, he was finally going to get the chance to hold his first live snake.
His parents knew this might not be the wisest idea. After all the boy was not only precocious in every interest, but he also had a tendency to let his interests consume him to the point where he would want to devour every aspect of whatever it was that might grab his attention; books, toys, pictures, models, movies, etc., etc.. There was also the boy’s particular knack for charming/strong-arming his parents into buying whatever he could get his hands on that would slake his thirsty imagination. It didn’t take long before he’d managed to amass a series of stuffed, rubber, and homemade snake toys (imagine if you will the cut off leg of an old pair of tights with eyes drawn and pasted on one end). Still, the boy’s parents had other concerns besides their son’s wily way with words.
After piecing together his serpentine menagerie and watching an many snake handler videos as he possible could, the boy proceeded to perform reenactments. At first they were simple; a quasi king cobra lashing out at a rat snake here, a stuffed anaconda swirling around and squeezing a stuffed alligator there. The longer the time passed the more “elaborate” the play became until the thrashing and biting and twisting and turning started to twitch that parental nerve that usually ends in inquiry.
“Ok, boy that’s a bit much, isn’t it?”
“I’m just playing. It’s not for real.”
“Yeah, but why do you have to be so violent about it?”
The boy’s usual response to this being crestfallen and a toning down of the festivities for roughly 5-10 minutes.
There’s an advantage to having a pet shop devoted mostly to reptiles and insects within 10 minutes drive from home. It’s a perfect distraction from the weekend bordem most kids run up against. Flatscreens and CGI infested cinema will only take you so far. The local playground gets tedious after about an hour. But, a shop that has a 6 foot asian water monitor amongst it’s many attractions is hard to get tired of. When the boy begged his parents for a trip to the vivarium one lazy Sunday afternoon, the parents conceded with the caveat that the boy understood that nothing was to be bought. The boy agreed and they went on their way. When they got there, the boy put on the hat of a tour guide.
“And over here are a couple of Burmese pythons. The yellow one’s an albino. There not venomous.”
“Look at this one. He’s got a skull and crossbones on his tank. I guess he’s poisonous.”
“Venomous dad, not poisonous.”
It was a 30 minute slithering merry-go-round of rat snakes, boas, bearded dragons, and geckos (although the boy had no interest in the latter two or any other creature with legs). It was the lurking around the snake hatchling case when the shop keeper saw an opportunity and decided to strike.
“Wanna take one out and hold’em?”
The question went straight to the boy, not the parents. With a hook like that dangling in front of the boy’s face, both shop keeper and the parents knew a bite was not far behind. The doe eyes appeared out of nowhere with their beams perfectly sited in mom and dads’ direction.
“Can I please?!?”
It was at this particular moment that the shop keeper first acknowledged the parents’ presence with a subtle grin.
“Five bucks for five minutes.”
The boy was jumping. The hook sank in deep and the line was being pulled. Mom and dad had a spur-of-the-moment choice to make. Images of the boy’s more than rough play danced through the father’s mind, not to mention the alarm bells of shelling out extra cash and visions of frozen mice feedings and weekend tank cleanings. Still, the father reasoned, maybe five bucks now might avoid several hundred in the long run. The boy’s curiosity might just fade once he gets the real thing in his hands. The father decided it was a chance worth taking, fished out a fiver, and reminded the boy about their previous agreement not to buy anything.
After taking the money, the parents were as good as gone to the shop keeper. Out came the small tank with the hatchling. The keeper’s attention was now fully focused on the boy.
“Now, you’ve got to promise me that you’ll listen to everything I say, ok?”
“Or else I won’t let you hold him anymore.”
“I promise, I promise.”
The keeper went over all the instructions. The boy’s attention wavered not the slightest. For a moment the father’s red flag warning alarm that sounded eerily like a cash register went quiet. He not only wanted to make sure the boy understood all he was being told, but he also found himself swept up in the details of the serpentine do’s and don’t's.
“Here dad, you want to try holding him first to show him how it’s done? Then you can hand him off to your boy.”
The shop keeper proved adept at reeling the line in. He carefully handed the hatchling king snake over to the father, and following the keepers protocols, the father soon found himself too busy watching the creature twist and twirl through his fingers to hear any alarm at all. It was about a minute later that the father finally realized there was a anxious boy next to him. The boy wasn’t begging or pleading like he would for his usual wants and urges. He was just standing there, watching. There was no thrashing or growling. There was no elongated diphthongs of “but pop,” trailing off in grating registers. The boy just waited his turn. It was short before the hand-off that the mother fished through the father’s pockets to find the phone with the camera. A record must be taken. She knew the boy wanted this in the worst way.
When the boy took hold of the snake, he was as careful as careful could be, more so than most boys his age. he followed the keeper’s directions to the “T.” The snake writhed through the boy’s finger. Nothing else existed for him. That was until the keeper came over with a 4 foot long python.
“You wanna try him on for size?”
The boy handed the king snake hatchling back to the father who put the hatchling back in its tank. The keeper laid the python on the back of the boy’s neck. The boy carefully placed both hands under the body of the snake where it hung away from the boy’s body. The keeper angled the snakes head closer for the boy to see.
“Ya see his eyes? Ya notice how their kinda bluish?”
“Ya know what that means?”
“It means that the snake is going to shed his skin soon.”
The keeper gave a simultaneous grin that to the boy inferred “Yeah, you’re cool,” to the father inferred “I’ve just sold you a snake,” and to the keeper spoke of his “first time” memories.
“Ya know, the snake is only $75.”
“What about the rest of it?”
“Everything you’ll need will run you about $150 more.”
The father’s cash register alarms suddenly reached a deafening pitch. He looked over at the mother and their 12 years of being together let him know without a word that she could here the alarm too. The five minutes were up and the keeper was lifting the python from the boy. The father could see the transfixed wonder in the boy warp into those pleading doe eyes that only spelled trouble. This wasn’t going to end well.
The ball python gets its name from the fact that when stressed, it tends to curl up into a ball hiding their head and remaining motionless for a long periods of time. This is exactly what the boy did, squatting on the floor in the shape of a ball once told that it was time to go. He knew from his parents’ tone of voice that all he was leaving with was memories and a couple of pictures. Still, he wasn’t going to give up that easily. The parents coaxed the boy politely at first, then with a little more force. The shop keeper had disappeared knowing better when to bow out gracefully. After realizing the futility, the boy started slowly waddling towards the door.
The car ride home was long. There was plenty of pleading and debating. The boy wanted a snake more than ever. The parents were extremely wary of spending more time and money on another responsibility that would more than likely become theirs after months of the boy’s interest had dissipated. A few days went by. The boy was still obsessed, but instead of the savage play with toys, instead of the usual pleas, the boy buried himself in the knowledge of how one goes about taking care of a pet snake.