By Beth Terrell
This is a story about a snake.
It began in driest part of August, when the office I work in was empty except for the five full-time employees and a few die-hard temporary employees. Scotty, one of my co-workers, came into my office and said, “Could you come out here and see if this snake is real? Because I’ve passed it three times and it looks more real every time I pass it.” I did go, and it was real, but the confusion was understandable, because the snake was lying perfectly still, its head slightly lifted. It looked kinked (though there was some discussion later as to whether it was actually kinked, crinkly, or crinkled). As it turns out, this is what happens to snakes when they are stressed and dehydrated. They crinkle. Who knew?
At any rate, Scott and I looked at the snake, and though neither of us thought it was of the poisonous type, neither of us was quite certain enough to be willing to pick it up and see. (It was too small--and I am too nearsighted--for us to be certain of the shape of the head.) So we brought in an expert, or the closest thing we had to an expert: Scott went in and got our site manager, Steve. Much discussion ensued. No conclusions were reached. We finally decided to sweep the little snake into a box, after which I would take him down to the Aquatic Critter’s Reptile Zoo and find out what he was. Scotty was in charge of acquiring the box, I was in charge of holding it open, and Steve was in charge of gently, oh so gently sweeping the snake into the box.
Then I loaded the box into my car and drove to the Aquatic Critter, quite possibly the coolest store in Nashville, with tropical fish in one half of the building and a reptile zoo in the other (caiman feedings on weekends; I am too squeamish to go). The experts behind the desk said our visitor was a rat snake, a harmless, reasonably docile snake. They took him out of the box and we passed him around, and I'm happy to say that the docile part was true, because he didn't try to bite, even when I held him in my hand. The experts also said he was too small and dehydrated to survive the winter, so what could we do but buy a little tank and some snake accouterments and bring him back to live in my office until the next spring? Besides, our project monitor, Mary Beth, was out of town, and we knew she would want to see him, because she is wild about reptiles.
The snake, having come to live with us for a time, now required a name. We tried on several for size. At various times, he was called, Chris Crinkle, Kinky Friedman, Earl Whirly, and a number of other equally fitting names, but the one that stuck was the one Mary Beth gave him: Pencil. This was fitting, because, even though he lived in my office, she loved him best. She would come into the office and point out the cute shapes he would make, or the way he would squeeze himself into the tiniest crevice of his cage, or the way he was growing so strong and healthy that one day we realized he wasn’t kinked at all. And so the bittersweet day came when Pencil was to be set free. Mary Beth and I took him to a walking trail far from the site (which will come as a relief to many of my co-workers). We walked some distance down the trail and climbed down a little embankment to the creek. She was carrying him and wearing a purple glove, because he didn’t enjoy the ride over and was making what she called "bitey faces." She set him down on the ground beside the water. To our surprise, he didn’t race away. Instead, he glided into and out of the water, away from us and then back toward us, as if he knew he was being set free. Then he swam across the creek and disappeared into the brush on the other side. We miss him already.
I wrote about this in our office newsletter a few months ago, but I thought of it again today as I was thinking about the book I've been working on. There is no real mystery in this little story, except the everyday mystery of why we (both human and animal) do the things we do. Why did Pencil come into our office building? Why did we adopt him instead of chucking him out the back door (or worse)? Why was Mary Beth so enthralled?
But these are the kinds of mysteries that keep us reading. While good plotting is essential, it's the human mysteries that keep me coming back for more. For me, at least, the question is not, "Will Jack Reacher defeat the bad guys?", but "What is it in himself that Jack Reacher is really running from?" Not, "Will Stephanie Plum survive?"--I assume she will--but "Does Stephanie's heart lie with Morelli or Ranger?" I want the action and the plot twists and the puzzle too, but it is the quiet moments, like the rescue and release of a little office snake, that show me who the characters really are.