My childhood home, a gray, old farm house, sat nestled near the small town of McKean Pennsylvania. My father moved us there from Pittsburgh in 1954 when I was no taller than a limp potato sack. I was their only child at the time. He said the city was no place to raise a family. We needed room to run and explore and my mother needed a quiet place to work on her writing. However, in three years of living there she gave birth to four of my brothers. So much for peace and quiet. There must have been something in the water.
Folks in town liked to whisper about that house like it was some kind of architectural Jezebel. By the time I could spell my own name I had heard dozens of rumors and stories surrounding our home. There were certainly enough to keep my young mind racing through many sleepless nights. Some of the more elaborate stories suggest a mass murder of the previous occupants by their deranged mother. My classmates claimed that this woman then buried the corpses of her husband and three children in the walls and that they walked around at night looking for revenge. I made sure to always keep my door locked.
Another urban legend told that this house was a Union hospital during the Civil War. Although I could see the possibility of truth in this yarn, I never believed the part about the secret chest of gold that a defecting soldier buried somewhere on our property. My rolling eyes and smart remarks never stopped my younger brothers from searching for it though. God bless them. Occasionally, when I didn't have a book to read or chores to do, I would humor the little pirates and go hunting with them.
One afternoon, I believe it was in late summer, my brothers and I were out by the old barn just snooping. My eldest brother, Earl, came across a nest of milk snakes hidden underneath a patch of tall weeds. The snakes scattered, slithering everywhere as we tried to catch them. Their low, hissing sounds perfectly complimented the summer heat. It sounded like the world was cooking in a skillet. Earl raced inside to grab two glass jars from the kitchen cabinet. He hurried back and we spent the next hour or so catching the foot long critters. I lost track after about thirty. We were so proud of our find. I poked a few holes in the top of the jars so that they could breath and we ran inside to show mother.
My brothers trailed after me as I presented mother with our spoils. Always seeking her approval, I crept up to her as she was mending an old quilt. My grin was met only with her disgusted frown. She didn't laugh like I hoped she would. She didn't marvel at our cleverness and fascination with nature. She just scowled at me and made a noise very similar to the sound of the hissing snakes. She stood up and proceeded to drag me into the kitchen where I was sat down at our large, oak, dinner table.
Mother sat across from me. Whether it was because I was the oldest and should have known better or just because she didn't like me I have never figured out, but I was the only child punished for the serpent concentration camp we had created. I remember almost every word of that lecture. It was the sternest tongue lashing I had ever received. Mother raved about how disgusting and inappropriate it was for a young lady to play with such filthy creatures and how my father would be so ashamed if he found out that his little girl was handling snakes. She fumed about pride and manners: "What would people think if they saw my daughter rolling around in the yard like a hog in shit?"
According to her, it was time to start acting like a young woman. At thirteen I was now expected to spend less time adventuring with my brothers and more time domestically educating myself. If I ever wanted to find a suitable husband I would have to forgo these childish experiments and keep my hands away from those slimy, diseased creatures. However, of all the reasons she found my actions unacceptable, it was the soiling of her glass mason jars that sent her over the top.
It was the most my mother had ever said to me in one sitting and half the conversation was about jars. She never talked to me again as much as she did that sunny afternoon. I often theorize about my mother's secretive reasoning behind her anger. I knew it was wasteful and slightly disgusting but the jars were only a quarter each. I knew it was wrong to keep God's creatures locked up in such poor conditions, even if they were snakes. I knew it was unhygienic. Yes. I knew all these things. There was just something I wasn't seeing and still to this day don't understand. I could only keep apologizing and asking why what I had done was so horrible and why my brothers weren't getting the same lecture. I could tell when she had grown impatient and fed up with my cluelessness and saw the defeat in her eyes. She stopped talking and sat quietly for a minute, only looking at me.
She broke the silence and asked me to bring her the two jars. I obliged and went into the other room where my brothers were on the ground, staring at our scaly pets. To their dismay I snatched the two jars from the floor and ran into the kitchen. When I handed her the jars she took them in her hands and smiled at the tangled mass slithering around in their glass prison. It may have been my childhood imagination adding drama to an already dramatic scene but I swear I saw her tongue fork out of her mouth real quick, almost as if mocking the poor critters.
"Burry them." Cheerfully, she stood up and grabbed a small flower basket off of the window sill, placing the jars inside. She walked outside and I hesitantly followed her. Mother handed me a shovel that was leaning against the tool shed and we marched out into the middle of our corn field. Her finger shook as she pointed at the ground. She was still smiling though. "Bury them."
I begged her to let me release them but she would only shake her head and repeat the same thing over and over again.
I pleaded that they were just harmless snakes and I would be killing them if I buried them under the ground.
"Burry them or I'll give you such a beating your father will feel it." I reluctantly took the shovel to the dry earth and dug a hole about three feet deep. She handed me the two jars and I cried as I put them in their grave. She pulled the shovel out of hands and began filling it in, burying them alive. After she was done, she walked over to me and slapped me hard across the face. Through the shock and the pain I think I heard the words whore and idiot. It's hard to remember everything after all these years but I can still feel the sting of her hand and hear the sound of dozens of snakes hissing in my ears.
When father came home I begged him to go save the snakes but he only shook his head apologetically and said they were surely dead by now. They would have suffocated. I remember my parents arguing that night and many nights after. Through the walls I could hear their screams. If there were dead bodies walking around at night they probably would have found somewhere else to live. I knew my father was enraged by what my mother had said and what she had done to me. My cheek was bruised for a week and my brothers cried all night long when they learned of what had become of their pets.
I met my husband at sixteen and we married two years later. I loved him and I loved the idea of leaving that small town even more. I left that town and all those memories behind, only visiting a handful of times. My parent's passed away a few years ago within a month of one another. We inherited the old farm house and my brothers had to beg me not to have it torn down. Occasionally, I go up there for a picnic with the kids and sometimes go looking for those glass jars. I was certain I had marked the grave and etched the location into my memory but it appears that I forgot the exact location. Every time I go digging I never seem to find them. Perhaps mother dug them up and hid them in the walls; more bodies to roam the house at night.