What I thought I saw.

A sort of ramshackle mesa rose from the arms of the creek, its flat top cluttered but serviceable. A tree’s smooth-skinned corpse bisected the little peninsula, and on this we perched, pitching clementine rinds into the brush and speaking only to observe a cicada’s rattling cry, or to encourage the tethered dog to lie still.

I looked from the high green canopy to the creek bed, and saw something dark and slick heave itself to shore and go still.

“I think I just saw a crab,” I said uncertainly. Dustin looked over his shoulder and down.

“A crab?”

“I think so.” My knowledge of freshwater aquatic life is unimpressive, but even as I said it, I doubted. Crawdads and perhaps some sort of small soft-bodied crab, sure, but this, from my vantage, seemed much too big—more like the industrious, palm-sized ghost crabs common at the beach.

I grabbed a stick and began to pick my way down to the creek. Brutus whined, uncharacteristically.

I watched my feet, heavily shod in sturdy Timberland boots, as I went. Always do this in the South, in any season, by freshwater. Though rattlesnakes and cottonmouths are heat-seekers and will know you long before you see them, they may underestimate your ignorance.

As I approached the water’s edge, I saw the object turning and turning in the sand, and at first my brain didn’t understand what it saw, not until it distinguished the single object as two: the slick, dark, bloated corpse that could have once been a mouse or a lizard or neither, and its upper half disappearing into the grasping jaws of a small, determined snake.

The snake was very beautiful. Its body, still half-submerged in the creek, was just barely wider than a man’s thumb, cream-colored but for the coppery bands placed at even intervals over its length, its head crowned in auburn.

Adrenaline pumped into my bloodstream, a warning from my ancestors. I retreated quietly and calmly. I watched my feet as I went.

I said to Dustin, “It’s a snake eating something. I think it’s a young copperhead.”

He got up and descended to the creek, more directly, crunching down the leaf litter; Brutus whined and pulled at his leash. Dustin stopped a few feet from the snake, peering at it thoughtfully, then came back. “I think you’re right.”

“It could be some sort of corn snake,” I pointed out, “or king snake. There are lots of snakes that look like copperheads and rattlesnakes.”

“Sure,” he said, “but to take down prey that big?”

I thought of the vague body protruding from the working mouth. It had been much wider than the snake, who had not coiled around it as a constrictor might. What crushing will do with a struggle, venom will do in a trice.

We put the rest of our food back in our picnic bag, which I slung over my left shoulder, and untethered Brutus’ leash. As we began to make our way back to the trail, I said, “Hang on, I want to see if I can get a picture of it.” I made my way back to the narrow bank, more confidently this time, and thumbed my iPhone’s camera to life.

The snake had released its kill and was trying to get a better grip on it. It tested from this angle and that, its slender jaws opening and closing and maneuvering, its lithe belly turned outward so that I could see the broken russet bands underneath. Unburdened by a meal, the snake would be fast and possibly defensive. I had heard, too, of snakes regurgitating and abandoning food to flee larger predators. Either way, I felt I could come no closer. I lowered my camera and watched a moment longer, then turned and retreated back to the trail. I felt disappointed. I felt relieved.

We walked a little ways before I admitted, “I’ve never seen a snake eat anything before.” In documentaries, sure. But not in person.

He said, “I saw a snake eat another snake once. But that’s it.”

When we got home, we pulled up Snakes of North Carolina and quickly eliminated hognoses, king snakes, and brown water snakes as potential culprits. The northern water snake was close, though. Very close.

An easy way to tell venomous snakes from similar-looking nonvenomous ones is the ratio of their heads to their necks: where venomous snakes tend to have wide jaws and narrow, evident necks, nonvenomous ones usually have no neck to speak of. But it’s harder to make this distinction when the animal is mid-swallow. Nor could I see whether its pupils were slitted or round, or whether its tail ended in a stretch of bright green.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension has a picture of a northern water snake that looks uncannily like the one we saw. It was even taken in Umstead Park. “That could be it,” said Dustin, ever the scientist, resistant to bias.

Harmless species often adopt the coloration of dangerous ones. It’s called Batesian mimicry, and it’s Occam’s-razor-common. I sighed. “Yeah,” I said. “That could be it.”

And still, perversely, for reasons I can’t explain, I hope it wasn’t. I hope instead that today I had a close encounter with a wild copperhead, living the only way it can, and that we did no harm to one another, though we could have.

Wear good boots along the waterways of the South.


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