Swimming with Snakes

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, there were swimming pools practically everywhere I turned. Summer wasn’t complete without the smell of chlorine in the air, and my blond friends’ hair took on a green tint from all those hours under water.

Swimming pools were entire worlds: heaters shuddering and pinging behind ivy-covered fences; cleaning machines that crawled the bottom like remote-controlled snakes. The “pool man” was standard fare, usually tan and muscular, his arrival signaling the end of our swim. My friends’ big sisters would usually stay put as the sunglassed romeo dragged his net across the water, cans of Tab half-drunk beside them as they applied another coat of coconut suntan lotion.

Once we dropped into the water, time slid away. My friends and I would spend hours in the pool, coming out to eat, our fingertips like prunes. We played familiar games like Marco Polo but also invented our own. Ever since the movie Jaws had come out, we never approached swimming quite the same way, convinced, against logic, that a shark might just be roaming down in the pool’s blue waters.

My friend Jason and I made up a game called “Jaws” in which one of us would float on an inflatable raft across the pool, eyes closed. The other played the role of Jaws, promising only to attack the innocent floater from the water below sometime before he got to the other side. As the victim, I’d be so scared my teeth would chatter and I’d cry out in anticipation of the terror. As the shark, I’d get so excited about my pending attack that I’d laugh underwater, bubbles streaming upward from my mouth.

These days I more often swim in rivers; the Haw is literally a five-minute walk from our house, and when it’s hot Rio and I go down there every day to take a dip. I no longer imagine that a shark lurks underneath, but I am still sometimes seized by the irrational fear that a wild creature might attack me, some razor-tooth catfish crossed with an Asian eel.

There are three credible threats down by the river. One is the northern water snake, a non-poisonous but large and potentially aggressive serpent. We’ve seen many of these critters, usually lounging atop rocks on a hot day but occasionally gliding gracefully along the water’s edge, head peeking up and seemingly oblivious to our presence. We respect the snakes, and they seem to leave us alone.

More menacing are the horseflies, which Rio and I hear and sometimes see circling our heads. We immediately yell “Horsefly!” and submerge ourselves in water, even though  neither one of us has experienced the particular pain of one of them biting skin. Last summer I got a huge bruise on my thigh from banging into a rock while diving underwater to escape one of these flying creatures.

The greatest threat to my equanimity in the Haw are tiny fish that occasionally poke my legs. I think they are trying to bite me (I reckon I’m standing on their nests), but they are so tiny that it feels more like a nudge from a floating feather than an act of piscine aggression. Still, I scream out loud when this happens, almost as if I’m truly being attacked. Rio always delights in seeing his grand papa brought down by a two-inch minnow.