When I was four, my family moved to Farmington, Utah. Nowadays, there’s not a lot of farm left, but back then, the name was apt. Our ‘bench,’ as it was called, was built on the foothills of the Wasatch mountains, with the lower sections given to wide fields and fenced pastures, and the upper reaches still covered in sage and dirt and occasional groves of twisted scrub oak.
The foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, before we came along and prettied them up with our subdivision
We put a house right down in the middle of all that. There wasn’t a fence, and there weren’t any immediate neighbors, except for the one house on the west side. At the property line, the grass just ended, and the adventure began. All that empty mountain expanse was crawling with displaced nature, and we were there to master it. While Davis and Braden (the two with the grandiose, competing visions of themselves as masters of the wild domain) had their seasonal turf wars and power struggles, I was just out running up the hills and pulling down dead trees and digging up snake holes. Sometimes I’d come back and there’d be a new king, but the frequent political upheavals never seemed to have much impact on daily forest living.
Whenever he took a break from fending off the usurpations of younger brothers, Braden showed a knack for tracking down and making use of the local wildlife. Not in the way a hunter would. More in the way a slightly malevolent wizard would. Like the time when he showed me, to my utter amazement, how to hypnotize an army of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers were by far the most common creatures to be found in our area. In the dusty summer months, you couldn’t walk through the crisp fields without dislodging hundreds of crackling dry grasshoppers in all directions. They could jump huge distances, and were tough to hold on to. Unless they were hypnotized.
Braden and I would capture twenty or so of these, and then he would render them to his hypnotic water chamber. It was a large plastic bowl with a few holes poked in it. He would then fill the chamber half-full with water, put a lid on it, and shake it violently for a few minutes, until most of the water had leaked out. When you have shaken several handfuls of grasshoppers in a bowl full of water for a few minutes, you can take the lid off and they won’t hop away. They just sort of stumble around for a while. Because they’re hypnotized. It was all very wizardly.
When you wake up, I want you to bark like a dog whenever I say ‘Margaritaville!’
A kid who’s aiming for the ‘Dark Warlock’ aesthetic needs the right kinds of animal companions. Braden wasn’t interested in the frequent rabbit sightings or deer tracks that fascinated the rest of us. He favored things like ferrets, and salamanders, and had a few of each. He told me about this kid who could lift up a grate somewhere and pull out salamanders on demand, which could be brought to reside in Braden’s swampy window-well, presumably to add to the macabre aura of his lair. I’m not kidding– Braden had a salamander guy. No one ever thinks about it, but half of wizarding is getting your supply lines in place.
I think it was this taste for the slightly off-beat that led Braden to first bring home a snake—another of the common creatures in the area. The one I remember best was bigger than the usual garters and blow snakes we’d see. He had it wrapped over his shoulders like a stole, the better to show it off to the nervous neighborhood kids. They were gathered under the big tree in the back yard when I came out to see his new pet. He handed the snake to me, his most trusted minion, and it promptly bit me on the forehead. Although it didn’t break the skin, it was quite odd, since blow snakes usually don’t bite you.
A very faithful recreation of the incident
I took it again, a few minutes later. This time it broke the skin—sinking its fangs hard into the flesh of my forefinger. I handed the snake carefully back to Braden, and then ran crying into the house. My dad surprised me by being sincerely agitated. He examined the multiple punctures in my finger and wiped the drizzling blood away. After a minute of hesitancy, he took me over the laundry room sink and began sucking on my finger. Suck and spit. Suck and spit. He didn’t explain, and he didn’t have to. I knew the kids were still in the back yard playing with that snake, but I couldn’t distract him by telling him that. He was sucking venom out of my hand.
We went out later and examined Braden’s snake. Its tail had clearly been chopped off. Whether that meant we had a rattler disguised as a blow snake or just an abnormally aggressive blow snake, I’ll never know. Whatever it was, it liked the taste of my blood. My dad didn’t seem to enjoy that taste quite as much, but he took it like a man (though he rinsed his mouth out pretty well afterwards). Braden was forced to send his snake friend back into the wild, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to hold himself out as sort of the mystical neighborhood beastmaster.
My parents told him if he got his Eagle badge, they’d give him something nice. He told me secretly that he planned to ask for an aviary, or maybe a full menagerie. That’s why I was just as disappointed as they were when he never got it.