Catfish dog trotted back to my side. I swapped my machete from right hand to left and reached down to scratch his head. He let out a long groan that started deep and low in his chest and ended in a high register in his throat.
We stopped 20 paces later looked out over the ruins of my terraced garden. One of the terraces had turned into a perennial oregano hill. The oregano spread like mint does, that is, each tendril puts roots down while sprawling as far as it can.
My roses were in need of pruning. They’d fallen from their former majesty into leggy paled version of roses. They still bloomed red and pink and golden flowers, hopeful that a caring gardener may one day return.
My wild blackberry patch at the top of the hill had been weed-whacked into the dirt by my father last winter. In the dormant season it looked like nothing more than thorny dead weeds that snakes might hide in. Now the blackberry briars showed no hope of returning. It’s been nearly four years now and the only things growing there were disparate weeds. Even the grass hadn’t spread here.
There were granite rocks holding up one terrace on the west side. On the east were concrete blocks buried in the dirt. They resembled half of the curvature in a spiral set of stairs. They held stronger than the granite, benefiting from the spread of spearmint, forsythia, an oak tree, bear grass and St. Augustine grass.
My blueberry bushes and eucalyptus tree had also grown into their spaces with deep roots and long, swaying branches. I cut off a switch of eucalyptus with the machete and swatted myself with it as though I were in a sauna.
I wore long sleeves and pants to protect from the mosquitoes that bred by the hundreds-of-thousands in Juniper Creek half a hundred yards below. These bugs were now swarming Catfish and I.
I stabbed the machete into the ground and went to get lopping shears, pruning shears, and a shovel. I began working by shearing nearly everything in the garden. The roses took small tools, but the forsythia could stand for wanton destruction. I piled the clippings to be burnt later.
I then went about digging up the old blackberry patch pulling weeds out by the root. I came across Smilax Tubers which ensured that I could expect 20 or so feet of subterranean tunneling. I cursed these evil plants with every spade full of dirt.
Finally, with the sky beginning to grow purple and orange, the clouds turning pink, I finished. My work had yielded a 12’ by 25’ patch that would be this year’s winter garden.
I toted the tools back up the hill and went inside to catch a glass of water. I drank the first one in a long gulp. I went outside with a second glass and drank it quickly too. I refilled it at a water spigot and grabbed a white, plastic lawn chair to sit on in the center of my garden.
The Night-Blooming Jasmine was beginning to open and perfume the air. Somewhere a woodpecker was hammering into a hollow dead tree for worms. A few bees were buzzing the jasmine. Mosquitoes buzzed mine and Catfish’s heads.
I leaned back, swatting the air with a eucalyptus branch, sipping my water, watching the sky turn deeper shades through the pines. I listened deeper and heard the ever present creek burbling in the forest. A helicopter passed in the distance. Likely a hobbyist or the local sheriff looking for stands of marijuana.
After half an hour of this, an uneasy feeling overtook me. Not one of being watched, but one having not been watching. I glanced down and saw an ugly sight. A rattlesnake was closing a small gap between us.
Rattlesnakes are the second least welcome snake with which to share North Florida. A rattlesnake requires some provocation to coil for an attack and it will rattle its namesake at you in warning. This is second to the Moccasin, or Cottonmouth, which will aggressively bite you three times in a row and give chase afterwards.
A rattlesnake is like a professional boxer. A cottonmouth more closely resembles a drunken Irishman with a cauliflower ear two seconds after Flogging Molly’s “Swagger” comes on the jukebox.
I watched this rattlesnake disappear under my chair. I leapt up and yanked my machete from the ground. I kicked the chair over and sized up this thing I was about to kill. He was about four feet long, meaning (as best as I could remember in that moment) that he had a striking distance of about eight feet.
He kept on as before. I took four long strides toward him and brought my machete down. It severed his body cleanly through. His head retained about six inches of neck. This and the rest of the body continued to writhe: expelling what was left of the electricity in his nervous system.
Catfish rolled over off of his back and looked at the snake. He sniffed the air. Then he rolled to his feet as limberly as a pony and padded over to check it out. He sniffed the body. Then he looked at me, yawned and returned to his spot in the grass.