Knowing how helpful everyone has been thus far, I had no problem contacting Mark. At this point it had been a month since I had put in my order for a snake enclosure with Brandon, and Mark had been graciously holding my ball python free of charge in the meantime. I explained to Mark that I had no enclosure as of yet and didn’t know when I could get one, but that I was also ready to move forward with purchasing the snake.
Mark provided me with specific instructions on how to make a snake enclosure using tubs you can purchase at Target. As it would turn out, ball python hatchlings, the age of the ball python I was interested in, only need about the space of a shoe box. This translates to a six-quart plastic tub costing less than $3! Completely doable.
I hopped onto Facebook and looked into various substrates. The hive mind of the interwebs seemed to agree that coconut husk was the optimal bedding for ball pythons. It is easy to clean and absorbs and holds onto water the longest, making it easier to meet the humidity requirements to create the least stressful environment as possible.
As I have come to learn, snake stress is a big deal. One of the main reasons that I wanted a ball python (after overcoming my fear of snakes; manageable length- max growth size is still smaller than me, so I will never fully fit inside of one in the event I look more like food instead of friend; overall beauty; and docile temperament) was the fact that they are really easy to care for. It stood to reason, that once I ordered the coconut husk, heating pad, hygrometer, and thermometer, I should be all set. I hopped on Amazon and made all of the necessary purchases. Simultaneously, I was messaging Mark to let him know where I was at in the process of making my own enclosure, as Brandon had just informed me that he would be out of the country for a few weeks. Mark impressed upon me the importance of a thermostat and told me that I could purchase one off of him if I was willing to meet him in a Home Depot parking lot.
Neutral ground, that made sense. But my danger sensors were still going off. I worked retail before and was well aware of those massive dumpsters behind retail establishments. I had watched enough Law and Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, Murder She Wrote, and serial killer documentaries to know three important facts: the first is never to go jogging. You will either be killed or the poor sap who will inevitably find the body. The second is that dumpsters are great sites to hide bodies and enough people have access to them that collecting evidence is difficult. And finally, never befriend Jessica Fletcher. Her friends either end up dead or arrested for murder.
The day I was to meet up with Mark to pick up the thermostat, my neighbor Brook had contacted me wanting to get together. Since one of my three dogs, Darwin, had been diagnosed with systemic lymphoma, I hadn’t been the most accessible socially and he missed me. And I missed him. I asked him if he was up for running some chores with me and explained the situation. Without hesitation, he agreed to come. To be honest, it was hard to tell how much of his excitement had to do with seeing me or getting out of the house away from his young children. It was probably a little of column A and a little of column B. It was also hard for me to determine if my excitement was due to getting to spend time with Brooke or to have an eye-witness to my possible demise. Again, probably a little of each.
Brook is a lot like my husband and myself in that we all appreciate board games, nerd culture, and Dungeons and Dragons (DND). But to be honest, of the three of us, I am more “nerd adjacent.” I appreciate and have fun playing board games, speaking geek, and making a fairly rudimentary character in DND, but I don’t know the history, the trivia, have characters and quotes from various Star Trek and Star Wars movies memorized, etc. Brook, on the other hand, is a nerd scholar. He speaks to editors and creators of board games regularly, he writes for a weekly blog providing critique of the most recent board games to have been released this year, and can talk ad nauseum about the history of DND. One of his most passionate topics of conversation is about the inclusion or lack of inclusion of marginalized people in nerd culture. He advocates for more inclusion of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and especially those with disabilities. He identifies as being hard of hearing and has learned sign language to help him interact with others who are deaf and hard of hearing.
One of the benefits to having a friend like Brook, is being able to learn a lot about small niches in the community of nerds that my husband and I identify with. Brook has an entire classification system, differentiating nerds, geeks, neck-beards, etc, by interests and personality traits. I would go into this further, but the way he tells it, it sounds like it ought to be a dissertation and my crude explanation would hardly do it justice.
As per usual, once Brook enters my car, I unload all of the emotional baggage I can right off the cuff. Brook can be a great listener, but for only a certain period of time. Once he gets triggered by a sense of injustice, he pulls out his soap box and podium and I am a literal captive audience. Which, I generally don’t mind, and I am sure he appreciates someone that takes an active interest in hearing what he has to say. It’s a symbiotic relationship for sure.
We pull up to the Home Depot, about an hour from our house and wait. Brook was still catching me up on the panel discussion he was invited to speak at regarding the inclusion of those with disabilities in gaming culture. It was good to hear that someone was taking such as active interest in the disenfranchisement of an entire community, even if it is in a small, niche community. Just then, Mark pulled up in his truck with three dogs and his girlfriend.
We all exited our vehicles and introduced ourselves to each other. Would you know it, Mark is hard of hearing and his girlfriend is deaf! Taking Brook on this errand turned out to be perfect. It now made so much more sense that Mark would be so cautious around others as he would be at a distinct disadvantage should a deal go sour. In addition to Brook being there to clarify any potential communication issues, having Brook present also demonstrated that I am a safe person for Mark and others in his community. The whole interaction was pretty awesome.
Mark taught me about how to setup and use the thermostat and we scheduled a time for me to pick up the snake the following weekend. By that time, I would certainly have the enclosure set up and I would no longer feel guilty that Mark was holding a snake for me. I couldn’t wait to get home and get started on the enclosure.
Later that same weekend, all of my enclosure accoutrement had arrived. Given I had an entire week to throw some substrate in a shoebox-sized tub and plug in a couple of cords, I wasn’t worried about getting everything set up by the following weekend. With that said, my lack of worry should have been the trigger to remind myself to worry.
To understand why this a foolhardy decision, you have to know a little something about me. In my house, I have earned the moniker of “The Harbinger of Chaos” or “The Notorious HOC” and rightfully so. There are copious examples of how when I take on tasks that I am confident in by myself, that I Love Lucy levels of chaos ensues. The best example from this year was my attempt at reducing chores for my husband on his birthday. My goal was simple: make coffee and take out dogs for a walk before he got up in the morning. These are tasks he usually takes care of every morning and I thought it would be great for him to wake up on his birthday having those chores already completed.
How did this well-intentioned gift turn out? Well, I ended up in a tug of war with a dead, most likely poisoned rat with our dog Shadow, thus letting go of the leashes of the other two dogs (Nora and Darwin), having to chase down the other dogs and catch them, just to find that Shadow had swallowed the rat. My expensive jacket and hands smelled of a putrid, acrid, malodorous stench. I was dry heaving from the smell, as I swung open the front door to see my husband coming down the stairs. “We have to take Shadow to the vet! He’s poisoned!”
Happy birthday, hon *finger guns*
If I couldn’t take the dogs on a simple walk, an activity I have done hundreds of times without Murphy’s Law taking effect (if we ignore that one time that I broke and dislocated my shoulder), why did I think that I could do something for the first time without incident?
The next weekend came quickly and I was to pick up the snake on Sunday, so Saturday I started to put the enclosure together. I decided that I would embody the spirit of self-sufficiency I had witnessed by the snake people, and construct all the elements of the enclosure by myself. I used a soldering iron to poke airholes in the plastic tub. No incident there. (I thought myself to be quite brave to be wielding something so hot and so competent having not burned myself or any of my immediate surroundings. I also learned that melting perfectly circular holes in plastic is oddly satisfying.)
Then came the substrate. Having not burned the house down with the soldering iron, I felt pretty confident that I could throw mulch into a bin. I looked at the directions on the back of the package of coconut husk (I wouldn’t normally look for directions on using mulch, but I also didn’t want to press my luck.) The directions referred me to their online video. What the hell kind of mulch is this that it requires a video on how to use it? I went to the website and could only find one video. I watched first minute of it and recognized that the video was catering to those who needed literally ten forty-gallon bins of mulch and how to achieve this feat as quickly as possible. Who the hell needs four hundred gallons of mulch, let alone, who needs four hundred gallons of mulch quickly?
The man in the video added water to the mulch bricks. Fine. Easy enough. I went upstairs with the mulch cube and put the cube in a plastic bin and watered it. The coconut husk broke apart fairly easily. Sweet! But then I started to notice it expanding. In an attempt to not ruin my feelings of confidence and succumb to my reputation of being the HOC, I quickly put the lid on the bin, sat on it, and locked the sides. Another task successfully completed by me and without any discernable mess.
I was so proud, that in the car on the way home from dinner, I turned to my husband and bragged about it. No sooner had I completed my sentence did I notice something strange. My husband’s normally stoic face displayed an emotion. One that expressed some cocktail of amusement, surprise, and pity? In the ten years we have been together, emotive facial expressions are so rare that I also seem to have difficulty distinguishing one from another.
“You should go upstairs and look in the bathroom when we get home.”
The top of the bin had exploded open due to the pressure building from the expanding coconut husk. The mulch had spilled over the walls of the bin and a sea of damp coconut covered the floor of the bathtub. Well, at least I hadn’t burnt down the house with the soldering iron, right?
I found another tub and began bailing buckets of mulch from the shower stall. It felt like I was trying to save a canoe with a hole in it from sinking. Easy fix- well, easier than the canoe scenario. Now, just to throw a handful in the small snake enclosure, throw the small bin on the heating pad, adjust the thermostat, and we were good to go. I decided to do all of this before going to be Saturday night so that it gave the atmosphere inside the six-quart tub time to settle. I would then check the humidity and temperature in the morning.
The next morning, I groggily opened my eyes. This is the day I will join the ranks of the snake people. I was excited to become a more official member of the Snake Syndicate. I shuffled into what would soon become the snake room, and looked into the shoebox-seized enclosure I had completed the day before. I opened the top and looked down at the hygrometer. 99 percent. I suddenly woke up.
99 percent? 99 percent!
“Matt!” I shouted out of the room. “Can you check this?”
My husband came in. “Says 99%.”
“Yeah, I can see that. That can’t be right, can it? Wouldn’t that mean that it’s raining in there?”
I looked down at my cell phone and checked the time. Holy crap! I had very little time to solve this humidity problem before I was scheduled to meet Mark in a public parking lot (what was now becoming our standard place of business). What to do? What to do?
I came up with the idea of putting the coconut husk in the oven and cooking it. I ran downstairs and turned on the oven. But at what temperature? If it was too hot, would it ignite? I decided that 250 degrees would be safe enough. I looked back down at my cell.
“Matt, can you watch this mulch and when it is dry, can you put it in the enclosure?” I shouted as I ran out the door.
I got to our meeting spot early. A 7-11 parking lot. As I sat in my car, looking at all the other people pulling up and getting gas, purchasing snacks inside, and mooning each other through truck-bed windows (yup, that happened) I started to feel like I was engaging is some elicit, black market transaction. A transaction that none of the general public were privy to. Like a set of federal agents buying and selling government secrets. Either that, or like a meth addict eagerly awaiting his next fix.
I felt that the parking spot was too out in the open to make this transaction, and parked along the side of the building. I’m not sure what made me so uneasy. Within ten minutes, Mark pulled up in his truck and opened up what appeared to be a small pillowcase-like sack. He reached his hand in and pulled out a gorgeous, petite ball python.
“He’s in shed, so he looks like shit. But feel how soft he is.”
It was in that moment that I realized that up until this point I had never held, let alone touched a ball python. In all of this planning, researching, networking, and day dreaming, I had never had to confront the reality of what I was doing until that very moment.
I hesitantly stuck out my index finger. Emotionally, it felt as iconic as when E. T. first touched and healed Elliot’s cut finger in that famous Stephen Spielberg film. I caressed the snake’s side, keeping a close eye on its small, diamond-shaped head. The snake didn’t flinch and neither did I. I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment; a stark contrast to this morning’s baking project! I bet Paul Hollywood would not have been interested in tasting any of the pastries I was baking! I then turned my focus to the soft, velvety texture under my finger. I had always thought that snakes felt rather hard and dry, but he felt ridiculously supple.
“He’s been really easy to handle, so I don’t think you’ll have much of a problem with him.” And with that, Mark plopped the sentient noodle back into the pillowcase and handed it over to me.
As I got back in the car, I immediately became concerned about the snake somehow wriggling out and creating absolute havoc in the car while I was driving. I checked the case three more times to make sure it was secure and placed it in the passenger seat. I looked empathically over at the motionless fabric bag, and turned on the heated seat option in my car (because if I was going to be thrown in a sack, I would at least like it to be a comfortable temperature, wouldn’t you?). I then took off down the road as quickly as possible, effectively reducing the time the hatchling had to escape from his fabric prison.
But what would I call him? A pet has to have a name.
My husband and I have a tendency to really enjoy terrible sci-fi, apocalyptic, horror, and fantasy films from the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Some of our favorites are Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Death Becomes Her, Logan’s Run, and just about anything with Kurt Russell. I started scrolling through character names, when I remembered the movie Escape from New York, where Kurt Russell is a convict enlisted to save the president of the United States from an island off of New York filled with convicts. Every time another character said the main character’s name (played by Kurt Russell, of course), “Plisskin,” Kurt Russell would correct them by saying “but you can call me Snakes.”
I love dramatic irony. Plisskin was the perfect name.
I got home to baking sheets filled with coconut mulch sitting on the stove. (I don’t suppose many people can ever make that sort of claim, but I can.) I grabbed a cooking sheet, in one hand, the sack-o-serpent in the other, and set off upstairs to finish preparing the enclosure.
Getting the temperature and humidity right turned out to be much harder than the Facebook groups, care sheets, and PDF files let on. I will say that in the process I learned about the pros and cons of ambient versus gradient heat, heat tape versus heat pads, and that humidity is controlled by the surface area of the water bowl. Science. Who knew?
I am sure I have been taught the majority of those things throughout my public-school education, but none of it ever seemed relevant, other than memorizing it just long enough to take the test and collect my A. Had we been tasked with caring for a reptile, you bet your ass I would have remembered all of this stuff. I should probably let the Snake Syndicate know about this particular observation, maybe this could prompt some sort of systematic change in our education system. But I digress.
After two days of fidgeting with temperatures and water dishes, I had finally created an enclosure worthy of ball python habitation (sorry for the delay, Plisskin). According to the care guide on the Facebook page, I was not to handle a ball python in the first week of acquisition, as it could stress them out and cause a hunger strike (for being an “easy to care for snake” they seem to protest a lot). But then again, Mark just told me to wait a couple of days. It had been a couple of days. A couple being two. I decided to give handling him a shot. Because I am the Harbinger of Chaos and this is what I do. What was the worst that could happen? And Mark had said he was easy to handle.
I opened the enclosure and picked him up. Plisskin was not having it. He wriggled and squirmed to escape. I quickly put him back. The interaction lasted for less than five seconds. There was no doubt I had stressed him out. I felt bad as I put on my anti-bacterial gel on my hands. I felt a burning on my left ring finger. I looked down to see the tiniest drop of blood.
I wonder when I did that. I thought quizzically. It didn’t burn when I put it on prior to handling him.
And that’s when I realized… I had been bit!
I was flabbergasted. When the hell did this even happen? I mean, I knew when it happened, but when? It was five seconds!
I sat down on the guest room bed and stared at my finger in astonishment. I had two very polar opposite reactions. The first was relief. I was glad that I hadn’t had any pain when I was struck. The second was a bizarre disappointment. I didn’t have to face my anxiety of seeing him arch back into a striking pose and see the bite happen. Had I successfully flooded myself, and thus cured my snake phobia, or hadn’t I? I would soon find out.