I knew if I lived in Florida long enough, it would happen to me: a home invasion. Now I know what people mean when they say they never feel the same about their homes once it has happened.
This one invaded Sunday morning, as my weekend guest and I sat sipping coffee and reading the newspaper on the back patio, enjoying the cool breeze blown in by the tropical depression in Texas.
"Oh, my god, Barbara, look!" my guest said.
I lowered my newspaper. The invader came around the corner, advancing across the patio menacingly, eyes darting from side to side as though looking for something to attack. It was a black snake, 8 feet or 9 feet long (okay, 3 feet or 4 feet long; my eyes had gone into instant magnification mode), its head reared into the air.
My mind raced. It wasn't red and yellow, so it couldn't kill a fellow, like a coral snake. It was skinny, and it didn't have the Orson Welles jowls or a triangular head, so it wasn't a water moccasin or rattler. We're too far south for it to be a copperhead, and, besides, their heads are copper colored. That eliminated all the poisonous snakes in Florida.
That meant the home invader couldn't kill us, unless we died from fright. The snake was merely an unwelcome guest, dredging up fears as old as Eve.
I did what I normally do to people whose actions distress me; I attacked it with a newspaper. And it cooperatively fulfilled my every fantasy; once I attacked, it turned tail and slithered away. Oh, if I could only get politicians and bureaucrats to retreat so easily!
After a frozen moment, I did my second automatic response: I ran indoors and called my dad in Texas to ask him what to do.
"You didn't hurt him, did you?" he shouted. "He's your friend. He'll get rid of your rats and mice, and he may keep away the dangerous snakes. Don't bother him."
He went on to tell me about his and mom's favorite king snake by the back fence and the other snakes he has nurtured and respected throughout his life.
Dad is an outdoors writer with a great reverence for all God's critters, including the ones I don't like.
After a bit of research, I figured out that the snake was either the common black racer or a rare, federally protected indigo snake. They look alike, except the black racer has a bit of white on the chin and throat and moves fast. The indigo snake is all black and moves slowly.
It must have been a black racer, because it moved about 90 miles an hour. Or maybe that was my friend and me moving that fast, I'm not sure.
We didn't get cozy enough to check out its white chin and throat, but we're hoping it was a black racer. According to my research, "harassing, capturing, killing or maiming an indigo, its nest or its eggs carries a maximum fine of $50,000."
I'd guess that nearly any commissioner, sheriff or judge I've ever assailed would happily testify in court that one of my bona fide newspaper attacks is definitely harassment.
Whatever the snake was, it has changed my lifestyle.
I no longer pad around in the twilight, sprinkling my flower beds and pulling up a stray weed or two. The thought of the snake coiling around my outstretched wrist put an end to that.
I don't stride out the patio door, a breakfast tray blocking the view of my feet as I once did. Now I check the floor outside, slowly slide the door back and search every corner before I sneak a tentative toe over the threshold.
Every time I look out the bedroom door, I think I see snakes on the patio. The garden hose looks like a big one. The thick black electrical wires running between the toadstool lights look like long, skinny ones. A stray stick, a curling leaf look like baby ones.
As I doze off in my patio lounge chair, the sudden movement of a black lizard doing push-ups on the railing near my head causes me to leap up and dash for the door.
I don't go into my garage without klieg lights.
I may get over this in time, but right now, my house is no longer my castle. It's where I go to eat, drink and be wary.
Barbara L. Fredricksen is editor of editorials for the Pasco regional edition of the Times.