I was fourteen, working as an actor at a fake Colonial farm when a snake ejaculated on me. I don’t mean a man who was snake-like; I’m talking about an actual snake that sprayed its seed on me. Or, that was my interpretation at the time.
It all happened so quickly. I was pretending to churn butter when I heard a splat and saw a wet blob like a large booger on the sleeve of my puffy gingham blouse. Two other girls from my school, also in long skirts and bonnets started yelling, “Snake, snake!” Sure enough, a long, reddish snake had coiled itself, thick and muscular, around a rafter among the dried tobacco leaves. Growing up on a farm, I had seen many red corn snakes. I knew this one was nonvenomous.
On that day, the only visitors to the farm were some grade-school kids who were outside with their teacher, chasing chickens around the vegetable garden. Our supervisor, a bearded college boy who was supposed to be our “Pa,” was missing in action, probably because he was in the barn kissing our “Ma” again. My friends and I began tossing out theories about the blob. Could it be snake pee? Snake barf? I was the one who concluded it must be snake jizz. Even then, I was destined to become a science teacher. My friend Patty pretended to gag herself with a wooden soup ladle. Amber flapped her hands, saying, “Eww-uh,” over and over again.
I tell you this about the supposed snake semen because it explains why I wound up in a soybean field with Patrick Mitchell Foster.
With my authentic Colonial blouse sperm-stained and smelling bitter, I left work early. Getting from the fake farm to my parents’ real farm in rural Virginia involved crossing a two-lane highway and an old shopping strip at the edge of town. I was walking along the row of mostly vacant shops to get to the soybean field on the other side when I passed the arcade.
I stopped to watch the flashing pinball machines clang and the skee balls rumble. Sadly, none of my friends were inside. In the arcade window, I yanked the bonnet off my head, having forgotten it was there, and I smoothed my bangs with both hands. The snake sperm had dried up and crusted over. I brushed it off with the bonnet. At least the apron on my dumpy farm costume made me look like I had a waist, which I did not, being so straight on both sides that my older brother Caleb called me Gumby.
That’s when I noticed the backside of Patrick Mitchell Foster. He was in a dark corner, twisting and banging his hips against a pinball machine in the otherwise empty arcade. He had selected a machine that said, “Sock it To Me” above a picture of a woman with long red hair who was sitting on her bottom, knees bent, nipples poking through a wet T shirt. The artwork was similar to the pictures I had seen on the mud flaps of trucks, whenever I rode into the city with my dad to sell our crops at the farmer’s market. The cartoon looked nothing like me.
Patrick Mitchell Foster was maybe nineteen, a high-school dropout with shoulder-length auburn hair, a black and white tattoo of a bluebird on his bicep, and one gold earring, pirate-style. All in all, he was not bad to look at, particularly compared to the wet-nosed dweebs in my ninth-grade algebra and American history classes. His off-kilter eyes wobbling above a perpetual half-grin were slightly scary. Yet, not knowing which way he was looking somehow worked for him.
He wanted everyone to call him Mitch, although his name had always been Patrick, in school. Mitch worked handyman jobs and helped farmers at harvest time. His parents had a rusty double-wide trailer propped right up against the highway. It sat in a muddy yard, held down by what appeared to be a giant bungee cord. Mitch had worked on our farm only once. Dad reported finding Mitch in the hay barn with a lit cigarette, which was strictly prohibited for obvious reasons. Mom said Mitch seemed “kind of dangerous.” Dad said, “Agreed,” and that was the end of it.
In the arcade window, I took a moment to rearrange my bangs before heading on home. I was thinking about growing them out. That’s when the door clanged open and Mitch swaggered out in his jeans and cowboy boots, lighting a cigarette. He sucked on it until his cheeks hollowed out.
“Well, hey there, P.Y.T.,” he said, looking me up and down while exhaling smoke in my face. I knew from listening to an old song that “P.Y.T.” meant Pretty Young Thing. “Were you in the school play today or something?”
Mitch didn’t seem to be making fun of me. He was smiling, more so with one side of his mouth than the other. I pulled my shoulders back, swallowing hard. I was trying not to cough up his second-hand smoke like a pathetic baby.
“It’s my work uniform,” I said. “For my job.”
I emphasized the words work and job. Six months earlier, I had turned fourteen, which meant I could get a Social Security card and a job that paid minimum wage, minus the cost of the Colonial clothing, the ten percent I was expected to tithe to our church, and the twenty dollars my parents took from every paycheck to help cover groceries. Earning money at a real job was not something little kids could do.
He took another pull from the cigarette and stared at my chest. It felt like he was trying to drill a hole through me with his eyes. I crossed my arms.
“Good for you, having a job,” he said. “How old are you, anyway?”
Reaching behind my back, I tied the apron tighter around my waist. In addition to the cigarette smoke, Mitch smelled like ripe peaches and manure. Probably he had been working at the Cane Cracker Orchard.
“How old do you think I am?”
His freckled head tilted to one side and his hair flopped over, exposing the gold earring. He threw the still-lit cigarette onto the sidewalk.
“Hold your hair up with both hands like this,” he said, demonstrating. “Make a ponytail. Let me see your neck.”
In silence, I did as I was told. Raising my arms made my chest stick out more, almost like a Mud Flap woman. I dropped my arms to my sides and waited.
“Aww, that was too quick,” he said. “It’s hard to tell when you’ve got that shirt buttoned up to your chin.”
“It’s Colonial,” I said.
Mitch stepped closer and gathered up my hair with both hands. His fingers slid up and down the back of my neck, making me shiver.
“Ha ha,” I said, stepping back. “That tickles.”
“Oh, like this?” He grabbed me by the armpits and wiggled his fingers.
I locked my elbows against my waist. I had never liked being tickled. My brother had long ago stopped tickling me after I peed on him once. There’s something fundamentally grotesque about being forced to laugh in response to your own torture.
“Quit it,” I said.
Mitch laughed and backed up, the better to eyeball me again. “You look about sixteen.”
Flustered but flattered, I wiped an accidental tear off my cheek. “I’m eighteen,” I said, not at all sure why I was blurting out a lie.
“It’s true.” I shrugged like I couldn’t care less if he believed me or not. “I’m saving up to buy a car so I won’t have to walk home from my job anymore.”
“I remember you.” His smile was surprisingly pleasant; so many straight, white teeth. “Rory, right? That’s your dad’s soybean field over there.”
He was right. My given name is Victoria. Everyone calls me Rory. It’s embarrassing to admit, but back then, the idea of being remembered by somebody — anybody, even Mitch the high-school dropout — gave me a warm feeling in my chest and elsewhere. My folks were constantly racing around the farm. Caleb helped them, and he also had a job at the Burger Hut. Usually, I cooked dinner and sat down to eat alone.
“I remember you, too,” I said.
Yeah, I thought, because you smoked in our hay barn, Einstein. “You’re Mitch,” I said.
“Hey, do you like to party?” He whispered it and glanced over his shoulder, although the shopping strip was desolate at four in the afternoon. “Are you a cool chick?”
I felt dizzy from the cigarette smoke. “Of course,” I said. It would be so much fun telling Patty and Amber how I had punked Mitch, the town punk. “I adore parties.”
I had no idea what being a cool chick entailed, but I was curious.
The last party I had attended was also my first-ever co-ed affair, which took place in Bruce Trimble’s basement. It was a wood-paneled room that his mom had decorated with balloons, disco lights, and a sign that said, “Happy Birthday, Bruce.” Scratchy pop music blared from a boom box. There were bowls of corn chips and salsa all over the room, and a cooler full of soda cans on ice. At one point after his mom went upstairs to finish decorating the cake, a boy I didn’t know turned down the lights and announced it was time to play Spin the Bottle, only with empty soda cans. Long story short, I wound up sitting in a pitch-black closet with Bruce, who leaned forward and accidentally slobbered my nose because he couldn’t find my mouth. We tumbled from the closet laughing like maniacs.
“Cool,” Mitch said. “Let’s grab a beer and hang out. I’ll show you where I go to chill.”
Terror rocketed through me. My hands had gone numb. There was one bar in town, a few doors down from the post office. It was called the Rainy Day Tavern, I guess because farmers don’t take time off on sunny days. I had never been inside the tavern, but I pictured myself leaning against the bar, surrounded by glittering mirrors and cute grownup cowboys.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
Because I had left work early, my parents wouldn’t be expecting me until after five o’clock. Even then, they would probably be tending to the cows, leaving me to fend for myself. Most nights, the house was empty when I got home. I would be sitting alone at the dinette table under a large picture of Mother Mary cradling her bloodied son Jesus. Mom had raised Caleb and me in the Catholic Church, which practically made us freaks in that part of the state, where most families were Baptist. Every Sunday, Dad drove us a long way into the city for Mass.
At fourteen, in the middle of summer with the sun burning my scalp, I followed Mitch through bright green rows of recently planted soybeans, wondering where he was headed. If we were going to chill out at the Rainy Day Tavern, we should be walking the other way.
He was tall, with a long, confident stride. I had to trot to keep up with him. The exertion felt good. I had been forced to quit Track after starting work at the Colonial reenactment farm. Only once, Mitch looked around to make sure I was still behind him. The soybean field was surrounded by acres of tasseled corn ready for harvest. My parents had replaced one of their corn fields with soybean after hearing they could earn twice as much. It was their first season with the soybeans, sort of an experiment. I wondered how my dad could possibly manage everything after Mom had another baby.
At the edge of the corn field, Mitch turned toward a small, rarely used shed with a busted out window. The shed contained a few old hand tools, several open bags of chemicals, and other odds and ends. Mainly, it was a place where a person could get out of the sun for a minute, if necessary. When the door creaked open, I stepped into the gloom behind Mitch. Columns of dust floated inside a shaft of light from the window opening. Below the window were two items I had never seen in the shed before: A dingy gray bed roll and a small red and white cooler.
Mitch hunkered down on the bed roll and retrieved a can of Busch Light that spewed when he cracked it open.
I asked him if he was living there.
He took a long pull of the beer and handed it to me. “Oh, it’s just a place to hang out,” he said. “There’s not much privacy where I live.”
The image of his parents’ lop-sided trailer, constantly blasted by exhaust fumes and highway trash, suddenly filled me with overwhelming love and gratitude for my mom and dad, maybe even Caleb. I said I could understand about feeling claustrophobic.
“Have a seat, beautiful.” Mitch patted the spot beside him. “Kick your feet up.”
When I sat down, the heel of my Colonial button-up boots got caught on the hem of my skirt so that it ripped partway off the waist band. Trying to be cool, I didn’t say anything about it, although I was hoping I could sew it back together. The costume had cost me eighteen dollars and fifty cents. I sat with the torn skirt over my knees, holding the lukewarm beer between my thumb and forefinger.
With the exception of a sip of champagne at my uncle’s wedding when I was ten, I was new to alcohol. My parents didn’t drink, and where I lived, a kid would have to work pretty hard to get into trouble. By sitting in a shed with Mitch, holding a beer, I was achieving a level of wildness that was surely unknown to my peers. Patty and Amber would be pea-green with envy.
He lifted his hips to pull a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket.
In the corner, open bags of fertilizer were parked next to a can of tractor fuel. “Hey, you really shouldn’t smoke in here, okay?” It sounded like a lame apology. “You know there’s flammable stuff in here, don’t you?”
“It’ll be all right,” he said, lighting up. “Drink up. My treat. I’ll open another one.”
The beer tasted the way uncooked bread dough smells, bitter with yeast. Every mouthful hit my stomach with a thud. Mitch was drinking his beer like it was soda. I copied his technique, thinking that must be the right way to do it. The cigarette smoke made my nostrils itch. His denim shirt smelled like the tobacco leaves at the reenactment farm and the sweat coming off his skin. I drank more beer.
“So, tell me your life story,” he said, tapping his palm against my thigh. “What are your plans after you graduate?”
I had no idea what I planned to do. Graduation was still three-plus years away. Probably I would go to community college and become a paramedic or a dental hygienist — a useful trade of some type. That way, I wouldn’t be a burden to my mom and dad.
“I guess I’ll get a job,” I said, accepting another beer from Mitch. “I want to help my folks. They’re about to have another baby. It’s not going to be easy.”
He took my hand, turned it over, and ran his fingertips down the inside of my arm. “You’re a good person.” The soft scratching made my neck go hot. My eyes drifted to half-mast. “I can tell that about you, but you know what I think?”
“I think you should live your own life. Why’s it your problem if your folks decided to have another kid?” Mitch turned away, set his glowing cigarette on top of his empty beer can, and moved closer. His hands traveled up my body to my throat, where he rubbed my neck and shoulder, at least where it wasn’t covered by the modesty collar on my work blouse. “Hey, you’ve been with other guys, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Lots of times.”
I had a drunken sense of watching myself through the broken window. What on earth did this girl think she was doing? I thought of my mom, crying in the bathroom after she realized she was pregnant again, too late in life. Through a vent, I had heard my dad try to console her. Mom said she had her hands full and couldn’t manage another baby. Dad said a baby was a gift from God. “You know if it’s God’s will,” he said, “you have to accept it, darling. It’s what good Christian women do.”
My heart broke for my mother that night.
Mitch pulled on the back of my neck until our mouths were pressed together. Whatever else could be said of Mitch, he was a fine kisser. Instantly, my vertebrae seemed to phase-change, transforming into hot oil. I slumped against him, boneless as a chicken tender. The tongue, which I had long feared, turned out to be a natural evolution of the kiss, not the least bit gross the way Mitch did it. His hands roamed all over the place and he kept whispering to me, fragments of speech I couldn’t fully process.
At some point, my head began moving on its own accord, ominous, like the pointer on a Ouiji board. It moved from his mouth, to his neck, to his chest. I had no idea what was happening. I wanted to continue kissing. When I tried to raise my head, he pressed my neck down harder, toward his lap. I opened my eyes and saw a single pink eye staring back at me. Although I had never even seen my dad or Caleb stepping out of the shower, I recognized the pink snake right away.
“No.” I scrambled off the bed roll, instantly sober. “I don’t want that.”
Mitch half-laughed, pulled me by the waist, and flipped me over on the gritty floor. I started kicking and screaming. In one move, he yanked my hips in the air like I had no weight at all.
“Come on, now,” he said. “Be a good girl for me.”
When he grabbed the hem of my skirt, I kicked one more time, as hard as I could, using all the leg strength I had developed by running Track. I clipped him right in the face with the Colonial boot, shouting, “Fuck you.”
My torn skirt ripped clean off its waist band. In a blur, I wriggled free. Blood was spurting from Mitch’s broken mouth. He was momentarily stunned, touching his face and staring at the blood on his hand. From the floor, he retrieved a bloody tooth. I jumped up, grabbed my skirt, and ran.
In my plain white underpants, modest blouse, and clunky boots, I crossed the remaining soybean rows at top speed. I raced through the adjacent corn field, where the stalks whipped my face, all the way to our house. After locking the back door, I hurried into the bathroom, secured that door as well, and used a scrub brush to get the stink of Mitch off me.
I told no one, a decision I came to regret over time. In my fourteen-year-old mind, there was no need to worry my parents. Nothing had happened, really. Also, I didn’t want to confess to drinking beer. If I told Patty and Amber, word would spread like a lit cigarette hitting a hay bale, and I would be in Big Trouble.
All I reported to Dad was that I had spotted Mitch sneaking into our shed with a pack of cigarettes. The next night, a sheriff’s deputy trudged across our fields to reach the shed. I never saw Mitch again.
I’m thirty-nine now, happily single and teaching high school science. Caleb’s married with two great kids who call me Aunt Wowee because they couldn’t pronounce Rory at first. I see it as my job to spoil them rotten. Our younger brother Matthew is in training at the Air Force Academy. Mom and Dad finally sold the farm and bought a beachfront condo.
My ninth-grade students love to learn about snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, and toads. For me, herpetology has become something of an obsession. Not surprisingly, my students especially enjoy my story about the red corn snake that presumably ejaculated on me at the Colonial reenactment farm when I was fourteen.
Of course, I leave out the part where I was almost raped and had to kick in the teeth of Loser Mitch, striking a blow to The Patriarchy in the process. At the end of my lesson plan about red corn snake reproductive behaviors, I spring the Big Plot Twist on my students.
In all my readings, I say, I’ve never come across an account of a male snake releasing its sperm into the air, and why would it? Think about it. That type of behavior would do nothing to perpetuate the species. If there’s no female to receive the male’s sperm, why would he release it?
Female snakes, on the other hand, routinely practice something called Female Cryptic Choice. Across different species, I explain, female snakes have clever ways to maintain reproductive control so that their offspring are as robust as possible. Sometimes, the female uses anatomical or chemical methods to ward off undesirable mates before they can get too close. Other times, she may internally block fertilization after mating.
In still other cases, I tell my students, the female snake selectively dumps the unwanted sperm of certain suitors by forcefully ejecting it from her body. Occasionally, the discarded sperm may even fly through the air, perhaps from a ceiling rafter strung with tobacco leaves.
Ginger Pinholster’s Compositional Note:
Three young adults – my daughter Caroline and her long-time friends Juliana and Eric – were holed up together during the pandemic when they began to share their weirdest coming-of-age memories. Their stories were strange and funny, and the dinner conversation took place at a surreal time: Caroline had been evacuated from her Peace Corps job because of COVID-19. She was sad, longing for her host family and rice-farming life in Nepal, so she invited her buddies to stay with her, at my place in Florida. As their conversation continued, Juliana piped up with, “I was fourteen when a snake ejaculated on me.” I had many questions. Juliana said this happened at the now-defunct Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia, where she had been working after school, reenacting scenes of life in 1771. I began to imagine a young woman who grew up poor on her parents’ real-life farm while working at a fake (“reenactment”) farm. Although my character has almost nothing in common with my daughter’s friend, except that they both became teachers, I asked Juliana’s permission to write about her snake encounter. She happily authorized me to build a fictional story around her experience. Very quickly, the story seemed to write itself.