Encounter, one

Whiteley Pastures, a Wednesday, mid-afternoon in May. Another week of closed-in skies and chilly easterly winds, like a breath-remnant of what gripped us in March. The woodland rides are slow in their coming-to-life. Sprigs of as yet unopened cow parsley sway above the last of the celandines and anemones; beneath these rises a tentative new carpet of dog violets, herb robert and the emerging purple fingers of bugle. Most of the trees are now in leaf, but it’s still possible to come across near-naked oaks and sweet chestnuts. We have nothing to gauge the lateness, no almanacs to refer to, but there is talk – things feel late, in abeyance. Alongside the long straight logging path there are deep runnels; these have been full with rust-coloured water for over a year since the coming of the rains last spring. They are starting to empty and reveal their depths. The earth beneath is stained, heavy like wine-dark clay.

I stop for a time at a thigh-high pile of birch logs, left over from last year’s felling. The bark is stripped in places, the wood soft and stained; the rest is thinly silver, pocked with black eyelets or furry with lichen. The logs are damp to the touch, but as a whole they form a kind of welcoming rough tabletop. I edge backwards onto it and lie down, listening to the echoing madman-in-his-cell call of a song thrush. I drift off.

I wake befuddled and slowly raise up, noticing a dark smudge out of the corner of my left eye. In one of those odd moments when a second becomes something architectural and we’re able to roam about inside it, leisurely gathering sense impressions, I marshal enough data to realise it’s a snake, a black snake at that, coiled in on itself, its head resting on a the thickest part of its trunk. At the walled end of that second I guess that it must be a grass snake, recently out of hibernation, bloodwarming in what passes as the final days of spring. I notice the lack of neck collar and the near-absence of the repeating diamond scales. Melanistic. It’s a melanistic grass snake. Around this welter of observance is a chamber of something else, something from further back in my brain, something shrieking ‘snake!’ I jerk my leg away, and the snake, reacting to my lumbering frame, hisses (or do I imagine a hiss?) and is gone, gone into the depths of the woodpile.

Needless to say, I’ve been back several times for another sighting. The log pile is crowded in now, beset on all sides by encroaching brambles and sedge grass. It looks oddly dwarfed. If the snake is there, it’s keeping quiet, and I daren’t lay down again. Just in case.