St. Patrick and the Snake

a children’s story

A LONG TIME AGO in Ireland, there was a man named St. Patrick. But before he became a saint, he was just a man named Patrick. To become a saint he had to perform a miracle, and his big miracle was chasing all the snakes out of Ireland.

Most people in Ireland didn’t like snakes. They thought snakes were slimy and poisonous and had big nasty fangs, and they were afraid of them. Patrick didn’t like snakes either, and was afraid of them for the same reasons. He decided it would be a pretty good miracle to get rid of them, and so on the day he told the people he would chase all the snakes out of Ireland, he showed up with a drum made of snakeskin and walked down the middle of Dublin town beating it so loud that the windows shook.

The noise made people clap their hands over their ears. The snakes, of course, had no hands, and couldn’t protect their ears from the noise. All they could do was slither away.

And as Patrick walked into the countryside and through the farms and little villages, out came the snakes, slithering away from the noise. Out from under the rocks came the rock snakes, and out from the barns and stables came the milk snakes, and out from the high meadows came the grass snakes, and Patrick drove the whole hissing, wriggling mass of them into the Irish sea, and from then on, people called him St. Patrick and there were no more snakes in Ireland.

But way far up in the very north of Ireland, way up past Ballycastle and Ballymoney and Ballymena, on a tiny island, in a lighthouse that helped the ships pass through the Mull of Kintyre, there was a little boy named Michael who liked snakes. He liked them so much that he had one of his own, a blacksnake named Arthur.

Arthur lived in a pickle jar full of rocks and leaves right next to Michael’s bed, and at night he’d sleep wrapped around and around the bedpost and in the morning he would have to stretch himself out flat again.

Like most snakes, Arthur was very quiet and very smart. He could roll himself into the shapes of all the numbers from zero to nine (8 was his favorite), and even helped Michael with his homework. And he was helpful in other ways. At dinnertime he’d eat the brussel sprouts Michael didn’t like, and at bedtime he’d wrap his tail around Michael’s toothbrush and hand it to him.

But what Arthur liked best was to play tricks on Michael’s father. His favorite trick was hiding in his mug of hot chocolate and then popping out from between the marshmallows just as he was about to take a sip. At first, Michael’s father would spill the hot chocolate and holler at Arthur and then at Michael, but soon he got used to it, and pretended not to see him. That made Michael’s mother laugh, seeing his father drinking like everything was fine. The hot chocolate tasted a little like snake, but it was worth it to play a trick back on Arthur.

One Sunday, Michael and his family took a boat over to the mainland, and after church they wandered around the town, shopping. Michael had Arthur in his pocket and took him out so he could walk and get some exercise. They stopped to look at a baker’s window full of muffins and crumpets when their priest, Father Donovan, saw them.

“And what, pray tell, is this?” Father Donovan asked, because everyone in the church had heard of St. Patrick’s miracle, and Father Donovan, like everyone else, was very impressed.

“This is Arthur,” Michael said. “Arthur, this is Father Donovan.”

“It’s a snake,” Father Donovan said, keeping a safe distance.

“He,” Michael said. “He’s a snake. Would you like to pet him?”

But Father Donovan was already off and running for the parish house.

A snake in Ireland, how could it be? He sat down and wrote a letter to the Bishop of Antrim, who sat down and wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Ulster, who sat down and wrote a letter to the Arch-archbishop of Dublin, who sat down and wrote a letter to St. Patrick himself.

And so it was, on a blustery day, that Michael’s mother, tending the light on top of the tower, spotted a boat coming across the water, and in that boat were Father Donovan and the Bishop and the Archbishop and the Arch-archbishop, and riding right in front with his walking staff and his drum was St. Patrick himself.

“We’ve got company!” Michael’s mother shouted, and came banging down the iron stairs. She put the kettle on and called Michael to help her. It was chilly out, and she thought they might like some hot chocolate.

There was a hard knock at the door, and Michael’s father opened it and let the holymen in out of the cold. They all came into the kitchen to warm themselves around the fire. St. Patrick leaned his staff in the corner and set his drum on the table. Arthur peeked out of Michael’s pocket and saw the snakeskin and shivered. People could be so cold-blooded.

“Father Donovan tells us you have a snake here,” St. Patrick said, and he didn’t sound happy.

“Yes,” Michael’s father said. “His name is–“

“I’m not interested in his name,” St. Patrick said. “I’m here to rid our beloved country of this plague of serpents.”

“One snake isn’t exactly a plague of serpents,” Michael’s mother said.

“Where is this snake?” St. Patrick asked.

Everyone looked at Michael, and Arthur ducked down in his pocket, afraid they’d see him.

“Why do you want to get rid of all the snakes?” Michael asked.

“Because they’re slimy,” St. Patrick said.

“They are not,” Michael said, and he took out Arthur. St. Patrick jumped back like he was frightened. “Here, pet him. You’ll see.”

Michael held him out. With everyone watching, St. Patrick couldn’t look scared, so he reached out one finger toward Arthur’s scaly belly. It was as dry as sand.

“Well,” St. Patrick said, “they’re poisonous.”

“Just some,” Michael said. “Arthur isn’t.”

“And they have great big nasty fangs to bite you with.”

Michael held Arthur’s jaw open so St. Patrick could see his teeth were no bigger than a kitten’s.

“And watch this, he can do all the numbers.” And Arthur did, right on the kitchen table for everyone to see.

“Very impressive,” Father Donovan said, because he was easily impressed. The bishop and the archbishop and the arch-archbishop gave him a dirty look.

“You don’t really know anything about snakes, do you?” Michael asked St. Patrick.

“I know they’re a plague upon the land and must be driven from our country.”

“That’s not very practical,” Michael said. “If you get rid of all the snakes, the bugs will take over and eat all the crops and then we’ll have nothing to eat.”

“The cats can eat the bugs,” St. Patrick said. “And the birds–birds eat bugs.”

Just then, Michael’s mother brought them all hot chocolate topped with marshmallows. Michael’s father looked at Michael. Arthur wasn’t on the table anymore, and Arthur wasn’t in his pocket.

St. Patrick picked up his mug and brought it to his lips. Just as he was about to take the first, burning hot sip, Arthur popped his head out from between the marshmallows.

“Yaaaaahhh!” St. Patrick screamed, and spilled the hot chocolate all over his beautiful robes. “That’s it,” he said, and grabbed his drum.

“No!” Michael said, trying to protect Arthur, squirming in a puddle of hot chocolate on the floor.

His father held Michael back. “If the church says it must be so,” he said, “it must be so.”

St. Patrick struck his drum, and the entire lighthouse filled with sound.

“Arthur!” Michael cried, and his mother held him too.

Arthur slithered outside with St. Patrick right behind him, booming and thundering on his drum, and just as he did with all the other snakes in Ireland, St. Patrick drove Arthur down the lawn and across the rocks and into the sea.

Michael cried and cried until St. Patrick’s boat pushed off from the dock and the holymen were on their way to the mainland and the family was alone again. They watched the boat grow smaller, standing there together,

then they went around back and down the lawn and across the rocks to the water’s edge.

“Do you see anything?” Michael’s mother asked.

“There,” Michael’s father said, because he had the best eyesight of them all from spending his days watching for ships in trouble. “There he comes now.”

And there was Arthur, keeping his head up and whipping his tail from side to side, making the wriggling shape of an S in the chilly water. He reached the beach and Michael picked him up and dried him off and put him in his pocket to keep warm.

“For a saint, he’s not very smart, is he?” Michael’s mother said.

“No,” his father agreed.

For as anyone who knows snakes knows, snakes swim. And so they took Arthur inside to warm up in a nice steaming mug of hot chocolate.

Meanwhile, St. Patrick went back to Dublin, where not a week later he received a letter from the Arch-archbishop of Cork. Way far down in the very south of Ireland, way down past Skibbereen and Scobblarney and Skallymacket, on a tiny island, in a lighthouse overlooking Fastnet Rock, there was a little girl named Caitlin who had a snake named Arlene. St. Patrick went there and drove that snake named Arlene into the sea too, and that is why, if you go to Ireland today, you’ll find snakes there, hundreds and thousands and millions of snakes, just like anywhere else in the world. And if you order hot chocolate and feel something under the marshmallows, just pretend everything’s fine.

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