05 July 2007

My Mother and the Snake

I had seen the snake before.
I had watched the copperhead unwind itself
from the gut and leather bindings
of a pair of snowshoes that hung on the wall
in my father's woodshop, though what
it was doing there, I do not know. Another time,
it slithered away from the woodpile,
what at first seemed a nest of dead leaves
unfolding in one smooth rope of molasses
and honey. Its scales sparkled in the sun
as it paused to look back at me, the topaz
eyes so unlike anything I'd ever looked into
it froze me with its cool enchantment,
like a girl in a fairy tale who forgets
who she is, a small bell at the back
of my head chiming poison, poison,
until I turned and ran.

I don't know where the snake came from,
or how it found its way to my parent's farm,
just that my mother feared it, as she feard
for us kids that summer, running half-wild
in field and forest, as cancer spread its slow
venom from her one breast to the other.
I feared it too, but abstractly,
its danger coiled like the secret
of my mother's illness in some
dark crevice of family.

Until the afternoon the blunt,
wedge-shaped head rose,
hissing from the grass
where the sprinkler spun
gold over our bodies, and my mother
whirled in out of nowhere with the ax
from the wood pile, chopping
and chopping — my gentle mother
whom I'd seen save a choking chick,
turn a birthing lamb, murse baby rabbits
the dogs brought in with droppers of warm milk —
hacking and hacking at it.

Until the writhing, bronze ribbon lay still
and she pulled us close, tears
running down her face, and sent us
to bring stones to pile on the body,
while the sprinkler twirled on,
splashing us with water from our own well,
washing the snake's blood away.
As if it were not the beginning of the end
of a world, as if what I saw written
on my mother's face was not the story
of just how many ways there are
to be exiled from Eden.

— Allison Townsend, in River Styx 74, 5-6.


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