Erin found the snake. When she came foot-slap-running onto the porch, screaming “Snakedaddymommysnake,” we hugged her and assured her it was just a large stick, fallen from one of our oaks and still black-slick with rain water. She’d made that mistake before. When she insisted, we indulged, walked out into the yard, ready to tut-tut our explanation of the not-a-snake, but its lithe body was there just as she’d said, half curled below ground in the rotted stump of a long-fallen tree. We could see only three feet of it, but it was as thick around as my wrist. Though we didn’t know if it was poisonous or not, I took shovel to flesh, rent a hole in it that caused a quick slither further underground, a trail of blood spackling leaves. An inch of its tail remained, and we waited there watching that inch for fifteen minutes, waiting to see if the thing would die. After a time, we moved away from it, back to our day. When we glimpsed its round-not-diamond head as it moved across the pavement outside the screened-in porch, we knew the mistake we’d made, knew that we had taken the shovel blade to a king snake and not a cottonmouth. It rose against the screen, looking at us, its back-end a mangled mess of white-flesh, blood, and torn black scales. It moved slowly, bleeding out in front of us, and so I went at it again, trying now to finish the job out of mercy instead of fear, but it had reached the grass before I reached it, reached the grass where each strike pushed it into the mud. There was no quick excision of head from body, just the brutal hit-by-hit bludgeoning. By the time it was dead, Erin was asleep for her nap, though when she woke, she asked if the snake was gone, and I said that it was, that her mother had carried it down to the bayou at the end of our street and put it in the water where it swam away. I told her that we would always remove the snakes from her yard, but that easy lie is not enough. Sometimes snakes and grass and shovel blades collide without quick finality. In some things, there can be no easy severance, can only be the brutal, bereaved truth of flesh caught between metal and mud, pain and guilt.
Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us (SFASU Press) and When You’re Down By the River (BatCat Press). His writing has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Brevity, Bellevue Literary Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches at McNeese State University, where he coordinates the low-residency MA in creative writing.
Photo by Michelle Tribe