01 Feb I saved a white snake
I took up gardening after my husband died. I don’t enjoy it, but I feel obligated, like if I let his plants die then the last traces of him will be wiped from this earth and he will be utterly gone from me. So I weed and I water and I have learned which of the flowers are annuals so that when they wilt this winter I can bring them back in the spring, just as he’d planted them earlier this year, before he was taken from me. I’ve posted photos of the ailing holly bush to a gardening community so that I can nurse it back to life and maybe that will be some kind of redemption. I’ve taken cuttings of some of the plants and they sit in cups of water all throughout my house, taking in the sun on the windowsill, as I encourage them to put out roots so that their line can continue onwards and if anything should happen, I can replant them, and it will be like they never died at all.
My friends think it is good that I’ve found something productive to do with myself. It’ll help with the healing, they say, to maintain his garden.
I don’t think I’m healing at all.
I about fell apart when some birds destroyed the irises. I’d heard a commotion in my backyard. I ran out there and found two large crows dancing about the flowers, ripping them out of the ground with their claws, stabbing at the dirt with their beaks. I rushed at them, yelling, and they took flight, screaming their ire at me from the air. Then I stood there and stared at the mess, at the uprooted and trampled plants, their broken stems stained with moisture like blood. I wanted to cry, but instead I knelt in the dirt and with shaking hands I started to straighten the bent stalks and clear out the debris so I could replant the survivors. I felt like I was back in that hospital room, listening to the monitor, my eyes locked on his face, even as a nurse grabbed my arms and pulled me backwards, shoving me from the room; and I grabbed helplessly at the dirt, at the torn roots of the irises, realizing that this couldn’t be fixed and I couldn’t go back like it’d never happened.
That was where I found the snake. It was curled into a subtle hollow in the middle of the iris bed, head pressed flat against the ground. Blood oozed sluggishly from a cut on its body. It was small, no larger than my palm with its body coiled tight around itself.
I felt angry, looking at it. I went into the garage and found a cardboard box. I covered it with packing tape to protect against the rain and cut a tiny doorway on either end. Then I took that outside and placed it over the snake, digging the edges into the dirt and putting a rock on the roof so it couldn’t be easily overturned. I pitied the snake. I resented the crows for their destruction of my husband’s garden. I wouldn’t let them have what they wanted to easily.
After that, the snake became a fixture in my garden. It hid in its box and watched me from the entrance, black eyes fixed on my hands and its tongue flickering in and out. I stole covert glances at it, entranced by its coloring. It is white with no other patterning. It is not an albino. It is not pale pink-white, but the white of clouds or oil paint straight from the tube, pure and unadulterated. It it not any breed I can identify. Its scales are like pearls, they shine in the sunlight, and its eyes are like obsidian. Its body is ridged with leathery folds, thick plates overlapping each other and I see soft pink flesh hidden between the creases when it moves and the scales part.
Within the week, it started to come out of the box while I was present. It slipped through my plants and I let myself believe that it was following me as I made my way down the garden beds, tending to each patch in turn. Sometimes I saw the crows, perched in the trees or on the fence, but they did not bother the snake so long as I was there. I bought some crickets from the store and began to bring them out to it, leaving their dead bodies near its lair. Soon, it began to wait for me, and one day it slithered right to me. I put my hand down and it looped its neck over my fingers and then ran across my palm. It twined around my wrist and I stood, taking the snake with me, and I stared at it as it stared back at me from my hand.
It spoke to me on the day I gave up on the holly bush. My attempts to save it had failed and I felt guilty, that I couldn’t even keep a stupid bush alive, one that my husband had planted. There’d been these awful red thorn bushes in the side beds and he’d spent a month cutting them back and down to their roots and finally digging out the stumps. Then he’d put down new soil and bark and planted these hollies. They’d put out berries in the winter, he said, every other year. Now, the one stood there, shriveled with dry brown and yellow leaves, and the branches were brittle and snapped at the slightest touch. I’d have to take it out, I thought. Maybe replace it. And it just felt so overwhelming at that moment that I sat down and began to cry.
I felt the snake as it slid over my foot, its scales cool and soft, those strange ridges bumping against the ankle bone. It was growing quickly. Already, it was a foot long.
“Auntie,” it asked me, “why do you weep?”
Something about this felt so natural, so expected, that I didn’t hesitate to answer. I told the snake that I couldn’t keep the holly alive and I felt I had failed my husband, because he had planted it.
“Nothing persists,” the snake replied. “It is the nature of things to die.”
And it slipped off into the garden and left me to tear the bush out.
My husband’s plants all began to falter after that. There were few weeds now and the ones that did manage to sprout quickly turned yellow and melted back into the earth, their leaves putrefying into sludge. I stopped using weedkiller, fearing that it was doing this and would harm the flowers. The snake came and talked with me often, though it mostly just listened. Sometimes it would comment on the weather, but said little else. It began to call me “auntie.”
To compound my problems with the garden, the grass was also ailing, with parts of it turning brown and dry as if scorched. I found some rabbits while checking on one of these patches. There were five of them, about the size of my hand, frozen inside their burrow under a layer of torn grass and fur. I stared at them for a few minutes, enchanted by their size and the white patches on their foreheads, and then left them alone.
I wondered about the snake, if perhaps it would harm them, but the snake was not quite so large yet. I’d swapped to feeding it mice, buying them frozen and thawing them before bringing them out. The snake was polite, thanking me for its meals, telling me it didn’t yet dare to leave the safety of the garden.
“The crows?” I asked.
“Indeed.” Its tone was wry. “I am not quite big enough to make a meal out of them.”
The statement sounded like a promise. I glanced over my shoulder, to where the pair sat watching in the tree, and it felt like a shadow passed over the sun.
A few days after I found the rabbits, I again walked to where their burrow was, wanting to see if they were still there. I found them strewn about the entrance to the hole, spines supine, legs outstretched, and eyes wide open and their mouths gaping, flecked with dried froth. There were no marks on them, but the ground around them was torn, as if they’d clawed at the earth in an attempt to drag themselves forwards and away from the burrow. My heart hammered in my chest. The bodies were stiff and dead flies lay on their fur.
I got a shovel from the garage and went to dig a hole, out near the trees. The snake came to join me. It regarded the pile of corpses a moment and then twined between my feet. It asked me why I was so sad. Rabbits die. This is what they are born for.
“I don’t like seeing it,” I whispered.
I thought of the last sight I had of my husband, body twisted up, mouth gaping for air. Certainly, the funeral home made him look peaceful, but that wasn’t him anymore. It was a body, nothing more, and it can’t dispel what he looked like in the last seconds of his life. Now, staring down at the rabbits sprawled before me, I saw the similarities in their twisted limbs and open mouths, silently screaming at whatever injustice had ripped away their lives so soon.
“Then go inside,” the snake whispered, “and I will take them away for you.”
I went, as if in a trance. And when I came to myself and returned to the backyard I found that the rabbits were gone and the burrow they’d lain in was now a deep hole, stretching down into the black earth. I filled it in and packed the earth down.
It was over a week before I saw the snake again. In that time, my garden rebounded, the plants grew green again, and – unfortunately – the weeds came back. I wondered where my snake friend was and worried that perhaps the crows had gotten to it after all, for I hadn’t seen them either. Then, one afternoon as I was watering the irises, it came sliding out of its home. It was much larger than before. Perhaps five feet long and an inch in diameter. I turned the hose off and asked it where it had been.
“I dove deep into the earth, auntie,” it said to me. “I sought the realm of the dead.”
I felt cold suddenly, despite the sunlight. I asked why it would do such a thing and it bobbed its head, tongue flickering.
“To find your husband.”
And I almost did not hear what it said next, my mind frozen on those words, on their impossibility, but the wild, daring hope that fluttered in my chest, hope that I frantically held back because I did not think I would survive having it extinguished if it were allowed to take root and bloom in my heart.
“But I am sorry, auntie,” it continued, “I could not travel far enough. I am still too weak. Let me stay in your garden a little longer and then I will try again.”
The spring passed and turned into summer. My neighbor’s vegetable garden began to yield its crop, albeit small, for their garden was suffering with the rain and the heat and their plants had barely grown this year. But there was enough to harvest and I saw them out there one day, gathering the squash and taking it to the grill to cook it. I could smell the charcoal and the steak and earthy scent of fresh-cut vegetables. They had company over. Another couple, and I could hear them laughing and talking on their back deck from inside my house. It hurt, in an odd way. My house had been silent for many months now.
I’m not certain how long it was before I became aware of the quiet coming from the backyard. It struck me suddenly and I thought it odd, for it was still bright out and surely their company wouldn’t have gone home so soon. I went to the back window and looked.
The four of them were lying on the ground. None of them were moving. I felt dizzy, I stumbled back from the window, I thought of the funeral home and being there alone with my husband’s body and hating how still he was, hating looking at him and seeing nothing, like he was carved of marble.
I forced myself to move. To go out the back door, to run to the fence gate and to let myself into their yard. To call 911. I knelt by the closest, the woman guest, someone I didn’t know. Her eyes were open, bulging with horror and streaked with black liquid, and her mouth was filled with bloody froth. Blood leaked from her nose and her ears and her limbs were skewed, her back and neck bent as if she were a doll thrown carelessly to the ground. I heard the screaming of the crows in the trees nearby as they hopped from branch to branch and shrieked at me.
And then a whisper from the fence. Auntie, the snake called, come away. Come away. Look away.
I did, and stood there with my back to the bodies of my neighbors, and wept while the 911 operator said it would be okay and the ambulance would be there soon. His words were empty and I think he knew that too.
“I’m sorry, auntie,” the snake murmured. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to find them as well in the realm of the dead.”
They took the bodies away, putting them on in bags so the bystanders on the sidewalk couldn’t see the bloody foam and their blackened eyes. The police came and took the food and then they questioned me. No, I didn’t see anything odd. No, I wasn’t aware of anyone that would want to hurt them. I’d not gotten out much, honestly, not after my husband died. I answered everything they asked as best as they could and then they left.
I did not see the snake after that. I found the hole it left behind, digging down into the earth as it sought the dead, and I loosely filled it back up.
The neighbor’s family came and began to pack up their house. They were there for a few days and then the house went silent. I figured they’d have an estate sale at some point in the future, when they were ready. I hadn’t yet gotten rid of my husband’s belongings, after all, and he’d been dead for months now. Then more people came and I didn’t recognize them, but they stayed in the neighbor’s backyard and took soil samples and took cuttings of the plants in the vegetable garden.
My own garden was surviving, but barely. I’d had to rip out most of the irises and I felt a sort of terrified desperation every time I went out there to try to save the plants that remained. The trees at the back fence line were beginning to lose their leaves, like autumn had come early, and I didn’t understand why any of this was happening. Like my garden was dying with my husband.
I didn’t know the snake had returned. It hadn’t called to me and I was not the one that found it. Someone came to my door, one of the people that had been taking samples of the neighbor’s yard. He wanted to do the same for mine. Some soil, he said, and some clippings of the flowers and bushes. Nothing intrusive. I asked what he was looking for. Just checking for contaminants, he said, and he didn’t need to explain anything else. They were afraid my neighbors had died because something had gotten into their vegetables. I took him around the side of the house and opened the gate for him. I stood by the fence as he poked around at the dry patches of grass, stabbed a tool like a spike into the soil and dropped the dirt clod into a bag. Then he stepped up onto the stone slabs that marked the boundary of my garden bed and put one foot into the soil, reaching for the remaining irises.
There was a flash of light, like the sunlight reflecting off a mirror, and the white snake emerged from the wilted garden bed. Its head was the size of a watermelon and I saw fangs as long as my hand when it opened its mouth. It reared up, body like a tree trunk, and the man opened his mouth to scream before the snake’s mouth closed over his head, the jaw distending to engulf him. It slammed into the ground, jerking the man’s body down with it, and then the earth boiled beneath its coils and the soil surged and like a whale breaching and returning to the water, the snake fell back into the ground and dragged the man with him, his body limp, his feet the last thing I saw before the dirt fell into the hollow and there was nothing left behind.
I covered my mouth with my hands, stifling a scream. I turned, walked back into the house, and only then did I allow myself to fall apart. I screamed, I sobbed, I clawed at my face with my nails. What was I to do? Should I call the police? Did I tell them there was a giant snake in my yard?
I stayed in my house and did nothing. I walked from window to window, fretting, peeking into the backyard. Finally, after many hours, a policeman showed up at my front door. There’d been someone out earlier, he said, getting samples for their investigation. Had I seen him? His car was still parked in front of my house.
I told him he’d been in my backyard last but I hadn’t seen him leave. I’d assumed he’d moved to other yards in the neighborhood and would be back when he was done. The officer asked if he could search the yard and I said he could. Then he went out back and I watched from the window, dreading what I would see.
He found the patch of disturbed earth, where the snake’s submergence had torn all the plants free and half-buried them in freshly turned soil. He poked around in the dirt and and came up with the man’s cellphone. Then he called in for more people and I was told to stay inside the house, tersely, and I thought that this meant that they suspected I’d done something.
They dug up that part of the yard and I cried as they did this, because they knocked the stone border loose and there would be no saving the plants they’d uprooted, and all their efforts were wasted because the snake was gone, deep down into the earth, and it’d taken its meal with it.
They had so many questions for me and I told them the same thing, again and again, that he’d gone into the backyard and that was all I knew. That I didn’t talk much with the neighbors after my husband died. And finally, bewildered, they stopped asking me questions.
A few days later, we all got a letter in the mail from the city. It asked us to stop doing yardwork. Don’t mow, it said, don’t weed, don’t trim, and most of all: don’t eat anything produced from our gardens. Stay inside. They were working on a way to neutralize some contaminants in the soil in our area. They were working on finding out where they’d come from.
I knew. That evening, after the sun had set, I went out into the garden. I sat down near the spot where the irises had grown and where I’d set that tiny box out for the snake to hide in. I asked it why it had killed that man.
“Nothing persists,” it replied and its answer came out of the earth beneath me. “I keep telling you this. Everything must die.”
“It doesn’t seem fair.”
“It’s not. But that is how it is.”
A long silence between us. Then, the snake asked me if I wanted it to go.
“I don’t want you to go,” I said, “but I don’t think it’s safe for us if you stay.”
“I would never harm you, auntie.”
I looked at my garden, uprooted and strewn with debris, at all the yellowing and wilted flowers and the dry and barren bushes. It already had hurt me, I thought, but I didn’t say that out loud.
The snake said that it would leave. That it will be a long time before it returns. It said nothing of my husband or the realm of the dead.
Then the earth shifted, a ridge along the line of its back, and subsided and I knew the snake was gone.
My plants continue to die. Some of my neighbors have moved out and left behind houses that will never sell, after a little girl was taken away by ambulance when she fell to the ground with convulsions, her mouth filling with bloody froth. The snake is gone, but its poison remains.
I do not doubt what it said. It will come back. Perhaps in a few years, perhaps a few decades, perhaps a few centuries. But it will return. And the plants will wilt and the oceans will die and we will breathe the poison into our lungs and it will mingle in our blood and it will eat us away and leave our wasted, putrid corpses to rot upon the dying soil and not even the insects will touch us.
We’re still receiving letters to stay indoors. Telling us that they’re working on a solution. Telling us that if we have somewhere else to go, we should consider relocating. My neighborhood feels deserted, here in the peak of summer with silent streets and darkened houses and everyone hurries to their mailbox and back and no one stops to talk to one another, too afraid to spend much time outside with the poisoned soil.
I sneak out at night to take care of the garden. A handful of plants remain. I’m not sure for how much longer they’ll live, but I feel I must do this, that if I let them die then my husband will be entirely gone. I know they are poisoning me, but it was already too late and I am only hastening the inevitable. There are only a handful of days left to me. I feel the poison in my bones.
I am glad I will not be alive to see the day the snake surfaces to rain its venom down upon the earth.