Honey girl screams
— but the shoving boys have returned to their nights.
girl and snake are left alone
with only bedtime stories
and childhood legends to weigh through consequences.
Girl and Snake stare,
scanning for ways around themselves—
She could run, but the steps
and honeysuckle blossoms don’t catch little girls
who dare to falter,
hard floor rules
south of the leaping line
where time has stalled at the pull
of a stem through a bloom
strange, thick liquid at the tip.
I am dressed in a white nightgown, cold when I wake. I rise from my bed in utter silence, the quiet deafening in the stretch and reach of it, my ears pounding from the anticipation of interruption. My hallway is long, longer than it should be, it lengthens itself like a carnival mirror, the girl a cream colored distortion, growing larger, mouse in maze. The curtains are drawn on the front window and my heart quickens because I know what will be on the other side of them, what is always on the other side of them. My fingers tremble against the cotton anyway. A tangle of snakes is latticed across the glass, bright green and mud brown ones thick as braided rope, like a writhing ivy lens, and beyond them, bovines lying pattern-like across the suburban landscape in the street and in front yards, starkly out of place against the backdrop of civility. The cows do not graze, they only stare at me, their eyes gaping hulls in their skulls; I know they can see me behind the horror, though. The cows are always more terrifying in their vagrant simplicity somehow, even than the writhing snakes at the window of my subconscious. It's the cows that are staring, after all, dead eyed and knowing, the cows are waiting for a voice beyond the writhing.
"Many centuries later, there was a goddess named Nü Wa who roamed this wild world that Pan Gu had left behind, and she became lonely in her solitude. Stopping by a pond to rest, she saw her reflection and realized that there was nothing like herself in the world. She resolved to make something like herself for company. From the edge of the pond she took some mud and shaped it in the form of a human being."
– Jan Walls and Yvonne Walls (translators and editors), 1984, Classical Chinese Myths: Hong Kong, Joint Publishing Company, 135 p.
Much of the creation mythology of the world, beginning with Sumerian and Akkadian stories, spanning the Fertile Crescent into Europe, covering Australia, and crossing the continent of Africa, begin with the symbol of the serpent. Sometimes the serpent is good, sometimes it is evil, oftentimes it is gendered, other times it is not. It carves, curls, and clasps itself around the heartbeat of history. It is representative of ingenuity, danger, creativity, or conniving depending on which creation tradition one reads, the flitting tongue and sliding scales malicious, benevolent, or both.
In the Chinese creation myth, Nü Wa has the head of a woman and the body of a snake, and with her tail, she flicks bits of mud into living human beings. An African tradition holds that Goorialla, the great Rainbow Serpent goes in search of his tribe, carving out river beds and canyons, his body molding the topography like clay. A similar serpent god named Degei is said to be the supreme god of Fiji, judging souls after death. From the Serpent Mound in Amish culture created by the Adena culture around 700 BC to the Chippewa tales of a great water serpent in Lake Superior, to the Teton Sioux's forbidden killings of rattlesnakes, North America is brimming with serpent lore. The Hebrew tradition of course holds the serpent as a devil figure. The real danger is not the scales or the fruit, but the knowledge it stretches itself across like a rune. And following the Fall, the woman is left alone, holding a twice-pierced bit of fruit, mocked for the abstract toward which she points, naked, gesturing infinitely backwards to that thing with scales that slides among us silent and invisible, threatening constriction and death, speaking words no one is even listening to.
If we read the snake symbolically as a thread sewn throughout the ages, holding all of humanity and divinity together, the scales become our stories, iridescent pock marks on the surface of time, working in flux with the muscle movement of the eternal, the soul of the world. To dream of snakes is to be spiritually minded, yogic, creative, or healing in nature. I have searched religion, philosophy, literature, and science all for answers to a somewhat bizarre pattern I found arisen in my life, namely that of the presence of snakes at strange times, and I can tell you what C.G. Jung has to say about the writhing subconscious and how dream analysts read serpents as phallic and mystical, and where humanity’s fear evolutionarily originates, but I am no closer to an answer that fits as was the Eve of Mankind standing before God with sticky, dripping fingers, wet with fresh-picked sin. As I look backwards over my life, though, I have stumbled upon a recurring snake coiled in some tight corner of every phase of my existence, shaded and hidden, sometimes ensconced in meaning, sometimes an afterthought disappearing into the underbrush of my mind, but nevertheless terrifyingly present.
One night a year ago, I let a four-foot long snake into my house myself, it was my own damn fault. The thing must have been lying on my step, but my dogs never saw it. They ran right over it, somehow kicking it up on my bare legs and in my horror, I slammed the door with the snake still inside. I screamed and ran, stood on top of my bed with my remaining idiot dog and called a 911 operator who put me on speaker phone because I was screaming so loudly; I could hear their echoing laughter between my panicked breaths. And it is funny now, but it was not funny then. Not in the least.
The deputy from the Sheriff's department came to my rescue, but alas, the snake could not be found. You cannot leave me here I said, nearing tears, nearing the point where I seriously thought I will wrap myself around this man’s ankles if he leaves me in here with this snake, but I maintained my dignity, shoved my shoulders back, thanked him for his time, shut the door against the night, and took a deep breath. It was approximately forty-five minutes before I called 911 again.
What the deputy from the Sheriff's department saw when he came through my front door for the second time that night was the same tall blonde woman in short gym shorts, a tank top, and doc marten combat boots, armed with a pink plastic ladybug flashlight in one hand and a cushion armed to catapult in the other, repeating phrases like, "Don't move. . . . STOP MOVING. . . . I'm gonna throw it I swear to god. . . . !" (that was the strategy, yell and toss things in its general vicinity to keep it corralled in one room--girl and snake stare, scanning for ways around themselves).
I had found it curled beneath my bar stools an hour after the officer left, and wasn't letting it out of my sight again. The beast made its way around my kitchen, half-climbing the door to the garage and tumbling back down again, weaving toward me on tile like water until I hurled something at him and he retreated. We danced like this for what had to have been years, the snake and I. Though it was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life, I wonder what it means when bizarre begins to feel normal, when a four foot long snake in your kitchen feels like the appropriate ending to a week that had dealt far greater surprises than that.
What the deputy from the Sheriff's department did not see when he came through my front door either time that night, though, was the way in which grief had bent my spine over the months into a kind of a blasphemous prayer-pose. He did not see how many floor tiles my dropped eyes had read like twisted tea leaves as hopes to bring my little girl home in the midst of a bitter court case rose just as hideously as that serpent on the wrong side of my door, only to have that thin-winged creature which Hope becomes when it reaches one's throat, slide back down into the center of me and coil tightly around itself again.
I began writing a novel when I returned from Botswana, Africa in 2011, after reading The Poisonwood Bible, which is about the daughter of a Christian missionary couple in Africa and the blatant hypocrisy she witnesses from the naivety of childhood--white people trying to "save" Africans from their pagan ways, her mother a resentful missionary's wife consumed with sweeping out the "filth" of their hut, daily despising her conditions anew. I had read about every single dangerous thing that exists in South Africa before I embarked, the most terrifying of them being the Black Mamba snake. I squirmed under all required immunizations and learned everything I could of the Mamba snake, though of course I never saw hide nor scale of any such animal my entire time there.
Barbara Kingsolver writes in The Poisonwood Bible, “I know what it is: it's a green mamba snake away up in the tree. You don't have to be afraid of them anymore because you are one.” In the book I began writing when I returned, I made God a Mamba in the trees, moving slowly across the rainforest-canopy of the world, a poison eye over all, Great Narrator of the locked-vine-entanglements of mankind. There is an elderly woman dying in my story, a woman named Rose, who pretends not to hear the conversations of nurses and various family members who wandered in and out of her room, awaiting the inevitable, but who relay memories of her life as they come, in no particular order, and often with her past and future selves populating memories as they happen---"there was a little girl in the corner, I never noticed her before.....," that kind of thing. It is set in dream-scape, drowning in stream-of-consciousness sections with no punctuation, sometimes interrupted rudely by the reality of her dying. I got lost (well I got pregnant) somewhere in her journey in my real life, but I had already written the ending, which was of all the "Rose-selves" walking together through a dense wood that opened unto a vast sea coast dotted with red umbrellas. The narrator walks purposefully straight toward the ocean, and the liquid-salt of her splashing melts all of time to waves, an entering back into a water-world of memory where time is fluid and all the selves and stories merge in the tide. The Mamba-God watches from the trees, before becoming the trees once again, their serpentine roots reaching hell-ward, while the branches reach sky-ward.
If you turn some years back onto their bellies one more time, you’ll see two women, Dr. Jordan I, riding chestnut and bay-brown colored horses across land breathing with Indian burial grounds, rising like the dirt-fleshed ghosts out of the earth, the hills lay on every side of us. I’m the one on the smaller horse, behind, as the scene opens. We canter the horses across an open field with a burial mound on the left, duck beneath some low hanging branches and canter up a narrow wooded path shaded with tree cover and strewn with brush. The cool March air blurs my eyes teary as my hands grip the leather reins and my body listens to the horse beneath me, separated only by a thin leather hunting saddle. My friend’s horse moves in long, reaching strides over an object moving beneath the dead leaves, rippling the flat of the trail. The mare’s earth-digging hooves uncover a Timber Rattlesnake not coiled, but stretched long across the trail, skimming across dead leaves like pond water. I will never know for sure if the horse I was on ever actually saw the rattlesnake or not, but even if he does not see it, he certainly feels the tensing of my body, and he is so sensitive that I never pulled my heels into his sides, only ever urged him forward with my thighs and calf muscles, but this time I jam both heels into the fleshy cartilage of his ribs when we cross that snake. It is too late, there is no space to turn and we are traveling too fast to reverse, so I squench my eyes shut and go for it. The horse leaps forward into a gallop and by the time I reach my friend, my voice is ragged from sucking in chill air and my stomach is coiling and releasing spasms of hiccuping laughter from what was only seconds ago, warning cries.
“You never—even—even—even—SAW it——!” I choke out the words like a moron, dropping my feet from my stirrups, the young horse dancing forward and sideways beneath me at his rider’s disarray.
And beautiful friend that she is, she starts laughing too, just because I am, and our voices are trapped beneath a canopy of half-dead woods, only the buds of trees beginning to green.
I was about twenty-four hours pregnant that morning, though I could have had no way of knowing it. I was cantering up the hilled-edge of a blessed divorce, and it was my husband’s child I was carrying, which was a devastation dark and deep to discover, but one that morphed and bloomed slowly, in a hideous, reckless kind of beauty, over the coming months of hard decisions into the greatest joy I have ever known.
I named my baby Asah (אסא), a Hebrew word with Aramaic roots for, among other things, “root, healer, doctor”, Rose. When she was torn from my body in December of 2012, Dr. Kerri Jordan, my mentor grad school professor and since-then-sister and riding partner, sent me an enormous bouquet of white roses with a card that said, "From Rose and E--...." E-- is from another story I wrote, she is a girl who sees what others cannot: namely, the Roses who keep resurrecting themselves, all the shedding skins.
When they took her from me, my now ex-husband and my mother, when they said I was crazy because I dared to exist outside their tight little world of normality and therefore, must be punished, or in the very least denied the privileges of the normal, I dug up a whole flowerbed by hand in my backyard, not knowing what else to do with my all my fury and the mother-ache pulsing through every muscle and bone fragment of me. I dug it myself with only a shovel. I planted various shades of rose bushes which are now, almost two years later, over six feet tall. I made the bed, planted all the blooms myself, tore into the ground, ripped up the dirt and grass, crouched over it and shook loose the soil from potted roses . . . . and at some point during all of that, the tiniest snake I have ever seen came sliding across the soil toward me. I paused, roses in hand, and watched it for a moment without registering or even really contemplating its presence, wishing it well with my silence, and then went back to driving my fists and fingers through the hard, red Yazoo clay and loose bagged potting soil of a story. I was too full of choking words then to give the little snake any significance.
I did not think of Eve then, the Great Mother of Western mythological discourse, that winding, spiraling topiary narrative of words and lingual tricks that created foundational dichotomies of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white, male and female. Like an adder strike, those dichotomies bite, setting us all up as heroes on an epic Joseph-Campbell-style, where everyone is a white, European male with dragon problems. I did not think of Eve's Adam, that first husband trusted with secrets who rolled on her loyalty as soon as God started asking questions--"she made me do it," he says, "blame her." I did not think of an overarching Western narrative tradition that reads the father as higher in the importance of Creator-dom, or even equally as high as the mother because of the mythology of the mystical phallic. Even though the mother creates the baby within herself, she carries it, gives birth to it, and feeds it from her body, she is still denied the world over the same basic rights and standing as are males through all our ridiculous and often absentminded glorification of patriarchy and male-centric traditions.
It always comes down to a girl and a snake, alone.
Scanning for ways around themselves.
The crescendo of narrative tips when the earth shakes within the spiral of creation, all of eternity bending down to put its ear to the mouth of a naked woman, her fingers dripping with damnation, all of humanity coiled tight within the galaxies of her body.
Megan Ainsworth is a Southern United States essayist and memoirist who teaches writing and literature at a community college in Jackson, Mississippi. Her work has been published in the Brick Street Press 2008 and 2010 Short Fiction Anthologies, on Elephant Journal, The Good Men Project, and on her blog site; she was a finalist in the “Lorian Hemingway Short Fiction Competition.” Madgirl Elegies is a six month installment column for Corporeal Clamor. She is interested in gender politics and race relations, particularly at the intersection of faith and spirituality in the Deep South. She shares a home with a precious and precocious four year old daughter, three rescue pups, and a fish named Steve.
Megan is completing a memoir and a novel-length work of fiction.