My mother killed a snake once. My brother had run to her. A hiss meant danger on the deck where he played near the zigzag-shaped swimming pool. Asking our father for rescue never occurred to him. Not because our father worked hard or played racquetball at the gym or watched television (don’t bother). But because our father was not the one who kept us safe. Our father when we came to him crying or broken or hurt answered, go ask your mother. Our father when we disagreed with him punished us with scorn and mockery. But he demolished our mother (when she was right) with insults and fists. My mother with a shovel marched through the sliding glass door to the old cedar deck and with the cold, exacting ire of a thousand captive larks whacked that copperhead in its stripes of brown and rust. She smashed the shit out of that snake once, then with the tip of her white canvas shoe kicked it off the deck into the brush below. You can play now, she said undeterred to my brother. She slid the glass door closed on the carnage and ironed my father’s shirts. * My husband killed a snake once. In the thick of night, the chickens had screeched and woken us. Drowsy he slid into his Vans, grabbed with dread his air rifle, and into the darkness went to investigate the hens’ shrieks of terror. From the warmth of our sheets I held my breath and stared at our infant who did not stir when the shot rang out inside the coop. With one pellet, my pacifist saved the flock from snake attack. Did he blow the smoke wafting from his gun like an outlaw who’d kept his turf safe, hole in one? In the morning he gathered eggs to be salvaged and cracked them into an omelet. I married a man who cooks, a man who can shoot, a real man for whom fear is cause for action not cowardice. Original sin is sexist, he said over breakfast. Women get the blame for temptation but the serpent played the tricks and Adam followed suit. Men too chose poorly but only Eve’s choice mattered. I thought of the story my mother once told me, about my father who on a winter night stood sheepish on the mattress while my mother chased a mouse around their room. She captured the pest in a plastic garbage bag; my father never thanked her. Another black eye soon graced her beautiful face. My husband nailed the snake’s carcass to the dead oak trunk that stood in our yard, beneath arrows we had painted, pointing to the places where we had lived and left love — our ode to past and new directions. Sweaty, pitchfork in hand, my savior stared as the snake’s skin wilted in the Tennessean sunshine. Circle of life, motherfucker, he said and grinned. * I wanted to kill a snake once. Why didn’t I? I heard the mother first. A wren, maybe. Frantic. She circled our back porch and warbled in despair. In my kitchen I watched through the dusty pane of the back door as the snake approached her nest. My baby pecked at softened bits of butternut squash we froze in fall for his first teeth and babbled. The mother’s wings flapped and pled but did not deter the snake who slithered to her egg. Freckled and cracked, her lone babe sat near remnants of carnage: bloody down, shattered eggshell — a previous victim of fangs in the nest she built. He was back for seconds, that monster. I shuddered. The mother bird screamed for him to stop but the reptile, deaf to her, slid along the peeling paint of the porch eaves toward her heart. April light streamed in through the stench of Bradford pears, shadows in gold dancing on the linoleum. I waved and rattled on the glass for him to stop, but the snake, blind to me, surrounded the nest with length. The mother trilled, panic aflutter, as the devil chomped. Bloody down, cracked bones, eggshell rubble. A lone feather dangled from his mouth, cartoonish. The predator turned back, pace even, his eyes blank — the mother’s loss for him a blink, a snack, a shrug. He does not realize the gravity of his actions, I told myself. The circle of life has no conscience. But deep inside my shell, I shattered. I hugged my sweet baby and thought of my father.
About the Author
Jenny Bartoy is a freelance literary editor based in the Pacific Northwest. She holds a master’s degree in sociocultural anthropology from Columbia University. Her work has been published in Room and WhipUp, and is forthcoming in the anthology Sharp Notions: Essays on the Stitching Life. Jenny is managing editor for Literary Mama magazine, serves on the editorial committee for the literary nonprofit Creative Colloquy, and teaches writing workshops locally. You can connect with her at www.jennybartoy.com or @jbartoywriter on Instagram.