Friday, June 25, 2010
A dead turtle floated on the pond out back. My wife saw it first. She didn’t know what to make of it bobbing off in the distance.
“That a piece of trash or something out there?” she asked.
It was a dark speck against the gray morning, but I knew what it was. I shrugged. “Whatever it is, it’ll sink soon enough.”
A couple of days later, it hadn’t sunk. It drifted near the shore close to our back patio. A dirty froth surrounded it as it jostled in the shallows, floating on the gasses of its own decomposition.
I watched from the window as a water moccasin slithered through the grass and towards the water, its dark triangular head lifted high. It stopped and jerked side-to-side. Its tongue flickered and it twisted in the direction of the dead turtle.
The snake’s head never dipped. It slid into the water, its body writhing in its wake. It found the turtle, cutting a dark line in the bubbles surrounding it. The snake struck at the shell. I imagined the sound – angry fingernails against linoleum or a clink of pool balls. The snake circled, striking a few more times. Then it rested its head on the shell before swimming off.
That was the fourth water moccasin I’ve seen out there in the past few weeks. It’s made me jumpy outside, and snakes have burrowed into my thoughts as a result. At night this time of year, it sounds like a million frogs are croaking beyond my bedroom window. I imagine that snake striking at them, blinking them out like dying stars, spreading darkness.
I’m also reminded of the time my father and uncle killed a rattlesnake. That is real. That happened. But I was very young and my memories of the event are perhaps not entirely trustworthy. They are an assortment of blurred images, bleached of color, a mingling of dream and reality.
We were at the beach, a lagoon of some sort. It was surrounded by sand dunes that seemed enormous to me at the time. My father and uncle were both much younger men than I am now. Their long hair fanned out wildly in the wind. They were lean and tanned and wore cutoff jean shorts and old ratty sneakers. I think we might have been crabbing in the brackish waters of the lagoon. I remember blue crabs and using pieces of chicken for bait. If you flip the crabs over on their backs with a stick, they pass out and are easier to handle.
My uncle spotted the rattlesnake beyond one of the dunes. “There’s a rattler over here,” he said. “Come check him out!”
My father told me to stay put, and my head nodded in silent agreement. I knew enough to be fearful of what lurked beyond the sandy hill. As he joined my uncle on the other side of the dune, my chest and arms curled in on themselves. I felt myself shrinking into a ball of helplessness.
They bounced and shouted. They found large sticks, maybe graying driftwood or branches from a Texas pine. The rattle of warning buzzed up from beyond like a swarm of wasps taking flight. The sticks jabbed like spears. Voices undulated pitch as fear and resolve twisted inside the men.
“Keep his fucking head pinned like that!”
“I’ve got him. Keep cutting!”
“He’s moving. Don’t let him loose!”
“Careful. That thing can bite even after he’s dead.”
And then my father and uncle fell silent. They rose up over the dune, their shadows huddling near their feet. The serpent hung over the far end of a stick that my father carried in his left hand. The snake was long and fat and still twitching. Its head was missing and drops of blood dripped from the wound, speckling the white sand with dark globules.
My father displayed that snake’s skin in his room for a number of years after that. My parents were already divorced by this time, and he didn’t have a sensible woman to persuade him otherwise. It stretched across the wall above his headboard, almost equaling it in length. I suppose it was a symbol of some sort, a sacrifice. Maybe it was the conquering of an imagined fear made tangible, because the real ones are often so terrifyingly shapeless.