Snakes, poem by Denton Loving

I.

My office build­ing sits atop a den of snakes. I’m sure of it. The build­ing edges the cam­pus where I work. Only an over­grown horse pas­ture sep­a­rates the man­i­cured lawns of high­er edu­ca­tion from the wood­lands of Cum­ber­land Moun­tain. The snakes slith­er down the moun­tain and some­how find their way in the park­ing lot or between con­crete steps. They stick out their tongues to test the air, sun them­selves on side­walks. Once, when I returned from lunch, the ball of my brown Oxford grazed the head of a black snake lying so still I thought she was a crack in the side­walk. She nev­er moved, but I jumped high enough for both of us. Every­one in the build­ing came out to see the snake, as if it was a new cre­ation, as if we were chil­dren see­ing the very first one. She wait­ed patient­ly, com­plete­ly still, while we gawked. The girls soft­ball coach drove by just then, told us all to back away. Then, he pulled his Oldsmo­bile off the black-topped park­ing lot and down the side­walk. The snake flailed as the right front tire crushed its mid­dle. I imag­ined screams as the tire rolled back and forth. When we were sure it was dead, he pulled it off the walk with a golf club from his trunk, a nine iron, flung it out into the grass to be chopped up by the grounds crew and their lawn mow­ers.

II.

A dif­fer­ent day, one August, when I wasn’t at work, anoth­er black snake was spot­ted in the grass. The sun was hot, and this snake was rest­ing in the shade of a giant cataw­ba tree. Sum­mer drought brought him down from the mountain’s rocky pin­na­cle in search of water. Two women from my office, Regi­na and Car­olyn, found the snake. Again, the office work­ers emp­tied into the front lawn of our build­ing to see the snake for them­selves. Again, there was shock and excite­ment and per­haps the feel­ing of being intrud­ed on by an unin­vit­ed mon­ster. Clarence, a main­te­nance man, stopped to see what was hap­pen­ing. “Wait,” he said. He knew how to take care of this prob­lem. Straight through the cen­ter of the black head, Clarence drove a met­al stake, quick as you like. He pinned the snake to the earth until the writhing stopped. When the last breath of life escaped, some­one sug­gest­ed they take a pic­ture. The pho­to shows Clarence, his name patch white against the blue of his uni­form. He holds the met­al rod in the air, and the snake dan­gles to the ground, five feet long if he was an inch. Regi­na and Car­olyn stand beside of him, no longer afraid of the snake. They all smile for the cam­era.

III.

Why is everyone’s first reac­tion to kill a snake?” My friend Mau­rice once asked this at a par­ty. It was easy to see how dis­turbed he was by the sto­ries we told, the mur­der in our voic­es. How to explain to him that my own fear of snakes came to me in the womb? There was no temp­ta­tion as a boy to feel scales against my flesh, to even see one slith­er past my path – each snake the dev­il incar­nate, the only good one a dead one. Anoth­er friend, Don­na, tells me snakes sym­bol­ize trans­for­ma­tion. She explains that if snakes repeat­ed­ly come – as they do on side­walks and in dreams – it means that I’m chang­ing and grow­ing and prepar­ing for some­thing new. I pic­ture myself shed­ding my old life and old choic­es like an old skin. In writ­ing, I’m advised to embrace my fears. Explore them. Give them to my char­ac­ters. But just as if those fears were real snakes, my intu­ition is to give a wide berth, to avoid at all costs. The hard­est things to write about are … well, they’re hard. It takes courage to embrace what scares you the most, ser­pents from the prover­bial gar­den, mon­sters come up from the depths of night­mares. In real life, when I walk through the woods or the hay field around my home, I keep a close watch before let­ting either foot touch the ground. Twi­light is the worst, when every twig seems to shim­mer in the faint light. I fear each of them is a cop­per­head slid­ing down to the creek for a drink.

IV.

Last sum­mer, a pair of Car­oli­na wrens prac­ti­cal­ly lived on the back porch of my house. In the morn­ings, they sat out­side my bed­room win­dow and served as my alarm clock. In the evenings, as I sat in the shade and read, they hopped around me, tempt­ed to land on my open, extend­ed palm. One Sat­ur­day, they called me with their trilling rac­quet to come to the back door. Between the porch and the shed where the wrens nest­ed, there was a black snake sun­ning him­self in the grass. This is a space where I walk dai­ly, some­times hourly, some­times in my bare feet. I was pleased to live for the sum­mer with my fat, trick­ster wrens, but I was equal­ly dis­pleased to think of this black snake join­ing our hap­py home. As a child and per­haps even a few years ago, I would have lost my mind with fear. Had he been some­thing def­i­nite­ly poi­so­nous, a cop­per­head or a rat­tlesnake, for instance, I would have still been ter­ri­fied. But the years have accus­tomed me to see­ing the occa­sion­al black snake. After that time I almost walked on one, I learned to appre­ci­ate the black snake’s gen­tle man­ners. I empathized for the thirst they must feel in the dri­est parts of sum­mer, for the warmth they must ache for on the first sun­ny days of spring. My lit­tle Car­oli­na wrens, brazen and full of tricks when they need to be, warned him from our home. “Go away,” I could hear them say. “We’re not afraid of you. Go!” I nev­er admired these lit­tle birds so much as when they were will­ing to face off such a daunt­ing ene­my, but I took a dif­fer­ent tact. “Hel­lo,” I said to the snake as I looked down from the safe­ty of my raised deck. I was cau­tious, but for the first time in my life, I want­ed a clos­er look. I admired the way the after­noon light glis­tened across his rib­boned back. “Please don’t both­er the wrens,” I said, and I went back inside, leav­ing them to work it out for them­selves. With­in min­utes, my curios­i­ty was too much, and I had to go back out. I want­ed to see the snake again, but he was gone. The grass showed no trace of his path, and I was both relieved and sad.

Den­ton Lov­ing lives on a farm near the his­toric Cum­ber­land Gap, where Ten­nessee, Ken­tucky and Vir­ginia come togeth­er. He works at Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al Uni­ver­si­ty, where he co-directs the annu­al Moun­tain Her­itage Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val and serves as exec­u­tive edi­tor of drafthorse: the lit­er­ary jour­nal of work and no work.

His poem “Rea­son­ing with Cows” received first place in the 2012 Byron Her­bert Reece Soci­ety poet­ry con­test. Oth­er fic­tion, poet­ry and reviews have appeared or are forth­com­ing in Appalachi­an Jour­nal, Tra­jec­to­ry, Main Street Rag and in numer­ous antholo­gies includ­ing Degrees of Ele­va­tion: Sto­ries of Con­tem­po­rary Appalachia."

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One Response to Snakes, poem by Denton Loving

  1. Mag­nif­i­cent­ly writ­ten and felt! Many of us know that fear that is mixed with only-human curios­i­ty when it comes to these crea­tures. Den­ton Lov­ing ROCKS!

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