Traveling as light moves in particle and in wave, a memory undulates from the body and unfolds into awareness. A thought undulates from the mind, unfolds into the world. From the stillness of the page I sit with it and watch it rustle within its knot. Waiting for an act.
I always knew where the snake den in the back of the natural history book was. Even at preschool, out with my mom at the grocery store or visiting family. I thought about it. Located it. Kept it still in my mind. When I returned home, I’d open the book and look. Thick dark of brown snake with ochre diamonds. Her head rested against her skin, her body filled the hole, the frame. There were other pages in the book, but I don’t remember those. While I may have flipped through them, I always turned with precise awareness to this page, a feeling resting somewhere between attraction and repulsion moving my hand. Somehow there was a silent dialogue between us, as though it my job was to absorb something from her. This repeated gesture was necessary. Compulsion.
Think of your skin when it takes in a secret. That prickle of activated sensitivity. Electricity slowly saturates the crown of the head, the spine, then spreads and buoys your heart once it’s sunk in. Neural and synaptic paths rearranging. Disclosure, even (or especially) the ineffable, results in an effect of ecstasy, however subtle the rapture.
I open an internet of snakes to name the one from the book and my left foot listens carefully. The arch reacts, the thought of a rise preparing the muscles there. My right foot is static, compassionate. Tops of the toes sensing the air moving over them and the still fringe of the carpet beneath. Name it Burmese python.
A thick hollow scales against the arch, the sole, the toe. I check the carpet. No snakes. Looking down at the recollected grass, it’s still moving, a length of energy propelled between the edges.
My mom says the snakes used to sun themselves on the concrete squares of our back patio. I’d sit in front of the window to watch.
Propping up a paralyzed memory, an imagining stands: a child’s got her hands and face pressed against the glass. Two serpents rest in relaxed curves against the rough surface, taking in the warmth. In my mind, they all share a consciousness with the snake in the natural history book. As though, regardless of body, the same being looks out of each of them. I look through another casing at the girl who is me but with my consciousness gouged out.
Some say you can identify a true memory from one manufactured from a family story or photograph. If you see yourself, it’s a story. If you see from yourself, a memory. Because she is in the frame, I name it fabrication. Name the brain a preservation specialist, a conservator repairing the skin of a constantly expanding and deteriorating manuscript.
The soft dryness of my eye rasps inward toward a memory that won’t make the passage. Stuck, perhaps, under a pressure of something else.
Did I see the snakes scrape between feathered slats in our fence? Their true habitat must have been the field beyond our yard, our yard, perhaps, their escape place of recreation.
The local motion of a mind moves thought into action. A thought manifests in space, moves a body. The sole of my foot lifts for the passing phantom. Yet, the afternoon still wraps itself around my ankle, the pressure of the day smashes in. The den appears, wraps around me.
This triggered memory is preserved, though distanced by a dark tunnel of space-time. Emerging into the light of it, I cannot see myself. Just my perspective. Not in smooth animation but stills from the action:
Coil of fingers and the head of a thumb grasp a long twig. Just beyond reach, a moth flickers between its white body and that of an orange butterfly. All this bound in textbook blue sky, clouds, and grey wood of the fence. The sun has opened and warmed the air, the grass beneath my bare feet.
A widening red flash paralyzes then absorbs the blue, the grey, white, and orange.
Flats of grass thrashed aside by a bolt of dark motion.
Scratched knees, palms and fingers hooked into pavement.
Shadows arched over the walkway hollow out the brightness astride the house.
What determines the threshold of a memory? The field of vision? The field of awareness?
Notice how the toes have spiraled themselves under so only their tips and the edge of the heels touch the floor.
Unspiraled, snakes don’t inch so much as travel as whip. The kinesis. A languid physics. They exist as complete stillness or locomotion. No appendages with which to gesture. Does this lack of body language generate the suspense? They give no hints, moving as they do just ahead of the cusp of time.
Alone in the yard, I held a twig into the sky to chase a moth. With this in hand, I remember feeling empowered; the day itself extended into me. Even then, I sensed the ideal—warm sun, blue skies, a butterfly—and acknowledged that it should be appreciated. I was grateful for and present in it. Expanded.
In the next step, the arch of my bare foot crushed the soft body of the snake. In reaction, the whip wound around my skin. The day pinched and contracted, a vulnerable point. The horror of the body’s commitment to physics, to complete the foot’s course: I had to push hard on the elastic body in order to spring off it. Shake it from my ankle.
Perhaps as I ran from the grass to the patio, some part of me tried to outpace time and reached the edge of the instant before my feet. This overtaking of physical momentum and frame of space knocked me back. The edge collapsed.
I wonder now, in the safe remove of memory, what became of the snake. Simple questions of animism, of parallel experience emerge. Were we both enjoying the same day that our chance encounter startled us out of? What did she feel? This path of compassion unfolds my fear: Was she badly hurt? Did I kill her in that moment? Am I this story’s villain?
In the past, when returning to this particular memory, it never occurred to me that I could have injured or killed the snake. In my mind, she was so large and I was so small. Because of my child size and my idea of what a snake was, she appeared huge—several feet long and several inches around. In reality, the snake must not have been that big. I, on the other hand, was between 30 and 40 pounds. Condensed to a point, compounded by the force of flight.
There was a flailing motion through the grass, but was this after I fled? Did the snake move or stay still after I stepped off? The more deeply I enter the memory to question its events, the more I find I could be manufacturing within it—a child begins to flicker in and out of the frame of the yard. The frame of the yard zooming in between my perspective and out to a landscape focus. Moving too fast, it’s trapped. Falling in on itself as it expands into imagination.
While assessing the 21 possible snakes the internet says it could be, I settle on the black racer. My skin can feel each thread of the blanket around me move as I breathe. I take a sip of Echinacea and gag—its thick minty earthiness sticks in the hollow of my throat—it tastes like snake. The effervescent and pliable jacket of awareness that wraps my heart turns to indigestion.
The unsealed fear dissolves to reveal guilt and shame. Since something in my mind believes every snake has the same consciousness, I also believe that every snake knows what I did. I didn’t know the shame was there, so I didn’t know I could or should apologize. The awareness, the heightened sensitivity, not merely a defense against aggressors. A defense against becoming an aggressor.
I feel compelled to open to the page in the natural history book. Apologize to her. But I don’t know where she is. The book is long gone.
After my knees healed from their brush against on the pavement, I often absently pressed my fingers into the negative space of the scars, fascinated by the change within my body’s terrain. I do this again now. With a different awareness. As if to confirm my current body was the same one present then.
JenMarie Macdonald is a writer and bookmaker living near Philadelphia. DoubleCross Press is publishing her chapbook Home/Wreck in their Poetics of the Handmade series in 2015. She collaborates with Travis Macdonald on chapbooks, including Graceries (Horse Less Press) and forthcoming Bigger on the Inside (ixnay press), as well as their press Fact-Simile Editions.