The Nine Thousand Directions of Forward by Jacqueline Haskins

Photo Credit: Laura Grafham Knapp

Arms loaded with groceries, I hurry through my front door, stepping out of my flip-flops in the entry. So exhausted, I’m actually murmuring aloud the list of things I have to do before I hurry off to work— already late, so focus, focus. That’s my brain’s treble, almost over-whelming my toes’ contralto: ahh, smooth cool concrete floor, delicious after summer heat. I round the corner, and freeze. A snake, in the kitchen doorway, startles back, rearing as she coils; she climbs herself like a fountain. I think “snake” then “I don’t have time for this” then “Holy. Shit. Snake.”

She’s assessed things more quickly than I have. She flows, smooth as a parabola, toward cover: my Lazy-Boy. For her head to stream toward it, her tail must glide away from it; the scramble in the middle cascades a number of directions to catch up. Is she some exquisite metaphor? I’m mesmerized, watching her unwind every way at once.

She’s not the first non-human I’ve walked in on. Mice in my dish towels depress, but no longer surprise me; I cheer for spiders, hoping they’ll eat the ants; there was that chipmunk, belligerent little terrorized bastard, quick to find a door before I’d opened them all… but a snake, claiming my stone-floored cave? This feels different.

I’m already half-certain, though I couldn’t say why, that she is no rattler— her fluidity, perhaps? But still. I stare at her tail, hard. I stare the way I have been murmuring my list—laundry, change clothes, find computer, pack lunch, feed dog, be driving away in ten minutes— murmuring out loud, taking myself in hand like a child, too little sleep for too many days— I have to focus.

There is nothing remotely like a bump on that slim, dwindling tail. Really, really.

She’s pointillist-patterned, like a distant mountain slope; ever-moving subtle color, mathematically rippled. Garter snake. A young friend of mine says “gardener snake.” When I am king, we’ll change to that.

My grotto-cool, plaster-walled, mountain sanctum; should I share it with this better mousetrap?  The answer comes viscerally. As if on picket line, my brain waves images. Dead snake, smashed to two sides of a door frame. Curled desiccated in the bottom of a bucket.

The snake, meanwhile, is on task. Unhurried yet all motion, she’s like my day today; moving just faster than me. She glides along my baseboard, head raised, eye bright, high alert. Nope, I think, no way, not the bookcase. I have got to stop her before she goes under the bookcase.

I rush to the closet. Grab dustpan and broom. Wait, not this broom, my son has unscrewed the brush from the pole. I fling aside some bags, shift the dogfood. Real broom. Got it.

I hurry back. No snake. I kneel. Don’t see her. I stretch out, belly to floor. I press my cheek to concrete. Barely visible, a tight tangle of snake writhes in the back corner of a one-inch space under the bookcase.

Have you held a snake, held motion between two palms? Pebble-dry, feather-dry, muscle stream; simultaneously textured and smooth, like polished tile. Supple, sinewed, aluminum silk. But so slight and soft compared to this broomstick. So fragile in this hard-cornered world.

Well, screw it, what can I do about that? I sigh, focus, become bully and harasser. I poke and thump— I don’t think I hit her … hard— until she reluctantly oozes to the daylight side of the bookcase. She wedges behind the lamp base’s modicum of cover, turns her head back toward the bookcase’s dark safety as if she’s reconsidering, so I keep pounding the bookcase from inside, waiting for her next move. Just then, with momentously poor timing, my giant dog comes panting in from outside. He stands helpfully at my shoulder.

“Go away,” I snap, but my eyes, my weapons of cleansing, my attention, are all focused on the snake.

Hearing my irritation, my dog concentrates harder on the problem at hand. I can’t take the time to deal with Mr. Big-footed Clumsy, time, it’s all time, I mustn’t take my eyes off this snake. Broom in one hand, dustpan in the other, I lunge, trying to scoop the snake into the dustpan, but she easily flows over and across. Try to scoop a waterfall.

I shove the dog sideways. Confused but willing, he takes this as a cue to flank her far side, raining down dog breath. The snake darts for the Holy Grail of the Lazy-Boy, but I flap my dustpan in her face until she huddles back against the wall. I suppose she is sizing up my furniture, like a perverse Martha Stewart, each piece another ally for her; my conformist choices have never been 100% loyal to me, I realize.

We settle into jerky herding. She oozes a few inches, which I either quietly allow or deflect with waving dustpan and banging broom. Two wiggles forward and one skim back, we move toward the open front door, my dog unerringly intuiting the least helpful position, and wagging.

Finally, harassed into the open center of the entry, she faces the doorway, and the blast of the summer day. Is it the heat, the glare, the door jamb’s metal and rubber? She feints left, wavers right, and holds, tongue flicking, as if it were a glass wall, that wide hot open brightness. It doesn’t matter, friend, I think. No options. It’s all over. Out you go.

Then she is past me, quick as a snake, sideways, under the key table, its lower shelf piled with dog towel and bike mirror, soccer cleats, three of four pieces of a bike light, a screwdriver, a leash, a few things I’m still trying to identify— and from there, she’s on into the closet, among the shoes and umbrellas and basketball and super-soaker. Dammit. I do not have time for this.

Teva by teva and rubber boot by rubber boot, my Dustpan of Damocles clutched high, I am flinging footware over my shoulder toward the living room. I am implacable. I am tired, pissed off, and late. I am the modern age, European diseases; I am the man, the machine. She doesn’t stand a chance. Discovered, uncovered, over-hovered, prodded and worried, there she is, out on the paving stones just in front of my house, in the full glare of the sun. Go, be free.

I expect to watch her glide away into the grass. Instead, she is motionless. Inert. For the first time since we met.

I was done here. Wasn’t I? She was checked off. What is she thinking, as more seconds pass, and more, and she continues perfect stillness, six inches from my door? What is thought, to a snake? Does a snake plan— I’m gonna head to the hibernacula today, soons I catch me a big mouse— hold a vision, and match each motion against it? Like me: today’s little list; my life’s big (big?) list. Or is snake-thought a smoothed moving parabola of instantaneous decisions: in this split second, left feels better than right?

“No, Keskoo.” Of course my dog wants to go outside now. Because I am holding the door barely open, peering through, watching the snake.

Maybe the snake is regrouping. Planning reentry? Not injured. I don’t think. I am pretty sure I didn’t hurt her.

Well, I will just have to have hassle her some more, I guess. I will feel better if I see her snake away even ten feet from my front door, into the tall grass.

I step through the door, raising the broom. With a ninety degree sideslip, she disappears. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it: she has vanished into an eight-inch-wide strip of gravel outlining my house. Ordinary golf-ball to marble-sized gravel, dumped here by the last dump truck of construction days.

A snake’s parting gift to me: a new way of seeing— the notion that this nothing, this invisibly unremarkable and too-obviously blank gravel border, thin and empty as a picture frame, is no such thing. As she enters it, it becomes a world, a 3-D maze of caves and veins. She re-makes space, as does the Alhambra, the great palace of the Spanish Moors: pattern within pattern within pattern engraved within the curve of each stone archway, tiled in brilliant colors across every floor, inscribed in ceiling sunbursts, carved within carvings within wooden window screens. The Alhambra, inside and amongst whose geometric intricacies are letters become art. In flowing script, “Allah” appears nine thousand times. It was in the Alhambra that M.C. Escher rediscovered the art of no white space; of every smallest intervening space as art.

What word might the body of a snake write nine thousand times? Which is the art, the stone or the interstice? How many times do I write a thought, before I begin to hear a small number of its resonances? What praise is offered by nine thousand root hairs, nine thousand flecks of mica untouched by light, nine thousand rocks at the bottom of each of nine thousand rivers?

And one more gift. I have forgotten my list.

 

 

Jacqueline is a biologist of wild wet places, from cypress swamps to glacial cirque swales. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest. She lives and writes in Leavenworth, Washington.

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