box of jars

ming holden
Shepherds and Inventions

The words we learned in elementary school of which my mother was principal went like this: spiders and snakes, spiders and snakes, I'm gonna learn to love them no matter how long it takes. Home for the summer among long dry grass and the destructive blueprint of my parents' marriage and routines I avoided walking outside in daylight as I always had for fear of snakes, kings and gophers and rattlers, I suspected to be out in force. I watched movies in the cool living room, languishing instead of moving and growing unhappy for it.

My sister said in a letter after my mother's heart surgery that words would continue to open for me and adore me. I did not know they had been doing so.

This time I decided I was going to try and send a snake love if I saw it, a decision made due to the influence of my sister and a chumash indian. I saw four huge snakes in a month. On my parents' ranch, gold in high june heat, a long dense marked body lying among the thistles. When it moved it would inch along in little pushes led by its small head, little black tongue peeking in and out, then suddenly it would jet like streaming fluid.

The young man whose tongue was the first to coax an orgasm out of my labia used words to lie, obfuscate, skirt the issue. He used words to get what he wanted without having to do or look at what frightened him. Then he wondered why words did not lie down for him when he went to write a story.

What is it about a legless lizard that makes us shiver?

Snakes move in a way no other land animals do. They're so slithery, my brother said once, trying to explain the phobia he and I had had since birth. Something about the very sight of one meant danger, caused an involuntary startling. I would always see them in dreams, which earmarked them as nightmares. My indian friend says move like a snake: listen to the heart of the earth.

The afternoon of graduation mom had me ascend the railroad tie steps to carry something heavy from her car and there it lay. I in my brain, which was addled with a day spent hibernating then a burst of sunlight, addled with heartbreak and dreams grown vivid since I had stopped taking the antidepressants, I could not tell for flickering moments, standing there in the heat looking at the snake, whose head was hidden in the grass, if I was awake.

My old teacher Lynn and I held hands and cried while the little graduates sang wavily. I do not even know them and it's still breaking my heart, I said to her, and during the speeches lifted my eyes to the tinny applauding of cottonwood and pepper trees. I understood I had been born without the mechanism to disengage, to just not go there, in the face of sadness or pain. I understood it was risky to live with my ear to the ground; grief can be deafening.

Looking at the snake I thought how different, how impressive, it was compared to other animals. No wonder the poor creature had been tagged as the devil. There is an undeniable power about the creature. All the raw power in a muscle languishing there.

That night we watched mom's favorite movie about old men in space. The bare bones of the story was the same as occurs everyplace: down to one man or motley crew beating the odds, the world hanging in the balance, and as with every savior, a betrayal, a lazarus--a word that always sounded to me like lizard.

Just once looked into the mirror and saw a beautiful body. Mom and I walked to the car in the june evening and I knew that I was being shepherded through a danger zone by a network of mother-teachers.

I called to dad to come look, then turned and it had gone. I saw it again in the dry flowerbed, threading through stem carcasses. I called mom. It disappeared again. When she went back down the stairs I carried her basket out of the car and there the rascal was, all four feet of him, stretched out on the rocks. I was tense but not terrified. He was playing with me!

Words are not dispassionate.

Mom finally saw him too, right as he careened through the bottom of her rose bush.

One of the children in the graduation ceremony belonged to my indian friend, who was not surprised to hear that the snake played hide and seek with me. I told him I was trying to remember to send snakes love and respect as other living things when I saw them. He told me, They're showing themselves to you. Animals sense fear. They also sense love.

Words cannot be inert when we created them. Words are inventions. I trusted him because he was physically sincere, because he opened his mouth on my body. Inventions are manmade and pieces of us end up in what we make. There is a pain that has curled round in my chest, in its caverns, and I am beginning to think it is here to stay and that my body must get used to ferrying around dense pieces of darkness.

If you are insincere, or anything else you become when you allow cowardice to shepherd you, words will sense it and curl away.

What if that boy, who skewered my heart and handed it to me on a plate in a pizza parlor, were somehow in doing so saying something other than the words his mouth and tongue were forming. I read somewhere that all signs form a language, just not the one you think you know. When I think of his body, of his flicking tongue, or the cursive of a snake's body on the hot road or between my mother's roses, my muscles flinch involuntarily.