This is not the old misogynistic story of
the mythic expulsion from the perfect garden
because we know that wherever knowledge is
forbidden to women there will be no perfection.
There are, however, morality tales among
these words like zinnias growing with cabbages.
I came home from town yesterday after an early
appointment and errands to my husband’s urging:
Bring your phone to the garden to take a picture.
And there it was a five-foot, black rat-snake limned
along the top of the deer fencing, curved as any Ozark
country road, still as midnight, seemingly weightless.
I thought it trapped in the nylon grid of the fencing
and felt a squeezing panic in my chest. In the past
the bird netting we often used had caught and killed
other snakes and left me sorrowful at my causation.
For years the open-mouth gasp of a smallish copperhead
was enameled onto my retina, carved into my brain,
and I suffered the horror of its suffocation and baking
death in hot sunlight. Other times we worked as a team
to free trapped rat snakes, one of us holding the body,
the other cutting the monofilament of the netted trap.
I freed a small one myself, returning, with gloves on
to extricate its black calligraphic line, after it bit my thumb.
We no longer use bird netting. The deer fencing must
be more elastic, more forgiving because the snake had
woven itself with such grace through the grid. Yet I feared
it injured. We carried ladders, gloves, and small sharp
scissors to the site where I touched it with my walking stick,
but that beautiful clever snake had moved ten feet along
the fence, sliding out of the cells of the mesh, gliding
onto the overhanging branch of the old peach tree.
I was glad for its freedom, hoping it would feed upon
mice on the ground and not the young wrens and summer
tanagers in the branches. Still it must eat and I would
set it free though I am not a natural snake handler.
My fears of snakes first slithered into my consciousness
early with boy cousins teasing, tormenting me with cautionary
tales in the country paradise of our grandfather’s small farm
in the scrub oak and stunted piney woods of South Jersey.
Later, between bouts of teaching high school English, I
taught pre-K in concrete inner-city streets of Philadelphia
where little black children—far from their grandparents’
southern rural roots —shrieked with fear on the field trip
to the Museum of Natural History when the docent brought
out a milk or corn snake. It was in the days of dress codes
when a female teacher had to wear a skirt, which hid my shaking
knees as I held and stroked the lovely reptile and promised
that there was nothing to fear. They were still babies, too young
to learn what there really was to fear in their futures—a cruel and unjust
world of hatred by implacable systems buoyed by fear-filled hearts
rather than tired myths about original sin and serpents in the garden.