Telling: Altars & Artifacts


more snakes

I leave the boys to their own devices. The house needs attention. I clean and take an inventory of the cupboards. Much of the canned goods bear expiration dates over 5 years passed. I sort and toss and label. For a while the boys stay close to home. They play indoor games. I leave them to it. Eventually they move out, go exploring. They return from around the lake, Eli and Jake's arms laden with beaver wood, talking forts and hideouts. This is good. This is very good. Gus returns in a funk because the others wouldn't help him bring home the dead snake he'd found. They thought it was too gross. He'd wanted the skeleton. I say a snake skeleton would be cool to have. He could take it to school along with the rattle and show his class. I encourage him to return and bring the dead snake home, but he's in a funk and won't go.

One afternoon the boys go down to the "shop", one of the out-buildings which is full of turn of the century settler's tools. They spend several hours there. On their return, Tucker announces: "There are two dead rats in there. When you hit 'em with a stick they sound like toys."

I am completely at a loss as to how to respond to this.

The day we leave, the boys climb into the car while there're still hours of house cleaning to do. I chase them off. "Go for one last walk," I command. "We've a long day of driving ahead of us." They go off, and return just as we're finishing the cleaning and packing. They come at a run, Gus in the lead, bearing a snake and shouting triumphantly, "Look, look, we killed a snake."

"Why?" I ask, standing, stopped, arms heavy at my sides. "Why?"

Gus stops too, and the littler ones behind him. The shouting stopped by my stillness. This is not the reception they anticipated. It's my fault. I see that. I have not said the right things at the right times.

"I wanted the skeleton," Gus explains, cradling the ropey body, beginning to remember past lessons. "I'm sorry, Mama, I didn't think. I'm sorry." The glory flipped to shame in a heartbeat.

The boys' shoulders sag, their hands become fidgety. They stand, still bunched close, but now disengaged from one another. The mob-power that had lifted them up, turning treacherous and cold, isolating. They begin to speak again, words of confession and blame, "We hit it." "It was his idea." "I didn't want to but..." "We hit it with sticks." "He did it." "Why did we...?" "I didn't..." "We killed it." "I didn't mean to."

The boys, unable to stay close, disperse. Gus and I face each other, each at a loss. What now? He is bound to the snake. He has overpowered it, taken it's life. The body is his responsibility now. He knows that. His body knows it. I can see it in the way his hands play over the snake, the protective, loving bent of his fingers and arms. His knowing informs me. He cannot walk away and leave it.

I get a ziplock bag. Gus folds the snake into it. The snake rides with us, all the way home.

A Mother's Journal

field notes from
1997 - 1999