A Meditation on Snakes

“I don’t know what you call this emotion,” one psychopathic prisoner said, looking at a fearful face, “but it’s what people look like just before you stab them.”
                                                                                    —The Atlantic

During one long-ago Saturday matinee, I squirmed while a careless explorer was smothered by a snake’s coiling body. But I sat still and fascinated when the woman traveling with him was captured by natives whose chief surrounded her with snakes, eager to make her mother to a powerful half snake, half human monster. I didn’t much care about the myths that chief babbled about in broken English, but I couldn’t wait to see what sort of creature the special-effects people could conjure.

Decades later, I settled beside my son to watch a movie where that old B-movie scenario had been updated and brought to a familiar civilization. A scientist combined men and snakes, extolling in awkwardly formal English a theory about strength, intelligence, and the superhuman.  My son was seven, quiet through commercials as if there was a spell to sustain by silence, holding it until an hour after that movie ended he awakened screaming.

Since then, I’ve learned there have always been women who, because they’d seen snakes, or worse, carelessly touched them, feared for the features of their soon-to-be-born. Maternal impressions, that belief is called, how a pregnant mother’s imagination can affect the body of her child, how readily change could slither inside her, the baby sliding to breath with temptation’s ancient shape.

And now, this afternoon, a colleague explained how, within the limbic system, where processing feelings occurs, there is a shortfall of gray matter inside a psychopath’s brain. Snakes, he added, expecting me to agree, only act like snakes. Connotation will never complicate any choice they make.

It is always early in pregnancy when the fundamentals fail, the brain absent except for the stem that powers heart and lungs. Some of the profoundly damaged, however, survive. In a museum of anomalies, I have examined the frames of those who lived in suggestive shapes–mermaids with brief, fused legs; small seals with flippers; and one, snake-like, without limbs whatsoever, all displayed like memorabilia for the consequence of wretched chance.

In my personal museum, my son, eighteen, punches out, waving to the manager, a woman who is bagging a Saturday’s worth of fast-food gross income. Worn out, he hurries between hedges to his new truck, maybe half way home when, from behind those bushes, she is shot in the head by a boy who has been hiding, gun ready, but not interested, that night, in the six dollars inside my son’s black graduation wallet.

In another room of that museum, the thief is soon arrested because, at a party, he brags, “I capped the bitch” like a thug-life wannabe. He’d worked beside my son for several months. He’d faced my son on the head-shot pages of four yearbooks I have opened, some days, going back and forth, hesitant as a nervous witness, fixing, every time, upon the thief’s senior picture, his swollen biceps where inked pythons are coiled, chaos crouching where it always waits, just outside the pages’ narrow frames.

Photo used under CC.