Last words & epigraphs
Buy Gargoyle online
This work first appeared in Gargoyle, issue #50. Please respect the fact that this material is copyrighted. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose without the express consent of the author or artist.
Gargoyle magazine is edited by Richard Peabody & Lucinda Ebersole.
Snake in the Pond
The girl was good at hiding. When they were all ready to go to The Big Procession at church, she tucked herself inside the bushes under the pine trees. If it hadn’t been for the thunderclaps that sent her running home, they never would have found her because she had practiced hiding for a long time. First, when it was her naptime, she had wedged herself behind the big couch in the living room. The space was so narrow. Her shoulders shoved against her cheeks and the floor vent cut deep impressions in her knees. But for a moment, as they called her name over and over, she knew how good it was to have a secret.
Then, she began to hide her toys—the flat wooden men deep into the cracks of the chairs, her marbles one by one under the large weeds in the yard, a block behind a tractor tire. When she looked around her, she put on secret eyes. Sometimes she only saw burdocks and old farm equipment and dusty chairs, but sometimes she saw Purees and Cat’s Eyes and little building blocks glistening and waiting in the sunlight.
When she was older and her father and brother stormed around the garage looking for their gas filters or special pipe wrench, she pretended she was the one who had hidden them, the wrench under the carburetor, the screwdriver behind the gas cans, the tiny screws just to the right of the sickle bar with its sharp teeth, the screwdriver beneath the single-tine plow that rocked back and forth above your foot.
And so, the weekend before her parents were going away on a Big Vacation, she got up the nerve and hid in the bushes just as they were leaving for church. The prickered dirt scratched her knees, and the pine needles collected in the folds of her dress, but she could have stayed there forever, the calls of her family circling her head and she staying so perfectly still. But the storm flushed her out and she was in the car and out to church and they “made it, on time,” before anyone knew where she was or particularly cared about what had happened.
A week later, her parents left on the Big Vacation. Now that her parents were gone and her large Aunt Mary was taking care of her brother and sisters and herself, the girl was ready to hide in the attic. She spent a few hours practicing in her closet first. She tucked herself in among the shoes and let the ends of her sister’s dresses hang around her face, but in the end, she couldn’t get herself to open the attic door at the back of the closet. The attic had thick piles of flies stacked up under the eaves. She could hear them buzzing and flipping on their backs, slowly inching across the floor. She knew she could stand the heat in the attic, and there were little cracks in the corner to let in some light, but what to do with the flies. There was no way to practice for that. And so, she gave up.
That night at dinner, her brother said there was a snake in the pond. It was the longest snake he had ever seen.
“Wider than your finger?” she asked.
“Wider,” he said.
“Bigger than your wrist?” she asked.
“Much bigger,” he said.
“As big as my waist.”
And they all shuddered, glanced at Aunt Mary, and kept eating.
After dinner, they all went to look. The pond lay in its nest of rotting weeds at the end of their yard. The old rock garden arced around it. The girl edged up along the highest rocks of the rock garden and looked down. The oldest sisters tramped the grass slowly, carefully, at water’s edge. Aunt Mary stood behind them, her hands on her hips. The pond stayed silent. Mosquitoes swarmed about it. They saw nothing.
The next morning, the girl crept back to the pond alone. She nestled in the forsythia bushes behind the rock garden. Once she had hidden there when all the others were jumping out of the hayloft. They had landed just inches from her feet. No one knew she was there. She thought of scaring them just as they rolled to a stop at her knees. But then they would know where she was. So she stayed silent.
She took a long branch and gently rustled the grass under the forsythias. She didn’t want to scare the snake, only to let him know she was there so he could stay hidden. After a little while she moved to a bunch of wild geraniums near the pond’s edge and let the stick drag the top of the water scum. She waited a long time, but there was nothing but the bees and wasps and glinting dragonflies that were always there. The farm was sunk into a deep silence. No one was jumping out of the hayloft, no one was banging around in the garage, no one was tractoring into the orchard, no one was calling for her or wondering where she was. She stayed a long time. Finally, she grew hungry and went back to the house. Aunt Mary had baked bread and they were sitting down for lunch.
That evening, just at dinner, her brother rushed in.
“He’s out there again,” he cried. “The snake. Out in the pond.”
“That’s it,” Aunt Mary said. “We can’t have a snake around.”She took off her apron and searched the kitchen counter.
“A bread knife? That won’t do,” she muttered.
“He’s too big,”her brother agreed. “You need something bigger.”
She went out. The children trooped after her.
“Here,” the brother said, racing Aunt Mary to the garage. “Here’s a tractor hitch,” and she took the heavy bar of metal with its eight deep holes in her hand. She swung it slowly by her side, getting used to its heft, then turned to the children. “You, get inside and stay inside,” she rasped. “Joe, you come with me.”
The children sat back down around the dinner table and stared at the mashed potatoes and thickening gravy. The girl heard the distant hum of bees, the singsong of a single robin. A few flies bumped against the kitchen screens.
“Shall we serve the rest of the potatoes?” she wondered.
“Yes. Let’s,” her older sister said.
The robin sang on and on.
Suddenly, Joe and Aunt Mary were back.
“We got ’em,” Joe announced. His T-shirt was off. He was wiping his hands and chest with a rag.
Aunt Mary said nothing, just washed her hands and went back to slicing meatloaf.
“How?” the children asked separating the beans from the mashed potatoes on their plates.
“With the hitch,” Joe replied. “Aunt Mary just took off his head.”
“Where is he?” the children asked.
“Out back,” Joe said. Out back meaning any one of the three distant garbage piles in the fields behind their place or out back in the junk pile where they dragged their fallen and dead trees or out back meaning anywhere behind their orchard where they were never to go. And suddenly, they were so hungry they couldn’t get enough to eat.
The next day the girl made a wide circle around the pond when she went out to pull carrots in the far garden. And she didn’t glance at the forsythia bushes either. When she returned, she kicked her marbles under the couch and sat in her room a long time listening to the distant buzz of flies in the attic. Then she got up, shut her bedroom door, and never thought of hiding again.