One For Lilith
I have this memory, from when I was young. My parents packed the blue Chevy Blazer, and we drove for hours in the hot sun. The bottoms of my thighs stuck to the leather seats. Jane held a book so close to her face that only her pink bow poked out the top, barrette full of her silky blonde hair. She always read books when we were small; she liked mysteries and biographies the best. I still remember the covers of some of them, the biography of Mahalia Jackson, another of Amelia Earhart. The images of these women whispered their words to my older sister, so that she would one day carry on the long winding secret of the past.
Anything Jane could do, I wanted to do too, of course, and better, quicker, stronger, which meant I had to learn to read or ride a bike as soon as she did, despite the three years between us. And I did it too, I didn’t care how many times I fell. Dad tells the story of how I ran in the pool at two years old when Jane learned to swim. She sobbed, terrified, until at last, not without bribery for an ice cream on the part of my mom, she pried her limbs off the instructor. My mom paced alongside the pool, cheering her on like a soccer coach. The instructor cheered and clapped her hands. Amidst the excitement, I plunged my two-year-old legs right over to the edge of the pool to join in, joyfully tumbling under water before my mom jumped in with all her clothes on and pulled me out.
Dad likes that story because he says it shows my fearless nature, which he thinks I got from him. I don’t know where I got it from, honestly, or if my ability to act before I think truly means I’m unafraid. I fear the power that others have. My first memory of that fear happened at the destination of that Chevrolet Blazer, the lake that we always swam in when Mom and Dad had a full day off work in the summer. Dad maneuvered the car past the massive parking lots of strip malls in our hometown until we reached small north Jersey towns composed of three houses with porches and vinyl siding, one tavern, and a gas station. It felt like we spent hours in that car, even though we couldn’t have gone but thirty miles.
Up front, Mom and Dad spoke to each other in low tones to mitigate the silence, so that neither Jane nor I could hear, whether or not that was their intention. Ignoring the stack of activity books on the middle seat, I stared out the window, my bathing suit wedged into my skin. I held my soft towel close to me, close enough to smell the detergent Mom used religiously. Going to the lake didn’t happen that often, so I would have to memorize each moment, make it last, like licking an ice cream cone instead of chomping it. I hoped there would be wild blueberries or that maybe Jane would go snake hunting.
Jane had been learning about snakes in one of her books. She said snakes had powers like super intelligence, and when they sat on the rocks in their coils, they were just thinking about the earth. They could crush an animal as big as a dog, and they could swallow a rabbit whole - Jane said she saw it happen. I believed this with my heart because Jane got her information straight from the source. She said most snakes are good snakes, but people get scared of them and believe wrongly they’re better off dead. They don’t understand even with the dangerous snakes none of it matters as long as you stay far enough away. Snakes need respect; they’re sensitive when people come at them because they can tell most people mean harm. Jane told me the right way to approach a snake. You have to bow to it, acknowledge its wisdom and whatnot. Part of me knew it was all a game, but part of me didn’t. I really believed in the powers of snakes. I respected them. I loved them actually, almost as if I wanted to be like them, powerful, wise.
The treeline along the road thickened. We left the buildings behind, winding into the state park for a few miles until at last the tree trunks parted and we pulled into a gravel parking lot, wheels grinding against the stones. A bright blue lake stretched before us. The wind rippled the water softly, as if running a gentle fingertip across its surface. It made the tree branches dance and wave over top of us. Back then, they were white oaks, black birch, likely with hemlock groves where the boulders grew steep. In any case, they were green, such bright green, and they were beckoning us down to plunge our bodies into the lake with the sweet zeal of summertime. Jane and I tumbled over each other to exit the car door my father opened. Honeysuckle and white pine exploded in the humid air. A bright midday heat warmed our air-conditioned skin. We focused on one mission: get to the lake.
Our first obstacle hit us right as our feet hit the ground. Mom and Dad grabbed at us with sunscreen in their hands, smearing the greasy white across our cheeks, but I fought them. Jane performed her duty as responsible daughter with a healthy eye roll, opting to take the bottle from Dad and do it herself. She always said the trick was to speed up the process yourself, but my tactic was the make-a-run-for-it reckless one and every other time, it worked; I beat Mom and Dad fair and square. I tugged my torso in the direction of the lake. Mom loomed over my seven year old frame. She dug her fingers into my shoulder as she turned to retrieve the sunscreen bottle from the bed of the trunk, but the bottle slipped from her hands; her fingers stuttered. I broke free.
I ran, the loud smack of flip-flopped feet drumming against the earth, down to the lake shore beach. My feet carried me easily as a child, whole body following along without difficulty. A gazelle, my soccer coach had called it, look at that little gazelle. Hitting the sand, I kicked my shoes to the side. My feet sank into the soft piles of golden dirt, knees buckling slightly as my young legs struggled to adjust to the changing terrain. I pushed against the dry sand with my whole body, swinging my arms forward, eyes focused on the little sectioned off square of water beyond the lifeguard. I shouted back to my sister to hurry up, we could have a flip contest, we could do cannonballs.
But just as I reached the water’s edge, I stepped in a sandcastle moat and fell smack on the ground. As my startled eyes looked around me to regain composure, I saw it, its long, dark body sleek under the surface and woven through the rocks like a ribbon. It was the first time I had found one underwater. Usually, Jane and I found them curled into helixes on rocks. Immediately, it enraptured me. This was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, impossibly perfect. It’s body sparkled. It left its place and wriggled into the water, twisting forward with ease like one long powerful muscle.
Then, not seconds later, a wave of screams erupted. The gargantuan splashes of children stampeding for shore blasted into the air. A boy not older than ten with a square face and close buzz cut hollered, “Snake! Snake! Snake! I seen it!"
Now parents screamed for their children to get out of the water. The lifeguard’s shrill whistle sounded over and over again. My mother stood frozen by the tailgate of the Blazer, my sister clung to her crying and shouting my name. I still stayed put, my legs covered in sand, confused and mesmerized by the scene unfolding before me. Flecks of splashed water landed on my face, my arms, my polka dot ruffle swimsuit as kids stormed forth from the water’s edge not a foot ahead.
Dad pulled a shovel from the back of the state park conservation truck on the hill and moved swiftly for the lake. Now that everyone had evacuated the water, the snake zipped back and forth along the surface as joyfully as a dog with its head out the window. Such glee did I perceive in its traveling over the water that I giggled. I wanted to hold it, to somehow latch on and let it drag me back and forth across the water. We would go places, that snake and I. We would make great and unstoppable plans.
Dad scooped it out of the water with the shovel. It was a long, dark and made curlicues in the air. Pride rose from within me. Dad was saving the snake. He would tell everyone it was alright; there was nothing to scream about. The father of the boy with the buzz cut walked over, also with a buzz cut, though sporting a close-trimmed mustache as well. He looked like he should have a whistle around his neck and make the skinny kid do extra laps all gym period. A thick layer of fat frosted a base layer of muscles. His pale skin bore splotches of red. I knew somewhere in my body that we were different people, this man and I.
“Looks like a cottonmouth,” he barked, “yep. That’s a cottonmouth alright, I seen ‘em before. Those things’s dangerous; better just to finish him off now. Here, I’ll do it.”
He reached for the shovel. There was a pause, I remember it. As a girl, I thought Dad and I were connected, that he could read my thoughts and he felt the same things that I did. Dad must know the powers of the snake. He must be returning it to its home. I didn’t expect Dad to let this strange man take the shovel without any argument. Or if he did, I thought it only because Dad knew this man could care for the snake.
As if in one motion, the man dropped the snake on a flat rock, jerked his arm, and the ring of metal on rock sounded with exactitude. The head fell from body, hissing and biting for minutes after the two separated. It’s black muscle writhed on the rock. The crowd exhaled, some clapped. A park ranger appeared with the lifeguard.
“We get a lot of ‘em over at our place, the breed like bunnies, can’t stop ‘em except to kill ‘um fast as you can.”
I watched Dad. He came over and picked me up out of the hole. As soon as he touched me, anger spiked in my little body. How could he? How could he come over to take care of me when he was responsible for tragedy? I wormed in his arms like the body of the snake, only I was certain of the strength of my venom.
"No!" I screamed. "No! No! No! No! No! Get off!
Dad slowly walked up to the truck. He didn’t say anything; he just took me back to my family. When he put me on the ground, I tried to make a break for it and Mom snatched me.
"Don’t you see what could have happened?" she demanded. Her voice reprimanded me but had a softness to it. She only wanted to scare me a little. I looked at her bewildered. I looked for Jane and then turned back to my Dad, who was talking now to a park ranger. Jane’s eyes had reddened. She hugged me.
"It’s ok now, Louie, it’s ok," she whispered.
Jane smelled like sunscreen and sweat and I wanted her body off me.
"You lied to me!" I screamed. "You’re a liar, a scaredy pants liar!"
I ran away from her and towards Dad, hitting his khaki cargo swim trunks with my little fists.
"Bring it back."
Mom sat me on the towel in the grass and shushed me, at first with a gentle voice, but when she didn’t succeed after an hour or so, I could see her grow cross. Her mouth drew into a thin line with little wrinkles that meant her patience had run out, and I had better not get up from that towel or I was going to go to bed without dinner, that was for sure. I balled my body up and stuck my face between my knees. It looked safe there in the triangle of shadows formed by my legs and the mint green sea stars on the towel. Dad’s voice reached my ears and I screamed "no" over and over, even when my throat hurt and my lungs ran out so he walked away. He and Jane swam in the water. I watched them, their unburdened summertime lounging. Dad picked Jane up and threw her until his arms got tired, and then he let her stand on his knees and dive. I honestly wanted to go swimming too, but the heaviness wouldn’t let me give in.
The guy with the buzz cut got a ticket because it’s illegal to kill snakes in New Jersey, especially not a harmless water snake. Even though the park ranger had taken away the body, Dad pretended like he made a grave so I could decorate it. I said I wouldn’t look at it so long as he was there, but then he and Mom went for a walk and I arranged some pebbles in the shape of a snake. Everything was on the mend until Jane said, "I know it’s sad Lou, but you don’t have to make it such a big deal." So rather than deal with her, I ran off into the woods, and I swear to you, the ghost of that snake went straight into my body.
About the Author: Ashley lives in New York City where she moonlights as a freelance writer for Vogue.com, Paste Magazine, and Bustle after her day job teaching the city's youth. Motivated by fiction workshops with local authors and botany classes at the New York Botanic Gardens, she is currently at work on her first novel, a story that seeks to challenge our relationships with each other and the natural world. She has studied, worked, and translated in France and Russia, which often appear in her work.