From my seat at the end of the line of folding chairs I could just see, through the grubby double-paned windows, the blue ice of the January sky, fractured by dead branches. Inside the elementary school auditorium, the visiting herpetologist lectured us on the myriad reptiles he held in rows of gleaming metal cages.
Iguanas, we learn, have a tiny third eye atop their heads that can perceive gradations of light; all lizards but the gecko go through their lives mute, lacking vocal cords. The giant boa constrictors of Central and South America do not suffocate their prey, as is commonly believed. They cut off the blood supply at the site of constriction, and consciousness begins to dim within minutes. I was in the third grade that year, and dreamed of being a paleontologist. I stood flushed and shiny-eyed before the cousins of the ancient giants I revered.
FedEx is to deliver my grandfather’s urn by next Friday. My mother was with him at the end, when his vision grew dark, unable to make out anything but light and shapes. He stretched a hand out over the chasm, reaching for a wife long dead these last thirty years.
“Edna? Is that you?” His words came harsh and ragged from the bottom of wasted lungs.
“It’s Carol, Dad,” my mother said. “I’m right here.”
“Please, Edna,” he insisted. “Help me.”
On an evening soon after, he gave his final resignation. “I can’t do this anymore!” he growled as his hospice nurse cleared away the untouched cordon bleu on styrofoam.
“You don’t have to, my darling.” My nana patted his arm.
The next night, he let out a low, guttural moan, and passed into shadow. He’d forgotten who he had been.
I told my grandfather I loved him for the last time on Mt. Tamalpais, shin-deep in dry grasses as I chased a cell phone signal. He answered in kind, but it was forced; he wanted his supper, bed, oblivion. Dying is sometimes like being born; first, you must be pummeled and thrashed by the painful contractions that squeeze you from this world.
As we said goodbye, a movement caught my eye. A swift wave by my foot. The rattler wasn’t coiled; I nearly stepped on its head. The wet clay of its body formed a smart L shape. I backed off; the serpent glided toward me like a phantom, eyes glittering dark as blackberry jam. A hypnotic calm rose in my blood. Time stoppered, ceased. We crossed the threshold of our own private dance: admission for two.
Fear does not exist where there is no time.
The rattlesnake entered my mind. There was no pain, no rumination, no thought at all. I was carried to a time and place before language, before the fecundity of life itself began to mount and gather. With a final glance, the snake poured away like a fistful of sand into the chaparral. I sat on the picnic table under the setting sun like one who has been marked, sanctified with blood and ash.
I remember the way the herpetologist tenderly pulled the blue-eyed leucistic constrictor from its cage. It was the way a priest might place the sacred eucharist on the altar before Mass. My jaw stood ajar; waves of energy curled off the surface of the snake’s jeweled skin. Its muscled body glistened and pulsed; it moved like a dark tide rising.
When I got to the front of the line, I reached for the heavy serpent with tremulous hands. My body shuddered as it tightened on my arm, encircled my neck and shoulders, soldered the gap between the mystical and the real. I swayed, upended; hot clamoring static swarmed around my face.
“I-I don’t think I can do this!” A dry sob lodged in my throat.
“You have to relax into it, see?” the scientist said, hurrying over to help. “Nice deep breaths now. Don’t let her know you’re afraid.” But all I could think was, This is what it feels like to die.
Sarah Grimes is an essayist and short story writer based out of San Francisco. Originally from the East Coast, she received her MA in psychology from the New School. Her work has previously appeared in Elephant Journal, and often explores the intersection of psychology, spirituality, and consciousness. Sarah seeks to highlight the existence of the sacred hidden within ordinary moments.