Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2011 v10n1
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Woman, Snake, Percy Sledge

I heard this woman calling as if out of my memory,
or a dream, it was summer, doors and windows open.
When I went outside into the heat I felt the coiled
overwhelming press of despair because she screamed,
a voice hanging in that sultriness because no one
was answering, panic was setting in. I don’t say
she wasn’t thinking when she groped the rose legs,
trying to reach past dangerous thorns, her wish
to remove weeds, vines, to open a space for beauty,
but neither glove nor balm nor any protection had her.
What of poison ivy . . . why would she not ask? . . . or red
diamonded spider, even the sun itself more corrosive
than the dullness of staying safe? Still, if it’s a garden
you want, you can hardly avoid the occasional lift
of a head, quick and coppery in shade, a bare touch
of fingertips will do, no one seeing the saint’s lick of
consequence that quickens. That’s what she had, who
was bouncing her body in petunias and hydrangeas
up and down, like a joke in mint and shafting sunlight,
bumping backward so the startled-over wheelbarrow
threw up its rake, its tangled Virginia creeper, its roots
of god-knows-what, festering and knotting so many
years, her hands shoved up in surrender, then falling
as she fell, without plan or luck, as if her flesh had
nothing to do with what it was doing, she was way
beyond fear, and a model mother, but kids long out
of mind and, really, isn’t this how it happens? I was
outside the fence, then leaping over to her, shovel
scooping up dark, chopping the head off, brain
blank as a spaniel. Then it was done. What I remember
ought to be the finch-dart of her brown eyes, the blind
glaze, the leaf-limp thirst that can come to all things,
the hiding grotto where house and ground meet
like a man and woman, naked, surprised. Mostly
the words she was wailing got me, like Percy Sledge
opening another supermarket with When (or If?) A
Man Loves A Woman, that irrational love we love
selling Baton Rouge Fords. With her now in my arms,
it looked like we were waltzing, her heavy as mulch,
me touching her forehead, her hot lips, then sucking
the bitten hand. Soon I felt myself swelling with her
breasts that fumbled to escape her delightful little
frock all green stained. I cooed please settle down,
I said have you called your husband, and all the time
I was thinking of the cool gaze that had lain waiting.
It was always right there, listening, watching us.
It didn’t want to bite, it hadn’t thought of it, easy
wake-up, day unpredictable, but one touch changes
everything, fate doesn’t want to be commanded.
I could see I’d strike, too. Now I hoped for a siren,
my mind raced with things I might do, home projects,
Internet searches, names, letters unwritten, the coiled
body of a young woman I had loved years ago, saying
goodbye. My neighbor was dangerously heavy now.
It wasn’t noon yet and I couldn’t leave her alone.
Please, she said, her breath licking out, like despair.
Unspeakable, my heart. The only answer is call 911,
find another woman who’d handle my emergency,
bright voice asking who the victim is, who you are.
I felt my neighbor panting as if sexually exhausted.
I’d speak very calmly, I told myself, I’d remember
to survey the yard, green ways in and out, obstructions,
false steps. I’d move deliberately, confess the woman
is not dead yet in my embrace, but very weak, and, no,
the snake’s alive, though already forgotten, moved on.
The woman on the telephone would say hold on, please.  end

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