Here, the earth with its own compositions:
the wheep-wheep-wheeps of the American avocet;
mirror-waters flushed by red-eared turtles;
wind humming the black willow woodwinds;
trumpet creepers’ sirensong.
Here in the realm of the swamp where light
is anything but still and my father’s mother warned him
Never enter, each whisper of his machete
promises the city of conquistadors
paved with gold cobblestones, rivers of liquid ivory,
Ponce de Leon and his crew aged not a day.
Here, Shreveport, Louisiana, 1958, where instead of glory
he finds the cottonmouth hung like tinsel
with the violet blooms of sharp-winged monkey flower,
warming its blood by those few rays of sun
that finger through the willows, my father approaching
with grand sweeps of his blade.
Imagine that moment for the serpent,
he says, its sudden wakened eye black as a poppy seed,
then that banded machinery of scales,
the clap of its jaw unhinged to action.
Gravity holds little dominion over the dedicated body
and it’s almost comical the way my father mimes
the way the snake struck, reaching slow-motion
with his left arm, two fingers transformed into fangs, his eyes
and mouth growing into large Os
as he twists away from the strike, right arm swinging down
just in time through the air
that here, in our living room—
another Christmas Eve, another birthday—
is nothing more than air
but in that swamp became a flickering:
the reels of his future spinning before him
like wartime clips of men dropped toward France,
their parachutes iridescent jellyfish in the night.
There, in the swamp, he saw Vietnam
as though from the pages of an Atlas:
serpentine coastline of the South China Sea,
a row of bodies lined up along a dirt road,
draft card a declaration of flame in his grasp,
disappointment inscribed across his father’s face.
There, between my father and the snake:
a dreamy image of the day my sister would bolt
out the back door and he’d search the neighborhood
for hours, fearful he’s lost her;
two years later to the AM of my birth, body purple
with meconium and blood, the screams of this child
for once welcome, skull warped with labor, gauzy
as a milkweed’s seed pod.
The swamp will show you things.
Then the machete and cottonmouth met,
and the snake split in half, the blood of it splayed
in meticulous streams of black, the flat medallion of the wound
like a plastic model of the cell: a nucleus of bone
surrounded by nerves, tissue, and chaos.
Here he stands. Still. Shocked he cannot reverse
what he’s done. Stop! his mind had ordered. But here
the mind holds little over fate.
Here, had he stepped miles back with his left foot
rather than his right
as he entered the sway of black willows,
he’d be the one clutching at his struck face, virus
tunneling the chambers of his mind,
swamp waters rising,
and it would be the cottonmouth seeking another tree trunk
settled in the waters, certain in the ever-chambers
of its mind of what it’s done, certain
as the gold domed cells of black willows,
as the kuk-kuk-kuks of herring gulls,
my father thinking of his mother
who’d only taught him the little she knew
as he turns to hack that snake into its smallest parts,
the ink of it spreading across the water’s surface.
Retreating, he matches each footstep that brought him here
and when he emerges from this waving,
unbalanced world, the hard-packed earth of the non-swamp
holds everything higher so that when he looks toward the sun,
the barn swallows dip lower, spread their wings
to catch some air, then rise again, bobbing like buoys
along the invisible thread of their passage through the sky.
-First published in Fifth Wednesday Journal. 11 (Fall 2012): 96-99.
-Winner, Methodist University’s 22nd Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Contest