Serpents

fiction & photo by Elizabeth

SERPENTS

Natalie longed for a permanent position so she could stop subbing classes the tenured ditched. When she asked the lithe Suzanne to give her oral report per the regular’s instructions, the class groaned like a sick wolfhound and Natalie knew she should have stayed in bed. Suzanne’s voice, a prison-gray monotone, driveled facts as profound as rats have tails, so Natalie chose not to reprimand the students who stared out the window or doodled or checked their phones. She even let two in the back row sleep, one slumped with his head and fully tattooed arms on the desk while the other’s torso seemed to be attentive but with each deep breath her head bobbed like those spring-necked animals that line cars’ rear windows.

            Suzanne never glanced from her cards to notice even when a crimson snake’s head poked from between her lips, further impairing her enunciation. Natalie tried to rise but was unable to rouse or shout as she watched the snake slide down Suzanne’s body and realized she must be dreaming—not her first lucid one so, wanting that skin to skin, she reached for Sam—until someone gasped.

            That startling sound snapped all eyes onto the slender serpent, its slick tongue tasting air as it sidled the yellowed linoleum. Natalie wanted to flee but could only move her eyes and saw that everyone appeared equally immobilized, statues with moving eyes in molded chairs. Not even a finger twitched as three blue racers whipped out of Suzanne’s wide mouth, followed by a slither of snakes that seamlessly skimmed down her barelegged body to the floor. The crimson snake wrapped a girl’s red boot as if having found its mate, but when scales met skin the girl leapt from her seat and shrieked, her desk slamming the floor as the snake twisted through air, smacked the blackboard and fell with a thwack.          

            Suzanne finally glanced up, clamped her lips round a coral serpent writhing to escape, and swallowed furiously till it disappeared back in her gullet. Soft rattles mesmerized the class and the booted girl sank to the floor, eyes glassy, head at a peculiar angle. Suzanne stretched tall and spread-eagled, as the renegade snakes throughout the room slid from pockets, packs, sleeves, to stream up her pale skin and under her loose clothes till the last slender tail slipped in the basket of her mouth. When the bell rang, the students yawned, stretched, then rose as if from a refreshing nap, and Natalie resolved to never sub again.

Thank you to the editors at Doorknobs & Body Paint for first publishing this piece as well as choosing it as the Dorsal Contest winner.

The Gift

fiction & photo by Elizabeth

THE GIFT

         Six years had passed, yet having heard of Catherine’s return, Leo stopped in the doorway of her studio, his approach along the cobbled street masked by the ancient whir of her potter’s wheel. He could feel her like a phantom in his palms. She remained robust with deep contours, sensual swells, as she spread wet clay with her index and thumb, her thumb so unlike a baboon’s yet she had backed against him as fierce as a baboon.

         He lit a match and watched her kohl-lined eyes dart in his direction. Holding her gaze, he drew the flame’s heat through his parted lips as if inhaling her, her thick graying hair loosely piled on her head as if she could contain the untamable. 

         “Leo,” she said as if they had seen each other yesterday, as if she had been expecting him, then returned to her piece, indenting shallow prints beneath the vessel’s wide ridge.

         He had no words. Too many years between good-bye and hello. Good-bye, a note he could not read. He had to hear its words from a man he hardly knew as this neighbor translated the dark scratches along the pale perfumed paper that told Leo his Catherine was gone, would not return, could no longer live with their cruelty. He ripped the letter from this intruder’s hand, spit at his feet, and slammed the door, knocking one of her vases to the floor, its crackling chased him before it abandoned him to the emptiness of his hurried steps

         “Hello, Catherine,” he said like a prayer. “You are back.”

         “Yes,” she replied, eyes trained on the vase whirling between her palms.

         “Married?”

         “What do you want?” she said, looking up.

         Leo noticed the ravens still perched in her eyes. Smoke filled his lungs as he drank in the soft lines around her mouth that had held him with the passion of a boa swallowing prey yet had also stung him with a wasp’s fury.

         He wanted to strike her, hear her plead for forgiveness, beg him to allow her to return. Instead she returned to her clay, fingers scraping the hollow of the swirling vase as she swept the sides wider apart. Leo flicked his cigarette in the trench between cobblestone and whitewashed building, pulled a red silk scarf from his jacket pocket, flashed it in the air then snapped it open. Catherine’s head flicked toward him. Clasping the scarf, Leo shoved it in his loose fist. Her eyes widened.

         “Leo, don’t ”

         “Still deaf and blind.”

         Her mouth opened but before her words touched the air, Leo’s hand turned, rotated back, arced forward and opened. A white, one-eyed dove flew from his palm to her shoulder.

Before the bird’s wings settled against its side, Leo turned from the earth-scented room and continued along the maze of cobblestones that wound through a town that would never be hers.





Thank you to the editors of riverbabble for first publishing this story.

11/9/16

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photo by Elizabeth

I’ve been saying Fuck fear! to everyone today, especially myself. The surrealistic results of last night’s election were shocking and fostered images of increased violence, economic disparity, disenfranchisement, senseless cruelty and suffering in our country and beyond our imaginary borders…yet while out with our dog, I marveled at the stars sparkling as they have and will for eons.

So many compassionate people with social and historical understanding are scared, yet fear is how slave owners and terrorists, bullies and rapists, gangs and militias have gained and maintained entirely too much privilege for too long. Fear paralyzes. Fear wraps us in numbing behavior, PTSD and isolation. I’ve spent too much of my life focused on moving out of fear to embrace it now because our young nation is struggling with issues of entitlement and humanism; ideals of capitalism and democracy; definitions of freedom and propaganda. Fear locks the brain in a simplified fight or flight state that prevents us from perceiving others through the complex lens of empathy and layered perspectives.

Fear, like anxiety, is a mighty force. If I let it root, I’ll be paralyzed in ways I’ll be too blinded to even see. Instead, we can choose to rise above harsh circumstance and heal must be healed through love and connection so we can make our way to 2020 as intact as possible as a nation and a world. We can do this with the deep listening, caring and intelligence that we are capable of providing ourselves and one another.

May all be happy, safe, healthy and at peace.

This Edge of Sea

essay & photo by Elizabeth
          And it is a dream at sea such as was never
dreamt, and it is the Sea in us that will dream it:
          The Sea, woven in us, to the last weaving of its
tangled night, the Sea, in us, weaving its great
          hours of light and its great trials of darkness

                                                                Saint-John Perse, Seamarks

I’ve touched death twice and come back. I feel like a cat, though I’m not counting on nine. I was told as a child that I would not live even thirty years due to severe asthma. In my early twenties, I wheezed ceaselessly for two years, even with intravenous steroids during monthly hospitalizations. At this time I was told I’d be dead by twenty-five due to a rare form of asthma that afflicts fewer than two percent of asthmatics, most of whom are seventy or older. Now, long past thirty, I know that no one can predict another’s fate.

The first time I touched death, I was seventeen. After spending several days trying to stabilize a particularly bad attack, during which I could only walk with assistance, could barely eat, and couldn’t lie down, I called my physician, Doctor K, who wanted to meet me in the emergency room.

Driving proved slow and difficult with such labored breathing, but after I parked near the hospital’s entrance, I inched toward the automatic doors by leaning against cars, poles, the rough white wall for support, and paused to catch my breath after each step as if climbing at twenty-six thousand feet. 

Just before I reached the door’s sensor, a nurse rushed out, slid a wheelchair under me, and rushed me to the sterile emergency room where I was transferred to a metal-railed bed. Veiled behind pale vinyl curtains, I rocked back and forth in spasmodic rhythm, my airways severely constricted. A nurse paged my doctor as another nurse gave me an adrenaline shot, which accelerated my heart and made me shake uncontrollably. My breathing worsened.

Another nurse tied a blue tourniquet below my left biceps, slapped the inside of my arm to raise the knotted veins, aimed for the largest, and stabbed the IV needle through the skin. The vein rolled. Her second attempt was also unsuccessful since this vein was scarred from scores of previous IV needles, so she turned my hand palm down and speared the largest vein running between slender hand bones. Blood spurted up the needle’s tube before it flushed back through my body in a stream of saline released from the bottle she hooked to the metal bar above my head. Blood gases were then drawn. A respiration therapist once told me that these are so painful that he’s watched people in comas jerk, even sit up, when these were drawn. I cried from exhaustion and pain, but immediately choked, the extra phlegm further congesting restricted airways. 

Once Doctor K came through the curtain’s opening, I relaxed. He ordered steroids, blood tests, and more than I needed to think about as I struggled for bits of air. Telling me to drink, the nurse handed me a liter of water, then pulled green plastic tubes over my head and shoved their ends in my nostrils so pure oxygen could return my blue lips and nails to pink. A breathing machine was rolled in to transform liquid drugs to mist, which I inhaled through a thin tube and disposable mouthpiece. After four days of labored breathing, my head ached from lack of oxygen and my back felt as if I’d been beaten repeatedly with a wooden chair. 

Still I strained for air and shivered from exhaustion and medicine that was cold as embalming fluid yet stimulating as speed. The nurse gave me a bedpan since using the bathroom required too much effort yet I needed to keep drinking and the IV kept flowing. My body rejected the onslaught of medicine and cold water. I vomited, mostly fluid and dry heaves, despite my need for hydration, lips and throat cracked, muscles in spasm. My wheezing worsened. Doctor K fired orders at those trying to stabilize my breathing. 

 An hour later, not wanting to lose his first patient in twelve years of practice, Doctor K ordered the nurses to transfer me back to the wheelchair. He then got behind the chair and pushed me to the sixth floor intensive care unit where nurses lifted me onto another bed and adhered oval sensors to my chest and back so they could track my heart visually and audibly on monitors above my bed and in the nurses’ station. Sharp rivulets of pain shot from my spine across my back, through my skull, and down my limbs, while my head throbbed, a clenched knot. But pain held no authority; my existence depended solely on the mechanics of breath. Concentrating, I focused on the task: lean forward, inhale; sit up, exhale; lean forward, inhale; sit up, exhale.

Suddenly, it was effortless. My muscles and head no longer ached. I felt calm, peaceful, no longer straining for air, but instead enveloped in an expansive quietude. As if floating just beyond the high florescent-lit ceiling, I marveled at the tenuous thread connecting me to my body, pale and rocking on the bed, and felt love and acceptance for everything and everyone–pain, resentment, alliances, released. No white light, no one beckoning, simply unconditional love and absolute peace.

Working hard, Doctor K and the nurses tried to revive me, their faces clenched, muscles taut in rapid fire action. I wanted to tell them that there was no need for concern, nothing to save me from. I was okay, out of pain. And then I was looking up at their faces, now so close I could feel their breath as they stared at me. In that first moment I was prone, but they helped me sit again, took my vitals, my body still rocking with the effort of breath, though not as forcefully.

Doctor K’s dark eyes met mine for the first time since we entered the elevator. Despite beads of sweat on his brow, he appeared comparatively relaxed as he said, “Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” I mouthed.

“You didn’t just come close to dying,” he said, “you touched death and came back.”

On a deep level my entire being reflected this. When I was released a week later, nothing looked the same.  Blue sky was no longer simply blue, but also composed of gold to pink hues, while foliage overwhelmed my senses with its infinite shades of green, red, grey, all of which were more vibrant than I’d previously perceived. This heightened awareness may also be the result of a week spent amidst neutral walls, floors, curtains, bedding, since I’ve read that prisoners also experience an overwhelming sense of color saturation when released from our monochromatic institutions. As I drove home, what had previously appeared mundane–buildings, windows, traffic, stoplights, overhead cables–interwove exquisite geometric patterns throughout the city. Transfigured, this world revealed itself to be indivisible, electric, mesmeric.

Nothing in my home seemed familiar except Shanti, my Malamute, who greeted me with exuberant joy. When I kneeled to hug him, he surprised me by placing his forelegs on my shoulders, curling his clawed paws into my back and pulling me to him as he pressed his soft large head against the side of my neck. He held me like this for several minutes.

photo by Elizabeth

Years later, I had an experience that was so similar, I know I touched death again. I’d been camping in a valley that, overnight, filled unexpectedly with fog, which I’m highly reactive to. At daybreak I had to be rushed to the nearest hospital, an hour away. As my boyfriend sped us down the highway, my world once more reduced to breath despite the various types of pain screaming for attention throughout my body. Though shivering and wheezing intensely, I remained calm as I focused on breathing, feet to pelvis, knees to chin, so I could rest, my torso wedged fetal-like between my legs and the seat’s back as I rocked in rhythm with my breath to aid the expansion and contraction of lungs and diaphragm.

And then, as if I were floating above the hood, I looked through the windshield at my lover driving and my body on the seat beside him, a sliver of brown cord the only connection between my body and me. It felt as if the effortless course would be to drift farther away, release the cord, and never wheeze or hurt again. Resentment and pain had been replaced by the warm expansiveness of love and repose, none of life’s struggles carried beyond the parameters of the body.

But as I looked at my boyfriend, I realized he’d blame himself if I died in the car since he hadn’t taken the severity of my asthma attack seriously, had delayed our leaving even though I urged him, hours earlier, to drive me to the hospital. Too, it is possible that whatever the circumstance, I would have created a pressing reason to live. This time, however, the effort to return almost proved too much. 

With no more than thin arms and hands, I pulled the dead weight of my legs and torso along the slender filament rising from my body’s navel. Though I was descending, the effort was as extreme as if I were pulling myself up the insurmountable face of a thousand foot cliff, that despite my focus and will I would not be able to reenter my body. But I kept placing hand before hand as I pulled myself closer and closer till the pain of wheezing filled me once more.

With these fragile resilient bodies we bleed, can be violated, may hurt so much that we long for death, or at least release, but we also touch, make love, feel the sun on our skin, perceive color, texture, and the range of experience from rapture to numbness to extreme pleasure. And sometimes we are able to choose whether to live or die, which may be what Florida Scott-Maxwell alludes to when she writes, “…it may matter deeply how we end so mysterious a thing as living,” though what enables us to make this choice remains as mysterious as the actuality of life itself.

I do not fear death since I’ve felt its intimate wholeness; however, death’s perpetual presence makes me anxious, no certainty harbored that I’ll see those I love again. Though I’ve experienced the compassion and unconditional peace that exists in death, I am unable to maintain that lack of pettiness, judgement and attachment while alive. Instead, a peculiar ledger of rights and wrongs permeates the psyche, as if the tension holding molecules in physical form requires some kind of passion. Yet, whether measured as a whole or a moment, life remains transient and miraculous, a miracle we honor with our keen presence and compassion, both of which expand to the exclusion of all else once free of this exquisite existence.

Thank you to the editors of Cezanne’s Carrot for first publishing this piece.

My 2012 in Pictures

The Losses:

My 84-year-old mom holding her 9-year-old self

photo by Elizabeth

and two weeks before she passed, my father-in-law also did along with his pocketful of index cards and pens so he’d never lose an important thought

photo by Elizabeth

The Blessings:

A week at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers

photo by Elizabeth

and the crescent shadows during the solar eclipse

The sun’s eclipse on our house through the trees, photo by Elizabeth

The Joyous Victories:

photo by Elizabeth

The Discoveries:

Toni Littlejohn’s art, photo by Elizabeth

Toni Littlejohn’s art

and Rain Fingerhut’s voice

Peace to all of you throughout the New Year!

Elizabeth

photo by Elizabeth