The summer after my first year of high school, I took care of the biology department’s five-foot boa constrictor, a privilege I won by lottery. Back then, since I was a girl— so unlucky-- babies were supposed to occupy my dreams of the future, babies that would result from the boyfriend who was never going to arrive. I wanted the boyfriend, probably too much, but the babies? Never. Animals were way more interesting than people, especially baby people. Baby people were scary, and the only thing scarier than babies was snakes. The difference was, there was no rational reason to be afraid of snakes. They weren’t out to get us humans, it was our infringing on their world that caused trouble. Taking care of a snake for the summer would cure me of that stupid fear, so when I heard about the drawing, I took the permission to slip home and waited for the right time to ask.
A few days later, Mom was in the kitchen, cooking up dinner. She didn’t seem particularly pissed off that day and Dad, having just arrived home, was pouring himself and Mom Manhattans. Judging from the banter, the mood barometer pointed to clear skies. I waited for my opening, then flatly explained the snake situation. Being too excited would poison my chances, for sure.
“Well, that sounds terrific!” Dad said, “We get to have a snake and give it back when the novelty wears off!” He was grinning. Like me, Dad loved animals. Mom wasn’t the squeamish type, and like me, I thought, enjoyed being a tough girl. You never could tell with her though, sometimes the stupidest little thing happened and the answer was no.
“AB-soLUTE-leee NOT!” Mom said, “What if it gets loose? I don’t want a snake in the house! And where would you keep it?”
“I could keep it in my room?” I asked, scrambling, surprised at these objections, but not about her objecting. “It comes with all the stuff, and the cage has a lid and everything, and we could put a big rock on top of that just to make sure.”
She gave me a glare over her shoulder and barked, “Please. SET. THE TABLE.”
Dismissed, and sure it was over, I turned away to put the plates out, now facing Dad across the kitchen, behind Mom’s back. He looked at me, still smiling, his look turning tender. With convincing sincerity, he said, “Eh, you know what? It’s a lottery! We can say it’s OK. It’s not like she’s going to actually win or anything.”
Dad’s smile oozed into an inside-joke-smirk, an expression that came out when he talked about his childhood in New York. There was a teenager like me in that sarcastic look, one that didn’t fight all the complexities that aligned in him—and me—rebellion and conformity, anger and love. Teenager Dad and I trusted Christian God together back then, and if God wanted me to babysit the snake, God would arrange for me to win the lottery. While I knew exactly what he meant, Mom didn’t give that God crap much thought. To her ear, from behind her back, she heard something more like, let her dream, let her dreams be crushed, it will be good for her.
“Well, when you put it THAT way…” she said, trailing off into approval.
“The cage has a lid on it and everything, it won’t get out!” I paused in pre-joyful release stiffness, my arms at my sides, fingers spread. “So I can?!”
“Well, OK, I’ll sign the permission slip," she groaned this like it was painful, then took to growling, glaring again, "but you better not win!”
“Yaaay!” I howled, throwing my arms in the air.
“Now that doesn’t mean you’re getting it!”
“What does he eat, anyway?” Dad asked
“Oh, it’s a she,” I said, calming my shit down. “They thought she was a he and they named her Adam, but then they found out she’s a she and they changed it to Atom. Just a live mouse once a week.” I was squeamish about this part but determined to be rational. Adult. The snake was going to keep eating mice whether it was me sending the poor things to their deaths or someone else. I’m man enough to kill mice. I can do it. I’ll make myself do it.
“Well, I’m not going to go get them for you!” Mom warned. Another hurdle. I wasn’t old enough to drive yet.
“I can do that.” Dad said. Besides his own curiosity about the snake, and the fun of this future God Ordained Victory over my mother, the snake would also give him an excuse to linger at the pet store; maybe buy a new fish for the aquarium. Oh, the pet store. An emotional first aid station, where anyone can walk in with cash and walk out with nonjudgmental, easily disposable love.
I killed my fear of snakes that summer, but there was more to the lesson than that. Sternly warned that a mouse will kill a snake if it can, I had to watch Atom eat every time, and if she wasn’t interested right away, I’d have to remove the mouse before a preemptive strike could be launched. So I did it, I mastered myself and watched those trusting little buddies greet death by crushing strangulation, heard their pitiful squeaks of terror, watched their delicate pink hands grasping the air or pushing against the thick muscle coiled around them, their tiny feet kicking, tails rigid or flailing as they tried to pry themselves away until it was over. Then the slow, methodical loosening, the murderous patterned coils unwinding, rearranged to carefully consume the limp, furry little body, the vacant eyes, the now-still whiskers, headfirst.
Oh little sweetie, I’m so sorry.
Michele Kraft is a writer and artist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her work is concerned with the fun and misery of human growth through spirituality and its twin sister, psychology. Kraft holds a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Post Baccalaureate Certificate from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and has shown her artwork from the upper Midwest to the middle East coast of America. Current projects include a forthcoming memoir, On The Serpentine Path – or – Take this God and Shove It, a wry story about overcoming abuse, patriarchal religion and conservative ideology. Kraft finds self-love, freedom, and a more inventive vocabulary of swear words as an artist, Progressive and Pagan. Her essay, A Self-Made Man, is an excerpt that speaks to the rupture of death and the end of innocence.
Of her photo, The Leap, Kraft writes, “In dreams, deer represent childhood, elusiveness and vulnerability. When I first saw these remains, awareness came over me in flash— that my old chump-self had to die. Time to kick ass and take names.”
Her essays and articles are available at www.michelekraft.com