Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY

11 thoughts on “Of the earth

  1. Thank you for my vocabulary lesson this morning–“fossorial” and “geosmin”. Thankful also for right-clicking Google searches!
    On another note, this post is a reminder to truly stop and pay attention to the person right in front of me at any given moment. I am guilty of living inside my own head much of the time–so many details at work to keep track of, the never-ending to-do list. The silence in the library at the end of the day sometimes reminds me of missed opportunities to connect.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful. May every encounter someone who listens, who pauses, who observes as you do. This story brought tears to my eyes today. There’s so much power in your willingness to connect with “this boy with the strawberry mustache (who) is waiting.”
    Also, you have SO MANY SNAKE STORIES. Dear Heaven. I can honestly say that I am glad I have many fewer of those.

    Like

  3. This is lovely. I love those small moments when I get to talk to a student I don’t normally work with. Thanks for sharing this, and your thought process as you try to acknowledge his love for snakes, despite your dislike of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow – this is powerful in so many ways. I was right with you — HATE snakes. However, connection is so important and you gave that to this child. I am curious what happens the next time you are in the cafeteria. The right person at the right moment makes all the difference in the life of a child.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was great to read on so many levels. Snake stories, the connecting with students, the being present to those around us, finding a positive in all your snake stories – I could go on but you get the idea – this was well done. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Boy, I would have jumped straight to “I hate snakes” in like 2 seconds. I love how you intertwine your head thoughts with this conversation. I didn’t write a slice this week because my poor sweet grandson is sick, so I went to help my daughter. But your post has me thinking about how to write the slice I wanted to write with these inner thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks, Margaret, and I will look forward to reading your inner thoughts. I hope that sweet grandson is much better now & that his mom is well – what a godsend to have her own mom willing & able to step in & help!

      Like

  7. Like others, I admire the inner thinking/journey of thought you take us on in the middle of this story. The flashbacks, the searching, the finding… all so great. I did some similar “I thought about…” in my post, but the development in yours is so lovely. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

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