Sidewalk surprise

Sunny May afternoon. Warm, lazy. Neighborhood moderately quiet but for the occasional baby-like cry of young goats from a pen hidden in a snatch of mixed-woods across the street. They sound like little kids … which is exactly what they ARE …

Absolutely nothing is happening.

I will check the mail.

Again.

Patches of thick, furry moss nestled in the wide brick steps of the porch. Clean fragrance of mulch from the empty beds along the house. Sudden coolness on rounding the corner, where the sun casts the shadow of the house across the sidewalk—

Snake.

Right in front of me, in my immediate path. If I hadn’t been looking down …

Two steps backward.

I am not a fan of snakes.

It’s little. The second of its kind I’ve seen. The first one appeared on this sidewalk months ago, belly-up, dead, when the old boxwoods were pulled out. I needed to know what kind of snake it was, so I researched it: Smooth earth snake. Lives in woodsy debris, usually underground (technical term: “fossorial”). Nonpoisonous. Very shy.

—This one isn’t moving at all. Is it dead, too?

—Do I really want to know?

I do.

Two steps forward, leaning over as far as I dare.

Almost imperceptibly, its sides rhythmically expand and contract.

It is breathing.

I have never seen a snake breathing.

But I don’t usually get close enough to determine such.

I wonder if it is scared of me.

I won’t harm it. This is a living thing, lying here on my sidewalk, breathing rather hard for a snake, I think.

It won’t harm me.

We’re just occupying the same shadow, breathing the same air.

I can see a dark lump through its translucent beige-gray skin, about halfway through its body. Is that part of the snake? Or something it ate?

Then …

I don’t expect anyone to believe this. I’m not completely sure that I do.

I hesitate to say. It sounds crazy.

But…

A little light flickers inside the snake.

Just for a second or two.

A fluid-like glimmering, mid-snake, very near that dark lump.

—Am I dreaming?

I stare, unblinking, not sure I trust my eyes or my brain. Have I ever even heard of such a thing?

And then, one more glimmering of light, faint, in the tail region.

I did see it.

Twice.

Is it just a reflective shimmer of sunlight?

But this snake lies wholly in the shadow of the house; the sun’s not shining on anything close by.

A reflection of something I am wearing, then?

But I am wearing no rings, no glittery flip flops. Only one fine, rose-gold chain on my right arm that I never remove (my son gave it to me), and it’s wholly in the shadow, too. Not catching the sunlight. Not casting it.

Furthermore, the glimmer came from inside the snake. It radiated only within the confines of its motionless body. Not on the sidewalk. Nowhere else.

—A trick of my eyes, then.

But my optometrist has never seen anything amiss with my eyes. Got a fabulous report at my last checkup in December: “No change in your vision. Everything looks great. See you next year!”

A migraine for me begins as a spot of light in my eyes; it grows until I can only see the outer edges of things.

But I don’t get migraines often, and am not getting one now.

Nor, to my knowledge, have I ever had a hallucination.

—I shall need proof, then. A picture.

My phone is in the house.

Stepping backward, I ease to the corner of the house, out of sight of the snake (well, at least until it’s out of my sight. Snakes don’t see well). I make a run for the porch steps, the front door, the bedroom where my phone is charging.

The snake has not moved by the time I return.

I wait for the longest time, phone poised, cued to video, but the glimmering doesn’t come again. I record a few seconds of the snake breathing. Zoomed, of course, from a comfortable distance.

Absolutely nothing is happening.

So I walk way around in the grass, giving the snake a wide berth. Short jaunt down the driveway to the mailbox, retrieving uninteresting, unimportant ephemera.

Back up the driveway to the sidewalk …

—The snake is gone.

Where?

—There in the mulch, just ahead of where it had been.

I try for several minutes more to capture some glowing, any glowing, on video, but the phenomenon is over. Whatever caused it has apparently conspired not to do so again, certainly not for one wishful human.

I do, however, get a bit of video of the snake’s tiny black tongue flickering — from a safe and comfortable distance.

I wonder if any neighbors have spotted me, if they’re wondering what in the heck I am doing, hunched over for so long here in my yard. But there’s nothing really stirring outside except those goats in their secluded pen, a meandering bee, birds in the distance, a random, rusty cock-a-doodle-doo from the rooster who lives up the street, as, in his mind, anything with ears to hear needs reminding he’s king of all times of day, not just the morning.

I have troubled this shy little snake enough. Time to let it be. Live and let live.

Trudging up the steps to my porch, wonder and hesitation stir my soul: I will write about this. I think. Or should I? How can one explain the inexplicable? How can one know what is really real? When “I saw it with my own eyes” isn’t exactly enough to drive away doubt? What about logic: Have earth snakes ever been known to glow? Is there a plausible scientific explanation? Bioluminescence is a real thing. In some eels, for example. Fireflies. Glow worms. Perhaps my snake ate one of these larvae—? Might that be the dark lump in its midsection? Perhaps some released phosphorescence traveled through its body, which is just transparent enough to reveal it. Or maybe this is a defense mechanism? A means of survival for a thing that usually lives underground? Did it ingest some compound in the soil that might give off a glow? Or did this snake simply, literally absorb some sunlight?

All I know is that I saw a light glimmering inside a rather translucent little earth snake. Twice. And that I am unaccustomed to seeing random light running along anything in shadows.

Not physically, anyway. Metaphorically I see light in the shadows all the time.

I sit rocking in my new porch chair. My thoughts sway back and forth, rolling over and over and over like paper in the wind … and I realize that my questioning awe is tinged, the tiniest bit, with something like sadness: I am not likely to ever see this again, let alone prove that I saw it. Some things are once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, one-shot-only golden glimpses, like the eagle I saw last spring, sitting huge and majestic by the side of the road. Not that I want to encounter another snake (any more, I am sure, than one wants to encounter me). No. Still not a fan. Not aiming to be a herpetologist. Although I could contact one and ask if earth snakes ever glow … what’s the risk, other than skepticism and dismissiveness?

I just want to know why. That is all. And am having to accept that I likely never will.

That glimmering … if nothing else, it means Aliveness. The little snake is alive. I am alive. For one moment, maybe, the life force acknowledged and honored itself …

For all I know, the snake saw the same glimmer in me.

Maybe.

A matter of heart

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

-Ecclesiastes 7:8

Last week didn’t start so well.

On Sunday, I broke a bone in my foot while simply walking (and falling, somehow) down the garage steps.

I’d already taken Monday off to attend my brother-in-law’s funeral but spent it on my couch instead with my newly-damaged foot elevated, commiserating with my husband, whose leg has developed a discolored, painful bulge—the leg from which veins were removed for his bypass surgery last fall. It’s not a clot, and that’s all we know until his appointment this week.

“I never would have believed that I wouldn’t be able to attend my own brother’s service,” he sighed. It’s a seven-hour round trip; neither of us was up to it.

I surveyed our legs, propped on the same stool. His left, my right. Mirror-images of each other. Except for my orthopedic boot.

I sighed, too, the entire left side of my body sore from overcompensating for the right. “I know. This is like being eighty years old or something.” Which is decades away…

Our college-student son, passing through the living room, quipped in his deadpan way: “Well, at least you’ll know what to expect when you are eighty.”

So. That was Monday.

On Tuesday I returned to work. It happened to be the 100th day of school, meaning that most kindergarten and first grade students (and many of their teachers) came dressed as old people. White hair, glasses, wrinkles sketched with eyeliner, canes galore.

For a split second, I mused: Who wants to live to be a hundred?

But the kids were adorable, their teachers were having fun, and God knows we all need to have more fun at school. Too much of it isn’t.

That is where my mind was when a little “old” person wandered up to me in the lobby where I rested on a bench between the arrival of buses, my morning duty.

A kindergartner. Big, mournful eyes moving from my boot to my face: “Are you all right?”

“Oh yes! I am fine,” I said, touched by the obvious concern in that small voice.

“What happened to your foot?

“Well, I broke a bone in it.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, really, it doesn’t. The boot is a cushion for it, see, and it doesn’t hurt at all right now.”

A flicker of relief across the little, made-up old face. The tiny pseudo-centenarian went on her way.

That was Tuesday.

And Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. Everywhere I went, the kids wanted to know: What did you do to your foot?

I shared the X-ray with some of them, saw the fascination in their eyes.

Some didn’t ask anything. They came up to me just to say I hope you will be okay. I hope you feel better.

As I labored up and down the staircases, one careful step at a time—the elevator at school is BROKEN—I thought a lot about the curiosity and compassion of children, how natural these things are for them, how comfortable children are with asking and expressing. If we can preserve, nurture, stir curiosity and compassion through all of their formative years … what a different culture, what a different world, it would be. Possibly our greatest work.

The week ended much better than how it began. Not because of satisfying still more curiosity about my broken foot with ongoing questions, or the taste of true human compassion at its purest. Not because I made it through the first week of recovery, although that was a glad milestone. No. Friday was a day of festivities, of celebration, all shining from the children’s faces.

“Happy Valentime’s Day, Mrs. Haley!” called the little ones when they passed me in line in the hallways, inviting me to their classrooms to share their candy, their cupcakes, their joy.

Valentimes. The mispronunciation seems almost poetic. As in, these times are made for Valentines. Definitely for love.

Oh my, thank you, I’ll come see your goodies but you keep them; they were given to you.

You yourselves are gifts enough to me, children.

You as well as puppy therapy. ❤️

Dennis the dachshund takes turns between my lap and my husband’s while we prop our legs.

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

Oddball gift

I watch them each afternoon, bringing odds and ends out of their bookbags.

They’re a pretty orderly group, these third, fourth, and fifth grade students seated in the auditorium for carpool dismissal, so I don’t tell them to put the stuff away. Instead, I take note of what they have in their hands.

Some of them are holding books and reading—a delight to my heart.

Some are doing homework—I don’t blame them for getting a head start.

Some are drawing—and I’m astounded by their artistic ability.

Some are writing, occasionally beckoning me to come over and listen as they read it aloud or to ask me a question, and I sigh: All’s right with the world.

Many are playing with slime.

They learned how to make it in science a couple of months back. The kids took the recipe home, altered it, and have taken slime to dazzling new heights. They bring their latest concoctions to school in Ziploc bags, plastic containers, even small glass jars.

First someone came with glow-in-the-dark slime, which, I concurred, is extremely cool.

This progressed to the creation of fluorescent slime. Then glitter slime; one sparkling turquoise batch reminded me of the ocean. Then a shimmery magenta glitter slime containing iridescent beads, which, I am not kidding, was beautiful; it was as supple and stretchy as any other slime. Fascinating.

But perhaps the oddest thing of all was non-slime: Some kind of ball being shaken by a girl. I could see green glitter swirling inside and something else floating . . .

I went over for a better look: “Is that . . . an eyeball in there?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the girl, giggling. She handed it to me.

I shook it, because, clearly, that is what one should do with a clear rubber ball filled with fluid, green glitter, and a garish bloodshot eyeball.

“Wild,” I laughed, handing it back.

And the girl said, “No, you can keep it.”

“Ummmm, but, it’s your, er, glittery eyeball . . . thing. Thanks but I would, ah, hate to take it from you.”

She grinned. “It’s okay. I have a whole bunch of them at home.”

I opened my mouth to ask WHY just as her number came up and she left me standing there holding this . . . object. The eyeball floated benignly in the fluid as glitter settled to the bottom. The bright blue iris stared right at me. So odd.

Oddball.

What possible purpose could there be for having ‘a whole bunch’ of these things at home? I wondered. Then, instantaneously: Yeah, there’s a story in that, for sure.

Furthermore, I have learned that when the universe gives you a gift—or when a fifth-grader gives you a glittery eyeball toy—you should just accept it.

And so this gift graces my desk at school, awaiting the moment of its destiny, when an eyeball floating in a sea of green glitter is exactly what is needed.

img_1475

 

Getting in

Keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.

-Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!

Any writer knows how important it is to be a noticer of things. All things. To catch a sudden spark of inspiration, to fan the flame of an idea until it’s spent.

Around the elementary school where I work, for example, there’s plenty of intriguing things to notice. In this old building a careful observer can find some obsolete oddities.

Such as the dumbwaiter that connects the first floor of the media center to a second-floor loft that, once upon a time, must have been an extension of the library. In my time here the loft has been a computer lab. Until this year. With the arrival of new Chromebooks and iPads in classrooms, the computer lab was disassembled to become the shared space of instructional staff; three colleagues and I are housed there now. The dumbwaiter stands in our space, appropriately silent and still, long out of use. It must have been created as a lift for sending stacks of books or old overhead projectors up and down in decades past. I cannot think of another explanation for its presence. If it were ever opened I’d halfway expect to see Harriet the Spy hiding in there, making her anecdotal notes.

Downstairs in the main lobby, a colorful, student-painted mosaic wraps around the exterior of media center, disguising a flat metal drawer in the wall—an old book depository. As books are now returned at the circulation desk, the handle of the depository was removed years ago so that students wouldn’t keep putting books (or anything else) in there. Every day, throngs of students come and go without ever noticing the plain metal plate embedded in the mosiac artwork that overshadows it and draws the eyes away.

Except for one particular pair of eyes, that is.

One morning, as I stand at the back of the lobby greeting students arriving from buses as usual, I notice that a boy is over at that book depository. I’ve never seen a student acknowledge its existence, so I just watch to see what he’s up to. His back is to me. He’s doing something to the drawer. The lobby has cleared except for a couple of boys who realize something’s going on. They linger to check it out. Next thing I know, the two bystanders are bending over with laughter:

“He opened it! He opened it!”

That’s when I walk over to see. The bystander boys scatter. Sure enough, the first boy has the drawer open. He’s so immersed in his task that he’s unaware of my presence.

“So,” I say, “how’d you do this?”

He starts a bit, automatically hands me two opened, extended paperclips. He’d worked them into the two little holes where the depository handle used to be.

“Where’d you get these?” I query, the mangled paperclips resting in my open palm.

“Upstairs,” he says, somber-faced.

And he shuts the drawer, takes off.

I watch him go, marveling.

He’d planned this.

Who knows when he first noticed the depository and wondered about it, whether it could be opened. When he saw the two holes or when he went to find two paperclips to fashion his own handle. How long it took him to think all this through.

And I wonder about him, whether he pays attention in class or gets in trouble for being off-task, if he’s motivated academically. One thing’s for certain: He’s a critical thinker. This book depository experiment is problem-solving at its finest. The greatest thing a learner can possess, perhaps, is curiosity: What if . . . 

As the tardy bell rings, I walk upstairs, wondering what he expected to see when he opened that drawer, pondering what I saw, just before he relinquished his improvised tools.

He was writing with his finger inside the depository. In the dust of the ages, lying there undisturbed for so long. I caught just a glimpse before he shut it away, and I couldn’t quite make it out, so only he knows exactly what he wrote. I’m pretty sure part of it was a smiling face. This much I know: he accomplished his goal. He got in. He made his mark and there it will remain  for ages and ages hence, or at least as long as the building stands.

One day, perhaps, someone else will come along and notice the depository. And wonder what’s inside. And figure out how to get in, and discover that someone was there before. Likely the boy and I will be long gone by then.

And just now, as I write, I think about books themselves as depositories of thoughts, ideas, and images, places where others have gone before, leaving their marks behind from time immemorial, waiting for us to find them. Indelibly marking us, when we finally get in.

Now as for that old dumbwaiter . . .  don’t even think about it, Harriet, it’s permanently sealed . . . .

Breakfast Island

island

Image:  studio tdes CC BY

Somewhere in Maryland’s scenic Severn River is a tiny island that belongs to me.

Not that I have a deed to it, or that the island was even the giver’s to give, but those are minor details.

The transaction came about when I was around seven years old, during a family gathering. My aunt and uncle, avid boaters, decided to treat everyone to breakfast on the beach. In the chilly gray dawn, a bunch of us piled into my uncle’s motorboat and sped across the Severn. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this majestic river connects with the Chesapeake Bay; the U.S. Naval Academy stands at the convergence. I only knew I was cold and hungry. I shivered in the breeze, thinking that going to the beach for breakfast was just about the most exciting thing ever.

The beach turned out to be an island right in the middle of the river. If Huck Finn had seen it, he would have called it a towhead, a mere islet with a thicket of brush in the middle. As the grown-ups busied themselves with building a small fire, I walked the whole sandy circumference in a couple of minutes, marveling at the island’s diminutive size.

“What is this place?” I asked my uncle, who was crouching by the fire with a skillet full of sausage links.

“Just an island where people sometimes stop off,” my uncle answered, as the sausages began to sizzle.

The sun was bright now, the Severn very blue against the island’s golden sand. A few white sails appeared in the distance.

“What’s the island’s name?” I wondered aloud.

“It doesn’t have one,” replied my uncle.

“Why not?”

“I guess it’s too small for a name.”

How disturbing, that such a pretty place did not have a name.

“Why don’t the owners want it to have a name?”

“Nobody really owns this island,” my uncle said, carefully turning the sausages. Thin blue smoke drifted up from the skillet.

“What! How come nobody owns it? ”

“It’s just here, hon. It isn’t like the big islands, where people live. That’s a good thing, because anyone who wants to can stop and visit, like we’re doing now.”

An inexplicable sorrow welled up in me. It wasn’t fair that no one cared enough about this little island to want it or give it a name. It hurt my heart.

My uncle squinted at me. “What’s the matter?”

“It should belong to somebody.”

“Ok, then, why not you?”

“WHAT?!”

“It now belongs to you.”

“For real?”

“You’re the owner of this island. Congratulations.”

Pride surged through me – I owned this island, the prettiest place in the world! I loved it. Somehow I felt it was mutual, that the island loved me back, was happy that I was there, that we were meant to be. Then a fleeting fear struck me:

“Do I need to pay for it?”

My uncle howled with laughter. “Goodness! Well, since there is no other owner, it’s free.”

The sausages were done; someone filled another skillet with apples and cinnamon. I never knew apples could be fried. Their aroma filled the air like incense from an altar, sweet, pleasing, mouth-watering. For the rest of that morning I basked in the glory of possessing my own island,  soaking up the sun and asking for more apples, until they were gone. I never wanted to leave.

I have never returned. I do not know if the island still exists, or if time and weather have dissolved it, the way that relationships eventually dissolved. What I know is that for that one halcyon morning, I was the richest person on Earth; I owned an island, and it was free.

Reflect: In what ways can you take a child beyond the realm of “the usual” to experience something rich and unusual? How can you creatively instill a sense of ownership?