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