January morning clear and still rose-gilded clouds aflame in the sky like a royal canopy
fiery pink presiding over the stone-gray world
as I drive on smoke wafts and lingers after a slow descent from chimneys
around the bend a curious slanting of light from behind me
winter-tilted Earth catching the rising sun at strange angles
the treetops ahead become gold filigree sun-dipped coronets adorning bodies enshrouded with shadow
the road I travel twists and turns
the slanted light shifts, striking the tree trunks
turning them crimson
conduits of life not competing for sunlight in this one moment, just standing transformed by oblique rays
—I revel in the winter-slanted light, thinking of how blood rises to the surface and how age-old secrets stay hidden deep within.
I couldn’t take a picture of the scene on my early morning drive to work today. I can only try to recreate it with words. The sight left me awed and grieved at the same time: that the slant of the light could turn the treetops to lacy gold, could paint their trunks blood-red, and that these conditions might never replicate themselves exactly this way again. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch the haunting colorplay between the Earth and sun.
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.
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—
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?
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?
I don’t expect anyone to believe this. I’m not completely sure that I do.
I hesitate to say. It sounds crazy.
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.
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.
—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.
Broom in hand, I descend the brick steps where moss has newly sprung. The sidewalk needs sweeping and I’ve only a minute. Must get to school early, to prepare for the day; the minutiae of all that has to be done circles round and round my mind.
But I have to do this first. Oddly. Sweeping the sidewalk is not part of my morning routine.
All is still but for the light chatter of a few birds, waking. The sound of early spring. The sound of April. Of a new day. I pause, listening. How cheerful, how happy their bird voices are, even if to them it’s just regular conversation. My spirit eases, just hearing them. I note that the light is unusual. Against random trees and shrubs, the dawn gleams amber in patches. Everything else is a backdrop in half light. There’s an edge to it all, a starkness. The sky is moody. Altocumulus clouds, dark in their middles, gleaming around their rims, are gathered in bands or waves; this is what scientists call a mackerel sky, I think. Strange light.
—Time. Be aware.
Right, I must hurry.
Just as I put broom to concrete, I see it.
Over in the neighbor’s yard, in the shadows under the bushy, unpruned crape myrtle.
The brightest spot of color I’ve ever seen. Red. Rosy, electric red, brighter than any neon light, as vivid as fire, glowing, but not burning. Just being. I blink. How does such a color even exist in nature? It has to be a cardinal but I can’t see the rest of him, just his plump breast. A half-memory from childhood stirs in my mind, of pretending I had a pet cardinal and spraying pine-scented air freshener throughout the house to create his forest, where he could fly freely— but for all my attraction to the male cardinal’s plumage, I’ve never seen it to the intensity and brilliance as right now in this capricious light.
I want to see him better but I dare not move.
I think I’ve quit breathing.
Could I, maybe, get a picture? If I’m stealthy, can I make it into the house and back with my phone?
I have to try. I have to capture this image.
I watch him as I ease toward the house. He moves a little, hopping in the dappled grass.
As soon as I reach the steps, out of his field of vision, I race through the front door to the kitchen, grab my phone, turn, shoot back through the door, take the steps without making a sound, stop, and creep to where I can see the crape myrtle.
—He’s still there! I can’t believe it!
An astounding spot of color, radiating an otherworldly light.
I aim my phone and zoom in . . .
On the screen I see the thin myrtle branches up close. The grass, the shadows, the sunlit patches. —Where’s my bird?
I look away from the phone back to the scene, to get my bearings . . . don’t know how I could have missed, I aimed right where he was standing . . . .
He is gone.
In the second between my sighting him and my lifting the phone, he vanished. Without a sound or any perceptible movement. He was and then he was not. Just like that.
Nowhere to be seen at all.
I stand frozen, phone in hands, an inexplicable feeling sweeping through me.
The moment passed and nothing remains of it. Stunning, that spot of fiery color like no other, in the shadows under that tree. One glimpse of glory. He was so beautiful and I never even saw all of him. Even if I do see him again—and I’ll try, at this same time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after—it will never happen again, not just like this. The clouds will not be the same. The position of the sun will be slightly different. It can never be again exactly as it was.
I so wanted to capture his image, the holiness of it, to keep it forever, and I could not.
But I hold it in my mind. I cling to every breathtaking detail.
I write it before it leaves me, wondering at the tears burning behind my eyes over this one bird, this one moment, why it should be so significant, to make me feel so much.
Into each life some rain must fall
But too much is falling in mine
Into each heart some tears must fall
But some day the sun will shine
Some folks can lose the blues in their hearts
But when I think of you another shower starts
Into each life some rain must fall
But too much is falling in mine.
Yesterday morning the sun beckoned from among striated clouds, streaking the sky with silver and gold. Birdsong—it’s a brand-new spring. The scent of fresh-cut grass from the day before lingers, and nothing takes me back to my childhood and my father quicker than that sweet green fragrance.
Even as the sun shone, a soft rain pattered down.
In my heart, in the hearts of my community, too much rain is falling.
Yesterday we buried a young lady who grew up here, was one of us, was an only child and grandchild. She was a college freshman, eighteen, a year younger than my second son, his childhood playmate and lifelong friend. She went to church with us all of her life, sang in the choir, and was beautiful. She caught the light and scattered it like a faceted gemstone quietly scatters tiny, vivid rainbows on objects close by.
Death, when it comes suddenly to someone so young and full of promise, can only be likened to a great ripping apart.
She is ripped away.
The church was full and overflowing an hour before the service. People stood around the walls of the sanctuary, packed the fellowship hall, lined every hallway on both sides throughout; a huge crowd waited outside because there was no more room.
My husband officiated. He was at the hospital the day this child was born. He ended the eulogy with a little twist of Shakespeare: “Good-night, sweet princess; and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
As the crowd walked to the burial site, the sun shone for all it was worth. The clouds were gone; a warm breeze ruffled dresses, suit jackets, hair.
Even so, the rain will fall within us for days and days to come, yet it doesn’t mean that our little suncatcher won’t keep catching and scattering the light in the quiet way she always did. More light than ever is reflected in the myriad drops of rain, like iridescent droplets of diamonds quivering with celebration that she lived, that she was a gift.