The Snake in the Butter Dish
Scenes from April 1999, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts
Mary holds out a small, desiccated object nestled in her palm as we stand in the kitchen. "At first, I thought it was a worm."
"You're sure it's not a toy?" I ask.
"I'm sure. You don't get detail like this in a toy."
She points to tiny scales, silver and iridescent when one looks closely enough. I do. I get my linen tester, the magnifier I once used on a book production job to check for breaks in individual letters. Under the lens the tiny snake shows individual scalloped shapes. We can still bend it, carefully, along its vertebrae.
Mary points to unevenness, patches. "It might have been killed while it was shedding its skin." A young snake, smaller than her palm, caught unawares while adjusting to its own growth.
She points to the head, an angular skull that is really quite handsome, and says, "It could be a pit viper."
I take its body carefully in my hand. "Poor thing." Just a kid, really, as snakes go. Exposed on the asphalt next to the JFK/UMass subway station nearby. Mary was going to rescue it, then took it home with her when she realized what it was.
Near another subway station, the Alewife T-stop, closer to our workplace and with a duck pond, Mary squats after rain and coaxes a stranded worm onto her hand. It resists her, clenches from a straight line into a tight coil. Tries to become invisible. She is patient with it, easing its flesh onto hers before straightening up and tossing it onto the grass.
The sidewalk is littered with them.
She tries to save them all. I scout ahead, peering to distinguish worm from stick. "Another one here," I mumble.
One worm at a time. The rain has driven them out of the ground and onto the concrete, into the path of shoes.
We had been speaking with one another on the bridge over the train tracks when suddenly Mary was gone. I turned back to see her kneeling by the railing, head level with the wheels of passing traffic. She might have found a wheel weight or a battery to pluck from the road, removing lead or acid from the environment. She might have found Styrofoam or plastic to gather to her recycling bag. But this time she lingered longer than usual, and from a distance I saw her arm come up and out, repeatedly, tossing. Otherwise, she was crouched into a ball avoided deftly by bicycles and pedestrians. I knew, then, that she had found worms.
Near the subway station she rescues more of them. Two men chat idly by the pond, and Mary excuses herself as she squats by their feet.
"I'm not listening in," she tells them. "I'm just picking up worms."
"That's quite noble," one of the men says.
For a moment Mary frets as one of the worms lands on a nearby branch that lies behind a chainlink fence. Vulnerable to birds whose songs we already hear: robin, red-winged blackbird, mourning dove. She tries to dislodge it from the tree, poking a stick through the fence.
"Being food for the birds is still better than being smashed on the sidewalk," I offer.
The man at whose feet Mary crouched says, "Who is to say what happens to someone after they die?" The worms, we know, can answer this question. In the garden we watch as their larger cousins churn the soil, transforming dust into fertility.
At home, we find the desiccated viper on the floor, knocked from its shelf by one of the cats. Mary finds an unused butter dish and lines it with tissues. She puts the snake, now stiff and unbendable, into its improvised sarcophagus, made of diamond-patterned plastic, then tapes it shut. Recognizing delicacy in death, as in life.
Around the butter dish the shelf holds candles and matches, incense. A snufter to extinguish the flame.