Today I watched a man torture a harmless snake then throw it to its drowning death in a waterfall. A Friday evening at one of the most ‘scenic’ spots in town, a couple taking engagement photos, families picnicking and skipping rocks. I was seconds too late, and I am not sure if it would have mattered. He feigned bravery by grabbing a sunning snake by the tail and put in a big show as it writhed and flailed. Then he did a whip motion which seemed to break its spine or at least its spirit, before throwing it some twenty feet down into the water. I hopped off my bike and ran to look, and there was only stillness. No snake swimming in that mysterious, effortless way. It was dying, a few errant bubbles coming from its mouth.
The air had the quality of all tragic days; it was perfect outside. 70 degrees and the dreamy colors of golden hour, a very insulting backdrop for a miserable death. I stood helplessly in my ridiculous bike clothes, then climbed back up the steep bank to my bike. I hopped on and an older couple said, “Did you find it?”
“I sure did, he’s not gonna make it. That was really cowardly.” I wondered if they would agree with my judgment or if the Bible had clouded their opinion of snakes.
“It sure was, wadn’t it?”
I pedaled to the end of the trail, part of my planned route for the evening. I wanted to spin some of my lesser-traveled spots before setting off on a much bigger ride the next day. I had feelings that needed to be pulverized in the only way I know how, untold hours on the bike alone with my thoughts, pushing through physical limitations in order to release the thoughts my composed being tries to hold together. I passed the man and his girlfriend just before I reached the turnaround at the parking lot. I turned around and stopped.
“That was not cool man.” He looked at me and laughed a sickening, wicked laugh. His shiny grill flashed on his teeth. “You are a fucking coward.” He laughed again and slapped his girlfriend’s butt. I eyed his flip flops and wondered if I could let rage win, if I could start a fight for the innocent victim of his wickedness. I wondered if he had a gun, unhinged as he was.
I imagined stepping forward and getting the gun pulled on me, fantasized letting myself take another step towards him. It was the kind of day that tragedies happen. Perfect weather, long work day. Relentless heartbreak of long-ago deeds, made worse every day by the silent treatment and the silence of my own life. I could feel the swirling slowness of life, could feel the tiny bullet of a concealed handgun poking a hole or two somewhere in my gut. You gurgle and bleed for a while. Do you waste your last words on a wannabe tough guy, do you pull out your phone and send a text or make a call? Is it better to leave a voicemail or send a message?
Do you say, “I’m sorry,” or is it, “I forgive you?” Can your death snap someone out of their own self-absorbed life, even for five minutes? I wonder, would her new boyfriend come to the funeral with her? Would she even come? How strained the texts would be with my mom, all He always had such nice things to say about you and He really was a great guy. Things that would never happen if I stayed alive, healing that isn’t granted to the living.
Would I type out her name in this space, am I brave enough to put those letters on this page for the world to read? Is it 5 or 6 of them, and who will think that this line is about them. Imagine the sidelong death glares at my funeral, god I wish I could crack a beer in my casket and watch people who really ought to be friends uneasily hate each other and jockey for attention because they knew him so well.
Maybe he doesn’t have a gun and we get in a brutal fight, his girlfriend beats me over the head with my own bike while I try to atone all the world’s sins in a single pathetic fisticuffs over a snake. I don’t die, I am mangled in the hospital and charged with a hilarious litany of crimes. Are the injuries bad enough that you can get her to text you back, to admit that this whole act and closed door is a short-sighted game of chicken, and really, she’s so glad that I’m okay.
Then I remember I am still standing there, punch drunk staring at this twisted being who cracked a snake like a rag doll and tossed it to drown in front of children splashing in the water. He is going home with his girlfriend. I am going home to my parents’ house, licking my wounds, adding some new salt to the old ones. There is no moral high ground, just the ugly work of growing, healing, becoming.
I am driving home from the long ride. I guess I didn’t die yesterday. The ride was not as long as I hoped, but it felt good. It was just long enough to push the body into that untethered singularity, where you can feel the limitations of your being and free your mind to actually go there. There is such a fine line between what is good and what is admired. I laugh at the contrast. This morning, I was talked down to for being vulnerable enough to seem weak. This evening, I’m admired for my strength. We chuckle about this, but even the inside joke feels a bit hollow. I can tell this camaraderie won’t last, though for now I am grateful. The moon is so big and so bright. I zone out for a second as I listen to the same five songs over and over, refresh my phone hoping I missed something after being gone all day, come to when a dim light catches my eye on the side of the road. It is a whole solar powered memorial to someone who died in an accident at this spot, where the road gets curvy and the hogs come out at night. I don’t even wonder what happened anymore. I’ve seen enough wrecks and been in a few and I know there’s little rhyme or reason to what kills.
Instead, my brain floats away like the divergent harmonies in the song. It’s a haunting incantation.
No, I’m not afraid of hard work
I get everything I want
I have everything I wanted
I wonder if anyone would drive two counties south to tend to a roadside vigil for me. What would they think, what names would pop up on the locked screen of my shattered phone? It’s almost comical. I had a beautiful home for nearly two years and the people I most wanted to see it never even tried to visit. One time I got a text message with a photo of an envelope addressed to me at that old house. It never got sent. In fact, the card never got written in. It was still just as blank, but the thought was there. And the story had come so full circle that I felt happy wondering what could have been, because it also already was. That’s how my brain feels, how I envision my life ending with that unique cacophony of metal and plastic and glass, grassy dirt and radiator fluid in my teeth.
I addressed the envelope, but I never took the risk and wrote the card. I sat with the idea, then life kept happening and I missed my chance to happen with it. I wonder if they still have that envelope, addressed to my old house, the last place I think I felt truly at home. I won’t say it was always good, but at least I could sit on the front porch with my coffee and take pride in what I had.