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Visitors by Philip Arnold

Visual art by Lino Azevedo 

 

 

Along my worktable in the basement, over a clutter of tools and copper pipe fittings, the skin of a snake stretches several feet. Following the quick-handed twitch of instinct, I glide my fingers over it. There is no weight to it. More void than material, the hollow of its form offers an airy diameter, a hint of texture. The skin would tear, crumble, and simply cease against an uneasy moment of friction.

 

My imagination was possessed by the dark corners of the basement. There was no life in it, but the snake skin occupied imagined space. It continued along the floor, slithered beneath the chair, curled inside the tub, grazed my calf and coiled inside my brain.

 

The skin was simply an echo, a faint recollection of the snake, though it still held the authority of the snake’s presence. In that quick moment when the hand and eye and heart hyphenate, the unseen is experienced. Hidden somewhere in the house a snake curled into its new skin.

 

In the county where my house is located there is a superstition that a snake will not die until the sun goes down. Down the mountain, it’s been said a snake will not die until it thunders. In parts between, the dragonfly is called a “snake doctor,” and thought capable of healing an injured snake and even of bringing it back from the dead.

 

What temptation the serpent brought was in the tropes it offered. Here, a wingless dragon; there, the devil’s mouthpiece. What animal reaches as far back and as deep in symbolism as the snake? An image of death, resurrection, fertility and betrayal. In omen, I have learned, is reconciliation: a making whole of causality with the encountered life. I chose not to see the snake as ill fortune.

 

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents—from the Gospel of Mark. Although outlawed in all states except West Virginia, there are reverent folk who still handle snakes in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. With the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon them, believers hold up poisonous snakes to sing and pray, praising God for protecting them from the harm of fangs.

 

Outside the free-wheeling spirituality of Pentecostal pulpits, the odds of being bitten by a venomous snake is 1 in 37,500. Better are your odds at 1 in 36 of rolling snake eyes in a game of dice. Still, it goes without saying that no one wants to live in a house with a snake. To do so invites uneasy nights. A dangerous underneath lies in every direction. Intensities of attention multiple. And it is simply not natural.

 

Was the snake still housebound? Had it cleared the unfinished basement of mice? As the coil inside my mind tightened in the days after finding the skin, I rolled the dice and wagered a snake against a pesky squirrel I could not get out of my crawl spaces. I never did hear the squirrel again. Or see the snake.

 

 

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Above, through an opening in the canopy of branches, I stare. Hovering there is a hawk—the evening’s fading light rims its outstretched wings. Is there grace in stillness? So much is at work in the hawk’s exquisite poise: micro-articulations of feathers, undulating skeins of wind, atmospherics of suspension.

 

Still, in the hawk’s equilibrium is a withheld violence, a latent velocity that can turn the air razor-edged. Do its eyes surveil my form? My body stiffens as the cold penetrates and layers against me. Is the hawk gathering some vital substance from my stillness?

 

Like the arrowed arm of a compass, the hawk points southwest, its eyes off-angle of the setting sun. Extending from my eyes is a string that holds the hawk in place, like a kite. There is no slack in the string. I can feel the pull, the northeastern wind gripping the hawk’s wings.

 

Hawks have been considered messengers of gods, truth-bearers and prophetic due to their keen eyesight and the grace of their flight. They have also been considered agents of transformation, foreboding it and embodying its tectonics. Not a stage or state of being, the hawk’s symbolism suggests the moving on from one to the next. In the revisionist spirals of the hawk’s flight is possessed its transitional power—its prowess in the shift, its liminal reconfigurations.

 

The sky darkens and the string breaks. The hawk is gone.

 

In the first few days I lived in the house, a hawk circled over the valley. Flying among currents of wood smoke and thermal by-ways, the hawk navigated an airy highway that was invisible to my eye. The hawk flew so close to the deck I could see the uplift of its primary feathers as the wind polished its wings.

 

More recently, a kettle of hawks circle in front of my house. Behind the hawks a mountain looms, which is known as Grandfather. The mountain, the highest peak on the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge, claims the southern horizon. You can stand in two counties on its summit and two rivers flow, west and east, from its flanks. The Cherokee who lived here long ago called the mountain Tanawha. The word means glorious hawk.

 

 

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The flag of the Republic of Mexico features a snake in the clutch of a bird of prey. In the lightning strike of talons imagine the explosive pulse, the lung’s flush of snowmelt, the wild hinging and bone jolt of their braiding. The bird on the flag is perched upon a prickly pear cactus that grows out of a rock surrounded by water. When the Aztec people saw the prophesied bird and snake after two hundred years of wandering, they founded their capital on the swampy Lake Texcoco. The now drained lake basin is occupied by the capital of Mexico—Mexico City.

 

In its symbolic power to unify the antinomies of earth and sky, the low and high, the body and spirit—the predatory image of the bird and snake garners its hold on my imagination. Of course our existential instinct for symbolism pins many tails on the natural order of animal existence. Like the first frost or daffodil bloom, the hawk and snake become sibylline, troped into trespass or regality, and translated into metaphor. With the ardor of the hunt we domesticate the animal domain this way—imbuing their behavior to purport either fable, truth or autopsy.

 

Between the swoop and graze, my house locates a shadowy center of gravity. The distance closes between the den-depths of my house and its skyward projections. As all symbols arrive in the world—inside the eye of every hawk is a coiled snake—poised and proliferous, reflecting a panoramic desire against a blue sky that penetrates the dark.

 

 

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What else is there to say—the morning was irregular. With her body tucked inside her doghouse, my dog poked her head out aggressively, barking short, stressed syllables into high octaves. She was two versions of herself—full of anxious hesitation, wavering between a lunge and retreat, her conflicting instincts telling her to attack and to stand down.

 

It was a cold March morning and the mountain had not been dry for weeks. The day offered no radiance: not a hint of shadow anywhere. Clouds had swallowed whole the woods. A daylong fog drafted over the mountain. Gravity ripened the mist, swelling moisture into droplets that ran courses down the trunks of trees.

 

As I approached, Sula, my dog, never broke visual contact in the direction of the imagined trespass. I followed her sightline up the backyard’s incline. Scattered among the bare branches of a maple tree were six black blotches—six brush strokes still wet in winter ink.

 

Why is shock or surprise always out of thin air? In the fog’s redressing of the woods, the silhouette of the maple tree shapes and reshapes. Perched low on its branches were six turkey vultures.

 

Sula stayed in her doghouse and continued barking. The buzzards were real to her, but they had not touched down on the ground. Sula’s territory was earth-bound, a perimeter of scent, a trodden and sniffed-over proximity surrounding the house. The birds both here and not here, she could not give up the imagined affront, and leaned into the antagonism.

 

Lacking a voice box, turkey vultures cannot sing: they hiss when threatened and vomit powerful stomach acids to defend themselves. In such a way, unfair as it is, they come across as counter narrative to the sweeter stuff—sparrows and squirrels—and hint at picked-over vertebrae instead. They assert a polemic against decay, providing an ecologically-sound, sanitorial function, even as it unnerves our anthropocentric etiquette.

 

In my experience, buzzards keep a low profile. Their evocative association with death and lack of social proclivities remind me of the Sin Eaters of centuries past. No bird, the Sin Eater was a person whose occupation was to absorb the sins of the dead, allowing the departed an afterlife beyond the torments of hell. For a meager fee—half a shilling in some records—the Sin Eater would eat stale bread off the body of the dead, and wash down the morsel with cheap ale or wine. Having consumed the unforgiven sins of the dead, the Sin Eater was cast outside the village, shunned and feared by his neighbors, yet essential to fulfill their spiritual world views. It is conjectured that the ceremony was once practiced in the Appalachian Mountains by early immigrants from Britain.

 

Buzzards are not territorial, but they are possessive. A buzzard leans in—handmaiden of the great succumbing—and stakes a claim, sins and all. In the transitive power of energy, a buzzard takes a portion of one body for another. Appetite is the question our bodies inquire throughout the day. Without fuel, the machine falters. What I imagined, wildly, was that their stillness was patience. Something’s time was on the wane.

 

The woods, though, are not a parlor of mourning. I stood as still as the buzzards, thinking: I should do something—but what and for whom exactly? But there was nothing to be done here. No consent was needed to stir the bones. Still, staring into the raw blackness of the tree-bound buzzards, I felt the need to be acknowledged. But as what—interloper, witness, interceder? I felt a need for the moment to clarify. By some means, a significance for a death that was absent needed to be determined.

 

Isn’t the death that is absent always our own? I knew I didn’t want to see death come in a cloak of feathers, in all its gothic plumage and its hemmed-in and slow beating heart. I say, Let the stars open their gates. Let dawn break without my breath. Let the ode of my life end as a nocturne. Let me slip fast from this carbon-placeholder of a body in the quiet of the night. Let the bear roam through the northern stars and the ceremony of what it means come later.

 

 

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My dog’s ruse was up. Through the kitchen window I can see Sula resting on the back deck. Close by are several deer munching off the forest floor. My dog is daydreaming an idyll of her woodland dominion. When I open the door and walk out, Sula bounds to her feet and begins barking at the surprised deer, who bolt away into a cover of rhododendron.

 

Sula patrolled our acreage and beyond, often wondering over the ridge and down into the valley where she kept the company of several other dogs. Within the perimeter of her urine-marking around my property, any movement was a call to investigate. For a conspecific, my dog’s urine would communicate her maturity, sex and social status. Who knows exactly how closely my property line and her territorial boundary aligned.

 

Then, one night, there was a sound I had not heard before. An extended growl that repeated after an urgent, ribcage expanding breath. The deep-decibel groan broke the spell of the late winter evening. My dog, who would normally be laying at my feet at this hour, was still outside. I moved quickly downstairs.

 

My dog had drawn a line in the dark several feet from the backdoor. The bear lumbered toward it. Distance was no longer an abstraction. This threshold, where their scents mingled, was marked by blood pumping the veins, the muscles tensing: an existential space with teeth bare.

 

I opened the door. The bear shattered the darkness in its break-away jolt back into the woods. I grabbed a flashlight and walked to the area the bear had occupied. Wraith-like, the bear had disappeared; I needed evidence of its visit. In the area of its bolt, claw marks pierced the ground. Further on, in the remnants of an old barbed wire fence, a tuft of its fur collected, which I pulled out. Old, deep-south mojo teaches that hair is the root of spells: its possession garners the spirit to our administrations, or so I was willing to believe in my clutch of bear fur.

 

Into the dark woods, shining my light along the barbed wire and over the forest floor, my dog stayed close by my side. The bear was gone but my dog still had the scent, her head nodding up and down from the ground to where the trees grew more dense along the ridge. The official state dog of North Carolina is the Plott Hound, a breed that originated in the North Carolina mountains. Around 1750, Johannes Plott arrived from Germany with five Hanover hounds. His son breed the family pack with local stock for the purpose of hunting bears. The dog today is still known for its endurance, determination and courage.

 

Through the woods, far off, and below a sky full of stars, I can see the ridge of Tater Hill. The bear’s retreat hung there—her limbs leaping into the black of night where the northern stars glimmer through the trees.

 

I follow as Sula sniffs deeper into the woods. Why I don’t know. It had been some time since I felt this alert. Into each step the full weight of my body shifts and settles onto the forest floor of frosted leaves. The cold air trophies my lungs. Small sounds come to the ear as precise as a flung arrow. The dark clarifies.

 

Were we following the bear? Had we stepped into a wake of fear that trailed her as she maneuvered quickly away from the house and into the woods? My dog and I crossed a threshold where each step felt like a dare, and each step promised the knowledge that fear brings. Into the unresolved dark of winter, fear was a commitment to the potential of harm. Both were mind-sets, elaborate and large, projections that edge against the unbearable—and pull back, when possible. Into an imagined landscape that turns and rears, fear drew us deeper in, slowly, like jaws that summon the sky to gnaw its stars.