How I Swallowed A Snake
by Annie Blake
“Have I ever told you?”
“Hmm?” I watched him dry himself with a towel.
“I reckon if I knew I was dying, I would just lie down and sleep.”
I liked when he talked like that. I started to feel open and shimmery like a delicate winter sun he could punch his fist through. I liked feeling freely vulnerable, even if there was risk.
“I would just lie in the snow and cover my face with a fur skin and let flakes blow over me.”
“You must feel safe. Like you know it’s time. And you can accept it. It’s good that you don’t need to fight it… I wish I could feel like that.” I started to untie my boots. For once, the bows slid out into lines easily. “It sounds primitive though.” I thought for a minute. “Dude, I think you’re in primary processing mode.”
“What?” I watched him put on his underwear and socks and T-shirt.
I sat on the bed, crossed my legs and covered my toes with the blankets. We never made the bed. Because that was a waste of time. “You’re thinking like a little kid—you know, you just want comfort fast.” My hands were clasped together and my fingers were pumping air out of them like a heart. I was nervous. How could he think death would be that easy? “Maybe some people can rebirth without drowning first. Don’t know. Isn’t rebirth supposed to hurt?”
“You think you’re so damn smart.”
We’ve been having these conversations a lot lately. I finally felt understood. There was probably not much more of his shallow shit I could take. He said he needed more intimacy. I told him I would be able to give more intimacy if I got a bit more grey matter first.
So we were trying to reach a compromise.
“I’m scared of you.” I looked at him squarely.
He looked at me like I pinched his eye.
“You said you wanted to know what I’m really thinking, but you can’t hack it.” The jumps between honesty and smartassdom were getting very blurry.
I could see him trying to brake his anger. He was doing very well.
He swallowed. “Why?–I’m not that person anymore.”
“You forgot about that thing two months ago?”
“Was longer than that.”
“That thing was different.”
“That! See how you always say that! You’re disconnecting yourself from what happened.”
“You said that too.”
I looked at him hot-faced. My mouth was drying up. “I don’t get how you can just pretend it didn’t happen. At least I can bring it up. You’re fucking angry, Tommy.” I was shaking my head. I was in denial too. “And it’s not all my fault.”
He closed his eyes. And expelled. The air in his breath was as hard as wood.
“You’re crazy, you know that? Admit it.” I waited. Nothing. “I always think it’s me. But.”
His cheeks sagged.
I waited again. I looked down at the sheets I was caressing. “You almost smashed your head through the window to kill yourself.” (I’m sure there was a better way to open your view to the world). “Remember?” I stopped. I got louder and talked in sing-song. “Hon?” I think I was trying to diffuse the seriousness a little. His line of good progress was plummeting.
He put his hand over his mouth and tried to forget.
“You can’t just… you know, rebirth like that. You know? You’ve gotta really feel it—for a really long time.” Someone was drawing his face with charcoal. “You know what I’m sayin’?”
His lips were pursed. “How am I gonna work and do this rebirth thing at the same time? Huh? You think it’s so damn easy getting up every morning to face people? And then I’m supposed to get all depressed an’ shit?”
Excuses popped out of him like candy out of a dispenser.
Rebirthing was a serious business. I’m not sure if you could actually rebirth without losing your mind first. And I didn’t really know if there was choice involved. Well, I didn’t think anything we did was a choice, really. Rebirthing was something you did because you had to. Like a soldier comes to you with a gun and tells you to stand on this red line to be killed. That’s how rebirthing actually is. You just obey. Something makes you do it. The soldier told me to wear a mask. I couldn’t see the point of that. I asked if it would be okay to look. I preferred to look at his face. I tried to glimpse the bullet. I tried to remember what I was thinking.
I always watched the nurse pull blood out of my arm with a needle. Even though she always told me to look the other way. It felt better for some reason. It was easier to avoid dizziness by focusing on something definite rather than at a blank wide wall.
“It was about me.” He finally thought of something to say.
“I wasn’t gonna hurt you.”
“It didn’t feel that way…You go down, I go down too. That’s your whole damn life story, Tommy.”
He quickly shifted his position on the bed. “What?”
Fuck. He was gonna kill me that night. Maybe. Lucky he didn’t own a gun. He would have shot me. Christ. I just waited. He said he couldn’t believe I stood there and waited for him to kill himself. I did wait. I looked at him like a planet through a telescope. The marital elasticity between us snapped. I crept into the other room and waited in the dark. (I suppose I needed to tell the soldier I changed my mind about the mask). I didn’t want to see it happen. I didn’t want to believe he was that angry. Christ. I could hear his breathing. He was muttering stuff to himself and he breathed methodically like a metronome full of fuel.
I went back to the original conversation. To calm him down. Or maybe to calm myself.
“If I was in palliative care I would need a team of philosophers to sit with me and reassure me I was going to be safe.”
He didn’t laugh. I had his attention.
I told him about my dream of a man with a bald head. He was like a moon hatching out of a bog. He looked a bit like a headstone or maybe even a stepping stone. His greed for air was shameless. His frog-eyes were as white and whole as hard-boiled eggs. They were the only things I could see. He arms kept sploshing around for this snake under the mud. He wanted to catch that snake. He had to swallow it to be saved. The snake, thin and small, wouldn’t be caught. Like the words writhing out of my mouth.
Tommy leaned over to hear me. My words were feathery like I had a lisp. Sometimes I felt like an underdeveloped child. Like I was stuck somewhere between the ages of four or five
and I was trying to justify myself to my parents before copping a hot row of smacks with a shoe. I told him I had to work out why I was always fighting it.
Tommy’s shoulders were wide and low. “The man’s you. You’re close to rebirthing. Just grab the damn snake and shove it down your throat.”
Eating a snake in your dream meant you had rebirthed. Like the symbol of the ouroboros.
“I was scared of the taste of the skin.” My past left a slimy, green, moldy water taste in my mouth.
“Why do you think it would be easy for me to die?”
I shrugged. “The first thing you remember is nuzzling a woman’s coat,” I remembered this was his first ever memory.
“When did I tell you that?”
“Maybe you need more fight. Maybe you’re giving up…And your mom used to break biscuits in your milk so you could shut up and fall asleep. So she could do night-shift. You sleep too much. You would rather sleep than face your shit.”
Then he nodded. But he didn’t seem too fazed about it. My first memory was with my mom. We ran down the street in a panic because we were late picking up my sister from school. My mom’s presence felt like a cliff face that crumbled as easily as cake. I felt safer with her psychotic anger than with her thin body leaning with loss.
“I don’t get it.” I really didn’t. “How you can feel so damn safe… aren’t you scared you’re gonna go to hell?”
He shook his head. “I never think like that.” He crisscrossed his thumbs. “I would feel nervous about leaving you and the kids behind. I would miss you guys.”
I told him I was afraid of retribution. I was so afraid of burning I wouldn’t have room to mourn anyone. He was getting used to me talking like that.
“You said you don’t believe in hell anymore.”
“Yeah…but what if I was dying and started to panic?”
It would be nice to feel loss. I felt so out of control that mourning the old world felt indulgent. It was like trying to escape a burning house and worrying about photos when you’re trying to save your pregnant body. It’s like that. My soul. I worry about it. That it’s not full yet. That I haven’t found what I’m missing. Like that time my embryo died. I was a carrier of death. Like someone scooped out the deepest part of my mind. I still feel like squashing that doctor’s body between the palms of my hands like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. My mom had one of those. I used to help her wash clothes all the time. I got my arm sucked into it once. I got a nasty bruise from it.
I will never forget the doctor’s hands in my body. She was like the final clunk of a prison switch that commands light-out before I’m ready to sleep. She was a rusty tool. Like one of those manual drills my dad had. Her unperturbed face—her mouth that flapped out of habit. How she sucked me out with a pipe. “I need to find a longer pipe,” she sang, like she was calling a customer to come and collect their order at McDonald’s. Christ. Seriously. I’m still pissed she burnt my towel without asking me first. “Standard procedure,” she said. I wanted my bits on the towel for myself. I needed to see it first.
Even years later my kids say, “Why does it feel like someone’s missing?” I swear they know. Even though they don’t. Like the time I had a breakdown. And couldn’t make myself cry. That function just dried up. I knew if I cried, I would have lost it and ended up in some understaffed psychiatric unit in town. I would have lost my job. It would have felt like being in a prison and being forced to do things. That would have made me feel like the ultimate fuck-up. Back then, anyway. When I felt under control a few months later, I cried. Something rich and moist like a sponge rose and sat in my ribcage. Like a spiritual orgasm. I felt safe enough to drop a little and cry without falling through and losing the skeleton of my mind.
I envy people who can share things and feel resolved—who can just curl up and wait for sleep. I envy people who can experience a meaty abreaction without risking a psychotic break—without losing the sight and smells of roads and houses and the people of the world.
I had the sudden taste of winter soup in my mouth. “But I envy you… man…I wish I could just sleep things off.”
He shook the blankets like he was trying to unstick a trash liner. There was a gust of wind. He smiled and patted the cold empty spot next to him. I felt so damn grateful. Because we didn’t fight. I was so sick of arguments. Then I felt guilty. He was good to me. In a lot of ways. It wasn’t all his fault. He was a bit of a kid. Kids walk off from bloody falls easily… But he wasn’t a kid.
Sometimes I hated him. My mind was yanked open as wide as my eyes. The sleep mechanism in my brain automatically switched off. I leaned over to kiss him.
“Your infection.” He pointed to the bony part of his throat.
“Don’t worry. It’s doesn’t hurt when I swallow anymore.”
“Just a few more days.”
My body was spinning feelings like clothes in a washing machine. “Alright.”
He turned the other way and snuggled under the blankets. His body was like an entire backbone. He bent his knees. He was long and slender. I watched him while I undressed. I felt stiff and full of bullets.
He looked like a snake.
Annie Blake is an Australian writer, thinker and researcher. Her main interests include psychoanalysis, philosophy and cosmology. Her poem ‘These Grey Streets’ was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize by Vine Leaves Literary Journal. She holds a Bachelor of Teaching, a Graduate Diploma in Education and is a member of the C G Jung Society of Melbourne and Existentialist Society (Melbourne). You can visit her on http://annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.au/ and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.