Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

Travail

by Jack Bedell

 

Handling serpents doesn’t impress me.

I’ve done it too often to feel any real breath

on my neck from the act. I’ve come home

too many spring mornings from the marsh

at the back of my neighborhood with a pillow case

full of snakes snatched from the water’s edge,

thrown them on the cool concrete under the carport

to set while I ate lunch, then spilled

the slow curves out between my feet

to see what I’d caught. Snakes

of all colors and moods—copperheads, moccasins,

pygmy rattlers, angry hognoses,

I’ve held them all, fangs or not, and lived fine.

No, there’s no real trial to serpents.

They’re too easy to stun with cold

or the throb of a three-piece band

pulsing in the boards of some old church.

 

That row of Mason jars full of strychnine, though,

all crystal clear and lined up on the altar,

that there is a different kind of test altogether.

No matter how cold or loud the church is,

it sits there still, willing to wait for you

to work up the nerve to snatch a jar off the wood

and hoist it over the dancing crowd,

unscrew its lid and tilt it toward your lips,

knowing your muscles are going to cramp

so tight they’ll lock down your lungs,

the trismus spreading with every stomp.

And when that liquid slithers down your throat

into the cul-de-sac of your stomach,

there’s not but a couple of ways to pass

through that kind of test to the other side.

Both of them involve pain and grace,

only one offers a tomorrow.