Eating The Serpent

Betty Dobson 


Copyright 2002 by Betty Dobson

Photo of a bee on a cluster of white flowers.  (c) 2004 by Richard Loller.
Most of my life, I've been terrified of snakes. Whatever their size, shape, or coloring, the very sight of one has been enough to make my limbs go numb. It's as if they could reach out and bite my mind, injecting venom into my motor impulses. Illogical, but that's the nature of a phobia. Recent events in my life have forced me to come to terms with my fear. At first, I didn't even realize it was that big an issue. Then, as I reread my poems and essays from recent years, I recognized a trend. Subconsciously, I included a snake motif in most of the work.

Amazing what the mind can do on its own. All it takes, sometimes, is a strong impression at a young age and a triggering event for the adult mind.

When I was four years old, my family moved to a farm. In truth, my father paid rent on the house. The owners retained full access to the annual hay crop and kept the threshers and bailers stored in the barn. My siblings and I--six of us in all--didn't really care about the details. We were caught up with scaling bales of hay, climbing apple trees, swinging from barn rafters, and sliding down snowy hills--a huge playground all our own.

But playtime had its hazards. Like the day my younger sister and I wandered across the left front field, past the corner of the barbed wire fence, to the apple trees. We circled the biggest one, with its sprawling branches of ripening fruit, looking for an easy way up. We'd done this so many times before. Nothing could've been more ordinary.

Then Erin stubbed her toe on a hidden mound in the grass. Everything seemed to slow down at that point, at least for me. I couldn't move; all I could do was watch when the hornets swarmed up around her. She opened her mouth as if to scream--I couldn't hear anything--and ran for the house, encased in a solid black cloud.

I'm still afraid of stinging insects. One is enough to make me freeze up. Maybe that's because inaction kept me from sharing my sister's injuries. Big brother Roy, with his usual aplomb, once told me to get my own trauma.

Unfortunately, I already had one by then. Nothing so severe as multiple stings. Mine had more to do with the fear of what might happen. For years, I've hesitated at the top of long stairwells and whenever I picked up a sharp object. All because I saw Erin fall down a steep flight of stairs and was in the room, listening to his agony, when Roy put his left eye out with a fork. My imagination often proved more damaging than any physical injury. Erin, after all, learned to swat at hornets and their ilk with impunity. She'd already been through the worst those little nasties could throw at her.

I got my big scare at age five. I was watching my oldest brother, Jimmy, burn garbage out back of the collapsing slaughterhouse. For whatever reason--no doubt either boredom or hunger--I left before he was done. The tall grass on each side of the winding dirt road swayed in the wind, making the barest whisper. A new sound slid into the range of my hearing, just as I reached the corner of the gray barn. Something was moving through the grass. I glanced to my right in time to see a snake-—he looked as big as one of those jungle snakes on Tarzan—-slither onto the loose dirt. His tongue darted in and out, and he seemed to be staring at me.

I screamed as loud as I could. In an instant, I considered my options. I could see our white house, but had to pass the snake to get there. With one more scream, I turned and ran all the way back to the slaughterhouse.

I was crying by the time I threw myself against Jimmy's thin legs. When he managed to get the story out of me--not easy when I couldn't catch my breath for sobbing--he laughed.

"Snake was probably more scared of you than you were of it."

That logic didn't help me when the nightmares started. Night after night, I dreamt of snakes, winding themselves around me or slithering over me in a suffocating heap. I woke up in a dead panic, too scared to move. Until I could convince myself that I was awake, I imagined I was still covered by snakes as the shadows seemed to writhe all around me. The nightmares gradually diminished in frequency--weekly, monthly, yearly--but they didn't stop entirely until I was in Junior High, nearly a decade later. That was long after my family had moved away from the farm and made the transition to small-town life. Snakes didn't frequent the streets of Truro. They simply dwelled inside my head. My final serpentine nightmare, after many months of ease that made me feel safe, was the worst I'd ever experienced.

I blame it all on the movie I'd been foolish enough to watch that night. A man, sitting in a chair, was wrapped in the coils of boa constrictor--or maybe it was a python. The snake was lured off its intended victim when someone else placed a large bowl of milk in front of the chair. Slowly, the snake wound its way down the length of the man's rigid body, intent on a new source of nourishment.

That night, I dreamt that I sat in that man's place. Only for me, there was no bowl of milk. Nor was there any other form of rescue. There was just me and the snake. It coiled itself around me, sliding easily between my back and the chair. Little by little, its massive body disappeared behind me until all I could feel was the bulk of its tightly coiled body under my back. That's when I woke, startled to realize that I really could feel a football-sized lump under my back. I was too scared to move. All I could do was lie there in the dark and will myself back to reality. That took about half an hour. When I finally felt brave enough, I slipped my right hand towards the small of my back. Nothing. I felt nothing. The nightmares stopped after that, and I've rarely had to face my fear in the real world.

I've never gone back to the old farm, but I heard the house was torn down years ago to make way for a school. The hay fields were turned into a parking lot and playground space. All that remains is the big apple tree. Everything else lies buried in memory.

That's what I thought, anyway, until I acknowledged the persistence influence of that snake. Every aspect of my Baptist upbringing told me that snakes were something to be feared. Maybe I thought Satan wanted to try his luck at tempting a child. Maybe that's why I reacted the way I did over so minor an encounter.

So what changed? Looking back, I realized that Junior High was the first time I questioned the legitimacy of the Bible. There were other belief systems that contradicted those held by my parents--Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, Cultism, Atheism--that could only be discounted in a Christian light. The Gospel wasn't necessarily gospel. It was just one opinion. Never mind that I'd been raised in an our-way-or-the-wrong-way environment. Whoever wrote the scriptures could have been wrong about the serpent.

I couldn't resolve all the conflicting issues at that age, so I set my feet on the agnostic path. The route turned out to be full of steep hills and sudden drops--unsuccessful forays into the other major religions--but there were a few straight stretches. Sometimes I thought I could hear God whispering to me from the bushes but, wherever I looked, found only the wind.

Twenty years passed before I began to understand. Random research into the women's spirituality movement seemed to fire every neurotransmitter in my brain. Inner divinity instead of some unseen omniscient? "Yes," I thought. "That's the truth. Finally." For the first time ever, I gave my life over to me. I reached inside myself and discovered more spiritual strength than I'd ever known before.

Snakes were the one sticking point for me. Turned out they were primary to the movement, extending back to the mythic days before God reigned in His heaven. The circled snake, devouring its own tail, symbolized the cycle of life and the ancient knowledge of woman's life-giving power. A key ceremony involved baking a coiled loaf of bread and absorbing living knowledge by eating the serpent.

Tough concept for a lifelong snake-hater. Rather than give up a newfound belief system that worked so well, I adapted it to suit my needs. That's one of the great advantages of women's spirituality--there's no such thing as one right way. Maybe I'll learn to like--or at least tolerate--snakes. Maybe not. Either way, I'll have my personal faith. Fear is nothing by comparison.

Betty Dobson operates InkSpotter Writing and Editing, serving a diverse North American clientele from her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She’ s an award-winning creative writer, recognized in poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry appears in Sol-Magazine, 52% and Amaze: The Cinquain Journal. She’s also a contributor to The Writer’s Funny Valentine, The WritersNet Anthology of Prose: Fiction, and The Canadian Writer's Guide, 13th Edition. She fills her spare time--when it can be found--with her other great passions, genealogy and reading.

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