Mennonite Poetry Home | Leonard Neufeldt



“Garter Snake and House Cat Facts”

Early summer children.
Morning lives and moves here
with crooked smiles
that rouse more than a guess
as our girls, all legs and homely grace,
dispatch themselves through open glass
door, kitchen, dining room and up the stairs,
the taller one with right arm salute
and outsized gold-striped bracelet
on her left arm. So attached, so intimate.
That’s got to be Freddy, the garter snake,
about to become another bedroom pet,
guessing as you do with others’ lives

But you’ve also learned to recognize their ways
not to be noticed, ways worth knowing
for their next time on your watch.
An errant notice summons you
to follow their tracks up stairway carpet
to where they sit together on bed edge,
the snake’s unhoused wariness staring
into the face of innocence tempting
its tongue flicks only inches away

How to manage an image that shouldn’t have dared
to be there, waiting to explain itself
or for you to scrabble for the words?
Since the girls turn to you but do not speak
or change the posture of anything
including the snake, you decide to break
the spell by complimenting lack of fear
of Freddy, which you had taught them
on the back lawn by stretching the frantically
anti-vertical snake out before curling him
on your arm, your blood awakened by
the memory of a boyhood broken snake
fang in your bare foot. There are many kinds
of advice possible in a poem looking back,
advice you can offer seamlessly
before leaving children and a garter snake
with head poised in the air to outstare
even them. But you don’t leave,
and what you say is that when Cleo
the cat shares their bed at night
she doesn’t sleep like them
but lets the moon make shadows in their room
as she watches for other movement

You say the smallest twitch of toe or foot
will turn her head. You don’t tell
how a cat can separate serpentine
lethargy from its fatness and stretch it out
as a gift for the morning
next to their slippers. You steady your voice
by explaining how unusual
restlessness along the baseboard dark
will invite a cat to attack. Cleopatra,
the snake and the girls cannot live
together in a bedroom world

The house listening, the girls’ murmurs
rising to litanies of unbearable loss,
the kind you once imagined for the end of days,
but Freddy is saved ̶—
taken in hand close to the edge of the wood
where he knows to wait under the willow
for tent caterpillars passing themselves
and each other down from the sky,
growing larger for a feast’s simplicity

and where, two days later the girls
find skull-pulsing shriekfuls of snakelets
stirred to life on the lawn’s shag of green
by the bare feet among them. Freddy
is renamed Frederika; they have just remade
the world by turning facts
against themselves, against yours,
against Cleo behind the glass door
in the black flesh of her stare

                              * *

Questions of before and after. Trying
to explain something, and not
for the first time, something that comes
from where you were later that year,
summer over, the sky impatient with clouds,
the air a different chill than now,
a shiver of dark beginning to seep up
from inside the earth
as tree canopies yellowed downward.
You walked to the willow, the branches
owned for a season by caterpillars already bare.
It may have been after you looked up the tree
and then looked down. Frederika still there
stretched fully out on the brown bark
mulch, pointing away from the tree as she did
the day before when you didn’t bend down
to look closely. Perhaps she was headless
then already. No way for you to know.
But on your knees now you could tell
uneven stitch work of bites on her neck,
a design across the space of memory
that will not move. Hey, just a snake to kill
the boys behind the dyke would have said,
as they did after they held two snakes by the tail,
snapping them full length forward and back
like a bull whip. Again. Spines giving way,
dividing themselves. Snakes and oaths
whooped casually away. And you
refusing to leave. The trance of reckoning
has lingered on the shortcomings, yours
and your world’s. Visible as Frederika’s
colours, still a dull black with stripes gold
as your oldest daughter’s hair or a harvest moon
coming out of clouds, more visible
than puncture marks beyond the neck.
No thought or word, only a kind of grief
in forgiveness curled up inside you
when you weren’t thinking of forgiveness.
A headless snake reaching to your touch,
the ache of something short of foreknowing
not left out. The silence

Most cats die of natural causes, and Cleo’s
last litter was gifted in small
cardboard cartons to neighbours also gone
like Cleo. But the watch goes on,
and words know in advance that they will outlive
most of what’s expected or isn’t, although
you wonder what will be left, what taken
Once there was a snake in the garden.
Once two girls said we are not afraid




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