She will be fifty when she tries to shoot her first snake. By then she will be tending daily to the slope of lawn behind her property’s cinderblock garage and tiny ranch house. The house was new in 1951, and though she will dislike its rusty well water and damp basement walls, she will take pleasure in the fact that she and her house came into this world in exactly the same year, weathering the Pennsylvania seasons at exactly the same pace. Indeed, summer by summer, her house will come to seem like a silent and companionable sister. So, when the black-bodied snake whips free of the foundation, this sudden disgorgement will feel like an attack.
She will go to the kitchen cupboard, reach between the cereal boxes, and pull out her husband’s .38 special. (The snake is not the sort of intruder she and this man have imagined when trying to plan for all the things that could go wrong for them—a grim habit of theirs.) She will return to the edge of the patio and locate the snake in the low grass, now heading for the mulched flowerbeds, and she will point the snub barrel at it from only two feet away and pull the trigger.
She will miss. She will miss the snake five more times. When the gun is empty she will go up the driveway to the garage, ears ringing, and return with matches and the red can of gasoline. The fuel will be meant for their lawnmowers, but on this day she will slosh it over the snake.
The fumes alone will provoke it. The snake will twist and shiver, convulsing over itself in furious hoops and knots. Long as her own arm. Fatter than her big toe. Black scales gleaming as its body somersaults in the clover. The woman will think, it must be done. The match will feel clumsy in her fingertips as she strikes it on the box. Then the match-head will hiss to life, and even as it’s falling through the air, the flame will locate invisible vapors and accelerate through them with a whump.
The flames turn green and disappear. When the gasoline has burned off, the creature will lie stunned in the wilted grass. As it will turn out, snakes are not naturally flammable. Its eye, a lively bronze rivet, will seem to follow her. Lightheaded now, she’ll return to the garage for the steel digging bar that her husband keeps for prying up stumps. Arms quivering, she’ll plant her feet astride the snake and lift the bar over her head like Judith of old, readying herself to drive a sword point into the enemy’s neck. Her shadow alone is terrifying. She will feel, at last, brutally capable.
The tool will rend the warm clay soil with murdering strength. But the snake will have already shot off through the grass. It will disappear into the cinderblock walls of the garage, into a warren of shadows.
As the woman recognizes that her task has escaped her, she will feel a waking-up blurriness. The neighbor will be standing at the verge of his property among the elderberry bushes. What was all that gunfire about? The late-summer afternoon will seem too quiet: the whole neighborhood porous with curiosity. She will offer a limp excuse about the snake in the house. The neighbor is an old friend retired from the local fire department. His eyes are that mirror-like blue, gathering the whole scene with a certain compassion. He’ll nod at the garage awhile. You gonna burn your whole place up for a garden snake? At first she’ll laugh. Then something in her chest will convulse and shrivel.
Sarah Cypher is a fiction editor at The Threepenny Editor, and a writer whose debut novel The Skin and Its Girl is forthcoming from Ballantine Books in April 2023. She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where she was a Rona Jaffe Graduate Creative Writing Fellow in fiction. Her fiction and essays have appeared in New Ohio Review, Majuscule, North American Review, LEON Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and others.