At the bottom of the hill, the cute blonde naturalist pulls a bull snake from a pillow case that she has stored in a blue cooler. It wraps itself around her wrist and forearm as its tongue goes in and out, flicking, tasting, smelling its new environment. Families are scattered on the grassy steps of the outdoor amphitheater on picnic blankets, in camp chairs. Children sit in laps and listen to all the cool facts about snakes—the cloudy eyes revealing skin about to be shed, the scales on the belly, rough on one side for slithering, the tongue that flicks and smells and helps gulp down a frozen mouse once a week. This bull snake, Samantha, carries a Mohawk of skin above her head. I feel tempted to pull on it like an old sunburn, wanting the satisfaction of removing it in one long sheet.
But all of this is like the blurred peripheral of a camera lens which is actually zooming in tighter on something else, a moving target that won’t sit still long enough to be photographed, my boys, sweaty and giggly, running up and down the big, grass hill. I try to zoom in on Charlie’s big teeth, his wet curls, his head thrown back. Finny’s red lips, his smiling eyes. They go so fast, propelled by the angle of the hill, so that when they reach the bottom, every time, without fail, Charlie is flung forward, face planting in the grass. There’s always a pause as we watch to see if he’s hurt, but every time he comes up laughing, waiting for Finny to roll on top of him, sending him into further hysterics. And then, up and back, to do it all again.
As my attention drifts back to the periphery, I catch the story of the bull snake. The bull snake, she says, gets its name because like a bully, it acts tougher than it actually is out of insecurity and fear. When it senses a threat, it puffs itself up, hisses loudly and shakes its tail, as if it had a rattle, as if it had some venom to release from a strong, swift bite. But it doesn’t. It has nothing but a show, smoke and mirrors, bark with no bite. Vulnerable and defenseless should anyone call his bluff.I envy it. This past year, I’ve let anxiety tear me up. I shake my tail at it and then fall to pieces, convinced I am losing my mind--over what? A To-Do list that never gets done. I almost lost it again today when Finny wouldn’t nap and my own lack of sleep was crawling under my skin, around my brain, telling me I couldn’t deal, camping trip was off, we’d have to go. No bite. No bark. Show’s over.
But then, something bigger crawled in. Told me to get up, get a coffee, take your son to the beach, be outside, enjoy it. It’s a beautiful day. And something even bigger still allowed me to listen, pull myself up, grab Finny and the car keys and go.And now here I am, sitting at the bottom of this hill, looking up at David standing at the top and our two scrappy boys running and rolling between us. And I am grateful to David for taking us out here. Grateful to God for the beach and the woods, the grass and the water, the breeze and the bull snake. My To-do list is rendered useless here. I can’t even shower, let alone worry about unpaid bills. All I can do is tune into this show, starring two little boys who are teaching me the giddy, outrageous delight of running and rolling and laughing. Two little boys full of mischief and play and joy. Two little boys who are made of many things, including little pieces of me. And I fill up, focus in. The color is bright, vibrant even. Clear, sharp, pure. And I’m grateful that although I am vaguely aware of the snakes hissing in the grass below, I hear no rattle. I feel no venom. They are blurry, out of focus, lost in their own smoke.
All I see are red lips, smiling eyes, strawberry curls and skinny knees. Wild things running wild. Nothing to hold them back.