Virginia Shepherd







Snakes and Ladders

Virginia Shepherd


I’m under siege.  The beginning: a glossy black snake, its belly a red flare, thrashes at the back door, leaves a neat red slash on my dog Bridget’s neck. The old saying ‘never trust a person you meet after a snake has appeared at the back door’ came true.  The same snake now glides past my bedroom window, peers up irritably, inflates itself. Pours from a hole in the rocks outside my study window, trails that unmistakeable persistent rustle. I know it’s there before I see it. Sharpening of an atavistic sense, epigenetic memory of pythons big as train carriages, whose down-swinging jaws could take and swallow peristaltically anyone who slept deeply.  Head first.  A python opened, a child removed, coated in tough mucilage like a jelly bean. They’re out there in the hot nights, I know, the air crackles with that sense when I take the dogs out on leads. The little snake-shy Tenterfield darts his head, leaps a foot in the air at the sight of a stick.


Don’t mind the diamond python.  Home that afternoon, talking on the phone I spied the gauzy skin swinging in the bougainvillea, retaining exactly the shape of its owner as shed stockings recall a shapely leg.  Still wet and flexible from the shedding.  The scales a thousand blueish and opalescent eyes, the triangulations where the diamond pigments underlie the keratin.  Unwound from the thorns, it was nearly three metres long, complete with eye lenses and lips, and only a minor tear where the owner snagged the skin to unroll and shed.


The man in the Faulconbridge print shop, accustomed to printing local histories and how-to-vote pamphlets, is delighted with the challenge of laminating the skin.  I want to preserve it, the symbolism of this moulting, growth and renewal. Scan it and turn it into an image, a pattern of electrons on a screen, magnify it until it reveals its memories, the thrashing trees, the patterns of bark slithered over, the tessellated sandstones navigated on hot nights, the wings of birds devoured, the tails and feet of mice, the coruscations of fur, the endless eyes, and finally, an infinity of snakes.


Print onto paper, these images of skin, and these python dreams, memories of all that was shed. Begin to cut them out with surgical scissors, paste the shapely memories onto postcard art cards. Snakes mostly, some trees with wildly twisted bark, a couple of scaly fish, landscapes, and shapes unidentifiable to me, the substance of a snakes incomprehensible dreams. Anna had sent me a card with an image of one of Hilik’s sculptures, a landscape carved from wood whose grain itself holds memories, a record of time that Hilik shaves back and reveals.  Onto this I pasted many snakes that writhed out of the print of the python’s skin. I knew they were yearning for something- what was it?  A ladder, of course. Falling from the sky.  That old game of snakes and ladders, where the oldest boards have menacing, realistic snakes and the ladders are hard to find.  On Kit’s card I have pasted strange trees and a snake pausing in the moonlight, another falling ladder. This card turned into a sort of cartoon but the trees were there already, I swear it, in the shed skin of the python, as well as the motionless moonlit snake.  Saffron and crimson trees. I have a thing for these colours.  A hand over the face of the moon.


The multiple symbolisms of snakes, biblical, mythological, Confucian. The hexagram of revolution- moulting- with its admonition that haste and ruthlessness during moulting brings disaster, and so too does hesitation and conservatism.  The tree of knowledge, the serpent and the apple, the Lernean hydra guarding the underworld, the snake as deception, as wisdom, whose poisonous bite ultimately heals, all these words with an S onomatopoeia for that unmistakeable sound a snake makes in the grass.


Walking, I knew before I reached the sandstone ledge I think of as ‘mine’ that the lone Erica, bravely facing the gully, would be flowering, its white bells a gauzy froth.  No person or dog has been down here and I’m watched by a thousand eyes.


The bush has erupted into saffron and crimson blossoms, puffing streams of pollen into the air. These ‘egg and bacon’ flowers are a thousand faces, mirroring the bees, benign and befurred, golden with pollen. Quizzical furry bee-faces, thick sturdy antennae, a complex of kaleidoscope eyes, wings burring like spitfire planes.  The flowers, labiatous, have the eyes of bees, and long luscious tongues fellate the stigma which is thick and swollen with pollen. The whole appendage swooning as a bee impales its face and proboscis in the bullseye. These droning buzzing insects- the bush is throbbing like a helicopters whump whump, like the blood in my head after the walk.  Dark red flowers thrusting their impudent faces, lifting their skirts in the damp wind.


Leaning on a rock, I was facing the gully of bees when I saw the snake.  A thin flexible brown snake, with small head, large eyes. Surreptitious, cautious, making that distinctive susurrus amongst the leaves. Three points of attachment, sinuous S-bends, approaching me.  I keep so still it feels as if I’ve left my body, yet the snake pauses, flattens itself.  Both of us motionless, not breathing.  It shrugs off the awareness that something is there.  Advances.  Is that tongue really forked?  Slithering up my leg now, a small neat head navigating my flesh, up over the hips, the rib corrugations, to my neck, where it stops.  Rests its head in the hollow of my scapula, nestling.  I can see the neat scales outlining its lips and nostrils.  Surprisingly its body is warm, waxy rather than dry.  If I move I’m dead.  I have to move.  Dilemma in the hexagram of moulting: avoid both excessive haste and excessive hesitation. One of us will move. A cloud’s dark fist closes over the sun.  The wind is the only breath.  Pollen motes whirl through glassy air.  The bees, oblivious, are plundering the flowers.  One of us will have to move.



Follow us on LinkedIn