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Susan Reeves Whalen


Old Songs
Dignity and Death

                Mary Catherine sat between the summer squash and sweet peas. For exactly an hour, she had pulled weeds. Now, too tired to move, she studied the garden. A crow flew from a giant oak followed by two more similar birds. Cars passed in the distance. Living alone, life was built upon far off sounds. Her favorite: the 6:25 from Springfield into Pittsfield. The whistle, a haunting promise of nothing in particular.
                She froze when her eyes caught the sight of the diamondback. It was not over four feet, but think in build. It moved past the tomatoes, swishing between the stakes, reminiscent of an ocean wave. Wind, twist, and slide. A thing of remarkable beauty canvassing the dirty and vegetation, with smooth reach, in a gentle breeze.
                Alcohol brought her to the farmhouse. She bought it for hardly anything from an aged aunt. It was hers and with it came license to drink the mornings, late at night, and all the time in between.
                Abandoned, she worked at the place week after week. Finally, the blue tarp on the roof came down and to her delight, the roof did not leak. It was a rickety old building. She could walk around naked; grow her iron grey hair into a long braid. She sat late into the night listening to coyotes howl, high on the ridge.
                The groceries delivered by a young buck twice a month. The Vodka came Tuesday, about nine-ten. The delivery man was old and left it at the mailbox in one box. Waiting for him on the porch, naked, with only a small sunflower pinned above her ear, was more than the old man wanted. He’d been the butcher in town, and knew the alcohol on her breath.
                The snake turned away from her. Was it confused, she wondered? The phone rang within the house, and her high-pitched voice assaulted the air. “This is Mary Catherin, there is a chance I will call you back.”
                The snake paused only to being a steady arching motion toward her tanned knee. From high above her, the sky exploded with thunder. Rain pelted the cool air, and her garden took on an eerie shade, as the clouds banked above her. The snake’s movement reminded her of a wave. Waves roar and swell, then crash, ending the fury. The snake swelled upon movement, only to curtail and swell again.
                What can I, she thought over and over in her mind, do?
                A lot of her life, those words played in the corners of her mind. In ’85, she lost her house. ’87: she sold all she had and moved in her with her A.A. sponsor.
                That following year, she moved to a homeless shelter. There, she pierced her eyebrow, drank Vodka out of a labeled water bottle, and dyed her hair a deep auburn. Although it was years past, the song grew loud at the shelter. What will I do? began when she woke and the song grew louder as the day progressed. By afternoon, it shut out the shelter’s noisy kitchen where she boiled potatoes.
                The snake was now close enough to touch. She realized only her bosom rose and fell. It stopped and the rattle came across the garden to her. It seems far away, but it wasn’t. “The first “What will I do?” was cut short in her mind as the diamond back hurled downward at her foot.
                The birds grew quiet, the pine trees hushed and a crack of thunder split the sky apart. With it, tremendous rain cooled the earth.
                The rattler darted to the right, darted to the left, perhaps, confused by the summer storm.
                The rain ran down her face, fed the summer squash and healed all that was dry. After she left the shelter, she walked to the village she had once called “home”. She took over the falling down place, and with time, got a phone, timber, and a decent stove. The words didn’t play as much. She could wake up and not notice them until lunchtime.
                Her man was gone and she had no reason to expect there would be another. She read, listened to music, and walked about naked. What shall I do?
                The rain did not let up on that summer day. Instead, it turned into a steady pelting upon the garden soil and her hair.
                The snake returned to its path; a path that crossed over her bent knee and toward her lap. She felt the scream in her throat. The one spring lambs make before Easter. A woman’s voice upon expelling her child, terror released. Nature would have its way. Unlike the homeless shelter, or nights in back alleys. Unlike the life she had drowned out with do, do, do. Oh Mary mother of all, what shall I do? Nothing could hurt her in that little house. She had made it so.
                The rattle was heard again in the moist air. Like a child deciding where to take a bite in a jelly sandwich, it moved back and forth. Nothing prepared her for the flash of movement. The snake plunged its fangs into her arm. Almost like a soccer ball kicked to the curb, the monster arched and bit her again. Then, it sped across the wet soil, across the pumpkin plants, across the beans, and into the grass. It was gone.
                Mary Catherine lay back, crushing the budding squash. She heard only her pounding heart and a dog barking somewhere below her in a corn field. Funny, all her questions in the life had been answered. Here in the most aftermath of the summer rain, she was to slip on through: beyond the honeysuckle, over the clouds, and beneath the giant pines.
                Ash she felt the warm poison pump through her veins, her eyes closed. Later, much later so it seemed, a voice stirred her into consciousness. “Mary Catherine, are you dead or just drunk?” the young buck asked, holding a box of toilet paper, Velveeta cheese, onion soup, and toothpaste.
                She never remembered the trip to the community hospital, life support, and the good shampoo for her hair. She didn’t thank anybody. She didn’t remember anybody.
                Only the smell of pine, summer rain, and huge moving clouds took her back. Something moving in the corner of her eye, made Mary Catherine remember.