Slough

My left forearm and midriff itched, burned, and erupted in weeping, crusty patches. I tore at them savagely, which only made them worse…By the end of the week, the angry mange on my skin had hardened and begun to flake off, revealing a band of pale rounded scales, still soft as a baby snake’s, running from the inside of my wrist to the outside of my elbow. A broader band encircled my waist, like a girdle. ~Rachel Hartman, Seraphina

Content warning: snakes. If you don’t like hearing about snakes, thinking about snakes, or seeing pictures of snakes, the time to bail is now.

Emerging from winter this year has been like clawing my way up the slime-slick sides of a deep slough into which I had fallen so slowly that at first I did not realize it. The sky, once wide and close, contracted too gradually to notice, until suddenly one day I realized that I was only glimpsing the sun at noon, the heavens constricted to a pale blue coin high above and very far away. I was sick, exhausted, discouraged, and itching like mad–itching in a metaphorical way, as usual, but also just plain itching. Itching like a dog with fleas (I do not have fleas. Just needed to clarify. Also, I am, sadly, not half-dragon, like Seraphina in the passage quoted above.)

I am chafing against slowness–the delay of spring, the arduous process of querying novels, my own inherent turtle’s-pace way of moving from one revelation to the next. It takes me a long time to see certain things clearly–though I can intuit and infer about the world around me, I am thick-skinned and stubborn when it comes to dealing with myself.

Lately I have struggled to find a tenable position between hope and despair for a writing career–if I pour everything into my writing, and I fail, then what? But on the flip side, if I don’t pour everything into my writing, then what? What is the appropriate level of commitment–devotion? obsession? Is it possible to be discontented and yet happy? Part of me resists the idea of living in the in-between–and yet this is where life happens. We are all here, somewhere in the grey middle, fumbling around somewhere between earth and heaven.

Last week I spotted something in the yard. It looked like a cast-off toy tire, black and rubbery against the greening grass. I stooped, reached, and then my vision widened, and I realized:

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Glossy tongue flicking, she drank in sunlight through dull winter skin, surrounded by autumn’s castoff leaves. I jerked my hand back, froze, then leaned in to look closer. Few creatures look as perfectly right to me as a snake basking in sunshine. I have been waiting for the blacksnakes to emerge. They have been slow this year, held under by freezing temperatures and April snows. Here she was at last, a promise that winter is not forever and that ill-fitting skins may be sloughed off, scraped away, left to blow away in flakes on the wind.

The next day, I met another:

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To me, snakes are hope, rebirth, feminine magic, mystery, protection. I scan the yard and paths for them every spring. Like women, they seem to terrify a lot of people. Like women, they are misunderstood. One of my proudest parenting moments will always be holding back a horde of little city-dwellers at the National Zoo to let a blacksnake cross the walkway. They yelled and screamed. I explained to them why blacksnakes are awesome. They gathered closer, respectful, watched and waited, and let the snake pass. Kids, like snakes, are awesome. When they understand things, they’re cool with them.

Like the two dull snakes I met last week, I feel closed-in, tight, constricted in my winter skin. I itch to slough it off, to shed my slough, to emerge from the slough in which I’ve been mired. It is time for transformation. As I scratch at the tormenting itches on my arms, my waist, my legs, I imagine the matte deadness flaking away, revealing bright scales beneath–dragon? mermaid? lamia? I need to cast off what no longer serves, find a way of living in the spring-bright, rain-wet world, the world of damp earth and burgeoning seeds and possibility.

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