Like his beloved pet snake, who lay dying on his lap, Eirik Rogers knows how it feels to be cast out of the garden for your sins.
He lay upon my lap, exhausted. His scale-lined mouth was open, forked tongue dangling. It was just like 18 years ago – as if the intervening period of robust health never happened. I read somewhere that California King Snakes live to be about 18. When I rescued him from an old cardboard shoebox in a dusty, forgotten corner of a pet store, he was already an adult, so he was certainly an old snake.
When I first found him, his infected eyes were covered with dead scale, and he was so emaciated I could see the herring bone pattern of ribs through his skin. I never knew a snake could cough; when he did, it broke my heart. But after a lot of veterinary visits, he gradually returned to great health and voracious appetite. He grew to almost five feet, a slender-bodied slate-colored snake with a prominent yellow stripe running the length of his back.
After 18 years, here he was, back at the vet’s office. The doctor looked at me and shook her head pessimistically – the large lump distorting his belly was almost certainly a tumor, and the cataract of his one remaining eye bespoke his advanced age. Nothing she said was a surprise to me. This visit wasn’t about getting well. It was about saying goodbye.
He was resting in my hands, his long trusting body woven around and between my fingers in a sleeping knot. The entanglement reminded me about just how intertwined we have become over the years. The vet related to me her fascination with snakes, and we conversed about our reptilian childhoods. It was a light-hearted respite from the farewell I was facing. As we spoke, I imagined she and I could have become fast childhood friends over our shared fascination with these creatures. The air and conversation were soon thick with past reminiscences.
My boyhood was full of snakes. Our house became something of a motel for them – hardly a night would pass by without a snake sleeping in a terrarium by my bed. As I grew into adulthood, snakes receded somewhat to a background interest, but always managed to find a presence in my life.
The wonderful thing about being a boy in the country was living in a quiet world unsullied by the ever-present din of the city that pressed the ear yet never fed the soul. I was fully possessed of the belief in magic and goodness, and the anticipation that each day held the promise of some new and delicious wonder to be revealed. Snakes were part of that enchanted world – I held them, trusted them, and learned that their gentleness disproved the harsh prejudgments of others. The Bible vilified snakes, accusing their serpentine ancestors with the roots of human disgrace, condemned to limbless existence for their deceptions. But my experience convinced me the snake was not a deceiver. In fact, the only deception seemed to be what I had been told about them.
The present reality intruded upon the shared memories. I looked down upon him sleeping in my hands under the harsh fluorescent lights of the exam room, his spent life ebbing away. Perhaps his slumbering presence fed one last billowing cloud of magic, the vet and I sitting upon it sharing memories and laughs, remembering simpler times. I thought how complicated my life has become and how simple his has remained. Losing him meant losing a presence in my life in which simple things held deeper truths.
The vet indicated that his weight seemed good, and despite everything she did not feel death was imminent. So we decided to postpone a decision to euthanize and I took him home. But he died that night, and there was nothing I could do but sit by him through the early morning hours as his life gently evaporated.
I look back and suppose that snake and I were kindred spirits. As a gay person, I know what it is like to feel cast out of the garden for my sins, to be feared and misunderstood for who I am. My frustrated attempts to assume an identity more palatable to mainstream social mores have only shown me how utterly immutable my real identity is. This snake and I have both quietly slithered through a judgmental and angry world, discreetly hugging the fringes and surviving with furtive dignity. It took me years to learn what he always knew. His quiet spirit has taught me how to carry my sins with heavenly grace.