“Holy Crap!” Caroline screamed, and scrambled back into the air-conditioned house, slamming shut the sliding glass door to the patio. She should have softened her blasphemy to, say, “Crap!” But in her terrible fright, she had not had the presence of mind. For there—right on her new outdoor couch, sheltered from the rain by the cheerful turquoise-striped awning—lay the glossy, muscular coils of an enormous red snake.
The Homeowners’ Association did not respond to Caroline’s frantic phone calls for help.
She dialed 911.
“Could you describe the snake, ma’am?” the operator asked.
Caroline peeked outside. The reptile gazed placidly across the yard. “It’s red, and … it’s … huge! It’s at least ten feet long!” Ten might have been an exaggeration. But she wanted them to understand: this was an emergency!
“Most likely a rat snake, ma’am. They’re harmless. They live in holes in gardens and eat mice, toads. All this rain probably flooded the poor guy’s den. You might want to keep that patio door shut so the slippery fella doesn’t decide to come into the house.”
Come into the house!? “You need to send someone out here immediately to get rid of it!”
“Sorry, ma’am, but 911 doesn’t handle animal pests. Have a nice day!”
Caroline slammed the phone down and stamped her foot, which was futile and childish. But a large red snake on her patio couch was intolerable. Someone had to get rid of this creature!
She could call Jim, but he wouldn’t appreciate being disturbed in the middle of his bible conference in Orlando. And anyway, what could he do from there?
Jim was executive pastor at the You Deserve Your Reward Church in New Life, Florida, just west of Palm Beach. Every Sunday morning, Jim propelled himself onto the altar of the cavernous YDYR church—a former Target Superstore—inspiring hundreds of the faithful with his impassioned sermons.
Coincidentally, the previous Sunday, he’d preached the story of Adam and Eve and the Temptation of the Serpent. And for no reason she could think of, Caroline had become annoyed and walked out of church early. Yes, she understood that the biblical passage about the serpent was meant to illustrate the importance of obedience to God. Still, she resented the idea that because Eve—a wife—had dared to ask questions, express curiosity, she’d become the villain of the story.
What if it had been Adam who’d decided to try something scary and new? Just think of it: a man taking the initiative to eat a fruit or vegetable he had never tried before! He’d probably be considered a hero, she grumbled to herself.
Maybe her unpleasant serpentine visitor just wanted to get out of the rain, Caroline considered, as she watched it curled up quietly on the couch. It certainly didn’t seem particularly … diabolical. Or inclined to slither off of the cushions and into her living room. It was just so shocking, really, to be confronted with a large, animate, non-human presence. Something actually lives out there, she mused.
Jim and Caroline, and their two kids, had moved from dreary Michigan ten years earlier, to Palazzo Splendido in New Life, Florida. Caroline could still remember how her heart had raced at the grandeur and perfection of the gated community. Everything made her feel special, chosen: the gleaming countertops and appliances; the pristine painted rooms that had never been occupied, and so held no traces of another family’s quarrels, tantrums, or failures.
She wasn’t sure when it had occurred to her that there were no birds.
“What would they eat?” a neighbor had pointed out when Caroline mentioned it. “There are no insects, thank god. The neighborhood association takes care of that with weekly pesticide spraying.”
In fact, aside from the occasional darting lizard, Caroline had never seen signs of another living creature. Until this big red snake showed up.
Unexpectedly, the snake twisted its neck around and gazed up at Caroline with eyes like jewels. A delicate, ribbon-thin tongue flicked in and out of its serpent mouth, which seemed almost to be turned up in a sly smile.
Intrigued, Caroline cautiously slid open the glass door and stepped outside.
“Who you believe you are now is an illusion.”
What? That strange thought, unconnected to anything, unfurled like a flower in her mind.
Caroline felt as if she were hallucinating. Or entering a dream, in which she observed herself from a distance. And in this dream, the Caroline she saw appeared two-dimensional, like a character on the big flat-screen TV in their living room. Tears filled her eyes. How small and pathetic this version of herself seemed! An anxious, insignificant person who spent her days in shopping malls, exercise class, and trying with limited success to satisfy the demands of her husband and children.
Suddenly, the unhappy picture in her head blurred. No—that wasn’t it. The picture was clear, but inside this vision small, pathetic Caroline was blurred and rumpled. And more astonishingly, she actually began to split open, like an old, worn, faded skin. And what emerged from this husk was another creature altogether.
This new creature was still Caroline, but almost unrecognizable to herself: younger, glowing with strength and hope; but also older, larger, and more powerful, with none of her usual uncertainties or need to please. Frightening but thrilling energy seemed to emanate from this Caroline. Like sex—though not sex as she had ever experienced it, but rapturous and potent. Could this Caroline really be her?
She began to see through the eyes of this new Caroline, and everything around her glittered with light and flashed with brilliant, intense color. In her mind, she could feel the texture of grass, the bark of trees, the soft moist petals of flowers; she inhaled and perceived the thick luscious scents that roiled the air. And the sensory smorgasbord filled her with ecstasy.
Inside this awe-filled dream, she heard the snake say:
“You could be my queen …”
As quickly and unexpectedly as it had entered her mind, the vision disappeared. Caroline slumped, holding onto the doorframe for support.
On the patio couch, the snake coiled itself loosely and watched her.
“Mom, why are we stopping? Tyler and Lexington are coming over to play Commando on Xbox. I told them I’d be home at four.”
Caroline glanced in the rearview mirror of her large minivan at the completely blank face of her teenage son as he stared at his cell phone.
His thumbs twitched mechanically as he played an electronic game. Beside him in the back seat, Caroline’s older daughter Madyson looked unhappy as she studied her own phone in its pink case. Her daughter rarely got together with her friends, to do things. Instead, they texted brief emoji-filled messages and compared altered and enhanced photos of one another.
She turned south onto Highway 441—a shimmering asphalt dividing line between the manmade wonders of Palazzo Splendido and the unruly landscape that led eventually to the Florida Everglades. Rough, sunburnt men and women wearing faded t-shirts and rumpled jeans parked by the side of the road and sold things from their pick-up trucks—watermelons, strawberries, flowers. Caroline pulled onto the shoulder beside a truck with the word Orchids painted along its side.
“I’ll just be a minute,” she said.
“Leave the a/c on,” Zach said, his eyes never leaving his phone.
The wet heat enveloped Caroline as she emerged from the car, and her eyes met those of a wrinkled old woman who sat in a folding chair. Beside the old woman, a planked tabletop held a lush array of orchids.
The old woman gestured toward the table.
Caroline had little interest in plants or flowers, except as hedges delineating their property from their neighbors’. But … there was something about orchids. Their blossoms were so unique and expressive, some even like the faces of small elves, while others provoked and excited Caroline’s senses in a strange way.
As she bent over the plants, her attention was drawn to one with a frilly cascade of purple blossoms and thick, moist petals.
“You like?” the old woman asked.
“No. Well, yes … it’s a little too purple,” she said. It was luscious and embarrassingly extravagant. Jim would probably hate it. “But, yes … I’ll take it.”
“There are many more, where I live,” the old woman said. “In my garden.” She held a card, worn at the edges. The words Lunaria’s Garden in purple ink twined around the design of a flower.
The old woman’s hands felt soft and cool as she placed the card in Caroline’s palm. “You are welcome to come.”
As she was about to slip the card into her purse, Caroline noticed the printing on the reverse side: “Wild Animal Sanctuary.”
“I have a snake … in my backyard …” Caroline began.
Lunaria’s eyes widened with interest.
“A, um, serpiente? It doesn’t belong there. Where I live is … well, it’s definitely not a good place for snakes. For any wild animals. But I can’t get anyone to help me get rid of it. Do you … have a service or something … someone who could remove the snake? I’m sure he—it—the snake I mean—would be much happier in a wild animal sanctuary.”
“I will come,” the old woman said. “One day this week.”
Caroline exhaled with relief.
“My grandson is a gardener, in that place where you live. He will find your house. He will know your car.” She pointed at the eight-seater, baby-blue minivan with TVs in the headrests, which did stand out, Caroline had to admit, even among the many SUVs in Palazzo Splendido.
The extra row of seats ensured that the vehicle took up at least two normal parking spaces.
“OK, well … thank you.” With a small wave that was met only with a mysterious smile from the old woman, Caroline climbed back into her vehicle. Zach and Madyson glanced up from their phones. “What’s that?” Madyson asked, pointing at the potted plant Caroline was placing on the seat next to her.
“Whatever,” said Zach. “Can we go now?”
Two days later, on another rainy afternoon, Lunaria’s truck pulled into her driveway. Caroline had just ventured out of the controlled coolness of her air-conditioned house to gather the mail.
“Oh—hello!” she said as Lunaria climbed out of the truck and mounted the front steps ahead of her. “Please … come in,” she managed, surprised at the old woman’s unexpected vigor.
Since the day it had first appeared on Caroline’s patio, the snake had made a regular habit of arriving in the mid-morning and undulating its considerable length up onto the couch. At first, each of its visits had terrified Caroline; then they had just come to annoy her. The scaly thing had commandeered her own favorite spot, where she liked to relax with a cup of coffee once the kids were at school, Jim at work, and she had the house to herself.
“Did you bring a cage or a net or something?” Caroline asked Lunaria as she slid open the glass door to the backyard patio. The two women stepped out and regarded the thick red loops of the snake, upon which rested its oblong head. Its eyes were closed.
“I use my own method. Better.”
Does she plan to kill it? Caroline wondered with a shiver of alarm. She hoped not—but she stayed quiet. Maybe it was best not to ask too many questions.
The old woman stood still for a moment as if listening to something. Then, she sat down beside the snake.
Lazily, the snake blinked open topaz eyes and lifted its head, its coils loosening as it gazed at Lunaria. For what seemed a very long time, the two stared at each other.
“You must complete three tasks,” said Lunaria, at last.
“What … tasks?”
“First, you must sing to him.”
“Him? The snake is a ‘he’?”
“Next, you must dance—like this.” The old woman stood and undulated her ample lower body. Caroline had to stop herself from laughing at the absurdity of it.
“And third,” continued Lunaria, “you must sleep beside him.”
“I am definitely NOT doing that.”
“This is my advice to you,” Lunaria said with finality, moving towards the sliding door. “It is the best method to make him go. Good luck.”
“Wait … I thought you were going to—”
But the old woman had vanished.
After locking the front door, Caroline walked back to the patio, where the snake still lay. She stared at the unperturbed reptile. “Damn you,” she muttered. Then, “Oh … what the heck.” She perched gingerly at the far end of the couch.
The snake didn’t move.
Self-consciously at first, quietly, Caroline began to hum. As a little girl, she had liked to sing made-up songs, as if the simple joy of being alive had to find a way to express itself. How different it felt to be an adult. Adult life—or hers, anyway—was rigid, anxiety-provoking and joyless, despite her beautiful house and all the beautiful, new things she’d filled it with.
Gradually, her humming became a little bolder, more melodic. She allowed herself to slip into a happy daydream, singing and singing phrases from songs that came into her mind.
A peculiar sensation shook her with a start. To her horror, the snake had silently unwound some of his length, slid towards her, and laid his head in her lap!
She froze as the snake lifted his head and gazed up at her. As a child, Caroline hadn’t been afraid of much—certainly not snakes. She could even remember holding one once, at a nature center. Its skin had been smooth to the touch, its body muscular. Stroking it, she’d felt fearless.
Perhaps the memory of brave, unselfconscious childhood is what inspired Caroline to slide out from under the creature, stand, and begin dancing for the snake. Her tentative little-girl movements soon gave way to slow, arching undulations.
With a preternatural majesty, his eyes never leaving hers, the big snake arched up his head and body. He began to move with Caroline, mirroring her slow, winding gestures until serpent and woman curved and twisted in a harmonious, silent dance.
A breeze moved through the leaves of the palm trees. Caroline’s imagination traveled off to the west, where silver dolphins swam in the sapphire waterways of the Everglades, she knew, and golden butterflies dipped in and out of the shadows. A flock of egrets, luminescent as opals, passed overhead on their way to the sea. As the ruby coils of the serpent rose and sank, twisted and turned, Caroline’s mind was filled with the beauty of the living, breathing earth.
“See? You haven’t forgotten how beautiful it is.”
Yes. She remembered now.
The sun rose in the sky. Noon came and went.
It was time to pick up the kids from school.
“We thank you for this bountiful feast which we, your unworthy children, are about to enjoy. Ah-men.”
Jim had returned from his trip to Orlando and the family sat at the dinner table, eyes closed, as he led them in grace. Rain pelleted the windows and sliding glass door. Zach and Madyson were silent and withdrawn. The “no phones at the dinner table” rule was supposed to have encouraged family conversation. In reality, it simply prompted the kids to eat at breakneck speed so they could vanish upstairs to their rooms where their devices awaited them.
Caroline and Jim sat in awkward silence. Jim seemed as anxious as the kids to get up from the table. “It was quite a busy week,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
She understood this to be his usual prelude to slipping off into his den to sit down in front of his email and catch his favorite online news segments in which people shouted self-righteously at each other. She didn’t try to stop him. In fact, she felt strangely detached, removing the rest of the dishes from the table and filling the dishwasher. Instead of replaying their conversation and wondering if she had said something wrong, she poured herself a glass of wine.
For once, she found herself uninterested in figuring out her husband’s moods or nagging the kids about their sullen behavior. So what if they all insisted on hunkering down in their respective rooms with their respective electronics? Caroline pulled open the slider on the off chance that the snake might be in his spot on the couch. She imagined sitting beside him companionably, with her glass of wine. But the cushion was unoccupied and the rain showed no sign of letting up.
At bedtime, Caroline slid beneath the covers next to Jim without her nightgown on. He’d brought his laptop to bed and his face glowed blue in the reflection of the screen as he scrolled through emails.
“Oh,” he said, feeling her next to him. “Hmmm. That’s nice.” Then, as if hesitant or unwilling to respond further to her warm body, he pointed to the nightstand. “New plant?” he asked.
“It’s an orchid,” she said. Its luxuriant purple flowers seemed to pulse with her own sudden and inexplicable sexual yearning.
“It looks a little ghoulish, doesn’t it?” said Jim. “Honestly, I think those silk flowers you have around the house are prettier. Easier to take care of, too.”
He went back to scrolling, clicking, filing, deleting. “I didn’t have much time to work on my sermon during the conference,” he said. “You know, with the biblical workshops and networking.”
“Why don’t you put that thing away now,” she whispered. An itchy, sexy feeling had taken hold of her, banishing her usual feeling of being too tired, or fat. She kissed her husband’s cheek and snuggled against him, but he didn’t respond. At last, Caroline fell asleep to the sound of his fingers still tapping away at the keyboard.
In the middle of the night, she found herself wide awake. Jim, unconscious and snoring, was slumped over the laptop, which had gone dark. She wrapped herself in her fluffy, pink bathrobe, then crossed the bedroom in her bare feet, stopping for a moment outside the closed doors of each of her children’s rooms. She hesitated, imagining her children’s faces, their soft breathing.
Quietly, she crept down the stairs and out onto the back patio. The rain had tapered off and a few stars twinkled in the night sky; even the moon was visible, despite the glow of the development and the nearby mall. Once, she’d found it comforting to know that there were lots of people out there, all around her. But now she missed the darkness. It had been so long since she’d experienced night as it was meant to be, lit only by the moon and stars.
Even just a few days ago, Caroline would have said she preferred to be inside, where environmental conditions were steady and controlled. But tonight, the air in the yard felt pleasant, almost liquid, as if she’d slipped into a pool or lagoon. How nice it might be to sleep outside, she thought, as she curled sideways on the couch and then stretched out across the cushions.
“Come with me. Leave all this and be mine … “.
In her dream, the serpent had returned and was lying beside her on the couch. She knew she was dreaming because there is no way, in real life, she would be sleeping with a snake. Her mind drifted to something she had wanted to tell Jim: he had gotten it wrong—they both had.
She understood now and wanted to tell him, that it was not the serpent who had led them out of the garden. The temptation they’d succumbed to was from all the beautiful, shiny things to look at and to buy that in the end never seemed to satisfy. New things that promised, if you bought them, that you would feel new, too. Things that clicked and whirred irresistibly.
It was a temptation they had created—and fallen for—all by themselves.
“CAROLINE! OH, MY GOD!”
She sat bolt upright, disoriented and shaken at the sound of Jim’s voice. A light drizzle fell from a pale gray sky. It was not yet morning.
“What, Jim? What is it?”
“Do not move a muscle, do you hear me, Caroline? I’ll be right back.”
Caroline blinked, and then she realized what had caused his alarm. Beside her on the couch lay the snake, gazing at her with sleepy eyes, and oddly, she felt no fear of him. The snake felt smooth and warm beneath her fingers as she reached out to stoke his long, scaled body. Why did Jim have to make such a fuss?
Jim returned to the patio with a rifle. Zach and Madyson pushed through the slider behind him, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Though he was a man of God, Jim knew his Second Amendment rights, and the fact that a homeowner facing an intruder had every right to shoot first and ask questions later.
“Jim! Oh my god, Jim—are you insane?” shouted Caroline.
“Get out of the way, Caroline!” Jim ordered, leveling the .22.
“Disgusting!” cried Madyson. “We have GOT to move out of this place!”
“Shoot it, Dad!” Zach yelled, squeezing behind his father and aiming his phone camera at the couch. “Kill it!”
“Your father will do no such thing! Jim—put the gun down.”
In all the commotion, the snake slid soundlessly off the couch and toward the shelter of the backyard shrubs. Seeing that the snake was out of range of his wife, Jim aimed and took his shot.
The impact threw the snake up into the air. The wounded animal landed with a sickly thud.
“JIM! What have you done?!” Caroline cried.
Caroline ran to the still body of the snake and fell to her knees beside him. The shot had hit squarely, nearly severing a foot of length from the snake’s tail end. She laid her hands on the snake’s body and the animal shuddered. His beautiful eyes had already begun to cloud over.
Caroline thought her heart would break.
She knew what she had to do. She gathered the limp and heavy creature in her arms and stumbled past her astonished family. Still, in her pink bathrobe, she grabbed her purse and keys and headed for the minivan, where she gently laid the bloody snake on the passenger seat. She floored the gas pedal and tore off out of the cul-de-sac, sending torrents of rainwater onto the curb.
Caroline sped up 441 to Okeechobee Boulevard, then turned west past miles of chain restaurants and big-box superstores. The landscape became more rural and wild. She slowed the car and fumbled in her purse for the old woman’s card, but before she could put her hands on it, she saw a sign at the side of the road with an arrow pointing at a narrow dirt track cut through dense undergrowth: Lunaria’s Garden.
She swerved onto the track and maneuvered her large vehicle through the tangle of smooth branches and palm fronds. Oak trees hung with moss towered over her. When she glanced in the rearview mirror, it seemed as if the jungle had closed in behind her, severing her from the world she knew.
The last pale sliver of the crescent moon hung low in the brightening dawn sky. Beneath it, a small cottage came into view. Caroline rolled down her window and called, “Help! I need help!”
A light went on in the front window and a young man emerged from the cottage. “What do you want here, lady?” he asked.
“Your grandmother, is she here? I need her help. I have an injured animal. A snake.” Caroline got out of the car and ran around to the passenger side, where the young man joined her. His face darkened when she opened the passenger door. Gently, he lifted and cradled the limp, smooth creature.
“Is he…is he still alive?” stammered Caroline.
“We will see,” said the boy. “Follow me.” He carried the snake into the house as Caroline stumbled after him, tears streaming down her face.
“La serpiente está herida!” shouted the young man.
Seated in front of a small wood-burning stove, the old woman looked up from the glowing embers. “Just as I expected,” she muttered, “trouble. Sabía que se metería en problemas.” Caroline followed the old woman and the young man carrying the snake, out through the rear of the house to the back garden.
There she stopped, gaping in wonder. The morning light spilled into the small clearing, illuminating the ancient, many-limbed trees, hundreds of which seemed to extend far back into the shadows. Flowers were everywhere: in pots and baskets, tucked into the limbs of trees. Birds were flitting through the trees, so many birds. As she stood quietly, she thought she could feel the whole garden breathing—the trees, plants, darting lizards, even the rocks and the small stream that trickled along the pathway were all softly inhaling, then exhaling a healing perfume.
Blood oozed from the snake’s wound. Setting the snake on a low, stone table the old woman pulled out a sharp knife and sliced off the bloodied portion of the creature’s tail with a swift stroke. From a pocket of her dress, she extracted some fine black thread and a needle, and quickly sewed up the wound. Not sure how she could help, Caroline moved out of the way and settled into a hammock strung between two thick palm trunks.
“He is weak but alive,” said Lunaria. “Now, he needs warmth.” Carefully, she lifted the heavy creature into her arms. “He has many talents, this serpent, as I think you know by now. But he cannot make his own warmth.”
“My husband saw him on the couch next to me and—before I could stop him—he got his gun and …” Caroline buried her face in her hands.
“It’s all my fault really,” she said in a hoarse whisper.
“There is no use crying about the past. There is only now. You must decide what you want to do.”
“What … do you mean?”
“You can save the serpent, but it will not be easy.”
“What must I do?”
“You must give up your old life: your husband and children, your house … even this body. Everything.”
It was crazy. Unthinkable. But, somehow … Caroline understood it to be what she desired.
She began to weep for the loss of her illusions … her plans, and her certainties about everything—including herself. What kind of a wife would leave her husband? What kind of a mother would leave her children? But even as one part of her heart revolted, another part was already separating itself from all she’d held close. Jim would be content without her, in time, like a frog in his little pond, surrounded by his followers. Her children, who were already moving away from her, would continue forward into the clamor of their adult lives and experiences.
“Dream about it,” said Lunaria. She placed the wounded snake beside Caroline in the hammock, and disappeared.
The serpent stirred, undulating beneath Caroline’s bathrobe to gather her warmth. She trembled but forced herself to remain still. The big serpent wound his body around hers, up and up her torso and around her neck. When she felt the swooning delight of the serpent’s tongue across her face, her lips—love’s first kiss—every memory of houses and clothes and shopping malls dissolved and all that existed was the living breathing forest, her, and the animal beside her.
She did see. She saw how beautiful the light was as it played through the trees, how elegant and perfect the hummingbird darting among the dark leaves and bright flowers. She heard the music of flowing water; the soft whispering of creatures moving through the shadows. There was living, and dying too, she understood, as each individual sprung forth, blossomed, then faded and merged into the greater harmony of all beings. Above all, she felt vast contentment.
The great tenderness of the serpent consumed Caroline and she was transformed, becoming long and smooth herself, glowing with strength and vitality. Everything she could see and feel—the plants, animals, the breeze against her skin, the scent of damp earth—it had always been here, all around her. But she had been as dull as a block of concrete, as remote from an actual living being as an image on a computer screen. She’d been unable to perceive any of it. Until now.
“I’ve chosen,” she said, entwining her long sinuous length with that of the serpent king.
In the days that followed, the rain continued, making many of the streets impassable. Lunaria’s grandson took the minivan back to Palazzo Splendido, where big, shiny machines belong. Someday, Lunaria said, maybe soon, all of the houses, stores, restaurants—everything made by man—would wash away. The slow, pulsing movement of water through the Everglades would return, and the deep flowing river of grass would flourish again.
In the meantime, Lunaria would tend her garden, with its exuberant flowers and shadowy creatures. The old woman felt it was only right to congratulate herself: not only had she succeeded in retrieving the obstinate snake from Palazzo Splendido—removing him, as she’d promised—but she had added a new creature to her garden. Where there had once been only one serpent, now there were two … though one of them had a tail that was just a foot shorter.
A New Yorker who briefly detoured south to Florida, Christina Holbrook now lives in the Rocky Mountains. In her writing, she is drawn to explore the themes of love, the influence of the past, and how humans connect to the natural world. She writes a column for her local newspaper and has just completed her debut novel, All the Flowers of the Mountain.