That Snake

Jenny Bartoy

My mother killed a snake once. My brother had run 
to her. A hiss meant danger on the deck where he
played near the zigzag-shaped swimming pool. Asking our 
father for rescue never occurred to him. Not
because our father worked hard or played racquetball 
at the gym or watched television (don’t bother).

But because our father was not the one who kept 
us safe. Our father when we came to him crying 
or broken or hurt answered, go ask your mother. 
Our father when we disagreed with him punished 
us with scorn and mockery. But he demolished
our mother (when she was right) with insults and fists.

My mother with a shovel marched through the sliding 
glass door to the old cedar deck and with the cold,
exacting ire of a thousand captive larks
whacked that copperhead in its stripes of brown and rust. 
She smashed the shit out of that snake once, then with the 
tip of her white canvas shoe kicked it off the deck
into the brush below. You can play now, she said 
undeterred to my brother. She slid the glass door
closed on the carnage and ironed my father’s shirts.


My husband killed a snake once. In the thick of night, 
the chickens had screeched and woken us. Drowsy he 
slid into his Vans, grabbed with dread his air rifle,
and into the darkness went to investigate
the hens’ shrieks of terror. From the warmth of our sheets 
I held my breath and stared at our infant who did
not stir when the shot rang out inside the coop. With 
one pellet, my pacifist saved the flock from snake
attack. Did he blow the smoke wafting from his gun 
like an outlaw who’d kept his turf safe, hole in one?
In the morning he gathered eggs to be salvaged 
and cracked them into an omelet. I married
a man who cooks, a man who can shoot, a real man 
for whom fear is cause for action not cowardice.
Original sin is sexist, he said over
breakfast. Women get the blame for temptation but 
the serpent played the tricks and Adam followed suit.
Men too chose poorly but only Eve’s choice mattered.

I thought of the story my mother once told me, 
about my father who on a winter night stood
sheepish on the mattress while my mother chased a
mouse around their room. She captured the pest in a 
plastic garbage bag; my father never thanked her.
Another black eye soon graced her beautiful face.

My husband nailed the snake’s carcass to the dead oak 
trunk that stood in our yard, beneath arrows we had 
painted, pointing to the places where we had lived
and left love — our ode to past and new directions. 
Sweaty, pitchfork in hand, my savior stared as the 
snake’s skin wilted in the Tennessean sunshine.
Circle of life, motherfucker, he said and grinned.


I wanted to kill a snake once. Why didn’t I?
I heard the mother first. A wren, maybe. Frantic. 
She circled our back porch and warbled in despair. 
In my kitchen I watched through the dusty pane of 
the back door as the snake approached her nest.
My baby pecked at softened bits of butternut
squash we froze in fall for his first teeth and babbled.

The mother’s wings flapped and pled but did not deter 
the snake who slithered to her egg. Freckled and cracked, 
her lone babe sat near remnants of carnage: bloody 
down, shattered eggshell — a previous victim of fangs
in the nest she built. He was back for seconds, that
monster. I shuddered. The mother bird screamed for him 
to stop but the reptile, deaf to her, slid along 
the peeling paint of the porch eaves toward her heart. 

April light streamed in through the stench of Bradford pears, 
shadows in gold dancing on the linoleum. 
I waved and rattled on the glass for him to stop, 
but the snake, blind to me, surrounded the nest with 
length. The mother trilled, panic aflutter, as the 
devil chomped. Bloody down, cracked bones, eggshell rubble. 
A lone feather dangled from his mouth, cartoonish. 

The predator turned back, pace even, his eyes blank — 
the mother’s loss for him a blink, a snack, a shrug. 
He does not realize the gravity of his 
actions, I told myself. The circle of life has 
no conscience. But deep inside my shell, I shattered. 
I hugged my sweet baby and thought of my father. 

About the Author

Jenny Bartoy is a freelance literary editor based in the Pacific Northwest. She holds a master’s degree in sociocultural anthropology from Columbia University. Her work has been published in Room and WhipUp, and is forthcoming in the anthology Sharp Notions: Essays on the Stitching Life. Jenny is managing editor for Literary Mama magazine, serves on the editorial committee for the literary nonprofit Creative Colloquy, and teaches writing workshops locally. You can connect with her at or @jbartoywriter on Instagram.