“It wasn’t my snake,” she said. “Not really.”
But that had always been the family lore. Moyra and her sister were out walking and encountered a rattlesnake—three whole feet of it—and went for someone to kill it.
The fellow who built cottages was nearby at his cabin, when he heard her cries. He rushed to the dirt road where the rattlesnake had been sunning, and walloped it with a shovel to the head. Then Moyra’s father came and scooped up the corpse and took it home to skin and clean and mount on carefully varnished pine.
Those were the days when seeing a rattlesnake meant killing it, where its potential to harm always won over the likelihood of its biting. At least that’s how people saw it. A rattler near the cottages could bite a child and, if parents couldn’t get the antidote quickly, cause the child to die.
It didn’t matter that this rattlesnake was minding its own business, taking in the rare blaze of August sun, not even bothered enough to shake its warning signal at Moyra and her sister to give them a chance to run.
And they would have. They were trained to know that if you heard a shaking rattle as you walked through the grass or the reeds you stopped, figured out where the snake was, and moved quickly with caution. Once you found the source of the rattling, if you had a way, you killed it. That way, you were saving your own life, and maybe even someone else’s.
It was a long time ago, before the throngs of well-heeled vacationers from metropolitan Toronto wore an ever-wider path up the peninsula for the summer. Before the widened highway came to tear apart whole communities of fox and deer, beavers and raccoons, whose corpses littered along the route were a testament to progress.
Even the flowers suffered. There was a spot near the cottage where a bunch of yellow Lady Slipper orchids flourished. They were in bloom for Moyra’s visit each year, as though they expected her. As soon as the family arrived at the cottage each summer, Moyra took leave of her brothers and sisters and headed to two spots in the woods she called her own: the small open patch where the lady slippers grew, near the tree house her father built for the boys, and the clearing where she sat and made up songs for the wind.
There were tiger lilies there too, near the lady slippers, bright orange trumpets growing in concert. There were more of them than the orchids, all over the place it seemed, just like the blue gentians on the thick rock shores of the lake. The delicate bright blue flowers came out of nowhere on the hard white rocks like little Houdinis.
Years later, when Moyra and her family went up the peninsula to bury her mother, only a few lady slippers remained. Moyra went to them like a pilgrim to a shrine.
A decade later when they traveled to celebrate a new generation of cousins, the Lady Slippers were gone. The Tiger Lilies too, and the Blue Gentians. They were disappeared, like a magic trick in reverse.
Maybe it was the climate changing. Summers were warmer than ever. Protectors of the land had made a small dent in the stubborn mental fortress that held sway for so many decades. The rattlers had gone from demonic outlaws that had to be killed to endangered species, revered and protected.
The people who had for generations told the rattler, the orchid, the lake We have dominion now were having to hold their tongues and their shovels, as law after law was passed to protect what little was left of the wilderness.
“You were asking about the snake,” Moyra said. “My snake, so-called. The one in the picture.”
“I never really felt good about it,” she confessed. “Like I said, the snake was just sunning. We could have walked around it, or turned around, but we didn’t. Instead, we called for its execution.”
She sighed. “And the picture. It wasn’t really right that they had me hold it like that, as if I’d hunted it and dressed it and mounted it, me just a little bit taller than the varnished pine board it was mounted on.”
Moyra imagined that people thought it was cute and maybe even amusing, the skinny little girl who spotted the snake, holding up the mounted skin with its rattler on a board she could hold barely in her thin arms. The irony, you know, of one so small conquering a creature so much more powerful.
The old black-and-white photograph was on display in the family’s home for decades. The cabinet was crowded, and the crudely framed photograph was shoved to one side. Moyra had crafted the frame out of dark brown cardboard, assembled with a stitch she learned in scouting.
She leaned into the glass cabinet and took the photograph in her hands. She gazed at the little girl with the wide grin holding the mounted snake.
Moyra now considered the photograph bereft of humor, and starkly sad. It reminded her of the painting by Frida Kahlo of the baby boy who died in infancy. An image of the dead held up for the world to see. A painting done, as was the fashion, to remember and immortalize.
She put the photograph back in the cabinet, in front of all the other pictures.
And here and now, she thought, to ask forgiveness.
Mariana McDonald’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including fiction in Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; So to Speak; and Cobalt, where she was a finalist for the Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry has appeared in The Anthology of Southern Poets: Georgia; Lunch Ticket; and Crab Orchard Review. She became a Fellow of Georgia’s Hambidge Arts Center in 2012.