She wore the usual camouflage: sackcloth
and ashes, brand name tee shirt bought on sale,
a strained smile, uncomfortable shoes, the air
of a woman who’s always known what it’s like to fail.
As if she lurked, reptilian, in the leaves
someone’s suburban husband meant to rake,
or coiled in the dregs of the bottle some hobo left—
there’s nothing as dangerous as a rattlesnake
acting on instinct to protect her young,
or one suffering from the sudden shock
of sunlight forcing open her hooded eyes,
when the unwary traveler hoists the rock.
It was just idle talk. We couldn’t know
the quantity of venom we’d provoke
before she vanished into the starless night,
leaving us wondering if it was a joke.
I touched a snake once; it felt smooth and dry.
I wouldn’t hold it; must have been nine or ten.
And in one corner of its empty cage
wound its shed skin, brittle and alien.