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The Snake Path
by Lori B.

The Snake Path

    A few years ago, in the middle of the night, I woke up thinking that I needed to do something about my backyard. (And no, that's not a euphemism for a certain part of my anatomy.) I'm talking about my literal backyard, the one I can see from my dust-coated kitchen window here in Tucson, Arizona.

    You know, the yard that looks like the set of Lawrence of Arabia nine months out of the year, and like Jurassic Park for the other three months, during the monsoon.

    Ever since I'd decided to stop watering my lawn, the grass had burned up in the sun and blown away, and now I was left with just an ugly, barren landscape that filled up with weeds once in a while. I was tired of having either sand or mud tracked into my house every day, and I was tired of pulling the damn weeds. Truth be told, I was tired of my dull, dusty, annoying life.

    The more I allowed myself to dwell on those thoughts, the more the seed of an idea began to take shape in my brain, and then it (the seed, not my brain) began to grow like a mushroom in the dark, fertile night.

    After a couple of hours, I finally got back to sleep, only to dream about a mushroom that turned into a tree, and then into a giant snake. I know that sounds Freudian, but my therapist says it could represent transition.

    The next morning, I was obsessed with the idea that I'd had a breakthrough, but I didn't know what kind. I poured myself a cup of coffee, grabbed a pencil and a pad, and sat down at the kitchen table. Now what? I thought. But the next thing I knew, I was drawing a squiggly shape, one that resembled a snake. In fact, now that I think of it, it looked exactly like the snake that had swallowed an elephant in The Little Prince.

    Like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's rendering, my snake was long and skinny, and it bulged out in the middle. (And no, it was not a self-portrait, although there are certain similarities.) I gazed at the image and wondered why I'd drawn it. Then it dawned on me. I was going to build a serpentine path, one that would beautify my dry, dusty, thorny, and sometimes muddy backyard.

    It would be a magic path, one that an elephant might come and walk upon. It had better be a strong one.

    I wasted no time in getting started. I remembered that the previous owners of my little brick house had left a pile of triple-sized bricks in one corner of the yard. I'd been wondering how to get rid of them (the bricks, not the owners). Those bricks were about to realize their true calling, the one thing they were meant to accomplish in life: to become a snake.

    Methodically, I began clearing a large, rectangular area, first with a shovel, then with a rake, and finally with my bare hands. I knelt in the dirt and examined it closely, sifting it through my fingers. I wasn't hoping to find gold, although I did unearth several green pennies and an assortment of plastic Army men. No, my mission wasn't as mundane as that. I was becoming one with the earth.

    I needed the earth to understand that I meant it no harm. I wasn't there to tame it. I only wanted to ask its permission to allow a heavy brick snake to lie upon it, a snake with the power to summon an elephant.

    The dirt was coarse, like freshly grated cocoa. I inhaled its scent and imagined using it to concoct a pungent, steamy brew, an exotic drink tasting of chocolate and old pennies.

    With my hands in the dirt, I felt as lazy and slippery as a snake. I eased my body down onto the ground, stretched out, and felt the warm heartbeat of the earth envelop me. I fell asleep.

    I dreamed I was a child, and I was with my brother, Jack. We were out behind our old house, digging for worms and trying to dig to China, too. (We actually did try that once. We made it about 12 inches through the Earth's crust before we decided that China wasn't worth it.) Years later, Jack made it all the way to Vietnam, and I never saw him again.

    Our yard had been a double lot. The side lot had a swing set, an apple tree, and a small baseball diamond. After we'd graduated from worm-digging and China-digging behind the house, we hung out mostly in the side yard, swinging, climbing the tree, and playing baseball. I'd loved those baseball diamond days, when life was something real I could catch and hold onto, instead of just a bunch of dreams that disintegrated like so much dust.

    When I woke up, I felt renewed. I had dirt in my mouth, but that just made me more resolute in my quest. I was one with the earth now, and I knew what I had to do.

    I strode into the kitchen, poured a tall glass of lemonade, grabbed my snake sketch, and carried everything out to the patio. Setting my glass on the single ceramic tile that served as a coaster, I was reminded again of Jack. He'd given me that tile for my 16th birthday. The tile had a rabbit on it -- a long-legged, white rabbit of Native American design. Jack had chosen that particular tile because of the nickname I'd given him: Jackrabbit. He could run like hell around the bases.

    I took another look at the snake sketch and tried to figure out a way to replicate its curved design using bricks. A straight path would have been a lot easier, but a herringbone pattern could be twisted to the left and then to the right again, and the geometric design would make it look like a diamondback rattlesnake.

    Two by two, I carried the bricks to the spot I'd cleared and dropped them there. After 34 trips (68 bricks) back and forth, I'd managed to lug every last brick across the yard. I didn't know how many I'd need, but at least I'd gotten some exercise. I drank another glass of lemonade and called it a day.

    During the next morning, and half of the afternoon, I moved the bricks into position, leveling them as I went and filling in the cracks with sand I'd purchased for the job. But when I came to the halfway point, where the twist needed to be, the neatly intersecting herringbone pattern suddenly had an empty square space within it. It was as if I'd created a two-dimensional Rubik's cube with a missing piece. There was no way to solve the puzzle.

    I wondered if the hole symbolized anything. Or maybe it was just a hole.

    I hoped that someday I'd find a small, square brick to fill in the empty space. I wondered what the odds were of finding one that was just the right match. Not good, I thought, but I decided to continue the pattern anyway. If I couldn't find a square brick, I'd have to settle for some gravel.

    I finished the path that night. Despite my lack of planning, I'd reached the precise end of the cleared space with brick number 68, the age Jack would have turned that year. A chill ran down my spine. Was this an omen? Was my luck about to change?

    The next day, I got up early and surveyed my work while sipping coffee on the patio. My eyes came to rest on the half-empty bag of sand I'd used for filling in the cracks between the bricks. For the first time, I read the label: Diamond Infield Mix. The sand they use for baseball diamonds.

    Instantly, I pictured Jack, rounding home plate as a kid -- the Jackrabbit. I picked up my coffee cup, grabbed the rabbit tile, and carried it to the empty square in the middle of the snake path.

    I placed the tile over the empty space in the snake's belly and rotated it 45 degrees. It slipped into place perfectly. I poured sand around it to fill in the crack, and when I brushed the extra sand away, the tile gleamed like a diamond in the sun.

    I've added some gravel to either side of the snake path since then, so now I have a small, stony oasis in the middle of my desert yard. My life isn't quite as dull, dusty, and annoying as it used to be, so I think the path did bring me something. Maybe not luck, but at least something nice to look at while I ignore the rest of my backyard.

    I guess my therapist was right. I was in transition after all, from dust to dreams, and from dreams to diamonds. I think Jack would have liked that.

    I'm still waiting for my elephant to show up, and I think it might happen soon. Just the other day I dreamed about one, with a trunk that looked like a cigar. I wonder what my therapist will have to say about that.

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