The Serpent’s Tale

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March 21, 2022 by The Citron Review

by Michael Fallon

 

I sat in a green plastic chair on our brick patio, sipping a glass of white wine among my tall caladium, my huge reddish coleus, and my day-glow pink begonias when they came tumbling out of the sky and dropped–a blur of silver-gray motion on the red brick at my feet. I held still, leaned over, and nudged my chair a bit forward to examine the spectacle, still clutching my glass of sacramental wine. Below was a blur of yellow jacket wrestling with what looked a purple-gray wasp-like insect as they whirled about like a buzzsaw made of wings. As they spun, wrestled, and fought and finally slowed, it became clear the yellow jacket was the aggressor and had got control. It gripped its prey with strong jaws that were clamped from behind on the wasp’s midsection, and when the movement nearly stopped, I saw that the purple wasp was doomed. I felt a tiny spasm of horror as the yellow jacket bit off the hind section of the still living wasp, then efficiently clipped off two wings as they seemed to wave weakly goodbye. The wasp was neatly disassembled—its hind part and wings discarded like no-longer-needed props– nothing left but its purple head and torso as the yellow jacket clutched it tightly with its six yellow striped legs and began to fly away. 

I saw it take off and turned away. But something tugged at the lower edge of my field of vision, and I looked down again.  Attached to a leg of the very chair I sat in, the yellow jacket hovered in space like a helicopter at the end of an unbreakable cable, struggled with all its might against a ragged foot long strand of spider-web trailing a few micro fragments of leaves. Again and again it managed to get a foot away and strain with all the power it could muster to break loose, but finally exhausted itself and the string hung straight down. It dangled there like a fish flopping helpless at the end of the line. 

And O yes, there was something that felt the thrumming of the web out of sight but not too far away. A blob of grey spider soon clambered into view and descended quickly to see what its filaments had fetched from the air–to find its prey trembling, clutching still the bust of purple-gray wasp to its chest. 

O how very aware the spider was of the stinger of the yellow jacket as it circled and backed away at every jerk of the web. Now my sympathies were with the yellow jacket even as it clutched the remains of its innocent prey. The spider warily jounced about, tying the yellow jacket ever more tightly as the yellow jacket, in pathetic desperation, repeatedly stung the corpse of the dead wasp as it held the wasp to itself– as if it were a frightened child, or the purple glazed idol of a God. The spider strung down the wiggling body and finally came in for the paralyzing bite.

I sat there in the lengthening shadows as night drained the colors all around me and thought about what I had witnessed. I was disturbed at what looked a fundamental contingency and cruelty in the nature of things. But why?

Even as I sat in the incandescent twilight, the swifts were twittering across the flawless sky scooping up thousands of mosquitos, the ants were busy hauling in the scraps of beetles, the dead caterpillars, and whatever other rot and ruin they could find down into their wells, the bats would soon be out hunting the moths orbiting the streetlights– and so it goes in every hour of every day. Who am I to object– soon I will sit down to dinner with a piece of dissected salmon or the amputated leg of an unfortunate chicken?  I imagine the cavalcade of animals whose bodies have served to fuel the precious miracle of my consciousness for more than sixty years. To eat is to have communion with all that lives, in the sacrament of life and death. But I cringe because I am alive, conscious, and self aware–aware of the ever-present fundamental terror. 

I root against the yellow jacket and the spider because I think I am on the side of life, against death—but should the yellow jacket starve, should the spider have nothing to eat?  What did the wasp eat before it was caught up in this web of life and death? Who is on the side of life, who the side of death? 

Isn’t it is always my own death I am horrified by, my own death portrayed by these tiny actors in the amphitheater of my mind?  I am by turns wasp, yellow jacket, spider, and the observer of their little drama –in which I, myself–am nonetheless– a character. 

Everything that exists is in the process of becoming something else. It was the transforming wheel of life and death that I saw spinning before me—and on which, even now, I spin. Suffering from the wound of consciousness, with every passing minute, I consume more of myself—the serpent swallowing its own tail—the zero of the beginning and the end. Thou art that, the Buddhists say: the beautiful, the terrible serpent.

 

Michael Fallon is the author of four collections of poetry. Essays have appeared recently in The New England Review, on Literary Hub, The Concho River Review, Broad Street Literary ReviewThe Razor, The Northern Virginia Review, and Blood and Thunder, and podcast on Pendustradio.com. His soon to be published poetry chapbook, Leaf Notes: Poems of the Plague Years, won the 2021 Water Sedge Poetry Prize. Website: michaelfallonpoetandessayist.com

 

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Sunflower

George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. "Sunflower." The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

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