The Art of Distance

Ellen Bryant Voigt

Wrinkle coming toward me in the grass—no, 
fatter than that, rick-rack, or the scallops a ruffle makes,
down to about the eleventh vertebra. The rest of it: rod
instead of a coil.
                            So I’d been wrong the afternoon before
when the dog, curious, eager to play and bored with me
as I harvested the edge of the raspberry thicket,
stalked it from the back stoop to the lip
of the bank and grabbed the tip
in her mouth and tossed it—
sudden vertical shudder
to read survival in its cursive
spiraling back to the cellar window-well
where it had gathered fieldmice like a cat.
And now, if it meant to be heading for the brook,
it veered off-course, its blunt head raised
like a swimmer’s in distress.
                                            The functioning part
gave out just short of me, inside the shade
but not the bush; the damaged part,
two fingers thick, was torqued
pale belly up, sunstruck.
I felt it where it was,
took the dog in, and for hours
watched, from the kitchen window, what seemed
a peeled stick, the supple upper body that had dragged it
now pointed away and occluded by the shade,
the uncut grass.

                               My strict father
would have been appalled: not to dispatch
a uselessly suffering thing made me the same, he’d say,
as the man who, seeing a toad,
catatonic Buddha in its niche, wedged
within the vise of a snake’s efficient mouth
clamped open for, then closing slowly down and over it,
bludgeoned them both with the flat side of a hoe.

For once I will accept my father’s judgment.
But this had been my yard, my snake, old enemy
resident at the back side of the house. For hours,
the pent dog panting and begging, I watched
from the window, as from a tower wall,
until it vanished: reluctant arrow
aimed at where the berries
ripened and fell.