Design of Darkness

by Margaret Donovan Bauer

For Mary Jane, who had to make the phone calls

What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.—Robert Frost, “Design”

June 12, 2013

I am packing for my father’s funeral, what few things I have at our river house that I will be taking on my trip. It is June; I am going to south Louisiana. It will be hotter there than here on the Pamlico River in Chocowinity, North Carolina, hotter than it is in town, in Greenville, North Carolina, where I will have to go to finish packing. I have a black dress in my closet at home there. I have no black dresses in Chocowinity, nothing black at all. We are here only for the summer months.

As I walk between the bathroom and my bag, open on the bed, between the closet and my bag, the dresser and my bag, I note peripherally that the cats lying on the window side of the bed are watching the bird feeder hanging from a shepherd’s hook just outside the window. The feeder, a tall metal canister with several perches, is great cat TV.

Suddenly, both cats bolt across the bed, away from the window and run past me as though something is chasing them out of the room.

I look across the bed in the direction they’d run from, out the window. Something is wrong, but I can’t see exactly what is going on. I close my eyes quickly. But the image remains: a single bird on the feeder, its beige breast pressed oddly, mashed really, against one of the feeding holes.

I think I know what must be happening. Not today. I don’t want to see that today. I don’t walk around the bed to the window. I don’t try to get a closer look. I turn away.

I go to find one of Andrew’s children to investigate for me. “Erin,” I say, “Come in here and look at this.” I direct her ahead of me into the room I share with her father, maintaining my distance from the window. “Look at the bird feeder, and tell me if there’s anything we can do about whatever’s going on there. If not, I don’t want to know what’s happening.”

But Erin is something of a drama queen, so there is no way that she is not going to scream: “Oh my God! There’s a snake in the bird feeder! And it’s eating a bird!” The boys hear her (everyone on our side of the river hears her), and they come running from upstairs. I have to look, too. I can’t watch, but I do see, just a glimpse. I can’t stop myself from taking a quick peak before turning my back against the horror.

The snake is now poking a few inches out from the hole, the bird clamped in its jaws. It is contemplating, I assume, how to get down the shepherd’s hook with the bird. The space from the food opening he is sticking out of to the slim rod the feeder hangs from is only a few inches, but from there it is several feet to the ground.

Were the cats watching the snake climb the rod while I was packing for my father’s funeral? Probably not, given their flight across the bed, away from the snake. Perhaps it crawled up earlier that morning, coiled up inside the cylinder-shaped bird feeder, and waited for prey while I was waking to the sudden strike of memory: yesterday’s phone call, my father is dead.

Erin’s brothers are now running to the garage to get what they will need to “fix” this, while Erin declares, yelling behind them, that she is not going outside herself: “It’s got a triangular head! That means it’s poisonous! So leave it alone!” she admonishes her brothers, still loudly, from a safe distance inside the kitchen door.

I call Andrew, at his office in Greenville, and tell him what’s going on as the boys appear outside the window with a shovel and a rake—the kind with short, metal prongs, which I have seen no use for, until now. “It looks like they’re going to try to pull the snake down, out of the bird feeder,” I tell Andrew. “Erin is advising against it. What do you think?”

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for you to get one of them to refill the feeder after this,” he answers. Andrew is rarely ruffled.

Erin is still screaming at her brothers, now through the closed window of my bedroom, to stay back and leave the snake alone. “It’s poisonous! And it’ll bite you!”

“It’s got a mouthful of bird, Erin. It’s not going to bite anyone,” I tell her, trying to imitate Andrew’s calm.

I am still not looking, but I do keep glancing. I can see it in short stop-takes: the initial image of the bird, its breast sucked against the hole of the feeder; then the snake poking out of the hole with the bird in its mouth. The soundtrack to these flashes is Erin’s shrieking.

I cannot say what kind of bird it is since I have not looked closely. I see, in my mind’s eye only, what she is describing to me, perhaps trying to get me to stop her brothers. Aidan, helping the snake with its descent dilemma, pulls the snake down with the rake, and Griffin chops its head off with the shovel. I watch none of this.

Griffin later reports that when he used the shovel’s tip to pry the snake’s mouth open and nudge the bird out (just in case?), he saw the white telltale sign of a cottonmouth. So Erin was right that it was poisonous. I can’t remember which of the children reported that the snake was about four feet long—if it was Aidan, then that probably means it was two feet. That would make more sense; it was thin enough to emerge out of one of the food holes. I didn’t look at the dead snake.

I feel like I have betrayed this bird, luring it to its death with food. I just wanted to give my indoor cats something to watch through the window. This is our ninth summer with Andrew’s children in our house on the Pamlico River and the first time a snake has crawled up to and coiled itself inside of the bird feeder.

I grew up on a bayou. I know about poisonous water snakes (“Daddyyyy, there’s a water moccasin by the wharf!” … “Daddy, there was a huge snake under the swing set! I swung out really high and then jumped and ran.” … “Daddy, a snake slithered between our legs when Mom was cutting my hair in the rose garden today!”), but I never would have imagined that a snake could do what this one has done. How did it figure out from its ground-level vantage point that it could? The house is thirty feet above and another thirty feet back from the river. When was the cottonmouth close enough to the house to even see the bird feeder?

“I’ve got to get out of here,” I tell the children once the snake drama is over. “I’ve had enough cycle of life for today.” I’ve had enough cycle of life period. I call the airline and rebook my flight to leave later this afternoon instead of tomorrow.

I pick up my bag and leave for Greenville, where I will finish packing.

I am going home to Louisiana to find my father.

But he won’t be there.

A native of Louisiana, MARGARET DONOVAN BAUER divides her time between her home in Greenville, NC, where she teaches at East Carolina University, and her sanctuary home on the Pamlico River. She has served as the editor of the North Carolina Literary Review for going on twenty-five years, and her service as such has been recognized by the North Carolina Award for Literature and the John Tyler Caldwell Award in the Humanities. The author of four books of literary criticism, including A Study of Scarletts: Scarlett O’Hara and Her Literary Daughters, she is now writing memoir and other creative nonfiction, and thanks Philip Gerard for reading this essay and encouraging her to set the academic writing aside and write more like it.