Steve was just north of Chaffeys Lock driving back from Rachel’s house in Ottawa when he saw the snake on the road. If he’d been with Rachel he wouldn’t have stopped. Rachel wouldn’t have noticed it, but if he had pointed it out to her, she would have shut her eyes and ordered him to drive on. But Rachel wasn’t with him, so he pulled the truck onto the soft shoulder and got out.
Black rat snakes liked to bask on the road and soak up the warmth there. This one, over a meter and a half in length, lay width-wise across the road. Likely, the driver who had hit it had mistaken it for a line of tar sealing a crack in the asphalt, a narrow band of darkness on the hot blacktop, an insignificant bump under the tires. Or maybe the driver had done it deliberately.
Steve listened for traffic. In the marsh across the road, a red-winged blackbird called out conga-ree, flashing its scarlet epaulettes. Otherwise this stretch of road was quiet. Steve crouched down next to the snake. Its body had been crushed about five centimeters behind its head. Its skin had split open, a gaping slit that was bright red inside like the cut pomegranates Rachel ate for breakfast. The asphalt was darkened and tacky under his shoes where the snake had bled. Greenbottle flies studded its body like living jewels.
Steve retrieved his work gloves and a plastic bucket from the back of his truck. Carefully, he pulled the snake from the road. It stuck where it had been run over, and he had to lift it delicately to keep it intact. He lowered it reverently into the bucket, coiling the body inside. Once it was all in, he laid a burlap sack over the top to keep the flies off and replaced the bucket on the bed of the truck. Then he headed for home. Home, but not for much longer.
As he drove he brushed the back of the passenger seat where Jed usually rode, felt the bristling carpet of black and white hairs that had resisted multiple vacuuming. He looked out the passenger side window, through the smudges of Jed’s noseprints on the glass. He felt the absence like a missing tooth. Get used to it, he told himself.
He shouldn’t have picked up that snake; he didn’t have time to deal with it properly. He had other things to do. Packing, for instance.
It would have been a waste, though, to have left it there. A pointless, unnatural death. This way, after he’d cleaned the skeleton, it could go to a museum, a university, or to a naturalist, like Steve, who would use it to educate people about local fauna.
Steve drove up the long laneway to his house. He saw his house with new eyes each time he came back from a visit to Rachel’s. He didn’t used to think about it; it was just home. After he’d brought Rachel here and seen her reaction, the comments she’d visibly refrained from making, he now saw it as small and shabby.
Steve lifted the bucket from the back of the truck. Jed stood at the fence, white tail a blur of motion, his nose with its pale patch of pink, pressed into the chain link. Jed greeted Steve at the gate, sniffing the bucket, then him. Jed followed Steve out to the workshop in the shed at the back of the yard.
Steve had to make a decision: how best to deal with the snake. He wanted to clean the skeleton in the most efficient way. Carrion beetles would do the job for him, but that could take weeks, and he’d sold his stock of carrion beetles the week before. Alternately, the carcass could be put into a plastic bag filled with water, tied closed and left for a few months. As long as you made sure you when you opened the bag, you were in a well ventilated area.
The third method was to boil the carcass. It was messy and labor-intensive, but it was also quick. As Steve was moving out in two days, this was the only option.
As he went to the house, he saw Jed run over to his doghouse and wolf the kibble in his bowl. Steve watched him grimly; he’d paid the neighbor to put out food for Jed in the morning and evening while he was in Ottawa, but obviously, it didn’t matter; Jed refused to eat when Steve wasn’t home.
In the house, Steve dug through boxes of his camping gear until he found his hunting knife and a couple of old, banged-up pots. Rachel wouldn’t let anything like those into her kitchen with her ornamental copper pots and marble counter tops.
He filled the pots with water and set them on the stove. He did his best to cut away as much of the skin and muscle from the skeleton as he could; the more work he did by hand, the less work the boiling water would have to do.
He cut the carcass where it had been flattened and divided the smooth black body between the two pots of water, putting the head aside. Once he’d got the water boiling, he put lids on the pots. Then he emptied spare bedroom and the kitchen cupboards, packing his remaining things into boxes. He kept an eye on the clock. Boil the carcass too long and all the little bones would come apart, and reassembling them would be an exercise in migraine generation.
At last, he returned to the stove, turned the heat off under the pots, then he called Jed out to the truck.
He drove down to the abandoned CN line. The tracks had been taken up years ago leaving gravel and a road that was decompressing from underneath. He drove carefully, straddling the big sinkhole that had been forming for the past three months. He stopped where the road opened up to either side and below where he had a view of the water. He opened the truck door, and Jed piled out.
It was 3pm, the sky a fading blue. For some reason, it was always colder here than anywhere else along the road, no matter what time of year it was. He looked out over the water. Some people were afraid of the enormity of the place when they came out here at night, but Steve felt that it was a privilege to be a part of this. He didn’t have much, but he’d wanted to give this to Rachel, to her children: take them up here to see it. But they hadn’t wanted it.
“It’s not us,” Rachel had said, with the implication that he was included in the ‘us.’ That was a strange feeling.
He’d been taking Jed out here nearly every day for eight years. Once, they’d seen a coyote standing boldly broadside-on to them on the road not twenty meters away. Jed had gone crazy, barking, and Steve had barely caught him in time, stopping him from lunging forward. A coyote would sometimes lure a dog out to the rest of the pack so that they could kill it.
In all the years he’d had Jed that had been the closest he’d come to losing him. Steve had bought him from a kid selling puppies out of a cardboard box at the livestock market. Four of them when Steve had walked by on his way in, a tumble of black and white; one left on the way out–the one no one else had wanted. Small enough to fit in the pocket of his bush jacket.
Steve walked down the abandoned road. He could hear the ringing call of a toad, then another. No more walks like this after tonight. No more breathing air that was so clean you drank it like cold water.
“You can’t keep living like this forever, Steve,” one of his married friends had said. “Alone in the middle of nowhere. You need a family.”
Steve liked children. He brought his specimens to elementary schools sometimes, taught them about natural history. Once they got over their initial squeamishness, most of them took to it. Steve liked Rachel’s daughters well enough too, though neither of them had taken to what he did; Rachel hadn’t really given them a chance.
He was moving to a real house in Ottawa. He’d never lived in a city before, but this was what was expected of him, that eventually he would have to grow up and accept responsibility. He was thirty-five; his friends had drifted off, paired off, and gradually, very gradually, he’d gone from seeing them regularly to barely seeing them at all, and the only one he spoke to some days was Jed.
He called Jed from wherever he was–he was in the habit of darting into the undergrowth after rabbits; last week he’d found a porcupine in amidst the sumac along the side of the road. Jed came racing back, toenails scattering the gravel.
Steve got back into the truck, shut the door. He looked back over the valley. He took a good, long time doing it, because he knew it would be the last time; he couldn’t come here again, not without Jed.
“Love is about sacrifice,” Rachel had said. “Love means giving things up for the one you care about.”
Steve looked at the keys dangling from the steering column. He felt suddenly like there was a vice grip on his ribs, pain, somewhere so deep he couldn’t point to it. He couldn’t breathe.
The feeling passed. He turned the key. When he returned to the house, the smell of boiled snake greeted him. In the pots, loose, white trails of flesh jostled and floated like gauze. He ran cold water over them, fished a chunk out with a pair of tongs. He put it on a plate and took it out to the workshop behind the house. Jed followed at his heels.
The shovel stood against the side of the shed, edged with dirt from the grave he’d dug the day before.
Setting the plate on the workbench, he realized that he had made a mistake. It would take hours just to clean the bones. Never mind sorting the 400-odd vertebrae in the correct order. He had other things he had to do tonight, before the light faded. Yet he’d gone too far to just throw it all out.
The pieces of flesh were slippery and Steve had to be careful with his knife. Jed watched him intently, his chin resting on Steve’s leg.
Bones were little miracles. Complete, perfect, formed in the darkness under their blankets of skin and muscle, in the womb or the egg. No one ever saw them, until they were revealed like this.
Rachel had been logical. She had custody of the girls, and she was allergic to dogs. Jed was bonded to Steve, wouldn’t even eat when Steve wasn’t there. It would be a subtle kind of cruelty to give him away, one that Steve could never inflict on Jed.
Steve disarticulated the ribs from the snake’s backbone. Freeing each one, he dried it with a dishtowel and laid it on his work table to dry. The body of each rib was smooth, perfectly curved. Except when he came to the part of the snake where it had been flattened under the car tire; these ribs were in fragments. Steve set the piece of snake down.
Better that he not suffer at all.
He turned on his second desk lamp with the magnifier. The rib he’d pulled loose with his forceps had fractured in three pieces. It would be unfair to put broken pieces into the bone box with the rest of the skeleton; Steve ought to repair it first. He rummaged in one of the boxes for some contact cement. He didn’t have time for this; the light was fading, and he needed good light to be sure of his aim.
He glanced through the window. The darkness seethed between the trees in the back forty where he’d take Jed out hunting with him. He recalled how in Ottawa Rachel always pulled the curtains closed at the first hint of darkness so that the neighbors couldn’t look in. There was nothing but a wooded hill behind his workshop, multi-coloured in the autumn and silver with snow in the winter. The kind of view that deserved to be painted. He’d dug the grave out there, in amongst the silver birch.
It was going to be dark soon; better to do it while the light was good.
Steve tapped his forceps on the work table. Fix the broken rib, then do it. He dabbed a bead of contact cement onto the fractured edge of the rib. Then he picked up the second piece and fit it to the broken edge of the other piece. Something caught his eye. He looked at it through the magnifier on the light. An undulating groove ran along the bone–something that had no right to be there. The fracture truncated it. The third and final rib fragment lay on the plate. Using his forceps he held that one in place while it set. The groove now stretched unbroken along the bone, like an inscription: Do not forsake me.
Steve put the rib back onto the plate and switched off the desk lamp. His gun was in the locked cabinet back in the house; he’d refrained from packing it, knowing he would need it one more time before he left here.
Steve got up, and Jed followed him out of the workshop.
Steve packed the last of the boxes into the back of his pickup. He’d sold the house, was due out today; contracts signed, no turning back. He got into the truck, started it up, and drove away from the house, away from Ottawa, away from Rachel and her own responsibilities.
Because love means giving things up for the one you care about.
He looked over at Jed, and Jed’s tail thumped on the seat.