Garter snake

The Snake and the Sanctuary

By Melina Walling
Terrain.org 12th Annual Contest in Nonfiction Winner

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We fear because we care. Because we love too much.

 
I. Sheshanaga and Vasuki 

Sheshanaga is supposed to be a highly poisonous snake. But Lord Vishnu is resting on him without fear or worries…. If the fear overpowers you, it may shatter your peace.
  – Bramha Purana

 
The snake had curled itself into a corner, wedged behind the vegetable patch. It was a beautiful, speckled thing, long and sinuous, the curves of its body woven over the rocks like a skein of yarn.

When Ajji saw it she gasped, a raw breath that set her whole body trembling. Her eyebrows knit into an expression of horror. She scrambled backward, dug her nails into my hand. I wanted a closer look; she wanted to get as far away as possible.

“Get back, ayo, get back!” she cried. I let her pull us up the steps to the porch, her soft hands clammy against mine. When I wrapped my arm around her, leaning my body down around her small frame, I could feel her chest heave. Through her tears I could see the sun flash tiny reflections off the artificial lens from her cataract surgery, small glints shaking like the rest of her body.

“It’s just a snake,” I said.

She nodded, but I knew she didn’t believe me.

Every morning my grandmother rises with the dawn and sits cross-legged beneath images of deities wrapped in snakes. She bows her head reverently to a portrait of Shiva, whose broad blue chest is adorned with a hooded cobra named Vasuki who encircles his neck. She balances freshly cut flowers on an idol of Sheshanaga, the many-headed lord of the snakes, who floats on the endless ocean and supports a reclining Vishnu, the protector of the universe. She finds comfort in a pantheon of terrors, lions and bears, fires and floods. Yet she fears wild animals, and drowning, and thunderstorms. 

It was only after she reacted to the snake in her garden that I ever stopped to wonder at the contradiction.

A few weeks later, on the path near my own house, I found a small snake, no bigger than my hand, basking on the sunbaked asphalt. The memory of Ajji’s sobs rang in my ears as I crouched to the ground. I noticed, this close, how its scales interlocked like her knitting stitches. Knit, purl, knit, purl. A distinctive line down the center of its back that told me it was a garter snake.

I’m not an expert on wild things, but sometimes, when I find something beautiful or unknown in nature, I turn to the Internet for information—a tool Ajji did not have for most of her life. This time, I asked Wikipedia whether the echoes of Ajji’s fears have any merit. My search yielded reassurance: garter snakes are harmless to humans. I considered this as I reached my finger out, hesitantly, toward the still creature. As it looked at me the light caught on its thin amber iris. Its eye glistened gold in the light. I knew, with a sense of calm that Ajji would never understand, that the snake would not hurt me. 

When I touched the ribbon of its back with my pale index finger it hardly moved; for a moment I wondered whether it was even alive. Then, like its way of blinking, it slipped its forked tongue softly into the air. I took it as a sign of greeting.

I did not want it to be an act of rebellion, but I knew that it had been. I had gone 23 years without ever touching a wild snake, much less getting close enough to see the glint in its eye or the pattern of its scales. I had been afraid of a lot of things in my life, but never of this. That had always been Ajji’s fear, and for a long time, it was enough to hold me back, too.

Ajji (Shantha Rao)
A portrait of Ajji (Shantha Rao) in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2021.
Photo by Melina Walling.

 

She’s never been officially diagnosed, but we all know Ajji has anxiety. She stockpiles frozen pizzas in the garage refrigerator. She throws a penny and a handful of mustard seeds and dried chili peppers out the car window on our way to formal events to remove drushti, the evil spirits that flock toward beautiful and well-dressed people. She tells me that her mantras and prayers are her security blanket, a way of distracting her mind from all the possible things that could go wrong.

My anxiety is a family heirloom, a survival instinct passed down from woman to woman like a ruby ring. It makes us excellent anticipators; we can plan for anything. But being able to imagine the worst makes our bodies churn like uneasy seas. We lie awake at night in hailstorms of thoughts. Our stomachs roil. We skip breakfasts. Our cheeks turn red while giving speeches.

Our worst-case scenarios, however, look different. Ajji imagines us struck by lightning, drowned in the pool, stranded in a desert without food. Fire, floods, famine. I imagine other terrors. Failing in a work meeting. Failing a calculus test. Parties. First dates.

They might seem like different orders of magnitude, but I know firsthand how illogical and all-encompassing and physically debilitating an anxiety disorder can be. My freshman year of college, when my anxiety reached its peak in a new and completely unfamiliar place, I would retch as I brushed my teeth in the morning and see spots as I biked to class because I couldn’t keep food down. Sometimes I watch Ajji pick at a tiny portion of rice and wonder how often over the past 67 years she has felt the same way.

We both fear the future, the unknown, but the ways we imagine the future are so different. She lives at the mercy of elemental forces; I live at the mercy of social ones. Yet neither of us has ever had a panic attack over the climate emergency, which has already begun to unleash elemental and social horrors alike and will unleash more in the distant future. I have worried, of course, as wildfire smoke drifted over my campus. I have cried reading articles about dying rhinos and rising seas. But I have never felt my heart beating in my chest, sweat on my palms, the knots in my gut that come with acute anxiety. I know Ajji has cried thinking about how urbanization paved over her home city of Bangalore with asphalt and concrete, but I don’t think she has felt terror about it either.

Part of it is simple neuroscience. The human brain evolved to fear immediate threats: snakes, not long-term hypotheticals. But I think for both of us it has been a product of nurture as well as nature. For Ajji, a devout Hindu, the fate of the planet has already been described, in scripture, a cycle of endless death and rebirth not limited just to us humans but to planets and eons and galaxies. She says that right now, we live in the Kali Yuga, the age of darkness, vice, misery, strife, and hypocrisy. How could she fear anything as distant as climate change if the divine force she worships has ordained it, promising the beginning of a new and better time when everything collapses into ruins?

But while the Kali Yuga rages on, the life that Ajji sought to create for me by immigrating to this country cocoons me in safety, thick layers of insulation and air conditioning and internal heating. Unlike the majority of souls who have lived on this planet, I have never faced a period of extended discomfort due to natural forces; I have always lived in a stable home, with enough to eat and a warm bed at night. Maybe that’s why my anxiety has never manifested as a fear of the wild, or what’s happening to it. Ajji not only grew up surrounded by real natural threats, but also believes on a spiritual level that it is normal to live in a world that is dangerous and cosmically doomed. That’s just part and parcel of living in a dying age. For me, the fact that the world is falling apart has never been tangible—real, but not physically present in my life. Anything wild dying in the world has been cloaked in an illusion of safety or stability.

When Ajji sees a snake she freezes, paralyzed with fear. When I see a snake I barely register it as a threat; my first thought is to shove my camera in its face, to exploit it for its beauty. In the right set of circumstances—say, if the snake were venomous—both our reactions could get us killed.

I wonder how we became so different, and what we can learn from each other.

Family
Clockwise from left: a portrait of the author with her family, Nik, John and Smitha Walling, and Ajji and Ajja (Skap Rao), in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2021.
Photo by Natesh Rao.

II. Indra

Give us wealth, O Thunder-armed.
The heaven and earth contain thee not, together, in thy wrathful mood.
Win us the waters of the sky, and send us [cattle] abundantly.
  – Rig-Veda

 
In 1950 thunder split open the sky and Ajji’s anxiety was born.

She was six years old then, the second youngest of ten children. Eleven if you count the older sister she never met, Chandramati, who died at three of severe burns in a kitchen accident. This was the world Ajji grew up in. Death everywhere. One wrong step with bare feet meant nature’s wrath, God’s wrath: thorns, black ants, menacing snakes. She tells me how men carried shrouded bodies to be cremated in solemn processions that passed by her house every week.

The symbols of death were everywhere, too. Crows meant dead bodies. Skittering lizards were horrible omens and owl calls were cursed. An elephant’s trunk hanging down was bad luck; an elephant’s trunk curled upward was good fortune. For a long time, Ajji told me, she would never say the words “death” or “cremation” out loud. How could she, when to speak of them would surely invite them into her world? But it didn’t matter whether she spoke them or not; they seeped into her dreams, hooked dread into her young mind like the barbs of cockleburs. That stormy night in 1950, she awoke with horror coursing through her. She had dreamed that her mother had died. Something within her mind had changed, connected the bodies in the streets with the matriarch who tended to the sacred candles and protected the family from harm. As the lightning crashed around Ajji, she ran to the next room, where three of her sisters had already huddled on the sleeping pallet with their mother.

Ajji crouched at the edge of the blanket and clutched her mother’s feet, longing for a hug or a word of comfort. But her mother was exhausted, fast asleep, with no extra words of comfort to give. My great-grandmother had already had four children by the time she was my age, in her early 20s. By the time Ajji was born, she had come almost to the end of her childbearing years, worn down by the nearly 120 consecutive months of being pregnant or nursing a newborn and raising all the little ones who had come before the newest baby.

That night, though, was unusual. That night, Ajji’s father, the patriarch of the family and normally a no-nonsense Captain von Trapp of a man, took pity on my grandmother. Perhaps he saw the same awful terror in her eyes then that I had seen when she found the snake all these decades later. The terror that prompted me to ask her about why she was so scared of the wild. The terror that prompted her telling me this story of her childhood fears.

That night, as the thunderstorm shook the house with its growls, Ajji’s father gave her a glass of milk and a mantra from the Bhagavad Gita, translated roughly as “Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear.”  Then he read to her in English from Aesop’s Fables: the story of the crow who cleverly dropped stones into a half-empty pitcher until the water level rose so it could drink.

For Ajji, his message was clear. Surrender to God, her father had seemed to say, and take comfort in your intelligence. A parable: believe in fate, but use your cleverness to bend nature to your will in the meantime.

B.S. Suryanarayana
Ajji’s father, B.S. Suryanarayana, in the 1950s.
Photo courtesy Shantha Rao.
Ajji has spent her life taking his advice. In her prayer room, everything but the symbology itself is a tamed version of the wild, a tool to cultivate calm. A miniature, harmless version of fire: the cotton wick of the deepa burns slowly in vegetable oil alongside the lingering woody after-scent of lit kitchen matches. Minerals from the earth: brass and old pennies and the muted impression of tarnished silver. From trees, sandalwood rosaries and the old thin browning paper of her prayer books, stacks of them falling apart at the seams, with smudges of oil and tears in the pages where she turns them over and over. Fruits and flowers. Bananas and apples, roses and jasmine and chrysanthemum. Even now a few dried daffodils are wilting in the candle stands, and if I press them to my nose, they barely have a scent at all, just the organic wisp of something once alive.

I have grown up with this. Kneeling next to Ajji as she chants, then uses a tiny silver ladle to pour three drops of water and a holy tulsi leaf into my cupped hand. I slurp up the water, which always tastes different than tap water somehow, and I chew the holy basil, filling my mouth with the pleasant after-taste of herbs. I fold myself into a child’s pose and then we both stand, she with some difficulty, moving from cross-legged to an awkward squat from which she can slowly rise, her wrinkled hands reaching upward for mine.

Something about her has always reminded me of pressed flower petals and prayer bells, warm candles and smoke, the smell after a tiny flame has just gone out. Comfort.

Perhaps that’s why it was always so easy for me to listen to her. When I was young, while both my parents worked, she took care of me, and she taught me the rules of the world. She also taught me to imagine. When she told me not to run outside in the thunderstorms, I obeyed; there was always a safe place inside, my head on her lap as she sat cross-legged, telling me epic stories of monsoons and blessed rushing rivers. When she told me it was too hot outside to play, I could retreat to her memories of cool shade in the forests of India, glades where the different avatars of God chased after golden deer, demons in disguise. Never mind that I knew less about watching the rolling clouds outside. They could roll past in her stories, and that was good enough.

4.	Ajji (center) with one of her sisters and a family friend
Ajji (center) with one of her sisters and a family friend in 1949.
Photo courtesy Shantha Rao.

III. Hanuman

You crossed over the Ocean, to no astonishment whatsoever.
All difficult tasks of this world become easy, with Your grace.
  – Hanuman Chalisa

 
Twirdee, twirdee
sing the river birds. Every so often the wind chime dings. We are sitting on the porch in Richland, Washington, but Ajji calls this Bangalore weather, cool and breezy and crisp. There’s no such thing as Bangalore weather anymore; the Silicon Valley of India is now more of an urban heat island. Every day it grows hotter, more packed. But Ajji remembers the way it used to be, in an old Victorian house at the end of a single dirt road. That house has since been demolished, turned into flats on what’s now a busy street, crowded on all sides by apartment buildings. I visited once before the demolition and once after. My teenage observation was that they gained indoor plumbing and lost a home.

I don’t think Ajji ever could have imagined that she would end up in this quiet house on the Columbia, alone amongst the sagebrush and the rolling clouds that race in day after day on swift winds. They are here because the U.S. recruited my grandfather, a civil engineer, in the late 60s. Ajji and Ajja leaped across the ocean and hopscotched from one nuclear site to the next. Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Las Vegas, Nevada; Hanford, Washington. My grandfather, stubborn in his insistence on giving back to the country that he built his life on, still works at 82, behind a thick Dell laptop, in a spare bedroom full of dusty old books on structural engineering and waste management. Ajji sticks to routines too, cooking the same traditional dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that she has made for over half a century.

Of course they prefer the familiar; they spent so long without it. The only Indians in the small town of Rome, Georgia, they grew accustomed to gawking onlookers, whispers about the red dot on Ajji’s forehead. As they moved through America they moved through the landscapes, the seasons, so different from the rainy and dry patterns of home. Ajji was mystified the first time she saw snow. She wondered whether she could ever find a market that carried jackfruit or lichi. What grew here? What animals lived here?

Once I played Ajji a recording of ambient sound from a wild park in Bangalore, filled with the sounds of birds I didn’t recognize. As she listened, she began to cry.

Guiding prayer
Ajji guides the author through a prayer in September 2004.
Photo by Smitha Walling.
I haven’t stayed in any given place long enough to watch it change. I moved with my family from Las Vegas to Pennsylvania when I was 13. Then I went to California for college. Each time I moved, when I did not recognize the birds, it scarcely affected my daily life at all. I never lacked familiar foods or a house to temporarily call my own. I worried that the other eighth graders would make fun of me for wearing Converse instead of Sperrys, the awful pit in my stomach divorced from any realities of life-and-death concern.

Though our experiences were so different, sometimes I wonder whether the anxiety I feel in unfamiliar places is partly a genetic imprint, born of the stress of Ajji’s immigration. When she tallied her careful budgets on scraps of paper, wondering what she could afford and what she could cook with it, her survival was at stake. When she met new people, she was constantly under scrutiny for her sari and her sandals and the flowers she would tuck into her low ponytail. For her, social acceptance meant the difference between assimilation and complete isolation. After all, overseas calls were expensive. She would wait weeks for letters from home. I’ve seen them, stacks of blue envelopes filled with paper covered in cramped handwriting scrawled over every millimeter of free space on the page. Always with the word “Safe” underlined in the top left corner, because that was never a guarantee.

Hanuman is the Hindu god of strength and courage; in the Ramayana, he leaps across the ocean between India and Sri Lanka to help Rama save his wife Sita from an evil demon. I started listening to the Hanuman Chalisa, a devotional song, as I began to reckon with my anxiety early in college. But in the end, it was mostly therapy that helped me, not any of the hymns that Ajji picked out for me. There were concrete exercises I could do to change the way I thought, to begin the work of undoing my impulse to think an unending stream of “what if something bad happens?”

As I have healed, it has become easier to realize that what I worried about mostly didn’t matter in the long run. It would be harder to say that about Ajji’s fears. She spent years in the dark, imagining her family on the other side of the world. Imagining something happening to her mother without her there. And she’s never been to therapy.

Ajji, Melina, and her mother
Ajji, Melina, and her mother, Smitha, in March 2002.
Photo by John Walling.

IV. Durga

Salutations always to Durga who takes one across in difficulties, who is essence, who is the authority of everything…. We prostrate before her who is at once most gentle and most terrible; we salute her again and again. Salutation to her who is the support of the world… who abides in all beings in the form of mother.
  – Devi Mahatmya

 
I never felt like I was made for the wild. I was clumsy, awkward, too tall to know my own center of gravity. Growing up I often tripped on sidewalks. I was allergic to everything. My light skin, courtesy of my father, has a penchant for burning, and my wavy hair, courtesy of my mother, has the terrible habit of acting as a perfect barometer: limp and flat in dry conditions, frizzy and unruly in the humidity.

And that was all before I got my period. That day I had been watching a hummingbird nest from the window, standing on a chair to get a better view of the fragile speckled eggs beneath the mother’s glistening green belly. I did not want to stop looking. Then I felt a twinge, something wet. I decided I had to tear myself away from the window, and in the bathroom down the hall, I found a small brown stain across my pink underwear.

I cried on the toilet, though I was not sure why. By the time my mother had explained how to use a pad, and by the time I had calmed down enough to return to the window, the hummingbird was gone. Rough unfamiliar cotton chafed between my legs. I wondered what I had missed.

Ajji had it worse than I did. For most of her young adult life she had the underskirt of a sari cut into six cotton rags, not pads with adhesive and engineered extra-absorbent material. She and her sisters called it their “petticoat pads,” after the garments they used to cut apart to make the cloth strips. When she had her period she had to skip school, stop helping in the kitchen, and stay indoors. She says she was as fast a runner as any boy but when it was her period, she spent three days in a room with the other menstruating women, cut off from the outside world.

When it came time to wash out the petticoat pads, the women would cross the backyard and enter the dark shed where the family kept the firewood for boiling the bathwater. Mice and spiders skittered across the floor to their homes in the wood pile. Ajji and her mother and sisters would string a rope—a special rope, reserved for this purpose, taboo for anyone else in the house to touch—across the inside of the shed as a laundry line. Then they would dunk the fabric strips in a bucket of well water, wring them out, and hang them to dry. Sometimes they did not dry fully before the next day. Yeast infections were common, if not perpetual.

Ajji and her sisters bore so much discomfort with so little support. They carried it in their blood, and in their fast-beating hearts, as they cared for the men around them as well as themselves. 

In any family, and any culture, there are designated worriers, those averse to risk, whose eyes are always peeled for snakes and poisonous berries, whose curse of anxiety helps to keep the others alive. In my family, that blessed curse has fallen on women. Ajji, and my mother, too, are the planners, the anticipators, the packers of lunches and the givers of medicine. They buy plane tickets and manage itineraries. They warn the children to be careful when they play in the street.

Sometimes I wonder whether it is a larger phenomenon: that anxious women, through the untamed blood we experience every month, must bear the pain and emotions of a dying world. I have certainly felt that way sometimes, my anxiety reaching its height once a month, bringing me closer and closer to a wild terror and grief for all we have lost. Though I’ve never had a panic attack over the climate emergency, I’ve gotten closest when my hormones surge, when my emotions reach their peak and everything around me feels more overwhelming, more hopeless.

But we push through anyway. Eventually, when we grow older, our period subsides, leaving only a residue of painful peaks and valleys in its wake.

Ajji's prayer room
Ajji leads a prayer for Ganesha Festival over FaceTime in August 2020.
Photo by Melina Walling.
That snake curled in Ajji’s garden was the first of many that have been surfacing in the warm spring weather. When I call her on the phone, Ajji always tells me about the latest one, how it slithered across her patio or along the garden path. I froze, she tells me. I pulled my legs up onto the deck chair, she says, and watched it until it disappeared and I could breathe again. And then, miraculously, she sends me pictures. Grainy cell phone pictures, usually zoomed in too far, from what I know is a moment of agony for her, because she knows I will appreciate them.

We fear, after all, because we care. Because we love too much. Ajji is scared that what she has will be snatched away, because it is so precious to her that the thought of losing it is too much to bear. So she tries to love the safe things, the things that feel steadfast. The ritual of a daily prayer. The chickadees that come to her bird feeder. The garden plants that blossom under her gentle care, whose roots stretch down deep and thick as she wills them to grow with tender whispers. Her family, as long as she knows they will come to no harm. Me, as long as I am safe, fed a full meal and resting beside her on the sofa.

Like Durga, I must hold two opposing forces within myself. The tender sanctuary of the mother and the unbridled chaos of fear and destruction are both my inheritance. To reclaim the fear that Ajji passed on to me, I recognize its power. I bow in reverence to the natural forces that could snuff out my existence on a whim. I appreciate the survival instincts that have kept my line of anxious women alive, from one generation to the next, through childbirth and across continents.

And I must also thank Ajji for the sanctuary she has created, for the care she has taken to feed me and sing to me and braid my hair over all these years. Because of her, I can kneel each night in a place of comfort, a home that knows no border and needs no offering but my own imagination. As I put my palms together and ask the universe for strength, the way she taught me, the link is always there. The knit-purl of a strand of knitted yarn, passed from her hands to mine.

Ajji's prayer room
Ajji’s prayer room, decked with flowers for a festival, in October 2021.
Photo courtesy Shantha Rao.

 

A note on religious texts and translations
My spiritual education, spearheaded by Ajji, has been mostly in the oral tradition, and I have relied on several outside sources and translations for the epigraphs in this essay. The first passage comes from Book I, Chapter 3, Section 4 of the Puranas as compiled and interpreted in English by the Dharmic Scriptures Team, 2002. The second comes from the Rig-Veda, Book 1, Hymn 10, as translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith, 1896. The translation of the Hanuman Chalisa is courtesy of The Art of Living, an educational non-profit. And the final passage, from Chapter 5 of the Devi Mahatmya (or Devi Mahatmyam), is from a translation courtesy of Abhilash Rajendran, on hindu-blog.com. I am grateful to these open source materials for making my own religion more accessible to me. I also recognize that some meaning will always be lost in translation, and that these excerpts represent a small part of a vast and ancient religious history. I hope my use of these texts shows my respect and reverence for that history.

And thank you to Ajji for reading over this essay and helping me check the spellings, translations, and terminology. None of this would be possible without you.

Judge Aimee Nezhukumatathil says...
“We fear, after all, because we care.” At the end of “The Snake and the Sanctuary” our author reveals the real secret legacy at the heart of women in her family: anxiety. A tender honesty opens up as we see the fears and worries that shape us into the people we are, and how we can best meet those anxieties head on. Even a decade ago, such an open and insightful discussion—especially for a person of color—would have been taboo, but this talented author breaks through this silent veil, and in the process says something about the anxiety in us all. I could have chosen this essay for Terrain.org‘s creative nonfiction contest based solely on its unique and topical look at our current climate of worry, but I chose it because of its beautiful, if weary, and surprising look at the natural world from someone who “never felt like [she] was made for the wild.”

 

Melina WallingMelina Walling is a writer, photographer, and storyteller from Wayne, Pennsylvania. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Environmental Communication at Stanford University and spent the summer of 2021 as the Mary Withers Rural Writing Fellow at Boyd’s Station in Boyd, Kentucky. Her work has appeared in several publications including The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Bucks County Courier Times, Stanford Magazine, and Forbes.com, and she is currently a bioscience reporter for The Arizona Republic, where she covers health, technology, and the environment.

Header photo, a baby garter snake at the author’s home in Pennsylvania, by Melina Walling.

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