The mower flipped it belly up,
a baby garter less than a foot long,
dull green with a single sharp
stripe of pale manila down its back,
same color as the underside
which was cut in two places,
a loop of intestine poking out.
It wouldn't live,
so I ran the blades over it again,
and cut it again but didn’t kill it,
and again and then again,
a cloud of two-cycle fuel smoke
on me like a swarm of bees.
It took so long
my mind had time to spiral
back to the graveyard
I tended as a child
for the dead ones, wild and tame:
fish from the bubbling green aquarium,
squirrels from the road,
the bluejay stalked to a raucous death
by Cicero the patient, the tireless hunter,
who himself was laid to rest
one August afternoon
under a rock painted gray, his color,
with a white splash for his white splash.
Once in the woods I found the skeleton
of a deer laid out like a diagram,
long spine curved like a necklace of crude, ochre spools
with the string rotted away,
and the dull metal shaft of the arrow
lying where it must have pierced
not the heart, not the head,
but the underbelly, the soft part
where the sex once was.
I carried home the skull
with its nubs of not-yet-horns
which the mice had overlooked,
and set it on a rock
in my kingdom of the dead.
Before I chopped the little snake
to bits of raw mosaic,
it drew itself
into an upward-straining coil,
head weaving, mouth open,
hissing at the noise that hurt it.
The stripe was made
of tiny paper diamonds,
sharp-edged but insubstantial,
like an x-ray of the spine
or the ghost beginning to pull away.
What taught the snake to make itself
seem bigger than it was,
to spend those last few seconds
dancing in the roar
and shadow of its death?
Now I see, though none exists,
harebells withered in a jar,
a yellow spiral
painted on a green-black stone,
a ring of upright pine cones for a fence.
That’s how the deer skull lay in state
until one of the neighborhood dogs
came to claim it,
and carried it off to bury
in the larger graveyard of the world.