THE SECRET DREAM LIFE OF SNAKES
A broken bird in a cardboard shoebox beneath the hibiscus and the birds of paradise, killed by a housecat who would one day be buried in that same backyard where the clay resists the pressure of rusted shovels under weight of small hands. Once I was a caged bird with a broken wing but I'm free now. Free and alive, unlike the birds of childhood, shrouded in sweat and clay and mud and dirt and petals, lain beside a cat named Snow White, immortalized in discarded Sleeping Beauty ballet costume, inside another box. A mile away kitty corner, Grandma's backyard: a sweeping, magnificent jungle to a child's eye view, punctuated by fragrant gardenias and a mouth-puckering kumquat tree. A horizontal tombstone with an "A"—not a scarlet letter—pays tribute to Arthur the gopher snake who'd nestle in the cozy heat of Grandma's bosom. Grandma Lizard, who seduced her dear Arthur with live mice. She taught me her method of dangling each mouse by the tail before snapping the terrarium shut, which would have been terrifying for the mice and was only slightly less terrifying for me.
This past year I've dreamt often of snakes. I was floating down a river at a tropical survival camp with a guy who looked a lot like an editor in Melbourne, fired under dubious circumstances. I wasn't aware of the allegations at the time or else my subconscious may or may not have replaced him with someone more or less suitable (after all, my taste is predictably questionable). We were having lots of sandy, sweaty, consensual sex and he moaned in my ear, "Picture diamonds in the water." I closed my eyes and visualized diamondbacks everywhere and millions of snake eggs clung to my body like grains of rice, enveloping me in a reptilian cocoon until one final egg blocked my mouth. I couldn't breathe until my lover brushed away the egg–rice. I ran through tangled vines and escaped to the ocean with my wetsuit and surfboard and caught mechanically perfect waves til I was exhausted. As I went to bed there was a very short snake attached to my stomach and it bisected, growing two heads. It was digesting a mouse so I tried not to crush it while I slept. (I'm a side sleeper.)
Last night I dreamt I was a sex worker, or else I was the girlfriend of a sex worker, a goddess of a woman who asked me to work a shift with her. The experience was ecstatic: I was in love. We worked out of a hotel room at Crown Towers, one of those sprawling suites with endless views and sheets that beckon you to stay, to sleep, or to practice at not-sleeping. Whatever it was that I did for money didn't matter, nor did it degrade me, because I was doing it for her: sucking cock for her, licking balls for her. I never saw their faces, torsos, legs, feet; I couldn't feel their hands. I barely noticed the disembodied penises hovering over the bed. In between bookings as the male genitalia disapparated, I'd beg my goddess–friend to finger my g-spot and make me squirt, legs splayed wide open, wanting, needing. Quick, before the next one comes. Because they didn't deserve to witness my actual pleasure.
My imaginary sex life makes up for all the sex I don't have IRL in my nothing-to-do-with-covid iso bubble, which isn't conducive to relationships or sex. Freud might say my fear of snakes comes from a fear of the one-eyed snake. How predictable. Even from his grave he reduces everything to the phallic; but sometimes a snake is just a snake, and sometimes a penis just won't do.
In real life my son—my "Birdie"—was one step away from a 1.5-metre long brown snake as we hiked together over Christmas. I see myself waving my arms and stamping my feet and screaming to warn him, but Birdie says I didn't do anything except yell, "Snake!" I wonder how divergent what I think I do and say is from what I actually do and say. I think about death a lot, especially since Birdie missed that snake by a child's foot length. After that I prayed aloud and Birdie and I walked hand-in-hand for the remainder of the eight-day hike. I carry a personal locator beacon and snakebite bandages, but what chance does a 5-year-old have against venom?
I imagine all the ways we might die as we go about our daily routines, and make every effort to avoid fatal outcomes. These deaths often involve transport: trams, trains, cars, and elevators. Other deaths involve falls from heights or encounters with nature (snakes, sharks, jellyfish, lightning, floods, fires) or homicide. I point out a dead bird on the road to demonstrate the uneven playing field of car versus flesh. On Day One there is blood and bone and muscle splayed in viscous gore. On Day Two there's only a dark stain and smooshed feathers. By Day Three it's like there never was a bird.
"He should have held his mommy's hand at the crosswalk," I say pointedly to my three-foot-tall progeny as I cling to his tiny digits.
Birdie tells me his nightmare: the witch from the new, live-action Mulan chases after his school friends and he goes to warn them, but it's the very act of his whispering that attracts the witch's attention and gets his friends killed; Birdie the lone, guilty survivor takes an arrow to the knee. The terror of the sensitive, powerless child. A recurring nightmare from my childhood: Batman chases me through labyrinthine passageways. In one climactic scene Batman enters the cabin where I'm hiding with my mother and brother, only Batman is my father and I shoot him dead. In waking life, after the exorcism he'd planned for me, I stopped talking to him and the nightmares stopped. I hope to never be my son's witch, that he won't have to kill me to survive.
When I was a bird in a box I though a lot about self-defense. My erstwhile Love Dove threatened to kill me if I left him, but he made it impossible to stay, so I slept with a hammer under my bed, baby at my breast. Under this same bed, a listening device he'd planted to catch me with other men, women. I never used the hammer but slept better because it was there. My first job involved hammers and paint and shovels and rebar. A half dozen ceiling fans installed in a women's refuge, a place for women less fortunate than me. (Now I know that I was them and they were me. They/I would have appreciated the charity but not the pity.) I installed three ceiling fans in my own childhood home in the summer of '95.
Once I helped an ex-con install an app on his girlfriend's phone that tracked her movements. I don't know why I said I could do it except maybe I was trying to show off. Like be a hacker or whatever. I liked being needed by a gangster who may or may not have been able to call the shots in some parts of town, at some point in history, and I felt even more powerful asking for nothing in return. Racking up favors I'd never call in. When I enabled the man with the trained-to-kill Doberman to track his victim, I didn't understand the implications. Now that I've embodied the prey POV I'm remorseful.
I was awarded two stalkers in exchange for my crime: the one I had married, and the love of my life who got hooked on meth. Every time I Google my meth monster ex there are new charges on his rap sheet: possession, violate probation, strangulation. I'm done with criminals. I stopped needing to date bad boys when I started talking to my father again after ten years. It's textbook Psych 101. I stopped holding onto hate, the need for revenge. I had to quit blaming other people for my mental illness, if not for me then for the sake of an innocent.
Now I work at kindness and charity but my Pollyanna gig is challenged by the accumulation of small daily frustrations, even by the high-pitched voice of my son asking myriad questions, and I yell and stomp my beast. Feet. A slip of the tongue. I'm the father who throws the temper tantrum, regressing to infantile state. I'm the snake, swallowing the hapless mouse that Grandma served as breakfast. I'm Snow White who killed the bird just because it would make a pretty gift. I'm the upstanding mum, modeling excellence for my son. (At least my psychologist says so.) I'm also a MILF but I don't really fuck and I'm not lonely enough to swipe right. Keeping my Birdie safe means protecting him from my historically bad taste in men. I'm actively trying not to sleep with snakes, trying not to die, shedding old skins, working through a Dewey decimal system worth of issues, aiming to grow a pair of wings before I too am buried in clay.
I'm interested in using psychoanalytical theory as a lens to explore my own neuroses. "The Secret Dream Life of Snakes" is the result of associative chain writing. Sue Llewellyn describes "REM dreaming as a form of prospective image-based code" that reveals associative patterns between past events and experiences that can subsequently impact perception and action in waking states .
In this essay, which begins with a portrait of the pets buried in the backyards of my childhood, my preoccupation with seen and unseen dangers is expressed through dreams of snakes and death and sex. Freud describes how in dream-formation, a train of thought connects with "the unconscious tendencies present [...] in the mind of the dreamer, but ordinarily repressed and excluded from his conscious life"; these thoughts "emerge into consciousness in the shape of the dream" .
The pervasiveness of dream snakes might be interpreted in myriad ways: as serpents of the underworld, as personification of evil, as representing transcendence or as phallic symbols "linked with pagan fertility gods" . According to psychologist Siamak Khodarahimi, snakes emerge "from the depths of the ancient Earth Mother" and raise "into the field of consciousness a special underworld message." Jung reminds us that in classical antiquity, although the serpent signified fear and danger, it also represented healing; he cites, for example, Asklepios, god of physicians and healing, and the python slain by Apollo at Delphi, place of wisdom and prophecy . I call the snake archetype into reality, a footstep away from my son. After, I risk embodying Jung's mother complex, wherein my life becomes secondary to my child's as I shrink our world to what I perceive as safe for him. While Freud would have related snakes to "repressed sexual wishes" , Khodarahimi encourages healing through embracing the snake mother archetype, which "expresses the need for life to be meaningful."
My thoughts fixate on right and wrong—à la Melanie Klein's splitting defense mechanism—and how bad decisions might be punished, or else remedied by good. I question whether I might inadvertently perpetuate intergenerational violence due to broken childhood attachments—turning into a beast as I stomp my feet (a Freudian slip)—or whether I can be, as Winnicott puts it, a "good-enough" mother .
 Llewellyn, Sue. "Dream to Predict? REM Dreaming as Prospective Coding." Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 6, no. 1961, 2016. Frontiers in Psychology, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01961.
 Freud, Sigmund. "A Note of the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis, 1912." The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, edited by Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas, Routledge, 2008, pp. 10–15.
 Khodarahimi, Siamak. "Snake Mother Imagery in Generalised Anxiety Disorder." International Forum of Psychoanalysis, vol. 19, no. 3, 2010, pp. 165–171. Taylor & Francis, doi: 10.1080/08037060903524407.
 Jung, Carl Gustav. Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice. Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.
 Sand, Rosemarie. "The Interpretation of Dreams: Freud and the Western Dream Tradition." Psychoanalytic Dialogues, vol. 9 no. 6, 1999, pp. 725–747. Taylor & Francis, doi: 10.1080/10481889909539358.
 Winnicott, Donald W. "The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship." Essential Papers on Object Relations, edited by P. Buckley, 1986, pp. 233–253.