The Serpent Summons, an essay by Marianne G. Petrino

Memoir/Nonfiction
Title: The Serpent Summons
Author: Marianne G. Petrino
Twitter: @ninetiger
Word count: 1092

“If you don’t like it here, perhaps you should work elsewhere.”

Once again someone had hurled that phrase at me as if it were an incantation that would automatically make me disappear. I fought against a library system that believed it was perfectly reasonable to make me work as a childrens’ librarian on a library assistant’s salary. Without an MLS, and according to Virginia state law, I could never appeal this injustice.

My husband was tired of hearing my daily complaints over almost fours years of employment. “Find something, anything new!” he exhorted. “Make a decision! I will support you!”

One day in September, 2000, I finally granted the wishes of those above me in rank, a fatigue of the soul having taken its toll, and followed my heart and husband’s advice. My mistake was in giving the library three more months of my time while a new person received training for my position. The funny thing was it eventually took two people to replace me. What was not so humorous was the relative silence I endured in my remaining days at work.

When people know you are leaving a job, they react to you as if you have the plague and keep their distance for fear of catching your disease. What you know to be true is that many wish that they could take off their golden shackles and follow you straight out the door. That knowledge kept me sane as I awaited my release.

One quiet day at the library, I asked for a sign that I had made the right decision to leave. Despite the problems that had remained, I had actually liked my job. The children I served always gave me funny stories to relay to my husband or opened my heart wide with compassion. In the surrounding community, many of the youngest patrons spoke little English or endured poverty and hate. But the day suddenly turned awful. Quiet resentment from staff and crabbiness from the adult patrons reached a crescendo around lunchtime. I was glad to retreat off the information desk and go back to my small desk tucked in one corner of the workroom. Checking in some new books, I spied one that listed sacred sites around the world, a particular interest of mine. Since the seventh grade, I had immersed myself in the metaphysical. I started with astrology, branched out into tarot, flirted with the paranormal, and pushed forward my psychic development at every opportunity.

Once in my hand, the book’s pages opened as if someone had placed an invisible marker inside for me. I beheld an aerial photograph of an earthwork shaped like a giant snake. My fingers traced the letters as I murmured, “The Serpent Mound,” and I began to study the entry. “Fort Ancient Culture. An uncoiling snake that is 1,348 feet long. National Historic Landmark. Adams County, Ohio.” My mind flipped through my neural card catalogue of memories, for I knew I had once heard of this place. 1976? Leonard Nimoy, the actor who had brought my first love Mr. Spock to life, had hosted the television program In Search Of. Had it really been more than two decades since that show featuring weirdness had aired? Had I ever been that young and successful back then?

I closed the book. Over the years, I had carried the twin boulders of fear and anxiety with me wherever I worked. The weight had dragged me down and had kept me from achieving a viable career in science.

“Why don’t you go back for your PhD?” my mother still harped at every chance. “All that education wasted!”

The panic attacks had begun in the fourth grade. The Dominican nuns had relentlessly drummed into the students of Our Savior’s School in the Bronx that the diocesan exams were of such importance that our whole lives and futures depended on us achieving high scores. That was when I started getting sick in school and running away from challenges that ignited the fire of fear. That was when I chose my boulders, great weights for a frightened little girl, whose Italian immigrant culture could not understand the depth of her problem, having no reference.

I set the book aside. Maybe, one day, I will see this Native American mound, I thought. I had promised myself in past years that I would visit the Hopi mesas, the Egyptian pyramids and Loch Ness. I knew in my heart that I never would follow through, just like so many other promises I had made to myself. In my growing sadness spawned by memories of my constant failures, I had forgotten all about my question.

The next day at the information desk, a patron’s inquiry led me to a web page that contained more images of sacred sites. The Serpent Mound flashed across my screen. “Deja serpent?” I said to myself with a chuckle.

The day after that, while shelving books on a shelf too high for me to reach, a slim tome fell and bounced off my head. Rubbing my scalp as if I could erase the sharp pain by touch alone, I bent down to pick up the open book. Looking at the pages before me, I recited, “The Serpent Mound. Brush Creek. Adams County, Ohio.” I forgot my hurt. No. Really. A sign, I thought. To anyone of Italian descent, or shamans, things that appeared to you in threes demanded your immediate attention.

As if to emphasize the significance of the moment, my nemesis breezed past me, her fixed, frozen smile radiating her victory at my recent surrender. Her life would be so much easier with a pliant employee rather than with a miscreant like me. The librarian disappeared from view like a malevolent apparition behind the other stacks.

Anger finally replaced fear, sadness, and regret. “Okay,” I said in determination. “Ohio is not too far from Arlington, Virginia. I will go and see this snake!” and returned the book to its proper place on the shelf.

I had only traveled solo one other time in my life, a weekend jaunt down to Virginia Beach to attend a program on shamanism. The drive back to Arlington in bad weather had been particularly scarey. Only sensing an unseen, protective spirit guide had given me the courage to cross a fog enshrouded bridge and endure the miles of dangerously wet pavement.

With my declaration made, I had put one foot on the path toward a serpentine mystery. The adventure was inevitable.

2 thoughts on “The Serpent Summons, an essay by Marianne G. Petrino

  1. This seems to be a straight forward account of something that changed the author’s life. But if it’s going to be shared with others, it needs to be more engaging. The last line should be imbued with trepidation and excitement At last I’m DOING something! OMG, I’m DOING something! Instead, the decision feels flat, as though it happened to someone else and an attempt to inject life is made by using the terms ‘mystery’ and ‘adventure,’ yet they only serve to highlight the lack of energy.

    Is there a way to increase tension and conflict without descending into ‘fictional’ territory? It’s a fine line, but i feel it’s one that must be trod if one is to put forward a memory that is worthy of sharing.

    • Thanks, Robyn, for your thoughts. I happen to agree with you. I jotted this entry down just to see if I could create an opening chapter for another travel memoir and to have nonfiction represented in the salon. It took me about an hour to compose. I certainly think I could punch up the paragraph that starts with the word anger and spill some vitriol with dialogue to myself. 😉 That ought too help. As long as I don’t invite a lawsuit!!

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