Nothing dies like in the movies. Nothing goes that quickly or quietly.
I learned this when I was a boy, the morning my daddy killed a black snake with an ax.
I was going back to bed after taking a pee when I saw Daddy standing in the kitchen, already dressed. We locked eyes.
“You wanna see somethin’” he whispered. He held an ax in one hand, his fist tight, high on the neck. The muscles in his forearm flexed.
“Yeah,” I said, and followed him out the screen door behind the house we rented for the summer. The door spring groaned and Daddy sucked in a breath. He craned his neck to look into the sand over a patch of high, thin grass to the left of the back porch.
“You be real quiet,” he said, tapping a soiled finger to his lips. “Don’t want to spook it.”
I had no idea what he meant, but I zipped my lip all the same. I manoeuvered behind him, pivoting out and away from whatever had drawn his attention.
“Look here,” he said, and pointed to a bit of sand right against the house. At first, I didn’t see anything for the grass and leaves. I thought maybe it was a spider or a scorpion, but then why would Daddy have an ax?
“You see ‘em, don’tcha?” he was growing impatient. His eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. As the oldest, I was supposed to catch on instantly, set an example for the others.
“Yeah,” I lied, but I eased closer to find out.
“Normally you’d let it live. They kill rats and mice and you want that. Better one of these under your house than a family of vermin. But you kids’ll be playing all around here, and I can’t have it biting one of ya.”
And then I saw the long, black body against the sand. How did I miss it before? It shimmered, even in the pale light of morning, like its skin was wet.
“Could it kill us?” I asked.
“Nah, it’s just a black snake. Not poisonous. Bite wouldn’t hurt no more than this,” he said, and he pinched me hard on my upper arm.
I flinched, but the pain tapered quickly. “That’s not bad,” I said.
“Yeah, but the younguns would go crazy if they spotted this thing. The road ain’t but ten or fifteen yards in any direction. Can’t have ya run over trying to get away from it.”
With his other hand, he grabbed the ax’s dry and cracked swell-knob, preparing to swing.
“What if we tell ‘em?” I said. “If they knew to expect it … ”
“Don’t matter,” Daddy said. “Can’t stop fearin’ snakes. We don’t know why, but we’re all scared of ‘em. No one tells a horse that snakes will hurt ‘em, but the bravest stallion comes across a snake, and he’ll lose his shit, sure as anything.”
Daddy only cussed in front of me. Not even Mom got to hear it. It always made me feel closer to him.
I wanted to forestall the ax, even if I didn’t know why. But I could think of nothing more to say as Daddy pulled it back to his side, and swung it in a wide arc. The stroke cut the snake in two.
I’d learned in school that you can’t cut a snake in half and have two snakes like with some worms. It has organs same as us. Some in the front half, some in the back.
But when that snake split, it was like one black snake became two, and both were pissed off. The halves writhed around, folding over and over on themselves, and I thought they’d bite Daddy, maybe me too.
I grabbed at his shirt and hid behind him.
In the movies, killing snakes was straightforward and instant. Like Crocodile Dundee popping the neck of a King Brown. Done and done. Could’ve worn it as a belt two seconds later. Jack T. Colton from “Romancing the Stone” cleaved a Bushmaster two yards long without so much as a dying twitch from the reptile.
“It’s alright, bud. Can’t live through that. Only reflexes now. You ever pull apart a Granddaddy Long Legs?”
I shook my head. I had seen this done on the playground at school. Ian Bardo would pull off four legs from the same side and watch the spider try to get away.
“Well their legs twitch, even after they’re not attached to the spider anymore.” He demonstrated this by folding his hand down and flexing his wrist, the hand spasming like he was getting shocked by a car battery. Meanwhile the snake kept squirming, though the intensity had settled some. It made no noise, but bled into the sand, staining the tan a deep crimson.
“It’s dead?” I asked. “Just doesn’t know it yet?”
My daddy turned to me, his lips protruding and eyes skyward. “Y’know, that’s a pretty good way of puttin’ it, son.”
In the movies, sick people die the same as snakes. Good guys die at peace in their beds, a montage summing the final hours, the last seconds peppered with wise words and warm good-byes. They say their piece and death comes as neatly as turning off a light. For bad guys, death immediately follows the crack of a gun, when at last their evil plans fall to ruin. Bullets puncture vital organs as cleanly as a surgeon’s scalpel. From life to death in the time it takes the hero to rattle off a one-liner.
But when the cancer was eating Dad, it worked slow. The doctors never regarded this as a bad thing, but said stuff like: “He’s a fighter” or “Your dad’s not ready to give up.” In film, such a protracted struggle might win awards or even fill a theater, but few care to revisit movies where someone dies in due course. They want the Cliff Notes. The gist. Tell us our hero’s legacy will live on. Assure us that the bad guy’s days of hurting people are over. Either way, make it quick.
Nothing so quick about cancer. Quick compared to a long life, perhaps, but not in terms of seconds. There are plenty of those.
I sat at his bedside reading, confident that I had time. When he’d first gone from walking to wheelchair to bed-ridden, I’d girded myself for the end. I spent exhausting days lingering on his words, watching every movement. But the hours unpacked into days, the days to weeks. From hospital to hospice.
“Son,” my dad said, suddenly attentive, as if waking from a long sleep. “You remember that summer we seen the snake? The one I killed with the ax?”
His body did such a piss-poor job of filling out his pajamas, it looked fake. Like if I would have unbuttoned the shirt, I would have found gears and switches moving his limbs like an amusement park animatronic. Or maybe I’d have found someone nestled inside the giant hospital bed, controlling Dad with sticks and string. Jabba the Hutt from “Star Wars” required three people to operate. My dad would have only needed one.
“I remember.” I took his hand. It felt like modeling clay.
“You remember what you said when I cut that thing in two, but it was still all squirming around on the sand like that?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but it only came out as a whisper. I didn’t want to say it.
“You said that it was dead, it just didn’t know it yet.”
I squeezed his hand, but only a little.
“I know how he felt, that snake. Same as I’m feeling now. Dead, but I just don’t know it. I wish I did, though, ‘cause I’m through with it. All of it.” He tried to laugh, but it led to a coughing fit. The nurse came and squeezed another dropper of liquid morphine under his tongue.
She leaned down and whispered in my ear. “Just remember, he may not be making a whole lot of sense. If he says something that hurts you, it’s just the drugs talking, okay?”
I nodded and she left.
In the movies, this was the part where the camera panned out — a medium shot to show the bed and the dying man being mourned by his eldest son. The death would be quick, a simple exhale of breath, a final weeping, and then a hand over the sightless eyes of the departed to close them.
But Dad lasted another ten days. My brothers and sister came and went. Came and went. Mom and her new husband came. Uncles and aunts. Nieces and nephews. Everyone had their final hours, and then more final hours. When the time came, it was less peaceful exhale than death rattle. Less letting go than fearful, final comprehension.
And that thing with closing the eyes with a sweep of the hand? It doesn’t work.
BIO: Darren’s work has appeared in numerous publications. Recently, in the Chupacabra House horror anthology Growing Concerns in early 2014, in Darkfuse mid-2014, and in the online literary journal Fuck Fiction in August 2014.
Darren won the Lost State Scholarship for fiction in 2004 and was a finalist for the Lex Allen Prize for fiction in 2013.