“Fire and Ice” Chapter Three: Serpent in the Grass

I was an abused wife as so many women are.  Read this chapter from my newest book and tell me what you think:


Serpent in the Grass

My marriage to the Navy pilot ended, and just as I was free, I became entangled with a tragic poet I met at San Diego State University.  We took graduate writing classes together, and I was repelled at first by his gruff, Lumber Jack demeanor and cruel words.  When he read my lamentation poem of England, he remarked,

“Go back to the moors and stop complaining.”

I should have listened to my first impressions.  Instead, I put on my Rescue Ranger hat and thought to save a troubled man.  Edd Williams’ parents had both been alcoholics like mine, and he had seen them abuse each other for years (mainly his father toward his mother, until she learned to fight back).  He told me once that he had welcomed Anger into his life, like a demon, shadowy and real as clouds that hover above the mountains in the night sky, beneath the stars and moonlight, ever patrolling the earth and haunting those who dwell upon it.

I battled that Anger for sixteen years.  It alienated me from my children Kristen and Ryan, who moved with their father and new stepmother to Washington, and I missed much of their teenage years.

I tried to leave him several times, before we had children and even afterward.  I packed my white pickup truck I’d gotten in my divorce from Jeff Smith and drove north from San Diego to a random hotel room that smelled of cigarette smoke.  And then I dreamed I was in a canyon, in the darkest night, and a rattlesnake coiled between me and the canyon’s distant rim.  It held position in the high, brown grass, its scales a wondrous blend of black and red and gold, and I could merely stand and see a few stars shining far above us.  I could not find a way to pass its amber, slanted eyes and open mouth with white fangs glistening.  Maybe it’s a sign, I thought.  Maybe I should stay and have Edd’s children, and he will find healing.

I should have gathered strength from God and pressed on past that serpent in the grass—at all costs, at risk of being bitten by those two white, arching fangs that would pump nerve-destroying venom through my veins.  But we never know the path before us, cannot see what risky slope it climbs or perilous descent it plunges to—until we have walked it.  I called Edd from the hotel room phone.  He said he was making a steak dinner for me and to come home.  I missed that open door to freedom, and it would not swing clear again for many years, and then I would be too weak to safely walk through it.

And Edd would hurt me more than any human.  He almost killed me.  I did not even remember that fact until I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.  It was just an old black-and-white movie, no great special effects, famous actors, or rave reviews.  It was slow and understated, realistic in its story line, well acted, and artfully directed by the Master of Suspense.  Yet none of those things kept me awake that night—only the strangling scene.

Bruno, a crazy man who couldn’t work a normal job, wanted his rich father dead.  He met a stranger on a train, a tennis star named Guy who needed a divorce from his unfaithful wife.  The wife would not cooperate, and Guy had fallen in love with a lovely girl and needed to be free.  Bruno suggested they switch murders–nothing to connect them to a stranger met randomly upon a train.  No motive.  No evidence.  No paper trail.  Guy rejected Bruno’s insane offer, but Bruno took Guy’s silver lighter engraved with initials and a tennis racket.  Bruno knew, as the newspapers had reported, where Guy’s wife lived.  He stayed on the train, getting off at her station.  He went to her house that night.

She was just leaving with two lustful boys.  They went to a carnival.  Bruno, always half in the shadows, followed them.  Music agitated the setting of carousels and merry-go-rounds.  The stark lines of black, white, and shades of gray added eeriness, as I wondered when Bruno would catch the girl and how he would kill her.  Hitchcock focused on random objects–the helm of a boat, moonlight on water, Bruno’s lurking eyes.

The odd thing was that the victim saw him.  The boys she was with did not.  She kept looking back over the stern of their boat to the vessel gliding silently behind them.  She thought the stranger at its helm seemed so intriguing.  She flirted with her own death.

Would Bruno kill her in the Tunnel of Love?  No, a false lead.  Would it be on Lover’s Island?  An ironically fitting place.  Bruno got out of his boat and hid it in the shoreline bushes.  He followed just paces behind the three partiers, who shared cigarettes and kisses.  Again the image of his eyes–black, white, gray–staring ahead, never leaving the woman’s body.  Again she glanced back and smiled at him.

The moment finally came.  The boys and she decided to play hide and seek.  Bruno saw his chance, walked close to her beneath a tree.  She tilted her face up toward him.  He asked,

“Are you Marion?”

“Yes,” she replied.  Her glasses glinted in the moonlight.

Bruno raised his hands toward her, slowly, like a prayer.  Perhaps she thought he would embrace her.  She did not move or scream.  He wrapped his hands around her throat, his strong fingers pressing on a certain spot.  She jerked a little, and her glasses fell to the grass beneath her feet.  The camera focused on their lenses–one shattered by the fall–in which was caught the black-and-white image of Bruno strangling her.

A little pressure on her vein would stop the blood from flowing.  A little more pressure on her windpipe would stop the oxygen.  A little snap could break her neck . . .

Marion fell silently to the ground.  Bruno dropped the silver cigarette lighter he took from Guy on the train.  He started to walk away, then went back, bent down, and picked it up–along with the broken glasses.

He stepped back toward his hidden boat–not hurried, not nervous.  The two boys’ voices could be heard in the background, calling Marion’s name.

“She’s over here!” one boy exclaimed as Bruno climbed in the boat and launched it away from the island.

“She’s fainted,” said the other.

Bruno turned the humming motor on and steered toward the distant dock.

“She’s dead!” yelled the first.

Bruno tied the boat to the dock, got out, and walked back toward the shadows.

I realized I had been holding my breath.  It was late; I was alone in the house.  I had to watch the rest of the movie . . .

When the film ended, I felt no relief, though the last scene showed Bruno back at the carnival, the weight of a merry-go-round crushing him.  He tried to kill Guy who refused to murder the father.  Even dying, Bruno would not admit his guilt.  The object that spoke the truth was the silver lighter, carved with initials and tennis rackets, that lay exposed in Bruno’s lifeless, open hand.

Funny how one small object can mean so much.  A lighter.  A pair of shattered glasses.  An old Hitchcock film.

You see, I was strangled.  As I watched that movie, I remembered how it felt:  the pressure on my neck, cruel fingertips digging into my skin, breath gone from my mouth, dizziness like shadows in my mind, crossing toward a final black.  My life did not flash before me; all I could think was that I needed to breathe.  I could feel his weight on me, his breath in my face, the need to scream.  I tried to push him away but could not.  My soul sent out a desperate prayer like a bird’s wings rising.

He finally let me off the bed.  I hid the purple bruises with a scarf, and my throat was sore for days.  Why did I go back to him?  Why did I let him strangle me again and again, never physically after that first time but in ways that lasted longer and reached deeper than mere skin or breath?

It’s not surprising I got cancer, later, when our son was born.  I wrote two books about all that:  the random pains, the lump I found, the surgery, the chemotherapy, the needles always in my veins.  I lost my hair and looked so pale that I might have emerged from a nuclear explosion, radiation glowing around me and spilling, atom-like in bursts like starlight from my eyes.

Yet God was there to carry me, a wounded bird within His hands.


Read the whole story here:



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