Once a snake tried to draw each of its discarded skins on again, all the way back to the first. The effort wasn’t easy. In fact, the pain caused by trying to squeeze into earlier measures of life’s promise was agonizing. The eagerness that had pushed the snake to shed each skin in the first place for the prospect of something new and greater felt so constraining now in hindsight. At the high point of its existence, basking in the warmth of maturity, the snake might have been assumed to be well beyond any thought of subjecting itself to this ordeal. It could have been quite content with the skin it was in, enjoying the satisfaction that came of feeling you’d realized your potential and had every right to enjoy the rewards you’d earned over time. Few would have expected it to do anything but look to the years ahead as a chance to enjoy a well-deserved rest. Had the snake possessed arms, the prospect of an early morning round of golf on fragrant sweeps of new-mown grass or afternoons devoted to the silver joys of shuffleboard could have seemed focus enough for its days from here on out. But the snake didn’t have arms, of course, and in any case it didn’t feel its life had been crowned by its current state. What ease its circumstances brought seemed more like a parody of earlier aspirations than their fulfillment. How often had it settled for a nearer goal when attaining a distant one appeared just a bit too demanding? Or accepted less when more was already within sight? The sloughed skins that could be laid end to end behind it were like a reproach that trailed away into a lost world. And that world mocked the snake with an insistence against which its present one could not shield it: had it really grown greater over the years, or simply become heavier and less supple? Haunted by a suspicion the second possibility might be closer to the truth, the snake had debated what to do through additional skin-sheddings before deciding it was now or never to show it still valued what had once inspired its younger self, more convinced than ever that simply to coil up against the certainties of old age couldn’t be the end for which it had been destined. Pulling the most recently abandoned skin back on had proved unpleasant enough, with so many scales damaged or torn off in the process, but those injuries were as nothing compared with what must be suffered with each new effort to push back the years. Or with having to endure the snide comments of acquaintances, from under-the-breath queries about its mental state to more pointed insinuations that it act its age and not make a laughingstock of itself. Still the snake persevered, driven now as much by an anxiety to escape the unspoken wish by others that it share their own settling for what they’d turned into as by its determination to find again that earlier age when the future looked both fresh and limitless. Reversing in turn each decision where slithering compromise or simply playing dead had seemed the best course, straining to reclaim all that had been sacrificed in those moments of failed nerve, the snake held to a hope that the next skin back would be the one to restore faith in itself. That never happened. The torment of the attempt only grew sharper the more the snake struggled to recover its youthful confidence. So much so that after a few skins, there was no room left for the ambitions it longed to feel again or the courage it regretted giving up. Experiences it would now never have, challenges it would never overcome, discoveries never made, dreams let fade away—at a certain point, the snake realized it was never going to recover the vision it had once held of itself when the world looked no larger than the scope of its will nor beyond its mastery. When the snake came to this recognition, it wondered whether it had in fact been a fool in thinking the years could ever be recouped once they’d been left behind. Once you’d grown out of them or decided it was inevitable you would do so, what lay ahead but a labored crawl farther and farther away from who you once thought you were? Chafing without relief within the one skin you found yourself condemned to at the last.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans