Issue 57: Spring 2022

The Death Doula and the Snake

We carry the slithering beast through a carnival of trees. Its paper-mâché length curves electric around my waist.

We carry the slithering beast through a carnival of trees. Its paper-mâché length curves electric around my waist. The serpentine head falls heavily across Noah’s shoulders, and its metallic eyes glare. Our Death Doula carries only a slight leather side satchel. She is lithe, walks lightly, and says we must carry the creature alone. 

In front of me, Noah tromps heavily. Most of my memories are of my lover wearing another name. Two years ago, there was no snake, no Doula of Death, no lover named Noah.


There was Naomi and me in a house that trembled from traffic.

Fresh green beans from our garden cooked in garlic and hot chilli oil.

Fantasy trilogy book club date night in the living room. 

A universe in the ice formations in each other’s hair at the hot spring.

Kissing until our lips were raw and inflamed.

Naomi’s gauzy fingers on the ukulele and my voice a sliver off-key.


Naomi’s mom died just before the solstice. 

I made grief-tempering broths of garlic onion carrots greens turmeric ginger.  

Naomi crumbled and begged me to grow us a baby like that would make us enough.

Naomi dreamt of entrapment in the belly of a serpent, the world a muffle outside a thin layer of skin. Naomi stayed out later and later and later

and one night did not come home. 

Naomi came through the door perfumed in whiskey and strangerbody.

That one night.

I resisted calling the police and instead collected newspapers and paper towel rolls from the neighbours’ recycling bins. Fuck those neighbours’ funny looks.

The all-night corner store at one am. I carried home an overpriced bag of flour held tight to my chest like a baby. I built the snake’s head, flour paste oozing between my fingers.

Naomi came through the door perfumed in whiskey and strangerbody.  

I showed off the head I made with the bulbous eyes. I named it ChangeSnake.

Naomi showered for an hour; skin burned red. We fell into each other, kissing, with tears and snot until today abandoned us on tomorrow’s doorstep.

Dawn licked at the window pane. My lover stiffened. Hard as a boy. Hard. Like I was the one who broke our promise. 

We carry our snake burden in bone-dry silence. We stumble up a steep incline and nearly drop it. But no part of it touches the ground. I pant with the labour of the climb. I’m regretting this. All of it. Hiring the Death Doula. Telling her about ChangeSnake. Deciding on this steep-ass hike. Bringing ChangeSnake outside. Some snakes should stay inside.

The morning after. 

That country song played in my head, Gone Leaving. My lover pried apart dry eyes and said, “I’m Noah.” 

“Nice to meet you.” I kissed his eyelids.

Noah said, “I’m not suicidal; I’m just dying.” 

I wanted to call a mental health line or one of our friends or his dad. He refused. I said that I would do anything. For example, give away my whole liver—anything to make him okay. 

I built the snake in the chrysalis of night. The body formed thick as a summer sausage and as wide as my arm span. If my arms were wings: that was how long.

When we first met the Death Doula, she asked about our plan with ChangeSnake. I said, “Throw it off a cliff or burn it.”

“Which would you prefer?” She asked.

“Cliff,” I said. She nodded and turned to Noah. 

“Burn and launch.” 

“Cathartic,” said the Death Doula, “but also a forest fire hazard. Perhaps picking one option is best.” 

I wanted to watch it plummet. It was my art so I should decide. But could I claim the piece as my own when I built it from the raw materials of what I had/have/will have with him? 

Noah said, “Something needs to burn.”

“Got it. Something will burn,” said the Death Doula.

At the clinic.

This cute flamey nurse named Stewart told us about hormones and how they rework a body. He said, “Testosterone is one bossy queen,” and we laughed. I wondered if that was a line he used on every patient. So what if he did? It was a good line. We learned that testosterone changes the dance of muscle and fat, the firing of the brain, the tentacles of interests, and the kick of desire. Nothing was immune. 

Noah nodded a screaming yes. 

I took detailed notes. The date of a doctor’s appointment. A reminder of a blood work requisition. A recommendation to a surgical clinic. Pros. Cons. The pros that start as cons. The cons that hide in the shadow of pros. The nurse said, “Don’t take too many notes, honey. Because every person’s experience is so different.” I scratched through the pages, pressing lightly so we could still see through if needed. 

I thought, my God, this is a tornado. Noah looked like he had jumped on the best train ever heading somewhere just right, and the wind whipped his hair, and he couldn’t jump off and roll to earth because then he would lose his nerve and go back to that feeling of dying inside.

I went with it. Ungracefully. Inelegantly. Still enraged about Whiskey Perfume. I had to forgive him because I couldn’t lose him. Noah had been my world for years and years. A hundred lifetimes, a psychic told us once. I’m pretty sure Noah believed it, too. But I’m not one for the woo woo. 

I bought the grocery store’s tallest bag of flour and worked on my snake nightly. I found enough paper supplies in neighbouring streets to build the structure before slopping on the paste. I nodded at the older man who walked through our neighbourhood the night before garbage day, collecting cans and bottles. His full cart probably got him a small bag of groceries. 

It was rhythmic, making my snake. Close to spiritual.

Rip. Dunk. Slap. Smooth. Rip. Dunk. Slap. Smooth. 

The Death Doula prances, elf-like in her steps. I ask to stop a moment. It’s hard to breathe. I feel like I’ve never climbed a mountain or even a hill. That I’ve never overcome any obstacle. I want to give up and be digested into the bed of moss that covers the forest floor. 

I’m parched. I forgot to carry water.

He wanted a falcon across his chest as soon as he healed. I said a snake would curl across those scars real nicely.

Nursing Noah.

I checked his drains and incision sites, fed him and helped him bathe. 

I moved into the spare room to give him space to heal. His moods grew roots in our bedroom. There was no air in there because my grief and rage poisoned us both. He said, “Good night, I love you” through the wall, and it shook with the reverberation of his new baritone voice. When his snore jabbed at the drywall, I was up at the snake again. 

The body crawled through the guest room.

We summit. The sky is chemical blue. The Death Doula says to put down the beast and take deep breaths. We do. Mine hurt going down, like a meal forced into a replete belly. 

The night of the solar eclipse.

I admired the prairie of Noah’s masculinized chest; his scars fattened worms. He wanted a falcon across his chest as soon as he healed. I said a snake would curl across those scars real nicely. He said, “I’m an ugly teenager.” 

I said, “Teenagers aren’t ugly, and neither are you.”

He was in the larval stage, though. No one finds a larva beautiful. No one gets a larva tattoo. He was sexy still: thickened, his fat jumping from his ass and thighs onto his belly. I jumped on top of him. 

Fucking, Noah told me he had died three times. After we each came, he explains.

One: at birth, he breathed and cried for a bit, but his lungs filled with fluid, and the doctors and nurses saved him. But it was a few minutes that he didn’t breathe that night when he was four days old. That made him prone to things like lung infections like pneumonia and colds. 

Two: his mom told him sternly that he was a girl when he was four years old. She crushed him without knowing it. An ant underfoot. 

Three: he fucked Whiskey Perfume like he was a boy and she was a girl. He watched the moment as a voyeur, knowing that his life as he knew it was done. 

I crushed my face into his chest where spiky hair sprouted and said, “You can be sorry but not sorry at all because that redheaded femme made you see Noah.” He nodded.

I got up from bed to add more length to the beast, and by the end of the night, it circled the spare bedroom twice. I wanted the air to dry the fresh flesh. To harden what was soft and moldable. I wanted something that would stay. 

I wondered how I would decorate it once it dried. Perhaps a mosaic with pieces of glass.

The Death Doula reads a blessing. It touches on many things, like growing and seasons, leaves crackling, and seeds cracking open. She tells us that when used as a verb, serpent means to wind or meander, whereas snake means to follow or move in a winding route. We have a choice to forge a new road together, she says.

I look at Noah, but he stares into the distance. When his eyes veer towards me, my gaze finds a dead tree that stands taller than those around it on the horizon.

Noah got up for work in the morning, and found me naked and covered in paste in the spare bed, the sheets destroyed.


Noah’s doctor said he needed to be on T another six months before the subsequent surgery. The wait was killing him. He forgot to ask me anything at all, like, Babe! How was your day? How are you? I couldn’t blame him for this slithering creature that needed his full attention. 

I did blame him. Wanted to shake him back to when he saw me and when I knew who stood before me.

While he grew in muscle and girth and depth of voice, I shrunk somehow. I knew I wasn’t laughing enough because it was hard to eat. Before I was a curving woman, I was becoming this tiny person. I lived in the resonance of the echo of his shadow. 

The snake made its way out of the guest room into the hallway. Noah got up for work in the morning, and found me naked and covered in paste in the spare bed, the sheets destroyed. Shaking his head, he stepped over the snake and out the door.

The Death Doula reads the letters we have each written. We both say:

Sorry. Grief made a monster of me. I want you to have the best life. I want me to have the best life. 

Even the Death Doula gets tears in her eyes which is wild because the dead and dying are her thing. She pinches the corners of our letters and pulls a lighter with a cat face on it out of her satchel. She ignites. She incites. 

She sings a slow and sweet Spanish folk song. Her voice is high and clear: a church choir voice.  

Chrysalis, et cetera.

He finally got the appointment date for the second surgery. I prepared to be his best friend, lover, and nurse. And his mother because he didn’t have one anymore. 

We fought each other to the marrow. I pasted on a smile that reminded me of the one my mom had for my dad in the half-decade before she divorced him. Pinched. Puckered. Punishing. 

Anxiety ate at my innards: the risks were high and the recovery time so long. We planned to fly and rent an Airbnb for six weeks, at least. 

I wanted to say, “Babe. You will have the exact body you need to thrive.” Or to survive? I cooed, “It’ll be okay.” But what did I know of okay

The day before flying out, at the art store nearby, an attractive androgynous person staffed the cash as I picked one of every shade of green acrylic paint. I stared perplexed at the yellows, needing to get the metallic tint right. The staff person slunk over, their pants so low I warmed. They asked if I needed help in a raspy voice. I flushed again. “I need to make the perfect pair of snake eyes.”

They pulled out a tube of cadmium orange and iridescent gold. “Mix ‘em.”

I left with my pockets packed with tubes of paint. 

I say to the Death Doula, “There is rebirth, so does that mean there is redeath?” She pauses thoughtfully, but I can’t wait. “I know there is. I’ve seen Noah do redeath.”

“Certainly, there would be. Based on my years of sitting with the dying and their families, a redeath is when such a significant part of someone dies, and they are unrecognizable to themself and everyone in their life. They must give up or undergo a rebirth.” 

I nod. I knew it. It must be true if the Death Doula says so.

Noah shakes his head at me and smiles. He’s not one for making up words. He took a Latin course in undergrad, which makes him a fundamentalist. He likes words in their pure, unabridged form.


We fucked the night before his surgery in the Airbnb. He hardened against me so fast that he felt like someone else. His stubble scraped at my face, and I liked the rash left behind. I wanted to remember this: it would be forever until we fucked again. When we did, his body would be transformed again. 

After his surgery, I changed his bandages, gave him his meds, and kept a steady stream of comedies going on the TV to distract him from the pain that made the vein in his forehead worm out. 

A few nights later, he shouted deliriously in his sleep, “Death Doula.” I turned on the light and saw he was awake and requesting a visit to a Death Doula together. He swore it could save us.

I missed home. Missed my snake project. My hands idled. I picked at a scab on my arm until I had a sore the size of a loonie. My kind body created new skin cells to cover the wound every day. Every day I picked them off and dabbed at the blood with toilet paper. 

I missed the smooth curves of my serpentine companion. 

The Death Doula invites us to the edge. For a second, I see my body plummeting. Noah and I launch it, and ChangeSnake cracks to pieces as it slams into boulders on the way down. I cry in a short orgasmic crescendo. Noah shakes dryly. When the parts of ChangeSnake settle at the bottom of the cliff near a rusted-out old car, Noah and I sigh in tandem. The Death Doula smiles, and we do too. Small, broken smiles with lips sealed and no teeth. The sky changes to an industrial grey, and Noah’s palm warms my lower back. 
We follow our Doula of death and life
                                                              raging and forgiving
                                                                 clutching and launching
                                                                      binding and freeing 
                                                                                                                            down the mountain. 


About the author

Ari Lord (they/them) is published in Malahat Review, Plenitude, Foglifter, Minola Review, and elsewhere. They were long-listed for 2022’s Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction, 2020’s CBC Short Story Prize, and nominated for Sundress Press’ Best of Net Anthology. They are finishing a novel in the Kootenays, BC, while freelance writing.