I don’t have any house gods—strictly speaking that is. But I do have four garden gods and one car god. My cars have always displayed life-sized lizards on the dashboard; small, alert and attractive creatures, they have kept me company over many thousand miles. My current reptile is a Desert Grassland Whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens), mild mannered with a tendency to creep over to my side of the dash where it creates a distracting reflection in the windshield. She (it’s an all-female species, reproduction by parthenogenesis) is probably fifteen years old. Her markings blend in with the dash; passengers rarely comment on her. She is on her second car just now.
Two of the garden gods are also reptiles: small snakes. (One is a baby Yellow-Bellied Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster), the other a MadeInChinaSnake.) They’re realistic, so realistic that visitors are often startled: a tighter breathing, / And zero at the bone, as Miss Dickinson wrote. They make up for the innocuous Whiptail on the dashboard, and I must confess to a somewhat sadistic delight when people respond to them with alarm. They lie atop the cement that encases the two gate posts, so they are most clearly visible. They are the guards of our small urban courtyard; although, save for the startled guests, they are rather ineffectual. I struggle nightly in early summer with a prowling skunk whose malodorous body gives off such pungency that it wakes me. And then there are the cats who are most interested in the soft, cultivated soil of the flower beds that surround the slate courtyard floor.
Last are the other two garden gods. They are the oldest and made an entry into my life as a wedding present many years ago. They were (perhaps) Asian salad utensils, carved from some
exotic wood. I never liked them, and they were relegated to bottom drawers and backs of closets. (I suspect that the fate of many wedding gifts.) But then, years later, I thought to stick them in the garden ground. A lovely decorative detail hidden beneath fern fronds, lording it over a quiet herbal world. Years passed, and the fork and then the spoon rotted away, and they were once again retired, this time to a trug, along with trowels and garden gloves.
Over the years I began to develop a liking for these two, male and female. I mounted them on fiberglass rods and urethaned them. They are contemplative, coming perhaps from a Buddhistic world; Burma or Bali—but virtually universal save for their seemingly symbolic postures and attire. Their majesty exudes peace, and although I don’t think that they have much sway with the skunk or the cats, they reassure me and provide continuity to the garden over the years as it wanders, grows differently, and changes its color.
I hadn’t given this matter of house gods much thought until recently, perhaps prompted by my study of a Roman villa. I am neither a spiritual nor a superstitious person, but these familiars bring a feeling of stability that is not always present in my life. People have long touched an object on entering or leaving a house, expecting good fortune. So, too, I view these beings, these non-beings, as objects bringing good fortune.
“House Gods” one of 19 essays in Eric Schoonover’s collection, Telling Tales, to be published later this year.