High Grass

by Carmelinda Blagg

           I’m chasing after my older sister, Shelly – I’m the sheriff, she’s the gold thief – when all of a sudden she stops cold in her tracks and I can tell by the stiff, near vertical tilt of her body that something is wrong. I catch up to her and can hear her breathing hard. She’s trying to speak but can’t and before my eyes can fix on him, I hear that sound. Shelly pointed at his raised head there among the shafts of tall, dry grass. I know this is not a good sign. I could see his forked tongue slithering in and out. It looked like a thin black wire spliced at the end. Wet and coated with its poison, it is still the image I see when I think of meanness. When you’re looking at a snake’s tongue, you believe you’re seeing an evil thing, let me tell you.

            And that rattle. Jesus Christ how that sound filled the air all around us. I couldn’t believe it. If I’d wanted to say anything (I couldn’t, my throat had dried up, just like Shelly’s) I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to hear my own words. Like a bunch of BB gun pellets rattling inside a can right up close to your ear, that’s what it was like.

            I don’t know what the Good Lord was thinking when he made snakes. No arms, no legs. They’re like some crazed, poisonous thing in a straitjacket. 

 

            I’ve lost a lot of things in my lifetime. I’ve screwed up a lot too. And I’m always amazed at the things other people say I did that I can’t remember. But this is one day that stays with me, one piece I haven’t lost. Over forty years ago, under that unmerciful West Texas sun, before everything came about as it did, mostly in the way of falling away or falling apart or drifting off.

All of it, I can assure you broken.       

So Shelly and me, we’re standing there looking at this powerhouse of sinuous evil loaded with venom and all of a sudden she starts nervously muttering. “Jesus oh Jesus Weldon,” she says. And I’m afraid she’s going to start screaming or peeing in her pants or something like that and I start to get real nervous myself.

            I can remember hearing the quick, crisp snapping of grasshoppers rubbing their legs together and from the sides of my eyes I glimpse their hopping motions in the high blades of grass. I’m sweating buckets and this has attracted a bevy of midges and gnats circling about my head eager for the wet salt of my skin. Then I feel my throat opening a bit and I whisper to Shelly to hush. She’s trembling like a shrub trying to buck a high wind.

            What a long moment. Standing there like that. A lot of things began to run through my mind. I wouldn’t say it was one of those your-whole-life-passes-in-front-of-you moments, but it was pretty close. We hadn’t lived long enough to know what regret was and I don’t remember thinking about wishing I’d done this or that. But along with the dancing of the grasshoppers and the dizzying orbits of those gnats and midges, I began seeing the unsettling images of my miserable family. First, that of our dead mother, Lily; just dark curls and that constant woeful expression she wore. Then our father, Rupert, so drunk most of the time that the dawn of any new day usually left him feeling insulted. I could see him trying to swing a fist in the air at anyone who would take it. Then of course Uncle Will and Aunt Carla, who were only marginally suitable as our guardians (a term the court used, which struck me then and strikes me still as laughable). But, as Uncle Will was fond of reminding us, they’re obliging to take custody of us was, at best, grudging. I’m thinking if we make it back, he’s likely to be pissed at our being late for supper, even if there’s a good reason for it (which as far as I’m concerned there certainly is, since I believe exhibiting stillness and patience in the presence of a creature like this snake ranks right up there with the best of them). And I fully expect he’ll have some sort of punishment on his mind. 

            There’s something about this swarm of vanquished souls rushing my thoughts that gets me riled. I don’t want to die. It’s not my time. And I know another thing too, feeling Shelly shaking beside me. I don’t want anything to happen to her.

            So something shifts inside me. I don’t know what, but I just decide we’re going to get out of there somehow. My mind suddenly feels clear, my thoughts focused. I don’t even notice the midges and gnats anymore. My hands are balled up tight and I can feel the sweat in my palms and a pulse thumping right in their centers. My ears throb so much they hurt. But I feel calm as I look down at my feet. 

            I spot a rock, there beside my left foot. A good-sized one. A very simple plan forms in my mind. Throw the rock, just easy enough and far enough, to distract the snake so we can get away. But I don’t move just yet. I’m looking at the snake, which appears to be looking straight back at us, that poisonous tongue dancing. Still, if I’m going to do what I’ve got in mind, I’ve got to start making a move.

            Slowly, I begin to crouch enough so I can pick up that rock. 

Shelly is still breathing fast as I close my hand around it. It’s a little bigger than my palm and having soaked up the sun all day, it’s hot too. I shut my eyes, count to five and throw it off to my left and start yelling run Shelly, run, now. 

            To this day, I’ve never been quite sure what actually happened next because one thing doesn’t necessarily follow another in a moment like that. All I remember are these two things: the snake rising like a whirling dervish into the air and that Shelly is absolutely not going to move no matter what I say, even though I’m yelling like the devil himself is at our heels. I realize that the rock has not landed exactly where I intended. Instead of merely distracting the snake, I’ve startled the hell out of him. And I’m not at all interested in gauging his response, let me tell you. 

            So I grab Shelly by the wrist while still yelling run, run. At first, she’s like a limp rag doll and the expression on her face is a frozen mask of terror-bleached white like a Halloween ghost. Finally, she starts moving her legs and I start pumping mine and we’re running so fast I feel like my lungs are going to explode. At some point, she breaks away from me and starts running even faster until she’s ahead of me and I can see her in a cloud of dust, her dark hair flying behind her, the “Y” of her overalls stark against her white blouse, her sunburned arms tight against her body and swinging like pendulums. 

            She’s moving uphill now towards the house and by this time the late afternoon sun is making our shadows long and deep. I finally catch up with her and as I make my way up the hill, I see that she has stopped. She is bent at the waist, hands on her knees, head down, trying to catch her breath. I catch up to her and as I try to steady my breathing, I start spitting because it feels like my lungs are full of sand. 

            “Holy Moses Weldon,” Shelly says. “What’d you do? What happened?”

            “I threw a rock. I was trying to distract him.”

            She stares at me, her eyes as hard and dry as the ground we’re standing on.  “That was brilliant.” 

I can hear the sarcasm in her voice and I don’t like it. I kick at the ground between us and a swirl of dry dust rises up.   

“We got away didn’t we?” I say. “You just stood there ogling him like you didn’t have anything better to do.”

Well, I’ve got her there. She doesn’t know what to say. She thrusts her hands in her back pockets and toes a cluster of dead weeds with her sneaker, shrugging. 

“He sure was big,” she finally says, her voice low.

“Biggest one I’ve ever seen,” I say.

Then she looks over at the house. I turn and look too, and then we look at each other.  

“Don’t say anything,” she says. “Not a word.”

“Not me.” I say, drawing a big “X” over my heart with my finger. 

            “Anyway it’s late and they’re already gonna be mad,” she says. “You know what that means.”

            “No supper,” I say. “Fine. We’ll wait till they’re in bed, then do a midnight raid on the kitchen.”

            We quietly stare at the house. As far as we’re concerned, we’d rather go just about anywhere else and to us it is just a house – just a roof with walls, not the refuge of home. That it would take a snake’s wrath to send us running toward it has to tell you something.

And then I hear her whisper: “God, I hate them. I’d rather keep a snake company.”

            I can’t help but laugh at this and I lift my arm in the direction from which we’ve just frantically fled. “Go right ahead,” I say.

This gets her to laughing and I’m glad because Shelly’s about the only thing I’ve got left in this world that hasn’t turned as ugly as that snake.   

We start down the hill together toward the house and as we’re walking along she suddenly pats me on the shoulder and thanks me, for getting us out of there. I shrug and say you’re welcome. I always feel something within me quicken when my sister actually shows kindness. It’s just not something I’m used to. 

            As we get closer to the house, I see that the carport – with its rusted and slanting corrugated tin roof – is empty. Uncle Will’s Buick is nowhere to be seen. The shadows on the front porch are deep and speak of emptiness. There are no lights on in the house and the vinyl shades have not been raised for the evening.   

            “There’s nobody here,” I say.

            “Hot dog,” Shelly says, clasping her hands together. “You know why? It’s Friday. Friday is their party night. I forgot ‘til now.”

            I remember now too. But I’m still amazed that they’ve just gone off like they don’t even care where we are. Something that Shelly appears to be absolutely delighted about. She starts running down the hill for the front porch yelling.

“C’mon, let’s go,” she says. “The place is ours.” 

We make it to the front door and she turns the knob but nothing happens. She pushes against it. “It’s locked.” Jesus Christ. They’ve locked us out? We look at each other, our eyes wide. “Let’s go round the back,” she says and off she goes with me fast behind her. I see her starting to open the screen door but as I’m coming up the steps behind her she says “Holy Moses” and I say “what now?”

            “The screen door is latched,” she says. She is really mad now. She kicks at it with the toe of her sneaker and it rattles. It’s an old wooden door and chips of already cracked white paint come off it. Then she turns to me.

“You got your pocket knife with you?”  

            I reach in the back pocket of my jeans and pull it out – this one thing my father gave me when I turned five and I like it almost better than anything else I have. 

            “You’re not gonna cut the screen are you?”

            Shelly rolls her eyes impatiently. “For crying out loud doofus, how else do you expect we’re going to get in? You want to sleep in the bushes tonight?”

            “He’ll kill us both if he finds out,” I say.

            “He won’t even notice, I promise,” she says. I give her the knife, but I don’t like this. She takes it, raises the slivered blade from its folds and places it between where the wood frame meets the screen. She starts sawing until she’s made a clean L-shaped cut along that seam. She lifts up the corner, slips her wrist through and unlatches the door. Now we’re standing in the small square space between the screen door and the door that leads to the kitchen and as Shelly puts her hand on the doorknob she closes her eyes. “Please, please open,” she whispers. Then she turns the knob.

            We’re in. The kitchen is dim and empty, slanting bars of orange sunlight run along the worn linoleum. I am suddenly so hungry I feel like I could eat half a cow. But as I look around at the stove, the small Formica dining table, the countertops, I realize there’s nothing in the way of any kind of supper that’s been left for us. 

            Shelly has stepped back towards the screen and is humming as she tucks the cut corner back into place. The next thing I know she pulls out some bread from the bread bin, grabs a big knife from the drawer and starts slicing. She cuts thick slices that fall one on top of the other. Then she pulls out some butter and strawberry jam from the refrigerator.

            “C’mon let’s eat,” she says.

            We start spreading butter and jam, lots of it, on the bread. Then she puts a hand on my shoulder, pats it lightly. “Go sit down, I’ll bring this to the table.”  I look at her. She seems so calm and suddenly so much older.

“Go on!” she says.  “What’re you waiting for?”  I go to the table, pull out a chair and sit.   

            She arranges the bread on a plate and sets that down in the center of the table.  She goes to the refrigerator again, pulls out a jar of something and brings that to the table. 

I look at its label.  “Pickles?”

            “They’re sweet pickles. Real good.” Her eyebrows dance up and down. Then she brings pours two glasses of milk, pulls out a chair with her foot and sits across from me.

            We eat. That first bite of thick bread, sweet jam and butter is like pure heaven to me. Every bone in my body is ready to sing. And then I take a swallow of cold, sweet milk and close my eyes and thank the Good Lord that the snake didn’t land on top of us and also for Shelly’s evident skills at breaking and entering. Then I open my eyes and look over at her and I see she’s also scarfing down her bread and jam and some of those sweet pickles like a rodent going after a scrap of cheese and I see her glass of milk is almost all gone.

            “Why’d they lock us out like that?” I say. “You think they just forgot?”

            She stops chewing, looks down at the table then back at me and shakes her head.  “I doubt that. That’s just the way they are.”

            For a couple of minutes we don’t say anything and the house is so quiet I can hear the refrigerator humming and some katydids are starting up their singing. Then Shelly looks at me like she’s about to say we sure showed them, didn’t we? But instead, she starts laughing and then I start laughing and we’re having a good time laughing at each other, our bellies full. 

“It’s gettin’ dark in here,” Shelly says and she gets up and flips on the light in the kitchen. She goes into the hallway and flips on that light, then the one in the living room. She takes one of Aunt Carla’s white lace doilies from the coffee table, sticks her tongue out at it and puts it on top of her head and starts whirling around like a happy swan in a water fountain. I’m following her around now, still laughing, making goofy faces at her.

            Then Shelly kicks off her sneakers and glides on her bare feet from the living room down the hallway. She stops in front of Uncle Will and Aunt Carla’s bedroom, opens the door and goes in, flips on the light. When I catch up to her I see she’s standing there with her arms crossed in front of her. The white doily is still on top of her head, though it’s slipped a little to the back of her scalp. She’s staring at their bed.

            “I bet they had sex before they went out,” she says. 

            I look at the bed. The blue chenille bedspread is almost on the floor and the sheets are rumpled and the pillows look like two limp sandbags butting up against one another.  It really looks like they just climbed out of bed and didn’t look back. Anyway, when I hear that word sex from Shelly I’m not sure what to think. I know just enough (which isn’t a whole lot) to feel as confused as I do excited, especially in terms of being able to get any picture in my mind of how Uncle Will and Aunt Carla could possibly be associated with such an act. I mean just thinking of both of them naked (which I understand you have to be if you’re going to do this) and climbing all over each other is enough to make me shudder.

            “I can smell it,” Shelly says, shaking her head. 

            “You can smell it?” 

            “Yep.  I sure can.”

I sniff the air. I can’t smell anything. I wonder. What in heaven’s name does it smell like?

            She goes over to the chest of drawers and picks up a bottle with some amber colored fluid in it, unscrews the silver cap and sniffs. She makes a face like she’s smelling sour milk. “Good God. This cologne she wears.” And she holds it up in the air and squirts it. “It’s awful!”

            A little of it wafts my way. The air in the room is already stale and warm and now it smells sickly sweet. I put my hands over my nose and mouth. I don’t want to be in here anymore. “Then quit spraying it all over the place!” I say. “Quit. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

            She twirls around, laughing and puts the cologne back on the dresser. I’m already turning to leave when she comes behind me and puts a hand on my head, patting it lightly. “You’re right. You’re way too young for this stuff.”

            I don’t like the way she says this. She makes it sound like I’m practically a baby.  And this after I’ve managed to pull off what I would consider to be a pretty daring rescue from that rattler. 

            “Leave me alone,” I say and I bolt ahead, out of the room and down the hallway.  She breaks into a run and comes after me. 

            “Remind me next time we come across a snake to just leave you standing there like the scaredy cat you are!” I yell at her. I’ve got my hands on the knob of a closet door where I’m planning to dash in and get away from her but when I turn it and push, it doesn’t open. At this point, I’m fed up with Uncle Will and Aunt Carla’s proclivity for locking doors and then I see there’s a thumb lock beneath the doorknob, so I turn it and push again and the door opens. 

            I stumble inside what turns out to be not a closet but a room almost as big as our bedroom. I hear Shelly’s footsteps and the movement of the door’s rusty hinge as she follows behind me. 

            The first thing I see, against the far wall, is a tall wooden gun case with glass doors and inside are several hunting rifles belonging to Uncle Will. Over to the right, just beyond the open door is a table, something like a desk I think, with several cardboard boxes on top and some old, yellow newspapers and dusty magazines. Beneath the table I see what looks like a small wooden bed. I think of Skeet, the old yellow lab they had who was run over last year by some high school kid driving a Pontiac too fast and I think maybe that bed had once been his back when he was a pup.

            “We’re not supposed to be in here,” Shelly whispers. “This room is off limits.  They told us that.”

            “I thought it was a closet,” I say. “Anyway why are you whispering?”

            “I don’t know,” she says out loud, shrugging. Then she starts laughing. “Cause we’re not supposed to be in here doofus.”

            Next to the gun case I see more cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another and I peek inside one. I see some old hats; a couple of ladies hats, one with feathers and some sparkle in it and a simple straw hat whose weaving has begun to come apart around the rim.  Another box holds some old framed photographs, a little wooden music box and a couple of books on poultry and cattle.

It seems to me every house has a room like this. It becomes one of those places where things put in boxes go, things no longer useful or desired, and by the time we have died and are put into the ground in our own box, we’ve already left behind boxes like these, full of those discarded bits and pieces of our lives.

            Alongside the boxes is a stainless steel clothing rack. Three suit bags hang from it, zipped up. On the floor behind the clothing rack is a row of boots: knee high rubber boots, a couple of pairs of working boots with thick soles like Uncle Will wears when he’s on the road and an old pair of cowboy boots. The floor is dusty and a grimy bare window, which sits just above the boxes, offers some fading orange streaks of what’s left of daylight. 

            “Where’s the light? I don’t see a wall switch,” says Shelly.  I can hear her but I can’t see her.

            I look up and see a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling fixture and a frayed string dangling beside it. I reach an arm up, my fingers grazing the string. I try again, this time jumping and I’m able to grab the switch and pull. It’s a dim light and I’ve startled a moth, which seems to have come out of nowhere and is now fluttering in circles around the light.

            I go over to the gun case and touch its brass door handle. I expect it will be locked so I shouldn’t even bother to turn it, but I do. To my surprise, it opens (that’s Uncle Will for you).  He’s got some real beauties – a couple of nice 12-gauge pigeon rifles and a slim looking beaut of a Daisy BB-gun. I touch the wood handle of one of the pigeon rifles and let out a whistle. 

            “Shelly, come look at these,” I say.

            “Holy Moses,” she says, but she’s not standing where I can see her. She says it again. I close the door of the gun case and turn around. She’s on her knees beneath the table. Her hand is resting on the small wooden bed.

            “You gotta see these Weldon.” 

            I come closer to where she is.  She reaches in and pulls out something – I can’t tell what it is at first – and then scurries out from beneath the table and stands up, holding it out in front of her. She holds it up high and it’s long and narrow and trails off in a stiff loop down around her feet. I recognize the tan-colored scales, the dark zigzag line running all the way down the length of its body. My spine tingles. It’s just the skin. No head and no rattle.

            “Whoa. Where’d you get that?” I say.

            “Bunch of them down here,” she says pointing to the little bed.

            I crouch under the table and look inside. I see them now. All kinds. Long strips like a drawer full of belts rolled and stacked – brown ones, gray ones, and those with that dark diamond mark. 

            I pick up one that’s dark gray with white stripes. It’s dry and smooth. The ends of the scales are stiff and rough. Beneath it I see another brown one and still other kinds below. I’m getting goose bumps on my arms looking at them. And I’m beginning to wonder more and more about Uncle Will. I mean I always figured he was crazy enough, but this is a kind of crazy that makes me wish I could watch and see how he does it. 

            “We’re living with a snake killer,” I say.

            Well, this is enough good news for my sister. She starts running in circles around the room waving the snake skin in the air like it’s some kind of banner in an Easter parade.  “Wooooooeeee,” she yells.  “Don’t make Uncle Will mad, he might skin you alive!”

            Well, I don’t happen to think she’s that funny because as far as I’m concerned, especially at this point, you never know about Uncle Will. Anyway, Shelly zips back around and squats down next to me. I’m looking at the little bed again. It’s made of pine.  The sides are high, running end to end in a straight line, but the ends are rounded with some nice curves and scallops carved on their tops, and it’s as if I can feel the trace of someone’s hand trying to make a fine and fancy thing.

            “Is that a baby’s bed?” I say.

            “Looks like it.” 

            “But they don’t have one.”

            Shelly nods. “They used to. I think. Aunt Carla was pregnant same time mama was with you.”

            “Maybe it died,” I say.  We look at each other. Then Shelly lets out a small laugh. 

“Probably,” she says. “Or maybe they just didn’t want it. I don’t remember mama saying what happened.” She paused, her finger tracing circles on the wood floor. “Maybe that’s why we get on their nerves.”

It’s a mystery to me, one I feel repeating itself over and over in this room.

“Anyway,” says Shelly, leaning forward and touching the cradle, “let’s take the snake skins and spread ‘em all out on the floor.”

            So, we set to work quietly laying them out on the dusty floor side by side. By my count, there’s eighteen of them and lined up as they are, they look like a rug woven by a blind man, but an inspired one at that. There are dark zigzags against white stripes and dots and dark diamond shapes and colors of muddy brown and gray and tan. And some places, mostly around the edges, look like they’ve been touched by a sunset. When I hold a piece of skin in my hand and raise it up to the light I can see my fingers through it. 

            When we’re done laying them out, we sit and look at them for a long, silent moment.    

            “Wow,” Shelly says at last. 

            “Yeah,” I whisper back. “What do you think he’s going to do with these?”

            Shelly shrugs. “Beats me. Maybe he’s saving up to make a pair of boots. You ever saw a pair of snakeskin boots?”

            “No. Have you?”

            She nodded. “Long time ago. I went shopping once with mother, back before she got sick. We were looking for shoes and the store had this pair of ladies snakeskin boots.  And I thought they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The shoe guy let me touch them.”  She smiled. “I’ll never forget that.”

            “How many snake skins you think it takes to make a pair of boots?” I say.

            “I don’t know,” she says. “A lot, I imagine.” 

            We stare back down at them for another long, quiet moment.

            “I wonder how he kills them,” I say.

            “Maybe he shoots them with one of those rifles of his,” she says.

            Well I can tell Shelly doesn’t know much about shooting, that’s for sure. “Nah,” I say, “there wouldn’t be anything left of the snake if he shot it. It’d explode in a million pieces.”

            “You think he cuts off their heads?” she says. Her face has a kind of soft and still anguish in it.

             “Of course. I mean, they’re not going to fall off by themselves.”

            “Oh God,” Shelly says. She covers her face with her hands. Her whole body shudders. “We better put these away.” She starts picking them up one by one. As I’m helping her, I start to realize that she’s all of a sudden getting real nervous. I guess the snake skins have spooked her. 

Anyway, after we put the skins back she tells me to go get the Elmer’s Glue. I look at her like she’s crazy, but she tells me to hush and do it and I know by the sound of her voice that she means it and this is no time to pick a fight with her. As I race around to our room, it suddenly occurs to me all the nutty things I don’t understand about Shelly – like how one minute she’s as daring as a parachutist doing tricks on the wing of an airplane. But when something spooks her she goes all out in the opposite direction and gets as nervous and agitated as someone dancing on hot coals.

As I race around to our room to get the glue, she’s already switched off the light and I hear the door to that room slamming and the turning of the thumb lock. I go to the cigar box I keep by my bed. It holds my pencils, a few crayons and the glue she wants. I can hear her running around and realize that she’s going now from room to room turning off all the lights she’d turned on earlier. 

She’s in the kitchen when I hear her hollering. “Where’s that glue doofus! Hurry up!”

“What’s this all about?” I say as I hand her the glue. She hurries past me to the kitchen door and opens it and starts squeezing glue into the corner of the screen where she cut it. She dabs it with her finger and smoothes it and then she latches the screen door and closes the kitchen door, but she doesn’t lock it. Just like it was before we broke in. She starts clearing the kitchen table and rinsing our plates, but instead of putting them in the dish rack she dries them and puts them back up in the cabinet where they were before. She wipes the countertops and wraps the bread, shaking her head as she puts it back in the bin. She returns the butter and jam and pickles to the refrigerator. It’s like watching a movie run backwards. I finally ask her what in the world has gotten into her and she just tells me that we need to be out on the front porch pretending to be asleep when Uncle Will and Aunt Carla get home.

 

**

 

 

When I think about it now, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to me that, as daring as Shelly was, she would rather ensure arousing Uncle Will and Aunt Carla’s guilt (and maybe if possible, a little pity), however short-lived, by having them discover us sleeping on the front porch because they locked us out of the house, than risk invoking their wrath at our having actually gotten into the house like a couple of cat burglars. The years had taught us a great deal in terms of balancing a daredevil streak with the cold, sobering rush of fear. The kind of fear that teaches you its usefulness but also carries the malignant spell of its weight. I don’t know if looking at those snake skins is really what scared Shelly that day – they were quite a sight to see and they certainly got my heart to beating faster – or if it was something else. Some other ghostly thing that got beneath her own skin and set her to running around the house trying to put everything back like it was. 

And it almost worked, except for that damned doily. It fell off her head when I ran from Uncle Will and Aunt Carla’s bedroom and she started after me and she forgot all about it. Then there’s the obvious fact that we’d left behind a lot less bread and jam and butter and pickles than before. And, as if that weren’t enough, in her haste, Shelly forgot to put her sneakers back on. But there we were, huddled like a couple of sleeping pups on the front porch, when they pulled up in that Buick, the high beams cutting the chilly darkness. And I remember hoping that Shelly would be right; that they had drunk enough that they’d be kind to us, maybe even amused to find us there. Well, she was at least half right. Uncle Will was pretty mad, but Aunt Carla did shush him, saying it wasn’t right for us to have been out there so long, sleeping sitting up with our backs against the door. As they ushered us inside, Aunt Carla whispering and laughing, Uncle Will grumbling that we were nothing but trouble, I was grateful our reprieve would last at least through the night.  

 

**

Not long after she turned seventeen, Shelly packed up her suitcase one early Sunday morning, came over to my bed and woke me to give me a hug and tell me she was leaving. She had already quit school before finishing her senior year and had been working in an ice cream parlor, sacking her nickels away until she could afford a bus ticket. She didn’t say where she was going. She didn’t want anyone to know and to this day I still don’t know where she is. 

“Stay away from the hooch,” she told me, “and find yourself someone nice to marry.” Those were the last things she said to me.

But this was all before I started thinking about what it meant to sin and to be sinned against and how it all seemed to fit so neatly in a house that never felt like home, where a man and a woman stumbled in the darkness as they undressed, dazed and emboldened by too much gin and dancing; where I tried that night not to hear all the ways a woman’s laugh can also sound like crying and how a man can plead with a woman; a man capable of skinning not just one poisonous snake but a lot of them, as if doing so would end all doubts about what he could do right beneath the Good Lord’s pale blue sky. 

So Shelly got away, but I stayed. Maybe she was braver than me for leaving, or maybe I was brave enough to stay. I’m not sure, but it doesn’t really matter anymore. I think she’ll come back some day because I know her, and I know how things get under a person’s skin and stay there and because I believe the place (wherever that is) she sees outside her window every day is not the same as the one she carries around inside her.

Anyway, I’ve got a nice pair of ladies snakeskin boots I had custom made from that boxful of snake skins I claimed for myself when Uncle Will and Aunt Carla passed away, so that when Shelly does come back, she’s likely not to feel as sorry. Not right away anyway.

The house is mine too now. Only these days, I call it home.


Carmelinda Blagg's fiction has previously appeared in Avatar Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Falling Star Magazine, Wanderlust Review, O Dark Thirty and the anthology Best of The Web 2009. In 2010 she received an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. She lives in Bethesda, MD where she is a member of the Writers Center.