It wasn't the similarities between humans and snakes that surprised me, though, it was the crispnessthe clean, clear crispness. With the snake dead, it wasn't smelling sweet with fear, it wasn't colored with emotion. It wasn't hazy or shimmering or buzzing.
It just was.
"You didn't touch that snake, did you, girls?"
I rotated my seeing from the snake to one of those ill-referenced Indians. He stood on the Old Trail with midnightlike hair streaking down his sides. But he had these blueberry eyes.
"You an Indian?" I asked.
"That's one way to put it."
"What do you mean?" I thought of his eyes. "You a half blood?"
"Hush, Yllis." Mary Tessa tightened her grip on my hair.
"Even dead rattlesnakes can bite," the Indian-man said. "Even when they've been decapitated. Pick up that chopped-off head, and it just might bite you."
"That was sick," Tessa said, after we'd left the Indian and the rattler.
"No," I said. "It wasn't. It was beautiful."
Tessa was moving along at such speed, she nearly yanked the hair from my head when she skidded to a stop. "What did you say, Yllis?" Her startled expression contorted some, and I saw she truly was startled. "You thought that snake was beautiful? Someone killed it. You know that, right? Cut it open. Pinned it there. I mean, that's really sick. It was a rattler, but still . . ."
Coming from Tessa, that meant something. Tessa was good at sick. And cruel. And killing that snakepinning it and suchwas cruel. I'd give her that. I wouldn't have had the stomach for it. Yet it seemed to me in that moment there is a painful sort of beauty in seeing things for what they really are.
When we arrived at the cottage, Mama sat coiled on the couch, her white peasant blouse a pillow about her and her ever-present pearl necklace snug as a noose. Even standing at the door, I could smell her Primitif tainted by Noxzema. Hesiod's Theogony lay on her lap and her face hovered above the Greek dictionary she held in one hand. Mama had wanted to be a classics scholar. "But I dropped out of college in fifty-seven to get married," she'd recently told us girls. "That means Grace is a bastard," Tessa had whispered to me, which had confused me. Based on previous comments Grace had made, I'd thought Papa was the bastard. (Tessa later set me straight.)
My birthday cupcakes sat uneaten on the table. Their fingered-over frosting had grown rock hardas hard as the cupcakes themselves. Mama had used blueberries when making the batterin honor of my birthand they had turned the batter into blue soup, the burnt cupcakes into blue-gray rocks. Mama had frosted them red and white, in honor of Independence Day. We'd all tried to eat the cupcakes: a futile effort to protect Mama's feelings. But even during the singing of "Happy Birthday"before any of us had tried to take a biteI'd smelled that faint sweet scent of trepidation: the Marys' and Papa's and mine. And I'd smelled Mama's fear, tooonly hers was not faint but powerful, longing as she did to celebrate my life yet suspecting she'd failed. Again. Surprisingly, Tessa had made the best effort to look after Mama's feelings: she'd managed to dent the rock by chiseling it with her incisors.
But after meeting that snake, Tessa was in no such generous mood. "Apparently your cupcakes are better than dog food," she whispered. She motioned toward Lint, our colorless mutt, who crouched beneath the table, lopping up the shards of red, white and blue that speckled the floor. "Well, I guess that's something."
HAPPY BIRTHDAY YLISS!!! hung lopsided on the wall behind Mama, the banner speckled with poster-painted x's and o's and blobbed with what sixteen-year-old Mary Catherine insisted were fireworksalthough similar "fireworks" decorated the seat of her well-pleated shorts. Captain and Tennille spun on Mama's old phonograph, insisting love would keep us together. Grace and Mary Catherine lay stomachs flat on the floor, their knees bent, their bare feet dangling over their rears. A game of Scrabble sprawled before them like a sadistic maze: no way out.
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