A is for ASP
When she taught Latin in high school, her students had performed an elaborate skit that ended with the death of Cleopatra, stung by an asp. The cast found every opportunity and application for the word "asp," with Milton-like s's--that soft susurrus--hissing out into the audience, held as long as possible before the final p. Twenty years later, Helena still laughed to think of where, anatomically speaking, the Latin club had located the fatal strike, but in fact, she was terrified of snakes. When she and her husband had fixed fences on the ranch, it was the one thing she found comforting: At that altitude, there were no snakes. It was never necessary, even in tall grass and weeds, to watch where they were going.
When they retired and moved south to New Mexico, the neighbors cautioned them not to water at night, a practice that brought snakes down from the desert. They were to watch for the wedge-shaped head of a rattler, and listen for the dry, warning sound. She had planted a garden in the unfamiliar soil that seemed like gumbo to her, a soil she doubted would grow anything. They built houses with this soil, hers in particular. She planted the most common flowers: marigolds and zinnias, flowers that, in the mountains, had turned black at the slightest threat of frost, that seemed to call to frost and bring it down. In New Mexico, she planted her first tomato. "Before I die," she thought, "I want to eat a ripe tomato, still warm from hanging on the vine." She wanted to grow strawberries, and peaches, fruits she could remember having taste and sweetness when she was a girl.
She tried to persuade Stan to help her dig manure into the beds around the house, to amend the heavy soil and make it friable, but it was all she could do to get him to help water. Grudgingly, he sprinkled and cut the lawn. He had started a small business and spent his days sitting in his underwear at a large, pale gray computer in his den. Piles of paper grew around him and slithered to the floor. He went for days without shaving. He was enthralled by technology, and she had to admit, he was happy. A rancher all his life, he told her, "I've seen all the dirt I ever want to see."
The tile floors aggravated Helena's arthritis to the point that there were nights she couldn't sleep. Still, she took pleasure in the coming of spring, the smooth floors remaining cool in the advancing heat. When she left the darkened house to go outside, she understood for the first time what people meant when they said, "blazing heat." The sun was such a bright assault that, as she first walked into the yard, she saw darkened images at the edge of her field of vision. They followed her back indoors, like shapes left in the air by flash bulbs.
She began to garden in the evenings, when the sun had passed behind the height of the willow trees that bounded their yard. She wore shorts and sleeveless blouses and walked among the flowers in her bare feet, pulling weeds. Large toads appeared, buried up to their eyes in the damp mud, or jumping just ahead of her as she watered. Bull frogs took up a drumming in the ditch across the road, so loud she thought, they must be the size of timpanis. She went so far as to think of stringing lights, that she might garden into the night.
As summer advanced, the heat rose up through her feet even in the evening. It forced her to stop weeding and walk indoors to cool herself. That day, she'd been thinking about the sadness of gardening. How the act itself was about waiting. She thought it was too late, for her, to plant a tree. She entered the kitchen and started for the sink. Looking down, she saw a long, green snake, so rounded and perfectso still--she thought, "It's a rubber snake; Stan is playing a trick on me." She looked more closely, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. A swift, forked tongue, like a felt tab, flicked out.
Reprinted from Any Small Thing Can Save You by Christina Adam by permission of BlueHen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Christina Adam. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
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