The speckled tile looked like cells under a microscope. She'd been staring at it with purpose, piecing together small constellations to distract from the searing weight of her classmates' stares. Jo's desk faced the industrial steel door, a chipped brown that crashed with all its weight into the lopsided frame of the portable. The silence sneered. She would have to talk soon.
Outside, kindergarten students kicked rocks and chased lizards up and around the baked dirt of the playground. Teachers on duty stood guard near two Joshua trees, the smooth blades jutting like sharpened pencils. The third-grade recess was still forty-five minutes away and was taking its time; Jo craved its release—to get out of the enclosed space where she was trapped beneath her teacher's hot stare. Near the swings, a small girl with lopsided bangs trophied a whiptail, howling wildly at a boy who recoiled, his face puckered into itself like a ball of paper.
Jo watched through the dusty squares of glass, remembering the first time her brother, Sam, pounced into the sagebrush between two granite boulders, pulling out a striped, squirming reptile, and pushing it nose-level to her face. She was transfixed by the scales, black and yellow dotted in perfect lines down its back, slowly blurring into blue as it neared the tip. He asked if she wanted to hold it. She nodded.
"You have to pinch it on the belly," he said, "or else it will wiggle loose."
"Do they bite?" she said.
"Nah, but their claws are pretty sharp."
She reached out, two pincer fingers latching onto its middle. It jerked, snapping its tail like a propeller. Startled, she nearly dropped it, but Sam was holding on, too.
"I'm gonna let go, you got him?" he said.
She nodded again. Her brother began to pull his arm back, then snapped his wrist away, ripping off the lizard's tail as he did. The scream was lodged in her throat, so instead of yelp and flail, the pressure made her eyes bulge. She still held the lizard, its tail now a bloodied stump. She shoved Sam with her free hand, hard.
"I'm only joshing ya," he said. "It's how they get away. If a roadrunner gets 'em from the back end, their tail breaks off, and they're free. It'll grow back."
The kindergarteners don't know about that, she thought. They don't know about escaping. Mrs. Clark's slow steps crossed the classroom. Jo gripped the wooden ruler in her desk, the metal edge at the top cutting into her palm.
"We're waiting," said Mrs. Clark, "and I've a mind to take you by the ear to Mr. Robson's office for swats—unless you'd rather we called your parents. Though in your case, I'm not sure it'd make a bit of difference."
If a kid had any sense at all, they'd take the swats. It was the unspoken rule. The principal kept a paddle on view atop his desk— delighted in the implicit threat of it—but the pain and embarrassment were manageable. Most households didn't have a paddle. But every father had a belt.
Jo's father, though, had been gone since she was two, and her mother didn't believe in swats—how can you teach a child not to hit by hitting?—but kept her unpopular idea at home. She let the school handle matters as they had since she was a kid, figuring it would encourage adaptability.
Jo finally mumbled the correct answer to the math problem on the board. Mrs. Clark's eyebrows settled back down, she waved away the air. "Took you long enough," she said. Then she turned on the worn heel of her oxford pump, and again put herself between the desk and the children. It was still early in the school year, and Jo's mother told her that she and Mrs. Clark just needed time to get used to each other, but that's not what she saw happening. When she was in that classroom, she saw only the slant-eyed threat of a thing that strikes.
Her father had studied rattlesnakes, their venom. Sam told her that Dad used to bring the snakes home in burlap sacks, keep them in the shed for the night. The shed was strictly off limits, making it all the more alluring. The neighborhood kids dared each other to hop the fence and touch it for ten seconds, twenty seconds—the length always being raised—eyes to the ground, expecting snake bite. He mostly found prairie rattlers, but sometimes brought home diamondbacks, black-tailed. Sam said Mom always knew when he found a good one. She'd say, "Well here comes that old Coyote, grinning like an idiot."
Eventually his work pulled him out east to study canebrake rattlers. He was a wanderer. The family stayed put in New Mexico, and the plan was for him to return, but Mom had her doubts. He'd been known to take "a little escape," muscling a pack up into the Sandias for days. Mom said sometimes the house, the furniture—they made him feel boxed in, predictable. That was before the bite. Sam used to brag that his daddy'd been bitten by rattlesnakes seven times, and they hadn't got him yet. Then the eighth happened, away from home and where the landscape read like Braille, and they did: they got him. Jo'd been drawn to snakes in fear and fascination ever since.
The threat of swats leaving an unpleasant aftertaste, Jo glanced at the girl whose desk was diagonal from hers, Marie. Marie had been sent for swats two days ago for kissing boys behind the tunnels near the fence. It was really only a boy, and she'd been double-dog-dared. Mrs. Clark had called her a brazen, loose-lipped girl. Jo studied Marie's face: her lips looked pretty normal, she thought. Marie met eyes with Jo knowingly, her shoulders making a small hop—just how it is.
After shuffling her way home once the final bell signaled release, Jo ate peanut butter out of a jar and went to her place in the corner of the backyard. Slinking between the cinderblock wall and the thorns of a pyracantha bush, she made her way to the hollow in the back where she'd brought all her favorites: a handful of jacks to litter across the dirt as a booby trap against brothers, a rattlesnake rattle found in the arroyo a few blocks away, and a cracked mason jar full of change she'd been collecting to buy piano music.
Jo's grandmother lived in Santa Fe, and though they rarely went to visit, Grandma always promised Jo lessons on the old, brown baby grand she'd received once as payment for a portrait. Grandma was an artist, painted mostly female nudes—"Like Georgia O'Keefe without all the metaphor," she said. She kept a chipped Navajo bowl filled with black jelly beans on the piano near the music stand. When the piano lid was propped open (and it usually was), her enormous Russian Blue slept inside on the strings, one suspicious gold eye cracked over the bowl in a dare.
She cut through the powdery dirt with her index finger making parallel lines like tightropes taut between the bush's roots. The metal lid of the mason jar slid round its glass tracks, and she emptied the coins into a pile. Jo began to hum a music box ditty, placing the coins on and between the lines, adding flags and arms across the notes, until she was certain her composition would match the airy flutter of her humming. She didn't know how to draw a treble clef, so instead made a cursive "S" at the beginning. A breeze rocked the shadows through the bushes, and Jo watched as the wind played the light across her creation, then lifted the lines and scattered them up and into the yard.
She heard Sam's bike, two aces wedged in the spokes ticking like grasshoppers. Hurrying to gather her treasures and stow them away, she stalled at the snake rattle, eyeing it suspiciously. She wrapped her shirt around her fingers and gingerly picked it up and placed it in the jar with everything else. When she went in the house, Sam was at the refrigerator drinking milk out of the carton. They speculated about the size of the wild gourds in the arroyo—wondered if they'd break a window, plug a tailpipe. These what-if conversations were always started by Sam, and never came to fruition despite his big talk. Jo was young enough that the fabricated rebellion still impressed, despite his unique brand of sister-torment. He reached over and pulled a branch of thorns out of her hair.
"What, are you pretending to be Jesus?" he said.
"You're dumb," she said, picking at a scab on her knee, doubling over to lick the trickling blood.
Sam suggested they go look for snakes; he used to go with their dad on his snake-hunts sometimes. Jo was too little to go, and knows only that they're the reason she doesn't have a dad anymore. The snakes they would likely find are rattlers, which she does her best to avoid, or bull snakes, which most people say eat rattlers and are a sure indication of their close proximity. She shook her head.
"Black widows, then?" he said, and it was decided.
Jo snatched their mom's aerosol AquaNet, stowed the metallic pink can down her pant leg, and headed into the alley with her brother.
They kicked and lifted the wooden crates and pallets, looking only for polished black and a figure-eight of red. A few minutes in Sam said, "Jackpot," and Jo knew he'd found a nest.
"Gimme the spray—I found 'em, I get to go first," he said.
She slowly gave up the can and crouched nearer the crate. Only the female brandished the tell-tale signs; the other spiders, having just come from the sac, were miniature and brown. Sam would aim for the large, black mother. He shook the can and pressed down the knob, releasing the stiffening mist. They watched as she first scurried then slowed, her motions becoming increasingly syrupy, until the hairspray hardened her into a statue. If the ants didn't clean up the products of their innocent cruelty, the alley would be littered with spider effigies: shiny, hard, and immobile.
It wasn't until a "Goddamn, sonofabitch" cut through the dry heat with the authority of a much older boy that Jo turned back to look at her brother. Sam had his left pant leg rolled up, and two tiny brown spiders were crawling across his sock. Jo's realization of the occurrence was written in horror across her face; a red mound had risen on his ankle and was spreading quickly.
"Go get Mom," he said.
"She's not home yet," Jo said.
"The neighbor then—Ms. Martinez."
Jo was frightened of Ms. Martinez. She had a slavering Rottweiler, and Jo was once awakened by a beam of light traveling across the wall of her bedroom as Ms. Martinez held a flashlight and a coffee can out in her yard, pulling strings of nightcrawlers from the ground like a phantom.
Sam was swallowing air, sweat beading his temples. Jo blinked once, looking again to his ankle, then skidded off on the hard ground, but slowed once engulfed by the linear shadows of her neighbor's fenced-in patio. There was a door-knocker in the shape of a cross. Jo lifted it and let go. She could hear the heavy panting of the Rottweiler behind the door. Then Mr. Martinez's coo to him in puppy-speak, and the squawk of hinges.
"Josephine," she said, "how big you're getting."
The rectangle of light from the door behind her made Ms. Martinez seem like an angel. Her eyes went from the dog to Ms. Martinez's expectant face, and back to the curled lip of the dog. The words inflated and lodged themselves deep inside her esophagus. She thought of the time she pet a chuckwalla at the zoo, the volunteer explaining the air sacks that allowed them to wedge themselves between boulders if a predator wanted to pull them out. Her eyes widened. Her hands rose to her neck where it felt itchy and hot.
"What's the matter?" Ms. Martinez said. "Where's your mother?"
He's going to die, Jo was certain. She imagined Sam collapsed, body at odd angles in the alley, his leg the size of a railroad tie. Looking up at Ms. Martinez's smooth, tan face, she felt the push of shapes in her throat, the force juicing tears from her eye corners. And then the scratching shuffle of feet coming up the sidewalk. Her mother.
Camille knew something was wrong, seeing Jo's expression, her place at the neighbor's doorstep: "Where's your brother?" she asked. When they rounded the house into the alley, Sam was not sprawled in crime-scene fashion like Jo had imagined, but rather was furiously spraying AquaNet in rapid circles, the neighborhood fumigating. Baby black widows aren't as potent, apparently.
"What in the name of Bugs Bunny are you doing?" Mom said, "That had better not be my hairspray, goddamnit!"
Sam, with a look of sheepish pride set the can behind a crate, then stuck his leg out. Two small red mounds protruded above his sock. "Those spiders liked to have killed me, but I took 'em on three at a time, and they couldn't take me down. I'm the human anti-venom—just like Dad."
Mom's face went from contorted in exasperation to uncreased and hollow. Jo waited with excitement for the verbal thrashing Sam would likely receive for this one (now that he survived and all). It never came. Mom turned toward the house, squeezing her arms, shrinking. The children's eyes found one another's. Sam, palms turned upward in a shrug, mouthed "Sorry."
That night Jo plunked down next to her brother, who was reading comic books on the couch. "What's that one about?" she asked.
"Conan the Barbarian?" he said. "He's this totally rad Cimmerian warrior dude. He's just discovering that he's becoming what he hates the most."
"What's a Cimmerian?"
He put down the book and exaggerated his slow turn to face her. "How long do you plan to be this annoying?" he said. Jo's shoulders deflated.
"Are you still mad that I made Mom sad?" he asked.
Hesitating, Jo traced the pattern of the cushion with her fingernail. Without looking up she said, "I thought you were going to die. You needed help, and I couldn't even talk to the neighbor by myself. It would have been all my fault." She was breathing down the sobs that threatened to break loose.
"Come on, Jo, I'm fine. Nothing happened," he said, pulling up his pant leg as proof. "Talking wouldn't be so scary if you did it more often. It's not like you're going to say anything dumber than sweaty Steve up the street, and he never shuts up." Then he socked her lightly in the shoulder and said, "Besides, if I died, you could have my room."
The next day unfolded in the usual sun-bleached fashion. Two paper sacks sat on the counter for Sam and Jo to take on their way out, their mother already halfway across town on the city bus. Lunch was always more or less the same: bruised apple, peanut butter and jelly, and a handful of crumpled chips in a grease-smeared sandwich bag. Sometimes the peanut butter was chunky or the jelly was something ridiculous like orange marmalade; on those days Jo gave her brother her sandwich in exchange for his apple—he was trying to put on weight, though seemed to be having little success. On two-apple days, Jo looked with poignant longing at the prepackaged bags of potato chips some of the other kids ate, their fingers delicately retrieving crisps shaped like actual potatoes from the foil bags.
Mrs. Clark didn't stand with the class during the "Pledge of Allegiance" that morning, which was a sure indicator that she was not to be trifled with. Jo scanned the spelling words and multiplication problems on the board ("independence," "definitely," "prudence," 78, 54, 112. Finished). Her head cocked to the left, where out the window sparrows on the electrical wires perched like beads on a necklace. Like music notes. Around her, papers started shuffling among students as they made their way to the front of the classroom and into the hands of Mrs. Clark. The teacher flicked through the top right corners of her stack, scanning names, then paused and let her scowl slope upward in a mocking grin, zeroing in on Jo. The one name absent from the stack.
The paper, only half-finished after the previous night's events, sat crumpled in the bag hanging from the back of her chair.
Her blood was pumping electricity. She tried to find comfort in the pattern of the tile, but instead of constellations, the abstract lines and dots kept forming themselves into winding webbing littered with spiders.
"You," Mrs. Clark said, "you have tried my patience to the last degree—get out your homework."
Jo didn't break her focus on the floor.
"Where is it?" she said, the octave of her voice rising.
The chatter of her classmates had stopped, silence reverberating. The blunted whomp of Jo's heartbeat pulsed in her ears. Her joints were stiffened and unresponsive, like the black widow's.
"Open your knapsack," Mrs. Clark said.
Feet shuffled, bottoms shifted in chairs. Jo opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again.
Mrs. Clark grabbed at the pack, fingers hunting the clasp. Jo countered, clutched the canvas in locked, rigid hands whose movements didn't seem her own. Mrs. Clark narrowed her eyes and whispered between her clenched teeth in a low growl only audible to Jo: "You'll do as I say, one way or another. I won't be disrespected by a stupid, dirty brat like you." Her hands, all chisel and claw, forced their way into the grip Jo had on her bag. A tangle of arms as they both struggled to possess it, small cries slipping from Jo's lips.
"Stop it," Jo said, voice wavering. "Leave me alone."
In a shift of positions, Mrs. Clark held down both of Jo's arms in one of hers. With her free hand, Mrs. Clark undid the clasp, then reached slowly into the dark recesses of the bag, her fingers trembling. The fight in her exhausted, Jo stopped moving, damp streaks shining on her face, eyes clamped shut.
After smoothing her hair back into place, Mrs. Clark flattened a piece of notebook paper she'd pulled from the sack onto Jo's desk. She looked at Jo, considering, weighing the humiliation. Then snapped the paper straight and set it in Jo's reluctant hands.
"Stand up," she said.
Jo shook her head.
Mrs. Clark grabbed beneath her arm and forced her to her feet.
"Read your homework to the class."
Eyes darting, Jo looked to the door, the window—looking to flee. She opened her mouth to begin, but a shifting weight somersaulted her insides like flailing limbs. The words on the page grew slippery and nebulous, the room felt wavy.
"Loudly," Mrs. Clark said, "yell. Scream what you wrote at the door so everyone can hear you."
When the pause felt of disobedience, Mrs. Clark grabbed Jo's face, her fingers digging into the child-flesh of her cheeks. Her neck muscles tense, Jo pulled away from Mrs. Clark's grasp, but she had a firm hold on her.
Pulling with all the force of her curled fingertips, Mrs. Clark pried open Jo's mouth. Jo tried to bite her, which only made Mrs. Clark squeeze harder. The black of Jo's eyes like shining discs, body wrestle and retreat. She reached for Jo's tongue, trying to pull it taut. The light of the room pulsed, shook and stuttered. It danced through Jo's clench-closed eyes and she started to see neon rings beating across the black of her lids, shrinking and expanding like small galaxies. Her body so rigid it distracted her from breathing, she jerked back, leaving her small, pink tongue in Mrs. Clark's palm, and fell into the rippling darkness.
She came to in an empty classroom. In a struggle to reorient herself, she reached into her mouth, relieved to feel the wet velvet of her tongue. It grew back, she thought. Peering above the windowpane, she saw her classmates out at recess. Escape still the singular thought bleating in her mind, she grabbed her pack and slipped out the door. Covered in the shade beneath the portable, she waited for a moment of clear path and turned backs, then barreled out through the gate, around the corner. She ran the entire three blocks home.
Studying her reflection in the bathroom mirror, Jo opened and shut her mouth like a carp. She thrust out her tongue: twisting, turning, making small loops. She ran her fingers over the fingernail-sized scratches like dimples on her cheeks. The thought of Mrs. Clark made her shake with anger and something else. Something that made her body curl into itself with an echoing metallic clank, an acidic twang like biting down on tin foil. She vowed never to go to school again.
The glaring sun overhead signaled lunchtime, and Jo remembered that sometimes her mom was sent home early, if business in Old Town was slow. She grabbed some cookies and a cold hot dog from the fridge and went to find somewhere else to stay until the church bell gave the all-clear. Slinking to the arroyo a few blocks away, she paused to listen to the confident song of a meadowlark, and then doubled over into silent, shaking sobs.
For a few days, Jo feigned illness and perched horizontal on the sofa, gorging on popsicles and "Tom and Jerry." It was the first time she'd been allowed to stay by herself all day, and her mother left a list of rules—Don't leave the house, don't answer the door, don't use the stove, don't eat all the peanut butter. In short, "Keep your behind on the couch and don't watch any trashy daytime talk shows, Missy." She did all this successfully, but she couldn't fake a fever, and her mom said she'd have to go back to school the next day.
Passing exactly four faded houses on her walk to school with Sam the following morning, she claimed to have forgotten her homework and urged him to go on without her. When her mother showed up around lunchtime, Jo criss-cross applesauce singing to her stuffed bears in the bedroom, they had a little chat. Despite the shame and humiliation Jo still felt about her last day in class, she said nothing to her mother about Mrs. Clark. She wasn't sure if she'd done something wrong; maybe she'd get in trouble.
That night, a plastic shopping bag striped red with "Thank You" down the front revealed a bottle of Gordon's Gin. "Grandma's coming!" Sam yelled to his sister. They erupted into questions—when would she get there, how long would she stay, is she bringing that weird guy again—until their mother swept them outside, the screen door slamming the last word on the subject.
The crunching gravel on the driveway, the clap of a car door closing, the mellifluous whistle skipping like a stone through the neighborhood: Grandma. "How're my lil' doodlebugs?" she said, scooping them to her. Sam didn't even flinch. Mom was already emptying a two-finger pour into a plastic tumbler for her mother, a spit of tonic water. They all joined her in the kitchen. Rustling around her handbag, Grandma pulled out two items and set them in her lap. "A slingshot," Sam said, glancing at his mother in his peripheral.
"Oh, Mom! You have got to be kidding," Camille said, giving her mother the drink and a look of disbelief. "Do you know what he gets into without a slingshot?"
"He's getting older, Cami," she said. "Hell, he's already the man of the house!"
Camille set out a marbled tray with cheese and crackers piled in the center, her hand on her hip in daughterly protest.
"Sam," she began, "you are absolutely not to use that on living creatures. And that includes your sister."
"And for Miss Josephine," Grandma started, changing the subject, "I've got something extra special." She carefully unfolded a square of white tissue paper and removed a ceramic turtle. Then she pressed it to her lips, moving her fingers on its feet as she softly filled it with air; a small melody whistled out with the earthy knowing of conch shells and pan flutes. Jo twitched with the urge to hold it.
"It's called an ocarina," Grandma said, "an ancient instrument. Turtles are quiet and slow to come out of their shells, but some," she paused, ruffling Jo's hair, "like this one, have beautiful things to say."
Jo ran her fingertips over the glazed shell, the porous legs and head. It had a thin leather strap so it could be worn as a necklace. She put it on. She wanted to press the cool clay to her mouth, but not here. Not with an audience. She threw a hug upon Grandma, her arms sailing in like out-of-control kites.
Over the weekend they went to the farmer's market near Camille's work downtown, stopped to listen to a mariachi band, silver discs jingling as they played. After dinner they walked the arroyo, Grandma reciting every plant along the way: that's a cholla, that's sagebrush, those are Indian paintbrushes, look here— the prickly pear fruit is almost ready. "Ready for what?" Sam asked, tossing a concerned look at his sister. "Ready to eat," Grandma said, laughing at their questions. The thought of school had been lost between cacti and the elastic notes of the mariachi trumpet. It reappeared when Jo was told to take a bath after they came in from the purple evening air.
Grandma was running a comb through Jo's hair the next morning. "I was thinking," Grandma said, "Lady Jo, since I'll be here all week, maybe you might like to come home from school to have lunches with me." She touched Jo's shoulders, turning her body to face her, "But you'd have to promise to be good—do your work, stay at school. Think you can manage?"
The rapid nodding produced might have given an adult whiplash.
"Don't tell your brother," Grandma added, getting back to work with the comb.
Having built up the impending encounter with Mrs. Clark to be one of laser eyes and meteor showers, Jo was surprised—bewildered, really—when her teacher acted as if nothing had happened. Mrs. Clark was nicer, in fact, than she'd ever been. Guilty, Jo thought. She knows she messed up and now she's acting nice so I won't tell, she told herself; Jo'd seen it a thousand times with Sam—when he chipped Jo's tooth with a brick, when he peed on the neighbor's hyacinths and the old man threatened to tell his mother. Inching up in her seat, Jo realized that maybe she hadn't done anything wrong after all. But still.
When she arrived home for lunch that first day, Grandma had chicken noodle soup and saltine crackers waiting. Jo slurped up her noodles, thankful that there wasn't orange marmalade involved. At that speed, she was left with twenty minutes before she'd have to go back to school. "How about you go get that turtle and we'll work out a melody," Grandma said, swirling around the ice at the bottom of her empty cup.
Having whistled herself hoarse with the turtle out back behind the bushes, Jo'd had plenty of practice already. But here in front of someone, she began to feel hot and twirly again. She grabbed at her stomach with one hand to calm the stirring.
"I'll go first, then you do what I do," began Grandma, plucking the turtle from Jo's stiff palm. "This is a common one—I'll teach it to you on the piano next time you visit."
Jo watched her movements on the turtle intently. The holes on the feet worked like a flute, producing a different sound when covered: left foot, left foot, right hand, right hand, left hand, left hand, right hand, and so on. Jo inhaled deeply. Her grandma smelled of juniper berries. Taking the whistle, she repeated the pattern, blowing timid, wispy breaths at first, but gradually, after a few stumbles, applying more confident force. Her grandma hummed along, swaying with her eyes shut. When she finished, Grandma clapped her hands together over her head and smiled. She motioned to the clock, and scooted Jo out with a pat on the tush. Jo raced over the blocks of sloping sidewalk back to school, whistling like a madwoman.
By Wednesday, Jo had a few short tunes in her repertoire. Sinking into the scene on the other side of the glass from her desk, she absentmindedly hummed, pressing her fingers into her leg—left foot, right hand, right hand. A kick brushed her shin and she looked across at Marie, whose eyes led her to Mrs. Clark, who stood watching Jo with a crooked expression. After a moment of pregnant silence, she said, "You're distracting your classmates," and turned without waiting for a response. When Jo met Marie's eyes again, she mock-shook her finger at her, eyebrows knit in a caricature of their teacher. Their shared giggles seemed to shrink the heavy shadow she cast over the classroom to its normal size.
Walking home for lunch, she could see her Grandma talking to the neighbor a few houses down, a newspaper in her hand. When she met her side, Grandma waved the neighbor farewell and turned to start with Jo back to the house. Ms. Martinez was just leaving when they crossed her sidewalk, and when she waved, the Rottweiler nosed out of the door and lunged in their direction, growling, his neck hair high. Jo was cement, rendered immobile behind Grandma. "Oh no you don't," Grandma said, causing Jo to reopen her eyes. "Get, get, get you big, stinkin' animal!" she continued, wapping it on the head with her newspaper. Ms. Martinez apologized profusely as she dragged her dog back by his collar, but Jo's wide eyes were still fixed in awe on her grandmother, who was already singing her way across their front yard.
That night, after much reassurance from Grandma, a concert was to follow dinner. The dishes were cleared and they all regathered around the table. The spaghetti in her stomach twisted and coiled like something trying to escape, but Grandma placed her hand on Jo's and gave an encouraging nod. Jo opened her mouth. She burped. "Oh great concert," Sam said, "the next Beethoven." Daggers from his mother and grandmother; he was glad he was out of arm's reach. Her blushing cheeks calmed. She took a sharp inhale. An exhalation of sound trickled out from the turtle. It wound out above the table, dipped and tip-toed, suspended on baited breath. When the final note popped out of existence like a bubble, they all gave Jo a hearty applause, which came to a premature stop when Sam claimed it had sounded just like a farting goat. He had some alone time in his bedroom to rethink his word choice, but Jo felt like her bones had become hollow. Weightless. "What is the song called?" her mother asked. Not knowing, Jo turned to Grandma. "Air," Grandma said. "It's called 'Air."
Sam and Jo picked through the gourds in the arroyo, looking for the biggest to carve into birdhouses. The vines pricked their hands, so Sam used a branch to lift them, while Jo peeked for the large, hard shells hidden away beneath. So far they'd found three for birdhouses and about thirty-five for slingshot fodder. They whooped as the circles burst into a shrapnel cloud of seeds and pulp against the cement wall of the spillway further off. They moved to a different patch of vines. Sam stuck in the branch and held up the tangled foliage, and that's when they heard it. The rattle. It was coiled and vibrating in warning about five feet from Jo. They both began their slow retreat, watching the rattle shaking so quickly it was a blur. It was a tangle of muscle and venom, tense and poised to strike. For all Sam's brotherly bravado, he was the first to suggest it was probably time to head home. Jo agreed. But as they were gathering their gourds, one eye on the snake, Jo's face grew wonky and wild. She loaded her shirt front with small gourds and stones and began launching them at the rattler with all her imperfect aim. "Get, get, get you dirty, stinkin' reptile!" she hollered, arm flinging in sloppy circles. The snake's rattle whirred in irritation, but as the assault continued, it finally lowered, unwound its knotted body, and slither-swerved its way over the gravelly dirt and out of view. Jo watched the empty space where it had been for a moment, then dusted off her shirtfront, and turned to leave. Sam gathered up his open jaw and fell in line behind her on the path back home.
A breeze came up, pressing their shirts, damp with sweat, to their bodies. They both stopped, soaking in the cool comfort, looking to the Sandias painted pink with the setting sun: the watermelon mountains. Jo ran with her arms outstretched, cutting slices of sky. She began to yell a jump rope chant about Cinderella dressed in yella who made a mistake and kissed a snake. She stirred up a few quail, startling them into flight, rather than their usual comical totter. Jo choked up a peal of laughter, her windpipe dilating, sputtering. She felt the twist and wriggle, the expanding flutter. Her eyes matched the gourds in size, her mouth open, waiting. Then a single desert thrush burst from her throat in a flare of wing and feather, beating down the air. Finding itself with each push forward.
Title image "Green-Glazed Turtoise" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2021.