New Voices: “Rattlesnake Valley” by Sorrel Westbrook

December 2, 2016

We’re so pleased to present “Rattlesnake Valley” by Sorrel Westbrook. In this stunning story about health and love, a father teaches his daughter to kill snakes. In the years since Joss’ accident he has become a shell of his former self, but the notion of teaching Sammy to kill snakes reanimates him. The language in this story brings the landscape and characters to life. It’s a piece you won’t soon forget. 


“It was as if, when his pelvis cracked, the steel in his bones melted and reformed all brittle and strange. He looked the same, but he had none of his old mettle.”

To kill a rattlesnake, you need a shovel. That’s what my father, Joss, told me the night before we went out into the Buttermilks. He said to me, “Don’t worry about it being that sharp. You’re not doing surgery, girl,” and laughed that kind of dry laugh that doesn’t use much air. That was in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, almost two years after Joss started walking again, and when his wife Sue was in one of her painting moods.

Our house sat in the palm of a sagebrush gulley, in between thick fingers of scrubby desert hills, at the base of blue rock mountains. On old prospecting maps, Joss told me once, it’s labeled Rattlesnake Valley. Now it’s called Desert Rose. Times change, I guess. That night, Joss taught me about rattlers. How their spines are like a perfect, delicate piece of jewelry. How the young ones are the most deadly, cause they don’t know how to control their venom. And then he laughed again and said, “Ain’t that always the way.”

That night, I didn’t think he was serious. Neither did Sue. He brought it up for the first time at dinner, after Sue mentioned that she ran over a rattler during work. Sue drove a school bus, and I was wondering how flat you can make something before it stopped being an animal and started being a stain. I was playing with an ear of corn, imagining it rolling over whole cities of people, when Joss cleared his throat and told us in his hoarse voice that his grandfather had taught him how to kill rattlesnakes.

“You have to behead them. I still have his old trowel, from back when he taught me.” Joss moved a shred of meat on his plate, delicately prodding it. His fork moved back and forth and then suddenly he let it fall with a clatter on the plate. “You know, it’s a good thing to know. How to kill a rattler. Good thing for a girl to know.” His brown eyes, too large and strangely vulnerable for a man of his size, turned to me across the table. “Sammy, how’d you like to learn?”

Sue looked over at me and nodded with a close-lipped smile. Two years before, Joss had run his truck into a tree and gone flying out the windshield. He cracked his pelvis open down the middle, like a fortune cookie. He should have died, they told us later, when he had been pinned together, and laid up clean and full of stitches in a white bed, with a white face, and crusty, sedated eyes. He had to quit his job as a sheriff’s deputy and devote himself fulltime to what Sue called, “the profession of healing.” His office was the bedroom, and Sue slept in my room. For almost nine months, I slept on the couch in the basement. The cracks in the ceiling above the couch fascinated me. I would trace them with my eyes, over and over in the darkness, until I was lulled into a deep and dreamless sleep below ground. I haven’t slept well since I left that room.

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