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.
When he started walking again, with his cracked and tilting gait, Joss was full of plans. He would get his pilot license, take water aerobics classes for his bad left hip, and go to business school part-time at the community college two towns away.
But two towns away was farther than Joss originally thought, and the classes in the town pool were full of overweight bank tellers in sausage tight one-pieces, telling him he was a darling, and just so brave. Pilot licenses were expensive, and besides, Joss was tired most of the time.
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. So that first year, he stayed at home. He grew a beard for winter, and shaved his face back to strange boyhood in the summer. And somehow it was understood that he was a changed man. Mostly, he sat on the back porch and watched the birds come and go from the old metal feeder. He would read sometimes, but more often than not, when I would come home from school, he would be staring just over the rim of his book, his eyes glassy and his hand mechanically, unconsciously rubbing his painful left hip.
He would sit there from before Sue left at five in the morning to start her bus rounds, until after she came back home around four in the afternoon. I got home before her, and sometimes I watched through the kitchen window as she walked out onto the patio, and pulled a low-backed chair up to Joss’. She had a comb in her purse, and she would hand it to him. I don’t know if they ever spoke. Joss would sit patiently as Sue untangled the rough elastic from her hair, letting it fall in a sheet of strawberry with brushstrokes of gray at her temples. He would comb it out as she sat with her back to him, and with deliberate, well-practiced strokes, he would braid it into one long plait.
When Joss taught me how to kill a rattlesnake, it was the third year since his accident, and Sue and I agreed with everything he said. He didn’t say much anymore, and when he did, the words tripped in his mouth and came out jumbled because he hadn’t spoken all day. He would offer up some ghostly, lead crystal echo of his old grand plans, and whatever it was, we would agree. It was a good idea. We would start working on it as soon as school ended.
So that night when Sue nodded at me, I nodded at Joss and he ate a mouthful of meat. And Sue and I forgot about the snakes. But Joss didn’t.
School ended, and Sue began to paint again. She painted small pictures of red-breasted robins on large canvases, and filled in the empty spaces with lilac paint, enough to make me queasy. She tried landscapes, but the gray rocks of the hills had a purple tint to them, and the mountains were fluffed against the pale sky, as if they were only so many stone feathers. Sue would laugh at herself when she finished these, and begin to sketch another tiny bird.
For me, summer was more freedom than I could use, and I stuffed empty hours in my pockets like a rich man wads up ten-dollar bills and forgets about them later. I spent most of my time in the basement where I had slept while Joss recovered, watching television. I was there when Joss came in after an uneventful dinner and told me that we were going rattlesnake hunting the next day. The stairs into the basement gave him trouble, and I strained to hear the little gasp he exhaled on each step over the hum of the television.
His ankles came into view, perfect, efficient joints. Strong and ignorant of the mess they carried. His calves came next, and I could see the little loose shudder in his left knee—as innocent as a missed dance step. His thighs though, were what betrayed him. The right one, as straight as my own, pushed ahead of his body, breaking up the air. The left one travelled in its wake, wobbling with a strange, nearly mechanical pattern. He seemed, in his lighter moments, like a wind-up soldier with a screw loose—his fast, efficient forward motion suddenly replaced by a useless whirling of one leg as the other daggered hopelessly through the air ahead of it. In his bad moments, I would look away.
“We’ll go out around two, Sammy. The sun’ll be high, and with any luck we’ll find you a big one sunning itself.” I nodded, mutely, running my hands over the carpet beneath my legs. My fingers were inches from the tip of his foot, and I wondered how much pressure it would take on that weak left knee to bring him crashing, thick and strangely soft, onto the floor.
The sun was fierce the next day, with that dry desert heat that roasts your marrow. I followed two steps behind Joss down Buttermilk Road, the long winding dirt track that led from our neighborhood out into the hot sand hills, all white granite and bitterbrush. His left foot whirled up dust behind it, which hung tense in the still air behind him. I had refused the hat that Sue offered me before we left, and my eyes were squinted to slits in the sun, my head already aching from the effort. We walked for an hour, maybe less, and dark patches grew on Joss’ blue shirt. The back of his neck was accordion flesh, wrinkled and folding in on itself over and over again. Sweat dripped down the crevices from beneath the bristling of his hairline. The desert was silent and still, like a slow burning piece of land that everyone forgets about even while the flames fight among each other, crackling and sparking.
It was off the main road, down a little track too narrow for two people to walk side by side that Joss found the first snake. It stretched across the path, soaking up sun with its impossible spine curved lazily. Joss stopped ahead of me, and I nearly hit up against his back. I can still see him make that first move, too graceful. His legs were perfect, his left hip oiled and vicious in its efficiency. One booted foot came down a half inch behind the snake’s head, treading the spine. The snake looked electrocuted. It erupted in a frenzy of useless movement, but its head was immobilized—its only weapon rendered useless by the weight of Joss’ leg. The sound of a snake’s rattle against the wide empty desert silence comes to me even now, years later, when I least expect it.
Joss’ other boot found its mark at the end of the spine, and the rattle was silenced. His hand appeared behind him, and found the worn wooden handle of his trowel in his back pocket. Without hesitation, without breath, he struck. His body jackknifed down to the dusty earth, his hand was iron around wood. The trowel struck home, in the space between spine and skull that had before been a dark secret, now open and bleeding in the sunshine.
The blood was dark, dark. And then it was dusty, another stain on the golden brown earth. I became aware of Joss’ labored breathing, harsh and dry in his throat. He stepped off the corpse. It was so small and ugly, useless and strange on the ground. With care, he stooped like an old man and picked up the body. He turned to me and smiled. He held the body out to me—it was limp with a dull glean still on heavy flesh. I stared at him, motionless.
“What? It ain’t going to bite you.”
I took it in my hands. It drooped between my palms. Joss was speaking low.
“Look, Sammy. See the skin on the ridge of the back.”
It was a bold, surprisingly simple pattern of light and dark gold. The scales were tiny, perfect ovals. They reminded me of chain mail, and I began to count them silently, knowing I would never finish. One, two, three.
“Does it look familiar?”
“It’s a map. Rattlers, they’re born under ground. They know the land better than any other creature. It’s in their skin. You see?”
His hand, so smooth from the past years of quiet life, was white against the mute gold of the snake’s body. His fingernail, an imperfect echo of the scales, traced the weaving pattern of the back.
“Here’s a hill, see? Everywhere this bastard’s been, he carries it round on his back. It’s something, isn’t it?”
Joss took the snake from me. He held it casually in his hand. With the other hand, he tossed the severed head coolly into the brush.
“Still got venom in it,” he said.
We walked, him ahead of me, his leg jolting and twisting like it always did, out of the desert and toward home. Back home, Sue was dressing for work. She worked in a restaurant in the summer time—she managed the wait staff, made schedules, and spoke to all the problem customers. Her feet hurt her all the time. Joss hefted the snake in front of her. It was more dead every second. Her eyes were wide, and she touched his forearm, telling him to lower it. Her eyes, blue and impossible to read turned to mine.
“Well, you hunters. You got one. You have fun, Sammy?”
“I’m going to hang it on the fence out back. Dry it out.”
Sue shook her head, “Joss honey, a hawk’s gonna get that thing the minute you turn your head.”
Joss smiled, wider than I could ever remember seeing.
“Well then, I won’t turn my head.”
That night, I dreamed of the snake. I saw it hanging headless on the fence, the delicate links of its spine limp and drooped over the metal. The persistent ridges of the fence pressed and tore into its soft flesh, nearly gray in death. The moon was high, like a spotlight, and I could hear hissing. It was soft, a single sound, and then it grew, magnified and morphed into something bigger than life in the empty spaces of the desert. The snakes came. They came on their stomachs, with their heads held high and keen, their soft black tongues like flames against the skin of their dead brother. They saw his skin. They read it. They understood the hills, the valleys, the desert holes where he had lived. The story of his life surrendered itself to their tongues, a tattoo waiting for its vengeance. They lapped it up, and one by one they disappeared into the blue nighttime. I saw the body of the snake. He was only scales; colorless, patternless. He had been licked clean.
The next week, Joss had to go and visit his brother who lived across the blue mountains. He left early one morning, and was gone for three days. The night before he left, he came down into the basement, one step after another, and put his soft hand against the nape of my neck.
“When I come back, we’ll go out again, yeah Sammy? Get you another rattler.” He smiled down at me, and the television turned the tight skin across his cheekbones white, the shadows of his neck blue. I said, “Yeah, sounds good.”
That night, when he was gone, Sue and I ate dinner together. She asked me about rattlesnake hunting. Asked if I liked it, and I shook my head. “Well,” she said, “your Daddy does. I’m sorry, Sammy girl, but you’re going to have to grin and bear it for a while yet.”
The next day, I went out walking after Sue left for work in the afternoon. The sun was still strong in the sky, and the late afternoon light in the valley was shimmering gold on the gray green sage and the skeleton arms of the bitterbrush. I walked only a short way, and stayed on Buttermilk road.
I wasn’t expecting a snake, but I found one. He was sunning, just like the one Joss had killed. But in every other way, he was different. He was nearly three feet long, and twice as thick as the first one. His rattle was huge, pale and smoothly terrifying. It was his back though, that told me who he was. There was gold, and deep brown, beige and a kind of sweet color, like rough sugar. They were woven in and out of one other, like fingerprint dips and whorls. They looked like cliffs, branches, blood spatters. Big Daddy, I thought. I grinned, pleased with myself. I squatted down, a yard away from him. I wanted to be closer. He saw me and began to move. He wasn’t hurried. His body moved like water across the granite sand, unthreatened and efficient. His rattle was silent. I watched him go. As I was walking back home, I thought about seeing him again, and my stomach flipped over itself.
The next two days, I looked for him. I went back to the same place, and then walked on farther. I went off the road, and combed through the brush with my eyes, looking for him. Nothing. Joss returned, tired and aching from the long days of driving. At dinner, he was quiet and ate very little. He sat on the porch afterwards, and his face had the same ashen tint it did when he was first brought home from the hospital. I thought that he had forgotten about the rattlesnakes. But he hadn’t.
We went out together the next afternoon. Joss was limping worse than he had the other day, so we went slowly, like insects in the sun. I was bored, and kicked up dust in front of me with the tips of my boots. Joss snapped at me that I was getting it in his mouth. We walked silently for twenty minutes. Joss saw the snake at the same moment I did, and we stopped together, like soldiers in a line. He reached for his trowel, and put it firmly in my limp hand. He nodded at me, gave me a quick smile. The snake was smaller even than the first one, and was tense on the ground. I willed myself to step up to it, but my feet wouldn’t move. My arm was weighted down with the trowel, and sweat stung the corners of my eyes. I knew with sudden, terrible certainty that I would not be able to do it. Joss knew it too. He grabbed for the trowel in my hand. Without thinking, I moved it out of his reach. He stumbled a bit with the false reach, and spooked the snake. The sound of the rattle shattered the air between us as the snake disappeared into the brush.
The two of us walked home, the silence electric and painful. I still clutched the trowel in my hand. I could feel the splintered wood against my palm. I knew Joss was angry, but there was nothing I could say. Nothing I wanted to say. As we topped a rise, and turned back onto Buttermilk road, we passed the spot where I had seen Big Daddy. There, in the hot sand, was a single calligraphy track of a snake’s smooth movement. He had been there.
The next few days, Joss’ limp got even worse. He spent his time on the porch, and when he spoke to me he took pains not to sound any different. Maybe he wasn’t. I heard Sue talking to him on the back porch, late in the night.
“You’re getting bad again. Does it hurt?” Sue said.
“It always hurts,” Joss said.
“You have to stop,” Sue said.
“You were right. A hawk got that little bastard.”
“Joss. All that walking. You look nearly dead. And you’re eating less,” Sue said.
“I turned my head. You told me not to,” Joss said.
“Joss, look at me.”
“Right off the fence,” he said.
“Sammy doesn’t like it. You don’t have to do it for her,” Sue said.
Joss’ voice had new iron in it, “Doesn’t matter. I hated it when my grandpa taught me. Made me sick.”
“You’ll stop?” Sue said.
Crickets were chirping in the outside my window, and the thick leafed branches of the cottonwood trees in the moonlight made patterns on my blanket. The dapples became a grid, holding me down, paralyzing me with their intricacy.
“Yes,” he said.
It was weeks later when it happened. I hadn’t gone out looking for Big Daddy since I had overheard them talking. I knew he wouldn’t want me to. Instead, I stayed in the basement during the day, and sometimes, when Sue went to work, she dropped me off at the city pool, where I would dive down deep as possible, delighting in the strange, swollen quiet of being underwater. Joss sat in his porch chair during the day, reading old novels about cowboys and the strong-hearted women who loved them. He slept in the sunlight. There was something worn about him, a cloud of exhaustion that seemed more physical than it had been before we’d gone out together on those dirt roads. He couldn’t seem to shake it.
During that time, when she wasn’t at work, Sue painted more than ever. Maybe it was because Joss wouldn’t talk to her about how he was changing. He wouldn’t talk about the fact that he fell asleep at the dinner table one night, or about the long, yellow bruise that ran from his wrist to his elbow from when he slipped in the shower. When they spoke, he would sometimes lose his words and not bother to find them, walking away with a blank look in his eyes.
Sue painted by the side of the house, in a triangle of shade cast by the roof that deepened as the day slipped by. She didn’t mind the heat. She would roll her braid around itself and pin it into a coil above her neck so that it wouldn’t be soaked with the sweat that ran down from her temples and under her jaw. I would sit behind her some days, and watch her sun spotted, heavy fingers grip the brush like a circle of round and tender teeth. Birds appeared. Their bodies came first, thick bellied, too heavy to fly. But their fat middles hid wings, folded tight against their bodies, which materialized with a long drag of the brush. The brush would keep dragging, going up at an angle to create a stiff, geometric tail.
Sue told me that she would find herself rushing through the outline of the body, creating birds that were a little lopsided, a little too fat, because she couldn’t wait to start the detailing. She would paint in the outlines of the feathers at the base of the bird, above the tail, with black. But all the other feathers were just different specks of color, one right next to another, different by one shade, two shades, of red. When she was finished, they looked as if they were preparing for flight, shimmering in the white heat of the sun.
I would sit, bent over on a stool, staring over her shoulder as she flicked the feathers onto the canvas. They were so small. The amount of paint she used to make a feather was so little that I wouldn’t even have bothered to wash it off if it had been on my face. They were more like scales than feathers. After four afternoons spent in the heat, listening to Sue murmur back and forth between her birds and me, she put her brush down gently on the edge of her easel, and tuned completely around in her chair to face me.
“Sammy, honey, you want to paint something?”
I shook my head slightly. My skull was as heavy as a melon in the heat. She smiled at me, thinking I was embarrassed.
“Come on, Sammy. I can teach you. I bet you already know a lot, watching me for so long.”
“I don’t like birds.”
Her smile grew wider.
“Just like your Daddy. You don’t have to paint a bird, you know. What do you want to paint?”
I wondered if I could ask her to paint my arms. Cover me in tiny feathers with her brush, all different shades of brown and gold. I wondered if I could ask her to lock the colors together in a pattern so complicated that no amount of looking or touching could crack it. Not even a shovel.
“I don’t wanna paint anything.”
She sighed, and the smile dropped from her eyes. Her mouth stayed strained upward as she turned back to her easel and said that was all right by her.
After that afternoon, I stopped sitting behind Sue as she painted. I would still come out and check on her birds, but I didn’t want to stay long enough for another invitation. Instead, I retreated back to the basement, back to the television. I was down there a few weeks later, when Sue was at work. My attention was lazily shifting from the screen to the ceiling and back again. An animated boy was sobbing huge, waterfall tears on the television screen. There was empty candy wrapper clenched in his fist.
Those feet, steady and ignorant, appeared at the top of the basement steps. They came down. Joss’ face was bright, his eyes still frozen in a squint from the harsh sun. He was smiling broadly. His hands were behind his back, hidden. Without warning, I felt ill. I muted the television, and looked up at him as he reached the last step.
“Hey Sammy, my girl.”
His hands appeared. In them was a monster. A huge snake, longer than his torso, drooped headless and impossible in his weak hands. The colors of the skin were already dusky with death, and I told myself I didn’t recognize them. Joss started laughing. His dry, breathless gasps were full of pure disbelief.
“Don’t tell Sue, all right? I’ve been out a few times.”
My eyes were glued to the gaping socket where the head should have been. I saw a kernel of bone in the center of the bloody flesh. The beginning of the spine. Without the head, I couldn’t tell.
“Isn’t he a huge bastard?”
It’s impossible to really tell one snake from another.
“This guy. I mean, damn!” Joss ran a thumb over the top of the skin, all colors of brown, gold, flecks of sugared flesh.
“This old man. He must have every hill in this whole goddamned valley on him. I mean, what this old man bastard snake has seen. Every rock.”
Both of us were silent. A drop of dark blood was welling at the fatal wound. I wanted to lick it.
“A perfect map.” Joss smiled once more at me, but his eyes were vague, far away. His eyes were already sitting on the back porch, trying not to turn his head, trying to protect his corpse. He turned from me, turned to walk up the stairs, out to the backyard, his hands snug around the thick body of the snake.
I couldn’t be sure.
As he turned, I saw the handle of the trowel in his back pocket. Thick, splintered wood. I stayed a step behind him, just like on the old road. He didn’t hear me. He lifted his bad leg, his left leg, with the spinning hip, with the weak knee. His broken leg. And he put it on the first stair. And my hand was on the handle of the trowel, and I slid it out of his pocket before he noticed I was there.
I saw how it might go. The blade of the trowel was thick, sturdy, bronze brown and bloody at the tip. A blunt tip. I wasn’t doing surgery, after all. He would turn to me with a question in his eyes but I would be already moving, gracefully, impossibly fast. I would bring the flat side of the blade down hard on the top of his left kneecap. There would be a sick crack as metal hit bone. He would scream.
“You want it?” Joss said. He was looking down at me, my hand still on the trowel. His face was empty and old. I knew, for the first time, that I would see him die one day. That one early morning the windows would be open and the sun would be up and Joss would be gone. I nodded, and he took the trowel from his pocket at handed it to me.
“It’s yours, Sammy. You’ll use it yourself one day. I know these things seem disgusting to you now,” he lifted the snake’s corpse vaguely and its tail hit his pants leg gently. “But — it happens somehow that other things fall away, and then you come to love them. They come to be the only thing. You understand.”
I said that I did.
Sorrel Westbrook is a writer from the high desert of Bishop, California. She recently received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been published in Bartleby Snopes, Covered in Fur, and The Harvard Review. She is working on her first novel, set in a fictional Death Valley hotel. She also writes for the New Haven news source, Daily Nutmeg.