Chapter 11. Mercy

North American Review, Spring 2011
North American Review,
Spring 2011

[Excerpted from HAZARD: A Sister’s Flight from Family and a Broken Boy. First published in North American Review, Spring 2011]

On the hot slab of our driveway, a snake looped its sheathed muscle into a triggered pile, ready to fire. It was a small rattler, diamond-backed and delicate, its tail-tipped rattle barely larger than my toenail. I was eleven years old on that cloudless, blue-lit morning, and dressed for worship in a blue gingham sundress and pearl-button sweater. I had never seen a live viper, and I gazed down at its fluid fury, struck with wonder. My father held out a long-handled hoe, pausing long enough for me to curl my small fingers around the handle, then stepped back.

“Aim behind the head,” he said.

The snake hissed and flared. Its dry, husked sound scraped in my ears. Moments ago, its beaded back had been stretched along a crevice in the concrete when I’d stepped from our patio to the car, clipping its tail. Each of us, reptile and child, had flinched and reeled, wondering what in tarnation the other was doing there. From the far side of the yard, my father had lifted his head, dropping the hose and moving toward me as if he were meant for this moment, hoe in hand.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) coiled to strike

“Don’t dally,” he said.

My hands gripped the wooden shaft. A dry breeze fingered the edge of my dress as if plucking it off my knees and out of the way. If bitten, I knew what to do: scalpel a crosshatch over the wound, suck venom into my mouth, spit.

Days before, I’d unfolded these instructions along with a bevy of snake bite tools out across my bedspread, fingering the tiny cutting blade and suction pump. They felt clever and important—part of my new life. We’d just moved from the outskirts of Denver deeper toward the mountains, and our new home sat on a raw, unsettled tract of land tucked behind the Devil’s Backbone, a sharply crested ridge of earth shoved violently upward fifteen million years before. The neighborhood was largely untamed, vastly treeless, with stretches of prairie short grass broken by iron-stained rock formations pushing to the sky.

Though I’d always lived in the country, I knew this was a wilder place. I felt its intersecting and conflicting desires. The high-pitched cries of bobcat and coyote pierced the night outside my bedroom window where, barely a century ago, Ute and Apache hunted elk and deer. Within sight of our back patio, a natural wind-carved cave of rock reached three hundred feet skyward and once sheltered the Ute Indian Chief Colorow and his band of braves hiding out from government troops. Just beyond the road’s curve to our lot, ruins of a stagecoach stop lingered among the scrubby pines and newest crop of cheat grass.

I felt my father’s eyes on my back, urging me to act. If I hadn’t been afraid someone could die—Barbara Ann, who steadied my world, or Roddy, who couldn’t help who he was—I might have refused. I didn’t know the coiled creature at my feet would as soon slither off into the weeds than strike me. Or that I was a bulky and inedible enemy, largely a waste of hard-won venom. In that moment, I felt only the adrenalin of survival laced with a dread of snakes….

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