By Margaret Combs
On the hot slab of our driveway, the 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 and dressed for worship on that cloudless, blue-lit morning in 1962, wearing a gingham sundress and pearl-white shoes. I’d 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 fingers around the handle, then stepped back.
“Aim behind the head,” he said.
The snake hissed and flared, caught between my feet and the garage. It’s dry, husked sound scraped inside my ears. Moments before, its beaded back had been stretched along a crevice in the concrete, and I’d stepped from our patio to the car, clipping its tail. Each of us, reptile and child, had flinched and reeled, wondering what 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 was meant for this moment, hoe in hand.
“Don’t dally,” he said.
I gripped the hoe’s shaft and slid one foot forward. A dry breeze fingered the edge of my dress, as if plucking it off my knees. If bitten, I knew what to do: scalpel a crosshatch over the wound; suck venom into my mouth; spit.
The full manuscript of “Mercy” will be released in North American Review’s upcoming Spring 2011 issue. Copies available for purchase July 5, 2011, at the North American Review online store >>>