talisman

 

In the overgrown tangle that was the yard behind the house, he found a nest of new-born garter snakes.  That’s how he knew it was the right house.  He used both hands to pull apart the hedge of weed and bramble and peered in at the nest, the twist of infant snake bodies like a knot of bootstrings, each with a pale yellow stripe running along its sides.  He could see the hole in the earth that was their den, a small black circle deep in the hillside.  If they hadn’t come out looking for the sun just then, he’d never have found them.  He placed his hand carefully on the ground beside the nest and stood very still, waiting.  He could hear his parents and the realtor lady coming out onto the deck, the clomp of shoes on the wood, his father asking questions in the brisk voice he used for work.  He heard, “Do you have a copy of that inspection I could look at?” and he shifted his body into the shade, made himself smaller so they wouldn’t see him there.

He felt the cool ribbon of a snake pass across his waiting hand.  His grandfather said that stillness was the way to gain trust with an animal, and so he didn’t jerk or clench.  The snakes had to know he was safe, that he wasn’t the type of boy to swing them violently into the air or…other things.  The back of his throat rounded and he swallowed quickly, remembering Josiah and the way he’d twisted the snake they’d found, smashed its head.  He blinked his eyes, concentrated on being quiet, sending the message through his arm and down into his hand that he was safe, they could trust him.  He inched his hand closer to the mass of them, let his fingers lift up the thin bodies at the edges.  The snakes shrunk and expanded, weaving and testing, accepting, pouring themselves over him as if he were a natural part of their environment, a common stone, or stick.  He felt the shiver go up his arm all the way to the top of his skull and he smiled broadly.  This was the house.  He twisted himself gently to look at it, the straight lines, the pointed peak right at the center, the white walls and the empty windows that looked like they were just waiting to hold faces, the reflection of lamps, inside them.

His mother had seen him and was coming down the steps; he watched her picking her way through the tall grass, her soft pant legs catching and releasing, gathering a confetti of seed heads.  Be quiet, please be quiet, he pleaded with his mind but he could see on her face that she already understood this.   She knelt down beside him, bringing with her the scent of vanilla, warm grass, the coffee they’d bought from a drive-through on the way here.  “What did you find?” she whispered, pulling branches back, leaning in to see around his arm.  He tented his hand, a tectonic shift that lifted the snakes and revealed his knuckles, the arch of his fingers.  She grinned, leaning back.  “A whole nest,” she said.  “That’s lucky.”  He turned his palm upright and closed the fingers before all the snakes could slip away.  When he lifted out his arm, two black ropes were twisting around his hand.  He held them out so they could watch them, the flattened triangular heads, the eyes like tiny marbles, the upcurved line of their mouths like a knowing smile.  One of the snakes explored the road of his arm, moving past his wrist and then twisting back down towards his hand, but the other stepped out into thin air, leaning itself down, reaching for the earth.  His mother extended her own hand, let it slip across.  “The people who lived here were old,” she said.  “They got too old to take care of the yard anymore.”  She had seen the poisons in the garage, the fertilizers and traps.  The man had apologized, the realtor said, he’d broken his hip, couldn’t keep it green and tidy as he used to.  She knew this shamed him, because he’d insisted that the realtor explain to them, wanted them to know the house was cared for, but she was glad of it.  The snake she held reached out into the air again, searching for the ground, and she let it go, slanting it back toward its nest.  “Snakes are a good sign,” she said, standing up and brushing at the grass seeds that clung to her.  “That means there are frogs and insects, birds.”  She breathed in.  “It’s not much to look at, but it feels right, doesn’t it?”  She put her hands on her hips and smiled down at him. He was silent, watching the snake.  He brought it towards his face, tilted so he could look into the inky eye.  Animals speak with their bodies, his Grampa had told him, and he knew the snake was speaking now, its thread of a tongue tasting the smell of him, its eye taking in his strangeness, its gaze steady and unafraid, its lithe black body calmly coiling itself into a bunched ribbon in the palm of his hand.

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