|Jul/Aug 2017 Fiction|
Claire's sister Rosie stood from the picnic table, cleared some crumbs from her purple shorts.
"Can we climb the pine tree, Mom?" she asked.
"Do whatever you want, babe, just be careful," Emily said, clearing their lunch plates.
Claire jumped up from the table to join Rosie, and the two sisters ran into the cottage, skidded around the hallway corner and into their bedroom. There, they packed two tiny backpacks with snacks and books. Rosie had some half-melted candy bars stashed in a box under the bunk beds.
After Claire, on tiptoe, reached some popcorn in the cupboard in the kitchen, and the bags were zippered, they made their way to the side yard to climb the tree. Claire started, even though Rosie was usually the first to swing her thin legs around the lowermost branch. Claire was determined to get to the top of the tree that day, though she didn't tell Rosie this.
Climbing was easy. She felt like she'd been doing it forever. But she was only seven, so it couldn't be that long, really. Still, climbing this tree was the closest thing to autopilot her young body knew. The big pine's branches were strong, and they encircled the trunk in convenient and well-spaced rings.
Claire climbed from memory until she reached a knot of branches two thirds up. Here, her stomach flipped when she felt the tree sway. The trunk had thinned, and the branches had become sticky with sap. Her hands were wet with sweat. She wiped them on her t-shirt and continued up until she reached a burl of branches near the top. She looked down—a mistake—and for a moment felt like both puking and laughing.
The trees around her were shorter than she was, so the world looked like a lawn of pine needles. The blue of the pond's waves flickered beyond the trees.
At the beginning of the summer, her father had spent an entire day putting together a wooden pier for Rosie and her to dive off of. She could see the sun bleached wood of it jutting into the pond. From this distance, she could also see it was uneven, the back legs sticking out of the water more than the front. Her mother was sitting at the end of it. One of her legs hung over the side and moved slowly back and forth through the water. A glass bottle was in her left hand. She looked small.
Claire thought of her mother's recent comment to her: "I know you baby girl. You think too much."
A five-room cabin on a pond, John and Emily had bought the cottage when Claire was just two. She had been spending the summers there ever since she could remember.
This summer had started much like the others. The whip-poor-will charted the night's minutes with its call, June bugs hurled themselves at the screen windows, pine needles found their way into everything: their hair, their bed sheets, the bar of soap they used in the outdoor shower.
Claire loved the place for its familiarity. She loved it because she couldn't move an inch without hitting a memory—like hearing the blues play over the Grundig and her parents laughter while she laid in her bunkbed at night.
She loved the cottage for its ability to stand still. Each year her father locked it up on Labor Day and when they returned nine months later, all was as it was. The only evidence of change was her and her sister's height markings on a pine door.
Later that day she was sitting in the back seat of her mother's station wagon on the way to the grocery store. Claire was nowhere near the 100 pounds you needed to have in order to sit in the front seat, so she sat in the back, trying to ignore the sticky sweat between her legs and the car's leather, waiting for the Leonard Cohen song to come on the mix tape. You couldn't skip songs back then, and it was such a hassle to guess where to fast forward to that her mother refused to do it for her. There were three more songs to wait through when the car hit a kind of bump and Emily gasped. She slammed on the brakes.
"Oh my God," Emily spun around, her dark hair swinging.
They had hit a snake. And now it was reared up with its mouth open—Claire could see it through the back window.
Claire began to cry. Rosie looked at Claire and began to cry, too.
Emily dialed a number on the car phone, and Claire's father's voice came over the speaker. "Hey, how's it going guys?"
"Oh, John," Emily said, "I ran over a snake! A very big snake!"
"Jeez, is it dead?"
"No it's... it's not dead, it's... blood is coming from its mouth. John, it's going to die, I'm sure of it. I don't think there's anything I can do."
"Emily, you need to put it out of its misery, okay?"
"Put it out of its misery," Claire repeated in her head. Misery. The animal was in pain, she thought. It was hard to tell, though. She turned in her seat once again and watched it—still reared up, its cold eyes staring. If it weren't for the blood, she wouldn't have known there was misery here. But there was blood, red like her own, streaming in ribbons out of its open mouth. She turned around again, felt dizzy.
"Oh my god, oh my god," Emily said.
John's voice came through the car's speakers again, "Just back up the car Em, run it over again."
And so that's what Emily did.
What was said before, it's not entirely true. Claire did notice change. She noticed change painfully, incredibly for a child her age. But before this summer, change had been incremental, more of a ripening. A piling up of dust and memories, a yellowing of the curtains, an increasing mustiness of the horse-hair blankets.
That evening when John came home, he was carrying a big paper bag.
"Girls! Come here!" he called. When they had settled near him, he opened the bag and pulled out the snake, all four feet of it.
"It's a hognose. Isn't it beautiful?" He asked. "I'm going to skin it so we can have it on the wall—don't want it to have died in vain, do we?"
The cottage was littered with treasures John had found on solitary walks: bird wings and dried flowers, turtle shells and owl pellets. Claire thought it fitting this snake would join them.
"I want to watch," Rosie said.
"Of course," John said. "The three of us will go down to the pond after we eat."
If Rosie had been at all upset by the snake incident, it was not apparent to Claire in any way. This did not surprise her much. Rosie was fearless. She could stare down blood and guts and strip them of their power. Claire had no such power. But she would watch anyway. She had to.
Emily came out of the kitchen where she was preparing dinner. Her eyes widened when she saw the snake.
"Oh my God, John," she said. Her eyes were wet, her hands tightened around the dishcloth she carried. "I can't believe you stopped and got that thing. Get it out of the house!"
And in fact, as if in opposition to her words, a few drops of blood fell from the snake as John tried to place it back into the paper bag. They fell and settled in imperfect circles on the painted wooden floor of the porch.
After dinner, Emily cleared the four plates and retreated to the yellow kitchen to wash dishes while the girls followed their father down the steep steps to the pond. The sun had dipped, and the water was now an icy blue. Claire wrapped a sweater around her thin shoulders.
John pulled the snake from the bag and stretched it out on a plastic cutting board he had set down on the sand near the water. It was beautiful, with rich brown and beige bands and an upturned nose Rosie said was cute.
"A real shame," John said, "it was probably one of the biggest in these woods."
The snake opened easily under John's filet knife. Claire and Rosie watched as red guts blossomed. John located the stomach and removed it.
"Let's see what this guy was eating, yeah?" He sliced it open. Inside was a tiny toad.
"Look at that," her father exclaimed. "Want to see, Claire? Hold out your hands."
Claire held out her hands, and John placed the corpse into them. It was grey and almost weightless, its legs splayed at awkward angles. She held it carefully for a moment, studying it. Then she closed her hands around its body, pursed her lips, and willed it to live again. If she could have this toad alive, she thought, things might go back to the way they were. She exhaled, transferred the toad to one hand and (seeing that it was still dead) hurled it into the pond. Rosie shrieked, angry she hadn't been able to touch it. But Claire was already up the stairs.
At the back of the house, she hid under the covers in the bunkroom. Rage, an unfamiliar feeling, bloomed from her belly. She was furious. Furious her mother had killed the snake, furious her father had made her endure a second death that day.
The door to the bedroom opened, and Claire heard her mother's uneven footsteps approaching. She pretended to sleep, afraid Emily would scold her for robbing Rosie of her turn to hold the toad.
But instead her mother sat at the edge of the bed and stroked Claire's hair. "Baby girl," she said, her breath sour, "You're doing great." She leaned down and kissed Claire on the forehead. "You're doing great."