“There’re snakes under the house,” my sister said. “I heard them last night.”
“You heard them?” I asked. “Doing what? Crawling around on their bellies in the dirt?”
Mary Lou chopped a couple more weeds from around the corn stalks, then looked toward the back porch where Daddy sat in the shade, drinking beer and playing poker with Mr. Doolittle and Mr. Hunter. She stopped grubbing. Through the screen of long green leaves separating us, her blue eyes met mine. “Talking,” she said. “Whispering to me. Couldn’t understand them, though.”
“You’re crazy, Mary Lou.” I whacked a sticky weed on my side of the row. Dust puffed up around the blade, settled on my bare feet. “Snakes don’t talk.”
“Yeah, they do. You just gotta listen real hard ‘cause their voices are so little.”
Snakes. Mary Lou talked about them all the time. Ever since Mama’d got bitten by that copperhead, seemed like my sister couldn’t get them squiggly things out of her head. Me, I didn’t wanna talk about them. Didn’t wanna think about them either.
Daddy had been off somewhere for days when that big old snake got hold of Mama. I’d stayed with her while Mary Lou had run to Mr. Doolittle’s house to get help, but it was so far away that by the time Mr. Doolittle got to our place with his truck, then took Mama into town to the doctor, it was too late. Mama died.
Mary Lou leaned her arms on top of the hoe handle and looked out over my head, her eyes as empty looking as the fish that Daddy brought home for supper every once in a while. “Wonder what they were saying . . .”
Sometimes Mary Lou acted weird. She didn’t scare me, though, not like Daddy did ‘cause she wasn’t mean like him.
“Mary Lou, Dora, get your asses back to work!” Daddy yelled. “Don’t want me to come out there with my belt, do you?”
Head down, I set to work with my hoe. Whack, whack, whack.
“Bastard,” Mary Lou muttered.
I had trouble going to sleep. Even with the window open, it was still hot and stuffy in Mary Lou’s and my bedroom. And I kept listening for snakes. Seemed like I lay there for hours and hours and I never heard a single snake. But I did hear Daddy.
“Mary Lou,” he whispered.
My sister didn’t answer. I knew she was pretending to be asleep. But it wouldn’t do no good. Daddy wouldn’t go away. He never did.
I felt the bed shake.
“Get up and come with me.” His voice got a little louder. “Now.”
Mary Lou left with Daddy. In a little while, she got back into bed with me. She was crying. I scooted up against her back and put my arm around her. And even though we sweated and stuck together, she didn’t tell me to go away.
“Good little gals you got there,” Mr. Doolittle said. “Just kind of took over after Emma died. Wish my gals would do half the work yours do.”
Daddy said, “Show their backsides a belt and they’ll hop to attention.”
Mr. Doolittle laughed, his gray whiskers bobbing on his chest and his big belly jiggling under his striped overalls. He made me think of Santa Claus. ‘Course, I knew there wasn’t no Santa Claus ‘cause me and Mary Lou hadn’t gotten any Christmas presents since Mama’d died. But he looked like Santa Claus if there’d been a Santa Claus. “I couldn’t whip my gals if my life depended on it. It’d plumb break my heart to see them cry.”
Daddy snorted. “Might as well get some work outta them before some other man gets them.”
“I get pleasure just having them around. That’s enough for me.”
I set the big bowl of pinto beans that Mary Lou had cooked on the table between Daddy and Mr. Doolittle. The smell tickled my nose. My belly growled.
“Where’s the cornpone?” Daddy said over my head, looking at Mary Lou.
My sister opened the oven and pulled out the pan of bread. The smell that came with it was even better than the beans. It sure would taste good with some butter spread on it while it was still warm, but me and Mary Lou couldn’t have no butter ‘cause only Daddy got butter.
Mary Lou cut the bread into squares, put it on a plate, then placed it on the table by the bowl of beans.
“Dig in,” Daddy said to Mr. Doolittle.
“Ain’t your gals gonna eat?” Mr. Doolittle asked.
“They’ll eat when we’re through.”
Everyone always said that Mary Lou was the pretty one. I didn’t know where she got her pretty from. Wasn’t from Daddy, ‘cause he was tall and skinny and dark all over. And I looked like Mama, lots of freckles and frizzy red hair, and no one’d ever said I was pretty. Sometimes I thought that an angel must’ve given Mary Lou her pretty. Where else could she have gotten hair that was as white and smooth and straight as the sheets Mama had ironed?
Cotton Top–that’s what Mama had called her. And I was Freckle Puss. To Daddy, we were always just plain Mary Lou and Dora. Unless he was mad. Then he called us all kinds of things, and all of them bad.
The springs squealed. Mary Lou got out of bed. Since Daddy wasn’t there telling her to get up, I figured she was going out behind the house to pee. I needed to pee too, so I followed her.
Instead of Mary Lou squatting with her gown hiked up, she was down on her hands and knees looking under the porch, and even though the moon was big and full and throwing off all kinds of light, it was still black-dark under there.
“What’re you doing?” I asked.
She jumped and made a squeaky sound. Her head jerked around. “Oh, you scared me, Dora.”
“Sorry.” I came closer. “What’re you looking for?”
“I’m not looking, I’m listening.” Her head dipped back down, her white hair dragging in the dirt. “The snakes . . .”
I backed up.
Mary Lou said, “Come here. See if you can understand what they’re saying.”
“Uh-uh.” I didn’t want nothing to do with snakes. I didn’t wanna swell up like a dead possum and die.
Mary Lou looked over her shoulder at me. “Come on, they won’t bother you.”
I took a step closer, then stopped.
“It’ll be okay. I’ll see they don’t hurt you none.”
And I knew she would. My big sister had always taken care of me.
I got on my knees beside her and looked under the boards. All I could see was black. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but it was still as black as the tar Daddy had slopped up on the roof when it’d leaked. “I don’t see no—”
“Shh,” Mary Lou said. “You ain’t supposed to be looking. Just listen.”
I strained my ears. Nothing. I cocked my head to one side like a dog did when it was listening real hard. Nothing. I tried closing my eyes. Still nothing. I heard rackety crickets and burping frogs and Mary Lou breathing, but no talking snakes.
“I can’t quite make out what they’re saying,” Mary Lou said. “Maybe if I get closer.”
She started forward on hands and knees. Half of her had disappeared under the porch before I realized she was gonna go look for the snakes she was hearing. I didn’t really think there were snakes under the house, but still . . .
I grabbed her ankle. “Don’t go under there, Mary Lou.”
She turned back to me. “I’ll be all right. They won’t hurt me.”
I was afraid for her. I didn’t want her to get bit and die like Mama. “Don’t go under there. You can’t see.”
She was quiet for a minute, then said, “You’re right. There might be bugs or spiders or something.”
She backed out, came out of that dark, scary place where there might be snakes.
On the Fourth of July, Mary Lou and me spent the whole day canning corn.
We picked the corn with the brown tassels, shucked it, pulled off the silk, washed it, cut the kernels off the cob, cooked it, packed it in jars, and canned it in Mama’s big pressure cooker. We had to watch the gage real close and not let the pressure get too high, or it might blow up. That was the tricky part, not letting the pressure get too high. Mary Lou had to keep moving the canner around on the wood cookstove, first to a spot where it was good and hot, then to a not-so-hot place so it could cool down a little.
It made me mad at Daddy–though I’d never tell him ‘cause he’d hit me if I said I was mad or even acted like it–that he’d go off and leave Mary Lou and me to do all the work while he went into town to watch the parade and the after-dark fireworks.
“It ain’t fair,” I said to Mary Lou after the last jar of corn had come out of the pressure canner, and we were cleaning up the kitchen.
“What’s not fair?”
“That we have to do all the work and Daddy never does nothing.”
Mary Lou looked down at me–she had to look down to see me ‘cause she was three years taller than me. Her mouth kind of twisted around, not really a smile but not a frown either.
“Life ain’t always fair, Dora. If it was, Mama’d be here now, and Daddy’d be rotting in hell.”
I guessed she was right. Mary Lou was right about most things.
When the sun went down, we went out back and sat in the grass between the house and the garden and watched the dark sky. Every once in a while, we’d see something go up and explode and rain down colored fire, but mostly we just heard rumbles and kabooms from the direction of town. After it’d quieted down, Mary Lou went into the house and brought back the yellow bar of Dial soap and two towels, and we washed up in the starlight, using water out of the rain barrel.
We wrapped old thin towels around our bare skins and went back into the house. And there was Daddy sitting at the kitchen table, a half-empty bottle of beer in front of him. “What y’all doing outside?” His black hair stuck out this’a way and that’a way and his eyes were all red. He was as drunk as a skunk.
“Washing up,” Mary Lou answered.
I scooted up against her. She sidestepped and moved in front of me.
“I can see that,” Daddy said. “Why didn’t you set the washtub up here in the kitchen like you’re supposed to?”
“Because it was too hot in here and–” Mary Lou started.
“You’re damn straight, it’s too hot in here.” Daddy’s eyes narrowed. “Thought I told you gals to get done early so the house’d be cooled off before I got home.”
Mary Lou didn’t say nothing, just bent her head. She was real mad. I could tell ‘cause her lips were clamped together and her eyes had that shiny look to them. I saw, but Daddy didn’t. All he could see was wet white hair.
“Guess I’ll have to teach you a lesson.”
Daddy stood, pushing the chair back. He unbuckled his belt and pulled it through the loops on his jeans.
He was gonna whip Mary Lou!
My belly twisted in knots.
The last time he whipped Mary Lou, he’d hit her so hard with his belt that he’d brought the blood, and she couldn’t go to school for two weeks. She couldn’t even sleep at night she’d hurt so bad.
“Turn around, girl, and lean over the table.”
I couldn’t stand for him to hurt Mary Lou like that again.
I stepped out from behind her. “It’s my fault, Daddy.”
“Hush up, Dora,” Mary Lou said. She moved me behind her, and said to Daddy, “I’m the one who–”
“Shut up, Mary Lou, and let your sister talk,” he said. “You got something to say, Dora?”
I peeked out from behind Mary Lou. I figured I’d see Daddy with his face all red and his eyes shooting those crazy sparks, but he was smiling.
“Come on out from behind your sister and let me see you.”
I eased around beside Mary Lou. She put her arm around my shoulder. Daddy squatted in front of me. He smelled like whiskey and sweat and summer dust, and it wasn’t a good smell. I swallowed back sour stuff.
“I was beginning to wonder if you could even talk.” Daddy reached out and ran his hand real slow down my arm. “Don’t have much to say, do you?”
I shook my head.
His rough hand moved up my arm, stopping where the towel was tucked in over my chest. “You’re getting to be a pretty little thing.”
Mary Lou’s fingers dug into my shoulder.
Daddy’s smile got bigger, and I didn’t like the looks of it one bit. It made me–
I pulled away from Mary Lou and ran for the back door. I barely made it outside before I gagged and the sour stuff came up my throat and out my mouth and nose. Then Mary Lou was there, putting her hand on my forehead and tilting it back the way Mama had so the puke would stop coming out my nose.
Later that night, Daddy came and got Mary Lou. When she crawled back in bed, she didn’t cry like she usually did. She shook so hard the whole bed shook too, but she didn’t cry.
I woke up from a bad dream, something about snakes. I rolled over toward Mary Lou, wanting to snuggle to her so my afraid would go away.
But she wasn’t there.
My afraid got bigger, opened up its big old mouth and swallowed me whole. I sat up in bed, my eyes searching the gray light of early morning. “Mary Lou?” My voice came out all little and sounded as scared as I felt.
I heard whispering. And something else. Coming from . . .
I rolled over to Mary Lou’s side of the bed and peeked over the edge. She lay on the floor on her belly, her face turned toward me with her ear pressed against the gray boards. Her lips moved like she was talking.
Her eyes cut up to mine. “Shh, I can barely hear.”
“Hear? Hear what?”
I was quiet like Mary Lou wanted. I kept my mouth shut and tried to hear what she was listening to, but all I heard was her saying “uh-huh” and “yeah” and “okay.”
When she slid back into the bed a few minutes later, I asked, “Who were you talking to?” Though I thought I already knew.
“The snakes,” she answered.
“What’d they say?”
“That they were sorry they killed our Mama and left us with Daddy.”
Mary Lou nudged me over onto my side and curled up around my back. “Never you mind. Go back to sleep.”
She put her arm around me. I knew Mary Lou was as crazy as a bedbug, but I still felt safe, like nothing could hurt me as long as I was with her.
The man on the radio said it was gonna get to one-hundred-and-five degrees today, said we were in the dog-days of summer. I wondered what dogs had to do with hot weather, but when I asked Mary Lou she didn’t know, and I sure wasn’t gonna ask Daddy ‘cause I didn’t like the funny way he looked at me anymore.
I stirred the pot of bubbling oatmeal and Mary Lou fried eggs, while on the radio Elvis sang about his blue suede shoes. I looked down at our four bare feet and wondered when we’d get shoes. And clothes. School started in two weeks.
The backdoor screen squeaked open. Daddy was back from the outhouse.
I kept my eyes on the plopping oats, hunched my shoulders to make myself little.
I heard him pull out a chair at the table.
Mary Lou dished ham and eggs and taters onto a plate and set it on the table next to the two pieces of buttered toast and cup of black coffee she’d put there earlier. Then she divided the oatmeal into two bowls for us. I got the spoons. We sat down across the table from Daddy.
Around a mouthful of eggs, Daddy said, “You gals best get on out in the garden before it gets any hotter.” He shoveled in a big bite of taters and ham. “Pick everything that’s nigh on to ripe. Gonna burn up anyway.”
Mary Lou and me finished our oatmeal–Lord, that ham sure smelled good–then grabbed a couple of buckets off the back porch and tromped across the dry brown grass to the garden.
We picked tomatoes, we picked beans, we picked overripe squash. And we sweated and sweated under that hot dog-days sun.
Every once in a while I’d think about going to the house and getting a drink of water, but then I’d look up and see Daddy sitting on the back porch drinking beer and watching us, and I knew he’d be mad if I stopped. So I didn’t.
I kept on picking.
The sun climbed higher in the hazy sky. The ground grew hot against the soles of my feet. My mouth dried up.
I stripped the last tomato plant of its little red tommy-toes. When I picked up the full bucket and straightened, my belly tumbled over. I saw black spots. My legs felt all weak and quivery, and when I took a step they gave out and I went down on my knees in the dirt. I tried to get up ‘cause Daddy’d be mad if he saw me, but my legs were rubber legs and wouldn’t work anymore.
“Dora!” Mary Lou’s voice.
Then she was there squatting beside me, her hands on my arms holding me up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m sick,” I said. “My tummy . . . it feels like I wanna puke.”
“You need to get out of the heat, drink some water. Come on. We’ll go to the house.” She helped me up.
I looked toward the back porch. Daddy was on his feet watching us. My heart ka-thumped.
“Daddy’ll be mad,” I said.
“He’ll whip us.”
“I won’t let him lay a hand on you.”
Most of my afraid went away. “Okay, then.” But I kept my head down ‘cause it’d probably come back if I looked at Daddy.
Mary Lou held tight to my arm as she walked me out of the garden and across the stretch of crinkly dead grass to the house.
“Why’re y’all stopping?” Daddy asked. “Appears to me y’all ain’t done yet.”
Mary Lou stopped in the shade of the house. My head still bent, I rooted up against her as close as I could get.
“Dora’s sick,” Mary Lou said. “She got too hot. She needs to rest and drink some water.”
“Is that a fact?” Daddy asked.
I saw his bare feet with their long yellow toenails step down off the porch onto the ground in front of us.
“Dora, honey, are you feeling poorly?” His voice was all syrupy-sweet. It was more scary than his mean voice.
My throat was stuck to itself. I couldn’t talk.
“She needs to cool off,” Mary Lou said. “And some water.”
“I’ll take care of her,” Daddy said. “Get your ass back out in the garden.”
My sister didn’t move.
Daddy hunkered down in front of me. “We’ll get them hot clothes off and douse you with some cool rainwater. That’ll feel good, won’t it, honey?”
My afraid came all the way back, and there was so much of it that I thought somebody else’s afraid must’ve come along with it.
“No,” Mary Lou said.
I was so surprised I raised my head.
Daddy stood back up, tall and mad. “What do you mean, no? You don’t tell me no, gal.”
“I ain’t gonna let you do to her what you did to me,” Mary Lou said.
Daddy’s face got as red as a beet. Up came his arm, and he backhanded Mary Lou, knocking her down. “Shut your goddamn mouth right now, you good-for-nothing little bitch!”
I started crying. “Daddy, please don’t hurt Mary Lou.”
He didn’t look at me, just kept on glaring at Mary Lou.
My sister got back to her feet. Blood dripped from her split bottom lip. She turned and walked out into the yard a little ways, and I thought she was going to the garden like Daddy had told her to. But instead, she bent over, picked something up, then turned back around and looked at Daddy. And Lord you could see the big hate she felt for him plain as day on her sunburned face.
“You’re a sonofabitch,” she said. “A sorry, lowdown sonofabitch.” She drew back her arm, whizzed a rock at Daddy, hitting him on the cheek. Flecks of blood sprayed out from a small gash.
Daddy started after Mary Lou. “Goddamn, you!”
Mary Lou waited until he was almost on her, then she circled him and ran to the house. She dropped down on her hands and knees and crawled up under the saggy boards.
“You come outta there right now!” Daddy yelled.
“Come and get me, chickenshit!”
“Why you . . .” He dropped and followed Mary Lou into the darkness.
I held my breath. I was scared, but at the same time, I knew . . .
Screaming. Daddy screaming. “Get ‘em off! Get ‘em off!” And hissing the likes I’d never heard before. Mad hissing. Glad hissing.
I sat down on the steps.
Daddy just kept on screaming. And it didn’t bother me, him screaming. I kind of figured it was his turn now.
After a bit, Daddy didn’t do anything but kind of moan. Then that stopped too.
Mary Lou wriggled out from under the house. She was all dirty, and her lip still bled, but she was okay.
She mounted the steps and sat down beside me. She took my hand and held it tight.
I felt as light as air. Happy.
Daddy was dead and couldn’t hurt Mary Lou or me no more.
My afraid was all gone. Dead and gone.