Maeve Connor must’ve killed hundreds of rattlers in her time. The ranch was high up on the Oregon plains, nothing around for miles but rocks, mostly. She’d lived there since Bill Connor had asked her to marry him, back in ’53, and she’d thought, hell, his brother ain’t going to ask, no matter how long I wait.
Maeve and Bill moved up to the ranch and made it pay, somehow. No electricity when they moved up; no running water neither. They’d hauled up firewood, got a well dug, drunk deep on that cold mountain water. Three children had been born in that remote farmhouse, without benefit of medical attention. They lived.
Sophia, the eldest girl, turned out smart as paint. She teaches school down in Portland. Ira and Bill Junior – well, there was always work for labourers, up in those high farms. They work together now, felling trees and digging up roads; whatever people need doing. Maeve felt thankful they were all off her hands, none of them gone wrong along the way.
Since Bill died, the children had been yakking on at Maeve about how it wasn’t safe for her, staying on up in the ranch on her own. Hell, she told them. There was running water, there was a decent wood-burning stove, a generator out back and electricity. There was the pick-up, and the tractor if the roads was bad. She liked it quiet, anyways. She managed just fine.
So when Maeve saw the rattlesnake swish its way across the cinder path that June morning, she didn’t flinch. Rattlers have their place, was her firm belief, and that place was outside the picket fence. Inside, they were just askin for trouble. She went for the shovel.
This is how you kill a rattlesnake. You approach from behind; don’t let your shadow go across it. You pin it with the blade of the shovel, right behind the head. You don’t drop the shovel when it starts flailing and hissing and rattling. You crunch straight through its neck, shearing the head clean off, then you stand well back till it’s finished its death rattle. You pick up the pieces wearing gardening gloves, and sling it on the rubbish heap in the far corner of the yard.
If you’re Maeve, before you do that you cut off the rattle and hang it up to dry in the window, with all the others. It makes a shushing sound, like seeds in a dried-out pod. Maeve’s window is hung with a curtain of them, all shushing away in the breeze. As she fixed the new one in place, Maeve ran her fingers along the dried scales, hearing a music that gave her grim pleasure.
The body and the head were soon drying out in the sun, giving out a musty, unhealthy odour of snake meat. Maeve knew there were people out there, China or someplace, that ate snake. Now, you couldn’t call Maeve sentimental, but the thought gave her the shudders. Downright wrong, like it would’ve been wrong to eat the skinny cats that strolled into the yard from time to time, looking in vain for a meal.
It was unusual for Maeve not to sleep the minute she dropped into her bed. Maybe it was the moon, throwing a bright light through her rattle curtain. Maybe it was the breeze, making the rattles sound louder than normal. Maeve turned away from the window, pulled the patchwork quilt over her shoulder. The rattle curtain sounded again, a shiver of noise. It almost sounded deliberate, a shaking of maracas, rather than a random play of the wind.
It sounded again. This time, thought Maeve, eyes snapping open, the noise came from the other side of the room. Dammit, she thought, struggling upright, was there a goddam snake in the bedroom, rattling across the bare boards and the rag rugs? She fumbled with her bedside light.
And screamed. The floor was covered in writhing bodies, coiled obscenely around each other, knots and curls and coils of snakes, tawny scales rustling gently over each other. Maeve scrambled to her feet, unsteady on the lumpy mattress, holding her night dress close around her knees. She peered down at the sea of snakes. She had nothing, no weapon. The shovel was downstairs. How in hell had they…
Maeve noticed something in the morass of snake bodies. She couldn’t see a single head. She thought she caught a glimpse of severed neck, as the bodies heaved over each other. They were coiling like the dead snakes did after she’d chopped their heads off, blind, furious but essentially harmless. No heads, no fangs. No fangs, no poison. Maeve couldn’t explain what she was seeing, but she did know one thing. Snakes without their heads on might be unnerving, but they were harmless.
She stared harder. Was she sure? Really, no heads at all? She couldn’t see one, but the floor was thick with the creatures. Swallowing, Maeve thought about what she might be doing next. Could she really step into that sea of bodies, walk through it in her bare feet, bare legs, out of the door and down the stairs to her boots? Would she be able to stand the frenzied bodies lashing against her, coiling around her ankles and up her legs? The fear that the next step would bring a shooting flash of agony as fangs delivered their poison into her foot?
Maeve had got bit once, many years before; had yelled to Bill to get the truck out and drive her down to the doctor, while she tied a tourniquet tight around her arm and tried to calm the frightened children. It had hurt like hell, and her hand had ballooned like a blown-up rubber glove. It wasn’t something she wanted to repeat.
She looked again at the curtain of rattles. Had it brought them here, she wondered, wildly? All the rattles she’d cut off, sounding to call some horrible resurrection of the snakes she’d killed?
Maeve saw something roll in through the window, onto the ledge, and fall off. Another one came. This time she caught the shine of its eyes, the gleam of teeth. Below the windowsill, the snake bodies were caught in some kind of frenzy. She saw another head fall, and another. Each time, the bodies lunged towards them, and one lucky winner glided away, holding its head high. The snake heads were rolling through the window fast now, pushing their way through the curtain of rattles, plopping into the morass of coils. Somehow – she could not see how it was done – the heads were re-attaching.
There were five – six – seven – many snakes now, hissing and baring their fangs. Maeve saw the snakes alive with new purpose. They lifted their heads, turned as one and begin to mount the iron bedstead.
It was five days before Sophia made their weekly phone call, got no answer, and called her brothers to go and check on Ma. Ira phoned, shaken out of his usual phlegmatism.
‘She was in her bedroom, Soph. Looked like she’d been trying to crawl out the window or summit. All them rattlesnake rattles caught in her hair. Doc said it must’ve been a heart attack. Said he never knew anyone less likely to have one, though. And the look on her face, Soph.’ He broke off. ‘Just never seen her scared before, I guess.’