Bee’s truck bobbed along the red dirt road, bouncing in and out of rain-carved trenches, tossing groceries to the floorboard. The house was only three miles off the main road, but the cautious rolling over rugged terrain took over half an hour. Bee rested her hands on the steering wheel, letting the truck sail itself, for the most part. She rounded the last turn and there, hiding in a cluster of oak trees, was the weathered shack that was her new home.
She’d had no love for her father while he was alive. One summer, when her mother’s drinking took their car to the beach and left it half submerged in water, she was sent to her father’s house in East Texas. He greeted her with a handshake, gave her a tour of his home, which had more rooms than she could imagine uses for, and told her he would be in Europe for the next two months on business. At the summer’s end, he sent a plane ticket and a taxi to the airport.
That was their entire relationship, until the papers came in the mail.
She pinned them to her bedroom wall, stared at them while she sipped her morning coffee. Once or twice she even woke in the middle of the night to make sure they were still there, flapping like a large, notarized moth in the breeze of the oscillating fan.
What the papers said, in complicated, litigious prose, was that her father died and, in his last days, had decided to will to her, his estranged offspring, a plot of land on the opposite side of the country. The current market value for such a sizeable piece of property was somewhere above $300,000. All she had to do was sign on the dotted line and the lawyers would happily send her a check for the value.
It had been a Whine and Cheese night, when she’d decided to leave. Whenever her roommate, Devin, survived some small, personal crisis, he rewarded himself with cheap red wine and Cheez-its. Bee would drink and nod along to rants about rude customers and casual bomb threats toward his cell phone service provider. On this night, after his impotent rage burned itself out, he filled his mouth with merlot and took out his cigarettes.
“I don’t know how much longer I can stand it here, Bee. Delaware is slowly killing me.” He beat the pack against the palm of his hand and shaking his greasy head. “I only stay here for you, you know. I mean, what would you do without me?”
After her mother’s death, she’d lived alone for one week. It was terrible. Her imagination was far too active to be left to its own devices. She felt the weight of silence in every room, bearing down on her like malevolent gravity. To escape the solitude, she picked up extra shifts at the restaurant. She and Devin had stepped out back for a smoke one evening and she listened to his roommate woes for about two minutes before blurting out, “Come live at my place!”
“The real question is, what are you going to do without me?” She pulled the cork from the bottle snd filled her glass to the top.
“Oh, you know, eat food out of cans. I’ll wear dirty socks all the time and cry myself to sleep at night.” He absently searched his pockets for a lighter as he asked, “Are you seriously going for it? You’re really loading up the covered wagon and heading West?”
“Maybe,” she mused into her wine. “I’d be living rent free. I won’t have to listen to the neighbors scream at each other every Friday night. I can sleep and paint and drink. Maybe I’ll grow my own vegetables.”
“Yeah!” he laughed, “didn’t you just kill a Chia pet?”
She threw the cork at his forehead. He caught it as it bounced off his broad face.
“You could buy a cow! Churn your own butter,” he went on. “A regular Laura Ingalls Wilder. Shit, you’re going to have trouble fording the rivers by yourself on the way out there. Not to mention all the dysentery.”
“I’ll stock up on penicillin and water wings.”
“Bee, all joking aside,” he moved down to the floor and took one of her hands. Looking into her eyes, his voice soft and sincere, he said, “You’ll be eaten by snakes.”
"Uncle" Pete, one of her mom's old drinking buddies, gifted her everything an 1850's gold prospector would need; rusted pick-axes, shovels, a weathered post-hole digger. As ridiculous as Pete's well-intentioned gifts seemed at the time, she was glad to have her antique survival kit. She hadn’t even made it into the cabin that first day before using one of the shovels. A four-foot rattle snake lay stretched over the threshold, like it was deliberately warding off any would-be visitors. She imagined the floor inside pulsing with sensuous, reptilian writhing, beads of light reflecting from glassy eyes, a deafening orchestra of dry rattles rising from the ground. In her mind, Devin’s voice, as textured and real as though he were standing beside her said, “Bee, you’ll be eaten by snakes.”
One deep breath. Bee plunged the shovel blade towards its head.
She named it Marie Antoinette and buried it behind the house. That was the beginning of the mass grave of snakes. The size of them horrified Bee. Their bodies were as long as her legs, and the largest of them sported a head bigger than her fist. Whenever she ventured away from the house, she brought her designated killing spade and made sure it was always within reach.
She gathered the stray grocery items from the passenger side floorboard. There was no electricity in the shanty. If she wanted a warm meal, she had to cook it over a fire. She’d done this twice since moving in, but the California summer left everything so dry that roasting hot dogs over an open flame felt like barbecuing on a powder keg, or her mother smoking at the gas pumps on those not-quite-sober mornings when Bee was running late to school.
Her small face would watch from the back seat as the numbers flickered and rolled on the pump’s small screen, her mom leaning on the trunk with a Virginia Slim pressed between her lips. Bee would close her eyes, feeling her heart race and waiting for the flaming death she was certain would come exploding from that gaping automotive mouth hole, turning the Buick into some fire breathing death machine. But they didn’t die. Her hot dog dinners didn’t turn the California country side into a blazing inferno either. Bee knew she worried too much, but she still stocked up on ready-to-eat food, avoiding fire as much as possible.
Bee’s pants were stained from the knees down with rust red dirt. She’d been working on the driveway for weeks, digging holes and filling holes and rolling the truck up and down the same stretch of road. She could see the progress and, as slow as it was going, felt a satisfaction she had never known before. Her job was simple, and her goal was clear. Life had never been so straight forward.
She could feel the day’s work in her shoulders, her body crying out for something more than almonds and granola. Driving back to “the Den,” as she had begun to call her ramshackle cabin, she realized that she would gladly risk setting the whole state on fire for one hot meal.
In the old rock ring near the house, she waited for the flames to die down enough to heat her canned beans and ramen noodles, silently chastising herself for not picking up some multivitamins. Something bad was bound to happen if she went too long without eating a vegetable. Her mother had always threatened her with scurvy if she didn’t eat her peas.
Her mother hadn’t been perfect, but she had tried. Bee’s childhood had been a circus. She was never sure if the rides were safe, if the seatbelts were going to hold, if the wheels were going to stay on the tracks. She had survived though, with her mother beside her laughing and teasing Bee for worrying too much. Her mother, who applied mascara while driving down the freeway, steering with one knee and telling Bee to “chill out.”
Bee thought her mother would be proud of her now, venturing out into the great unknown. She looked up from the fire to watch the sky bleed color. Neon pinks and orange burned behind purple clouds. The colors were reflected on the surface of the small pond below. The pond was too round to be natural. Someone, long ago, had carved it out of the ground, maybe for swimming, or to stock with fish. Bee watched the liquid sky ripple with the breeze.
One carefree summer her mother had taken her camping. For a month. She said she wanted to “get in touch with nature.” Of course, there had been trips to town for booze and hot showers and cigarettes and fast food, but there was lots of nature too. She had tried to drag Bee into the lake one night, but Bee was afraid of the dark water and had dug her heels into the mud. Her mother had laughed, leaving her on the shore and floating off like a crazed water nymph, singing some old hymnal to the stars.
Bee watched the flames and hummed, trying desperately to remember the words of her mother’s song as her eyes were drawn again to the pond. Finally, as though accepting a dare, she stood and headed down the hill to the water. She allowed herself only one wary glance back at the fire.
“No worries,” she muttered to herself, stripping her clothes as she went, peeling dirty jeans from her legs and leaving them strewn over the ground. She didn’t let herself think, but walked to the end of the short pier and jumped in feet first.
The pond was deeper than she had expected. She let herself sink, trying to find the bottom. The water was cool, and she drifted away from the glow of the sky above. Hair floated around her face, dancing gracefully, happily defying the gravity that was always holding it down. She sank deeper, letting bubbles escape past her lips and warble toward the surface. The song in her head played in a loop, and words began to emerge from the tune.
“Wade in the water
Wade in the water children…”
Bee closed her eyes, finally weightless. Something soft drifted around her ankle. Her eyes sprang open, her muscles tensed. Thin tendrils caressed her arms and legs. Some of them were strands of her own hair, but there were other, rougher strands, mixing with hers, groping her face.
Bee panicked, thrashing her limbs, convinced for a moment that the snakes had filled a mass grave of their own. She searched the murky haze, waiting for the curtain of human hair to part and expose a bloated face, eyes clouded and flesh veined, the split skin of gray lips bobbing toward her, begging for a kiss.
The ceiling of water was too far away. Her lungs began to burn as the pond pulled her deeper, away from the air. Bee kicked hard. The water invaded her nose and her throat pulsed spastically in a desperate plea for breath. No one would ever find her down here. No one would even come looking. She would be here for ever, with the swollen, watery dead.
A scream pierced her mind, and Bee realized it was her own as she broke through the surface. After the silence of the pond, her splashes sounded like explosions. She thrashed until she reached shallow water and her feet found muddy earth. Water still blurred her vision as she scrambled blindly toward the fire, tripping over her own abandoned pants and falling to the ground, her fingers clawing at the wet, hairy web that still clung to her face and legs. She scraped handfuls of it from her skin. Spitting the taste of the pond out of her mouth and forcing sprays of water from her nose, she realized, finally, that she had not been attacked by hairy pond zombies. They were just weeds. She’d been caught in a mess of lake weeds.
There was not another human being for miles and still the hot blood of embarrassment filled her face. The light show in the sky was melting down toward the horizon. All shadows were gone. This was the hour of the snake, when the heat of the day receded enough to let them roam free. Bee spat again, forcing her legs into her pants and keeping a sharp eye on the ground as she collected her shirt and hurried back to the campfire.
Of all the things she left behind, she missed warm showers most. There was no way to heat the water and her showers were joyless exercises in efficiency, scrubbing as much of the clay soil from her skin as she could before the cold became too much to bear. Wrapped in her stiff, line dried towel, she watched the muddy cloud at her feet orbit the drain before being sucked into the abyss. Tonight, the cold ran bone deep, and her skin tingled with the chill. Summer still ruled the day, but Autumn had begun to claim the nights.
She dressed in her baggy night clothes and grabbed a bottle of water, wishing it was warm tea. She grabbed a fleece throw blanket from the nest of bedding on the floor and sat in the open doorway, watching the moon rise.
Over the cold remains of the fire, Bee caught a flash of a lightning bug. She held her breath, staring and waiting for the green glow to show itself again. She hadn’t seen a firefly since leaving Delaware and had assumed their season was over. She closed her heavy eyes, childhood memories bringing a smile to her lips. She had always chased them but never caught them. It wasn't that the bugs got away from her, but that when she found herself close enough to grab them, she always backed away. She was afraid she would break them.
Bee forced her eyes open. The green glow was there, but it didn’t flicker like a firefly. Its glow was steady, too still to be any kind of bug. She slid her shoulders up against the door frame, coming to her feet. she felt like the hovering light was watching her. She wrapped the fleece tighter around herself. A loud rush of air, like the sigh of a horse, came from the small green orb. Bee jumped, stumbled sideways into the small house and slammed the door.
Bee woke covered in sweat, tangled in sheets and blankets and sticky hair. Her shoulders and neck had set up like concrete, and her eyes felt like they were on fire. She didn’t need a thermometer to tell her she was running a fever. She dragged one leg at a time over to the counter and opened another bottle of water. She only had one more six pack and hoped this was just a 24-hour bug. The thought of bouncing her truck all the way into town made her stomach roll. She searched the small cupboard in the kitchen for her bottle of Ibuprofen.
Outside, the crickets screamed. She couldn’t tell how long she’d been asleep. Her bare feet carried her to the fire pit where she took a seat on her stump, savoring the cool air against her face.
“Those crickets…” she thought, distantly. Every hair on her body stood at attention as Bee sensed some nameless threat. She twisted at the waist, holding her stiff neck and looking around at the tangles of scrub oak.
“Those crickets…” she thought again.
The realization crept in slowly. Those crickets weren’t crickets. Those crickets were snakes.
She couldn’t see any snakes. What she could see was her killing spade propped against the side of the Den, too far for comfort. She rose slowly, so slowly her muscles ached from her near static pose. Her knees wobbled, and it took every ounce of self-control not to make a mad dash to the house. The rattles sounded incredibly close and seemed to be coming from every direction at once.
“No sudden moves,” she whispered.
Side stepping in slow motion, she made her way to the shovel, grabbing it and shuffling slowly toward the corner of the house. Sweat rolled into her eyes, and she wiped it away with her forearm. It could have been from fear or fever, she couldn’t tell. She leaned around the corner, squinting into the rapidly dimming light, searching for any movement.
The sudden quiet felt like pressure in her ears. Bee stared into shadows, studying each stick on the ground. She hit the shovel against the side of the house, hoping the noise would provoke the snake into giving itself away.
"Thunk, thunk, thunk …thunk …"
The banging of the shovel slowed, then stopped. Beneath her feet, where the bald earth covered the mass grave of snakes, the ground pulsed. Bee blinked, trying to make sense of the bulging earth.
She drew the killing spade over her shoulder like a javelin. Her eyes widened as she waited, horrified, expecting at any moment a fanged head to come springing up in a cloud of dust, snapping like a dog at her bare feet. Drawing in a deep breath, she thrust the spade deep into the dirt.
She knew the snakes in that pit had been decapitated. Every last one. The freshest body in there was over a week old. She prodded the spot with a foot, feeling for any give, any softness, but the ground was solid.
Bee piled the heaviest rocks she could find over the grave, a cairn to mark the final resting place of Marie Antoinette and her army of snakes.
She rolled onto her back and stared blindly in the direction of the ceiling. Licking her lips, she wondered, again, why she hadn’t just let the attorneys sell the place. Perhaps she had been so aimless that she’d simply jumped on the first path that presented itself.
“It’s more than that,” Bee thought, “I needed to know that I could.”
She’d come all this way to prove that she could be alone, like a kid crawling under the bed to know, once and for all, that there is no boogeyman.
Bee tried to sit up. Her left arm and shoulder were stuck to the floor. She pushed against the ground with her feet, arching her back and grunting with the effort. It felt as though her shoulder blade had grown roots in the night, fleshy vines that had squirmed through the wooden planks of the house and rooted themselves in the red dirt below. Her heart drummed in her ears as she lifted her free hand, feeling her rooted shoulder, trying to find what was holding her down. Her fingers slid through a film of perspiration on her neck, around the curve of her shoulder, onto fingers.
Her exploring hand had found another, colder hand. The ball of its palm was planted firmly beneath her collar bone. Long, thin fingers cupped her shoulder. Bee’s hand flew away. Panting like a sick dog, she struggled again to bring herself up from the floor. She would run to the truck, she thought. She would fly down the road, bounce through the woods, find the interstate and hold the gas pedal to the floor until she was as far from this place as she could get.
Suddenly there was pressure on her breastbone, like the knob of a knee bearing down on her chest. She kicked her legs wildly, letting loose an animal moan and swinging her free arm through the air. She searched for something to grab onto, some leverage in the dark. Through the rhythm of her heart, she could hear a humming. It was low and melodic, like a child’s lullaby. She squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head and trying to will herself back to her bed in Delaware.
The voice rattled like wind through dry leaves.
“I stepped in the water and the water was cold,
God's gonna trouble the water,”
Vowels rustled together in a breathy rasp. The words clawed their way out from whatever hellish throat floated above her in the dark. They rattled through dusty bones and hissed from ancient cavities.
“It chilled my body but not my soul,
God's gonna trouble the water,”
The mouth breathed damp air into Bee’s ear. It was sweet and sour and repulsive, the smell of fermented fruit and wet rot. Cracked lips grazed her ear lobe, and her ribs gave slightly beneath the oppressive knee.
“Wade in the water,
Wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.”
With a shrill scream and one final thrust, she propelled herself from the floor and flew from the Den. Every nerve trembled as she lurched toward the pickup, throwing open the door and locking it behind her. Bee ran her hands over the steering column, feeling her way to the ignition. There were no keys. Her fingers crawled over seats and into cup holders. Thick sobs lurching from her stomach as she realized the truth. Her keys were in the house.
Nausea was rising, rolling like a wave and knocking against the back of her throat. She was too afraid to open the door. She vomited into the floorboard, retching and coughing until, empty and exhausted, she found sleep on the seat of the truck.
The morning sun blazed through the window, its light cooking her exposed legs and already sunburned face. The acrid smell of bile rose like steam to her nose. Bee opened the door and swung her feet to the ground. The entrance of the Den gaped at her like a hungry mouth. She couldn’t bring herself to go inside, not even to retrieve the keys. She closed her hot eyes and shuffled down the hill. She didn’t open them again until she was standing on the pier. Her reflection wavered below, studying her from the pond’s surface with hollow eyes.
She looked away, staring into the trees and listening to the world around her. Birds. Insect noises. Dry leaves rattling against each other, hanging on to their season for as long as they could.
Bee’s breath caught in her throat. The sound was growing, swelling toward her from the Den.
Her knees trembled wildly as she moved her toes to the edge of the wooden pier.
She told herself it was her imagination, the deafening rattle behind her head.
One rough, calloused fingertip traced the line of Bee’s spine down her long, bare neck. Saccharine breath warmed her ear as a dry ribbon of a tongue wormed over her lobe, playing in the fine hairs of her jaw.
Bee leaped forward, arms out to embrace whatever lurked below.
She let herself sink, trying to find the bottom. The water was cool, and she drifted away from the glow of the sky above. She sank deeper, letting bubbles escape past her lips and warble toward the surface. The song in her head played in a loop, and the words began to emerge from the tune.
“Wade in the water
Wade in the water children …”