The long snakes, the poisonous ones with brown diamonds, came sliding farther down from the hills, the waterless arroyos, as summer deepened, crossing our meadow toward the swamp, which never dried entirely, even in the longest drought. They said, Be careful of the snakes now that dry weather is here. They looked toward the horizon when they talked like that, and fanned themselves with handkerchiefs or dishcloths.

Sometimes I saw the snakes curled in the shade of a low bush or traveling with purpose across, never along, a path.

In the shallow pools of the swamp, small green frogs lived, splotched by darker green on their humped backs, yellow-throated, yellow-footed. They ate the skating bugs. The snakes would eat the frogs if the drought continued.

Near the origin of the swamp, where it came without reason out of the ground and made the earth suddenly green in all the brown and dying grasses, fifteen cottonwoods grew like a family, white-bodied, leaning toward one another, as if weeping for something or sharing joy.

One day, early, a hot day when a blue underside of the sky pulled me away from the house at the opening of the foothills, I went to the swamp to see if the brown poisonous snakes were feeding on the frogs and the frogs on the water skaters. Passing by the circle of trees, I glanced among them and saw her sitting here, like me early away in the morning, like me steeped and aged in seventeen summers, seventeen seasons of drought, the daughter of our only neighbors: the man who owned the thousand white chickens.

Her hair was long, her eyes bright like stones in her brown face. There seemed to me, at seventeen, exactly nothing else to do but put her down on the dusty leaves, last year's faint skeletal webs, either by agreement or force.

I sat beside her on the arch of a fallen limb. Do you come here always? I said. I hung my arms over my knees and pushed my toes under the leaves, the remains of the leaves.

She said, I've seen you here bending over the water. If you aren't careful, you'll fall into your reflection and drown.

We listened to the cicada, which would stop gradually as the morning heat rose.

Hear that? I said. Kickadees.

She said, What do you watch in the water? You don't wear shoes and you watch things in the water. She laughed. She dug designs of circles and crosses in the ground between her feet with a stick.

Did you know the snakes come down from the hills, weather like this, to drink? I said.

Is that what you watch? I don't care about snakes. But everything has to survive, I guess.

Yes. Everything has the right to try.

I hummed and listened to the cicada rattle his final sound till evening, until the sun makes the hills put down their shadows and the gray doves whistle out of the oaks and go bobbing on the ground for seeds. I was overcome, as with heat, or as when standing too suddenly, by the knowledge of hunger, the knowledge of hunger, which is different from the instinct. There came over the family of trees something so much like a voice I jerked up my head and opened my mouth to answer.

I turned to her and spread my hand on the smooth limb beside her hip.

She cried out once, and held her lower lip with her teeth, when we joined together, finally, firmly, and I sensed in the remaining few weeks of childhood we would learn a shape to all this, to the round world, to the summer following the spring, the grate of the cicada, or the reason for trees, for drought and the rain, the care of both hunger and. poison.

When we came apart, our skin, smooth and brown, was wet and reddened in blotches, like her face and breasts. We could not stop our faces or our eyes or our breaths.

One day rolled over another at a great distance. The trees put us into shadow morning after morning, sometimes with each of us running into them from opposite directions at the same moment, sometimes one, restless since white dawn, hunched there, afraid the other would not come.

Her hair was long and brown, streaked yellow by the sun, dappled from reflecting mirrors of the sun going down through the trees. She learned to lift her hips up to mine and hold with her legs over my back. The curve of her neck was salt to my tongue. We learned that hunger is insatiable, that gorging begets feasts, and that desire blinds. We wondered if others had ever discovered what we knew.

The rains came late in the month and pushed back into the hills the brown poisonous snakes. The frogs thrived. Toads came up out of the ground.

The last time we spent the day, the whole long day, in the family of trees, we did not talk much in order to say all that had to be spoken.

She said, Must you? Will you really leave?

Yes, I said. I am seventeen.

She said, When will you come back? But she sensed as well as I we had burst open the pod, not closed it, that what we knew, like the knowledge of hunger, was kindling to a longer fire.

--- From Dining at the Lineman's Shack
John Weston
(University of Arizona Press)

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