When You Live in the Desert


Dad shows me how to skin the diamondback by the creek behind the house. He is kneeling in the mud, his boots pressing square stamps into the uneven riverbed. I killed the snake earlier that morning. I drove a shovel through its body. It lunged at me and I wasn’t scared then. I was scared just before, when I found it there, coiled behind the rose bush, scared by me just the same. It felt like an accident more than anything else.

“I’m pretty proud of you,” Dad said then, after he came over from mowing dry grass. “It was brave to take in on by yourself.” Then he leaned on my shovel and told me I was now a man.

The snake still writhed, frantically alive, when he said that. If it could, I’m sure it would have been screaming. I yanked its body from its head, scales severing in thin chords, muscles elastic, and tossed it in a cardboard box. The trail of trickled blood in the red dirt made me want to vomit. Its jaw still flexed open and shut, snapping at the scent of prickly pear cacti, slower and slower each time. I nodded at Dad, and didn’t agree.

At the riverbed, Dad says we can eat the meat for lunch. It’ll be a man to man kind of thing. When he peels halfway down the length of the snake, he hands me the still twitching corpse, tells me to finish the job. I dip it in gentle ripples and rip down to the rattle, a toy in my dirty hand. And in one tug, the tail slips between my blood-curdled fingers and into the river current, carried away and out of sight in seconds.

“Goddammit,” Dad says. “What a waste.” Under his store-bought cowboy boots, the dirt crunches.

I go back to where the snake head dries, sand sticking in clumps to its drooling open end. I dig a shallow hole, stopped by flat rock. I push the head in and cover it. I don’t feel better about killing it, but I do feel better about peeling its skin off.

We make lunch in the fire pit we built last summer. Flames reach towards roots of nearby crabapple trees. A stray dog wanders nearby, but Dad scares it away. It’s just a puppy and it likes the smell of our frozen hamburgers over the fire. It watches from the edge of the field, just on the other side of a shallow section of creek. Its wet paws press round stamps near the larger squares in the muddy ground.

“It’ll be fine,” Dad says. “This is the desert, the tough things survive here.”

“It’s just a puppy.”

“The desert will make it get tough. That’s why your mother lets me keep you here in the summers.”

The meat sizzles over the fire. Dad reaches into the pit with his bare hand and moves a log to make a teepee shape. It collapses on crumbling ash. I go to the other side of the field where I chopped a pile of wood yesterday. I wrap my hand underneath some logs and feel something bite into my palm. I picture another diamondback seizing revenge.

“What’s taking so long?” Dad calls.

I’ve been hesitating too long and when I check my hand, I see a splinter threaded below the base of my fingers. It hurts, but I don’t want to tell Dad. It slides in and out of my skin, two pin-pockets, pockmarks of blood, though nothing really bleeds. I flex my fist a few times as I walk back to the fire pit. The burgers are burnt, but still cold in the middle. I build a small teepee of branches. The heat kicks up and the burgers sizzle a little more. The puppy still waits on the other side of the river, watching and licking its lips.

“You trying to kill me?” Dad asks.

He points to one of the thicker logs. Around it curls the countless legs of a tarantula the size of a dinner plate. It moves slow, eight eyes coursing back and forth across the waving grass, our coiled bodies.

Dad pokes at the fire. “What are you going to do with it?” he asks. It’s not scary. Orange spotted and furry. Red tinted like the dirt around it.

I open and close my fist. “Leave it be.” I say. The two pockmarks in my palm burn. “Put it back in the pile?”

Dad sighs and picks up the log and digs it into the heart of the fire. There’s no sound, but I’m sure I can hear the spider squeal.

The burgers are near cemented to the grate by the time they are ready. We scrape them off and eat what we can and let the rest burn off in the cooling fire.

“Let’s start the walkway,” Dad says, heaving himself up, palms pressed into his knees.

I start digging around the dirt-caked yard, looking for flat rocks. Dad’s idea is to place a series of flat rocks in a rough path from the end of the porch. He wants to grow grass between the rocks and make it look inviting, even though he doesn’t want visitors and green grass would look out of place among this desert landscape.

The puppy approaches as I stab around the edges of a purple-gray stone, large and flat. It looks at me and wags its tail, its head low. I can see its ribs and cuts along its skinny legs. A few cactus needles sticks from its back, dug in deep. He jumps away when I try to step closer, so I keep stabbing around the rock. It’s much bigger than I expect. I cut deep again and again and can’t reach the bottom.

“That’s a good one to start with,” Dad says, approaching with his shovel and a long iron pole meant to pry heavy things apart. He knifes it under the rock and begins grunting. The sound of thick metal clanging against rock scares the puppy back to the other side of the shallow creek. “This one,” Dad says, between grunts, “can go right at the edge,” he stabs again, his hairy arms flexing with his hairier knuckles, “of the porch. Can you help?”

I’m just standing and watching and so I hurry to dig more earth away from the opposite edges of the rock. Carving out the sides, we see it’s more of a boulder. “Grab the wheelbarrow,” Dad says, straightening his back. “We’re gonna get this thing out of the ground if it kills us.”

I jog across the open field, my boots blistering my soft feet. Anxiety wells in my chest like pebbles in my lungs. When I get back to Dad, he’s got the boulder propped on the iron wedge. He’s panting a few steps away.

“You know,” he says, his hands on his hips, and gaze drifting off across the field of cut hay. “Nothing comes easy in the desert.”

“I brought the wheelbarrow.”

“The desert is where the toughest things live,” he says. And then he tells me to grab two beers from the fridge. I hurry inside. I’m sweating for the first time that afternoon. The pinholes in my hand turn a shade of purple. They itch inside my skin.

We drink while staring at the rock. It isn’t the first beer I’ve had with him, but it’s the first one that feels like it matters.

“You killed a rattlesnake today,” he says. “You’re a man now.”

I never felt like I wasn’t.

The dog approaches from behind. In our silence, it sits next to Dad, looking up at him. The desert sun beats down on the three of us and I’m afraid to move. But the moment drags on longer and longer and Dad already finished his beer and I am not close to finishing mine. I try to drink faster.

I work up the courage to speak. “Should we…should we keep trying to get the rock out?”

He studies the inside of the clear bottle. “It’s on top of a nest of fire ants.” And now I can see the frenzied red lines erupting from underneath. He sighs. “Can’t just one fucking thing be easy in this place?” I listen to the wind pour over the mesa to the east.

“The desert is for the toughest things,” I say.

“Fuck off, Jay,” he says. He looks at the dog at his feet. It adjusts its position, straightens its back, knows it’s being noticed. They stare at each other for a moment. Somewhere, I hear a final crack of the fire smolder through dry wood. The sound of a car drifts from the highway on the other side of the mesa. The puppy stares big black eyes at Dad, whose knuckles tighten around the neck of the bottle.

I sneeze and when I open my eyes the puppy is gone, escaped back beyond the fire and over the creek.

“I can always just drop you back off at the airport. You can go back to your mommy if you want.”

I don’t look at him and I chug down the rest of the beer, even though it makes my stomach queasy. “I think there’s some good rocks over there.” I point towards the backside of the house. It isn’t the first time he’s threatened me. “Maybe I’ll just start poking around those.” He doesn’t know his threats mean less the more he makes them.

He leads the way to the small rocky crop. The blood on my shovel still shines dark in the afternoon light, glinting each time I jab downwards, popping small, flat rocks from their dirty holes.

The puppy returns to the fire pit. He tries to lick scorched meat from the grate but can’t without burning himself. Dad goes to a larger rock towards the bush line, and I walk over to the pit, get close to the dog before he notices. My boots crunch on the ground. From the grate, I pull tendrils of meat and let him take them from my palm. When he is comfortable enough to stay close, I pick him up. His body slacks into my palm. I feel strong, even though this is a small dog, and a minor effort.

“What are you doing?” Dad asks from his digging spot.

“I’m just trying to help this thing.” I place my fingers around the end of the cactus needles in his backside. He yelps and tries to wriggle away. I repeat that it’s going to be ok.

Dad doesn’t say anything, but I can hear him clanging his shovel harder and harder into the ground. He curses with effort.

I yank the needles out one by one. Black blood doesn’t trickle into his short fur. I put him back down and he yelps but doesn’t go far. He inches back with cautious steps.

Dad is on his knees, pulling up a rock with his bare hands. I walk back over to him, knowing I did a good thing. He spits at me when I approach. “Can you fucking help me for once?” he says, curling his fingers into the ground. “Just do the work.”

I stare at him and for a minute imagine that he is the snake, slithering across the ground until I take his head off with the sharp end of my already bloody shovel. In the desert, I wonder if he would ever be found. Gripping the handle against forming blisters of my palm, I chip away at the sides of the rock. We dig out its round bottom, wedging it back and forth between my shovel and his hands. The splinters feel like needles in my hand. I ignore the pain.

Dad feels around the edge, forcing his grubby hands over its flat surface when he stops. I swear I hear the puncture of pierced flesh. He doesn’t make a noise, but lifts his wrists up to reveal the severed head of a rattlesnake dangling by its fangs.

“Is it still venomous?” I don’t know if I ask out loud.

He stares at me and doesn’t pull the dirt-caked head from his wrist.

I grip my shovel to defend myself when Dad kneels back into the earth. Behind him, a thin red trail of fire ants approach. I feel dizzy. Not far away, the puppy laps at the river bank, looking at Dad from the corner of its eyes. I know that rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal, but I wonder all the same if he is tough enough to survive, out here in this heat, in this rural desert, where we aren’t the ones who decide if we get to live or not.

Zack Butovich

Zack Butovich is an MFA student in fiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he teaches composition and is one of the managing editors for their literary journal, the Blue Earth Review. He has had previous work published with The Citron Review, Arcturus, and Wilderness House Literary Review. He is currently at work on a full-length novel.

Contributions by Zack Butovich