By Karen Brode
Mother and I sat on the front porch steps contemplating the inky night sky pierced with stars that looked like pin pricks in fabric overhead. I wondered if heaven was just on the other side of the sky shining down on us in the form of stars.
My father had taught me many of the constellations. We had often watched the night sky together.
“There’s the Big Dipper,” he would say.
And then I would bounce up and down pointing. “And there’s the Little Dipper!”
“This night reminds me of the night Cleo got bit by the rattlesnake,” Mother said. She made it sound so normal, like it was a rite of passage for everyone.
“It was a quiet, still summer night, not the kind of night that you would think something bad would happen.”
Instinctively, I raised my feet up a step, just in case.
“How old was Cleo?” I asked. In my childish eight-year-old mind, it was hard for me to grasp the idea that old people had once been children. Even though I had seen pictures of my mother when she was young, it still didn’t quite register that she had been a child at one time. And yet, I knew on the other side of that coin, I would someday be old. Still, I couldn’t imagine being that old.
All my life I had heard about my mother’s childhood. It was something of a myth to me. She had all the things I longed for—three brothers and three sisters. And she had to share a bed with her sisters. My childhood was lonely. I thought it would be such fun to blend into a large family.
Mother stared up into the sky, her eyes seeming to calculate the heavens. “I believe that was the summer Cleo was eleven,” she said. Then she nodded and pressed her lips together. “Yes, she would have been eleven because I was nine.”
“I’m almost nine,” I said. I tried to look past the lines on my mother’s face and see the smallness of a child, but I still couldn’t see her as a kid.
“We were playing hide and seek just about this time of night,” she went on. “It was that in-between time between sunset and full dark. There were lightning bugs all over the place back then.”
In my mind, I could see lightning bugs everywhere. I knew we had lightning bugs too, but the way Mother told it, there were so many in her day that you didn’t need a flashlight to see in the dark.
She paused and looked out beyond our house, beyond our street. I did the same, sure we were both looking for the onslaught of lightning bugs to light up the night.
Finally, she continued. “It was Cleo’s turn to hide and she went out by the well and crouched down. I don’t think she was out there but a second or two when we heard her scream!”
I felt my chest tighten at the thought of this. Even though I knew Cleo had survived—she lived just over a few streets from us in the same town—I still had to ask, “Then what happened?”
“Well, Poppa went running to the sound of her screaming. He grabbed her up and ran to the house with her. We knew right away it was a snake that had bit her. Blood was oozing out of two little holes on her ankle and it was swelling fast.”
My stomach felt a little queasy thinking about it, but I leaned forward anyway.
“My brother Leon was fourteen at the time. Being the oldest, he took the coal oil lamp out by the well to try to see what kind of snake it had been.”
She closed her eyes then and seemed to transport back in time as she continued.
“I remember Cleo was completely white even in the dimly lit parlor. Her heart was beating so fast and she was having trouble breathing. Poppa laid her out on the divan.
“Mama just screamed, ‘Get the doctor, get the doctor!’ over and over. She wasn’t very good in a crisis. No matter how many times Poppa told her to calm down, she never did.
“I don’t know how long it took the doctor to arrive, but he got there and immediately put a tourniquet around Cleo’s ankle to try to keep the poison from going past her ankle. Of course, by then, some of it had probably already traveled all over her body.”
I shivered. The idea of poison going all through my body terrified me.
“Before long, Leon brought up the dead snake. The doctor and Poppa looked at each other with dread when they saw the rattler still rattling.”
A neighbor walked by just then, crunching through some gravel. I jumped at the sound of it, but was relieved to see it was a person and not a snake.
Mother continued. “Cleo writhed in pain like that for what seemed like forever. She was out of her head. Our momma cradled her and rocked her back and forth. Cleo was somewhere between life and death. She kept telling Momma that she saw Jesus, and Momma looked at Poppa with such fright.
“All us kids gathered in the parlor to see what was going to happen. Leon held on to the coal oil lantern like he couldn’t let it go. Opal and Jewel stood like they couldn’t breathe. James and Walter, the younger boys, cowered in one corner of the room. And I sat with my back to the piano, trying not to think about all those times we had had together as a family, singing. I just started praying silently in my head. It was the only thing I knew to do.”
She nodded like she was agreeing with herself and then said, “It was the best thing to do.”
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Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.