We enter as usual, sneaking behind a fence and climbing over the bridge of boulders
to a path now covered in orange leaves. The backs, painted white and pastel, look up at us. Some have tiny holes and others have perfect veins I trace with my fingers to the stem. It is the first of fall, before the droppings of tress have had the chance to crispen—to turn brown. It is vibrant out here. Something about the air resurrecting breath, as if I had lost it but didn’t know. Walking over fields of mushy oranges and scarlets, we take caution as to where we step. Like a soapy linoleum, we glide without consent, sometimes rolling ankles and stubbing toes on stones we can’t see.
“It’s an art,” Dad says, “to enter a forest in October.”
So, I think in reply, we must be artists then, and I say, “If you were to wear one of these trees, which one would you pick?”
He stops moving, looks back at me. He smiles and jerks his head so that it slants to the right—the masculine side of our bodies. Shuffling onto a small rock, maybe 2 feet off the ground, Dad sits with perfect posture, opens his knees wide. Says, “sit,” and then goes quiet. I watch him think.
When I was little, he’d take me to this same spot. No matter the season, we found our tree. A pine—strong and tall, with so many evergreen branches. I never got bored of climbing and, Dad, he pushed me up there like a father does. With me resting on his shoulders already, he’d toss me up gently so that his arms were my deserving elevator. Up to the highest level, I’d sit on the branch closest to his head, dangle my feet. He’d step away like one does to someone on training wheels. He believed the pine wouldn’t let me fall, even if I tried to jump. Though once I did slip down and he was there to nudge me back up. He wasn’t scared, so I didn’t feel the need to be either.
But after placing me down, he’d always drift away. Giving me the front row seat, he’d trail off to the nearby fence that separated us from a local airport. We used to watch the planes take-off and land—how small men would treat them like babies in the runway. He’d tell me how he wanted to be a pilot. That he’d went and signed up for the Air Force against his mother’s wishes, and how they rejected him. When I’d ask why, he’d say, “well, don’t you remember my belly?”
And I’d say, “Oh. Can you show me again?”
He’d lift his shirt with pride, revealing a dark, not thick, happy trail, and what my mom would call a “Buddha-belly.” It was round and firm like a perfect half-moon; and when I’d go to punch him for practice, he wouldn’t have to hold his breath. It was solid on its own account.
Yet this masculinity is made humble with a jarring scar. Still red and dark like a fresh cat scratch, the line represented his fate. He was only playing a game of football with his friends when Ray (I think that’s his name), threw the pigskin too far. My dad, always so focused on winning and finding the spotlight of strength when he can, followed the long shot. He followed it so closely that he didn’t the see the fire hydrant, directly in front of him. He fell into it like one does the ocean—no hesitation; pure bliss; the expectation of coming out better than before.
But alas, he didn’t win this one. He went home bruised and in pain—his tired mother not believing him. Always getting into trouble, my dad quite literally inspired my grandmother to get a job—and to put him in daycare. When he cried, grandma thought there was a motive behind it. Even though he was 19 when crashing into that hydrant, grandma still held herself back in fear of what that motive might be.
But Dad was being serious. He wouldn’t stop whining or screeching, and she only said, “Dean, I swear to God, this better not cost me,” before driving him to the hospital.
He was bleeding internally, they found out, and not twenty minutes more, would he have died. He was rushed into an emergency surgery where they removed his spleen—the backbone of our immune systems—and he earned that scar. This is why mom always says to stay away from Dad when we’re sick. His body can’t handle it.
“This scar, it shows that I escaped death.”
I’d laugh, “I remember,” as I’d trace the red lines with my fingers—the same way I do the leaves. I like that story.
I wonder if Dad is thinking about our pine too—if he’s wishing I was still that little. I wonder if he’s going to answer, and if he is, will he pick “pine?” I could see its shade of green doing him justice. The way the frays of needles mimic the thinness of his hair, and how it shines. Effervescent and evergreen, his ever-blue eyes don’t change color like mine. Sometimes grey, green, blue, or a mixture of all three, my irises adapt to the colors around me. His, always constant.
Then he interrupts with his answer, “pine.”
I imagine his arms are branches, supporting me like training wheels once more, so fearless in his delivery of a reception. He’d catch me like that football if I fell, even if it did mean internal bleeding or a permanent reminder on skin. “I knew you’d say that.”
And he asks me, “What about you?”
I’ve been thinking about this very question for a long time. I had hoped that someone would think of the question before me so that the asking of it wouldn’t come as a polite mechanism of reply to my asking. I wanted to be seen in this way of philosophy and spirit, but no one seemed to think like me—not even Dad. Though he tried so hard, I remember that day when I thought something he hadn’t. Like this very moment, I had proposed something he never considered before—as if crossing the very limits of his mind and surpassing his intelligence. But I was only different—more expansive. I connected while he separated. Still, both holding a level of brightness the other couldn’t quite grasp. We respect each other, or at least try to, now. It wasn’t always that easy. This is why I shout without fear, “birch.”
“Yes, of course. What else?”
“What else? They’re so fragile.”
“But they’re beautiful. So many colors in one place. And the bark peels like textured fabric. It’s a natural transition to a dress.”
He re-centers his palms onto the middle parts of his kneecaps, legs still wide. He smiles and shakes his head. “You’re funny.”
“Yeah, yeah, can we keep going?”
And we do. We walk about a mile looking up and down to catch the new pigments that have arrived since we last hiked this trail. We do not talk, but Dad bumps up against the back of my heels to remind me he’s still there. When he stomps a little harder, I know to slow down. Maybe that little incline got him. Maybe Dad is getting a little older and can’t admit that I’m too fast. When I slow down before he stomps, he knows to be careful. There are probably rocks he can’t see or mud that is dangerously under the blanket of leaves. I’m his scout. The only leader he can trust.
But then, a sound disrupts all of this sanctuary. I pause in my steps. It’s almost like some kind of rattle. It’s familiar, but in a way of infamy. Like putting an ear close to a big seashell—almost inside—there is a movement I know only because someone told me what it sounded like. My ears are hot and extra mushy. My left foot is awkwardly ahead of my right, balancing on some slippery stones. I can’t move.
Then silence: this sound knows us; it moves with intention, control. It says, “I see you and I have you.” I face Dad.
He freezes, pausing in his step too, before the stinging rattle starts up again. His eyes widen to roll like perfect marbles, slowly titling his head towards me. Mine must be fully black. I scrub them with my palms until I can’t bear it anymore. But it’s real. Dad rubs his belly.
“Rattlesnake,” he whispers, and I curl my lips as if tasting something bitter, swallow my spit to control anything. Every breath is a chore, dragging my feet up the tiny rocks to make a point of composure.
I’ve never seen Dad still or quiet like this, except for that one time I almost didn’t make it home and he was too worried to form words. Mom kept coaching him through this anger while we were on the phone, but he couldn’t help it. The borders were closing because of some pandemic—that didn’t go away—and I was trapped in Europe with people I barely knew—people he didn’t know at all. When my flight times kept changing, my landing place fluctuating, I could see his eyes turn as harsh as stone. He was lost somewhere in a thickness, like mud. I imagined foam sizzling out of his mouth as he never shut it—not once. I could hear him breathe in pulses of long inhales and short, but intense, rushes of an exhale. It was like something unlocked in him I had never seen before, or rather just wanted to forget I had seen, and he had lost control. This anger sometimes poured out of him like venom. Dangerous to everyone but himself, he’d shrivel to the barriers of his bones in order to strike with more agility in the flesh. Some innocent victim, I’d get stung and be forced to suck the poison out of my own blood.
I guess he thought it was more than that though, me staying in Europe. That this inability to return would make me realize that I didn’t really want to go home again. That there was a reason to stay. That maybe he was that reason. And he was angry at the world for taking me away—no, angry at himself for time wasted.
But, in the end, I did make it home; and we never spoke of the quiet again. Not of how he couldn’t understand me anymore. Or how I was smarter than him, in that he himself couldn’t have figured out how to get back. He hated feeling small like this.
I wonder if he’s been hiding from me his whole life in this way. Only showing me the parts of him he could get ahold of. The parts he could speak about. I never heard stories about the dreams he had as a kid, except for that of being a pilot. How he could fly and be some macho leader. But there was bravery in this tale that no one could deny. It was safe.
But is he ever quiet with mom? I mean like rubbing her feet or buying flowers when there isn’t an impending holiday, could he offer her that reason? Did he ever sneak us kids a kiss on the forehead when we were sick, even when mom would say, “don’t go near them,” because he didn’t have a spleen?
I don’t know. And I guess I would die before I ever did. If his silence meant anything, it meant this fate. For the snake, it was just beyond my nose. Right in front of us, it straddles the center line of where we both stand. It’s on the closest tree stump, camouflaged within a backdrop of dark greens, the color of pine. Its diamonds are sleek and clean, almost glistening like water. There’s only a fragment of light breaking through the trees, and he rattles as though we’ve come to steal his sun. Trespassers, shivering to the inevitable like some hypnotic rhythm, we can’t control our bodies. My stomach clenches as if moving away from an oncoming bullet—direly trying to make room. Thinking not, if, but only when.
When they write of us, will they imagine the silence? Will they know about its peaceful parts? Like that of certainty or relief? Or will they make us out to be victims of some sadistic storm of mother nature. Will they kill the snakes? All of them? And then the tress even more? The entire ecosystem, just to show who’s on top? Probably. We would die without a say.
I wonder if it, the rattler, thinks we’re worth it— sitting there long and eloquent, it moves with a sort of grace I envy. I wonder if it knows that I’m smarter than Dad— can sense that Dad is jealous. I wonder if he knows that Dad is old and how can be a scary type of anger. I wouldn’t want the snake to know, but the snake knows.
And maybe because it does, it won’t kill us after all. We need more time anyway, so that I can explain to Dad that, “I know” and that “I’m sorry.”
It must think we’re good meat though. Likes the way that I’m lanky and long, but full in the middle like Dad. I wonder if we will be enough or if after, he’ll have to kill some more. Maybe we’re just practice dummies for some larger project of its fun. I wonder if Dad is thinking the same, if he’s accepted our fate in just the same way.
Dad takes a breath— finally, something to break the stillness. He chokes on his spit. It sounds like that thing he does when passing by smokers to judge them. Like they’re impeding upon his space. As if it was his space that mattered most. He used to do this when we’d argue about the Mexican border and how he thought it should be more secure; and I couldn’t let him say those things— even at Christmas, even when mom begged me not to. And I’d show him videos of mothers searching for their lost children in the desert and make him read ethnographies and news articles about cultural erasure and neo-colonialism, but he’d fall asleep or worse yet, ask me to sit there and transcribe it for him in “normal language.” When I’d ask him what’s normal? and he’d say, “not that,” I’d question all those times he told me it was good to be different. And if he really meant that.
Once, I told him just that. I said, “You hate that I’m smarter than you. You hate that you’ve lost control.” And he laughed. His face turned speckled like a bruised peach. He told me to “grow up” as he threw away the books I had resting on the nearest table. He rubbed his belly.
I’ve learned to forgive him for that and all those arguments we had, because I grew to understand they had some hidden meaning. He never really hated people or believed in those policies, he just feared them. He wanted to take control of a crashing plane to have the honor of dying a beloved hero— a pilot of courage.
But seriously, is he going to do something? Is he ready to die in this way? Maybe I should jump forward, throw my arms up and out, ask the rattle to catch me as I land in its bite. I could be the brave one. I could smash it over the head with a rock. Watch the venom jump out like a sprinkler. They will say, “heroine,” not “victim,” and they’ll leave the snakes and tress alone. They’ll carry on as usual— leave the woods alone for a while.
Then Dad screams. There is a purpose to his breathing in, his vigorous choking on spit. He lunges forward in a leap, fist full of wood. It’s a stick he’s seemed to find off the ground, perhaps carrying for a while. It’s just as long as his legs— the perfect walking stick for a man who pretends he’s still young. And then he is the one to be brave. Like his uncles that yodel in hillbilly pride, Dad wavers his voice like a siren, smashing the stick with veiny hands. I can almost see the blood running away from his heart and into his arms. The snake rises as if excited, as if it has already won. It doesn’t expect what comes next. I don’t expect what comes next.
Dad smashes its head. Smashes its body. Smashes its diamonds, its tongue, and eyes. The skin tears like silk. It tears like a garbage bag— and smells worse. Overstuffed, the rattle is dying in silence. My dad, the loudest I’ve ever heard him. The head splits from the body, but he doesn’t stop. He’s swinging and swinging and yelling and yelling. It’s like a chant, there is a melody to it. I don’t want it to stick. I don’t want this moment to be remembered like a song.
So, I stop him. I grab his shoulders and pull on his shirt until he finally takes a step back. I take the stick out of his hands, and he stumbles to the ground out of breath. He pants and I stare back and forth at the rattle chunks and him— both overlapped by leaves. I sit by him. I clear the dirt with my hands so that he can see the soil and rocks. I put my hand on his belly. I trace the scar like I am a child again. He turns to me and cries. He holds me. “I thought I lost you.”