Cindy and I were six years old that summer. We were searching for jack rocks in the red clay dirt road in front of Big Mamaâ€™s house that day. As we rounded the huge cacti with our treasures, we saw a rattlesnake coiled at the base of the bush at the edge of the yard.
â€œRattlesnake!â€Â We flung our jack rocks into the freshly cut grass. That one word was all it took to send every adult on the farm flying towards us. Daddy reached us first. He grabbed the head end of the snake WITH HIS BARE HANDS and swung it back and forth like a pendulum. I was mesmerized by the rich brown and the black diamond pattern running down its back, but I also knew it could be deadly.
Afraid the rattler was going to bite Daddy. I ran up to the porch and squalled for Mama. As she scooted out of the house, Big Mama, my fatherâ€™s mother, yanked my cousin and I in and locked the screen door behind us. Outside, the uncles crowded around Daddy and demanded he kill it. The cousins huddled and whispered on the front porch. Inside the doorway, the aunts guarded Cindy and I by covering our eyes with their hands. I kept pushing the fingers out of my face because if Daddy was bitten, I wanted to see.
Mama yelled, â€œGrab me the shot gun!â€
Big Mama retrieved the gun and cracked the screen door just enough to pass it to her. I jumped as the screen door banged shut, and Big Mama latched it again. How she thought my mother could actually hit the snake was beyond me. Then one of my aunts shouted, â€œOh, my Lord, sheâ€™s going to kill HIM!â€
The hand dropped from my face in time for me to see my mother aiming the gun at my father. â€œIf you donâ€™t put that blame snake down, Iâ€™m going to shoot you!â€ she screamed.
â€œWell, I be drop dead!Â Da Lawd she gonna kill my son! Lawd, Lawd, Lawd, what have I done? Lawd have mercy on me! I done give her the gun to shoot my son!â€ Big Mama wiped her right hand across her forehead and wrung her apron with her left hand. I was torn between the spectacle my grandmother was putting on and the drama going on outside.
I held my breath as I watched my father take both of his hands and twist the snake right below the head. He was holding the snake with his right hand so he had to stretch his left arm over the snake to reach in his right pocket to pull out his knife, and he sliced the head right off. I watched the triangular head bounce into a tuft of grass. The velvety body of the snake kept jerking, reminding me of Sunday dinner chickens and how they would continue to run inside the white enamel pot after Big Mama had chopped their heads off with an ax.
The aunts clenched their fists white and gasped. The unclesâ€™ jaws dropped to the ground. The cousinsâ€™ eyes grew as big as half dollar pancakes. The sighs of relief were deafening. It was almost as if silence and chaos crashed for a single second in time.
Everyone gawked at my folks like theyâ€™d just stepped off a spaceship from Mars. Mama started crying and accused Daddy of almost making her shoot him. She explained it was the only way to keep the rattler from killing Daddy. He guffawed and said she was crazy while hugging her with his free arm.
Daddy displayed his rattler on the ground for all to inspect. The aunts, uncles, and cousins oohed and aahed. The relatives claimed Daddy was a hero, but Iâ€™m not sure what they thought of Mama.
Daddy placed the snake in a paper bag and tossed it on the back of his truck. He stopped and showed off his trophy to everyone we met on our way home. A labyrinth of blood absorbed into the paper and dried into a crimson memorial for the snakeâ€™s tomb. My knees grew weak and I shook every time Daddy yanked the rattlesnake from the sack. After a day of bragging rights, Daddy cut the rattles from the tail and tied them to his rearview mirror. For years, every time the truck hit a bump, the rattle shook a warning.