Once, bestiaries were instructional guides, gathered from the fables and tales told by travelers. They described beast and fish and fowl that few had ever seen. For the characters in this bestiary, each animal that passes by reflects a measured truth about love-between a husband and a wife, a child and a parent, a brother and a sister-at a moment of danger or discovery. Any Small Thing Can Save You casts a wise eye on the kinds of simple intimacies we all long for, and on the truest opportunities for real salvation.
|Publisher:||Blue Hen Trade|
|Product dimensions:||5.54(w) x 7.24(h) x 0.65(d)|
About the Author
Christina Adam's award-winning fiction has appeared in many literary journals as well as The Atlantic Monthly. Her work has been anthologized in Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writersand American Fiction. She is the recipient of an Idaho Commission on the Arts Fellowship.
Read an Excerpt
A is for ASP
When she taught Latin in high school, her students had performed an elaborate skit that ended with the death of Cleopatra, stung by an asp. The cast found every opportunity and application for the word "asp," with Milton-like s's-that soft susurrushissing out into the audience, held as long as possible before the final p. Twenty years later, Helena still laughed to think of where, anatomically speaking, the Latin club had located the fatal strike, but in fact, she was terrified of snakes. When she and her husband had fixed fences on the ranch, it was the one thing she found comforting: At that altitude, there were no snakes. It was never necessary, even in tall grass and weeds, to watch where they were going.
When they retired and moved south to New Mexico, the neighbors cautioned them not to water at night, a practice that brought snakes down from the desert. They were to watch for the wedge-shaped head of a rattler, and listen for the dry, warning sound. She had planted a garden in the unfamiliar soil that seemed like gumbo to her, a soil she doubted would grow anything. They built i>houses with this soil, hers in particular. She planted the most common flowers: marigolds and zinnias, flowers that, in the mountains, had turned black at the slightest threat of frost, that seemed to call to frost and bring it down. In New Mexico, she planted her first tomato. "Before I die," she thought, "I want to eat a ripe tomato, still warm from hanging on the vine." She wanted to grow strawberries, and peaches, fruits she could remember having taste and sweetness when she was a girl.
She tried to persuade Stan to helpher dig manure into the beds around the house, to amend the heavy soil and make it friable, but it was all she could do to get him to help water. Grudgingly, he sprinkled and cut the lawn. He had started a small business and spent his days sitting in his underwear at a large, pale gray computer in his den. Piles of paper grew around him and slithered to the floor. He went for days without shaving. He was enthralled by technology, and she had to admit, he was happy. A rancher all his life, he told her, "I've seen all the dirt I ever want to see."
The tile floors aggravated Helena's arthritis to the point that there were nights she couldn't sleep. Still, she took pleasure in the coming of spring, the smooth floors remaining cool in the advancing heat. When she left the darkened house to go outside, she understood for the first time what people meant when they said, "blazing heat." The sun was such a bright assault that, as she first walked into the yard, she saw darkened images at the edge of her field of vision. They followed her back indoors, like shapes left in the air by flash bulbs.
She began to garden in the evenings, when the sun had passed behind the height of the willow trees that bounded their yard. She wore shorts and sleeveless blouses and walked among the flowers in her bare feet, pulling weeds. Large toads appeared, buried up to their eyes in the damp mud, or jumping just ahead of her as she watered. Bull frogs took up a drumming in the ditch across the road, so loud she thought, they must be the size of timpanis. She went so far as to think of stringing lights, that she might garden into the night.
As summer advanced, the heat rose up through her feet even in the evening. It forced her to stop weeding and walk indoors to cool herself. That day, she'd been thinking about the sadness of gardening. How the act itself was about waiting. She thought it was too late, for her, to plant a tree. She entered the kitchen and started for the sink. Looking down, she saw a long, green snake, so rounded and perfect-so stillshe thought, "It's a rubber snake; Stan is playing a trick on me." She looked more closely, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. A swift, forked tongue, like a felt tab, flicked out.
Slowly she backed away. She could see Stan out the window, intent on some business, but she couldn't call to him or she would frighten off the snake. She crossed the kitchen, waving her arms, but he couldn't see. He was watering shrubs as he disappeared around the corner of the house. She didn't call until she stepped out the back door, but even then, he didn't hear.
She shouted, "Stan!" and he glanced up. "What?" he said, with such an edge of irritation in his voice, she stopped still. She had wanted him to come back with her to see the snake, how green and perfect it was and how unexpected, because it was round and of a substance different from the things that belonged inside a house. But his tone knocked the wind out of her. She said, "There's a snake in the kitchen."
He dropped the hose and strode toward the door demanding, "What kind of snake is it. Is it poisonous?" She followed. "No," she said. "It has a pointed head; I don't think it's poisonous."
By the time they returned to the kitchen, the snake had slithered along the cupboards to the opposite corner. Stan looked at it and said, "Wait here; I'll go get a something." He disappeared into his den and she could hear him shuffling boxes. While she watched, the snake nosed up into the exact corner between the cupboards and in an instant disappeared, as if it had been sucked up by vacuum tube.
When Stan returned with a large, black file box, she tried to explain where the snake had gone, and how quickly. Stan produced a flashlight and began to remove pots and pans. "No," she said, "he's not in there. He went up between the cupboards."
Stan was not listening.
"Just leave it," she said. "Let's turn off the lights and set out a pan of water. Maybe the snake will come out on its own."
Stan continued to pull out pots, setting them down on the kitchen floor. She pictured herself having to put them all back, the arthritis in her hip and knees sharp with every bend. Suddenly furious with him, she filled a shallow pan with water and set it on the rug before the sink. She found herself demanding, in a voice she scarcely recognized,
"Why? Why don't you listen to me?"
He stopped removing pans and stared at her. In silence, she went ahead and fixed herself the glass of ice water she had come in for in the first place, carried it across the open room to the couch and sat down with her back to the kitchen. It was too late now to retreat back outside, too soon to go to bed. Trapped in her own house, because she didn't want to talk to Stan, she watched the last light of the sunset fade to gray.
Mud was drying on her bare feet, pulling the skin taut in a way she could recall from summer nights in her childhood. Her feet just lightly touched the floor. She heard Stan shuffle back to his study, and she thought of the snake. How had she known it wasn't poisonous? It had a head the shape of a finger, of an animal's penis. She laughed to herself, thinking that the snake was still behind her in the kitchen, and she ought to pick up her feet. Go wash them and tuck them underneath her. She thought of it, but didn't move. She thought of saying to the neighbors, "And then, the worst thing you can imagine happened, your worst nightmare. . ." and still, she didn't lift her feet. Reasonably, she thought it would be hours before the snake ventured out of the cupboard.
She felt her anger at Stan leave with the heat of the day, as if evaporating from her skin. And then came the touch. The coolest, simplest touch to the back of her heel. Slowly she stood up. The snake looped just in front of the couch and curled away. She circled around it, into the tile foyer, and opened wide front door. She tried to approach the snake from behind, as if she could herd it, but it turned and came toward her. She stepped toward the snake, and it curved away. Slowly, and by indirect direction, they made progress toward the door. The snake lifted its head slightly, aware of the cool night, a sudden breeze, and like a compass needle shivering and hunting for true north, made its way over the threshold and out onto the porch. Helena closed the door.
She wanted to go tell Stan how, amazingly, she had no fear of the snake, none at all. She felt honored, in fact, by the touch, by the timorous cool touch of the snake on her heel. She went into the bathroom to wash and change into night clothes, wondering what she would say to Stan when he came in to bed. Whether to tell him about the snake or notsuch a small decision. It would be only one moment in so many of their years together, yet she knew. It would make all the difference in the world.
From Any Small Thing Can Save You by Christina Adam (c) 2001 Penguin Putnam, used by permission.