The piquant southern edge of summer
There’s a deafening scream of cicadas that stifles all. For a brief window they descend, every 17 years. Their high-pitched thrum drowns out everything: the rumble of semis on the interstate, freight trains, bird calls, the voices of those not close enough to spit on. The prehistoric insects dominate the eardrums and we live with their din, accepting tinnitus as fate.
Then one day they’re gone. As quickly as they arrived, the screams diminish to whispers and fade into nothing. Familiar sounds return to a world that seems hollow in the aftermath. Husks of a million armored bodies cling to tree trunks and crunch under foot. With a change of season, the angry shouts into the void are extinguished by blankets of time. But while they’re here, we live with the noise.
Mosquitos have taken liberties with his arms and legs, leaving welts. A sunburn blocks out places where a shirt covered his torso in more manageable weather. Ankle socks have neglected their duty and pool around the collars of well-worn once-black Chuck Taylors caked in mud. Kneeling, with one hand, he pushes aside massive leaves of skunk cabbage. The other hand clutches a Swiss Army knife, the tiny blade open and poised to defend.
The humidity weighs on his concave chest and a rasping breath brings to mind the yellow plastic inhaler sitting on a porch half a mile away. He grips the knife tighter and moves another leaf aside slowly.
The snake is coiled and listless, its oblong head lying overtop its body.
“Where does a snake’s head stop and its neck begin?” he wonders. “Is it all neck?”
Gathering courage, the boy reaches out, ready to grab reptile but he’s not nearly as stealth as he imagines himself to be. The animal recoils and rears into striking position, its tongue darting in an out. The boy tumbles backward, falling on his ass in the mud. Scrambling to his feet, he’s running before he even organizes the thoughts in his head. A root, unaccounted for, catches the rubber toecap of his right shoe. He’s on the ground again, an elbow tucked beneath himself, smashed into his ribs. He gasps for a deep breath that doesn’t come and then he’s running again.
Afternoon light pierces through old growth trees at the top of the gully. Individual beams are outlined by pollen and dust. He notices none of it. Somewhere between the snake and the edge of the forest, he’s managed to twist an ankle, his sprint reduced to a hobbled trot. Reaching the tree line and stepping into the clearing, only then does he stop to pant and wheeze.
The full heat of the late August sun claps down on his sunburned body– an instant rug burn feeling. Beads of sweat drip into his eyes. Close-cropped hair can’t sop up the moisture. A filthy forearm smears the sweat from his brow as he squints to take in his surroundings. Victor is slouched on a stump across the field whittling a stick, watching him.
Even in this heat, Victor is wearing the black and white striped soccer goalie long-sleeve that’s his daily uniform. Straight brown hair teardrops over dark green eyes that reveal nothing.
Still panting, the younger boy is on high alert when it comes to his neighbor. A friendly game of tag could turn on dime and wind up a meaningless beating where Victor pins him to the ground, bestowing Indian burn, noogies, and “made-ya-look” slugs to the gut.
“What’s the matter with you, dickhead?”
He searches the elocution for clues to Victor’s mood. Nothing. He wipes mucus from his nose with the back of his hand.
“I found a snake,” he blurts between wheezes.
Victor gets up, closing the distance in the field between them in a quick trot. The boy’s flesh gooses. His heels dig in, readying to sprint, if needed.
“Well, where is it? Let’s have a look.” Victor is interested, happy to be set free from the boredom of an unimaginative mind.
“I didn’t catch it … yet.” His voice goes small, shame creeping in at the edges of vowels. A braver boy would be waiving the snake aloft like a worthy prize, he thinks.
“Didn’t catch it? Well shit, that’s all the fun! Let’s go! Show me where you saw the sonnuvabitch!” Victor puffs his chest; rescued from boredom, the afternoon suddenly rife with potential.
The boy’s shoulders relax. There will be no Indian burns today. No noogies. No slugs. Today they’ll be allies, partners, friends?