From her position in the back seat, face pressed indifferently against a box of Krishna figurines, Emily watched the sky cut in and out between the dark concrete serpents of the interstate. She had always hated snakes and highway snakes were the worst: sleek and fat, doubled back on themselves, swallowing their tails. Emily thought, what if I swallowed one too, and suddenly she could feel it writhing cold and alive from her navel up through the back of her tongue.
“You’re just car sick.” The frame of her father’s glasses flashed in the rear-view mirror. “Good to lie down.” He thumped the wheel with unnecessary cheerfulness, jostling the heap of stuffed garbage bags riding shotgun. “You’ll feel better when we get there.”
But Emily knew the truth — that there was no there to get to. Knew it and knew that her father knew it. Maybe everybody knew it.
Once she’d thought there might be rural North Carolina. After Pamela (that was the third divorce), her father tried his hand at religion and discovered that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness had a village near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Emily had never lived anywhere like it. There were hills blanketed in pine needles, teeming with deer and foxes; lakes too numerous to possess names, haunted by the cries of waterfowl; houses few, and those few dignified and archaic, the retired plantations and farmsteads of a foreign generation. In the summer the air thickened with humidity and mosquitoes. Emily walked under the pines, first alone, then (after Cynthia, the fourth) with two little stepbrothers. Their limbs swelled under the continuous influence of bloodsuckers and poison ivy, drenched in the waterfall of sweat which started close on the heels of Easter and lasted till Halloween.
“Hear that?” Emily crouched near the tow-colored heads. Their eyes, blue and solemn, followed the skinny brown slope of her hand toward the crackcrackcrack and sudden flash of red. “Woodpecker.” They watched silently, mouths formed in round reverent O’s. When Emily looked at them her chest grew tight, as if something had sprouted inside and outgrown its cage. Please God, she found herself praying. She had been a devout agnostic since birth, and though she looked on her father’s apostasy as a kind of scandal, still she prayed: Let me stay.
Emily had carefully compartmentalized her thirteen-year history into epochs like they did in science textbooks. The “Early Years” were spent on the Muscogee Creek Reservation in Oklahoma and included a mother she didn’t remember well (Michie, the first). Then there was, for a very short time, Spain, where she had picked up the language much faster than her traveling salesman father and served as his interpreter. This was her “Professional Start.” London was longer, the “Troubles,” so-called after an evil stepmother (Tonya, the second) and a baby sister she’d never been allowed to touch. But Miami was the worst, dull and slow and painful, the “Dark Days” notwithstanding Pamela’s relative agreeableness and apparent sterility. At the time Emily didn’t think she liked kids much. But North Carolina, with its clean wind and shadowy mountains and blond toddlers, had begun to change her mind. That was what falling in love did to you. Those were the “Good Times,” until —
“The highway looks like water moccasins.”
She had surprised herself by speaking. The car swerved slightly.
After a minute her father said, “You’re not still thinking about that, are you?” He reached a hand back to find hers. She took it as she would a stone. “Sweetheart, I love you. Cynthia loves you. The boys love — Emmy, it’s not your fault. And we didn’t leave because of … Em. The chant. Always remember the chant. Okay?” He didn’t wait for her to respond. “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna …” The snake wiggled in her esophagus. Emily screwed her eyes shut.
On the other side of the lids she watched the scene unfold, passive.
She led the boys down an incline slick and crumbly with moisture. The damp smell of bog and rotten vegetation rose in palpable waves. One of the nameless lakes, or rather swamps, squatted brown and motionless below. She heard the repetitive call of a song sparrow in the cattails. “Let’s try to see one up close,” she suggested in a stage whisper. The boys shivered with delight; Keshava, the elder by a year and a half, on her left, and Dami on her right. Their hands fit soft and smooth in hers. Electric shocks of equal parts pain and pleasure shot through her.
“Hare Hare Hare Rama …”
“Do you see them yet?” She was so busy with the reeds and her ecstasies that she ignored the movement of grass at their feet. She did not see the scales undulating in the wobbly sunlight, the evil triangular head until the infinite half-moment of paralysis before little Dami’s shriek of fear and anguish. The average water moccassin, Emily would later learn from reporters reeking of sympathy and barely disguised eagerness, would not exceed four feet in length; but this viper had been longer than she was tall.
“Hare Rama, Rama Rama …”
Of course it wasn’t her fault. If it had been her fault there might be something to be done, some reparation she could make. Instead nothing was her fault. Nothing was anyone’s fault. All was accident. It was like learning, while hanging upside down with her stomach dropped somewhere beneath her, that the carnival ride was completely uncontrolled. But the terror had gone stale for Emily. She’d left it with Cynthia and Keshava, blond and blue and round and reverent and silent. With Dami, the empty discolored stare and the open coffin and the ashes poured hastily over the Eno River. Behind. It was the road again.
“Hare Hare. Looky there, squirt.” Her father’s head indicated the passenger window. “Exit 129. Okeechobee Road. Mee-am-ee. Almost home.”
Exit. Home. What a joke. You couldn’t ever get off the interstate. Emily rolled over, moaned, and vomited onto the car mat.