The Testimony of the Accused
Nestled among the autumn wheat, I saw a milk snake eating a black toad. Only the toad’s head was sticking out, but his black eyes searched and blinked. I was hunched over, sickle in hand, cutting the crop one handful at a time in mindless repetition, and I might have sliced them both if the toad had not made himself known.
“Kill your family,” said the toad.
“Kill your parents and your little brother and kill the dog too.”
“Why the dog?”
“Because I asked you to.”
“Do you want some help? I could kill this snake.”
“Kill your family,” said the toad.
Awake all night, I rubbed my blistered hands together under the blankets and tried to stop their shaking. There were as many grasshoppers in the bush outside my window as there were stars in the calm, cloudless sky. How could anyone sleep with that noise? I looked at my brother in the bed across the room, dreaming, worryless, drooling on his arm. I rose from the bed and put on my shoes.
The sickle was where I left it, hung in the barn with the others like artwork in a private gallery. When I took it from its hook, my hands stopped shaking.
The bush was the problem. The bush was full of grasshoppers. Noisy, stupid grasshoppers. They congregated there to chirp and screech and didn’t care who they kept awake. The dry branches of the bush were nearly leafless, but looked full from a distance. They were populated with a hundred thousand angular, pointy insects, their carapaces shiny in the blue moonlight. I shouldered the branches away to expose the main stem, and the grasshoppers panicked at my touch, hopped away, high and low, landed on my back, skittered up my arms, became tangled in my hair.
I gripped the stem and chopped it, pulled upward and felt the plant give way just a little with each fresh cut. Greenwood juice spilt from the wound until there was a great crack and splinter. I stood and hoisted the upturned bush by its stem. The roots left in the ground wriggled and screamed as they vanished into the dirt.
The last leaves fell off the bush, then the branches, and then it was a snake. The stem was a milk snake that I grasped in my hand. It coiled about my wrist like a friend, and my brother said, “What are you doing?”
His head was poking out the window and my sickle was through his throat before I looked. His body slumped over the sill. Dark blood poured from his throat, washed down the side of the house, and filled the place where the bush had been with a shimmering black pool.
“Now your parents,” said the snake. I loosed my grip on the reptile and it wound itself up my arm and around my neck where it stayed, cold and dry, whispering into my ear with its probing tongue.
I opened their throats as they slept, as easily as unlacing a boot. Father coughed and sputtered, spraying red spittle into my unblinking face. The noise woke mother. She shouted something before I killed her, but I can’t remember what.
The dog didn’t bleed. He was tied up outside, barking a terrible racket and when I cut his throat the voice escaped. The howling, barking, whimpering voice of confusion and dread spilled out like the blood that should have. It covered my hands in warm, wet void.
Hours passed in the world and a lifetime passed in my soul. The sun was rising pink and red through the treetops and the horizon was an elsewhere world; a place of peace and mysteries and power. The silhouettes of the branches on the sunrise were the black stripes on the milk snake. Black, red, black, yellow, black, red, black, yellow.
“What do I do now?” I asked the snake.
“Die,” it said. A brown hawk snatched the milk snake in its yellow talons and flew away from me. The snake hung limp in the air and was carried off, far away, into the world beyond the sky.
Hang me, if you must.