Wind rushes through the poplar, its leaves flashing silver.
She’s talking in the kitchen. Rhubarb is poisonous, so you have to cook it and put it with something sweet, like strawberries. Then put that in something else sweet, like pie.
She’s tying her hair up against the crosswind, which enters through the back door and exits through the dining room window. There is hair in the garden, she says, to keep the rabbits away. But now it’s crawling towards the house in clumps across the grass. “Whose is it?” I ask. Not mine, she says.
I used to live here. When I was younger, I picked bulrushes from the drainage ditch. If it had a long stalk, I carried it like a flower, and if it had a short stalk, I tucked it behind my ear. If it had no stalk at all, I brushed it against my cheek and ran it over my lips. Until one broke open and I saw they were full of small worms.
The clouds are retreating and the sky is yellow.
There is a bowl of strawberries. She takes one and slices off the top but it’s too ripe and falls apart between her fingers. Try the pie, she says. The tines of the fork hit my front teeth. The rhubarb is sour.
She used to live here, too. She once draped a snake across my shoulders without saying a word. She wanted to charge me a nickel for the privilege, but the thing slid down the back of my shirt and I had to pay double.
Now she’s looking at me intently with her mouth open, as though about to speak. I am silent. There is a piercing sound: a tornado siren, the wail thinning out before swelling as it comes around again. I drop my plate onto the counter and turn to look for cover. Don’t worry, she says, they do a test every Tuesday. She’s almost shouting.
She keeps talking over the alarm. Now that we’re together, she says, she wants to apologize. “For the snake?” I say. What snake, she says.
In the end, she’s thinking of something that happened years ago, something I don’t remember. She thinks about it often. She wishes we were closer. It’s so unfortunate it happened that way—but you have a short temper, she says. I ask if this is the apology.
I always assumed it was a garden snake but in fact I never saw it. Even if there were signs of danger, I hadn’t yet learned how to read them: all black, no stripes, a bite on my wrist, a length on my neck.
Outside, the air is eerily still. The sky is green. The poplar leaves are no longer silver but the siren is still blaring, and further on, I can see the bulrushes whipping in the wind as though they might split in two.
What snake, she says again. But I am desperately looking for the basement.