The South |

The Embalmer’s Daughter

by Peyton Burgess

edited by Michelle Lyn King

For Jeff Mitchell

Tom barely had enough time to grow into his name, to give weight to his one syllable. He only had 11 months. I only had 11 months to be his big sister.

I was 13 years old. The bus dropped me off at the driveway to our home in Manchac Swamp. I kicked my gravel all the way to our front porch. But when I got home, it was empty. I’d never come home to an empty house before.

After I wondered through our home, checking all of the rooms, the sunken back deck, the shed where Mom kept all of her gardening supplies, and finally the waters of Manchac Swamp that started at our backyard, I turned to the highway and saw our old Taurus racing across the horizon, leaving a long puffy stream of dust like a rocket.

The morning before, Dad and I had gone canoeing to see the sunrise. We dragged the canoe out of the waters of Manchac and up onto our back lawn. My little brother Tom Broussard was naked and learning how to walk in the uncut grass of the yard.

Dad and I set the canoe next to an old pirogue we’d found abandoned in the swamp years ago.

“I’m late,” Dad said. He ran up to the house.

Mom and Aunt Janie were sitting on the porch steps.

“I’m late for work!” Dad said as he bounded up the steps of our raised cottage. He kissed Mom long and hard, bumping Aunt Janie out of the way.

“Damn, Sam, watch it,” Aunt Janie said.

We tolerated Aunt Janie. She was the only family that kept visiting us after we moved to Manchac Swamp. The rest of the family wrote us off as a bunch of hippies. Dad was working as an embalmer at Landry’s Funeral Home in Hammond. He made enough that we could keep to ourselves at the end of the earth in Manchac. Mom and Dad didn’t agree with most people’s priorities.

I slipped my shrimp boots off and was about to sit down and play in the grass with Tom. Mom asked me to water the hanging plants.

“It’s so awful, Sam working on a Sunday,” said Aunt Janie. “How do ya’ll put up with it?”

“It’s like any other day,” said Mom. “There’re no weekends when it comes to the reaper.”

“Just so morbid. Does he plan on doing it his whole life?”

“His whole life? How should I know, Janie?” Mom said. She got up and came over to me. She adjusted the nozzle on the spray so that I couldn’t beat up the plants. “Like that, my love,” she said.

“Mom, I’m going to spray Tom real quick, if that’s alright with you,” I said.

“Sure, why not. Just a little though. Just a sprinkle,” Mom said.

I waved the hose like a magic wand. The small droplets sprinkled across Tom’s forehead like fairy dust. Tom straightened his arms and sat up, arching his back with his tummy on the ground. He looked up, confused, his little brow furrowing. He struggled to his feet and looked around. Then he saw me give him another light spray from the wand, and he giggled loudly. He reached into the air for the wave of sprinkles and lost his balance, tumbling onto his back.

That night, Dad came home and all of us dined on a blanket down by the waters of Manchac Swamp. We ate fried chicken and stewed kale. Tom shoveled the kale into his mouth, handful after handful. Dad and Mom laughed as they took turns spooning more onto his plate. Tom seemed to know what was good for him.

When we finished eating, Dad and Mom stood up and led us in our family’s weird prayer ritual that they insisted on performing every night we dined by the swamp. I thought it was crazy, but I didn’t fight it because they promised we’d never have to do it in front of anybody else.

“Dear Manchac Swamp and all of her creatures!” Dad began.

“We thank you for allowing us into your home!” Mom continued.

“We will live quietly with you!” Dad said.

“And we will be grateful for you!” Mom said.

Then, they both looked at me, waiting for me to say my part. Rolling my eyes, I looked at Tom and said, “Some day you’ll have to do this too, Tom.” With a groan, I stood up from the blanket and yelled, “Thank you, Manchac Swamp!”

Mom and Dad gathered our dishes. I picked Tom up, feeling his chubby legs cling to my hips, and we all walked back up to the house.

Dad had just finished washing the dishes when the phone rang. He threw the damp dishtowel over his shoulder and answered. He rested his head against the freezer door. “Okay. I’ll leave now,” he said.

He hung up the phone and walked over to me. He gave me a kiss on my cheek. “I’m sorry, Lizzy. Another frog croaked.” He turned to mom. “Some old frog in Maurepas croaked, Lanie.”

Dad always called them frogs. He never said body, or man, or woman, or them, or her, or him, or anything like that. Just frogs. They all had to be frogs to him. And because he was the only embalmer at Landry’s, he had to prepare a lot of frogs.

The next morning, Dad and Tom were still asleep when I was leaving to catch my bus. I tiptoed into the room to kiss them goodbye. Tom was snuggled under Dad’s arm. I kissed them both on the forehead.

I walked back into the foyer and saw Mom unzip my backpack and place my lunch inside.

“Will Dad be home when I get back?” I said.

“He’s on call. We’ll see.”

“It all depends on the damn frogs.” I laughed, proud of myself.

“You’re too much. And you’re going to miss your bus if you don’t hurry.”

Mom gave me a hug.

I went out the door and leaped off the front porch, my dress ballooning with the hot summer air. I ran down our gravel driveway, yelling, “It all depends on the damn frogs!”

Out in the yard at school, my friend Genie and I sat at a picnic table during free period. We watched the 8th grade girls work the boys. They were so good at it. I wondered how I could be that good. It wasn’t the attention I wanted. I wanted the touch. That was it. Just the touch. I was just starting to be curious about what it would feel like to be touched. Other than that, the boys didn’t seem that interesting to me. They were a little dull and all the same.

Mary, one of the popular 8th graders, walked by us. She smirked at me. “Hey look, it’s Elizabeth the corpse fucker.”

Her friends laughed as they all continued into the building. I heard their laughter echo in halls as the doors shut behind them.

“Bitches,” Genie said.

I didn’t say anything. I had heard it before. Ever since coming to middle school, this had been the thing that I heard almost every day. I would work hard to not cry. And I would say nothing, because I knew my dad worked hard for us, and that was more important than these games.

“She’s jealous, Liz,” Genie said. “She knows you’re prettier than her. I mean, have you seen the way Jake is looking at you? Right in front of her, he looks at you. She knows it.”

“Genie, I don’t care about Jake.”

“I know. Just saying.”

We went inside and pinballed our way down the hall, bouncing off the lockers, until we got to Biology – Mr. Jacobs. He was handsome. His khakis hung just so on his grad school butt, which shimmied as he scribbled on the chalkboard. He talked about how we work, from the outside looking inside. I was more curious about how things work from the inside looking outside.

At the end of the day, we lined up as always for the buses. Genie stood next to me and her line went to north of Manchac. Mine went as far south in Manchac as you can go before you tread water. We liked lining up together so we could talk during load up.

“So you ain’t ever gonna say nothing to that bitch, calling you a corpse fucker?” Genie said. She dropped her backpack to the ground and crossed her arms.

“Why should I? Outside of this place, who cares?” I said.

“Well, that’s crazy. I mean, for one, we’re always in this place.”

“School isn’t everything, Genie. And I’m not even here when I’m here.”

“You better be here when I’m talking to you!” She laughed that big seagull laugh. I loved her laugh.

“Always! You’re the whole reason I come to this place,” I said.

The bus doors opened up. We all started our procession into the dumb, yellow submarines. We inched our way up to each of our bus’ doors. It was time to climb the steps and go our separate ways. We grabbed hands, fingers clinging as the students behind us forced us to continue up the steps and into our own buses. This was something we did every day.

“I’ll always love you, Lizzy!” Genie yelled.

“Genie, no, Genie, please,” I yelled back! “I’ll never forget you!”

“If I don’t make it back, tell Mr. Jacobs I love him!”

“No, Genie. You’ll tell him yourself! Some day!”

On the bus ride, I sat by myself. There were only ten other students on my bus route each day. Most of them were friends and sat in the back together. They all lived within walking distance of each other. Not me. On the bus, I sat in the second seat by myself and never talked. I was the last stop on the route.

Just like any other school day, I walked the ten minutes to home. Like always, I could see the front of our house and our yard, but it was quieter somehow. I thought that I would find Mom and Tom playing and gardening out in the backyard, but the closer I got, the more I sensed that my Mom and Tom weren’t there.

The trail of dust from our Taurus plumed into the sky as Dad sped across the horizon. He turned hard and fishtailed a bit into our driveway. I’d never seen my Dad drive like that. I’d never come home to an empty house. I started crying immediately. As Dad got closer, I felt myself taking small steps back. The car grinded to a stop in the gravel. Dad reached over and pushed the passenger door open. “Liz, get in the car!” he yelled.

I was sobbing at that point. “Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“Just get in the damn car, Liz!” His voice cracked. He looked scared.

I got in the car and Dad accelerated, kicking more dirt into the air.

“It’s gonna be okay, Liz. It’s gonna be okay. Don’t worry.”

“What’s happening, Daddy?”

“Tom was hurt. We’re going to the hospital.”

The last time I’d gone to St. Mary’s Hospital was when Tom was born. Mom said he was an easy birth because I had been so hard.

Dad accelerated up the on-ramp that lifts us high into the air on raised Interstate 55. All of the mud, fishing camps, gators, and cordgrass were below us and out of our way. In the canals, the boats were tilted on their sides from the low tide water. I looked at Dad and noticed suddenly that he was fighting back tears, smashing his lips together.

“Daddy?” I said.

He wouldn’t answer me. He pushed the emergency lights on and stared ahead at the interstate, leaning forward as he accelerated.

“Dad!” I yelled. “What’s going to happen to Tom?”

“Lizzy enough!” he snapped back. He took a deep breath. “Please, Lizzy.”

Nothing would be okay ever again. When we got to the hospital, Dad slammed the brakes at the emergency room entrance and got out. He charged ahead without saying anything to me. I had to jog to keep up, wiping my tears as I saw the strangers look at us like freaks, like they already knew what had happened to us even before I knew.

“Where’s my son? My wife? I’m Tom Broussard’s father. Hello? I’m Tom Broussard’s father,” Dad yelled. He kept saying it. “I’m Tom Broussard’s father!”

Finally, a nurse was able to stop what she was doing and look us up in the system. Her face grew serious. She ushered us down the hall, each set of double doors forcing us to stall. And I almost didn’t want to keep going. I felt like I would be sick at any moment.

We walked into the Intensive Care Unit. We took a quick turn. In the first room, there was mom lying on a bed. She was in the fetal position, sobbing, holding a ball of white bed sheets. She coughed up a little spit and let out a loud cry, clutching the ball of sheets, and I saw Tom’s tiny arm drop from the sheets and over the edge of the bed. Dad lunged forward, lifting Tom’s arm and pressing it against his chest. “What can we do?” he yelled to another nurse.

I wanted to run. I started backing out of the room. Then suddenly, a nun, holding some prayer beads in her hands, stepped in front of my line of sight. “What is your name, young lady?”

“Elizabeth,” I said.

“Elizabeth, my name is Sister Margaret. I want to show you something,” she said.

“But my family.”

“Your mother and father will come for you soon. But now, they must be with your brother.”

Sister Margaret extended her hand to mine. I placed my hand in hers and she guided me out of the room and down the hall. She put her other arm around my shoulders to steady me as we entered a stairwell and descended the steps.

We walked out of an exit door. The sun was glaring in my eyes. I saw that right ahead of us, at the bottom of a small slope, was forest and marsh. Sister Margaret ushered me down the slope leading to the marsh’s edge.

“Being from Manchac, you won’t have any problem taking your shoes off and following me into the marsh, will you?” she asked.

Sister Margaret bent over and pulled her scapular and tunic up enough to slide her black oxfords off her feet, then her black cotton socks. She stepped into the tall marsh grass and turned and waved for me to follow.

I didn’t budge. “I want to know what happened to my brother,” I said.

“I know you do, love,” she said. “And we’ll talk about him. I promise.”

She proceeded into the marsh, turning to wave me to follow one last time before she disappeared behind the grass and cypress saplings. I took off my sneakers and braced myself for the familiar sinking. The mud massaged my toes. The sunburnt grass poked and tickled the arches of my feet. I could see Sister Margaret disappearing and reappearing among the heads and gaps of grass. When I caught up to her, she was bending down, her hands searching through the water and pushing the grass aside from their crowns.

“Ah, here we are,” she said.

She stood up, holding something in her hands. She turned to face me and I saw then that it was a small snake. I recognized its kind.

“That’s poisonous,” I said.

“Yes, it is. The poor thing,” she said.

I knew from the lectures my Mom and Dad gave me that cottonmouths were deadly. I knew from my many encounters with them in Manchac that they were also aggressive. I’d never seen one slither away. You always had to go around them or turn back if they were in your path.

Sister Margaret let the small cottonmouth navigate in between her fingers and around her wrists. I had stopped crying, and I could feel my tears drying on my cheeks and the salt tightening against my skin.

“Come here. I want you to hold it,” Sister Margaret said.

“My Mom and Dad told me to never touch a cottonmouth,” I said.

“They are right. But, just this once, I think you should hold it, try to trust it.”

I looked down to see my steps through the mud. I got close enough to Sister Margaret that I could hear the flipping of the snake’s tongue.

“Just hold your hands out as if somebody was going to wash them for you,” she said.

I did as she instructed. The snake slid gracefully, as if taken by the breeze, onto my hands. Sister Margaret placed her hand on my shoulder and nodded in encouragement.

The snake felt cold, and I was calm. I wasn’t scared. I remember feeling so focused on the snake, so entangled with every move it made around my fingers.

“Your brother Tom was a happy and adventurous child, a lot like you,” Sister Margaret said.

“How do you know?” I said.

“Because, he only had a very short time and you were one of his only examples. He watched you, which means you were showing him how to live. Isn’t that a nice thought?”

“Do you know what happened to him?”

“Yes. I do.”

I moved my hand, allowing the snake to continue exploring my fingers. “Tell me,” I said.

“He was playing in the yard, much like you had probably seen him every day, but he was bitten by a snake. A snake a lot like the one you’re holding in your hands. And it bit him in a place, his neck, which made it harder for him.”

I watched the snake extend itself into the air, bobbing its head and searching for a new tangle of fingers to explore. I switched my hands and allowed it to slide into my fingers once again.

“Are you okay? Would you like to put it down?” Sister Margaret said.

“No,” I said.

“Tom didn’t cry. He kept playing in the grass. Your father and mother had no way of knowing what had happened, until they saw the swollen mark of the bite.

“The snake? Did they find it?”

“Nobody ever saw it, my love.”

I crouched down and lowered my hands back into the mud and water, letting the snake glide into the water and disappear among the grass crowns.

“These things are hard to understand,” Sister Margaret said. “They always will be. That snake you held, as deadly as the one that bit your brother, did no harm to you.”

It was then that I heard Aunt Janie calling for me. “Lizzy, are you out here?” She was standing back at the exit door from the hospital. I could just barely see her head over the marsh grass.

“You go back to your family,” Sister Margaret said. “Maybe, we’ll see each other again soon.”

I ran through the grass. The mud splashed up onto my calves. I grabbed my shoes and decided to just stay barefoot.

“What were you doing out there?” Aunt Janie said.

“I was talking to Sister Margaret,” I said.

“In the marsh? Lizzy don’t be coy,” Aunt Janie said.

She thought of herself as a Christian, but Aunt Janie always thought the worst of people and things she didn’t understand.

Aunt Janie drove us home in our car. Mom and I were sitting in the back. I had my head on her lap. She was resting her head against the window. Nobody spoke. Dad sat up front, staring straight ahead. I didn’t see him blink until Aunt Janie parked the car in front of our house and he was wakened from his gaze.

I didn’t go to school and pretty soon it felt like it would be impossible to ever go back. If we heard a car coming down the highway, we’d turn off all the lights and sit quietly together in the living room. We all know that other family’s can experience similar loss, but when it happened to us, it felt like a personal attack, a tragedy inflicted especially for us. Grief has a way of making you feel uniquely attacked and alone with your hurting. I felt special in my sadness, my anger, and my fear. I know Mom and Dad did too, and that they let that feeling take control.

Tom’s body was kept at Landry’s Funeral Home where Dad worked. Mr. Landry, Dad’s boss, came by unannounced a couple of days after Tom’s death. He stood in the driveway, keeping his distance, as Dad, Mom, and I held each other on the front porch. “I don’t want y’all to worry about a thing. I’ll keep Tom as long as you need,” Mr. Landry said, holding his black cowboy hat in his hands. “When you decide what you want to do, I’ll cover it.”

“I’ll be coming down to take care of him,” Dad muttered.

“That won’t be necessary,” Mr. Landry said. “You just call and tell me what you want, whatever you want. Well, you know what I’m getting at.”

Mom, wrapping her arms tightly around herself, turned and carefully stepped inside our house. The screen door slammed behind her.

“I’ll be down to get him,” Dad said again.

“Well, just give me a call, Sam. I’m so sorry.” Mr. Landry put his hat on and got back in his Cadillac.

Dad went inside. I watched Mr. Landry slowly go down our driveway, heading back up to Hammond. I sensed Mr. Landry eyeing us through his rearview mirror, worried about something. I was worried too.

A few days later, it was early in the morning and still dark outside, when Dad woke me. He was sitting on the edge of my bed, whispering my name to me. “Lizzy, throw on some jeans and grab your boots,” he said.

Mom stood at my bedroom door. She was already dressed and in her boots. “There’s a chill. You’ll need a sweater, my love.” Mom fished through my laundry basket, grabbing some clothes for me to wear. She laid them out on the foot of my bed.

“What’s going on?” I said.

“Come outside, Lizzy, and we’ll talk about it,” Dad said as he stood up from my bed.

I got dressed and went out the back door. The cypress trees, our lawn, the cordgrass, the water, everything glowed a dark blue with the hint of the coming sunrise. Down by the water, I saw Mom positioning the canoe by the water’s edge. Nearby, Dad seemed to be working on the pirogue.

As I approached them I could see in the pirogue a small figure wrapped tightly in white cloth. Around the figure, the pirogue was filled with tied bundles of dried pine needles and firewood.

I got closer to the pirogue. The fumes from the fuel burned my nose. All you could see was Tom’s face, now a glowing dark blue like the swamp. Dad had swaddled Tom’s body like I remember from when he was a newborn. I touched the fabric. It was wet with fuel. I was scared. I looked at Mom.

“It’s important to us that we do this here. This place was all Tom knew,” Mom said. She tied a rope from the canoe to the pirogue. Then she handed me a paddle. “I couldn’t survive wondering if he was lost and scared forever,” she said.

When I looked around to steady myself and calm my breathing, I saw our home and the swamp we disappeared into whenever the world would let us. And enough of me understood what Mom said that I was able to get into the canoe.

I stepped into the mud. It felt firmer than usual from the cold night air. My boots splashed through the shallow water and gasped with the suction of the wet mud. I made my way to the front of the canoe. Mom got in as well. Dad pushed us off and guided the pirogue into the water behind us. I looked behind me to see Tom’s body, the pirogue, floating low in the water. Dad jumped into the canoe, splashing a little and rocking us. I dropped my paddle and held tightly to the gunwales.

We navigated through the cordgrass. Mom did all of the paddling. My hands stayed fastened to the gunwales. Dad used the tow rope to guide the pirogue through the grass and lumps of mud that always seemed to suddenly rise up out of the shallows. Mom and Dad didn’t have to communicate. They knew what they were doing. They had probably known for days.

Mom stopped paddling and we came to rest at a small mound of grass surrounded by deeper water. In the middle of the mound of grass, there was a cypress sapling. Our house was still visible in the distance behind the thin trees. Dad got out of the canoe, waded over to the pirogue, to Tom, and pushed the pirogue up onto the mound of grass so that it settled near the cypress sapling.

Mom got out of the canoe next. She turned to me and put her hand on mine. “You don’t have to get out and do anything if you don’t want.” She waded towards the pirogue, ascended the mound of grass, and kneeled so she could hold Tom. She held him as much as she could without disturbing his body. She whispered something into his ear.

I could smell the fuel on mom as she passed me to climb back into the canoe. The smell of fuel, an odd thing that sticks out in my mind.

Dad pulled matches from his breast pocket. He struck one and placed it in the pirogue, quickly, as if he knew he or Mom could change their minds any second.

The only thing that felt real to me at that moment was the smell of the fuel. Everything else in that moment felt like a dream, and ever since then, I’ve felt that the things we smell are the most real in this world. It has been hard to trust what I see in this world after having seen my brother’s body turned to ash in the swamp.

We paddled back towards our house as Tom’s body burned brightly and loudly in the dark blue of the early sunrise. As we got closer to home, I saw two cars coming up our driveway, one a state trooper and the other Mr. Landry’s Cadillac. They drove into the backyard. Each car slid to a stop in the dewy, uncut lawn.

They could see us paddling home, see the flames behind us that by then reached high up into the sky and rivaled some of the taller cypress trees. Both Mr. Landry and the trooper stood firm and tall with their hands digging into their waists. I knew Mom and Dad were in trouble, and of course, they did too, but they kept paddling towards the shore. As we got closer, the trooper rested one hand on his holstered pistol. It was when Aunt Janie got out of Mr. Landry’s car that it sunk in how long I might not see Mom and Dad.

The Tangipahoa Parish Family Court placed me under temporary custody of Aunt Janie. My school principal called Aunt Janie twice, telling her I could stay out of school for as long as I needed. It was as if they didn’t want me to come back. But after a week at Aunt Janie’s, I wanted to go back. At her house in Hammond, we spent most of the day watching TV and eating TV dinners. I got a phone call from Mom and Dad each, every morning. It wasn’t clear when I would see them again. It didn’t take long before I made it clear to them I hated everything about life with Aunt Janie and I hated them for what they did.

There Dad was on the five o’clock news. Grainy, crummy footage of him carrying Tom’s body, draped in a sheet, out of the Landry Funeral Home. He had kept all of his anger and sadness to himself, and it made him do something that we were all going to have to pay for. Mom, trapped in the same solitary grief, agreed that it was the right way to honor Tom too. They had kept their loss of Tom all to themselves. This is a normal thing to do, but when you do it too much, or too long, you can end up doing something that hurts others, even other survivors.

I felt further and further from them and the world we used to live in. What Mom and Dad did was wrong, but I didn’t want to be part of the world that said they were crazy.

Aunt Janie caught on that she couldn’t deal with me. I started sneaking out to see Genie. We would steal cigarettes and crummy wine from her mom. Talk about our parents and how we knew to do things better than them.

We talked about our bodies and how to touch them. We talked about the impossibility of finding somebody worth having sex with.

“I don’t know if I care who it is,” I said, taking a sip of wine.

“Why?” Genie asked.

“Because I plan on living enough to not care.”

One night, I fell asleep on Genie’s couch and came home in the morning after Aunt Janie had waken. Sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me, Aunt Janie rested her hands on the cordless phone. She picked up the phone. “I’ll give you what you should have been given a long time ago,” she said.

I rolled my eyes, because what could be worse, and went back to my guest room, slamming the door behind me.

The next day she drove me to Abbeville, to Our Lady of Bayous. Without a word, Aunt Janie opened my door, handed me my suitcase, and got back in her car and drove off. A procession of nuns came out of the front entrance. At the time, that was the closest thing I’d seen that resembled a proper funeral. I giggled. “Who died?” I said.

The sisters ushered me into a garden in the backyard. They didn’t say much, which made it feel very ceremonious. I laughed more. It had become hard for me to take the world seriously.

“I’ll put your things in your room,” one of them said, taking my suitcase from me and walking off.

Other kids, close to my age, played in the garden. Some threw frisbee. Others sat in a circle and talked. A small group was skipping rocks into the pond. It was a bit too idyllic for me. There was a boy with a guitar and a girl with a banjo.

“Go meet your new friends,” another sister said.

I looked at her like she was crazy. Apparently, she didn’t remember what it was like to not be a nun. “Do any of you know Sister Margaret?” I said.

They looked confused. “Elizabeth, there are many Sister Margarets, I imagine,” one of them said. “But there isn’t one here.” The sisters turned and walked inside the main building.

I sat down on a bench and pretended to be busy picking and smelling the jasmine blooms. I went for a walk around the pond. On the other side of the pond, opposite of the convent, I watched all of the other kids play and I decided that I could do whatever I wanted.

That night, I woke to a boy standing in my bedroom doorway. I recognized him from earlier in the day. I hadn’t talked to him. I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine. He was wearing nothing but his plain white boxers, holding a bottle of wine. The boy, glistening from the humidity, swung his head back and lifted the bottle of wine high. After a few big gulps, he dropped his head back down, sending small trails of wine dripping down his chest.

I got out of bed. The other two girls in my room whispered after me. “Liz, what are you doing?”

I stopped my tiptoeing and shushed them hard. “Mind your own business,” I said.

I approached the boy and took the wine from his hands. “Where’d you get this?” I asked.

“The fathers,” he whispered. “They have a whole stash of it.”

“We should finish it outside,” I said quietly into his ear.

We were both barefoot. We navigated the halls and found our way to an old window that we could unlock.

The boy followed my lead. He followed me down the hill to the pond. As I managed the slope, I knew he was watching how I moved so I swung my hips even more. When we reached the bank of the pond opposite of the convent, I leaned back against a tree and took a long drink from the bottle. I rested my right foot against the tree, looked at the boy, and let my leg swing open.

The boy was on me quickly. He kissed my neck. He tried to kiss my mouth but he was too clumsy, so I pushed his face back down against my neck and led his hand between my legs. What he managed to do was enough with my help. It happened fast for me, mostly because I was so curious to feel it with another person. He turned me around. I decided I had to do it so that some day I would enjoy it. I pressed my forehead against my arm and closed my eyes to handle the pain and the boy’s awkward rhythm.

After a few seconds, I opened my eyes. I saw a snake slowly slither from the edge of the pond and stop by the boy’s foot. It was a cottonmouth. Its tongue flickered against the boy’s foot, but he was too stupefied to notice.

“Stop,” I said.

“What? I’m almost,” the boy said.

“There’s a snake on your foot,” I said.

The boy looked down. He jumped back, screaming. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled.

I crouched down. “Shush, you idiot,” I said. “You’ll wake the sisters.” I picked up the cottonmouth just as I had seen Sister Margaret do.

“You crazy?” the boy said. “That’s a cottonmouth.” He looked over his shoulder to see if anybody had heard us.

I giggled, seeing how fast the boy shrank back down. I stood up and let the cottonmouth curl around my forearm. I walked towards him. “Here, hold it,” I said.

“Hell no! Come on. Get rid of it. We were doing something.”

I took another step towards the boy and lifted the snake up to his face. “Come on,” I said. “Just hold it a little.”

The boy stumbled backwards and tripped on a cypress knee, falling down hard and catching another cypress knee against his back. He screamed out and rolled over, holding himself in pain, and struggled to his feet. “You crazy bitch!” he hissed. The boy had a bad cut on his hipbone. He ran back to the convent.

I bent down, lowering my forearm and letting the snake on its way. I had forgotten about the pain for a moment, but as soon as the cottonmouth disappeared into the water, the pain came back. I made my way up the slope and to the convent. The boy had locked the window, which was my introduction to boys and their pettiness.

I lied down in the grass, feeling the breeze against my damp body and looking up at a statue of Mother Mary with the stars behind her. There was so much sadness in her eyes. I decided to give prayer a try. I prayed for things that I already knew wouldn’t come true. That Tom would come back. That Mom and Dad wouldn’t be in trouble. By the time I said Amen, I knew how alone I was.

Excerpted from the manuscript "A Supernatural Tale Not Unlike Your Own"