by Lorna D. Keach

Wednesday the 12th:

Julien stepped on a rattlesnake today. The poison got deep before anyone found him. Papa brought him back to the house, but of course he didn’t let Julien go inside to die. Julien cried and cried, but Papa kept telling him we can’t let Itzal in the house.

Julian should’ve known better, anyway. He shouldn’t have been out so far. All the dangerous things live out there in the prairie: the rattlesnakes and wild bulls and bees. And the natives. That far out, the natives hunt with their rifles and green glass eyepieces. Papa says the natives will drag a person down into their burrows underground then no one will ever see that person again. He told us kids that’s what happened to the neighbor’s eldest daughter. The natives stole her, he said.

I don’t believe him. Papa is full of stories.

Papa’s from the old country, so he thinks death is a cat named Itzal. Itzal looks like a big black cat shadow and wanders around looking for warm places to sleep inside people’s bodies. The life of a house is in the birds, Papa says, and Papa makes sure we tend to those birds well to keep life alive. Julien and me are supposed to keep them fed and clean, the canaries and lovebirds, but Papa himself always minds the doves. Now Julian’s dead, I suppose Marian will have to help me.

When I die, I’m not going to die in the grass. I’ll do it when nobody’s looking, in the sitting room or the attic, or in my bed under Granma Eleanor’s quilts. The grass outside is cold after a storm, and it’s itchy and sharp after a long heat. It’s no good. I’m going to be the first one in my family to die comfortable because I don’t believe Papa’s stories at all.

Thursday the 20th:

The neighbors came by today. It takes them a few hours to walk across the prairie to visit, so we fed them lunch on the summer porch. Marian and I cooked. We roasted the two snakes Marian had brought home that morning, and we fixed dandelion greens and cucumbers and the last of the candied violets. We would’ve had butter, but the milking goats died last year in the worst of the storms.

Also, one of the canaries died. Its insides were turned out. It looked like someone had cut it open and unfolded its skin like fabric, leaving its organs glistening purple and grey in the sun. I think it was the neighbor’s eldest boy. He came to ask for Marian’s hand. Marian told me she’d rather spit in his face than marry him, and I think he heard that.

Anyway, a death in the house means I have to clean. Itzal must be lead back out. I have to scrub all the floors and wash out every cage and string up paper ribbons around the doorframes because Papa says that’s what they did in the old country. Marian’s supposed to hang coins up in the windows and doors, and a few finch feathers if she can find them, because these are things that lure the death cat out. We have no coins, and the finches all died last winter, so scraps of silver forks will have to do. The only feathers we can find are crow.

Marian found out I’ve been going up to the attic in the middle of the night, and she made me swear I wouldn’t do it anymore, so I have to be extra quiet. But Marian won’t tell. She’s too soft-hearted. She knows how harsh Papa can be.

Sunday the 23rd:

Papa doesn’t want me up here in the attic. When we found the house and settled in, the attic was locked. The door was painted with a sign in the natives’ speak, so Papa told everyone not to go near it. The natives built these houses and abandoned them, and it was just luck that we got to use it now. Best not tempt their gods, Papa said.

I broke the lock easily with a silver serving knife, while everyone was sleeping.

I don’t know why Papa’s so scared. The attic is just full of old junk, torn books and busted crates, broken glass cases, bolts of spare cloth, cracked furniture, old leather and these black masks with glass eyes. The books in the attic are written in their language. I know because Granma Eleanor taught me to read and write, before she lost her wits, so I know what words look like in our speak. I also found a green glass eyepiece like the ones the natives wear. It’s broken, half melted on one side, but when I put my eye to it and lean out the attic window, I can see the whole prairie in fine detail. I can see for miles, even in the dark.

In the dark, things glow green.

Once, with my eyepiece, I saw Marian by the creek in the middle of the night. She was standing next to a native. I thought the native might shoot her or worse, but they only looked at each other for a while.

I’m going to ask Marian to talk to the natives for me. If she can bring back a few words, written like the words in the books, then maybe I can work out what the books mean. After all, Granma Eleanor taught me to read because I was the smart one. I was going take over the healing work, but she lost her wits before she finished writing down all her cures. Now nobody’s sure what’s a cure or a curse.

I think Marian can bring me some words back because she’s smart, too. And I think she feels sad about Julien. She’s been extra nice to me since he died.

The first Monday after the new moon:

Three more birds died. Something splayed them open, leaving their organs open to the air like meaty little pearls. Everyone is quiet about it. I can’t write long today because we all spend our time cleaning and chasing Itzal out.

Papa said someone must have asked Itzal to come inside, but I’m sure that’s not it.

It’s got to be the neighbors. I think the neighbor’s eldest boy is sneaking over to kill our birds since Marian said she wouldn’t marry him. Or, maybe the birds died because Marian is always sneaking out at night to go to the creek. Who knows what she brought back from that native boy’s burrow? It could be a sickness that convinces little bodies splay open by themselves. It could be anything.

The storms on the prairie are getting worse. We’ll face a flood, soon. The cellar’s flooded twice. I had a dream last night I was sitting in the hall with Granma Eleanor looking at the primroses and there was a cat on my lap. For a minute, I understood why Itzal wandered so much. There aren’t too many good places to sleep, after all, and I’m sure the inside of a body is warm and soft.

In the dream, I stroked his black fur, and he chewed on a dead bird.

Thursday the 5th:

Marian came back with words today. She didn’t mention how she got them and I didn’t ask. I was too happy to ask anything. They were five words written in soot on a piece of cedar bark: the native words for water, blood, beast, and food. The fifth word is not one I really understand. Marian described it to me as a tiny thing that crawls inside the skin and nestles inside a body, but I don’t know of any beasts that do that.
Marian tried to tell me that the natives gave up these houses for a reason, so we should probably leave, but where would we go? We can’t live in the ground like the natives, and the neighbors won’t take us in. Anyway Papa wouldn’t listen. He sits all day with the doves now, looking angry. The doves keep dying, too, but when I told him it was the neighbors’ fault, he didn’t listen.

We’re at the mercy of things we can’t see, he said.

I’m sure sooner or later Papa’s going to find out where Marian goes at night. The native at the creek must be teaching her more things than she shows me. When she told me the words she brought back, she said them so easily. She sounded like one of them. Their language is not much different than ours, so I’m sure it’s not that hard, but Marian is really good at it. She told me she’ll get more, even though she’s not sure why I want them.
The fifth word she brought me looks a little like the sign on the attic door, but I’m sure it’s not the same.

Monday the 16th:

Last night, I put on the eyepiece I found in the attic and walked around the house. Everywhere, I saw things crawling the walls. Tiny things, twitching and spreading in swarms. They were too small for me to see them individually. They reminded me of a cloud of bees.

Sunday of the full moon:

Another storm is coming. A bad one, I think.

Papa’s been sitting in the grass with Marian’s body. He won’t speak to me. His clothes are now dark brown from all the blood, but he won’t come inside, not if all the doves are dead. I can’t convince him.

He stopped talking to me when Marian came home with that native boy. I was feeding Granma Eleanor, so I saw the whole thing through the window. The native boy didn’t have a rifle. Maybe he was too young for one, or maybe he didn’t want to threaten Papa. If the native boy had a rifle, maybe it would have gone different. But he and Marian just tried talking. I couldn’t hear them, but I saw their hands moving fast and their faces full of fear. Papa didn’t say a word. I don’t know what Marian thought would happen. She screamed when Papa picked up the shovel and beat that boy till he stopped moving, but I don’t know what she was thinking when she jumped between them. She should’ve known better.

With Marian gone and Papa so quiet, it’s just me and Granma Eleanor now. I’ll have to get her to high ground once the cellar floods again. Maybe the water will take the whole ground floor of the house this time, maybe even the second floor too.
If that happens, then there’ll be nothing left to do. I’ll have no other choice but to take shelter in the attic.

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