He comes from many houses. The first was his: the house where things fall apart. The plastic countertops peeled back in sheets. Cabinet faces hung loosely on hinges then fell off completely, half empty cupboards of rotten food, mouse droppings, and moldy contact paper.

After he leaves the house where things fall apart, he is taken to the house with all the children, so many children. Children sleeping on the stairs, in the bathtub, children crowding one another like swine at the trough, grabbing with quick hands, children with sharp teeth and eyes that glowed yellow in the dark.

After the house with all the children, another stab at life in the house where things fall apart. For a matter of weeks things appeared to be fixed. The ceilings no longer leaked. The toilets flushed readily. The sink ran water so pure and clean he could’ve made himself small, crawled up underneath it and let it wash over him for days. Repairs had been made, but not to last. One day he ran the faucet long enough that the water turned rusty brown and then dried up completely. The television grew legs and walked off down the road. The floorboards crumbled to reveal a dirt-bed of writhing worms and snakes. Cockroaches scuttled over him in the night.

Soon enough he is deposited at the house with all the animals. The new mom’s name is Kendra. She is tall, bony, her hair fried white like the sun. Her husband is common law and in a band. Her husband’s parents live just up the road and they are the new grandma and grandpa. They come to visit the day Sam arrives, their German Shepard, Bud, along for the ride. They tell Sam to play with Bud; he’s friendly, see? But when their backs are turned Bud growls and slinks away from Sam’s hand, hugging the edges of the room.

After they leave he sits in the kitchen where Kendra lifts the lid to the boa’s glass tank. Sam watches as she pinches the fleshy tail of a squirming mouse between her thumb and forefinger, the mouse a tiny puff of grey swinging violently from side to side, making baby bird chirps. 

The mouse drops from her fingers and lands noiselessly in the sawdust. It cowers in stillness. Kendra crosses the room to sit in front of Sam at the table. New sister enters the kitchen padding softly on tar stained feet, and climbs up on the counter to fish through the snack cupboard. In this house everyone finds their own food except for the boa.

“Hit you with an iron,” says the new sister, now standing on the counter, her mouth full of crackers. “I’m gonna hit you with an iron.”

This is how she likes to play, loud and strange. New sister is the same age as Sam, just a month older. He has already learned three things about her: she has a ghost twin named Peaches who died at birth, Kendra is her Real Mom, and her Real Dad is rich and lives in a huge white house in Tennessee.

Sam watches the boa come to life, her coils stirring, all brown and black diamonds.

“Hear me, Sam?” asks Kendra. She taps the tabletop with one of her pink talons. “We’ll make sure you get to see ‘em again soon. How about that? A visit with your mom and dad.”

Sam nods but his eyes are on the snake. She unfolds herself and slides effortlessly toward the mouse. The jaws open wide and she rises up slightly, pausing for a few seconds, for forever. Her blunt nose strikes the glass with a ‘thump’, and the mouse is a lump in the snake’s throat before Sam can make out what happened.

 

***

 

New sister’s name is Lacey, and she is skilled at making old ladies believe she is good.

“This is Sam.” She holds his hand at church and introduces him to a roomful of people wearing farm town Sunday best. Some of them chirrup around Lacey, tugging at her ratty blond curls and chucking her chin as if she were a baby. She makes the rounds from pew to pew and collects candy from the bottoms of the old ladies’ purses. Chalky mints, honey drops. The ladies coo over Sam as well, and give candies for the both of them, but they remain clutched in Lacey’s sticky fist.

The sanctuary has wooden pews with stiff backs, but Sam doesn’t squirm. Glenn, the common law, plays piano up front, jangling out old-timey hymns while Kendra closes her eyes and waves her hands in the air, warbling loudly off tune. The people in the front rows turn and stare. The new grandparents are there, too, and they sit on either side of Sam. Glenn looks bored at his piano bench despite the lively music, and Sam figures he’d rather be playing something different.

Halfway through the service Lacey starts to fuss. She’s hungry. She’s tired. She wants to go home. Her whines grow louder and Kendra tells her to hush. When it comes time to stand and greet your neighbor, new sister goes rubber legs and slumps to the floor, her stiff dress pushing up her dimpled thighs until her underpants show.

Everyone makes a pass by the new grandparents, nodding or shaking hands. Some smile politely at Kendra but most walk right by. One man reaches down and shakes Sam’s hand in a firm grip, formally, as if Sam were a grand sir.

“Clyde Cook,” he says. “Pleasure.” Then he turns to Kendra, takes in her red tank top, her denim skirt. He glances down at the floor where the new sister rolls around mewling beneath the bench seats. The closer Sam looks at Clyde’s face the deeper the crags around the old man’s eyes. A boy could hide ocean-sized secrets in those caverns.

“Next time you come to worship the Lord we’ll thank you to leave your animals at home just like the rest of us,” Clyde says, and walks away before Kendra can respond.

“He’s your own brother,” she says to the new grandfather, her face blotchy, hands shaking. The new grandfather ignores her, staring at the pulpit as the service reconvenes. The pastor, a paunchy man with a double chin tells the congregation that the Lord commands us to search ourselves.

Sam feels a tug at his leg and looks down. Lacey holds the frayed hem of his pants in her teeth and is shaking it like a rabid dog.

“I’m a lion,” she says. “You be a hyena.”

For a moment Sam is tempted to climb down and join her, but he searches himself and finds he has no laughter in his soul anymore.

 

***

 

A flock of geese skim the surface of the algae covered pond across the street. There are two Doberman pinschers, one named Posy and the other, Duke, who snarl ferociously when first approached but drop their heads in submission to any outstretched hand. The peacocks live in a fenced-in enclosure out back. They squabble and claw at one another in their dirt patch; they puff up their dusty plumage and chase Sam along side the fence when he comes close.

“Bitches,” Glenn says and then apologizes to Sam for the language. “Old habits. Sometimes forget I’m a church-going man.”

They are trying out a nightly ritual, he and Glenn, the new father. They carry whatever scrap is leftover from dinner in an empty bread bag. They sit on the shore of the murky waters and Glenn makes clucking sounds in his throat to call the birds. Sam takes handfuls of leftover crumbs, crackers gone stale, and litters the waters’ edge. After a few moments, the flock makes a synchronized turn and paddles closer, waddles up onto the grass.

The geese are dishwater grey up close. Glenn walks a slow circle around the flock while they eat and instructs Sam to keep throwing scrap. After a few moments the geese lose themselves completely in their dinner; they shoot sidelong glances at Glenn and then seem to forget he’s there. A few minutes more and he can reach out and touch the curve of their necks. He picks up one and cradles her in the crook of his arm like a pullet. He explains all of this to Sam.

“I’m lettin’ ‘em get comfortable. They smell me. They trust me.” He tucks the goose’s beak gently beneath her wing and she goes very still. “Now I can get ‘em whenever I want ‘em.”

Sam knows that because he is quiet people sometimes take him for dull, but he understands. He knew what they were doing as soon as the first specks of bread hit the ground. He already learned this game, long ago and very well.

Trudging back to the house, they find a goose nest tucked up underneath a low hanging willow branch. “Never had one of my own go broody before,” Glenn says, and seems pleased. In a few weeks they’ll have chicks. When Glenn turns away Sam slips a quick hand into the nest. The eggs are small and warm. He snatches up three and places them in the bread bag to carry back to the house as a late night offering to the boa.

 

***

 

Clyde Cook is there the day that another New Sister arrives. He is delivering a manure pile for Glenn to spread in the small cornfield out back. This is all the land they have, and because of this, Glenn and Kendra are often pitied and sometimes judged.

The other new sister’s name is Gina. She’s older, seventeen, an age that seems a lifetime away to Sam. She has a friendly enough smile but her eyes are shark like, gray with deep freeze. She smells of clove cigarettes and when Sam gets close he sees that she has tangles in her mud colored hair, a smudge of dirt streaked down the curve of her stocky calf. She’ll be taking over Lacey’s room. Lacey will move to the twin bed in Sam’s room. Kendra was supposed to be here to greet the new girl, but Sam read the note she left for Glenn on the kitchen table:

Out for a girls day down in Albany. Need to shake off some dust. Don’t wait up.  

“Sorry the place is a mess,” Glenn says, wiping his palms on his jeans. “This,” he gestures vaguely toward Sam, “is really just Kendra’s thing.” And then he adds quickly,

“But we’re happy you’re here. Right, Sam? Always nice to have new family members aboard.”

“You don’t have to play that game for me, man,” Gina says. “Just show me where to throw down my shit.” She kicks at her duffel bag, the only possession that arrived with her.

“We don’t use that kind of language,” Clyde says from the truck bed, casting a cool shadow over them all. “Around here we value respect.”

Sam likes the way Clyde speaks, like a man straight out of a Bible story, but Gina turns her back and follows Glenn and Sam into the house.

“Excuse my uncle,” Glenn says to Gina. “He’s a little . . . conservative.”

“I know the type,” Gina says.

Glenn gives Gina the tour while Sam trails behind. When they get to Lacey’s room Glenn says, “This one’s yours.”

Gina steps into the room and then quickly backs out. “Some kind of a sick joke, man? I’ve got real problems, you know.”

There are dead mice, the boa’s mice, tiny grey corpses scattered all over the bedspread. Glenn kept them in a cage back in one of the barns, but now some have had their necks snapped, and others have been poked with something hot and sharp, fleshy little wounds cauterized into black burns. They are useless to the boa. Sam crouches down, eye level with the bed, and sees that many of their mouths are open, rendered silent, rows of useless needle teeth.

Gina retreats to wait in the living room, kicking off her shoes, black soles of her bare feet propped up on the coffee table, television tuned to a daytime talk show, volume turned up high. Glenn strips the bedspread, carefully folding all four corners into the center where the mice are piled. He carries the bundle outside and throws it into a rusted out trashcan, douses it with kerosene from the garage, lights a match and tells Sam to stand back. The whole thing goes up in a quiet “poof” of orange flame.

Clyde shovels out the last of the mulch from the truck, his brown arms sweaty with honest work. Glenn searches for Lacey. He calls her name and rummages through the sheds, garage, behind the woodpile, finally finding her in the peacock pen. Sam goes up onto the porch, suddenly craving the safe shadow of a roof overhead, and watches, tucked in the corner of where the railing meets the house.

She sits next to them, a bird on either side, petting their shiny blue-green heads gently with one finger. This is the calmest Sam has ever seen them, the most vulnerable, as if they’re under the power of a spell. He wonders if they smell sulfur, if the taste of copper floods their mouths with Lacey so near. When they see Glenn approaching they are instantly transformed. They caw and run at him in a fury, the male bowing up and fanning out his tail feathers, the female pacing and hissing.  

There’s a twitch in Glenn’s jaw as he asks in a tired voice for Lacey to come out for her punishment. She ignores him, and Sam hears a growl rising in her throat, low and feral.

“Saw what you did to those mice, little girl,” Glenn says, his voice beginning to rise.

Lacey screeches like a bobcat and rolls over in the dirt, possessed by a fit, while the peacocks dance around her, avoiding her thrashing limbs. She picks up handfuls of bird scat and throws them at Glenn through the wire where he stands still, arms folded, letting the waste hit his chest and fall to the ground, waiting for her to tire. She stands and yells,

“You’re not my real dad!” in a voice loud and vicious enough to make the peacocks scream and fly up into the trees.

Glenn makes for the gate just as Clyde appears, dragging the hose from around the corner of the house, drawn by the sound of the tantrum. He clamps a heavy hand over the nozzle and a stream of ice water hits Lacey between the eyes. When she falls over and cries out, Clyde turns the jet spray on full blast and aims at her softest parts, her chest, throat and belly. After a few moments she is goes limp, motionless, a puddle of mud and girl soaked through in the bird pen, and still he keeps spraying. Glenn grabs for the hose but Clyde easily holds him back with one hand. He keeps the water trained on Lacey’s throat for a minute more to ensure her silence and shuts it off. He walks in long strides, coiling up the hose, and hangs it neatly back on the side of the house. Without a word he gets in his pick-up and drives off in the direction of his farm, leaving them all to either clean up or not.

“Get up, honey,” Glenn says through the fence, suddenly tender. Lacey stays still, lying on her stomach. Sam crouches down to look in her eyes between the rungs of the porch railing. He finds them staring back, glassy, stunned, lids heavy. A pang of longing shoots electric from the soles of his feet up through the crown of his head. He sees how she feels: weightless, removed, the sunlight soft, the sounds muted, inside a world of mud and water and birds; a universe so completely separate, even the air untouched.

 

***

 

Lacey and her ghost twin are having their ninth birthday, the first since Sam has come to stay. He has no ideas on what a birthday celebration should look like other than what he has seen on television and at school. At school the mothers arrive at snack time with a Tupperware of cupcakes to pass around. On television, there are party hats and noisemakers. None of these are tradition for birthdays in the house of the animals.

Kendra must be shaken awake. Lacey and Sam watch from the doorway as Glenn takes her by the shoulders and pulls her upright.

“Headin’ into work now,” he says. It’s spring, time for planting, and he doesn’t have any extra time to spare. He leaves early and gets home late. He drives a mulch truck for Clyde’s nursery business, back and forth all day on the dirt road. Once, Sam went with him for deliveries: young trees with burlap sacks tied around the roots, bags and bags of black mulch, cedar mulch, fertilizer, and so many tools. Rakes, hoses, shovels, spades, post drivers; Clyde told him the names of all of these tools and more. He only had to point them out once and Sam could repeat the names and functions of each. The practicality and purposeful nature of the task was hypnotic, soothing.

After Glenn leaves, Gina leaves. She hitches a ride into town or school every day with the neighbor’s daughter, Christy. Christy drives a green jeep that coughs when it starts and drags black clouds of exhaust for miles out behind it. When Gina comes home at night she smells of motor oil and campfire smoke and no one asks her where she’s been.

“It’s a family celebration day,” Kendra says from the bedroom door.

“I’m gonna go meet some friends in the quarry.” Gina hefts her duffel up on her shoulder.

“Not today,” Kendra says.

“No different from any other day,” says Gina, and makes for the door.

Kendra flies out of the bedroom and down the stairs, pushing Sam and Lacey aside so they tumble into one another. Kendra grabs Gina’s bag and rips it off her shoulder.

“I said not today!” she screams as the duffel falls to the floor.

Gina turns around in surprise. “You’re not allowed to touch . . . ” she starts, but Kendra cocks back with an open palm. It’s not a good or a clean hit, just the fingertips smacking Gina’s chin, but there was contact, and Sam knows that this is all that matters.

Gina touches her chin. Sam hasn’t noticed until now that Gina is thick, sturdy, and much taller than Kendra, taller even than Glenn. She takes two, three steps toward Kendra, and Kendra backs up until her legs touch the stairs, stumbling to a seat with a whimper. Gina lowers her voice but Sam still hears her.

“Who do you think you’re taking in here? Some poor little orphan kids? Charity cases?”

“Get away from my mom!” Lacey yells from their place at the top of the stairs. Gina ignores her.

“We don’t need you any more than you need us. Remember that when you fall asleep at night. Remember who you’re taking in to your house.”

Christy honks the jeep horn out in the driveway. “Sorry for the scene, little man,” Gina says to Sam. “Hey sicko,” she calls to Lacey. “Your mom’s lucky it’s your birthday.” The screen door slams shut with a ‘whack’ and the sputtering of the green machine fades off down the road.

Kendra bursts into tears at the bottom of the stairs, her face pressed into the railing. Lacey slides down the steps on her bottom, one at a time.

“Mama,” Lacey says. “Mama, Peaches wants a birthday cake.” Kendra sobs and clutches Lacey to her chest. They stay like that at the bottom of the stairs for a long time. Sam doesn’t want to go back to the room he shares with Lacey. He wants to scoot past mother and daughter, run across the street to the goose pond and hide up in the crook of the willow tree. Instead, he stays trapped, frozen where he is, not wanting to disturb the silence. Kendra and Lacey are one; Glenn is out for the day, Gina has escaped. He is careful.

Kendra lifts herself up off the floor and pats at her shorts, Lacey’s hair. “Well the cake isn’t going to bake itself,” she says with false cheer. “Load up.”

Other than church, the Grand Union seems to be the place where most people see each other. At the grocery store, the mood has changed; Kendra nods and says hello to everyone. Some answer and others pretend they haven’t heard. Lacey grabs a cart with a basket seat and asks to be pushed. This is a baby’s game, but Kendra helps Lacey climb in and pushes her up and down the aisles while Sam trails behind.

They gather up all the treats that Lacey asks for on Peaches’ behalf: confetti frosting with yellow cake, gummy worms, black and white cookies. At the checkout counter they run into Gayle Harding, a white haired lady from the church choir, the deacon’s wife.

“Gayle,” Kendra says. “Lovely day.”

Gayle looks to her grocery list.

“Gayle,” Kendra says again, her voice a little louder. The other farm wives at the checkout were stacking up their pantry items; flour, beans, butter, but now they’ve quieted and are watching. The cashier girl clears her throat.

“Fifteen fifty, Mrs. Cook,” she says.

“Don’t you call her a Cook,” Gayle says, her attention turned. “She’s no Cook, same as them.” She gestures toward Lacey and Sam. “The Cooks are decent folk. One of their own just happened to get snagged by a piece of trash.”

“It’s a shame,” Kendra says loud enough for everyone to hear, “that some people have to busy themselves with evil talk while the rest of us take care of the Lord’s own.” She pulls Sam to her side and holds him there with a firm grip. “Some of us are too busy tending the Lord’s lost lambs.” She kisses the top of Sam’s head, the closest contact he’s had with her since he came to stay. He has the urge to squirm away, out of her reach, but knows this would be wrong. He feels the imprint of her lips on his scalp for the rest of the day, a phantom kiss that lingers and makes him queasy with the sensation of being spied upon.

Kendra wheels their cart out the doors while Gayle hollers behind them, “That’s right, you. Take your trash and go!”

That evening the new grandparents arrive in their truck with Bud riding bitch between them. Glenn gets home in time for cake, covered in dirt and grass stained. Gina doesn’t come back at all. There is an empty chair next to Lacey, designated for Peaches. It is covered with red and orange streamers. Peaches’ picture rests in a silver frame on the table, and they’ve lit a candle in front of it. Sam can only make out the tiniest face amidst a bundle of blankets, his first image of the ghost who’s been haunting them. He’d imagined something different but doesn’t know what: a grimy child, some version of Lacey, a dark little spirit. Something, anything other than the benign bundle of a purple faced baby two days old and one day from the grave.

The grandparents look tired but they sing, they eat cake, they smile at Lacey and Sam. Bud plays outside with Posy and Duke. Their growling sometimes turns fierce enough for Glenn to walk out on the porch and break it up. The next day Sam will help him put salve on the Dobermans’ haunches and backside, incisor shaped punctures where Bud has broken the skin.

The boa watches thoughtfully from her glass case, eyes narrowed into a point, a goose egg lump settled firmly in her middle. Lacey eats half the cake by herself. Kendra’s moods shift with the slight breeze coming in through the screens. At times she smothers Lacey with kisses, moments later she clutches Peaches’ picture to her chest with tears in her eyes. Lacey receives a Chinese jump rope, a giant bouncy ball, and a photograph book of farm animals from the grandparents.

“This book is for babies,” she says.
 
The grandfather sniffs, glares at Glenn and says, “It’s for lovers of the land.” Glenn looks across the street toward the pond and pretends he hasn’t heard.

The grandparents gather up Bud and leave when the daylight disappears. Kendra takes Peaches’ picture up to bed, and Lacey says Peaches wants to watch T.V. in the living room all night long. Glenn takes Sam outside to help with the last of the days chores: securing the peacock pen, feeding Posy and Duke, setting out food for the barn cats, and a walk across the street to check in on the goslings. Six of them sleep clustered together in the willow nest, one of the geese roosted nearby keeping watch. Glenn put up chicken wire around the base of the willow to keep out climbing predators and the goslings have been growing. Yesterday they waddled around behind the geese. Tomorrow they’ll take a swim.  

The next month Sam celebrates his own birthday quietly, in private. He waits until the lights go out in the house, only the blue light and quiet drone of the T.V. in Glenn and Kendra’s room for a guide. He slips downstairs and lifts the screen lid off the boa’s cage. He lets her slide up his arm, coiling as she goes, across the back of his neck and down the opposite arm. She is so much longer and heavier than she looks as a tidy pile in her case. She squeezes, constricting, acting upon her nature. Sam feels weighed down in her firm embrace, his feet pressing into the ground. He feels now as if he could never float away; no one could make him.  

 

***

 

Sam and the boa have a lot in common, but their most important similarity is that they love to blend in. It’s summer, so he has plenty of time to study the boa during the day. At breakfast he locks eyes with her through her glass case. She watches him eat. He watches her watching him.

At night he wanders around the house and practices his disappearing techniques. He wears a black t-shirt and a pair of oversized black boxer shorts stolen from Glenn’s underwear drawer. He wears no shoes. He goes over the entire house from top to bottom, starting from the room he shares with Lacey. Creeping down the hall toward the bathroom he hears the toilet flush and presses his back into the wall, sliding down to the floor. Gina, rubbing her eyes in sleepwalk, passes right by as if he were no more than a part of the air itself.

He moves on to Glenn and Kendra’s room. They sleep with the T.V. on and the door cracked open. He enters. He stands over Kendra’s side of the bed and looks down at her, hovers an open palm above her face. Then to Glenn’s side where he sidesteps an empty glass bottle. Glenn hangs a leg off the side of the bed and snores.

Down the stairs, avoiding the creakiest places, he arrives in the living room where Gina has her couch bed. She calls Lacey’s old bedroom the “mouse tomb” and won’t sleep there. Lacey is forbidden to move back in; this is her punishment. The room sits unoccupied at the top of the stairs, the mattress bare. Lacey doesn’t care anymore and says Peaches lives there now.

Gina sleeps with her mouth open and her arms flung overhead, just like a man. Sam watches her from the entryway of the living room and then turns to the kitchen. Like Sam, the boa doesn’t sleep much at night. He watches her tongue flick in and out like a flycatcher, smelling him by taste. She slithers over top of herself repeatedly, back and forth. She brings her head up high and explores the corners of the screen ceiling, poking tentatively to start, and then rearing back to give confident strikes. The rocks Glenn placed in each of the four corners wobble just a little. Sam touches them; the only barriers between the boa and her freedom are small, inconsequential, and can be found out in the driveway.

He glides back up the stairs, imagining that he is a wraith of the night, a calm and quiet force. He enters the room he shares with Lacey and climbs back into bed.

“Peaches told me what you did.”

Lacey is sitting up. The moonlight shines white through the window behind her, making her nothing but a voice and a silhouette.

“I won’t tell,” Lacey says. “I like to do bad things, too.”

This is no secret to Sam, but he’s still playing boa. Two rocks in each hand, he answers to no one; he bides his time. He feels a deep hunger and waits to be fed.

 

***

 

In the late summer, harvest time, he spends his days with Clyde helping out with the family farm stand at the edge of the raspberry patch. It’s a shack, nothing more. They stock the pick-up just before sunrise, working fast, draped in hill shadows. Baskets of corn, peppers, eggplant, they drive the produce to the stand and unload it all. People pull off the road and park in the dirt to make their purchases. Every time a palette of berries runs out, Clyde sends Sam running out into the field to fill more crates. His fingers turn blood red but he finds the biggest and best, shooing away the robins, darting in and around the thorns. Every now and then Clyde claps him on the shoulder, tells him to fetch them both a drink, and once he gave Sam the keys to the pick up truck and let him drive it around the nursery, his feet straining to reach the pedals. Clyde drops him off at the end of the driveway each night, just before the sun goes down and honks the horn as he drives away. Sam enters the house dirty, tired. No one tries to get him to talk anymore; he has worked a long day and has good reason for his silence. In the mornings, Clyde honks the horn again and Sam runs out into the darkness to catch his ride.

Glenn worries for the boa. It’s a sensitive subject; no one brings it up. The morning Kendra entered the kitchen to find the screen lid toppled to the floor and the glass tank empty, she called Glenn screaming. Sam and Lacey hid upstairs, locked in their room while Kendra and Gina scoured the house looking for any signs of the snake. They turned up empty handed, but in the following weeks there were sightings. Once, Lacey saw her curled up underneath a corner of the porch, but by the time Glenn got home she was gone. Another day they counted five goslings instead of six. The peacocks lost their bravado, got spooked and took to roosting in the trees at night, as if this would keep them safe. One night before bed, Gina found a long, papery husk of skin in her sleeping bag. Without any word of warning or goodbye, she was gone the next day.

Kendra had questions to answer for this. There were visits from official people. For the duration of these visits, Sam disappeared into the walls. Kendra presented Lacey’s old room as Gina’s, threw on a new bedspread and added a vase of goldenrod for good measure. She offered the people with clipboards glasses of iced tea. The boa tank was stored out of sight, back in one of the barns. The Dobermans were staked to their chains.

“She was difficult,” Kendra said of Gina. “No effort to fit in with the rest of the family. We tried to make her feel welcome.” She did her hair and wore matching earrings and smiled big and toothy. Sam saw a shadow of an unfamiliar woman from a very different place. “I’m sure you’ve had fosters run away before.”

No one knows, but sometimes Sam wakes to find the boa coiled at the foot of his bed or gripping his arm in her strong embrace. Once he woke and she was draped across his chest. She was still impressively heavy. Her weight was pleasant, made him feel cradled. His shallow breath made him comfortably drowsy, and he fell right back asleep. In the morning, like an erstwhile lover, she was gone.

“Wish I could find her,” Glenn confides in Sam while they play the goose game at twilight. Glenn takes his time lifting each of the birds to the crook of his arm. In the fall they’ll choose one to roast for Thanksgiving. “Had her for a long time. Always hate to lose an animal.”

Sam is sorry, disappointed and surprised to see Glenn’s concern. As a man of farm and faith, doesn’t he know? Nothing free is ever lost. The land is theirs to be tended and turned. The beasts are meant for the wild, to roam. Like Sam, this is where the boa belongs. His place is in the house of the animals. His work is the work of the Lord.

 
 
 
 
 
MARLA CINILIA grew up in upstate New York and received her MFA in Fiction from the University of New Hampshire. She is the recipient of a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She lives, writes and teaches yoga in Portsmouth, NH.