Dark, total blackness and quiet surrounded me. All at once, a blinding golden light came from high above. The hot sun sizzled my skin. The loud crunching of leaves under my sparkly sandals overpowered the birds singing high in the trees. Every sound I made echoed off the burgundy bark of the Manzanita trees. The red dirt below my feet puffed the scent of fresh-cut cilantro into the air. The sweet smell of sticky fruit filled my lungs as I approached the gnarled fig tree.
Something rustled in shadows below the gray gnarled branches. It rolled the crispy leaves and disturbed the mushy pink and purple flesh that lay baking in the sun. I knelt down and brushed the crispy leaves aside. I wanted to see the small creature making the noise. I was curious but afraid to crawl any closer.
Loud, pounding footsteps came from behind me. Two people were running and yelling in my direction. “There she is. Grab the baby!” A rifle shot split the earth throwing chunks of dirt, leaves, and meaty white flesh into the air.
“Check her legs. Did it bite her? Is she okay?” Growled a panting, coughing man.
Rough hands wiped down my arms and legs. “I don’t see anything. I don’t think it bit her. Is she breathing?”
The inspection ceased, and I was lifted off the ground. My cheek rested on the shoulder of a warm, tan shirt. The wood buttons pressed into my knee, and the feathery soft edge of his leather gun holster sat under my thigh. Pipe tobacco and gunpowder filled my nose. It was all familiar, and I knew I was safe.
“It’s okay, Conjita. Papa will get rid of all the nasty critters.” A large hand patted my back as weathered lips kissed my face. His heart was pounding hard against my chest. He was still recovering from the chase.
The smell of roasting pig greeted us as we approached the old cabin. My aunts and grandmother were busy setting out foil-covered trays of tamales and pineapple upside-down cake. My uncles were trying to trick their white friends into eating hot pickled chilies. Even I knew to stay away from the mason jars completely. The sounds of laughter, tinkling glass, and the squeak of the wooden picnic table mixed with the far-off melody of an acoustic guitar.
“There now, mi Cielita. Stay close, so Papa and Tia can watch you.” He sat me in the shade. My pink, rhinestone embellished sandals dangled from the old red picnic bench. The sun was peeking in from behind the brim of his Panama hat. All I could see clearly was his silhouette.
Conjita was what he called me. Bunny, it was appropriate for me at the time. I hadn’t heard his accent for so long. The smell of his aftershave, the sound of his beating heart. His height and commanding voice. I forgot what it felt like to be completely safe.
My grandfather and his friend that shot the rattlesnake died when I was young. They likely saved my life. I was no more than three, very small, and terribly mischievous. The venom would have overtaken my tiny organs quicker than anyone could transport me down the mountain to the nearest hospital.
When they died, I attended both funerals wearing beautiful velvet dresses and patent leather Mary Janes. To this day, the feel of velvet conjures the scent of carnations, heavy incense, and despair. I honestly didn’t remember why I hated the fabric so much until now.
Their final days on earth would be years from this family gathering. As much as I wanted this moment to be real, it wasn’t. I closed my eyes tightly and tried to find the writhing pain that led me to this place. If I sat on the picnic bench much longer, I wouldn’t be able to make myself leave.