Begin with the first layer. Newborn skin will not serve you. The desert child laying under citrus trees, in the hollow of paloverdes, waiting for a bird to fall from the sky. When one does, you wrap it in your palms, promise to love it until it can fly. You promise it many things while it shakes its new feathers and trembles until you’re told by your brother you have just killed the baby by holding it. The mother will never come back now. Your hands, your scent, has sealed its death. He laughs while you cry. You weep for the bird. You weep for that first layer.
It doesn’t become easier—growing, stretching, sloughing. Beyond the ranch, you sift through an old junkyard, ruins of household items from long ago, to get away from horses and horse shit, from roping and riding, your brothers and their cowboy ways. They try to rope and drag you, hog-tie you into submission. You’d rather die you say, all Joan of Arc. You roam as far as you can, dig through the rust of metal and tin, kick at the 1950s washing machine thinking grit isn’t putting up with the bullshit of men, it’s knowing when to burn down the fucking house. You kick the appliances until your toes blister in your boots. All around you is the sweat it took to build these barbed wire fences, keeping in the cattle, keeping out the coyotes, the javelinas, the mountain lions who prey upon the babies. But under the empty cans of beans, Coke bottles made with thick glass, are the bones of dead animals. Wolves always find their way in.
You start to hear the rattle earned with each shedding, adding segments like notches on a belt, the tsk, tsk, tsk in the brush. Babies are silent; you’ve started to make noise. Down the bone-dry washes, thick with creosote and sand, you listen, watch for the coral snake, for the wrong sequence of coloring, singing: red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, friend of jack. You find snakes in your freezer every time you get ice. They stare back at you, reptile eyes open, coiled neat in Ziploc bags, their slick scales frozen solid. Your older brother throws his snake guards by the back door, holds up his shotgun and hollers, Got another! Soon, there’s no room for ice. The freezer is full of dead rattlesnakes. You eat one to show you’re not afraid; you’re not a hypocrite; you’re not soft no more. It tastes like the meat of something once alive.
You shed fast and hard, planning your escape, checking maps, marking the roads leading out, stretching further every year until you’re so far gone you can barely hear your roots dragging behind you like entrails. Until you do. Until you can’t fit into cars. You don’t fit in the trains or the city. They grow and drag and grow and drag. They grow thicker in winter and stronger in the cold. They rattle and defrost, until ice puddles and they have free range in the house, nipping at your heels until you’re back where you started — under a desert sun, watching the sky for falling birds. You toss them stale bread and seeds, feeling the wind on your neck as they swoop down from the eucalyptus tree, unafraid, your voice strong and silent at the ready.
Sabrina Hicks lives in Arizona. Her work has appeared in Pidgeonholes, The Sunlight Press, Barren Magazine, Synaesthesia, Third Point Press, Writer’s Digest, and other publications. More of her work can be found at sabrinahicks.com.