Shiner - Amy Jo Burns

I.

SNAKE HANDLER’S DAUGHTER

BREAD AND IVY

It started with a burn, just like the stories of Moses my father used to tell. Moses, he said, was nothing more than a shepherd hiding in the hills until he scaled a mountain and found a flaming bush. Then he was never the same. My father had a tale just as magical, a story of his own origins as a man of God. He loved to tell it as much as my mother wished she hadn’t ever believed it.

For as long as she was alive, she never told me her own story. I used to hear her whisper to her best friend, Ivy, that she wished she’d been known as anything other than Briar Bird’s wife. I hated this about our life in the hills—mountain men steered their own stories, and women were their oars. I asked once if my mother had seen what lay beyond the bluffs, and she led me to the peak of our fields that overlooked the ravine behind my father’s snake shed. In the distance I could see two razorback stone ridges rise from the trees. All my life these mountains had watched over me. My mother knelt beside me, put her arm around my waist.

“There are two ways to see a mountain,” she said as she shielded her hazel eyes from the sun. “The view from the top and the view of the top.”

Ivy came behind her, three of her boys at her back. “From the top of our mountain, the hills of West Virginia bow at your feet,” she said. “But from the bottom, you bow at theirs.”

My mother caught a wisp of her dark hair as it danced in the wind. Her braid fell past the waistband of her skirt, where she tucked the pearl-handled switchblade that Ivy had given her long before I was born. Ivy pressed a hand to my mother’s shoulder. Their accord was unspoken, haunted by promises they’d sworn to keep.

* * *

Everything changed when Ivy caught fire. That morning, not long after my fifteenth birthday, I had spied my first summer fox from my bedroom window. The fox pranced in the morning sun as I waited for Ivy’s scowl to appear on the horizon, her blond hair trembling against her shoulder.

Ivy was the only woman who knew how to reach my father’s hideaway beyond the pines. We lived on the mountain’s western ridge, just below the razorbacks and the highest knolls for miles, a stretch of meadow called Violet’s Run. Ivy hiked the snarled hill to our cabin every day, because she and my mother could not survive without each other.

It had been that way since they were girls. Theirs was the same life lived twice over, though Ivy had four boys and a husband, Ricky—who was whiskey-sick and dope-drunk, my father liked to say. Ivy and my mother had grown up together, gone to school together, fallen in love together. This bond was the only thing my mother had that I envied. I wanted an Ivy of my own. My father envied it, too.

“Bread and Ivy,” he said with his preacher’s smile. “That’s all your mama needs to survive.”

My father buried himself in the things he loved—his snakes, his woods, his wife. Every time Ivy visited with her boys, he retreated to his snake shed by the cliff. He couldn’t bear to share my mother with anyone—not with Ivy, not even with me.

* * *

Ivy came early enough the morning of the burning that she had to walk by faith to find the cabin through the fog. We lived at the top