The dog squirmed as she tried to unfasten the chain from his collar.
“Hold still, Jesse,” she said. “Quit wiggling.” She knelt beside him and stroked his head. The grass felt cool and wet against her knees. The lilac bush near the dog house was blooming, its lavender flowers fragrant.
“Daddy left me a list of things to do while he’s away and you’re on the list. Yep, you’re on the list.” The dog licked her face with his wet tongue. Finally, she opened the clasp, freeing the dog from his chain. He ran around her in tight little circles and then lay down, legs splayed out, panting. He kept his eyes on her face as though waiting for something.
She sat under the lilac bush, cross-legged, knees tan, feet bare, toes curved like small pink sea shells. Damp from the grass, the hem of her blue cotton dress was a darker blue than the rest of her dress, like deeper ocean water looks compared to shallow surf.
“Smell them flowers, Jesse. Ain’t it like a little bit of heaven? Wish you could talk. Maybe I just can’t hear you.” She scratched the white spot between his ears. “I know you can smell things. Daddy says you’re the best damn hunting dog ever. Hunting dogs can smell most anything.” She plucked a flower from the bush and held it out to the dog. He ignored the flower and kept his eyes on her face.
“Oh, well. Just so you know, I think this is what purple smells like.” She laid the flower on the grass and took a piece of dry toast from her pocket.
“Here’s a little bitty treat. I saved it from breakfast.” The dog ate it, then sniffed at her pocket for more.
“That’s all there is, Jesse. Daddy don’t want me to spoil you.” She took a folded piece of paper from the pocket of her dress and carefully opened it. “Here’s the list, Jesse. Ten things. Daddy wants me to read it every day till he gets back. First, I gotta kiss Mommy every morning and blow a kiss to Daddy. I already done that.”
“Then I gotta say prayers. Okay. I’ll do that tonight.” She held the paper in front of the dog. “See, here you are. Number four. Take care of Jesse for me till I get back.”
Jesse cocked his head and whined.
“I swear, Jesse, you know what I’m saying.”
The dog rolled over, and she scratched his pale pink belly. A bee buzzed among the lilac blossoms in erratic zig-zag patterns.
“I’m not afraid of that bee. Are you afraid, Jesse? Hunting dog like you, you’re not afraid of anything. Now, what’s next on the list? Help Mommy. Today she wants me to pick strawberries.”
She refolded the paper, slipped it into her pocket and stood up. The dog stood also, alert, watching her.
“Mary Elizabeth, you pick those strawberries yet?” Her mother, a vague shadow behind the screen door, called to her.
“Going to do it now, Mommy.”
“Well, hurry up. Don’t be eating any. I need them for jam. And tie Jesse back up. Don’t want him running off or getting hurt.” The shadow slipped away from the screen door.
The door of the garden shed screeched on its hinges. The inside was dark, dusty and jumbled with garden tools. She took a small basket from a low shelf and stepped back into the sunshine. She decided not to tie Jesse just yet and hoped Mommy wouldn’t notice.
The strawberries were planted along the edge of the garden, their leaves dark green. Under the leaves were the berries, firm and full. She picked them carefully, her fingertips soon stained. She ate one, sweetness lingering on her tongue. She didn’t notice the dark shadow in the grass ahead of her as she moved along the row.
Jesse tensed, the fur along his back prickled up. He moved between the child and the shadow. With a low growl, he lunged. Startled, the child dropped the basket, scattering the berries. Too frightened to scream, she stood rigid, with her soundless mouth open wide.
The snake struck, straight and fast as an arrow, fangs buried deep in the dog’s throat.
With a lethargic shake of his head, Jesse crumbled, appearing to fold himself downward onto the grass. The snake slithered back into the shadowy darkness of the garden. The child stood over the limp dog with only the garden as witness.