Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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August of ’80

Two brothers were walking home from the river when they saw, in the middle of the road, a mongoose and a cobra fighting to the death. The cobra was upright, hood flared, head swaying, and the mongoose ran circles around it, first clockwise, then counterclockwise, trying to get a clear shot at the back of the snake’s head. All around them the heat wavered gold.

The brothers looked up and down the road, wondering where these creatures had come from, since they surely didn’t belong in central Mississippi. Without saying a word, the brothers understood that the mongoose and cobra must have escaped from Turk Tomlin’s house. Turk Tomlin was always pitting one animal against another on the cement slab of his garage, with the more exotic contenders being driven up from Florida in plastic bins that had previously stored winter clothes. The boys’ father had gone to several fights and each time had come home flecked with blood and reeking of cigarillo smoke, but the boys had never been allowed to attend. Now, in the middle of the road, under the late summer sun, they were finally getting their show.

The mongoose found an opening. It latched onto the back of the snake’s head, teeth digging into armored skin, snout pressed hard, upturned, and the two roiled like noodles in a pot of water, twisting and flipping, separate but one. Then it was as if a bell dinged that only the animals could hear. The round ended. The mongoose released. They retreated to their corners, taking a breath, recalculating their approach, and then a new round began and they resumed the part of the fight that most resembled a dance.

The brothers kept a safe distance. They wore shorts and flip-flops, with their T-shirts thrown over their shoulders. Drops of water rolled out of their honey-brown hair and down their tanned, hairless backs. Neither of them moved. This was a showdown the likes of which they had only read about in Rikki Tikki Tavi but had never dreamed of seeing in real life.

The older brother, Charlie, pumped his fist in the air. He said, “My mongoose is kicking your snake’s ass!” He was ten years old.

The younger brother, Jeff, said, “But I like the mongoose.”

“You get the snake.”

“How come?”

“Because I already picked the mongoose. Plus, you’re more like the snake.”

Jeff, eight years old, had a curvature of the spine. His right shoulder sloped toward the ground and his waist looked pinched on that side. The bottom of his ribcage ground on the ilium, the right wing of the pelvis, and caused daily discomfort. The pediatrician had given him a scoliosis brace, but Jeff didn’t like wearing it because it made him feel like a turtle, so he’d hung the shell in the closet and left it to gather dust. Jeff could ignore the pain during the day, but it snuck up on him during the slow, quiet hours of evening. He shared a room with his brother and had trained himself to sleep facing the wall. That way no one could see him awake and grimacing, or asleep and dreaming. Although Jeff was the better looking of the two, his handsome features were never what people noticed about him first.

He said, “I don’t want the snake.”

Charlie said, “You are the snake.”

“I want the mongoose.”

“We can’t both have the mongoose.”


“Because then it’s no fun.”

Jeff said, “It’s no fun now,” and kicked over to the side of the road, where an old mailbox seemed to grow crooked out of the ground. Jeff noticed a silver ribbon tied around the mailbox and he wrapped the ribbon around his pointer finger so tight that the skin turned white. There was no house nearby, no one to celebrate a birthday, no one to tie up a balloon.

Charlie explained. He said, “If we both cheer for the mongoose and the mongoose wins, then both of us win. What fun is that? No, we each pick a different champion. That’s fair. Because there has to be a winner and a loser between us, just like there is between them.”

The brothers watched the dancing rope of scales and fur. Charlie said, “Anyway, your snake hasn’t given up yet.”

Jeff whispered, “It’s not my snake.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I just explained the rules.”

“Who made them up?”

“That’s just how it is.”

Jeff held his T-shirt in his hands. He wrung the shirt the way his mother wrung the shirts when she did laundry, except he wrung in anger and she wrung in love. “It was you,” he said. “You made them up.”


“That’s not fair.”

“You can have the mongoose next time.”

“But we’ve never seen a mongoose fight a snake before.”


“What if we never see them fight again and I don’t get to pick the mongoose? What if I only ever get the snake?”

“You should be happy you got the snake at all.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You got the mongoose.”

“Shut up and root for your side.”

They watched the fight, although Jeff wasn’t as fully committed as Charlie, who chanted, “Mon! Goose! Mon! Goose!” It came naturally to him, being a coach, a spectator, a fighter. He’d stood up for Jeff on multiple occasions, like the time neighbor kids had ridden up on their bikes and called him a hunchback. Their bike baskets, rusted orange, had been full of Coke bottles that they’d collected along the roadside and were going to recycle for money. Most of the kids got away, but Charlie managed to knock one of them over, a boy named Riggs Chapman who always smelled like cake and had, on that particular day, buttercream frosting dried under his nails. Charlie punched Riggs once in the face and then stomped his ribs.

He said, “Piece of shit loser.”

He said, “Make fun of my brother again.”

He said, “He doesn’t even have a hunchback.”

He said, “Go home and cry to your momma.”

He said, “That is, if she isn’t busy sucking dick.”

When it was over, Riggs vomited a puddle of chocolate and then rode away on his bicycle. Crows watched from the trees, silent.

Afterward, the brothers gathered the bottles that had spilled out of Riggs’s basket, not so they could cash in at the recycling center, but so they could throw them. An abandoned shack made the perfect target. Jeff threw first and when he heard the pane shatter, he could not imagine a louder sound. It seemed to make the very world around him begin to show its cracks. He said, “Thanks,” and his brother didn’t say anything, at least not yet. After Charlie had thrown the last bottle, with a pitch both elegant and vicious, he told Jeff that a good fight was like good food. It satisfied something deep inside of him.

“Like peas?” Jeff asked. “Or biscuits?”

“Sometimes,” Charlie had said, lowering his voice, “it’s even better than that.” Then he displayed his knuckles, showing off new bruises and old scars, and it was a mystery how someone could be so historied and yet so young.


Charlie squatted on the ground and chanted, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

The mongoose had a firm grip. He wasn’t letting go.

Jeff said, “What’s the point?”

Charlie said, “Of the fight?”

“Of cheering.”

“You’ve got to let him know somebody’s there for him.”

“But he knows.”

“He can’t just know. He has to believe. You’ve got to let him know you care. It matters what happens to him.”

Jeff had never looked at it that way before. He thought about his brother fighting to protect him. He thought about how he’d cheered on the inside as Charlie had beat up Riggs Chapman, shouting, “Get him! Sock him! Stomp him!” but only in his head, not in the world that they all shared together. Brotherhood was a powerful contract. It didn’t have anything to do with choice, because you were born into it, like you were born into your body, and somehow that made it all the more powerful.

Jeff said, “The snake’s bleeding.”

Charlie said, “That doesn’t mean it’s over.”

“His tail’s still going.”

“This is when he needs you most. You’ve seen fights. Whenever a kid goes down and his friends stop cheering for him, the whole thing’s over. As long as his friends keep cheering, he’s got a chance.”

“What if you’ve got nobody to cheer for you?”

Charlie shrugged. “Sucks for you.”

Jeff looked at the cobra and said, “Can he hear me?”


“I don’t see ears.”

“They have holes on the side of their heads.”

Jeff leaned forward to get a better look. He said, “It’s so bright.”

“The blood?”

“It’s like the only real color out here.”

“There are other colors.”

“Not really.”

“Sure there are.”

“It’s mostly just brown.”

The snake was brown. The mongoose was brown. The earth was brown because everything had been baked from months of heat. The green had shriveled up. The blue, long faded. Dogs went from shadow to shadow, hot, tired, and thirsty. The river was brown because the dirt was brown. By the end of summer and into the early fall, it didn’t matter who you were, your skin had turned brown. The air itself was gold, then copper. Jeff looked up. It didn’t take long to convince himself that the sky, cloudless, was just another shade of brown. “It’s kind of a yellow-brown,” he said.

Charlie looked up, blinked. “You’re crazy,” he said. “Everybody knows the sky is blue.”

“What about sunrises?”

Jeff didn’t like waking up in the morning because his body was sorest then, from being in one position for so long, but at least on clear mornings the bedroom overflowed with yellow light. It came through the curtains that his mother had sewn out of discount gingham and the light bounced off the walls and made him feel as if their house was built on the surface of the sun. The newborn sky was yellow then, not blue, and Jeff could raise his hand and run his fingers through it.

“Well, OK,” Charlie said, considering. “I guess sunrise is different.”

“What about sunsets?”

Orange made their father sing. He’d stand in front of the screen door and face the yard, which was supposed to be covered in green grass but was really covered in brown dirt, and he’d lift his arms and open his chest and sing “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, one of his favorite songs. On the nights when he returned from fights at Turk Tomlin’s house, he’d come into the kitchen and lift his arms then too. That would be the signal for Charlie and Jeff to take their positions on either side of him and pick the dried flecks of blood from his skin with their fingernails. They’d breathe in the smell of smoke that clung to his hair, sweet but stomach-turning, and imagine what it must have been like to see the fight unfold. They’d heard that a poster of Farrah Fawcett hung on the wall of Turk Tomlin’s garage. The brothers agreed that if they ever made it to the garage, they would kiss it, the poster, kiss her, the woman.

“Tell us about it,” Charlie would beg on those evenings, and their father would grin, saying, “It just about kills you, doesn’t it? Being so close you can taste it.” Then he’d pretend to lick the blood off his arm and the brothers would gape, heads overrun with fantasies of the blood turning their father into a werewolf. Then they would laugh and if the hour wasn’t too late, their father would let them shave the hair off the tops of his ears, then scrape the sock fuzz out from under his big toenails with the Swiss Army knife. “Careful,” he’d say, getting sleepy. “Careful now.”

Jeff looked at the sky and saw, momentarily, the faces of his family in that great expanse. His mother was there, his father, his brother. His neck popped. He said, “Maybe the sky looks brown because we’ve been swimming. Everything always looks different once I’ve opened my eyes underwater.”

“You open your eyes?”

“Don’t you?”

Charlie twisted in his flip-flops. He said, “The water’s full of animal poop.”

“It gets washed away.”

“It hurts.”

“You have sensitive eyes?”


“Like Mom’s.”

Charlie said, “She doesn’t have sensitive eyes, idiot. She is sensitive. Mom cries. I don’t cry.”

Their mother liked to say that her strength was her weakness, and by that she meant her empathy. She “felt” the littlest things, like a single coat hanging in the church donation closet, or someone walking around the grocery store with only canned soup in their basket. Jeff never saw her cry over him, though. She never forced him to wear the scoliosis brace, either. She always said that he was made exactly as intended, that he was perfect just the way he was.


Jeff pinched his eyes shut. He didn’t want to see the final throes of the fight between the mongoose and the cobra, although he could already feel how it was going to end. He said, “Hey, Charlie?”

Charlie said, “Yeah?”

“Your eyes are blue?”


“And my eyes are brown?”


“And that doesn’t have anything to do with how we see?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, you see blue and I see brown.”

“Don’t be stupid.”


Jeff opened his eyes. The cobra was dead. It might as well have been an electrical cord, or a piece of rubber hose. It might as well have been a belt. There were lines in the dirt where the snake had performed its final dance, and now that it was dead the mongoose stood frozen, hunched over the lifeless body, with its teeth piercing the snake’s neck, right below the head. The mongoose caught its breath. It stared at a fixed spot on the ground, waiting, reflecting, preparing, and then, when it was ready, the mongoose started down the road. It walked like Charlie Chaplin, doing a funny high-stepped walk. The cobra’s limp body dragged between its legs. Then the mongoose veered into a neighboring field, where abandoned pipes lay in a row like they were playing sardines. The mongoose went into one of the pipes and didn’t come out the other end. They were gone—one of spirit and the other of earth.

Charlie said, “And the winner is . . . Mon! Goose!”

Jeff said, “That wasn’t fair.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“You picked the mongoose when he was already winning. We got here after they’d already started.”

“The snake could’ve had a comeback.”

“You knew the mongoose was winning and that’s why you picked him and why you gave me the cobra.”

Charlie said, “Don’t be a sore loser,” and started walking home.

Jeff tried to keep up. He said, “Admit it!”

“Why wouldn’t I pick the mongoose if he was already winning? It would be crazy not to.”

“I don’t know why you got to pick to begin with.”

“Because I’m older.”


Charlie stopped walking. He turned around, saying, “And because I can stand up straight.”

Jeff said, “What’d you say?”

“You heard me.”

“I’ll punch you in the face.”

“Go ahead.”

“I will.”

“Do it.”

“I’m going to.”

“I’ll fight if you want to fight,” Charlie said, “but I’ll whip you just like my mongoose whipped your snake.”

Jeff knew that his brother was trying to rile him up. He knew that he was being lured into a fight that he couldn’t win. Still, he made fists. He looked at Charlie and saw the tracks of silt on his skin where drops of river water had trickled and dried. Jeff was dry now, too, although his tracks looked different. The water falling down his back had gotten caught in the deep rivulet of his spine and followed that curved path, leaving a glittering stripe. Jeff just wanted Charlie to know that he’d been hurt by what he’d said. He wanted him to pay the price, even if it was small.

Jeff dropped his fists. He couldn’t hold his own against a seasoned fighter like his brother, so instead he pretended that he was full of venom and when his brother’s eyes were open and vulnerable, he spat in his face.

Charlie dropped to his knees. He rubbed his eyes and doubled over. His forehead nearly touched the ground.

He said, “What’s wrong with you?”

He said, “Why’d you do that?”

He said, “That was a dirty trick.”

Jeff said, “What do you see?”

Charlie said, “I don’t see anything! You spat in my eyes.”

Jeff looked up. There was a wisp of cloud in the sky. The wisp was silver and the light was gold. He said, “I see my snake going to heaven.”

Charlie said, “Bullshit.”

Jeff said, “Do you know what’ll happen first? First he’ll get a new body and then everybody will cheer.”  

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