The scream was coming down the mountainside. The hills, it appeared, were alive. The sound was not music.
It was the kind of scream that made me drop everything and run out the door.
There is a dry creek in our backyard, and the 5-year-old was on the other side. He was running and shrieking and looking all the smaller for it.
“What happened?” I yelled as I ran toward the bridge to meet him.
“I heard a rattlesnake,” he replied. His yell was much more impressive than mine.
We do have rattlesnakes in the area, so I took his cries seriously.
“Are you okay?”
“It wasn’t a rattlesnake,” came a voice from atop the hill. It was the neighbor girl and all of her 8 years of knowledge.
“We heard it too,” she continued. “It was birds in the bushes.”
And then the two of them argued. Loudly. I stood on my side of the creek and watched as the 5-year-old stood his ground. There were a lot of stands being made.
The “we” she had been referring to consisted of herself and my oldest boy, who said nothing as he walked down the winding path with rapid steps of careful focus.
His eight years were on his shoulders and they bent his knees accordingly upon reaching his younger brother.
“You don’t have to go with them,” I shouted to the latter. “You can come inside with Daddy.” It was Sunday and I had work to do.
My boys said nothing to me. They didn’t even look in my direction. Rather they looked at each other, the younger one listening to the older, and all of us trying to ignore the running commentary of the neighbor girl as she was coming around the mountain.
The girl looked at me and I put up my hand, the palm facing her, and to her credit she stopped. We stood equal distance from the brothers who were locked in low, close whispers. Then the older stood, took the younger by the hand, and picked a different path to pursue the summit. It was an adventure, and it was theirs for the choosing. They reached their waiting friend and broke into a run. It was as if there had never been any yelling, rattles, or birds in the bush.
I followed behind at a leisurely pace and walked gingerly around the area where my son was first startled. I saw nothing and was glad that I did, clad as I was in short pants and flip-flops. If the snake had been there waiting I would have quickly become the biggest fool on the hill — a title that was probably mine regardless.
I could hear the sound of their laughter echo through the canyon. Then they were ants in the distance, glowing in the sun, and waving in my general direction. I stood on the bridge, somewhere between the pride of what I had witnessed, and the emptiness of not being needed. There was a small puddle of water standing alone in the creek bed, wanting, I imagined, to only flow beneath me. It looked deep and bittersweet.