After Jo’s encounter with Angel, the Busk took on a tense, antic tone. She kept her seat, fighting the urge to escape the crowd, for despite feeling overwhelmed, she also felt anonymous, lost, almost free. No one in eyeshot knew her, and if she stared straight into the backs and bellies of the dense human knot she could be almost anywhere. Songs started and stopped, entire acts, but nothing seemed to change from where she sat, and she clung to the sensation of the sweaty metal seat beneath her as though it were her single point of contact with the world.
After a while, though, the music stopped altogether and the people around Jo began to disperse. Larry had taken the stage, and was trying to maintain the crowd’s enthusiasm by listing off the acts that had performed, but people had little interest in Larry’s list, and he stopped himself mid-sentence, spontaneously changing his tack.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “let’s move things along, shall we? After a three minute break we’ll be right back with an act so dangerous you’ll think—as I do—the performer is out of his mind!”
Larry waited for some response but, receiving none, slowly left the stage. Jo felt a surge of compassion for the man as she watched his retreat: Larry was someone who never quite seemed to fit out here, yet whose determination despite this made him a match after all. With the crowd gone, Jo felt awkward and exposed. The chair Angel had been sitting on had been removed, and a few yards ahead and to her left sat a small group of shirtless children playing in the dust. People crossed the open space, weaving crooked lines from one side of the lot to the other, but Jo didn’t move until hearing the foul blast of the bus horn; this time it was right behind her.
She was in the way.
Jo held to the periphery as Larry again took the stage and introduced the next act. “Please welcome,” he said, “the Infamous Baba Gulabgir!”
He quickly skipped off the stage and disappeared behind a curtain, emerging moments later with a red turban on his head, no shirt, and oversized, billowing white pants. He carried a woven basket on his right shoulder, and in his left hand held some kind of slender pipe with a gourd-like bulge toward one end. As she watched in disbelief, Micah appeared by her side.
“Is that Larry?”
Micah was eating one of Harper’s barbequed Javelinas, and Jo wondered whether he’d been told what it was, or if he’d care.
“People surprise you out here,” Jo said.
Micah pulled something black from his teeth and threw it on the ground, where it was immediately picked up by a sparrow, which then shot off out of sight. Larry sat down cross-legged in the center of the stage, placed the basket directly in front of him, and took off the lid. Then he put his pipe to his lips, bulge side in, and a meandering, whiny sound began to snake its way through the festival.
“Hey,” said Micah, “here comes Jack.”
Jack walked up and stood to Jo’s other side. Together, they listened and watched as the head of a snake started climbing into the air above the basket like a small golden fist.
“Jesus,” said Jack. “That’s a fucking diamondback.”
“You didn’t know he did this?” asked Micah.
“If I had, I would’ve talked some sense into him.”
The snake rose higher and higher, and the strange, high-pitched sound kept wandering, and before long Larry had amassed a fairly large crowd before the stage. Unlike the enthusiasm shown earlier, however, this crowd was pensive, people just watching, slack-faced and amazed. Jo had heard of snake charming, but she’d never seen it.
“Don’t they usually use cobras?” she asked.
The rattlesnake continued to rise, its body waving, gyrating in the air over the basket, and the music quickened. By now the crowd had grown as large, if not larger, than it had been for the music, and everyone seemed under Larry’s spell. Jo could even feel a slight motion to her own head, and looked at Jack and Micah to see the rhythm affecting them as well. There was something terrible about the twisting snake and, as it stretched upward, reaching eye-level and then higher, something vulgar. Higher and higher it rose, until its movements swung it around like a vertical jump rope and the basket itself began to shift. The snake spun, the basket wobbled, and the music quickened, until, almost inevitably, the snake toppled over, basket and all, and rolled off the stage.
The crowd descended into chaos.
Micah screamed out a warning as people scrambled by, and Jo put her right hand to her mouth, reaching out for Jack with her left. But Jack was already gone. She watched him dive right into the thick mass of congested flesh, and struggle through it, pushing directly toward the stage.
“What the hell is he doing?” Micah said.
It had seemed completely natural to Jo, but one look at Micah’s face made her realize how absurd it actually was.
People fanned out from the lot and, within moments, left a big flat hole in front of the stage. Men stood before Jo, blocking her view of the ground, but she could see Larry who, still on stage, was standing now, looking down at the clearing with terror in his eyes. Then a woman screamed.
Jo stood on her chair.
Jack was in the center of the lot, she saw, his back to her. She leaned out to one side, and saw that just beyond him, in the clearing by the stage, were huddled together the children who Jo had seen just minutes before. Beyond them was the snake. It sat coiled, its head and neck jutting up from its neatly woven body, its rattle raised behind it, sounding its warning. To the right, the mother was being held back by a couple men, Prince included, who were explaining to her that she’d only frighten the snake further. She was screaming and sobbing, fighting the men, and Jo’s sympathy and shock was, for a moment, interrupted by anger. Was this woman too selfish to understand that it was out of her hands?
Jack began to walk, crabwise, around to the side opposite the mother. He moved slowly, steadily, his arms spread out to either side for balance, or to appear bigger. The children—there were three of them—sat now in what Jo assumed was a puddle of urine, shaking but making no noise, and the snake slowly turned its head from side to side, then pressed forward.
“This is insane,” Micah said.
“Shut up,” said a man standing behind him.
The crowd was hushed as Jack began to move more quickly, possibly in response to the snake’s movement, and when he was parallel to the children he shouted “Now!” and lurched forward. The snake shot out toward the children but jerked in mid-air, as though hit, and heaved sideways, falling into the dust with an audible thud. Then Jack’s boot came down hard on its neck.
It took Jo a moment to understand what had happened, but when Ben, the Mayor’s son, began to walk out from the left side of the circle toward Jack and the snake, she saw that he was holding Gramps’ stun gun. The boy looked terrified, but Jack waved him over as he crouched before the dead rattler. Then he gave Prince a thumbs-up and the mother was released. She ran toward her children and sat right down in the quickly drying puddle, weeping and looking each of them in the face as if to make sure they were really hers. Really alive.
When Ben reached the snake Jack stood and put an arm around the boy.
“Benjamin Craig, ladies and gentlemen!”
The crowd burst into hoots and hollers, and it was a minute before Jo realized that Larry had vanished. The basket had been thrown back up on stage, where it sat empty and on its side, rolling slightly back and forth. Jo looked around and finally caught sight of him, beyond the layer of people. He was bent awkwardly over his stout wife, his head on her shoulder. She was rubbing his back.
The air seemed slack, like it had been let into a larger space, and Jo’s shoulders sloped downward, letting go. Micah spat, shaking his head and whistling. People everywhere were grinning and patting each other on the back, as though it had been a group effort, and Jo admitted she felt something like pride.
But when she looked back to Jack, she saw something that shocked her more deeply than what she’d just witnessed, so much so that she must have vocalized her astonishment, because Micah grabbed her by the shoulder, asking if she was alright.
“I’m…” she said, but Micah had moved on.
He looked past her toward the road. “Paco’s here,” he said. “God damn it. I’ll be back.”
Jack climbed onto the stage, then signaled for Ben to join him, and if there had been any doubt before, seeing the two of them standing side by side, facing the gathered crowd, left her completely convinced: Ben was Jack’s son. She closed her eyes. No, she thought. No, this is the desert heat playing tricks. She looked again, hoping to be proven right, but beside Jack, the boy’s long black hair, tight eyes and aquiline nose echoed Jack’s in every way. His build, though still that of a boy, was slender but sturdy, and his shoulders were broad like Jack’s shoulders, his arms like Jack’s arms, long and strong. He had his mother’s full lips and wide, round face, but even that, Jo thought, would lessen over time. The two stood together uneasily as Jack took the microphone and introduced himself. Jo sat again, and put her head between her legs. She breathed.
“First I want to thank Larry for providing the snake steaks,” he said. “Those are being chopped up as we speak over at Chez Harper. First one goes to Ben, of course.”
The crowd loved it.
“Now folks, what we just saw was, in all seriousness, just the kind of thing that makes Arivaca great.”
Jo felt completely detached. Sitting, she surveyed the laughing, rowdy crowd as though it were on a screen.
“But I’m not saying we don’t have a hero on our hands.”
With that, Jack took Ben’s wrist and thrust it in the air until it looked like the boy was dangling from Jack’s hand. The crowd cheered again, and Ben looked like he wanted to disappear. Jo wished he would.
“Which makes this the perfect time for a Busk Ceremony tradition that goes back to the earliest days of my people. The Busk is about renewal and growth, and part of that is giving thanks for what we have. But there’s another part of it, and it’s not really something that happens every year. Maybe it should. That part is celebrating the transition into manhood by bestowing a battle name. Now, those of you who know me know that it’s how I received the name Lightning.”
He spoke, Jo noticed, in an unwieldy jumble of formal language, hushed, spiritual words, and casual regional slang. It seemed comical to her, vaguely, and she felt embarrassed. This was such a spectacle, such an insincere and unconvincing act. It was a sham.
“This year, our very own Mayor Jesse Craig has asked me to do the honor of helping her son make his symbolic transition. Well, I don’t think there could have been any better proof that he’s ready, do you? I know he’s already been going through some changes—just look at him—and that some of you have taken to calling him Bean. Well Ben, I think it’s safe to say you’re not gonna be called Bean after today.”
Jack invited the Mayor onto the stage, and she was visibly emotional—something
Jo had never seen. She was blushing, and moved quickly, as though wanting to get done with it. Jo tried to catch her eye, to search them for the truth, but Jesse didn’t look. She made a nervous wave to the crowd, and stood on the opposite side of her son. Then she nodded to Jack.
“So without further ado, I’d like to introduce Ben Lightning!”
Jo felt like she’d been hit. The crowd was momentarily quiet, not sure if they’d heard right. Ben himself looked stunned, as did his mother, who gaped up at Jack, and then down at her son, before reaching out and embracing him, tears streaming down her face. Then the clapping began.
“Let’s give Ben Lightning our kindest welcome!” Jack said over the applause, causing it to grow.
Jack made a show of holding out his hand, and Ben shook it while still caught in his mother’s embrace. Then Jesse raised her head and said something to Jack, who seemed to blanch. Jo suddenly felt completely justified in keeping Alex from him. How naïve of her to think it should be any other way! Deception was survival out here. It was the truth. It was the very magic of the desert: no magic at all, just slight of hand. Jo couldn’t watch any longer, and turned away. Standing right behind her was Micah.
“We’re all set,” he said.
Prince was right. He looked exactly like a cop.
“Good,” said Jo. “I want to get the hell out of here.”