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  • Shooting Snakes
  • Susann Cokal (bio)

In 1976, Miss Elaine Pratt surprised the neighborhood by adopting an eight-year-old girl off the Tesuque reservation. Miss Pratt was a schoolteacher, and many of the neighbors suspected this was her way of teaching them some kind of lesson; but the women in the Stitchers' Club pointed out that she was also thirty-four and too fat to get married, so it was her one chance at parenthood.

Miss Pratt called the little girl Ileanna, though to the aunts on the reservation she was still Mary. None of them minded what her name was, so long as she had somebody to take care of her now that her mother was dead and the aunts had so many children of their own. "It's a beautiful thing Miss Pratt is doing," the nicer neighbor ladies used to say, and they'd all nod and feel they were good and beautiful, too, for approving of her.

"She might lose some weight chasing after a child," my mother said at dinner. "Maybe she'll take the girl hiking on the wild land down the road, like your father's always saying he'll do with you . . . You know, if we aren't careful, when you grow up you'll look like Miss Pratt."

While she talked, I ate my mashed potatoes as fast as I could; I'd begun to sense when she was about to take something away from me.

Ileanna went to the school where Miss Pratt taught rather than the one up the street, and I knew her only from the neighborhood. While other kids played cowboys and Indians with plastic guns and arrows made of sticks, I used to see Ileanna spinning circles around her front yard, with the starched pink and lavender frocks that Miss Pratt made ballooning around her skinny brown legs. The women said those frocks were baby clothes blown up to third-grader size, but I was a big Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. I used to walk by the Pratt house to peek through the chain-link fence and imagine [End Page 135] that I had been adopted, too, and got to wear dresses that looked like something out of Little House on the Prairie.

I was even more jealous when, on the third anniversary of her adoption, Ileanna got a baby potbellied pig. After school she would chase the pig around the yard until she caught it and wrapped her arms around the bristly black middle. I thought it would be wonderful to hug a pig and to tote a heavy slop bucket out of the kitchen and empty it into something called a trough. The wonders were compounded by imagining myself with dark skin and slanted eyes and black hair – instead of beige-all-over, as I was. Imagining myself called Ileanna Pratt instead of boring old Tracy Wilson.

The pig was followed by a pair of soft gray rabbits that quickly multiplied, and then a glossy brown dog missing a leg. I almost couldn't bear to go by the Pratt house anymore; of course my parents refused to let me have a pet. A pet might distract me from my studies.

As a reward for the first time I got straight A's, my father finally took me out on the wild land and taught me to use his .45 revolver. We shot at juniper bushes and yucca blossoms and a dead rattles-nake until my mother got wind of it. "Nine-year-old girls don't shoot guns," she said. "Period."

When it was time for junior high, the children of White Rock were bused up the mountain to attend one big school in Los Alamos. In that year, Ileanna Pratt became my friend. It turned out that she was two years older than I, but I'd started school early and she'd been left back when she got to White Rock, so we were in the same grade. I was surprised to find out she was as unpopular as I was; her beautiful frilly dresses and fat schoolmarm of a mother made other kids snicker as she walked by. She did...


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