Cura Smith, a gangly girl of twelve, was exploring the desert landscape of Arizona when she heard the sound that would alter her life forever. It was the soft, normally musical mew of a cat. However, that wasn't what made Cura turn in anxiety. It was that the sound had an almost undetectable cry for help. It was in trouble.
Cura spun on her heel and ran towards the mew, kicking up dirt as she did so. Gulping, her sweaty fingers pushed back an escaped strand of ebony hair. She could feel that she was getting closer—it mewed again. Cura skidded to a stop and stepped from behind a flimsy palo verde tree. A sight met her eyes that made Cura's hair stand up on the back of her neck.
A rattlesnake lay coiled up, ready to strike. A small, cream-colored kitten was shaking with fear, his back arched. He cried once more helplessly, and the snake jolted forward warningly, then shrinking back into its coiled form almost immediately. Cura picked up a large rock and held it thoughtfully at her side.
If she hit it just right, the snake would die. But Cura wasn't stupid. She let the rock hit the ground and ran towards her house as fast as she could. The house was large, and hard to find somebody in. Surprisingly, however, her father was pacing the backyard, a tape measure outstretched. Normally he was never home, always at work at his construction business. A shovel rested in the unfinished pool against a dirt wall. Cura sprinted outside instinctively.
"Dad!" She waved her arms and ran towards him, breathless. "Dad!" Cura stopped and took a deep breath. "Rattlesnake... kitten..." she gasped. "Shovel..."
"What?" His eyes were full of concern and annoyance.
"The shovel, Dad, grab the shovel!" Cura spoke with such urgency that he grabbed the instructed object and followed her where she ran. When they got to the kitten, he furrowed his brow and turned to his daughter.
The kitten had taken it upon himself to climb the palo verde tree, and the snake was gone.
"Why did you call me over here for no reason, Cura?" he demanded, eyes fiery Cura gulped.
"He probably belongs to somebody, anyway!"
"But..." Cura processed his statement and let confusion cross her face. "What?"
Her father shook his head and looked at her. "Did you just call me over here to ask if you could have this kitten?" Cura's eyes grew wide, and a tear rolled down her cheek, making her freckles shiny.
"Would I do that?" she pleaded. "Dad, I'm telling you, there was this rattlesnake, and he was going to bite the kitten!"
"Don't you call me over here needlessly again, do you understand me?"
“Do you understand me?"
Cura hung her head. "Yes, Daddy." He walked away, muttering under his breath.
When he had completely disappeared, she gently plucked the kitten off the top of the tree and held him at arm's length from her. She looked sadly into his blue eyes and questioned him.
"I don't even like cats," she said softly. "Why do I feel inclined to help you?" The more Cura thought about putting the kitten down, however, the more her heart ached. She looked at the kitten's neck, and found it collarless. It seemed as though there was nobody to care for him.
Cura cradled the kitten in her arms and tickled his chin. He purred. "There's no reason why I can't take you home," she said thoughtfully. He wriggled, as though understanding her words. "How did you get that snake to leave, anyway? You're like the snake whisperer." Cura gasped suddenly, as a new idea occurred to her. "That could be your name—Whisper!" Whisper meowed happily. She giggled. "OK, then Whisper it is."
They trotted off for home, and Cura veered sharply to the right, ducking underneath a window. Silently she opened the window to the laundry room and jumped inside clumsily, stumbling when she landed, though managing not to make much noise. She then snuck to the stairs, tiptoeing faster than most people could run. She wasn't used to entering this way, because her parents were usually at work and there would be nobody in the house except for a fluttering note on the counter. But today was Sunday, and she had to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Where should I put Whisper? she thought. Cura hugged Whisper closer to her body and sighed in frustration. I could put him underneath my bed—no, no... I could put him in the attic—that's no good...
The door opened. Cura's mother walked inside, putting away fresh towels, and stopped curiously at the sight of Cura, wide-eyed and frightened. Her gaze traveled to Cura's arm, which was cradling a cream-colored tiny thing... which meowed. She sighed indignantly.
"Cura Harmony Smith, what do you think you're doing, bringing that cat into the house? It probably has an owner or a disease or something..."
"We could take him to the vet," Cura suggested hopefully. "He's not clean enough to have an owner, and he has no collar." She paused and held Whisper to face her mother. He meowed again and her mother was bewitched by his big, blue eyes. "Please? Whisper was being cornered by a rattlesnake..."
"Whisper, you say?" Her mother leaned over and placed the towels on Cura's bed.
"Please, Mom. We need to help him."
"Well, maybe you do, but I'm very busy..."
"But I'll buy the food and everything..."
"Cura, I can't. I have work tomorrow..."
"Please?" Cura choked. "There's nobody to take care of him! If we don't help him, he'll die. He was given a second chance at life, and I would feel awful if we forced him to throw it away." She wiped away a tear. "Wouldn't you?"
Cura's mother bit her lip, closing her eyes as if she was pained deeply, and then slowly and softly replied, "All right."
"But..." Cura paused, and turned her hopeful eyes to her mother's. She poured a glittering smile across her tear-streaked face. "Really?"
Her mother looked away guiltily, then met Cura's smile with a half-smile of her own. "Yes," she sighed. "I... guess I need," she shrugged, "to help him, too." She walked over to Whisper and scratched his ears. "And how could I say no to a face like this?"
She exited the room, leaving Cura to hug Whisper once, then fall into a doze.
Just before the moon lazily drifted into the sky, fighting for admiration with the sun, Cura roused and was alarmed to find that Whisper was gone. Teary-eyed, she ran into every room in the house. Finally, she walked, defeated, into the kitchen, wiping her eyes. She saw the blurry shape of her mother pouring something into a bowl.
"M- Mom," she sobbed, "Whisper is gone, and..."
"Whisper's not gone, Cura," her mother said comfortingly. Cura curled one hand into a fist and wiped away the last of her tears, and her vision cleared.
Her mother was setting a shallow bowl of milk on the floor, and a cream-colored kitten came forward and gratefully lapped it up with his sandpaper tongue.
"Whisper!" Cura cried happily. A haunting sound met Cura's ears. The slam of the back door, the scraping of boots on the concrete. "Oh..."
"What is the meaning of this..."
"We already discussed it, honey," said her mother quietly "We... we're going to keep the kitten." She sighed. "Whisper needs our help."
It seemed as though her father was attempting to object, but did not. He shook his head, giving in to the unseen spirit prodding him. "Fine."
At dinner, they all sat at the table and talked, which felt like a miracle to Cura. Usually, everybody would be in and out, and would grab a TV dinner when they felt like it.
"Delicious.., um... mac and cheese, Morn," Cura smiled.
"It took me hours to make," she joked back, jerking her thumb happily to the empty box on the counter. Cura's dad grunted noncommittally.
"What does this cat eat, anyway?" he asked. Cura laughed.
"Cat food doesn't cost much," said Cura. "W-We could all go to the pet store on Monday"
"I have work," her mom and dad said simultaneously.
"How about we go next Sunday?" suggested her mother quietly. Cura gaped.
"B- But that's a whole week from now! What is he going to live on until then?" she cried. "And besides, Dad always spends all Sunday working at home."
"Work ends at a reasonable time, sweetie," her mother suggested to Cura's father timidly.
"Yeah, at five," grumbled her father. "We can go then," he continued in a warmer tone. Cura's smile was so big that she feared it would break loose.
After dinner, Cura slipped into her nightgown and pulled down an extra pillow "Here's your bed, Whisper." Whisper trotted over and curled up, a tiny ball on the mass of red. Cura crawled into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin, then heard a noise.
The door was pushed open, and both of her parents walked in.
"Goodnight, sweetie," said her mother. She leaned down and kissed Cura on the cheek. "I love you." She exited the room, leaving an impression of warmth hanging in the room.
"Goodnight," her father grinned, kissing her forehead. Cura reached up and gave him a hug.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you too," he replied, and Cura knew he meant it. He left, turning off the light and closing the door. Whisper leapt from his bed to Cura's stomach. She pulled him close.
"Oh, Whisper," she said softly. "You darling. You're not just a snake whisperer at all," she sighed, letting him fall asleep. "You're a family whisperer."