The sloped desert plain that lay between us and the city was like a palm stretched out for a fortuneteller to read, with its mounds and hillocks, its life lines and heart lines of dry stream beds.
One afternoon in July the cicadas stop buzzing and Taylor and Mattie hear thunder in the distance. Mattie closes up shop and takes Taylor, Esperanza, and Estevan to the desert, saying she wants them to smell the first rain. She tells them that the Native Americans who used to live in the desert celebrated New Year’s Day on the day of the first summer rain. The group climbs up to a hill and listens to the thunder. Rain clouds move in, rain drenches them for a moment, and then the storm moves on.
On the walk back to the car, they see a rattlesnake curling up a tree, presumably looking for birds’ eggs. When Taylor gets home, she realizes that something is wrong when she sees Lou Ann’s face. Lou Ann tells her something has happened to Turtle. Turtle was in the park with Edna Poppy, who was baby-sitting her, when a man attacked Turtle. Because of her blindness, Edna does not know exactly what happened, but she says that she heard struggling and swung her cane in the direction of the noise. Taylor looks at Turtle, whose eyes are as blank as they were when Taylor found her in Oklahoma. Within a few minutes, a policeman and social worker arrive. Taylor excuses herself to help Mrs. Parsons deal with a sparrow that has flown into the house. The bird bangs into the window and falls back on the counter. Mrs. Parsons thinks it is dead, but it gets back up, and eventually Taylor and Mrs. Parsons manage to get it out the door and “into the terrible night.”
A medical examiner finds bruises on Turtle’s shoulder but no evidence of molestation. Lou Ann wants to take care of Turtle and find the perpetrator; she is angry with Taylor, who chased the bird instead of tending to Turtle. After the incident, Taylor feels absolutely despondent. She avoids eating and spends most of her time at work.
Taylor and Turtle meet twice a week with Cynthia, a social worker whose prim professionalism sometimes irks Taylor. Eventually, Cynthia finds out about Turtle’s past and tells Taylor that Taylor has no legal claim to the child. Without a legal guardian, Turtle is a ward of the state. Lou Ann, outraged by this information, tries to persuade Taylor to find some way around the law. Taylor feels hopeless and depressed, and seems ready to give up any effort to keep Turtle. Lou Ann laments the change in the once-gutsy Taylor.
Mattie has not found a way to get Esperanza and Estevan out of the state and into another sanctuary. She reminisces with Taylor about their first meeting, telling the surprised Taylor that she saw through Taylor’s show of confidence on that first day, when Taylor struck her as a “bewildered parent.” Mattie tries to tell her now that no parent can offer a child a perfect upbringing and that the only question Taylor must ask herself is whether she wants to do the best she can for Turtle.
Taylor makes an appointment to talk to Cynthia about Turtle’s custody. Taylor asks if laws regarding custody are different on Indian reservations, and how she should go about finding out about how laws differ in other states. Over the course of the conversation, Taylor realizes that Cynthia is on her side and wants Taylor to keep Turtle. Cynthia helps Taylor by giving her the number of someone in Oklahoma who could give her legal advice. After a sleepless night, Taylor decides she will drive to Oklahoma to take Esperanza and Estevan to a sanctuary and look for Turtle’s relatives. Lou Ann worries that Turtle’s relatives might want her back or that Taylor might not be able to find them, but she forgets the greatest risk: that Taylor could be caught transporting illegal immigrants. The wise and practical Mattie, on the other hand, realizes that Taylor has agreed to place herself in great danger. The night before Taylor leaves, Virgie Parsons invites Lou Ann, Taylor, and the children over to their porch to see the cereus. The cereus, which blooms just once a year, and only at night, has burst into blossoms. The plant’s flowers float above the women’s heads and smell wonderful. It seems like a good omen.
Taylor, Turtle, Esperanza, and Estevan leave from Mattie’s. Mattie reassures Taylor but seems nervous. She implies that Taylor is a hero for risking her own safety, and she looks at Taylor as Alice, Taylor’s mother, used to. Once on the road, they pass a dead blackbird. Taylor thinks to brake but realizes that stopping for a dead bird does not do any good.
Kingsolver links the beauty of the land to Native American values, suggesting that Native Americans have an admirable appreciation for the natural world. The characters pay homage to Native American tradition when they experience the magical first rain. Taylor’s growing knowledge of the land and the natural world reflects her growing understanding of Native American identity. Her delight at the rain also reflects the novel’s major theme: joy results from finding beauty in the midst of ugliness. In Chapter Twelve, the rain explodes onto the barren desert, thrilling the onlookers.
The two stories in Chapter Twelve, the story of the rain and the story of Turtle’s attack, are linked by the snake. After the rain ends, the group sees a snake trying to find birds’ eggs. This encounter foreshadows their discovery that Turtle, who is often associated with birds, has been attacked by an evil man, represented by the snake. The literal snake-and-bird encounter becomes metaphoric, as a silent assailant attacks the birdlike Turtle. Kingsolver employs more bird symbolism at the end of the chapter, when a bird gets caught inside the house. The plight of the panicky, trapped bird symbolizes Turtle’s trauma. Taylor stresses the connection between the bird and Turtle when she confuses the two situations, thinking that the terrible event everyone is talking about concerns the trapped bird, when they are actually talking about Turtle. The fact that the bird appears dead echoes Turtle’s reversion into a nearly catatonic state. Simultaneously, however, the nearly dead appearance of the bird is hopeful, since the bird survives and goes back into the “terrible night.” Taylor demonstrates both the depth of her love for Turtle and the persistence of her immaturity. The attack on Turtle clearly disturbs her—she sinks into a depression because of it—but she also pulls away from Turtle in Turtle’s hour of need. She is inexperienced, feeling that because she cannot prevent bad things from happening to Turtle, she is not a good mother.
In these chapters, the usually feisty Taylor becomes depressed, and the usually meek Lou Ann becomes bold. As Taylor learns more about mothering and the injustices of the world, she becomes less sure of herself and more disillusioned with the world. When she remembers her show of bravery in front of Mattie, she realizes she feels too tired and old to feign bravery anymore. Taylor’s grit seems to have rubbed off on Lou Ann, however, so that when Taylor has to face hardship, Lou Ann toughens her up, fighting on Turtle’s behalf and scolding Taylor for her lassitude. Kingsolver creates a community of women characters who continually bolster each other. When Lou Ann and Taylor support one another in the midst of their role reversal, they illustrate the usefulness of female friendship. Mattie supports Taylor too; talking to Mattie is what begins to pull Taylor out of her depression. Taylor has felt like a failed mother, but Mattie comforts her by explaining that no parent can hope to protect her child from the world. This assurance heartens Taylor, and she regains her energy, deciding to go to Oklahoma to save Estevan and Esperanza and do all she can to keep Turtle.