One day, Mattie closes the shop early and says that she is going to take Taylor, Esperanza, and Estevan somewhere. Taylor phones Edna to ask her to watch the kids a bit longer. Mattie explains that it is the traditional New Year’s Day for the Native American tribes of this region because it is the day of the first summer rain. In the desert, rain marks the new year because all of the plants and animals can come alive again.
The Native Americans, rather than celebrating arbitrary calendar days like Halloween or Valentine’s Day, tie their celebration to a natural event. The rain is the start of a new year and also offers a sense of rebirth to the characters.
A mile out of town, Mattie pulls over. The group hikes up a hill and looks down on the Tucson valley, watching the storm roll in. Taylor is amazed at all the unexpected life she has found in the desert, though she is not very good at remembering the names of the foreign, thorny plants that thrive in this arid land. Mattie reminds Taylor that all of the plants that look dead are just lying dormant, waiting for rain.
The animals in the desert are able to survive in a place that Taylor thinks uninhabitable, just as characters like Turtle or Esperanza live through events that Taylor thinks would not be survivable. The plants keep growing even though they get so little rain, just as people can make it through terrible events.
The rain storm reaches the hilltop, and the foursome is quickly drenched. The sudden cold is shocking and refreshing. Estevan starts to dance with Esperanza and Taylor thinks about how much she loves him and how happy she is. At that moment, Taylor starts to smell the rain. It is a pungent, clean odor, that Mattie explains comes from the greasewood bushes every time it rains. Taylor wants to bottle it, even as she knows that the smell might not be so wonderful when separated from the circumstances and emotions of the rain.
Once again, water reminds Taylor of her feelings for Estevan. However, this time Estevan dances with Esperanza rather than singing to her as she passively watches, reinforcing the fact that Estevan is in a committed relationship. Taylor accepts that she has to let go of Estevan, yet knows that this will be harder to actually do in the real world – just as the smell of the rain cannot be bottled outside of this moment.
After sunset, the little group heads back to the truck. They walk in darkness and navigate by flashlight as they are surrounded by the sounds of spade foot toads. Taylor can’t believe that there are toads in the desert, but Mattie explains that the toads burrow under ground until the rain makes it wet enough for them to come to the surface to mate. Estevan devilishly agrees that only death and sex are worth making as much noise as the frogs currently are, and Taylor colors as she remembers an erotic dream that she had about Estevan a few nights earlier. Mattie tells the group that the toads have to mate fast because the puddles that their tadpoles will hatch in will dry up in about two days.
The toads have to make the most of the moment that they have, knowing that waiting passively through the rain will spell certain death for the species. Likewise, Taylor is learning that she has to appreciate her life as it happens rather than dreaming about things that will never happen. Taylor is ashamed of her natural attraction to Estevan, as Kingsolver points out that humans have the same natural feelings as animals, but can choose not to act on them.
As they follow Mattie back to the car, Esperanza suddenly grabs Taylor’s hand. A rattlesnake appears in the flashlight beam, as it hangs at eye level from a tree branch. Mattie calmly explains that rattlesnakes climb trees looking for birds’ eggs. Taylor, determined not to be afraid, nonetheless feels her stomach tighten when she looks at the snake. Mattie just points out that every creature has to eat somehow.
The snake, a metaphor for difficult truths, eats bird’s eggs, symbolizing how harsh realities can destroy fragile, beautiful human dreams. Taylor wants to deal with this fact calmly and rationally, but she is not yet quite as accepting of nature’s life-and-death stakes as Mattie is.
When Taylor arrives home, she can tell right away that Lou Ann has been crying. Taylor asks Lou Ann if she’s alright, and Lou Ann explains that something is wrong with Turtle. Taylor rushes inside to find Turtle on Edna’s lap, with the same empty look that she had when Taylor took her in Oklahoma. Virgie appears in the kitchen doorway to tell Taylor that a bird has gotten in the house, confusing Taylor until Lou Ann explains that this has nothing to do with Turtle’s current state.
The disaster that Lou Ann has always feared has finally happened, but all of Lou Ann’s worrying didn’t prepare Lou Ann and Taylor to deal with it. Taylor occupies herself with the bird in the kitchen, a symbol of Turtle’s natural freedom and vulnerability caught by the trap of corrupt human society.
Lou Ann tells Taylor that Edna and Turtle were at the park enjoying the cool air from the storm. Edna, being blind, didn’t notice that it was starting to get dark and Virgie didn’t come to the park to take the two inside. Lou Ann doesn’t know exactly what happened from there, thinking only that they need to get a medical professional to talk to Turtle. Edna, also looking distraught, takes over the story to say that she heard an odd sound like a bag of flour hitting the ground and noticed that Turtle had stopped singing. Edna then swung her cane high over Turtle’s head and connected with something, then felt Turtle grab on to her skirt. Lou Ann comforts Edna, saying that she didn’t do anything wrong. Taylor bitterly thinks that Edna’s blindness saved her from being too scared to swing at a man who may have had a gun or a knife.
Edna’s blindness is both a blessing and a curse, as it kept them in the park too late but also gave her the courage to face a possibly very dangerous assailant. Humankind is also “blind” to many of the disasters that await them, and must blindly survive those tragedies when they come. The abuse in Turtle’s past comes back as soon as she is touched by a man. Even though she has survived that past, it still has the power to hurt her, as Kingsolver points out that the road to recovery is often long and difficult.
A knock at the door makes Taylor, Lou Ann, and Edna jump. The police come in, with a social worker. The social worker asks Taylor if she is the mother, and Taylor nods even though she feels like a “dumb animal” at the moment. The social worker explains that they are trying to find out if Turtle has been molested, and assures Taylor that Turtle will recover from this. Taylor is not so sure, given Turtle’s turbulent history. The social worker insists that she can help Turtle talk about these things, and Taylor excuses herself to the bathroom.
In the midst of this crisis, Taylor feels she is no better than an animal. The social worker, a part of human society, is relatively unable to assuage Taylor’s fears. As Turtle has once again withdrawn from human engagement, Taylor is unsure whether anything but pure nature can help Turtle.
On her way to the bathroom, Taylor runs into Virgie, who is frantically swinging a broom at a song sparrow that has gotten into the house. Taylor takes the broom from Virgie and chases the bird until it smacks into the wall, while Lou Ann spells out Turtle’s doctor’s name in the living room. Virgie tries to coax the dazed bird into her hand and Taylor keeps it from going into the living room where the police are still talking to Turtle. Taylor tells Virgie to open the screen door and gets close to the bird, watching its heart beat through its chest. Finally, the bird swoops through the open door and into the “terrible night.”
The song sparrow is a delicate bird that cannot survive within the house. Taylor chases this bird out, enacting her own fears that Turtle too will not be able to thrive in her house or in her family. Lou Ann is left to keep up the appearances of human society with the social worker and the police while Taylor remains concerned with Turtle’s interior emotional state. Yet releasing the bird is not redemption either, as it simply goes into the “terrible” night. There is no easy answer of what will help Turtle now.
The medical examiner tells Taylor that Turtle’s shoulder is bruised, but that she was probably not molested. Turtle is still in a catatonic state and Taylor is miserable that all of the progress she made convincing Turtle that no one would hurt her ever again is lost. Lou Ann, surprisingly, reminds Taylor that a mother can never shield their child from everything. Yet Lou Ann is angry at Taylor for leaving Turtle with the police while she chased the bird out of the kitchen. Taylor is too unsure of her abilities as a mother to reach out to Turtle.
Just like the X-rays showed damage underneath Turtle’s physically happy exterior, the physical evidence from this assault does not match the damage it has done to Turtle’s interior. But Lou Ann, showing great growth, is here the one who reminds Taylor that being a mother is about being there for your child rather than being perfect for your child. Taylor is not yet ready to hear that though.
Taylor escapes the house by going in to work, leaving Lou Ann to try to rouse Turtle and comfort Edna and Virgie. Lou Ann also becomes determined to catch the man who tried to grab Turtle, questioning everyone in the neighborhood and blaming the pornography shop next to the used tire shop for creating perverts to roam the neighborhood. Taylor tries to learn more about all of this, but can’t think of anything except the fact that Turtle could have died.
In the wake of this disaster, Lou Ann and Taylor switch roles. Lou Ann takes on the active search for justice while Taylor becomes more passive. This role reversal in their relationship is not complete, as Taylor still finds solace in “masculine” work as Lou Ann takes care of the “feminine” nurturing duties. This underscores the complex ways that Lou Ann and Taylor complete each other in their partnership.
One night after the incident, Lou Ann comes in to Taylor’s room to try to coax her into eating some soup. Taylor finally breaks down and cries, lamenting all the pain and ugliness in the universe that she can do nothing to fix. Though these feelings were catalyzed by Turtle’s attack, Taylor is truly upset that the world at large constantly picks on the weak. Lou Ann’s advice is to start fighting back, but Taylor can’t hear her.
Kingsolver gives more evidence of the ways that Lou Ann and Taylor have switched roles as they try to work through this crisis. Taylor now sees disaster around every corner, while Lou Ann is the one trying to rally her friend into helping where she can.
Taylor continues to tell Lou Ann about all the ugliness she has seen in Tucson, and the way her heart breaks for the poor and homeless, those just trying to raise a family in spite of all the odds stacked against them. Lou Ann finally just listens as Taylor laments the lack of compassion that she sees in America, a lack that only gets worse with each generation. Taylor is scared that she won’t be up to the job of keeping Turtle safe from all that pain. Lou Ann sits with Taylor, braiding her hair, and tells her that she doesn’t have to do it by herself.
Taylor highlights the common humanity between all Americans that should lead us to help each other, but has instead only led to more divisions. The lack of compassion in the world makes Taylor’s job as a mother even harder, especially as she now feels isolated even from the people that she considered her family.