The old reverend drops his head, his chin resting on his chest, his eyes closed, and he grasps the bible with both hands and lifts it from the lectern and bangs it back down with a great force that rings out like a pistol shot, and those up front all jump and heads turn and eyes that were shut pop open. All is quiet under the tent, including the snakes, as he raises his arms up over his head and shakes them from side to side. His body sways and his fingers all wiggle and he shakes from his hands down to his feet as a shiver runs through him. He sucks in air and he gasps.
I feel the Spirit, he says. I feel it coming on.
He steps back and places a hand on each of the twins’ shoulders and shakes them. They raise their arms up and step to the pulpit. Cries come from the back of the tent, random shrieks of joy and shouts of Jesus and Praise the Lord, and some folks sitting in chairs begin to stand and sway and others standing fall to their knees or raise their arms and from somewhere the music of a peddle organ can be heard as the Bowsky brothers remove their coats and roll up their sleeves in preparation for their acts of faith.
Bring it forth, says Ray Bowsky. Bring me your poisons. I feel it now, I feel the Lord inside me.
Charles can feel it too, he can feel his whole body, every nerve, ever hair, every part of him aflutter. He is seized by a wash of bliss, a warm tingle, that rains over him like the onset of a whiskey high. He stands as a big man with dark oily hair and narrow pig-like eyes forces his way through the crowd holding a jar in his hands above his head. His skin is pink and his arms are swollen and his hands are small and fat. The pig-man places the jar on the pulpit, but not before holding it up to the crowd and showing all who can see the label printed with the likeness of Satan and the words written there in black: Red Devil Lye. The pig-man’s eyes are sparkling and he smiles like an idiot. More of the crowd are on their feet now and Ray Bowsky has his hands on the open bible, and his brother behind him has his hands on his shoulders, and the pig-man with the lye opens the jar and lays it down in front of the bible and disappears back into the crowd. Ray Bowsky puts his hands on the jar and turns his head to the sky.
Lord, I am your vessel, he says.
He raises the jar, but before he can get it up to his mouth, a young man steps from the crowd and stops him. He’s a boy with red hair, eighteen or maybe twenty, skinny and tall and clad in overalls and barefoot in his brogans. He’s wearing a plaid shirt with snap-pearl buttons down the front and there is terror in his eyes. He holds Ray Bowsky’s wrists down, and they look each other in the eye. Between them is some vast and tragic history, alive but unspoken. The tent grows quiet but for the organ, whose player cannot see over the heads of the onlookers. All watch the pulpit to the sound of the organ.
The red-haired boy grabs the jar of lye and sniffs it. He dips his pinky inside and brings it to his tongue and for a moment he begins to smile but the smile soon fades. He releases the jar, his eyes open wide and he begins to shudder himself, not with joy but with pain. His mouth starts to open and close in spasms, his tongue flicks in and out and his head turns from side to side searching for a remedy to his agony. He drops to his knees and scoops up dirt and eats it, and he vomits, and rolls, and not a person in attendance moves to help him. The boy is panting, and coughing and rolling from side to side and in his frenzy he rips the shirt from his body and stuffs it into his mouth as far as he can get it down. But this does not help stem the pain. His face turns bright red and his veins pop out of his neck and he stands and runs from the tent screaming, with the shirt hanging from his mouth and trailing behind. The old reverend steps up to the pulpit then, between the twins.
Someone see that boy gets a doctor, he says.
The lye jar sits at the edge of the lectern and the old reverend wipes the outside clean with his handkerchief and then steps back. Ray Bowsky starts to shake his head and bob, and the chanting starts up again. Esau Bowsky begins to shake as well, and he starts to talk, but the words that come from his mouth are not English or any known language of man. He speaks directly to his brother, as if he can understand. He’s saying things that make no sense to Charles, or to the crowd, but which seem to be clear orders to Ray Bowsky, who lifts the lye jar from the pulpit and brings it to his lips. He sips from it once, and then again, and he holds it out for all to see that the level of the poison has dropped. He hands the jar to his twin and watches him sip from it as well. They pass the thing back and forth until the jar is drained. Ray Bowsky holds it upside-down for the crowd to see and they smile as the congregation chants.
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