Serpent Box Long Excerpt

Slaughter Mountain

Charles' Copperhead has curled itself around his neck and he goes back to a different snake box and reaches in for another snake. The old reverend reads out of the bible as the Bowsky twins repeat phrases from Mark 16, echoing random words from the verse like men shouting out from troubled sleep. You feel it Mr. Knox? The boy says. You feel God?

I feel something. But nothing like whatís in those three.
I do, the boy says. I feel the spirit inside of me.
Donít you get any ideas.

But Tobias does not hear him. He steps into the clear space before the pulpit. Sylus grabs his shirt to pull him back, but the boy twists out of his grasp and moves toward the boxes lying out on the ground. The old reverend does not see him, for he is reading from the bible, and the Bowsky twins do not see him either because their eyes are closed. Charles is draped in serpents, his vision obscured by the Spirit, and by snake. Tobias stoops down at a small snake box stained black and inlaid with polished bone Ė the tiny ribs of a snake. On top is an inscription painted in gold.

Be not afraid, only believe.

Inside there lies a Pygmy rattler coiled up tight at the back of the box. Tobias can no longer hear the chanting of the crowd, or the moaning organ, or the preaching of the old reverend. He hears only the rush of wind and the steady intake of his own breath. He can see his hands on the snake, hands that feel separate from himself. His fingers look familiar but feel thick, dumb, distant. His hands move, beyond his control, beyong his desire to control them. They rach for the little snake and lift it from the box and Tobias feels the living muscle beneath its cool dry skin. He feels it stiffen and flex and he can feel the power in it as he takes it up in his arms. He stands to face the crowd, who have become enraptured by the sight of this boy, consumed by the Spirit and subduing a serpent. There is not a soul left sitting in the entire crowd and all are praying or singing, including Sylus himself who cannot believe what he sees - the three men under the spell of God and the boy too, infused with the same Spirit, calm as can be and smiling, as if what he holds in his arms is no deadly serpent but some pond turtle he caught with his own two hands.

A warmth spreads through Sylusís body, the warmth of kindness, a hot wave of joy and peace. It glows inside him, from his belly up to his ears it brightens and burns like a steady flame. He canít help but move his hands and feet, he canít help but smile and shout the name of Jesus, because Jesus is in him. He receives the anointment of the Holy Spirit with tears and laughter both. He feels he can walk through fire if asked to do so. He feels, for the first time, alive. The old reverend, seeing the child with the rattlesnake and Charles with the Copperhead, and more than a dozen onlookers awash in the radiance of the living Spirit, brings out the African chest and sets it among the smaller snake boxes. He folds down the hasp at the front and springs up onto the chest, throwing his arms up to the sky.

Never have I seen the Spirit so strong, he says. We are blessed today people, blessed with new pilgrims within in whom God truly dwells. He leaps from the chest and throws back the lid. The crowd steps back. The organ has stopped playing. They say the bite of the Cobra-king can knock an elephant down in mere seconds, Earl Bowsky says. They say he can spit his venom into the eyes of a lion, thus blinding him. But we have nothing to fear, for there is a wall of love here, ten feet thick, a wall of love that neither fang nor poison can puncture nor penetrate.

He jumps down from the chest and swings open the lid. The crowd gasps as the head appears, popping up from the inside of the ebony box and forming a hood, with a mouth on one side and a false eye on the other. Itís a thick snake, longer than any of the rattlers and far more sinister. This snake sees and thinks, and it reads the eyes of man for weakness and resolve. It watches the faces of the crowd and turns toward its every movement. There is no more praying or shouting. The only sound that can be heard at all is moth wings fluttering against the lanterns, and the Cobra itself, hissing like a cat.

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