"You're gonna have to help me," Baxter said and the boy's lazy eye rolled in confusion. The wound on his face throbbed. Sweat broke out on his back, and he prayed.
"C'mon boy, take hold of him. Peel him off."
He looked up at Baxter Dawes and saw fear in his eyes. The snake tightened itself suddenly and Baxter sucked in air.
"Peel him up now, like you was skinning a deer."
He looked at the old man and he looked at the snake. He felt the stab of its fangs on his face. He felt the poison burn, eating slowly through him, like a mischievous acid and he watched the eyes of the thing gleam unblinking and ancient, as they have forever back through time. He stared into the pits on its head, tiny black holes which knew only heat in the form of food and danger. It was a magnificent machine, streamlined for stealth and stripped down to its barest components, an elongated muscle with a mouth and an ass and a chemical weapon to bring the rest of the world down to its size. Jacob knew his daddy sent him to do this thing in order to help him with the fear of it. Making him face the serpent now was a way of telling him that he was meant for the life. Destined to be a sign follower. To take up reptiles and consume deadly things in a show of faith that would prove to future congregations that Jesus was alive and that he still walked among us.
Jacob worked his fingers beneath the belly of the animal, wedging them between its scales and Baxter's arm. This snake was colder than the other and bigger around the middle. He pried and pulled until it came loose then picked the sack up off the ground as the snake hung from Baxter's arm. It rattled and hissed as it fell into the darkness of the bag. Baxter cinched the top closed with a strip of rawhide and dropped the bag on the ground and then he went back up to the overturned flat rock to retrieve the Judas pole and crow bar. The bag lay at Jacob's feet, the thrashing animal jumping and twitching inside. It flopped along the ground looking like some sort of magical trick. The dog pranced around it and barked. He sniffed it and let out a long, wailing howl. Baxter called down from the rock above and told the dog to shut up. And he did.
Rebecca Flint rolled over in her bed. She stared up at the ceiling, watching chips of peeling paint quiver and listening to the deep tocking of the mantel clock.
"He's too young, Charles." Her husband did not move.
"It's locked up tight in the box," he said. Rebecca sat up. She cupped a hand around her ear and she listened. "It's got to have a bad effect, with that thing down there under him," she said.
"Go to sleep. It'll make him strong." He said.
"He's already strong."
"That's why I put it there."
The darkness lay thick around them. Charles liked all the shutters closed and the shades drawn. Rebecca laid with her eyes open. When she closed them she couldn't tell the difference. She thought she heard a rapid scraping sort of sound down the hall. She sat up again and listened. It could have been the trees on the roof. She turned and held her husband.
"He's too young," she said. But Charles was already snoring.
He felt it there below him and his hands still registered the cool and tactile feel of it. He could smell the thing on his fingers. The stink of snake. Like wet sulfur. Musky, dank, bitter. He knew its ways now. It woke at night to hunt. But inside the box there was no prey. So it lay there, coiled in the dark, flicking its tongue to taste the air and feel what hot meal might be lurking nearby. It lay waiting while he laid asleep and it woke him often, with the scratchy rasp of its rattle bringing him back to the night. He prayed above the snake, and did not sleep.
The serpent box came out for prayer meetings during the day and went back under his bed at night. He became its caretaker. He carried it out to the revivals, holding it against his chest with his two stunted arms intertwined around it. He carried it all over Tennessee. To ramshackle churches and private homes and clearings in cornfields. They spread the word of God through the snake, conducting sermons beneath brush arbors cut fresh from local trees. They made makeshift temples with roofs of cut branches. Simple pine benches, saw dust scattered on the ground, the smell of the cut pine lingering on like incense and Mir.
People came from all over to see the snake man. Believers and non-believers alike. The faithful and the faithless. The hecklers and rowdies. Some seeking salvation. Others looking to watch a man die slow from snake poison. They crowded into the small meeting places in the woods. They stood around the pulpit five and six deep as Charles Flint read the scriptures and spoke to them in strange tongues, waiting for the anointment of God, the coming of the Holy Ghost itself, to protect him from the deadly things he drank and handled. Those nights were always still and hot, alive with murmuring onlookers and cricket songs. Hot oil torches burned around the outsides of the arbor. Flickering pulses of amber and orange bounced off the faces of the onlookers in golden waves. The meetings had the feel of an ancient ritual. Sooty black smoke hung above their heads in bands like slicing storm clouds dividing the sky into sections of quiet and tumult. Charles Flint would stare at the crowd with red rimmed eyes that narrowed and expanded like camera apertures as he read the scripture. His eyes held his power. They gleamed and they never closed. They had an unnatural wetness about them. Amphibian. Nocturnal. Ageless. When they fell upon a man, that man became a believer and some said that the Holy Spirit himself was in those eyes.
continued - 1 2 3 4 5 6