He who most resembles the dead is the most reluctant to die.
Harmony, Georgia -- Fifteen Years Ago
"God help us," the old woman whispered.
"What is it?" her granddaughter-in-law demanded. "What's wrong?" The blood of her son’s birth still stained the linens beneath her hips but her voice was strong, rising as her question went unanswered. "Why doesn't he cry?" She clawed at the sodden sheets, struggling to sit upright.
Grandmother Nokomis turned her back to the bed. "He's fine, Miriam," she said hastily. "Just a quiet little boy, that's all. I've seen plenty of newborns who didn't so much as whimper. I'll clean him up a bit--"
"Let me have him. Now." It was strangely cold for an early June night and Grandmother Nokomis had built a fire when Miriam felt her first labor pains at sunset, then fed the flames steadily as the hours crept past. Now the firelight sparkled in the rivulets of cold sweat on either side of Miriam's face, flicking across the darkness of her eyes and making the crescent-shaped shadows above her cheeks look more like charcoal slashes. When the old woman had seen the boy's head emerge-- and of course it would be a boy-- her first panicked hope was that the infant would be dead, perhaps strangled on his own life cord, ending-- finally-- the Spiro family forever. But that was not to be, and so she offered her gnarled and age-beaten hands to catch the dark child of her grandson's seed and show him into the world. And she accepted him, despite the blight he brought to her family's legacy. She had thought to at least temporarily hide his mark before--
"Grandmother! Give him here!"
Old plaster walls, clean wooden floors that dipped in places from the wear of two centuries, windows that creaked and let in more air than they kept out. Familiar, the same sights she'd been seeing for eighty-five years, all moving in a slow spin to her left as she turned to face the pale young woman waiting on the bed against the right wall. Now, more than any other time in the past, Nokomis Spiro thought she could feel the spirits of her ancestors from her father's side, this time clamoring in alarm.
She tried to think of something comforting to say as she turned and handed the silent, bloody infant to his mother. She failed.
Smiling at first, Miriam accepted the child. Then her face went rigid with shock. "This c-can't be," she stuttered. She looked at the elderly woman imploringly. "Grandmother? Please?" Within the cradle of her arms, the boy's still-slippery body trembled slightly as his chest rose and fell rhythmically. Miriam's left hand spasmed, then her fingers curled into claws and she began ripping at the baby's face. "God, we've got to get it off!"
"Be careful!" Nokomis snapped. She batted Miriam's hands aside and lifted the now struggling baby clear. "You might hurt him if you tear it. It should be cut." She carried the newborn to the changing table and placed him atop the clean sheet she had folded in anticipation of his birth. He calmed instantly but he looked wrong there, amid the sweet plastic rattles and a small, soft stuffed bunny.
Why doesn't he cry?
The old woman swallowed as she pulled the sewing scissors from her apron pocket and began to snip at the hideous black caul covering her great-grandson's face.
"I'm going to name him Jason," Miriam announced. "I read that it means 'healer.'" It was her first day out of bed, and settled on the family’s antique rocker, she looked recovered from the birth.
Nokomis nodded but said nothing, thinking that the boy's name could mean 'Jesus Christ' and it still wouldn't help him. The three-day-old suckled calmly at Miriam's breast, his blue eyes unnervingly piercing. All babies have blue eyes when they're born, she reminded herself. Odd that his eyes had lightened so soon. She rose unsteadily from the couch and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, nearly scalding herself halfway through pouring the boiling water into her cup when Miriam was suddenly behind her.
"No one is to know about the caul, Grandmother." Nokomis knew without turning that her granddaughter-in-law's eyes would be fierce, could feel the presence of her great-grandson where Miriam had placed him in the wicker bassinet a few feet away. "I won't have Axel's son marked in the eyes of our neighbors."
Axel. Her only grandson, dead now six months. What would he have said to see his newborn child, its face obscured by the evil of a black birthing membrane? A foolish question: no Spiro man had ever lived to set eyes upon the next male issue of his seed. Except for her, the female descendants had died out, too. Dear God, she thought in sudden terror, what evil history would this child create as he passed to adulthood?
"He's a baby, that's all. A normal baby. No one's to be told any different."
Normal now, Nokomis wanted to say. But what about when he grows up? "Would you like a cup of tea?" she asked instead. "There's more hot water." The cold weather was gone and she had cut a pile of wild daisies from next to the barn early this morning. Bathed in the high noon sunlight, they sat in a quart Mason jar on the windowsill like a sparkling lie. Her pulse was a reedy spasm through the tired old heart within her chest.
"No, I don't want tea," Miriam said. Her voice was showing strain. "What I want is some indication that you heard what I just said."
The elderly woman turned with her cup and stepped past her granddaughter-in-law and the child, careful to touch neither. She waited to say her piece until she was fully settled on a kitchen chair.
"The neighbors have a right to be warned," she said evenly.
"No!" Miriam lifted Jason and held him in the crook of her arm, then slammed her other hand down on the table in front of the old woman hard enough to make the table’s Formica top rock on the metal legs. Nokomis didn't jump, though the tea sloshed over her cup's rim; the baby's eyes widened, then narrowed, as though he were aware not of his mother's anger but of his great-grandmother's statement, and disapproved. Still, he didn't make a sound. Miriam yanked out the other chair and dropped onto it. "Listen to me-- no, don't turn away, damn it! Please!" She leaned forward, her expression earnest. "It's almost 1980, Grandmother. All the old talk about cauls, white ones, red ones, black ones-- that's all it is. Old talk. No one believes--"
"You may fool yourself into thinking that, girl" Nokomis interrupted, "but you won't fool me. I know better."
"This is an old town full of superstitious fools," Miriam snapped. "If you tell any one of those idiots Jason was born with a black caul, you'll damn him for life. He'll be an outcast, shunned by everyone. The children will taunt him and he'll spend his life lonely and without friends, without anyone. Is that what you want, old woman?" She lowered her face to the soft brownish fuzz covering Jason's scalp and rubbed one cheek against it. "He's a little baby, for God's sake. He doesn't deserve to be tortured all his life because of a stupid belief that no one can justify."
Grandmother Nokomis stared at her, then took a sip of tea while she considered her next words. "You're not from around here," she finally said. "I thought my grandson explained our history, at least as much as he could and still talk you into marrying him. None of the townswomen would have him, you see. They all knew he'd die if they got pregnant with a son."
It was Miriam's turn to stare. "Crazy talk, that's all."
Nokomis shrugged, her bony shoulders stiff under her housedress despite the climbing temperature in the farmhouse. "You can think whatever you like, Miriam, and it's obvious you didn't believe him. But didn't you wonder why a handsome, healthy man like Axel was still a bachelor at thirty-five?" She dropped her gaze to her cup, studying the cooling liquid. "I prayed you'd have a girl," she whispered, "At least then there was a hope that I could keep my grandson for a couple more years-- sometimes that happens, you know. I buried my son the month before Axel was born. I wanted to be the one to die first."
"I'm not going to listen to this." Miriam started to rise.
"Sit!" Nokomis commanded. Her granddaughter-in-law hesitated, then complied. Despite the sun-filled room, Miriam's face was dark, hostile. "My father was Olin Spiro," Nokomis went on. "He died a year after I was born, in 1895. At the time, my mother was three months' pregnant. She lost the baby, a boychild, when she got kicked by a plow horse doing morning chores." Her eyes, an ancient, seawater blue version of the eyes of her great-grandson across the table, started to fill with tears but she blinked them away. "My mother-- the whole town-- knew that my father was... touched. He could see things, do things, predict things, that a man had no way or right to know. It was an accepted thing-- he never misused his 'talent' and it'd been happening for so long, since the Spiro clan first came to be, that no one thought twice about it--"
"What do you mean 'it'd been happening for so long'?" Jason had fallen asleep and Miriam rocked him gently, hating her reluctant fascination with the elderly woman's tale.
"A male child touched in some way is born every fourth generation in the Spiro family. The last time it was my father," Nokomis explained. Her gaze dropped to the sleeping infant. "Now it's... Jason."
Miriam leaned forward. "If you believe that," she pointed out, "then that makes Jason special, not...." She frowned as she tried to think of the right word.
"Jason is tainted." Nokomis kept her voice steady. "I spent my youth in shame by bearing a son out of wedlock to maintain the family name, and that son was Axel's father. Now Axel's son-- your son-- has turned the history of the Spiro family in the direction of darkness."
Miriam snorted. "Very poetic, and completely ridiculous. Crazy superstition building on itself, like a nasty, uncontrolled infection." She turned her face toward the open window with its jar of spring daisies; birdsong filtered through, then a dog's faint bark, carried on the summer breeze from another farm a quarter mile away. After a moment she again faced her dead husband's grandmother. "I won't have any of this," Miriam said quietly. "You're right in saying that I'm not from here, but that doesn't mean I don't know how small town people hang on to small thoughts, and it doesn't take a high school education to know they'll use those beliefs to destroy another person. Axel's dead and this baby is all I have left. This is my son, Grandmother. I'll do anything to protect him, anything to see he gets a fair shot at living a happy, normal life. I won't let you or anyone take that away from him. I loved you once."
Nokomis sat quietly across the table from the strong young woman who had suddenly become a dangerous stranger.
"But I'll kill you if I have to."
Miriam could see her son, fifteen years old today, stride across the half acre of disused field north of the farmhouse, on his way to Saturday afternoon services at that awful church. He was so tall for fifteen! By the time he turned eighteen, she was sure he'd be as tall as his father had been, maybe taller, and he'd fill out by then, too. She watched his light brown hair gleam in the sunlight until he reached the road and bounded out of sight, then she turned and went inside. Had Axel really been tall? The truth was, she couldn't remember; too many years of hardship and harder work, with no one to keep her company but Jason, and for that she would damn Axel Spiro with her last breath. While Jason was popular and well liked and the townsfolk were unfailingly polite, Miriam had no close friends, and none of the men from town would date the widow of a Spiro. Even Grandmother Nokomis's superstitious conversation would have been welcome. All those doomsday stories about Jason and singsong tales about raising an illegitimate son in the poverty of the south in the 1920s-- at least they'd been interesting. But the old woman's heart had given out before Jason could be baptized-- no fault of Miriam's, but her bitter words had left her with unresolved guilt all these years.
There's nothing wrong with Jason.
How many times had she thought that over the last decade and a half? Thousands-- tens of thousands, a comforting psalm to be whispered at every opportunity. It had been true... until the construction of the church two years ago that housed the preacher Abel Scanlon and his Pentecostal Serpent Handlers. Before that, she’d taken Jason to Sunday services at the Baptist church in downtown Harmony every week, and if she didn’t sing or clap or say "amen" along with everyone else, at least she was there for her son’s sake, grimly offering him the opportunity to learn about a God in which she no longer believed. Hoping that he would find the faith she had lost somewhere in the pain of her husband’s long-ago death.
A lot of good it had done; here it was the boy's fifteenth birthday and Miriam couldn't keep him away from a church and religion so far removed from the placid little Baptists that it was ludicrous. Over the past six months she'd tried everything, even complaining to the sheriff--
"I'm sorry, Miz Spiro, there's nothing we can do. It's that First Amendment thing, freedom of religion and all that."
"But Jason's only a boy, and these people are handling dangerous animals and doing who knows what else!"
"Reptiles, Miz Spiro, not animals. And Jason is almost fifteen. If the courts in this county'll let a boy that age decide which parent to live with in a divorce, you know darn well they won't stop him from going to the church of his choice."
"First Amendment or not," she'd replied heatedly. "These snake handling churches are banned in most states. People die because of them, for God's sake!"
"Well, they ain't banned here, and ain't no one died."
"Yet," she interjected in an icy voice.
"Like I said, there's nothing I can do. Besides, most of the people who show up in that place go just to watch-- they don't want anything to do with those snakes. Boy's only curious, like any red-blooded American kid would be. It'll pass."
So here she was, a forty-year-old single parent with a "curious" teenager who spent every free moment at a whitewashed shack on Blue Highway, a structure this "Preacher" Scanlon had topped with a rusted tin roof and dubbed a place of worship. At fifteen Jason ought to be discovering girls, not becoming obsessed with Holy Rollers. Each time he attended services, Miriam's skin crawled and she went nearly crazy with fear, her imagination supplying feverish pictures of long-fanged snakes and Jason twisting in death throes beneath the stares of the other worshipers. She'd done everything but outright forbid him to go, but she knew instinctively a move like that would be disastrous. Still, there was one more option: her mother, who had died several years ago, had a sister named Theora who lived in Chicago and with whom Miriam had exchanged obligatory yearly cards at Christmas, on birthdays, and at Easter, plus an occasional short letter with a hazy, home-shot photo of Jason as he grew. Miriam was not a pushy woman, but desperation sometimes forced a woman to ask for things she otherwise might never have the nerve to voice.
She retrieved her purse and stepped to the counter, glancing out the window as her fingers touched the single Greyhound bus ticket inside. The barn door was already coming loose at one hinge and she could see a dozen half-inch fissures in the wood at the base of the old building's southwest corner, where the sun beat the hardest in the heat. The pane of glass she stared through was cracked at the lower corner and needed replacing. It would be an exhausting summer without Jason to help, and while she had scratched together the money for the ticket north, she'd have to beg and borrow to bring him back. He would be so angry... still, she couldn't help but think the boy might enjoy a summer stay in the city.
And please God, Miriam thought, let him outgrow his infatuation with that deadly religion.
Sweet, hot southern day, the sun bright and fierce outside the church as the grasshoppers sang, the birds screeched, and the gnats and mosquitoes dive-bombed the miserable farm animals. Inside, a different kind of singing, voices raised in adulation, floating on the humid air along with the cloying scent of the bundles of lilacs, clover, and wildflowers brought to adorn the room by members of the congregation. Unheard beneath the music-- the battering of the old drum set in the corner and the strum of an older guitar-- was the darker sound of smooth reptilian bodies sliding over each other in close quarters, soft hisses and angry rattles masked beneath the joyous clamor of worship.
Jason Spiro, sky-blue eyes shining, nearly catapulted into the church. He was early, for Pete's sake, and folks were already dancing up front, clapping their hands and stomping their feet. A few were already speaking in tongues, their twisted sounds hanging on the moist air within the church until they found Jason's knowing ears. He heard every one of them, understood every word, even if his mother didn't believe him. He didn't know what else he could do to convince her that he belonged in this church as much as possible. He couldn’t find the words to describe how he felt when he was here, and how he felt when he was away-- incomplete... hungry. He thought the answer might be admitting he'd found Grandmother Nokomis's journal at the bottom of the cedar chest in the attic five years ago, the mildewed pages filled with spiky, eloquent swirls that said everything. The ravings of a madwoman? Jason didn't think so, nor was he convinced that his mother should know he'd read all the things Grandmother had written about him.
Axel's son was born with a terrible black caul.
More details, much more, and he drank in every bit-- the things Grandmother’d thought he might do or say or cause in his lifetime. Obscure accusations and predictions-- speculations-- all things that hinted at what he was inside and showed him what not to do, enabling him to build a careful wall of normalcy. Jason didn’t think he was at all the evil creature Grandmother Nokomis had believed he would become-- he’d never done an intentionally mean thing thing to anyone. He’d been through that book so often over the last half decade that he’d worn the corners of some of the water-spotted pages translucent. Reading and re-reading, waiting and listening to the whispers in his head that had grown steadily since the first time he’d struggled to decipher Grandmother’s ancient flowing script.
Jason was different, and he’d have to be blind not to see that difference in the uneasy gazes of his schoolmates. He had only one friend, a husky teen named Duwayne Unwin who was, for different reasons, as avoided in the normal circles of Harmony as Jason. Duwayne's family farmed pigs, and Duwayne's clothes always smelled like pig droppings. The aroma permeated the boy’s hair, skin and clothes so thoroughly it would probably never come out, and how could it? The Unwin house bordered the sties and was itself steeped in the smell. Duwayne was a strapping boy, bigger than Jason, with thick dark hair and black eyes, a sure sign of Cajun blood somewhere in the line. Being handsome didn’t matter; the way Duwayne’s father made a living made him an outcast forever.
Pigsmell or not, Jason had started hunging around Duwayne Unwin after Scanlon’s church was built. Mr. Unwin was a regular member, a real one who didn’t hesitate to thrust his hand into the crate and pull up a rattler or two in a scar-studded fist. The elder Unwin allowed his family to attend services with him, but wouldn’t hear of letting Duwayne or his eleven-year-old sister handle snakes. Duwayne's mother never missed a service, singing along in an unreliable voice but with no desire to pick up a snake or drink from the jar of strychnine sitting on the front railing. Duwayne hadn’t hesitated to repeat her words to Jason earlier.
"Duwayne, I know I'm living right and I know the good Lord sees me. He don't need for me to pick up no filthy snake to prove it. Now, your father... well, I guess he feels he got to show the Lord how good he is. Maybe he thinks God can't see him when he's in town, in that bar. Or maybe your father knows that's exactly when God's been watchin'."
Duwayne had been quick to add that his daddy told things differently, and Jason could hear in his friend’s voice which parent he believed. "My daddy says only a man's faith will keep the serpents from bitin'," Duwayne had said proudly. "He says that's why you don't see no boys our age up front. Once I told him I wanted to do it and he liked to slapped my face right off."
Duwayne had looked at him impatiently. "For thinking I had the balls of a man, of course."
Jason's eyebrows raised. "Yeah? Well, what about the women who go up and handle the snakes? What's he say about them?"
"He says they're whores." Duwayne’s hands were shoved deep into the pockets of overalls washed to a faded faint blue. Frayed spots at the cuffs and knees were nearly white from the bleach Duwayne's mother used constantly. Underneath the smell of chlorine, the fabric still smelled like pigs.
Jason couldn’t help sniggering. "No way. Scanlon would never let anyone touch his snakes if he thought they had a dirty spirit. Plus they’d be sure to get bit."
Duwayne shrugged. "Maybe, but I ain't gonna argue the point with my daddy, if you get my meaning. You coming to services tonight?"
Jason’s grin was wide. "I wouldn't miss it. It's my birthday--"
"I didn't know that!"
"--and I got a thing or two to show Scanlon. And your daddy."
And finally, an end to all that waiting, the rising of raw instinct that gifted him with the the feeling that his moment had arrived...
How many times had he heard the words You are the Chosen One uttered to him among the tongues and music and the holy fervor in this room over the past two years? Thousands, literally. These people, some from the shabbier outskirts of Harmony, some forest squatters, others truck farmers who drove in from the deeper hollows and more remote swamps-- they needed him. To lead them, to teach them God's ways, to show them that their message-- You are the Chosen One-- though misunderstood by those who uttered it, stood true to life before them. He had no written instructions or calendar or specific scripture to quote. He just knew that tonight was it. When he burst through the door, Jason could tell by the escalation of the singing and speaking in tongues that they knew as well, deep in their souls, that tonight was the night:
Jason's birthday, his initiation...
His coming to be.
It was the same every time, that spreading sense of... welcome that he couldn’t make his mother fully comprehend-- a certainty that he'd finally found the piece of his life puzzle missing all this time. It wasn't the people, or the snakes twisting sluggishly in their dirty wooden crates while sweat- slick folks swayed around them. It was... fulfillment. A sense of something sliding into his soul, slipping in and swelling until it shut out all the emptiness he'd kept secret so long. It filled him and grew bigger, and heavier, and ultimately all encompassing.
Scanlon was up front, kneeling by a husky, middle-aged woman in a pink dress who sprawled on her back on the floor, twitching and mumbling while her eyes rolled in her head and her mouth yawned in a nearly toothless circle. As Jason weaved among the brothers and sisters swaying in the center aisle, the preacher pressed one hand on the woman's streaming forehead.
"And they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover!" he bellowed. His flushed, chubby cheeks quivered with effort and heat. "Come out of this woman, devil! Begone and free this woman to Jesus!" His fingers grabbed a tuft of her greasy bangs and he thumped her head twice against the floor. "Begone, I command thee!" The thinning strands of grayish hair stuck across the crown of Scanlon’s head fell forward and bobbed with each motion of his head.
Suddenly the woman grasped his wrist and grinned jaggedly. "Yes!" she screamed. She jerked Scanlon's arm up and down in a parody of a handshake and clutched at his jacket. "Glory be, I'm healed! I'm healed!" She scrambled to her feet and she and the preacher whirled past Jason and down the center aisle, until Scanlon kissed her resoundingly on one cheek and propelled her into the last row of chairs.
"A hard one, brothers and sisters," he called out to the swaying and clapping people as he strode back to the pulpit. The knees of his light gray slacks were dusty and his pink sport shirt was open at the collar, already sodden with perspiration under the arms and down the middle of his back. "But the Lord wins for the faithful, because the Lord protects His own, and the Lord is moving in this building tonight!" Cries of "Hallelujah!" and "Amen!" burst from the parishioners.
Scanlon reached Jason and grinned at the boy, then pulled him up to the pulpit with him. "Brothers and sisters," he shouted. "Are you holy?" There was a spattering of affirmative shouts from his audience. "I said, ARE YOU HOLY?"
The response was a medley of righteous screams of agreement. Jason beamed happily next to the preacher, tapping his feet and waiting for the right moment. Scanlon was practically vibrating with excitement. "Then let us show each other the faith of God within ourselves, and tonight, in celebration of the date of his birth fifteen years ago this very day, brother Jason Spiro will join us in that holy display for the first time!"
An expectant hush fell over the worshipers and Jason filled the void with the familiar words, not shouting as Scanlon had done, but doing much more than merely speaking... mesmerizing, his gaze finding and paralyzing the people who waited.
"They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover!"
"Who will join us?" the preacher demanded suddenly. He thrust one meaty arm above his head; clutched in his sweating fist was a pint jar of cloudy, vile-looking liquid. The handwritten words on the jar's label had long since smeared away. "We will drink in defiance of Satan, and he shall not harm us!"
"Amen!" a woman cried from the back of the church.
"Praise God!" came the hoarser cry of an older man.
The preacher swung the jar at his audience again. "Who will--"
"I will." Jason snatched the jar from Scanlon's outstretched hand before the man could blink. The preacher grinned and clapped with the onlookers, urging his parishioners on while he swung an arm around Jason's shoulders and hugged him. The men and women in the church applauded and danced to the beat of the band as the heat and the music and the moment enfolded them. Scanlon's eyes were big and soft as a doe’s as they locked with Jason’s, the kind of gaze a God-fearing person knew in their bones could be trusted. Still, his whispered, heavily accented words were forced through his teeth in the midst of a wide, unfaltering smile.
"Boy, for the last time, I sure hope that God's a'moving on you to do these things t'night, 'cause they's death in 'em otherwise. Many's the man who's died of weak faith."
"Don't you worry, preacher man," Jason shot back. Something in the teenager's voice made Scanlon's hearty smile slip for an instant. "I've been waiting all my life for tonight. Like Jesus, I would die for you." He laughed abruptly and skipped away from the older man as he unscrewed the jar's lid, following the music and weaving among the five or six people crying in tongues and jumping to their own rhythms on the carpeted floor in front of the pulpit's vibrating railing. More than anyone else in this room-- more than even the preacher who still followed him across the front of the church-- Jason knew he was supposed to be here, moving among these simple folks, showing them the way of true faith.
He'd show them something, all right.
"Praise the Lord!" Jason cried as he raised the jar of strychnine-poisoned water to his lips. His own fear made the first taste flowing over the crusted rim of the glass nasty, like caustic, gritty metallic water; then the flavor changed as it touched his tongue, sweetened and slid like warm honey down his throat as he drank deeply. When the jar's contents dropped to the halfway mark, the shock that rolled from the preacher was palpable and the older man wrested the jar from Jason's grip.
"That's enough, boy. You aiming to die tonight?"
"Oh ye of little faith," Jason hissed into Scanlon's face, careful to let no one else hear. "The piddling sips that you and your faithful take prove nothing. Tonight you'll see what true belief really means."
The concern on the preacher's face switched to indignation and his cheeks went dusky red as he said something back, but Jason neither heard his words nor cared what they were. Head spinning, Jason jerked away from the useless old churchman and headed for the serpent crates, his stiffening feet and arms twisting and flailing from the effects of the strychnine. He could feel his tongue and lips thickening and his lungs hitching for air, as though he'd downed a half-pint of Jack Daniel's on his way here. No matter; he had much, much more in mind for the gazes of his fellow worshipers than a simple death by poisoning, and the best was yet to come.
Behind the pulpit a few men already had a snake or two in hand and the reptiles, carefully rotated and fed before each service by the honorable Scanlon, did little besides hang and bob within the sweaty, jouncing grips of the gyrating faithful. More serpents twined over each other inside a crate placed on a table, tongues flicking in and out monotonously. The table was placed behind a speaker's platform to minimize the danger of being kicked over, and in his blurring line of sight Jason saw a woman grab a double handful of snakes and hold them aloft, terror etched in every line of her face before she flung them back into the crate and whirled away. He was going on intuition and adrenaline now, obeying a dark, silent force within himself that had always been present, just waiting for its time of birth. The time was now.
There was fear in Jason's brain, but he disregarded it, knew it was too late for surrender. His legs and hands were shaking, yet when he moved to stand in front of the crate, Jason’s heart wasn't at all afraid and his hands were rock steady when he plunged them into the midst of the snakes. He came up with two in each fist, a fair selection of fat diamondbacks and a single cottonmouth, as many as he could wrap his fingers around, then staggered back to the carpeted floor in front of the pulpit.
"Look, brothers and sisters!" he cried. His words came out mangled, sounding like Loo', blutherth an' sthlisthers! but it didn't matter. Jason waved the snakes over his head, feeling their sinewy bodies start to struggle. The voices raised in worship and the singing around the church stuttered, then faded altogether as those people within range of the snakes he held tried to back away without seeming obvious. At the edge of his vision, he caught a glimpse of Duwayne and his family in a front row, their expressions ranging from Duwayne’s slack-jawed increduality to Mr. Unwin’s deep scowl. No matter.
"Glory!" Glo'ee! He was nearly past the point of communicating; if he didn't move fast, the convulsions would take him before he gave Scanlon's "faithful" his show of true belief. His arms were heavy and jittery, the muscles beginning to contract, and he swiped the air again with the snakes to create at least the illusion of control as he fought the sudden urge to heave up his bellyful of poisoned water. Only the preacher had the courage to stay anywhere near him.
"Boy," he growled, "you gettin' carried away, ain'tcha? Anybody can see you ain't feeling right smart. Whyn't you save the serpents for another service."
Jason stopped then, stopped entirely. No more jitters, nausea, or preconvulsions. No more movement. When he raised his face to meet the stunned gazes of his fellow churchgoers, his eyes were open and sharp, his voice inexplicably clear.
"This is the New Word:
"I shall take up serpents, and I shall not be harmed; I shall drink any deadly thing, and I shall recover. And I shall raise them up and heal them." He thrust his hands forward and shook them; the snakes trapped within his grip hissed in angry response, trying to squirm free.
A mutter ran through the crowd, culminating in a cry of "Blasphemy!" from a woman in the back.
"BEHOLD!" Jason suddenly roared. He crushed the rattlers and the cottonmouth against his chest then, in a deadly embrace of furious fangs and lethal venom.
All the snakes were caught and crated away, the plain little church almost empty now. The boy's body was certainly not a pretty thing to see, Abel Scanlon thought as he and the handful of parishioners who hadn't beat a quick retreat when Jason collapsed rolled the corpse onto a sheet. Six bites against skin gone pale gray, although three of the bites had been weak, repeat strikes and one of the rattlers had somehow been killed in Jason's grip before it'd had an opportunity to attack its tormentor. It was the first three strikes that counted the most, and from the look of the puckered flesh swelling beneath the collar of the dead boy's T-shirt, he'd taken two of those on the left side of the chest, right above the heart. There was another bite higher up at the bend of his neck, and two more-- one clearly the last of the heavily dosed first strikes-- along the line of his right jaw. The last bite was a deep puncture in one forearm, more than enough to kill a man twice the size of this skinny farm boy. There were a number of men and women who'd been snakebit and lived through it, and about half of those never took ill from the strychnine. One older man who'd been handling snakes most of his life had been bit over a hundred times-- but at least the man was responsible for himself. Why Jason Spiro, of all people? Scanlon knew Miriam Spiro complained about the church to the sheriff at least every two weeks. He was going to have a mess of explaining to do, all right, not to mention the sheer waste of it. All because the boy'd been in too much of a hurry to let God come on him naturally. Right now Scanlon wished he could go home and shut himself up until the hell that was coming just went away. Well, his old easy chair and laboring air conditioner weren’t going anywhere, and he had a bunch of dirty work to do before he’d be seeing either one.
"Fold it over and hoist him up," Scanlon ordered as he swabbed at his grime-covered face with a handkerchief. "We'll put him in the back room. Can't leave the boy out here for folks to wander in and see."
The four men who'd remained bent to the task as Scanlon pushed open the door to the rear office. "You gonna call his mother first, or the sheriff?" one of them asked.
"Boy's own fault," another said. Then he shook his head and whistled. "Still, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes." He grunted as they started to lift the body; Jason had been healthy and heavier than he looked.
Scanlon looked thoughtful. "Well, I reckon I'll call the sheriff first. Miz Spiro might bring me the business end of her shotgun otherwise."
"No need to call anyone, Preacher Scanlon."
One of the men yelped and dropped his corner of the bedsheet, backing away as Jason's feet thumped awkwardly to the floor and the boy righted himself while the other three still stood, stupidly holding corners of the empty sheet. Scanlon froze, then released the doorknob and let it swing shut.
"Jason." Scanlon couldn't imagine how he kept his voice so calm, and he was more than a little surprised that he could hear himself say the boy’s name over the doubled rate of blood pulsing through his arteries.
"I have to get home to the wife and kids, Abel," one of the men, the elder of the Unwin family, said suddenly. His voice was full of forced cheer and he aimed a carefully averted gaze toward Jason's shoes. "Glad to see you're all right, son." He was gone before Scanlon could protest or ask him to stay. The man who'd been the first to drop the sheet hadn't bothered explaining as he headed for the door.
"Then there were three," Jason said softly. He swallowed and Scanlon's gaze went to the wounds on Jason's jaw and neck, masses of ugly, mottled swellings encircling the suppurating puncture marks. Jason smiled and touched the bloated flesh along his neck. Then held up his arm, with its twin black and blue punctures nearly to the bone, offering it for closer examination by the three men frozen before him. His voice dropped to an intimate whisper and his eyes glowed with bluish fire.
"And I shall recover."
Something... rippled along Jason's arm and the wounds, so black and gray, softened suddenly to pink and started to close.
"I'll be going home now." Myer, the biggest of the men and another hog farmer who always smelled like his animals, jammed his cap tighter on his head. He turned and simply walked out, not bothering with excuses.
"One down, two to go. What about you?" Jason grinned devilishly and there was a burning in his eyes, an intensity nearly too painful to see; Myer's companion, a thin middle-aged man whose name Scanlon couldn't remember, was a first time visitor and had only stayed because of Myer. Now, with the ravaged skin of Jason's face starting that same writhing dance as his arm, the man held up his hands and stumbled backward, nearly babbling in terror. He tripped and fell on his backside, and Jason laughed and raised both hands in mock claws. "Should I chase you?" The man hauled himself up and fled to the sound of Jason's shrieking laughter.
"Are you still here?" Jason stared at the preacher, the fire in his irises turned suddenly cold.
"And still talking, too," Jason marveled. "Still trying to yammer on about your so-called faith. Look at me, preacher." He pushed his face close to Scanlon's. "See what real faith can do. What my faith can do."
Paralyzed by the sight and terrified by this fifteen-year-old anomaly, Scanlon could only stare and sink to his knees while the remainder of Jason's hideous wounds shrank and healed in front of his disbelieving eyes.
Beneath the faded, frayed wall hanging of a wise-looking Jesus at his Last Supper, the Pentecostal Serpent Handlers' Church was, finally, silent.
June -- Chicago, Illinois
FRIDAY -- LATE
Summer in the city and a different, bigger kind of heat, a different soul to the soaring mercury: the never-silent sounds of traffic a few blocks away, a horn's sharp blaring, the abrupt hissing of air brakes cutting through the sticky air as a CTA bus stops for a solitary night traveler. The same stars shine in the midwestern sky, of course, as are suspended over a small Georgia church nearly a thousand miles east, yet here they seem more remote, purposely distanced from this swarming, dirty knot of humanity. In the night hours, voices rise in anger above the blare of a television from an open window, while soft laughter floats from another in the same building along with the sound of silverware scraping against a plate. Here and there the thick layer of heat battles the hum of old air conditioners and window fans. In the alley behind a small, shabby house on Newport Street, a pocket of darkness waits for daylight or the shine of headlights to reveal its brutal secret.
"Definitely number four." Detective Jude Ewing grimaced and turned away from the woman's corpse, the skin of his face lightening then darkening in the revolving blue lights of the police cars crowded into the alley. He jabbed a finger at the uniformed officer closest to him. "Why isn't Amasa here yet? Get the ME's office on the radio and find out. I want to get this over with and get the body out of here." He raised his head and scanned the backs of the houses and small apartment buildings lining the alley; he could see at least two dozen people leaning out of windows and gathering on back porches, drawn by the lights and the noise and the presence of the police. Farther down where the alley met the street, a patrol car had parked lengthwise to block access and the two cops were already arguing with an ensemble of reporters who'd picked up the call on their scanners. "And for Christ's sake, will someone please cover her up before one of those photographers manages a picture?"
"We've got her purse." Jude turned at the sound of his partner's voice and Detective Sandra Wilfred held up her forefinger; from it dangled a small canvas tote. The zipper along the top of the cream-colored bag was still closed. "Never opened, so we can forget robbery-- but we knew that anyway. Might as well dig in and find out who gets the bad news." A few moments later she pulled out a vinyl wallet and flipped it open; as expected, the victim's cash and credit cards were still inside. Sandra peered at the driver's license. "Delta Arvel," she read. Her gaze met Jude's and she answered his unspoken question. "She was twenty-eight. Youngest yet."
"Shit," Jude muttered.
"Here we go. This says to notify her mother." Jude dutifully reached for the card, but Sandra held up a hand. "You did the last one, and this is only a block away. I'll take a uniform with me and you stay here and wait for Amasa."
Jude glanced back toward the body and almost gave in to the urge to bellow at the nearest uniformed cop; still no one had covered the woman and Delta Arvel's bared legs were twisted up against her torso at an impossible angle. Her driver's license had shown a lovely young woman with dark, shoulder-length hair. Now her battered face, bruised neck and one outflung arm rested outside the shadows of a gangway between a ratty wooden garage and an apartment building; perhaps her rapist murderer had decided that finishing the job of hiding his victim's body had been too much trouble. The blaring stereo of a car on Newport flung the words of an old Harry Belafonte song through the spaces between the houses as it passed, something about women being smarter than men. Detective Ewing shook his head; not this time.
Only a block away.
Sandra slipped the wallet back into the purse and walked off, leaving Jude to again scan the people milling around the crime scene and sneaking horrified peeks at the body. Cops mostly, though there were two paramedics from some independent service that had seen the blue bubble lights and edged their way in. They'd probably hoped for someone to save, a bill to send tomorrow and a few more bucks in the company till. Again: not this time.
Twenty-eight years old, and a single block had made all the difference in her life.
Ewing cussed angrily under his breath, then let his temper go for a moment. The crash of the trash bin as he kicked it still didn't get him a fucking sheet to cover the body.
Return to the deadrush page.
Return to the Book Page.
Visit the Store.
Check out the Bibliography.
Return to the Main Page.
All text copyright © 1995-2004 by Yvonne Navarro. Don't be naughty-- no reprinting or use in any form whatsoever without prior written permission of the starving author. We mean it. We know lots of lawyers. And we ain't afraid to use them.