Distrust of you has been woven into my bones for centuries. Of all hims. Grandma had told me it was a dance between hims and hers.The dance, a step forward, a step away, a twirl and then he would be gone. And I would be alone dancing with a shade. “You have to know when to exit the dance little one.” She would say and chuck my chin. "Stay as God made you until your wedding day."
You were squirally, as my grandma would say. “A rat with a fancy tail but a rat none the less. Watch out for the preening ones.” She would say. “The ones making themselves more then they are. The ones who can not stop looking to their own reflection. They may be pretty but they will never see you.”
You were the prettiest and the proudest of them all with flash shoes, flash jacket , and a flash smile with a little mouse of a wife by your side. I stood still I know you saw me even if our eyes had not met. My Grandma smiled and let out a snort at the gasp I made. A fish suddenly on land. Her eyes sharp her smile small. “That one.” Her eyes pointed in your direction “That one might have His ear he might handle the snakes but he is King of the rats.” Her skirts rustled away from me. I could hear the hiss of the copperheads in the bag by your feet.
Blood has its’ own language and you could read mine. Every heartbeat betrayed me. You smiled to the outside of my flushed cheek. I felt shame every time your wife smiled at you. A smile with all trust and love and a bit of awe. Eyes large set wide open, wider when you invoke His name. “The serpent shall not bite those who believe. You believe don’t you? Do you believe?” You never raised your voice. Not like the other preachers all red faced sweat and spittle. You could bring us forward, swaying. “Do you believe? How much? Would you put your life in His hands as you put your soul?” You step amongst us. The bag rattles and hisses. Your wife swoons. You stop at my shoulder, your eyes are forward, my eyes are at your neck. “Are you without wickedness? Are your pure? “ His voice away from me his words deep in my ear. I step back as the copperhead winds up your shoulder whispering my darkest secrets in your ear with an honest forked tongue. My feet only carried me far away until the next Sunday.
Your words are softer then feathers they take me whole rapt and wanting. They fall past my hearing to the beating of my heart and the gasp of my breath. “Weakness is surrender. Surrender to the flesh. The mind playing to empty desires.” You, a rattler in your hand, it’s head sways between your thumb and forefinger. The same fingers that had held my wrist last week when you found me halfway to home. “Later we will speak.” You told me as you passed by. As your wife caught your eye. A wink to the side of my head as you ran to catch her step. The serpent twists tongue over tongue hissing in lazy thick vowels. You could loose yourself looping in their endless circle o.
Your rodent wife sat twitching, a hand extended as the rattler reared. “The faithful never fear.” Your voice was dangerous low. You place the rattler back into its’ bag. “The faithful are certain.” Your look sour and disdainful to her. I stare straight. Back a rod. Certainty in the angle of my jaw. You hand me a copperhead. Its’ scale smooth and cool as its’ muscles vibrate over my skin. Its’ hiss a lover. Gran shakes her head and turns from church.
“You, little one, are headed for a cliff.” I knew she would say something. She had been itching to. “Don’t you say nuthn’ back. I know. I know more then that snake and much more then that preacher man. I know your are still as you were born but won’t be for much longer if that preacher has his way. No, don’t say a word. I don’t want to be hearing none of your words.”
I waited for you behind the cypress away from the willows. Behind the graves where they snakes grow fat and lazy in the midday sun. Your step is sure amongst dangers. You pick your snake careful and put it in the sack with the rest of its’ kin. You watch me watch you with a smile and with a tune. “Let me give you a ride.” You say from the side of your mouth to me as your head turns toward your truck. I step from behind the roots one foot toward him the other ready for the run. “You were waiting for me. Don’t you pretend now. No lies for us.” I step to him. Nothing will be the same. All is quiet just the hum, the hiss, and the rattles. “She came from up North.” Your voice a slow whiskey drawl. “She don’t understand. She tries to but she don’t.” Your hand moved from the stick to my knee. “You fourteen yet?” I nod. “More then?” I nod. “Not old enough for me yet?” I am still. Your voice was high like a song. Your hand rough imprinting on my knee. “Sara. They said your name is Sara. You understand.” Your gaze was long. Too long to take off the road. “You know the ways of the holy man. You know the snakes. You been handling them since you were no bigger then a baby rattler they said. You know back in our Lord’s time a man, a holy man, he’d have scores of wives." A bump in the road and your hand slid further up my thigh. “Yes’m a score of wives.” You said with a wink your pinkie skirted the elastic of my panties. I could not breathe.
Gran stood at the door of our oncoming shack, broom held like a shotgun. “Next Sunday you’ll see he agrees. When I grab the snake then you’ll know. You’ll see he wants things to be traditional.” You stretch the a to the l. “ Like they were before. Like they’re suppose to be." Your finger snaps the elastic as I jumped from the car.
“Found this one in the wood.” You shout over me. “Better keep a watch on her. She's just headed for trouble.” Gran stares tightens her he grip on the broom handle breathing in the dust clouds you leave behind. Gran squared her shoulders to mine. Her eyes fierce and focused from my hair to my belly. “Yes, still as god made you, but just hardly. I been talking to Him about you. He says He’ll take care of you, of this.” her hands wave around my chest to belly. “this once, for me. He’ll have you all set.” Her eyes follow me to the house “This once.” She sounds old, soft, almost invisible above the cicidas and the mouse scratches.
Your wife was more pinched sucking in on her self, lips between teeth barely a breath came in. She looked at no one Her eyes over every corner, every ceiling tile. Her eyes did not meet mine. They stayed far off of me. I had my mama’s dress on. Gran didn’t even forbid it. She had already interceded for me. It was in His hands and she would have no more say in it.
“I have asked Him a powerful question and we know powerful questions have powerful answers.” You wife's lips drew further behind her front teeth. All nodded and wait with blank glassy eyes. Her eyes become bright and steady. You reach in and bring out a seven foot rattler. You want to make a point, make a legend. It laid on your arm, docile and kind. Its’ flat head nestling in the black fur above your palm. She slides her way around like bracelets. Her eyes do not leave you. Your wife’s do not leave me, suddenly locked from across the room. I can not look away the mouse has me in her thrall.
I do not see the rattler rear back. I do not see her fangs break the skin below your shirt sleeve. I watch your wife stand steady sure in her stance. I see her leave. The crowd leans in some help some run. Gran reaches towards me. Her hand firm on my upper arm nail biting the skin, she whispers. “Just this once.”
Photo and Story: Monica Michelle
Model: Elisa Valentine
Inspiration: I heard this story on the news about a snake handeling preacher who had been bitten and died. I just filled in the the details of what I thought could have happened and why the snake would judge. I often find it hard to grab time to write but this could be the best part of the story. I ran away to Paris with my best friend for a week. We got to the Avingon train station a few hours early grabbed a bottle of rose' and she let me curl in a ball and write. I think it was mostly done by the time we got to Paris