Fiction 2010 / Issues / Spring 2010 / Volume 40

Take Up Serpents — Lisa Harris

The Yankees who came through the 76 Truckstop when Tessie worked there often shared the same racist views as their Southern cousins. They descended across the Mason-Dixon line, eating their way south on cornbread and fried chicken, on barbecue and collards, pecan pie and shortbread. They rose in the morning and continued south, refueling their cars on cheap gas and tolerating the sticky pile of grits that arrived nestled close to the two over easies slathered with grease. Once the egg yolk was pierced by a fork, the Yankees and Crackers sat side by side eatingófork to plate, fork to mouth, fork to plate, fork to mouth, fork to plateówith no one the wiser of who lived above and who lived below the line.

This long, steady stream of Buicks and Chevies, Cadillacs and Ramblers, Studebakers and Fords demanded more and better roads, demanded higher speed limits and more frequent gas stations. Henry was one of the many men who built the roads that let everyone move faster. During the day, he operated a steamroller to lay the macadam down.

Henry frequently dreamed about Jewel, but one night Henry had a dream about Emily instead. He hadn’t met Emily yet, but he felt as if he had because she was all Jewel talked about. Henry was a speculative man. That was why he had to remind himself of the idea of enough, because he always wanted more. In the dream he saw Emily from the back, her tawny hair wrapped into a bun. And he called to her. “Emily, Miss Emily, turn around so I can see your face. Please.” She kept walking and then the wind came up and carried the smell of Ivory soap and bacon grease to him. The smells took him back to his mother’s kitchen. He remembered his mother standing at the stove, frying up bacon, while the dirty dishes sat in soapy water in the sink.

He knew a few things about Emily: she didn’t wear makeup. She wore her tawny-brown hair up off her neck in a bun. Jewel’s voice stayed in Henry’s mind. “Henry, honey, Emily, my friend, you know? She’d be real pretty if she’d take some time with herself and quit worrying so much about the next life. She’s got enough blond in her hair that, with a good cut and a frosting, she could catch herself a man in no time.”

Emily worked hard on swing shifts in a factory sewing piece parts for men’s work pants. Her speed guaranteed her better money than some of the other women. She worked Saturdays and evenings to get time and a half for her work. On the weeks when she took no time off, her arms vibrated long after she had stopped sewing from being at the machine for so long. At home she mended and ironed to help pay her bills and to keep her hands busy.

The day after the dream about Emily, when Henry and Jewel were on their way to the Neptune, Jewel asked, “Can we spin by Emily’s first? I need to drop off my mending.” She left him in the blue Chrysler with the engine running and told him, “Sugar, you wait right here now. I won’t be but a little, bitty minute.” After 10 minutes Henry shut off the engine and went up to the apartment. The front door was open, and he could hear crying. Henry hesitated at the door, then he walked right in.

Jewel was cleaning up the floor, and Emily was sitting in an old rocking chair, dabbing at her puffy eyes, her left hand wrapped in a bloodstained dishrag. At first, Henry thought Emily had cut herself sewing. He had a picture of her in his mind from Jewel’s stories: he found himself imagining Emily sitting with her, with needle, thread, and a pair of shears, working, working, working. He watched as Jewel sponged up blood, walked to the sink, and rinsed out the pink liquid. Then she walked to the floor, soaked up more blood, walked to the sink, and rinsed the blood. On her third trip he spoke. “Hey, Jewel, get a bucket with soapy water, and bring it with you. Otherwise, this is going to take all night.” The puddle of blood made his stomach swim, made his face twitch, made him want to run. He had spoken to get control of himself. Set against the nausea was the fragile hope that this cleanup might take all night, and he’d get to stay near Emily.

He looked closer at Emily’s bandaged hand and saw the dish towel was a tourniquet around her wrist, and, despite it, blood continued to flow through the cloth. “That must be one hell of a pair of shears you were working with, Miss Emily. My name’s Henry Simmons. Pleased to know you.” He reached with his right hand and then withdrew it awkwardly. She couldn’t let go of the tourniquet to shake hands or for any other reason, so, instead, he put his hand on her shoulder. When he touched her he looked into her eyes, felt hot and cold at the same time, and stepped back to the doorway where he stood, supported and framed, silent and flat like a photo.

Jewel emptied the bucket of bloody water. “Henry, honey, you wait here with Em until I run down to get Doc Jones. I think he may have to put a stitch in that hand.” She spoke from her station at the sink. She picked up her purse, and, as she passed him in the doorway, she added in a whisper, “And don’t you say a word to him about what she was thinking of doing with this, hear?” She pressed a folded straightedge into his hand.

Henry watched Emily on the couch. Her plain, honest face bent like a sunflower heavy with seeds. She had bird-wing eyebrows, flat cheekbones, and thin, pink lips that didn’t quite close over her teeth. He smelled Ivory soap and bacon grease hung in the air, and, just as in the dream, Henry Simmons knew he was home.

Later in the car Jewel explained that Emily had meant to kill herself, but she cut her hand so bad trying to put a new blade in the straightedge that she never got to her wrists. “I don’t think God is what keeps her here with us; I think it’s her hope she’ll see the boy she gave away again before she dies.” Then she said the strangest and most miraculous thing. “It happened, didn’t it, Henry? You fell for heróclean, honest, country. I knew you would. Ever since I met you, I knew you and Emily should be together. I think that’s why I talked to you about her so much and to her about you. But I also knew she wouldn’t go out with another construction worker. She’s the marrying kind, Henry, so be good to her.”

“You giving me up so easy, Jewel? How come? And don’t give me that innocent lookó who’d you meet that looks better to you than me?” Henry felt stung.

“Go on now, Henry. You’ll be over me in a heartbeat. Don’t you act all hurt with me, man.” “I don’t like women letting me go, Jewel. You ain’t no exception. It just don’t feel…” “Don’t feel what, Henry? Manly? Shoot. I’m a love ’em and leave ’em kind of girl. You got what you wanted from me, and now you found the real thing. I don’t want anything that real. I like my life at the Neptune and enjoy a good time with a good-looking man. Don’t get all tight with me about this, Henry, when you know we are two of a kind! Now take me home. I’m not interested in another night with you. I got to get my rest for Mr. Handsome tomorrow.”

Henry pulled the car over. “I’d like to take you to the Hotel Columbia for the best steak money can buy.”

“No, Henry, really. What we had was fun; now let me go.” Jewel stayed firm in her position.

“Well, Jewel, maybe you are right. You take care now, girl,” Henry said.

Back at his trailer Henry phoned his friend Wally. “You best get yourself to the Neptune Diner soon, Wally, ol’ boy. They have the best pies and the best piece of you know what else. Look for the redhead.” Since Jewel could matchmake for him, he could just as easily return the favor.

Henry went back to Emily’s every chance he could. If she asked him in for supper, he said yes. He sat silently through the long graces at Emily’s. Henry courted her with bouquets of wildflowers just picked from the fields around the construction site, took his hat and boots off when he came into her apartment, and drove her to prayer meetings. He didn’t go in with her.

The night she finished the sampler was the same night that Henry drove her to The Agape Church. The moon shone bright yellow and the crickets hummed. Henry would not go in. Instead, he leaned against his Plymouth. He was mightily surprised when Jewel arrived with Wally. He barely recognized Jewel, with a pink rayon scarf over her flaming-red hair, and he had never seen Wally cleaned up, but he knew it was them because they arrived on Wally’s Harley, with the yellow flames decorating the fenders. Henry called out to them and they waved, but they didn’t walk over to where he had parked the car. He watched as they entered the church.

Reverend Bobby was the last to arrive. Henry knew he had to be the minister because he carried a white leather-bound Bible in one hand and a guitar case in the other. He was dressed completely in white, right down to white patent leather shoes. Once Reverend Bobby was in the church and had unpacked his guitar, he began the service by strumming the chords to “Jesus is Gently Calling Us Home.” The sisters hummed the tune, while the menfolk sang the words in tenors and basses. When the song ended Reverend Bobby began his talk. “Please join hands.” Henry imagined all of them in a circle. “You know why we are here tonight, brothers and sisters? Yes, you do! We are here tonight to see who can handle evil and death and continue to live. Sister Hayes has brought us the words of God as given to us in the Book of Mark.”

The July heat carried the sour textile smells into the one-room frame buildingóthe inside and outside of which had been painted a flat white: one coat of paint on the inside since it wasn’t exposed to weather, and two coats on the outside since it was. Even with services at full pitch, the train whistle could be heard over the voices of those speaking in tongues as they handled snakes. Outside young men leaned against the storefronts of warehouses, smoking cigarettes and telling the sad, funny stories of their lives. For them the Pentecostals provided a sideshow, and so the young white men waited for the service to get going before they entered the white-framed oven. Even they, nonbelievers all, became mesmerized by the four- and five-foot-long rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads caressed by the young women in pale pink and blue and green shirtwaist dresses. The women’s long hair was wrapped tightly in buns.

Emily loved the snakes in the box–the subtle shifting of their bodies, which she felt more than heard. The snakes squirmed all together in a box, wanting out into air and space, wanting to go back to the swamp, to the woods, and to the mountains. The snakes wanted life, the way God expected desire to work before the Fall, each of his creatures wanting and receiving what was naturally its own.

Emily loved the snakes in her arms, curling and twining, hissing and undulating, moving in ways she could not move. Before Reverend Bobby opened the lid, three things happened: the congregation became quiet; he picked up, folded, and laid the sampler on his guitar case; and Emily removed all her hairpins, shaking her knee-length hair around her amid whispers about Delilah. The tone of the whispers remained unclear forever after in Emily’s mind. Were they whispers of admiration, condemnation, or both?

“Brothers and sisters–oh, my sisters!” Reverend Bobby began in a high-pitched mountain tenor. “Inside this box are the stirrings of our lower selvesódeath and life are here with us tonight inside this box. ‘Are ye able, said the Master, to be crucified with me?’ And I ask you the same question, brothers and sistersóAre ye able to take up serpents?óas surely a form of death as our Lord’s cross? Can you hold these vipers who worked with our first sister to send us forth from Paradise? Can you hold them in your hands and live? Are you pure in spirit? Will you survive?” He paused to wipe his brow.

“Sister Hayes, are you ready to meet your maker if necessary to understand your Lord? Do you have the faith? If you really hold The Light, The Divine Light of Love and Suffering, you can hold these snakes, and glory will shine all around you!”

At this point Reverend Bobby lifted the lid and handed Emily two rattlesnakes. Entwined and rather sleepy, they cascaded in her arms. She hummed a sad song, a melody no one knew, and cradled the snakes as if they were newborns. The men and women around her rocked and swayed, a few of them screeched while the white men from the street chanted, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

Emily moaned and whimpered.

“What is it, Sister Hayes? Tell us what you know.”

Emily dropped the snakes and pulled back her hair on the right side of her neck to reveal the fang marks. A smile lingered on her face long after she fainted. People looked to Reverend Bobby for what to do next. “On your knees, brothers and sisters. Let us keep watch over Sister Hayes.” That said, he lifted the sampler off his guitar case and draped it over the bite on Miss Emily’s neck. Jewel and Wally watched in horror.

Next, one of the older women in the congregation called out, “Numbers Twenty-one, six through nine.” The only sound that followed was the turning of very thin paper. The woman began reading. ‘”And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord–‘”

“I have sinned, sister. I have lain with women who weren’t my wife. Save Sister Hayes, Jesus, don’t let her die for my sins.” The man speaking prostrated himself by the now full but closed snake box. “Agah mat mah haynahóoh ohjat mide ooo. ”

“–and against thee, pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” “Not our serpents, Jesus. Take me! Or take Sister Hayes but don’t take away the chance to prove our faith!”

The older woman read tenaciously, as if speaking the words let her hold them tighter. ‘”And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.'”

Another member of the congregation passed his cane to Reverend Bobby. “I know she can’t see my cane, Reverend, but pretend it is a pole, pretend we got us a fiery serpent, and touch this cane to the bite. Praise the Lord!”

“And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he held the serpent of brass, he lived.”

People continued praying and, around midnight, Sister Hayes opened her eyes and spoke. “What happened?” Some members of the congregation held that the sampler had cured Emily Hayes; others swore that the reading from Numbers and the man’s confession had gained the necessary intercession; while still a few others thought the wooden cane had held holy powers. Regardless, Sister Hayes lived. Reverend Bobby framed the sampler for her as quickly as he could so it could hang above her bed–a banner of her victory, a celebration of her faith.

Certain sections in the city of Columbia knew about the snake bite and salvation of Emily Hayes, except they didn’t know her name. Specifically, they knew about the full-grown woman who shook down her very long hair, was bitten by two wrestling rattlers, and then saved by her own needlepoint of the guiding Pentecostal scripture–Mark 16: 17-18. The Columbia Star Gazette tried to track down the woman’s name, but no one volunteered anything. People’s mouths were as tight as a sealed box of snakes.

Henry was suspicious of snakes, and his suspicion extended to those who handled them. So the night that Henry waited outside The Agape Church renewed Henry’s fear that Emily was a snake handler. The service went on for hours and hours. When Emily came out to the car, Henry turned to her and said, “Were you handling snakes, Emily?” Instead of answering him, she let him kiss her, once, soft, on the lips, but dry and fragile, like a butterfly’s wing. He held her head by putting a hand on either side of her neck and cupping her head as if it were a piece of sculpture. Even as his lips met hers, he felt the raised mark–the bite–under his right hand, as if two holes had been punched into her neck.

He didn’t speak until he drove up in front of her place. “Can I come in? I got something I have to ask you.”

“You can come in, Henry.” He barely got in the door before he was down on one knee. “Miss Emily, will you marry me?”

“Yes, I will, Henry, but you have to love the Lord as well as me and walk on His path. Can you do it?” Henry nodded. Emily reached for his head and pulled it to her flat stomach, the way the preacher did before he baptized a soul.

Henry rested there awhile, then he spoke; he had to know. His insides were a trapped animal, gnawing on its flesh to break free. “Emily, what was all that–the first night I came here with Jewel?”

Emily stiffened. The thick scent of mimosa and magnolia filled the room. “I’ll tell you once about this, Henry, and then I don’t ever want to hear about it again. That was the only night in my life I thought I had sinned by bringing a baby into this world out of wedlock. It was the first time I believed what I knew all the women at my old church said about me. I believed I was a fallen woman. And I didn’t want to live anymore. I gave up my boy, and I can’t ever find him again. We can’t never give up of our children, you promise me that, Henry? Promise!”
Once she told him the story, Henry tried to put the image of Emily Hayes in her second-floor apartment with the dishrag tourniquet behind him. He tried not to dwell on the ritual of Jewel’s cleanupóbucket after bucket of pink water from Emily’s spilled blood. He couldn’t bring himself to ask her about the scars on her neck. He stayed with Emily that nightóslept on her couch. “Are we gonna get married at The Agape?” Henry asked.

“The Agape Church of God with Signs Following seldom marries people because it has more important things to do,” Emily explained. “We aren’t getting married there, so where would you like to have the ceremony, hon?”

Henry’s surprise silenced him. His palms got sweaty and then cold. Why couldn’t he ask about the scars on her neck? Why couldn’t they get married at her church? He didn’t know. All he knew was that she would not take him there among her people and he was hurt. “I don’t understand, Em, I thought that church was something special to you?”

“It is, hon, but not for marrying.” She paused. “We could get married at the Justice of the Peace–keep it real simple. After all, the marriage is between our hearts and in the eyes of God–getting a license is of this world. I’ve fished for years without a license. I am sure God and the fish understand.”

Henry laughed. “All right, Emily. Who’s gonna stand up for you?”

“Jewel is, who else?”

“Well then, I’ll have Wally stand up for me.”

       * * *

       Seven days before the wedding, during a lunch break, Henry overheard four of the young men talking about a snake-handling service they’d seen at one of the local Pentecostal churches. “Oh Lordy, you should have saw them young women writhin’ and wigglin’ with those critters. They go in there all proper–you know, wearing those pale pink or blue or green housedresses like they sell down to Newberry’s. They got their hair rolled up tight in a bun, and they won’t, for a minute, look into our eyes. Pure as cotton. But let ’em git in there with Reverend Bobby, and ‘fore you know it, they in rapture.”

“I hear ya, Tommy. I seen it myself up in North Carolina. Do you think they go all wild, pantin’ and gaspin’, when you get ’em in bed?”

Henry seldom spoke to the young white bucks, but the story and Reverend Bobby’s name made him move closer and join in.

“You boys talkin’ about snake handling?”

“Yes, sir, down to The Agape.”

“Are you sure? You mean the small white-framed building?”

“Hey, mister–no other church around here has a name anything like The Agape Church of God With Signs Following–only is one.” The young man laughed.

And so the thing Henry had feared but ignored about Emily could no longer be denied nor could the love he felt for her. Now he knew how she had gotten the scar on her heart, the scar on her hand, and the new scar on her neck.

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