The thing is, see, you've got to understand snake handlers. You've got to know them. And no, I'm not talking about those rag heads with their flutes and wicker baskets. I'm talking about evangelicals. Pentecostals. My mother and her goddamn church.
She used to take me out there a lot, back when I was little and not getting in trouble all the time at school. Back before I hit seventh grade, which is when Henry Norris handed me my first joint behind the bleachers at the homecoming game. The church was never much to look at, just two trailers pushed back to back on blocks out in the desert with an altar that was nothing more than a card table covered with a torn strip of gray cloth. Behind it hung a handmade wooden cross, maybe four feet high, with that passage from Mark carved into its crossbar: They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. There can't be more than forty people in the whole congregation. Mom took over the women's side a couple years ago. She would have led the whole damn thing if women were allowed.
My dad was a big man in the church. He was a prophet, they said, a man who'd wandered alone into the desert at nineteen and came back a year later, scorched and starving and full of visions. He died when I was just a baby, though. I don't remember him at all. Mom told me that he was proof even the most holy could be touched by sin. She said he'd given into vile temptations, drinking and gambling and more, and that they had led to his undoing. A tragedy, a great fall like that of Adam himself. I believed that story for a long time.
Most of the time when Mom took me to church, I'd just stand in back with the other kids and watch. I never liked going much, but I did like that Mom got nicer on the days she took me. She was always yelling at me for little things and calling me a sinner when I screwed something up, but all that changed on church days. She'd comb my hair and make me wash my hands twice, and the whole trip out we'd sing hymns. When I turned eleven, just before her car died, she told me that someday I'd take over as lead pastor, that I would be a great man in God's eyes. Like my father, before he fell from grace.
But it didn't happen that way. What happened was I turned thirteen, and a day came when Mom was acting even more excited than normal while we waited for the van. She could barely sit still, and when I asked what was going on she clapped her hands together and said it was a blessed day. When we got to the church, I took my regular spot at the back. The service started normal, with Pastor Leavitt reading verses and leading hymns, then moved on pretty fast to where everybody was wailing and screaming and speaking in tongues. And then Pastor Leavitt went to the back closet and came out with the burlap sack that moved like a living thing. He dropped it onto the floor and ripped away the cord, and right away you could hear the rattling. He jammed his hand down in it and grabbed out a snake, long as his arm. He yelled over the clapping and stomping: And these signs shall follow them that believe! He passed the snake to Mom, who held it over her head while its body twisted in the air. Praise Him! Praise Jesus! she yelled. Pastor Leavitt reached into the sack and yanked out a second snake. And I can't even tell you how many times I'd seen that same thing, but somehow it felt different that day. Between the rattling and the chanting and the yelling and the cramped air I felt I don't know. Drunk, I guess. Hypnotized. Pastor Leavitt stepped through the crowd, his boots thumping on the floor and that second snake pinched in his hand. He came to me, and Mom stood beside him, and he looked down from under the brim of his hat and all the other kids inched away, their eyes wide and afraid. Are you a believer son? he said, his cigarette breath hot in my face, and all the noise faded to nothing. I didn't know what else to do but nod as he held that squirming snake toward me. I remember something like a shock when I touched it, when I felt its raw strength. One long muscle, that's all a snake is, and even at that narrow point behind its head I could feel the power in its body. I could have held on, but I didn't. I let go and the snake fell to the ground. It coiled and struck at Pastor Leavitt. He danced backward, yelling and batting at it with his hat. I stood there maybe a heartbeat longer before I turned and ran outside. The van was locked, so I hid behind it and spent a half hour trying not to cry. When they finally drove us home, Mom held my hand in the back seat all the way. But she never looked at me, she never said anything, and it took the rest of the day for my bones to stop hurting.
She barely spoke to me that whole week, barely even looked at me until the next Saturday rolled around. When I heard her humming in the kitchen, I knew what was coming. I waited in my room, my heart pounding, until she poked her head through my door. "You ready, Gabriel?"
That's when I told her I wasn't going to church anymore. I remember how those two spots of color bloomed in her cheeks like cactus flowers and her dark eyes narrowed to slits. She stepped into my room and squeezed her arms over her chest. "Is that so?" she said. And when I said yeah, that was so, she spun on her heel and stormed out the trailer. She didn't come back until dark. The next weekend, she tried to get me to come again, and I told her no. And on and on, just like that for the next two years.
"My mom found the condom," I said to Darla. We were lying naked in my truck bed, staring up into the night sky. The Milky Way stretched over the desert like a white river and I imagined myself lost in it, swimming through the stars. My head spun from the joint we were smoking, and Darla giggled and pinched it from my fingers while I sneaked a sideways look at her. I thought about Mom standing there at the trailer's open door as I'd been leaving for work, her brown homespun dress cinched tight round her waist, her silver-streaked hair pulled back in a bun. You're fucking that slut, she said, and threw something yellow and crumpled that hit me in the chest.
"So what does she care?" Darla pressed the joint between her lips and inhaled. Her chest rose as she held the smoke in her lungs. Her nipples stood up like eraser stubs.
"She cares." I rolled onto my side and slid my hand over her while she grinned and blew a slow stream of smoke into my face. She offered me the joint, but I'd had enough. "You finish it."
She took a few more puffs while my hand roamed over her chest, her belly, then lower to where I could feel warmth between her legs. She finished the joint and flicked it over the side, then wrapped her fingers around me. "Is it because of her church?" she said.
"They're snake handlers," I said, and just like that the words were out there. "It's more of a cult."
Her hand on me didn't stop. I pushed my finger against her, felt it slide inside. She closed her eyes and breathed, arched her hips against the heel of my hand. "Are you a snake handler?" she whispered.
"No," I said. "I'm not."
I wanted to tell her then, wanted to tell her the rest. Wanted to tell her about when I turned fifteen, which is how old I was when I got kicked out of school for having a dime bag in my locker. I'd just bought it off Henry, and unfortunately for me, that was the day the dogs came in. Mom found out when she got the expulsion notice in the mail. I'd been pretending to leave for school each morning, thumbing my way into town to kill the day there, but on that day the mail beat me home. She was waiting for me at the table, the letter open in front of her and a cloud of stale cigarette smoke floating over her head. "Were you going to say anything, Gabriel?" she said, and when I asked her what she was talking about she crumpled the letter and threw it at me. Then she jumped up and lunged, punching and scratching at my chest. I grabbed her wrists, more surprised than anything, but she yanked her hands away and thrust a bony finger at my face. "You get yourself kicked out? For drugs? For that poison?" And then she spat a hot loogie on my cheek.
"Jesus!" I wiped away the glob of spit. Mom sat down.
"Like your father," she said, her voice a whisper. "Just like your father. You're a sinner, boy. You're nothing but a sinner."
"I'll get a job," I said. "School's a fucking joke, anyway."
Mom nodded. "Just like your father." I figured I'd just go sulk in my room until she cooled off, but when I started to push past her she slid her chair back from the table to block my path.
"You think you're so smart," she said. "Mr. Big Man. You think you know so much." She stood up fast enough that her chair fell over. "Your father thought that, too. He thought he was all that and a bag of chips, Gabe. He thought he could leave the church, thought he could drink and smoke that poison. Even thought he could commit vile acts with lewd women. But I showed him. He learned. My faith was stronger. Jesus was with me."
I felt this weird, trapped sensation, like what it must be to wander through the jungle and look down to realize that your legs are half sunk into quicksand. I asked her what the hell she was talking about.
"Oh, you think you know. You think you're such a big man. Mr. Big Man. Don't need church. Don't need school. But all sinners pay, Gabe. All sinners pay in the end. Your father paid. Jesus reached down and touched me. He made me unto a holy vessel with which he smote that sinner." She smacked her lips. "Smote."
Quicksand, at my hips. She kept going.
"He could handle two serpents. Two at once. But he couldn't handle four, could he? He couldn't handle four when I put them into bed with him and that whore he'd shacked up with. Oh, he thought he was so big. Such a big man. But he wasn't so big after all, was he?" She pushed past me to the door, then stopped. "Great pride comes before the fall." She went out, and I watched through the window as she walked up the driveway, her eyes skyward, her hands clasped.
I did think about going to the police. In the end, though, I realized it didn't really matter. And how would I have proved anything? I stayed out of the house as much as I could over the next few months, crashed a lot with Henry and some other friends. When I did come home, I always made sure to lock my door and check my bed before I got in it. And things settled down over time. Mom took over the women's side of the church and spent even more time there. I got my job. We learned to co-exist, I guess. To bury things. But then I met Darla. And then Mom found that condom.
All that's what I wanted to tell Darla. All of it, the whole story. But when I opened my mouth, what came out was, "I love you." And she sighed and reached over with her other hand to pull me on top of her.
"Show me, Gabe," she said. "Show me."
I dropped Darla off late, well after midnight, and told her I'd see her later on when we started the afternoon shift together. Then I went home. Mom was asleep. I crept to my room and checked my bed real close. Then I locked my door, even pushed my dresser across it for good measure. In the morning I slept in, and only woke up when I heard the church van rattle up beside the trailer. I stayed in bed until I heard it pull away.
There was no food in the trailer except for a half gallon of rancid milk and some stale crackers, so I decided to head into town for a bite at the diner and then bum around the mall for a couple of hours. I spent a lot of time thinking about Darla. I thought about how she only had a couple months of school left, how she was thinking about signing up for some cosmetology classes at the community college. I thought about what it might be like, the two of us getting our own place, maybe a single-room apartment out near the rez where rent could still be had for pretty cheap. I had my truck, she had some money saved up. We could both keep working at the DQ until she finished school, then maybe look at moving so she could find a real job. I could look into getting my GED. Go to college. Something. I wondered what she'd say to all that. I love you, I'd said, and she said to show her.
At twelve-thirty, I headed to work. I was still four blocks away when I heard sirens behind me, and when I checked the rearview mirror I saw an ambulance screaming up the road, lights blazing. I pulled to the curb to let it pass and watched as it tore around the next corner and onto Mesa Street. It was after I took the turn myself and saw the ambulance pull into the DQ parking lot that I felt the first tightening in my chest.
By the time I parked, a small crowd had gathered out front and the paramedics had disappeared into the building. "What's going on?" I shouted, and Steve, a burly Mexican with a drooping moustache and sad eyes, came over. "Your Darla," he said, and my chest got tighter. "She got bit by a snake."
I heard another siren wailing up the road. "What are you talking about?" I yelled. I heard buzzing in my ears.
"A snake was in her locker," Steve said, and right then a brown sheriff's car squealed into the parking lot. "I hear her scream and look and this big snake's falling out the top shelf. I knock it off with a broom but she got bit. She got bit bad. On the face."
"Who's in there with her?" I shouted. The sheriff's car cut its siren and I saw a deputy step out.
"Ron's inside," said Steve. "And the doctors. We trap the snake."
I ran for the doors, but the deputy got there first. "You can't go inside," he said. The nametag on his shirt said BAYLISS.
"That's my girl in there." I tried to push past him.
"I'm sorry, son. You need to stay here. The medics are taking care of her."
"Is she OK?" My chest felt so tight I could barely breathe. Deputy Bayliss waited a few seconds before he answered.
"I'm sure she'll be fine. Just let the paramedics do their work." He squeezed my shoulder and went inside. I sank down onto the curb and buried my head in my hands. But I couldn't cry.
They brought her out on a stretcher ten minutes later. She was covered in blankets, and the entire right side of her face was wrapped in gauze. Even through the wrappings I could see the swelling, big as a baseball. I tried to go to her, but Deputy Bayliss held me back. I watched as they loaded her into the ambulance. Then it backed out into the street and she was gone.
Deputy Bayliss told me to stick around while he talked to Ron, our supervisor. The animal control people arrived, and I watched two of them go inside with long poles. When they came back out, they each carried one bulging sack. I sat on the hood of my truck, smoking, and watched them load up. Ron and Deputy Bayliss walked over from where they'd been talking by the police car.
"How you doing, Gabe?" asked Ron. I dropped my cigarette to the pavement and jumped down to stub it out with the toe of my boot.
"What do you know about this, son?" asked Deputy Bayliss.
I didn't miss a beat. "It's a sick joke," I said.
"There was a second snake." Deputy Bayliss paused to look up at the sky, as if he'd noticed something floating over his head. "In your locker. You know who might want to do that?"
I followed his eyes, but only saw a single cottony cloud floating in the distance. I pulled out my cigarettes and shook the last one into my hand. "Nope," I said. "But whoever did it, I hope you catch him. It's a sick fucking joke."
Ron and Deputy Bayliss looked at each other. I struck a match and puffed on my cigarette, real cool. "Hey Ron," I said. "You mind if I take the rest of the day off? I want to go up to the hospital, sit with Darla."
Ron hesitated. He looked at Deputy Bayliss, who shrugged. "Yeah," Ron said. "Sure. Take the day. Tomorrow, too, if you want."
"Thanks." I pulled open my truck's door and climbed in. "I'll see you." And I dropped my half-smoked cigarette out the window and drove away.
I did what I told Ron I'd do. I went to the hospital and parked myself in the waiting room when they wouldn't let me back to see Darla. Her father arrived an hour later. I watched him burst through the front doors at a full run, still in his green park ranger's uniform. It was the first time I'd seen him. He slammed his hands on the receptionist's desk and yelled about his girl, and I thought for a second about introducing myself. But I didn't. When a nurse came and led him back through the doors, I left.
I drove around for awhile after that before I ended up out on the mesa. I sat on the hood of my truck and chain smoked a stale pack of cigarettes from my glove compartment while I studied the jagged lines of the Zuni Mountains in the distance. I knew that Darla and I were finished, that even if things turned out OK she wouldn't want anything to do with me. I'd told her about Mom being a snake handler, told her about Mom being mad. Darla would blame me, there was no way around it. And she'd be right. I should have seen it coming, should have known better. The plans I'd made earlier seemed stupid, like a little kid's dumb daydream. My life stretched ahead of me, barren and wasted as the desert itself.
It was after eight o'clock and the stars were coming out when I started up the truck again. I made just one stop at the station in town to fill up my tank and the red gas can I keep in back. Then I rode out on old 666, headed north past China Springs while the sun's last slants of light splashed red across the western mountains. It was dark by the time I turned onto the unnamed dirt road that winds out into the desert, past acres of old graze land long since turned to dust. I passed rusty cattle guards that cut across old, washed-out access roads, passed dark stands of cacti and jumbled scatters of rock. Mom's church was five miles down. It was deserted, like I knew it would be. I used the crowbar I carry in the toolbox behind my seat to bust open the front door, then set down the sloshing gas can by my feet and went to the closet. A naked bulb hung from the ceiling inside, and when I flicked it on I saw the glass aquarium lined with sand and rocks. In it lay three coiled rattlers. A pair of heavy work gloves hung on a hook by the door and I put those on before I grabbed the burlap sack off the floor.
Snake handling's a lot easier when you're wearing thick gloves.
I used half of what was in the gas can there, splashing it over the floor and walls. When I'd finished, the sharp stink of gasoline brought tears to my eyes. I threw the sack into the back of my truck, made sure it was tightly tied, then went to the front door and struck a match. It took less than a minute for the whole building to take. By the time I drove away, the church was nothing but a red glow in my rearview mirror.
It was after eleven when I got home. The trailer looked dark, and I thought for a moment that Mom had decided to not come back. But when I crept down the hall to her door and pressed my ear against it, I could hear her breathing on the other side. Slow and steady, just a hint of a snore.
I got our old shotgun from where Mom kept it hidden behind the couch. Loaded both barrels. Walked back to my truck and got the sack and gas can. Dumped the gas over the couch, made a trail from it to the front door. Then I took the sack back to Mom's room and tested the door's handle. Locked, but no matter. I loosened the tie holding the sack closed and dumped all three snakes beside the door. They coiled and started rattling; one struck at me but I'd already jumped back out of range. At the steps, I paused just long enough to light a match. I walked back to my truck to wait with the gun.
It was a minute or two before I heard her scream. By then the flames had spread so that half the trailer, the side with the kitchen and living room, had gone up; I could feel the fire's heat prickling my face. I imagined that, over the crackling flames, I could hear my mother coughing and hacking in the smoke, hear the angry rattling of the snakes. But she'd been handling them for a long time. Three might not be enough. I clenched the shotgun, pressed its stock against my forehead.
"Gabe!" I heard her voice rise in the night. "Gabriel!" I fired one barrel into the sky. The sound of it rolled like thunder across the desert, echoed off the hills. I watched the fire creep down the other half of the trailer. The air grew so thick with black smoke that I had to tie a rag around my face. The trailer's roof caved in over the living room, gave way and released a million dancing embers into the night. I raised the gun to my shoulder, expecting at any moment that a dark shape would come stumbling out of the wreckage, flames licking its hair and smoke curling from its shoulders. But, nothing. The walls collapsed, the trailer listed to one side and sagged off its blocks, and nothing. I sat on the truck's hood and waited for the fire to die. Nothing.
And now it's nearly dawn. The stars are fading from the sky; to the east, a faint pink splash over the mountains is my first hint of sunrise. Everything smells like smoke. I know that people are going to learn what I've done. I know that I don't have much time. I know that I'm alone. Alone in the desert.
And maybe that's where I need to be. The desert, alone, finding whatever way there is to find. My father was a prophet, after all. My father walked into the desert and came back a changed man. I could be like him, could get up off my truck and start walking into the waste, disappear among the cacti and the red rocks and the shifting miles of dust. Maybe I'll come back someday. Maybe I'll have my own visions. Or maybe I'll die out there, become one more lost pile of bleached bones.
Or... There's always an or. Or I still have the shotgun across my lap. It's got one loaded barrel left.
I watch the east sky. Soon, I'll see the first shimmering curve of the sun as it peeks over the mountains. Soon. I'll see that and I'll feel the first kiss of its warmth on my skin. I'll feel that first kiss, that one instant of heat, and in that next moment I'll choose.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Pete Pazmino. All rights reserved.