The service started much in the same way it did the previous evening. The holy-rolling music rolled and thundered from the stage, and old ladies and old men with tambourines and streamers danced around in front of the rows of folding chairs. Connor stayed in his seat and rested his hands on the seat in front of him, too afraid of embarrassing himself to join the others in the spectacle.
William Gregory stood in front of the other parishioners, but he didn’t dance like the others, instead he simply stood and looked toward the ceiling of the old, tattered tent with his arms out like he was basking in the sun after a long winter. It seemed to Connor that Gregory saw something floating above the altar that was not there. Thacker and Cooch kicked and grabbed at the air and hooted and hollered above the general noise of the worship.
When the song service was over, Gregory took the altar, and gripped his podium with both hands as if he were about to wrestle it to the ground. He took a deep breath and began his sermon.
Gregory leaned down to the mic stand. “God is good!”
People shouted amen from the back of the tent.
Gregory seemed dissatisfied with the crowd’s enthusiasm. “If you knew how good he was,” the wiry man pointed out over the crowd, taking a moment to single out individual congregants, “then you would be shouting loud enough to wake the dead!” Gregory took the mic from its stand and stepped out from behind the podium. “Now. I said. God is good.”
The crowd erupted and Gregory smiled, “that’s more like it.” Gregory stepped from the altar and walked to a plywood box tucked in the corner. The box had a wood framed screen for a lid and was about the size of a briefcase. Gregory grabbed the box roughly by its handle and dropped it near his podium, then he picked up the tattered, golden Bible. “Do you know what this says? Do you even know what it is?” The crowd was silent, and there was buzz in the air. Gregory was headed somewhere, and everyone in the tent wanted to go along. “This is your covenant with God. Your contract. His living will. His promise to you, His children.” Gregory slammed the book back onto the podium. “Many of you can’t even be bothered to read this. But I’m telling you that there is nothing. I said nothing that is impossible for those who believe and have faith.” Gregory bent over and flipped open the lid on the half-rotten plywood box. “The book of Mark says that the faithful shall take up serpents and drink deadly things and not be harmed. That they will lay hands on the sick and heal them. Now there are them that say that’s not what God meant. They say that’s a metaphor. That God didn’t really mean for us to take up serpents and drink deadly things.” The crowd hissed lightly and booed in hushed whispers. “Now I don’t know about you.” Gregory bent over and reached into the box and pulled out a brownish green and black snake. He grabbed the snake from the middle and held it up like a trophy over his head. “But I’m gonna choose to believe God.” The congregation hooped and shouted. People raised their hands and spoke in tongues as if they had witnessed a miracle.
The snake hung limply in Gregory’s hand. “I’m gonna choose to believe that God meant what he said. I’m going to choose to grab my demons around the throat.” Gregory began to walk down the center aisle, waving the snake backward and forward as he went. “There are those that say one sign of the cross is more valid than the others. Oh, sure we will lay on hands and pray for healing.” Gregory chuckled to himself at the foolishness of his straw man. The congregants laughed right along with him, and in the moment, Connor laughed as well. He was fascinated by Gregory’s uncanny ability to cause full group-think. Connor, for a moment, ceased to think of himself as an individual. He looked at the other around him for how he should react and simply mirrored their movements, which he knew in the abstract was what Gregory wanted and was conditioning them to do. Gregory paused for a moment before continuing, “we might even speak in tongues!” Gregory laughed and jerked with the spirit, “Lord, someone help me!”
Several enthusiastic “amens” rang through the tent.
“But those people,” Gregory once again hefted the snake overhead, “but those people say, oh we don’t want to handle snakes.” Gregory lowered the snake and turned it to face him. The snake’s flicking tongue nearly touched Gregory’s nose. “Do you think those people trust God?”
Thacker and Cooch formed a megaphone with their hands and shouted “no.” Several other members of the church joined them. Connor was too amazed by Gregory’s bravery in the face of a full-grown timber rattler to say a word. Connor had never seen a rattlesnake this close before. He had hunted for garter snakes and copperheads as a kid, but only until Eloise found out. But now, watching William Gregory handle the rattlesnake, Connor swore that he felt something unusual in the pit of his stomach; and he heard very faint whispers. And they seemed to come from the snake.
But Connor remembered Cooch’s advice, “get used to things you cain’t explain.” So Connor stopped focusing on the whispers, and instead focused on Gregory, who lowered the rattler back into the half-rotten box.
“They trust God to deliver healing cause that don’t mean they have to put no skin in the game. If they had enough faith the be healed, then they wouldn’t of gotten ill to begin with! Healing faith comes from the healer and the faithful, but only with help from the Father. But taking up snakes is a great display of faith because if you don’t have faith, then you’ll surely die.” Gregory stepped back behind the podium. “Now we got one here among us who says he’s faithful!” Gregory’s voice boomed. “We have one among us who says he’s prepared to follow God’s commandment and take up serpents.” Gregory pounded his fist and the podium jumped from the floor. “We have one among us who has read His word and is going to reach out and take up his birthright.”
Connor looked on as Charlie Thacker hefted his weight onto his feet and raised his hands to heaven and said a short prayer under his breath. Gregory pointed over the audience and wheeled around until he landed on Thacker. “Are you prepared to take up snakes and wrestle with demons in accordance with the commandments of the one living God?”
“I am.” Thacker hobbled toward the front of the pulpit. William Gregory commanded the band back to the stage, and the instruments slowly took up a melodic, but almost lonesome and mournful sound, a far cry from the rockabilly gospel that Connor had begrudgingly grown to enjoy. William Gregory put his hands on the sides of Thacker’s head, and he held him close. William Gregory’s eyes looked the same as they had when he gave Connor his prophecy. They danced with fire, but looked icy and unfeeling, distant. Gregory’s microphone rested on the podium and, despite Connor’s inner wishes, refused to pick up any of the audio. Thacker held his arms out in the sign of the cross, and stood with his head down and his eyes closed. The two seemed to be engaged in some ritual of affirmation. To Connor, William Gregory appeared to be pleading with God to protect Thacker from harm. And Thacker no doubt was making the same request. When the two men concluded their prayer, Thacker’s face was streaked by stinging tears.
Gregory lifted the microphone once again and shouted so loudly at first that the speakers squawked and distorted. “If your faith is mighty say amen!” The crowd jumped to their feet all at once and shouted amen with the force of all their collective pain and hope. “The sign of handling snakes is a dangerous one, but if you are faithful, the demons cannot stand against you. The snake is a literal demon, but there are metaphorical ones here as well. There’s the demon of lust. The demon of adultery. The demon of cancer, and the demon of heart disease. How many of you know that God is your father? And only good things come from the father. You know what we say around here- if it ain’t good, well then it ain’t God.” Cooch shouted a long and accentuated yes from somewhere in the tent. “But those who say there isn’t real, tangible evil in the world, well them people have never held a serpent. Charlie here, he’s choosing to confront that evil. And you should know that confronting evil isn’t without its risks. How many great men in the bible paid a terrible price for confronting evil? Too many to list. But their stories live on and serve to further instruct the faithful. I have prayed over Charlie, and I have counseled him, and I have warned him. But Charlie still feels called to the sign of taking up serpents. So let’s get our praise on!”
The band jumped into an uptempo song full of wild, pounding guitar. The congregation jumped to their feet but remained in aisle. Connor lifted his hands and shouted his thanks for God with all of the urgency of the older churchgoers. Charlie Thacker walked toward the little plywood box, and as he moved closer, Connor began to notice an overwhelming feeling of dread take him. The church seemed to move around him in slow motion. The dancers swayed and shifted and the prayers spoke along with the beat of the music, but the Connor watched as the entire service began to move and shift as if time itself were a broken machine slowly grinding to a halt. What is happening to me? Connor thought. Charlie continued to inch closer to the little plywood box full of snakes. He was only a few feet away now, and Connor thought he could hear a voice warning him of something, some danger. Only, the voice wasn’t a voice at all, more like an intuition, an instinct that Charlie Thacker would die if he took up the snake. Charlie’s faith wasn’t strong enough.
Connor rushed out into the aisle, pushing past all those in his way. He had to get to the front and warn Charlie. Connor was out of his own control. A force he didn’t understand filled his insides with buzzing energy and shouted warnings in his mind. Charlie inches closer to the box, and he was stooping down to reach through the lid when Connor grabbed his wrist. The man’s plump red face dripped with sweat and tears, his eyes opened wide “What’re you doing kid?”
Connor panted, suddenly out of breath. “You can’t do it Charlie. Something bad is going to happen.”
William Gregory grabbed Connor from behind and spun him roughly around. “Connor? Why are you up here?”
Connor wanted to ask just how Gregory knew his name, the question still haunted Connor, but he decided now wasn’t the time. “I don’t know how to explain it.” Connor let go of Charlie Thacker’s wrist. “I heard something I think.”
“You heard something?” Gregory laughed. “Well Charlie, let’s stop the show. Connor thinks he heard something. What did you hear son?”
“If Charlie takes up one of those snakes, it’ll kill him.” Connor stared at the floor, too afraid to meet the old man’s piercing gaze, and too ashamed to look at Charlie.
“Now, just who told you that?” Gregory asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
Gregory laughed, “still not willing to admit it huh? I want to hear you say it.”
Connor started to speak, but the words hung in his throat. Did God really tell him the future? Connor shrugged, “I…I guess God told me.”
Gregory turned to Thacker and whispered something unintelligible. The band still played, and Connor glanced over his shoulder to find that the entire congregation was staring at him. Gregory stepped away from Thacker and grabbed Connor by the shoulder, pulling him in the close, “Thank you for trusting the spirit Connor. I shared your word with Charlie. But whether or not to perform the sign is up to Charlie. He’s decided to go forward with it anyway. Against my advice and yours.”
“But you can’t let him,” Connor hissed, his heart fluttering in his chest.
“What I’m telling you is I can’t stop him,” Gregory frowned. “You delivered your message. That’s all you can do. A prophecy don’t mean you can change the future.” Gregory gently turned Connor around and ushered him back to his seat. Gregory returned to the pulpit and further consulted with Thacker, who didn’t at all seem shaken by Connor’s warnings. And why should Thacker take him seriously? Connor was inexperienced, both in faith and in life.
The music still thrummed rhythmically, and now that Connor’s disturbance was over, the audience again raised their hands and started praying and yelling in tongues, Connor assumed they were all praying for Thacker’s safety.
Charlie Thacker started walking and dancing toward the plywood snake box, but William Gregory stood dead center of the sanctuary floor, his arms outstretched in the shape of the cross. He lifted his head to heaven and kept his eyes closed, basking in some unseen glow. Gregory’s jaw moved up and down with fury and urgency. Thacker opened the lid of the snake box and stopped for a moment to wave his hand over the lid and say a few incantations for his safety.
There was so much pressure pounding in Connor’s head that he was afraid his eyes would wrest themselves from his skull. When Charlie’s hand disappeared into the tattered snake box, Connor had to look away for fear of what was coming. But Charlie gently pulled the diamondback rattler from its hiding place and held the snake from the middle of its body. The snake hung limply while Charlie maneuvered it around so that his handle on the snake could be in full view of the congregation. Charlie addressed the congregation, but Connor could only see his lips move; nothing could be heard over the shouts of praise coming from the pughes. Gregory did not move and did not open his eyes.
Charlie’s initial outward signs of trepidation all melted away, and the big man began kicking and stomping his feet, shuffling and bouncing around the stage. The big man whipped the snake around the stage like he were dancing with a small child and not a poisonous demon. Charlie allowed his grip on the snake to move from the center of the snake’s body to its tail. The snake coiled itself tightly with its free length and Connor watched as the snake whipped the air with its tongue once or twice before it turned and struck Charlie right in the webbing of his thumb and index finger.