They Shall Take Up Serpents: Chapter 6

This work is being posted in an incomplete form for instructional purposes. I believe it is useful and illustrative for new writers to see how messy a first draft is, so I am posting this piece of writing without even a second reading. 

If you would like to peek in on me while I’m writing, you can find the live Google Doc at this link and leave comments on the story. 

The crowd gasped and at once, the air was ripped from the little tent. Connor jumped away out of shock, and several others did the same. Chairs clattered and fell, and once the band noticed, complete silent panic overtook everyone in attendance. Charlie pulled at the snake clumsily and it immediately let go. Charlie’s hands shook with adrenaline, and his chest heaved, but he drug his feet across the floor and dropped the rattlesnake in its plywood box. William Gregory continued to stand with his arms outstretched for a moment even beyond when the band stopped playing. The congregants watched Gregory with one eye and Charlie Thacker with the other. Everyone was still, stunned and unable to move. Even those that would and could render aid to Charlie Thacker watched William Gregory before moving toward the pulpit. Connor wondered why everyone was waiting, he wanted to shout and scream and hurry them onward. Even Thacker seemed to acknowledge the silence. He did not swear, or cry out, or call for help. He stood silent, nursing his wound and watching The praying William Gregory. When Gregory finally dropped his arms and opened his eyes, Charlie was doubled over, gulping for breath. Gregory stepped toward Charlie and softly and sweetly helped the big man to the floor. “We have to get praying you all! We have to ask the father for healing!” Gregory dropped to his knees and grabbed around Charlie’s upper arm with both hands. The old minister closed his eyes and let fly a stream of tongues that seemed to crack the air like lightning. Cooch was the first person to join Gregory in prayer. Other participants joined in the spectacle in fits and starts and in only a moment Connor could not see Thacker at all. The big man lay completely immersed in the prayers of his fellow worshippers. Connor looked toward the year of the tent and saw a father hurrying his family from the tent. The smallest of his two little girls snuck one last peak before she allowed herself to be pushed out into the night. A woman to Connor’s right pulled out her cell phone and dialed for an ambulance. “Yes please, there’s a man bit by a snake,” she whispered into the phone.

“Tell em it was a timber rattler” William Gregory halted his prayer and commanded.

The woman told them and then hung up without giving the dispatcher any additional information. Connor stood transfixed in place as the praying mob continued to heap praise on God in hope that He would spare Thacker’s life. The whole ordeal was some grotesque and symbolic tug of war for Charlie’s soul. Connor couldn’t see the big man through the pile of prayer warriors, but he could hear him heaving for breath and whimpering softly.

Paw Paw’s small population, and even smaller geographic footprint meant that the ambulance appeared within minutes. The flashing red and white lights bathed the interior of the tent in pulsing and disorienting light. The EMTs rushed through the open entrance to the tent and paused for a moment to survey the scene before rushing to the front where Charlie lay sprawled near the altar. They commanded everyone to evacuate the scene so that they could provide care, and everyone moved away, except for William Gregory who kept his grip on Charlie’s upper arm, and continued his fervent prayer. The preacher seemed not to notice as the EMT shouted for him to move away, and then asked again in a more gentle tone before shaking the wiry man in an effort to rouse him. “Sir, please, we need to get this man on the stretcher and into the ambulance,” Connor heard the EMT plead.

Gregory halted his prayer long enough to take one deep breath. The minister turned his piercing and possessed eyes, “you stay outta the way of my healing, and I’ll stay outta the way of yours.” The EMTs looked at one another, shrugged, and then lowered the mechanical stretcher to the ground. The one who spoke to Gregory earlier told the minister that he would not be allowed in the ambulance once Thacker was loaded, and Gregory nodded without halting his prayer. Connor was surprised with the efficiency that Thacker was loaded onto the stretcher and into the ambulance. Despite Thacker’s form and weight, the entire affair was over before Connor could process everything he’d seen. Gregory didn’t loose his grip on Thacker until he was about to be loaded in the rear of the ambulance. At that point, Thacker was still breathing, and very much alive.

Gregory trudged back to the front of the church and addressed the few that remained unable to move in their seats, “service is over for tonight ya’ll. You should praise God that you got to witness his mercy this evening. Charlie took up the serpent before he was ready. And he will suffer for his iniquity, but he will live.” The old man shrank into his shoulders when he was finished speaking, and he spun curtly on his heel and walked through the rear opening of the tent.

Connor wheeled about the tent and observed the remaining worshippers gather their belongings and make way for the exits. The atmosphere in the tent was dense and solemn. No one spoke, and not even the sound of the slamming car and truck doors, and their running motors penetrated the tent. When Connor was all that was left, the young man approached the plywood snake box. Connor could no more resist the snake’s call than a moth can resist a glowing flame. He reached out and flipped the rusted clasp and opened the lid.

The snake was curled in a corner of the box, and it lifted its head for a moment to flick its tongue into the changed air. The snake met Connor’s eyes for a chilling moment. The snake had the same, piercing eyes as William Gregory. The deep, black, vertical slit was filled with fire and surrounded with a brown and black speckled spear. Connor did not expect so much understanding to appear behind the eyes of an unfeeling reptile, and Connor did believe the snake looked at him with understanding. The snake knew what Connor had been through, how he’d been discarded, persecuted, and then trapped in a cage.

Connor closed his eyes for a moment, trying to silence the chatter in his head that would drown out all other thought, and he tried to hear the voice of the snake once again. He wanted to confirm his fanciful imaginings that he heard the snake earlier, just before Charlie Thacker was bitten, but the snake did not speak and there was no murmur in Connor’s head.

Connor considered reaching into the box and grabbing the rattlesnake for a moment before he slammed the lid of the plywood box closed. “You’re ready to take up the serpent,” Connor jolted out of his skin and turned to see the Gregory standing only half a pace behind him. Gregory turned and walked toward the front row of folding chairs. He shouted over his shoulder, “you’ve only been to a couple services and already have the gift of prophecy.”

Gregory flopped down in the chair and directed Connor to be seated. Now that Connor was alone with the minister, Connor had many questions, but only one came to mind,  “how did you know my name?”

The old man laughed, it was the first time Connor had seen him genuinely do so. “Thought Cooch told you to get used to things you can’t explain. God told me you’d be here. Told me you’d be extremely gifted in the spirit. You’re special Connor, even if you don’t know it yet.”

“I was never much for church,” Connor acknowledged with a tinge of shame.

Gregory disregarded Connor’s concern, “most churches are corrupted by the will of man. No shame in hating church. Don’t conflate church with God. Most times the two couldn’t be more different.” Gregory put his hands on his knees and leaned forward. “You can hear em’ can’t you? The snakes?”

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