OUT FROM UNDER
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
The snakes had become commonplace. As common as writing your name on a piece of paper. As common as watching Hailey Grace Walker faint during worship, convulsing on the hardwood floor, praising the Lord Jesus. Common.
Eli looked, from across the room, upon his brother who sat on the kitchen floor with his thin, six-year-old arms folded tightly. The left hand tucked under the right armpit, body rocking back and forth. The small boy had rolled into a ball and wept a harsh and throaty sob. Their father, mud on his boots and dirt streaked across his forehead, kneeled beside. In his deep voice, “What’s wrong, sweetheart?” he asked, placing a hand between his son’s shoulder blades. “Let me see.” His other hand reached out and took the boy’s wrist. “Lord have mercy.” He picked up Andrew from under the arms and lifted him to the kitchen counter, the child’s arm inflating like a grotesque balloon. “Eli,” he said, “take that Bible there and turn to Mark. It’s a rattler bite.” He opened a drawer and found some towels while Eli grabbed the family Bible off the counter.
Flipping through the thin pages, “We taking him to the doctor?” Eli asked.
Eli looked up, but kept flipping.
“If we pray and have faith, God will be obligated to protect us. We don’t need man’s medicine.”
“We ain’t taking him to the doctor?”
The tall man turned to his son. His eyes moved close to Eli’s and nearly crossed in the closeness. “You mind me, boy,” he said. “The Holy Ghost will protect us. Now, turn that page to Mark.”
Eli tried, but for the life of him, he could not find the gospel. The crinkling of onion paper seemed to scream until the Bible slipped from his hands and onto the floor, clapping as the pages came sloppily together. Eli froze, eyes on the book now at his feet.
“Pick it up,” his father said, “it’s after Matthew.”
Their father had been going to church for several weeks on his own before he told his family that he’d been saved. He told them that Jesus had healed his drinking problem and that things would be different. True. The weeks after Jesus saved his soul, life had been easier. His father didn’t yell like he used to. Or smell like he used to. Indeed, he told the family constantly about all the good Jesus had done for him, and before long, the whole family started going to church. To a church buried deep in the mountains amongst a thick forest of spruce-firs and
rhododendrons, through paths of dirt bespeckled with granite lumps that grew from the ground like oversized tumors. To find forgiveness. A kind of salvation in the dark.
To a church buried deep in the mountains amongst a thick forest of spruce-firs and rhododendrons, through paths of dirt bespeckled with granite lumps that grew from the ground like oversized tumors. To find forgiveness. A kind of salvation in the dark.
So, after Andrew’s bite, the regular thing to do was to go to worship and pray with the church for Andrew’s healing. Eli’s mother decided to, instead, stay home with Andrew and to pray over him. Prayer: simple and precise. As simple as asking and receiving, but Eli wondered if this is the way the Lord worked, or just the way we’d like Him to work.
The sun fell behind the high horizon and the beautiful Sunday turned to black. The church was built of gray cinderblocks. A tiny box of a building: the ceiling low and the room smelling of sour wood—likely from water damage behind the paint. The pews and seats occupied much of the space, allowing little room to move around, but they made do. A sloppy painting hung near the front of the room with a Jesus that looked Eli desperately in the eye. An upright piano with a finish that expired long ago sat in a corner along with a few closed guitar cases. The men wore rough wool suits and their elbows collided and bumped into one another. Eli began to wonder how many more would be able to fit before it would be difficult to breathe.
A man stood in the middle and was the gravity of the room. He shook hands as people passed by. The pinky finger on his right hand was missing. In its place, a flat nub of skin, scarred and scratched. He wore a black suit, black tie, white shirt. His ears were long and spotted. When his father greeted the man in the black suit, they met with smiles and hardy handshakes and called each other “brother.” He called himself Brother Timothy. He extended his right hand toward Eli with, “good to see you again, Eli.” Eli did not want to shake the deformed hand, but he was getting older, thirteen, and when a man held out his hand, you shook it. So Eli reached out and took this hand that felt dry and rough and incomplete with only three thick fingers wrapping around the whole of his hand.
Eli and his father said their greetings and then moved to a spot in the pews. Their seat creaked and rocked with their weight. Once the pews filled, people sat in foldout chairs that lined the walls—some, women with babies in their laps. More people entered the church. Eli heard the occasional “glory” or “hallelujah.” The spiritual yelps of those so compelled by the Holy Spirit.
The flow of bodies slowed to an eventual stop, and as usual, the air did indeed become more difficult to breathe. Brother Timothy approached the podium and he spoke. “The Holy Ghost is with us tonight. Praise be to God.” He opened his Bible and read a passage, Mark 16:17-18. “Yessir, the Lord is good brothers and sisters,” he said. “May God bless and heal those of us who are sick and struggling. Remember, the power of prayer is amazing. I know Brother Lucius, who I was just talking to, said that he was having some sort of headache and was having trouble seeing, God bless him. He needs our prayers, so I ask all y’all to pray for him tonight if you would, not to forget about him, and to give the glory to God for our brother’s healing. I’d like to also dedicate, tonight’s service to a sweet little boy named Andrew who was bit just the other day. Bit by a rattler, he was. And I’d like for all y’all to give an extra special prayer for him, because as you know it, children are blessings to us from the Lord, I firmly believe that. And I know we can heal him. We can heal him with the help of the Lord, hallelujah.” The crowd mumbled their amens and then Brother Timothy stuffed a paper of notes back into his breast pocket and opened the floor to other requests.
A woman then raised her hand and complained of back pain. Another woman said her daughter was sick with an infection. A man asked the room to pray for a severe toothache. This went on and on. At times, someone might give a reason to praise God for working a miracle in their life. Prayer requests and praisings followed with enthusiasm and energy. In time, every person rose to his feet, adults, children, babies in arms. People wiped their foreheads with sleeves or handkerchiefs, but no one left, just crowded closer, raising hands and talking about Jesus.
People wiped their foreheads with sleeves or handkerchiefs, but no one left, just crowded closer, raising hands and talking about Jesus.
Then, without cue, a man began clapping. And then another joined. Soon, much of the room pounded their hands together until the clapping found a rhythm. A tambourine shook. One man stood with eyes closed and started dancing. His dance was strange and out of synch with the beat. His limbs began to jerk and shake, like having a seizure on his feet. He reached over and grabbed a woman’s shoulders and seemed to transfer his convolutions to her, and then she began shaking about the room much in the same way. A teenaged boy in the corner raised his hand above his head and spoke in tongues, kinds of words that Eli could never understand. More hands reached for the ceiling. A woman fell to her knees with fingers flattened together. Tears bloomed and then rolled like marbles from her eyes and onto her dress. The dancing man then dropped to the floor, his eyelids twitching, showing only the whites of his eyes from underneath.
The hammering of piano keys brought a new texture and vibrancy to the music. Singing became infectious and it was not long before the music turned deafening. A choir of voices without cohesion. Eli felt the rhythm under his skin, in his chest. It felt exciting, almost intoxicating. Almost like happiness. Visceral. His brain wanted to drown in the pleasant discord, but he did not allow it. It was too strange. Too bizarre. So instead, he rose from his pew and watched from afar and kept an eye on the happenings. His father, however, joined the clapping, bouncing his hips back and forth with a smile on his face. Every now and again someone might bump into Eli in midst of the excited dance. It was strong, vivid, tribal. His father no longer paid attention to his son. He moved on and joined the other members—it was the dance.
It felt exciting, almost intoxicating. Almost like happiness. Visceral. His brain wanted to drown in the pleasant discord, but he did not allow it.
A deep-voiced woman shouted from inside the nest of people, “Praise be to God!”
Someone passed a wooden box to Brother Timothy, and Eli knew immediately what came next. The lid was the kind that slid open. Its construction was plain. The wood, clean yellow and jagged. Brother Timothy—the man dressed all in black—reached both hands inside and pulled out a wad of snakes entwined in a grotesque tangle. A man reached in and grabbed one and danced in awkward circles, chanting strange words. A woman reached and grabbed, then someone else did the same. Small children giggled and smiled, unbothered at the serpents writhing between the hands of the adults. Snakes flew across the room and landed on the wooden floorboards with meaty thuds. They were then picked up and passed to anyone willing.
One landed ten feet away from Eli’s feet. It made a move in his direction, but his father scooped it up. He held the snake at its head and tail and he began to dance in circles with it. His eyes were wild and weird, mad. He held the snake above his head and mumbled strange words. There was an eccentric energy that followed him and his snake. A commanding energy, like triumph. His father passed the snake off to a young man that Eli did not know, and the dance grew more serious. There was a rattle. People backed out of the way, clearing room. Some shouted praises to the Lord, others shouted in tongues. Women clapping, children laughing. The energy of the movement. The sound of the rattle.
The dancing stopped of a sudden. Voices quieted as though suddenly muted. The tambourine was the last to stop—it was the rattle. Brother Timothy grabbed the snake from the floor, just behind the head and by the body, and passed it off and away from the young man. Eli heard a woman say, “Lord have mercy.” He peeked through the crowd and could see two puncture marks in the meat of the young man’s left hand below his pinky finger. His hand was rapidly swelling and looked less and less like a real hand and more like a plastic imitation.
The once lively room had dropped to a breathless silence, save for the hissing and rattling of angry snakes being shoved back into their wooden box. Brother Timothy rested a hand on the bitten man’s shoulder and spoke. “It’s okay everybody. It’s all right. The Holy Ghost is with us. These snakes bite sometimes. You know it just as good as I do and sometimes we can’t help it.” He paused to look about the room. “If we pray for our brothers’ healings, and we are true believers in Him, then God is obligated to answer our prayers. Did you hear what I said? True believers in Him, and God will take control.” And then he erupted, “Praise be to God!” The crowd responded with shouts and praises.
The young man, bitten by the snake, looked down at his hand with an open mouth at a slight grin. Amazement. As though he were proud of it, as though his turn had finally arrived. Rosy blood escaped and rounded his wrist before dribbling to the wooden floorboards. His flesh would soon swell and then darken to purple and his fingers would turn shiny, like sausages. In time, one of his fingers, usually the pinky, would blacken and finally be freed from the other digits, like the umbilical cord releasing from an infant’s belly. A sign that the child is free from its mother, now ready to enter fully into this strange and unusual world.
Eli’s finger drew his name in the sawdusted table of the toolshed. He was not allowed, but inside he was. Darkness there, though blades of late-afternoon light seeped through the horizontal cracks of the boards. His hand hit a glass Pepsi-Cola bottle. It fell on its side and rolled off the table on until hitting the ground without breaking. He heard a slight hissing, the sound of dead leaves being rustled by something small. He thought it was probably a mouse. His clothes, the spaces between his fingers and nails, all collected dust and dirt. Old lawn mower blades sat worn and rusted and tangled up in spiderwebs. His shoe shuffled the fine, silky dirt as he looked around. Something hard hit the skin covering his anklebone. Eli groaned at the pain and bit his lower lip and looked down at the cause. A block of wood. His father had been making things for the church since he found Jesus. Pieces of his carpentry lay everywhere. His ankle throbbed, but he could not tell if it bled or not. Reaching down, he felt dirt and warmth where the skin swelled. No blood. A thick flap hung to the side. The surrounding tissue bruised to a dark purple that hurt to touch.
The shed was very old, the wood weathered and paint chipping. Not unlike their house. When he was younger he asked his father if the house would fall on them. His father answered that God wouldn’t let the house collapse because God protected them.
In a corner, there was a large box with a lid that slid open. He needed two hands to pick it up. It was light and felt empty. Its construction was plain. The wood, a clean yellow and jagged. He pinched the edge of the lid and wiggled it until it began to slide open. A dark substance that looked of feces was smeared on the inside. It smelled awful, rancid. Eli slid it shut quickly, and it closed with a clap. He felt the urge to vomit, the need for new air. Throwing the shed door open, he ran outside. A small brown mouse followed between his legs and out to the grass of the front yard. He thought he could smell vomit coming up, but it stayed down.
He thought of his older brother, dead brother. He remembered being small and running to his older brother’s room and seeing a blue arm hang out from under the bed. Fingers relaxed, pointing toward the ceiling. His mother pulled J.R.’s body out—the shoulder, loose and noodle-like. His twelve-year old frame slim and lean, healthy. Except for the pale color of his skin. Streams and chunks of vomit running over puffed cheeks. He remembered his mother reaching her fingers inside J.R.’s mouth to scoop the vomit out and how his older brother’s head bobbed with the motion of her fingers. He remembered the miniature liquor bottles, scattered and emptied on the floor. He remembered when his father came stumbling down the hall, belt in hand, stink on his breath, and how he reached down and picked up Eli by the shirt and yelled, “What the damn hell are y’all screaming about?” Eli remembered his father’s eyes as he looked over and saw the blue body on the floor and how he pushed his wife over and shook his dead son, occasionally slapping him in the face trying to bring him back to life. Sometimes at night Eli thought that he could see two eyes staring at him through the dark. The eyes were just pinholes in the blinds and the smells of vomit and liquor were but a memory of over seven-years now.
Eli remembered his father’s eyes as he shook his dead son, occasionally slapping him in the face trying to bring him back to life. Sometimes at night Eli thought that he could see two eyes staring at him through the dark.
He rinsed off his ankle with the water hose. It was cold.
Eli often wondered if he’d rather his father was the way he used to be, or the father he had become. Sometimes he wondered if there was a difference between the two.
The infection had gotten worse. Eli figured that Andrew would soon die. The arm of the six-year-old looked too large for his small body. He lay in his bed sweating. A wooden cross nailed above the bedpost. Eli pulled a layer of sheets back and fanned his brother’s face. The area around the bite wound was now black, blue, red, yellow, infected. To Eli, it looked to be only a matter of time before the skin split from the swelling—impressive that it stretched as much as it had. A drop of sweat escaped Andrew’s thin brow and traced the crease just before his ear then down to his jaw and absorbed into his pillow.
Years before, their father had been bitten by a rattler. He was sick for a day until he came to the breakfast table and announced that Jesus had healed him. “Praise be to God.” At a church bonfire, their mother stuck her hands into a pit of fire and came out unscathed. “Praise be to God.” Last week during worship, Mrs. Jennifer from down the street drank a vile of poison and didn’t so much as get sick. “Praise be to God.”
His father came in with his Bible curled under his right hand. “We’ll heal him, son. Don’t worry. Us and Jesus.” He took a few steps forward, flipping through the pages. His father was very tall. Hair, jet black. His wrists were thin, but his hands were the size of baseball mitts. He held the book with one of his hands and put the other on Andrew’s sweating forehead. His father took in a breath to speak, and three sharp knocks stopped him. He placed the Bible down on Andrew’s nightstand and walked to the front door. Eli followed.
The sheriff ’s deputy stood at the threshold. He was much younger than Eli’s father, but his shoulders were broader. They greeted each other. The deputy asked a question and his father answered with one or two words. Eli stood a little closer to hear the conversation.
“You understand, Sir, that snake handling is illegal in Bethel County?” His uniform was neat and fitted.
“You understand, Sir, that snake handling is illegal in Bethel County?”
“Yessir,” his father answered. His overalls were loose and unkempt.
“So, can you tell me anything about it? About that church down the road and reports I’ve been hearing about folks handling? Heard tale that you’ve taken up serpents yourself once or twice.”
“Well, Officer, what I can tell you is that this town loves Jesus and that everyone praises Him different. I can’t tell you why people say what they say, just as much as I can’t say why people do what they do.”
The officer peeked his head over his shoulder and looked at Eli.
“Everything okay, son?”
Eli stood quiet.
“Yes, Sir. My boy over there is sensitive about strangers.”
The officer looked at Eli curiously for a bit before turning back to his father, “Alight then. Like I was saying, the Sheriff ’s got me doing door-to-doors today. Making sure everyone knows how the law is. You can get yourself locked up for handling around here. All that drinking poison and whatnot. Too many people don’t come back from that sort of thing.”
“I understand, Officer.”
“You and your boy have a good day.”
“We will, and God bless.”
The sheriff ’s deputy walked off the front porch and back to his cruiser and drove down the dirt driveway onto the dirt road. His father shut and locked the door. “Come on,” he says. The two went back the bedroom. “Called Brother Timothy earlier,” he said, “he’ll be over shortly. Says he can help heal your brother.” His father picked up the Bible and began to pray and speak in tongues with a hand atop Andrew’s forehead. His father asked Eli to pray with him. Eli doubted very much that his prayers were being listened to, like radio signals drifting off into space. Though he would not tell of his doubt or his fear that Jesus was not coming to help. Though, Eli pressed his hands together anyway. He laced his fingers and bowed his head and then he prayed. And he prayed.
The kitchen was warm and quiet with the occasional click of spoon and pot or crinkling of a page turning. Light had only just broken over the horizon. The sun took longer to crawl over the ridgeline in the morning, though the air stayed cool and crisp. Eli’s mother put a bowl of grits in front of him.
“Careful, it’s hot,” she said.
Eli scooped up a spoon-full, blew on it, and brought it to his mouth. Still too hot.
“Stir it to get the heat out,” she said.
“Okay,” he answered, steam billowing.
“Did you check on Andrew?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. He’s the same.”
“You know, it’s his birthday soon.”
“So. He’s still sick.” Eli spooned a small amount of grits into his mouth and swallowed it. “And, it don’t make no difference anyhow. We’ll just go to another church meeting. What’s he got to get excited about?”
“Boy,”—his father looked up from his Bible—“he’s got Jesus to get excited about, that’s what,” he said pointing with his spoon.
Eli stared at his grits and kept stirring, steam still billowing. A few minutes passed. “Why don’t we have a television set?” he asked.
His father answered, “Because.”
“We used to have one.”
“We’re not getting a television set.”
“My teacher says that Nixon and Kennedy are going to debate on television and that all us need to watch it.”
He didn’t answer.
“I thought I saw a snake go in the shed,” Eli said.
“What were you doing in the shed?”
“I didn’t,” he lied, “I just thought I saw one go in.”
“Boy, you ain’t to go around chasing snakes, you understand me?”
“And, I’ve told you before, you’re not to go near that shed.”
“I mean it. This ain’t no joke. You want to get bit too? You want to be hurting like your brother?”
“Well, then why do you get to play with snakes? You got bit once and came out okay.”
His father reached across the table, and, with a large hand, slapped Eli across the face. Hard. “You stay away from that shed, you understand me?”
Eli put a hand to his face and could feel warmth rise to the surface. He looked at the table with glared eyes, refusing the tears that were trying to push their way out.
He looked down at his father’s clenched fist and said only, “Yessir.”
A green suitcase lay open on Eli’s bed and Eli filled it with clothes. There was no plan, his plan was only to do. Just do and nothing else. His father was off to see Brother Linley to spread the word that the family needed as many prayers as possible. His mother sat on the front porch, rocking back and forth, speaking in tongues. It was night. He knew he couldn’t take Andrew with him, but he hoped he could at least go down the road and find someone to help, maybe that police officer, or just anyplace that had a telephone.
Once a few articles were packed in, he left enough room for other things he might need to keep him occupied. His eyes scanned the room. He found a copy of Treasure Island. A couple of bottles of
Pepsi-Cola. All of which his parents did not know he had. He packed the things he valued and things that would bring him comfort during lonely nights. His eyes caught the leather binding with the golden words “Holy Bible” printed down the spine. He considered it for a moment before closing and latching his suitcase. He was leaving to get help, but he knew that even if he didn’t find that help, he would not come back. He would hide, like a mouse in its hole, underneath and never surface. Andrew’s door stood ajar, though inside was black. The black looked of death. He was afraid to go in. He had this idea that if he did, death might pull him under too. His brother was underneath the covers, rising
and falling heavily with a slight wheeze. Before he entered, he rested his suitcase against the splintered doorjamb. He could smell vomit. For a moment, he wondered if the smells of death and vomit were the same.
He was leaving to get help, but he knew that even if he didn’t find that help, he would not come back. He would hide, like a mouse in its hole, underneath and never surface.
He stepped slowly so that death couldn’t hear his intrusion. He stopped a few feet away from the foot of Andrew’s bed. “I’m sorry I’m leaving,” he whispered, “but I’m gonna go find you a doctor, I promise. And you’ll get better, and we’ll both be better and gone and away from here.” He stood for a minute or so and looked at his brother one last time until he finally turned away toward the doorjamb, where their father stood with a green suitcase between two hands and then dropped the suitcase to the ground.
“Where you going?”
Eli’s lip jumped up and down, but he wasn’t going to cry.
“You’re just going to leave us? Leave God? Your brother?”
He tried to say yes, but the only sound that came was of air shaking out of his nose. His father took two fast steps, grabbed him by the shirt and jammed his back into the wall behind. Eli heard a crack from his spine suddenly straightening.
“Just like that?” He let go, and Eli fell to the floor in a heap.
Still, he did not cry. His father went to Andrew’s side and pulled the sheets back. “Wake up, sweetheart.” He put his hands under Andrew’s armpits and sat him up. Andrew’s face was tired, and his breath slightly wheezed. Their father reached over and lifted up the bitten arm. He flipped on a lamp to kill the dark, and there, like perfect symmetry, was perhaps a thing Eli hoped to never see. A sick sort of providence. The healthy arm of a six-year-old boy. The swelling, nearly gone. There was only the slightest sign of bruising. “See,” his father said, “The Lord is good. It was His will to let us fix this, understand? You have to have faith, son.”
A tear trekked its way down Eli’s cheek.
And then another.
He refused to but wept anyway. He was not leaving, and he reckoned that he never was. He wept out of anger, out of hate. Hate for his father and hate for the Lord. Eli imagined the Holy Ghost with fingers wrapped around his small body, face and legs. Suffocating him and never letting go. He was angry and not sure why. Everything was set in its rightful place and all would be okay.
Praise be to God.
Adam Padgett’s fiction has recently appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Santa Clara Review, The Conium Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. He currently teaches writing at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.