In these southern mountains, men cleanse spirits with prayer spit—tobacco water, vinegar—while women swallow dust.
Daddy and his men hunt snakes beyond the holler; they carry snake hooks that they slip inside rattler dens; they tail the snakes and push them around with those hooks before dumping them in a bag of God.
Daddy forces my arm into one of the serpent boxes that line the inside of the farmhouse; my stomach feels like a hundred of those snakes are wiggling inside it.
“Girl,” he says. “Don’t fear the bite because there’s always whiskey or a piece of fat meat, salt, onion—a paste that’ll suck the poison out, and there’s the Ole Maker that’s going to make your body amen amen amen.”
But for me, the Spirit is Margo, the girl who takes me down into a pile of leaves after a prayer meeting. Her saliva’s birch syrup, and when I slip my hand up her leg, the darkness inside her skirt is damp as soil under rock. After I tell her I’m scared of what more Daddy will do, she says, “Someone up in these mountains is always dying or is about to die. You’ve got to know you don’t have to die.”
“I can smell how mad he makes those rattlers.”
“I know you can,” she hisses in my ear.
When he catches us, he calls us Wicked Ones and tells me I’ve got to learn my place.
That night, I sit by my window and hiss out at the dark. I sense Margo out there.
She conjures my salvation out of paper-thin skins whispering to bone, flesh. Throat tightens, neck constricts. Skin transforms from flesh to keeled scales.
Daddy enters my room wild and fast and carrying a snake hook.
Coiling, I refuse to retreat.
He shoves that hook under my belly, but I strike fast. Fangs thrusting into his skin. Like biting Adam’s rib in half. His arm becomes puffy and his thumb becomes as black as a coal chunk.
In my new tongue, I tell him, “Rubbing dried snake root won’t heal you, and don’t bother with intestines of a black chicken. My venom can’t be drawn out.”
As his limbs swell and his breathing slows, I slither around his feet hissing amen amen amen.
Notes from Guest Reader Georgia Bellas
I love the lush, dark, menacing spell this story casts on the reader, how it sucks the air out of you and leaves you paralyzed, breathless, waiting for the end.