The church people threw me from the garden, because I gave them snakes. That showed them who I was. I taught them the age-old lesson. Treat people with respect.
Don’t play God with a flawed human being.
I gathered serpents from the hills, with my watchful ways and my grabbing stick. The church people awakened the savage side of me, for they saw only my weaknesses. “We want to make you strong, Josh,” they said, but what they desired was perfection. They always found a flaw.
The congregation took me in when I was down. They desired to change a sinner into a saint. I became their project.
“A 25-year-old man with your high IQ should be able to find work anywhere,” they said.
They didn’t understand that the human world turns away from anyone attempting to build an identity independent of its yoke.
First, Mom and Dad kicked me out.
“We want the snakes and feeder mice gone from the basement,” they said.
Parents are supposed to support their children. The animals stank some, but real life is not a Garden of Eden. I loved snake sweat. For me, it breathed the aroma of truth.
I drove my van across town to the Lafayette Church, told the elders I had no shelter. Stocky, brown suited Pastor Jackson found me a cheap room at his “Sundowner Motel.” He granted my first month rent-free.
“We are giving you a chance,” Jackson intoned, staring at me with his shiny amber eyes. But no-one gives something for nothing.
Lafayette Church was one of the few heritage buildings out in that part of the country that’s neither suburb nor rural, neither town nor country. Few people knew it was the site of a lynching. A hundred-ten years past, several men accused of murder were hung from the rafters by local vigilantes.
The congregation called this place a sanctuary. They downplayed the stories.
“It was so long ago,” they told me. “Times have changed, we cleansed this place with our holy forgiveness.”
I didn’t believe it. I sensed a presence there, a faint stench, and if ghosts existed, I had empathy. I could be a phantom myself, peering out from behind my body shell, acting like others wanted, but holding my true self like a wraith within.
In my van at 3 a. m., I rolled my head back and forth, viewed dark shapes of tree branches waving in the wind outside, scratching on the roof. I thought of the snakes in the back of my vehicle, hissing and slithering in their covered boxes. I tucked myself back in the sleeping bag. The serpent presence calmed me. I awaited, still and patient, though the wee hours.
I kept at least six rattlers in the two covered boxes. Two were my pets, Saxon and Jessica. They sensed my hand feeding them the mice. The other snakes were babies I picked up in the hills. I stored the serpents and the mice in my unit at the Sundowner Motel. Like my parents, the manager complained about the smell.
“Is the toilet blocked?” he’d ask. “Perhaps there are dead rats in the walls.”
It would be only a matter of time until he discovered my pets and told Pastor Jackson to kick me out.
I lifted the snake blanket and peered in, watched the slithering shadows. The brain of a snake is smaller than a pea. It doesn’t understand the meaning of mercy, or justice.
Pastor Jackson and his brethren Don Fairclaw and Nathan Trabant gave me jobs at their businesses. Menial ones few would take. Dishwasher, car detailer, truck unloader. They were ungrateful, they kept pointing out my mistakes. At Fairclaw Cafe, Don showed me dried food and scratches on several pots. I told him they were ninety-five per cent clean. He should expect scratches from the steel wool he provided for the job. Yet Fairclaw couldn’t give me a break. I told him only Jesus could miraculously clean the pots like he wanted. I quit. A couple of days later, I busted my gut hauling out the grease pail at Trabant’s fried chicken place. A trifling amount spilled over onto the driveway. It wasn’t my fault some old lady tripped on the slick spot and bruised her hip. She should watch where she’s walking. Trabant told me I was too hasty and reckless. I told him to hire his grandmother.
The church’s expectations are high. Everything has to be perfect like the Garden of Eden. Why can’t people focus on the good?
I cleaned their church for them. I did it for nothing, to help with my rent at that junkie motel, and still that big-bellied gap-toothed Pastor told me I needed to vacuum more around the pews. He picked up some stuck gum and showed me I missed it, he said I bumped the wood with the vacuum cleaner and took some chips out. I told him I needed coffee in the morning and with a lot of coffee I keep moving fast. I completed the job in double quick time, giving for the sake of giving, but no one noticed that. You have to expect some wear and tear if you want a fast job done. The pastor took what he called “damage money” out of my pay. Then he complained about mice poop in the candlesticks, too much dust on the altar, a cracked toilet lid. On and on. “Yes, we know you do good things too,” the Pastor said. “But you have to be more careful.” My blood churned. I could’ve snapped back, but I bided my time.
Pastor Jackson advised me to attend the church twice a week, “it’s good for your troubled soul.” I met Caitlin at the youth service, a cute, chestnut haired girl who crossed her legs and moved them back and forth restlessly. Her parents had sent her to a recovery center, to get away “from bad influences.” She came back detox clean but chafing. I could tell. She bit her fingernails to the quick. She came up to me and fidgeted, “You sing good Josh,” and then she laughed. “A real gospel boy.”
We listened to the youth band, then I offered Caitlin a walk by the lake. She talked angrily, full of complaints. “They’re all hypocrites,” she said. “Their drug is Jesus.” She touched the end of my pointy nose. “You look like a guy who likes to get high,” and I said, “anything to escape this boring town.”
After the next meeting I bought a bottle of vodka. Caitlin seemed a lot happier. “I’m not supposed to touch this,” she winked. I advised “act straight, I’ve got breath mints.” We sidled down to the lake and necked awhile. It took a week or two for her dad to find out about our evenings. He raised hell with the pastor. “Why did you bring this troublemaker in to influence my daughter?”
They ordered Caitlin back to detox. Pastor Jackson loomed before me, heavy face above his wide brown jacket. “Josh, I forgive you this trespass. But no more youth meetings.” His big brown eyes looked empty and weary. In fact, I think he even shook his head in a sorrowful manner. Yet it was Caitlin’s own choice to imbibe the liquor, to leave the garden. I was never really in Eden, I guess, but I tried my best. From Caitlin’s departure on, Pastor Jackson only allowed me to attend the Sunday service. “Sit more to the front,” he stated. “So we can keep an eye on you.”
That was enough. I’ve always been a guy who sits at the back. I’ll show them they can’t keep pushing a man who craves independence of thought and action.
A janitor is trusted with the keys to the church. I parked under the trees at the back, pulled on my long leather gloves and grabbed the first snake container with both hands. It wasn’t heavy, but bulky with life. Saxon resided within, the thickest rattler. He sported black diamond markings and a rattle fifteen rings long. Jessica, a smaller but much more active viper, slithered around him. She usually took quick offence and struck at any movement. I could feel her hit at her container lid. I held tight to the box, ducked behind bushes, stooped under a windowsill. I set my burden down by the steps, used my spare key to open the door.
I hefted the container through the darkened church and pushed it under the decorated covered prayer table with all the heavy books on it. I looked up for a moment at the rafters, caught a distant scent.
It wasn’t strong, yet it wasn’t faint, slightly musty old flowers mixed with damp.
I reached under the snake container and lifted the latch. Then I ran back and carried the container with the four other reptiles, placed it under the altar. I snuck out fast, unable to hold in my satisfied chuckles at completing this challenging personal assignment.
I arrived early for that morning’s Sunday service, and mingled with the congregation.
Light shone through the stained-glass windows, casting red and orange along the beige painted walls. I stared up at the ceiling, and the crossed wooden beams. As we sung the first hymn, I imagined a long writhing body twisting its way along the floor, its colours merging with the brown wood. Silent, instinctual, the phantom creature slid out into the main church area where several musicians played guitars and piano, and the choir belted out a spirited “Amazing Grace.” The slithery creature stopped, coiled, its tongue flicked the air to find smells and location. The screams began.
That’s what I hoped.
I carried anti-venom in my pocket. I’d use it, become the hero if anyone was bitten. Or I wouldn’t, depending on my mood.
I sat beside Sally Coldicott, a fat legged woman with a big smile.
“I know you’ve been through troubles” she said. “We must forgive, you know. And you must forgive us, too.”
“Forgive you for what?” I asked her.
Sally shook her head.
“For judging. I heard about the problems with your janitor work. Marvin Peterkin at the deli needs a counter worker. I could put in a word for you.”
I smiled then. “Sure,” and craned my neck, searching for the snakes. I thought Sally might wonder why I didn’t look her in the eye. So, I looked. “What’s the sermon about today?” I asked.
It’s on forgiveness,” she said. “Exactly what we’ve been talking about.”
I went with her for communion, scanning the floor for Saxon. I perceived only expensively shoed feet. At the sermon’s end, everyone filed out to shake the Pastor’s hand.
“Glad you could be with us today, Josh,” Jackson said.
He looked me in the eye and I faced him back.
“Yes, I’m glad to be here too,” I said.
My thoughts felt scattered. I’d set free the snakes, but when I looked at Pastor Jackson I awakened to the possible rashness of my impulse. In my wish to cause chaos, in the thrill of the prank, I acted hastily, full of ego and hubris. I should’ve realized the snakes would hide. Serpents know fear, as much as us.
Later, I drove by the church. All appeared oddly quiet. I parked on a hill and lay in the back of the van, rolling my head back and forth.
“Please let Saxon and Jessica be okay,” I chanted.
At 1 a. m. I drove back to the church again.
All was shadow as I opened the church door. My eyes slowly became accustomed to the blackness. I leaned down, peeked under the altar. The snake container sat there, a dark bulk. I reached forward, pulled it towards me, knowing now I’d unfastened the latch, but forgot to open the door. I shone my flashlight. The baby snakes remained inside the box. Despite my earlier regrets, I could not resist the temptation to set them free. I lifted the blanket, opened the door, and let the blanket fall.
I kept my light low, groped my way to the prayer table, bent down, peered under. I reached my hand in to pull Jessica’s container towards me. A musty odour wafted down from the ceiling, distracting me. I looked up as a sharp pain seared my palm. I flicked my hand back. Another sting jabbed into my arm. My light showed Jessica writhing out from under the table, slithering past me. I leaped away, my heart pounding, the boom boom boom the rock of life that moved me from one moment to the next, the rhythm beat out of control. I swayed and dropped my light. It rolled under some pews.
Something moved above me. I peered towards the ceiling. Shadows dangled. I tried to make sense of the forms, scattered among the rafters. Low murmurs came to my ears.
I yanked my anti-venom from my pocket, pushed the apparatus against my shoulder muscle. The needle went in, but the syringe would not push. I sat at a pew, pulled up my pant leg to stick the needle just above my knee. Again, the needle went in but I couldn’t push the liquid down. My hand started to throb; my heart pounded. Jessica and Saxon slithered somewhere nearby, in the dark.
I heard the murmurs again, from the rafters. “Sinner, you must pay. Sinner, you must pay.”
I pulled out my phone. Survival was the main thing. I pushed a button with my good hand to turn the device on. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. I stood up, dizzy, kept my injured arm low. The voices sounded again, deep like chanting monks “Sinner, you must pay.”
I staggered down the aisle. The musty smell in the background became a reek. I reached the door and tried to push down the latch. Nothing moved. I tried again, slamming my good shoulder into the door, with the same result. No give. I lurched towards the back exit. As I passed the altar, Saxon’s bulky shadow lay there, coiled up and ready to strike. I backed away as fast as I could, ran and pounded on the exit door. The air stank like snake. I looked up at the ceiling. My eyes imaged
funnel like shadows, then the outlines of feet and bodies hanging, swaying from the rafters. Their hooded faces gaped down at me. I couldn’t perceive their eyes, only hollows. The forms dangled, ropes around their necks.
I swayed like them, crashing back and forth between the pews. I grabbed a candlestick, moved to a stained-glass window, and punched with the heavy object. It bounced off the surface. I punched again and again. My good hand hit the window glass. Blood dripped from my knuckles, and the window stayed intact.
“You stay with us,” the voices called. “Suffer with us, sinner.”
I lurched over to the light switches, turned them on one by one. If someone noticed, they’d investigate. The lights stayed off. The hanging shadow forms murmured louder. A humming vibration enveloped everything.
I knelt in front of the altar. “Forgive me, forgive me!” I repeated over and over, my head bowed in supplication, my swollen arm and hand cradled to my breast. I turned, looked above. Eyes showed in the hollow shadows there, dark eyes staring down at me.
“No mercy! No mercy for you who judged us wrong!” the voices boomed, in a repetitive rhythm sounding all the way inside my heart, until the snake stench and the booms filled my nose and ears and I tore at the bites with my teeth, trying to suck the poison out.
“Let me go!” I cried.
“You judged us wrong,” the voices sang.
Indeed, I was the one who chose to punish. I was the one who let go the snakes.
I turned to the altar. The first dawn light lay upon it, from through the stained-glass windows. Saxon lay coiled above me, flicking his tongue. I looked away from his eyes, hard and brown like two inset jewels.
“I am sorry I betrayed you,” I told him, and fell to the floor.
The front door crashed open, and the lights came on. The church shimmered in white brilliance. The voices ceased; I raised my head. Saxon no longer loomed above.
Pastor Jackson stood over me.
“My God, what happened to you?” I heard him yell.
“Snakebite,” I whispered. “There are vipers here.”
After a long time of fever and heat I awakened in the hospital. I could move my left arm, but not my right. The snake odour and the chanting lingered. After a long while I tried to move my right arm again. Nothing. It was like trying to open that church door, an impossible weight. The outline of a nurse came to my consciousness. She smelled of cleanser.
“I can’t move my arm!” I shouted, and she whispered in a cracked and worn voice. “It’s okay. Sleep now.”
I tried moving that right arm for two days. No success, it sat like a phantom, there but out of my control. I noticed thick bandages all down my side.
“The doctor had to amputate,” said the whispering nurse with the tiny jewel-blue eyes.
“She cut it off below the elbow.”
I gasped. “That’s the price of my sin,” I told her.
She put her face close to my injured arm “What sin?”
“Did they find the snakes?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that,” she murmured. “There are no snakes here.”
On the third day, the police came. Congregant Sally Caldicott was with them. She didn’t look at me.
“Your case is all over the news,” said a gaunt female officer. “Tell us what happened in that church.”
I raised my head. “I found flaws in the Garden of Eden,” I began.
Sally Caldicott spoke, while staring at the wall behind me. “You set rattlesnakes loose among innocent people,” she said. “You destroyed our trust.” She shook her head. “I never knew what evil was until I found out what you did.”
“I don’t need forgiveness,” I said. I raised my head and looked over at her. “I can tell you, that church is no sanctuary. It’s full of the suffering and the dead.” My tears fell. “What happened to the little snakes?”
Sally stood up. “They were all killed! Pastor Jackson and the men hunted and shot them one by one!” Flecks of spit flew from her mouth. “Why? Why did you do it?”
“You never gave them another chance,” I said. “They were innocent beasts, acting on instinct.” I pointed at my shoulder bandages. “I forgive them.”
Sally waggled her finger. “You are the devil!” she hissed.
The nurse stood by the window, shaking her head. “Come on ma’am. Leave the sick boy alone.”
She took Sally’s hand and led her away.
I told the police officers my story, all about the dangling, whispering shadows.
“The lynched ghosts knew what evil was,” I said. “They locked the church so I couldn’t get out. They stopped my anti-venom from working and kept me in there with them.”
I whispered, more to myself than them. “That’s who I was to the hanging ones, a lyncher, judger and a spreader of chaos.”
One officer looked up. “I received my just reward,” I told her.
The doctor assured me surgeons could fit a prosthesis to my shoulder. I would be “almost as good as new” in a few months, if I obeyed the rehabilitation regimen.
When I’m free of the justice system and its obligations I’ll move far away from Lafayette. I’ll do dishwashing, auto detailing or janitor work in a different, unknown place. This time I’ll scrub and wipe the pots and cars and floors totally clean, with humility and without complaint.
I dream always of the hanging phantoms. They loom behind me, uttering “no mercy.” I perceive their arms, swollen and dangling. These ghosts are my conscience. I forgive them their persistence, though I cannot forgive myself for the evil I did to those poor little snakes.
Ms. Harrison notes: “I live and write in Victoria, Canada. Many of my stories are inspired by the years I worked as the teacher at a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital. My blog spot is here: https://harrisonkim1.blogspot.com . “