Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Serpent Box and the Poison Jar

Charles Flint had for some time been in the habit of consuming lethal doses of strychnine and lye. He had watched the Bowsky brothers do it several years back under a patched canvas circus tent in the hills of north Georgia. They'd brought in huge crowds, daring folks to bring their own poison and offering it up to any who didn't believe. He'd watched a young skeptic taste a small drop of lye and run screaming from the tent. The man had ripped off his own shirt, stuffed it into his mouth and had nearly torn the tent down looking for the flap.

The first time he tried it himself, he mixed half a teaspoon in a tall glass of water and sipped it like wine to see what it would do. He fell over and broke the glass in a panic and heaved up his recent meals before eating grass in the yard like a dog. After that he decided to wait for a sign before trying again to consume poison. He fasted for five days and set the whole family praying. On the sixth day he sent the boy down to Larson's store for a fresh bottle of Red Devil drain cleaner, a bottle untainted by a fool's hand he said. He told the boy to say that they had a hair clog in the drain which required the strongest stuff available.

Charles Flint sprinkled enough lye in a glass full of water to turn it cloudy. He told the boy to dip the end of his pinkie into the glass and lick the very tip to test its strength. The water had a strong acrid smell to it and the boy closed his eyes as he touched the tip of his long tongue to the end of his small finger. It felt like he stuck a straight pin into his mouth and he scraped his tongue with the back of his teeth and spat. His lips and the tip of his tongue felt like they were trying to tear themselves free from his face and he sat on the floor pressing his hands to his mouth to keep them from doing so. Charles Flint, satisfied with the potency of his elixir, consumed the entire contents of the glass with both Rebecca and Magdalene looking on in horror. The liquid dripped from the corners of his mouth and down his neck falling in drops onto his wool Pendleton shirt. He placed the glass down and waited in a silence broken only by his family's prayers and the sharp knocking of the ever vigilant mantel clock. Charles Flint smiled. The poison tasted to him like lemonade. He felt no ill effects despite the fact that the lye had eaten several round holes as sharp and crisp as cigarette burns in the front of the heavy wool shirt. He screwed the top of the jar on tight and fell to his knees in prayer, where he remained for several hours.

The boy had been named Jacob. He had a head like a warped pumpkin and a lazy left eye. Chapped lips and a crusty nose. The child, malformed as he was, walked bent and stood crooked. His lazy eye had a habit of rolling back and looking upwards. His small one opened wide like an idiots eye. But he was a smart boy despite all that was said about him. He's a toad, he's a dwarf, he's a carnival freak. Lock him in the root cellar, put a sack on his head, make him wear a blind man's glasses and ride in a pushcart with a blanket over his legs. Send him to the State, drown him in the mill pond, leave him in the woods. But his daddy knew more then his neighbors did. The boy had the mark of the Lord on him and he knew that one day he'd do great things with those awkward hands. The hands with the nails all bit down to the roots. The hands that had never yet held a serpent. The hands with those flat hammer-thumbs. And that eye. That big roving eye. People would laugh and ask him, "can you see out of that thing ?" And he'd answer the same way every time, he'd say, I see you in the way that God does. And they'd stop laughing.

The bible room was a screened in corner of the patio with a hook-latch on a creaky wooden door. He had been forbidden to go inside but he often stared through the mesh of the screen at the serpent box balanced high on the portable pulpit. Standing up on his tip toes he stuck his tongue through the door crack and tasted the metallic ping of the rusty latch that kept the door from swinging open when the wind blew. Sometimes he'd stand there all day and watch the box. He would pray over it, waiting for the day that he'd take it up himself like his daddy did on Sundays at the Holiness Church in Jesus' Name in Leatherwood. People came from all over Tennessee to watch his father handle snakes. Some were believers. Some not. His daddy said that soon he'd take up serpents himself. When the time came. But he couldn't wait. He felt the spirit inside of him and the signs were already there. Folks were saying that he'd brought old Hoochie Pap Horton back from death last winter. Sat by his bedside all night and wiped the sweat off that big bald head with his bare little hands. He prayed hard for a miracle that came the next morning. Hoochie spat up a bloody red demon into a Mason jar that Jacob buried under an apple tree. Now, he felt ready for snakes.

"Daddy says you can't even look." Magdalene stood behind him. 12 years old to his 10. She had the good looks of his mother, and he had his daddy's gift.
"I'm not lookin'. I'm prayin'."
"Daddy says it's the temptation that'll do us in."
"Daddy says a lot of things."
Magdalene pressed her cheek against the screen and looked inside at the box. She could see it all coiled up like a garden hose. Jacob prayed softly with his eyes closed, the house graveyard quiet but for the ticking of the mantel clock and the distant baying of Baxter Dawe's coon hound. Magdalene dragged her nails down the screen grid. It made a sharp zipper sound. Jacob opened his eyes. The snake moved in its box.
"Why don't you open it then ?" she said. Jacob stepped back and sighed.
"Cause I don't want to."
"You're scared," she said and she turned to him with a smile that spoke of wickedness to come. She had the scaly mark of the screen pressed into her cheek. It made her look like a reptile.
"I'm as good as any of them, " he said.
"If that was true, then you'd have nothing to be scared of."
She pulled a bobby-pin out of her hair and it fell across her face like a stage curtain. She straightened the pin and looked at Jacob. His good little eye watched her pop the hook latch. His big lazy one saw the bible open and a thousand years of history flip by in an instant no longer than the beat of an insect wing. The door to the bible room swung open slowly with a loud squeal and the serpent stirred in its pine box. Without thinking, without knowing, he was there, at the pulpit with his hands on the cold tin lid. Punctured all over with holes for air, it had hinges at the center and it opened from either end like the wings of a butterfly. On each end his daddy had installed hasps secured with brass locks whose combinations were set to Bible verses. It had words burnt into the wood around it. Jesus Saves on one side. Lord Jesus on the other. His father lined the bottom with linoleum tiles ripped from the kitchen floor. Curled on top of the tiles was the big trap jaw water moccasin that Baxter Dawes brought in from the woods just yesterday. It had yet to be handled.

The serpent lay still and Jacob prayed out loud while his flat headed thumbs turned the lock tumblers. 1616, from Mark. "He that believath not shall be damned," he said as he raised the lid. Magdalene stood frozen at the door with the bobby-pin in her hand. Her jaw hung open as he reached inside and placed his hands around the serpent. The flesh of the thing was not slimy but smooth and cool. He felt it move. The long undulating muscles beneath its skin twitched. He felt the life and the power inside of it. The head of the cottonmouth cocked robotically as he raised it up out of the box, spitting forth its tongue like a red spark in search of fire. It stiffened in his grasp and hissed with its mouth agape, bearing scimitar fangs and showing its insides snowy white like the meat of a cooked lobster. That's when Magdalene sucked in air and the bobby-pin hit the ground. The screen door squealed, and clattered shut. The big cottonmouth struck him like a shotgun blast.

Magdalene waited by the side of the bed during his three day coma and was there with his father and mother when he opened his eyes. His left cheek itched terribly and when he reached to scratch it he found that his hands were restrained by strips of torn burlap jute. Their eyes were closed and they prayed quietly, their mouths moving fast.
"Momma, can I have a drink of water ?," he said. Their eyes popped open and they looked at each other before his mother began to cry.
"Thank you Jesus, of course you can," she said and she sent Magdalene after it. She wiped his brow and untied his hands and his Daddy closed the bible, laying it on his son's chest. Charles Flint was a narrow man with burning black eyes. The eyes of a mad prophet. Eyes which never blinked. Eyes that had seen God and Satan. He had a thin crooked smile that stayed crooked all the time and he spoke in a song-like manner as if his words had been chosen by a higher power.
"You're one lucky boy. The Lord is truly in you for that was a bite from the devil himself," he said and he sat on the bed.
"I'm sorry daddy. He called me."
"Well he almost took you. That was a foolish thing you did and there will be punishment. But that'll wait. I want you to read the chapter I marked for you and get some rest."
He rose and walked to the door where Magdalene stood with a full glass. She looked up at her father and he allowed her to pass in front of him. He turned and watched Jacob drink the water. It was the worst bite he'd seen in all his years and he'd seen plenty. Including the one that took his brother. Paul had swollen up like a corpse, turning yellow and then brown, like rotting fruit. He'd died the morning after. They never called a doctor just as they hadn't called one for Jacob. God would heal them if they had faith. In Jacob's case they had. Despite his prayers, Charles did not believe the boy would recover. The face bite he took would have killed a man three times his size. He wondered at that and then turned to leave.
"Daddy?" Jacob said. Charles did not turn.
"Where is it?"
"Baxter put him in the freezer with Paul's rattler and the rest of the demons. Now you get some rest", his father said.

The sky looked like gun metal and the air felt thick as smoke. Some stars still twinkled above him as he walked on the dirt road through the holler which led to the house of the snake hunter. He hurled stones at the trunks of twisted oaks and he hit them all. The dawn broke quiet and he ate stale cornbread from the pocket of his red and black hunting coat. The bread had small pieces of lint stuck to it but he spit that out and let his saliva soften it. It made his mouth dry, but Baxter would let him drink coffee out of the speckled tin cup he hung from a nail above the stove and that made him feel like a man.

A black and copper coon hound came galloping down the road before the house came into view. It was Spider. Baxter's best and now only dog. A black bear took one of his ears off but he was the lucky one. The bear killed all three of his brothers before Baxter shot him through the neck with a deer slug. He had carried Spider home in his arms and bought him a T-Bone steak. Spider sniffed Jacob up and down and licked his face where the snake bit him. Together they walked into the yard passing the hulks of the rusty Chevy's which Baxter would one day consolidate into a single functioning pick-up that would take them both up to Lost Lake where Baxter said the bass grow big as lap dogs.

Jacob came around the bend with Spider beside him and saw the skeletal home of the snake hunter peering through trees, trees whose gnarled branches had grown bent around it like the arms of frozen octopi. The house was ancient. It had been cobbled together from scrap lumber and corrugated tin by five generations of Dawes'. It sat on posts and leaned like a drunken man. When Jacob stepped onto the porch it made noises like a ship. Baxter said the house was alive. The front door was always open and Jacob could smell bacon and coffee, which made his stomach gurgle. He stepped inside to the sound of a gospel radio show. Baxter came out from the back room bare chested and pointed to a chair. He was a man whose face showed the harshness of mountain living, with deeply creased skin, skin like weathered wood and elephant hide. His eyes sat far back in his skull but they were crowned with thick salt and pepper eyebrows that swooped to blend in with his wild hair. His hair, brittle and silver like steel wool, stood up, like it was trying to escape from his scalp.

"Sit," he said and Jacob sat on an empty lard bucket turned upside down. The walls were covered in old newspaper which he liked to read while waiting for Baxter.
"Eat," said Baxter and he slid a dirty plate under the boy's face. The boy hesitated to eat from such a plate but the food smelled good. Fried eggs, slab bacon, a biscuit and gravy. Baxter sat and poured thick coffee into the tin cup and slid it towards the boy. He stared at him and winced at the wound on his face.
"He got you good," he said. Jacob just ate.
"A real devil that one was. Found him under a Spanish oak bush at Owl Holler. Bit my boot clean through. That's where we're goin' today, so hurry on up and finish before the heat comes."
Jacob soaked up the last of the gravy with his biscuit and slugged down the bitter coffee and they walked into the woods with Spider loping beside them. They walked to the snake place through a low and narrow path cut through thick brambles. They crossed dry creeks and climbed over fallen oaks. They walked quietly through the woods, led by the coon dog Spider who'd disappear in the brush ahead of them for long periods of time only to return panting hard and smiling up at them the way dogs do. Baxter never spoke a word. Jacob had been on only one snake hunt before. Baxter had taken him to a dark icebox canyon without a name. He said the spot had been snaked out for years but wanted to show him the kinds of places to look and teach him the elusive ways of reptiles in their natural habitat. They turned over rocks and fallen trees and found a black coach whip snake about four feet long. Baxter showed him how to pin it down with a special pole he made for the purpose and then bag the creature. The coach whip snake didn't put up much of a struggle. Apart from shitting down Jacob's arm he caused no trouble at all. The stink of the snake shit stuck on him like skunk for days and the memory of it was with him still. Baxter had told him that snake scent drove Spider crazy because when he was a pup he had squirted it on the dog's nose and let little snakes loose in his kennel.

Baxter had found what he called a motherlode high up on the Double Fork, a dry creek once fed by a spring that stopped flowing the day of the earthquake in 1916. He'd been watching one particular spot for two nights and knew for sure that a large queen diamondback had herself a den below a flat rock at the top of an avalanche pile. He carried a burlap sack, a crow-bar and a long wooden rod with a steel hook on one end. It had words carved into its shaft and he called it a Judas-Pole. He fashioned it from a single locust branch and the wood shined from long use and oil from his hands. He burned the opening line of Mark 16:18 near the top, and he mumbled it over and over like a mantra as they walked along.

They shall take up serpents. They shall take up serpents.

After they had walked for two hours, Baxter stopped near a tangled deadfall and debris pile pushed down the creek when it had flooded years ago. A mudslide had plowed up a mound of boulders and trees into a foreboding organic mass twenty feet high. The seemingly impossible configuration of earth, stone and stump took on the surreal aspect of a mud sculpture scraped together with one quick stroke of a giant's hand. There was no telling what manner of beasts could be dwelling within it's folds and crags. Baxter turned to Jacob and held his index finger to his lips. Its tip was missing. He lost the whole top knuckle, nail and all, to a snap-jaw panther trap he fell into as a boy. Baxter made a strange shaking movement with his other hand and Spider dropped to a sit.

"Stay quiet and hold the bag," he said. He threw the sack at the boy and sprung up onto the debris pile. He stepped carefully from boulder to boulder. He moved slow like he was walking a minefield and tested each rock with the tip of his toe before putting the whole of his weight on it. He held the Judas pole out in front like a wire-walker and tilted it from side to side for balance. He stopped near a flat top rock and squatted down in front of a hole beneath it that had an orange day lily growing from inside of it. Baxter leaned his ear into the hole and listened. Then he sniffed the air like a hound and he turned his head towards the boy. He nodded twice and laid the pole to the side. He inserted the end of the crow bar into a spot beneath the flat rock. Several days earlier he had tested the rock's weight while the snake was on the hunt. With a rapid motion of the bar and his body, he flipped the rock over. The bar dropped to the side and clattered like a cow bell on the boulders below. Baxter's arm shot into the hole quick, and he pulled out a twisting rattler as thick around as husk of sweet corn and long as a bull whip. It coiled around his arm and shook its rattle but Baxter had its neck closed tight in the vise of his hand. He walked back down to the ground and stood in front of the boy. Jacob opened the sack. Baxter's arm had turned tomato red and swollen. The big rattler, clenched up in a death squeeze, cut off his circulation. It had a flat black head, as big as a cat's. It opened its mouth and showed its fangs and pink flesh to the both of them.
"You're gonna have to help me," Baxter said and the boy's lazy eye rolled in confusion. The wound on his face throbbed. Sweat broke out on his back, and he prayed.
"C'mon boy, take hold of him. Peel him off."
He looked up at Baxter Dawes and saw fear in his eyes. The snake tightened itself suddenly and Baxter sucked in air.
"Peel him up now, like you was skinning a deer."

He looked at the old man and he looked at the snake. He felt the stab of its fangs on his face. He felt the poison burn, eating slowly through him, like a mischievous acid and he watched the eyes of the thing gleam unblinking and ancient, as they have forever back through time. He stared into the pits on its head, tiny black holes which knew only heat in the form of food and danger. It was a magnificent machine, streamlined for stealth and stripped down to its barest components. An elongated muscle with a mouth and an ass and a chemical weapon to bring the rest of the world down to its size. Jacob knew his daddy sent him to do this thing in order to help him with the fear of it. Making him face the serpent now was a way of telling him that he was meant for the life. Destined to be a sign follower. To take up reptiles and consume deadly things in a show of faith that would prove to future congregations that Jesus was alive and that he still walked among us.

Jacob worked his fingers beneath the belly of the animal, wedging them between its scales and Baxter's arm. This snake was colder than the other and bigger around the middle. He pried and pulled until it came loose then picked the sack up off the ground as the snake hung from Baxter's arm. It rattled and hissed as it fell into the darkness of the bag. Baxter cinched the top closed with a strip of rawhide and dropped the bag on the ground and then he went back up to the overturned flat rock to retrieve the Judas pole and crow bar. The bag lay at Jacob's feet, the thrashing animal jumping and twitching inside. It flopped along the ground looking like some sort of magical trick. The dog pranced around it and barked. He sniffed it and let out a long, wailing howl. Baxter called down from the rock above and told the dog to shut up. And he did.

Rebecca Flint rolled over in her bed. She stared up at the ceiling, watching chips of peeling paint quiver and listening to the deep tocking of the mantel clock.
"He's too young, Charles." Her husband did not move.
"It's locked up tight in the box," he said. Rebecca sat up. She cupped a hand around her ear and she listened. "It's got to have a bad effect, with that thing down there under him," she said.
"Go to sleep. It'll make him strong." He said.
"He's already strong."
"That's why I put it there."
The darkness lay thick around them. Charles liked all the shutters closed and the shades drawn. Rebecca laid with her eyes open. When she closed them she couldn't tell the difference. She thought she heard a rapid scraping sort of sound down the hall. She sat up again and listened. It could have been the trees on the roof. She turned and held her husband.
"He's too young," she said. But Charles was already snoring.

He felt it there below him and his hands still registered the cool and tactile feel of it. He could smell the thing on his fingers. The stink of snake. Like wet sulfur. Musky, dank, bitter. He knew its ways now. It woke at night to hunt. But inside the box there was no prey. So it lay there, coiled in the dark, flicking its tongue to taste the air and feel what hot meal might be lurking nearby. It lay waiting while he laid asleep and it woke him often, with the scratchy rasp of its rattle bringing him back to the night. He prayed above the snake, and did not sleep.

The serpent box came out for prayer meetings during the day and went back under his bed at night. He became its caretaker. He carried it out to the revivals, holding it against his chest with his two stunted arms intertwined around it. He carried it all over Tennessee. To ramshackle churches and private homes and clearings in cornfields. They spread the word of God through the snake, conductingdermons beneath brush arbors cut fresh from local trees. They made makeshift temples with roofs of cut branches. Simple pine benches, saw dust scattered on the ground, the smell of the cut pine lingering on like incense and mir.

People came from all over to see the snake man. Believers and non-believers alike. The faithful and the faithless. The hecklers and rowdies. Some seeking salvation. Others looking to watch a man die slow from snake poison. They crowded into the small meeting places in the woods. They stood around the pulpit five and six deep as Charles Flint read the scriptures and spoke to them in strange tongues, waiting for the anointment of God, the coming of the Holy Ghost itself, to protect him from the deadly things he drank and handled. Those nights were always still and hot, alive with murmuring onlookers and cricket songs. Hot oil torches burned around the outsides of the arbor. Flickering pulses of amber and orange bounced off the faces of the onlookers in golden waves. The meetings had the feel of an ancient ritual. Sooty black smoke hung above their heads in bands like slicing storm clouds dividing the sky into sections of quiet and tumult. Charles Flint would stare at the crowd with red rimmed eyes that narrowed and expanded like camera apertures as he read the scripture. His eyes held his power. They gleamed and they never closed. They had an unnatural wetness about them. Amphibian. Nocturnal. Ageless. When they fell upon a man, that man became a believer and some said that the Holy Spirit himself was in those eyes.

When he spoke, the crowd was not unmoved. Faithful and cynic alike sat frozen and willing. His words completed the task his eyes had begun. The becalming and the kneading of the soul. The preparation for transcendence.
"When you feel the spirit inside you brothers and sisters, there is no greater
bliss. Mere words cannot describe it, so I will not attempt what is impossible."
Ladies fanned themselves with prayer booklets, the gallery stood still. Torches sputtered and spit orange specs that arced like miniature fireworks.
"I can only show you the glory of God through acts of faith, not magic mind you, but faith. For when you live the clean life, the good life, as prescribed by God, the Holy Spirit will find in you a home to reside in, a place to dwell, and when you have him there, when you're anointed by him, a joy of indescribable dimension overtakes you and you can perform miracles of faith as told by Jesus to the apostles. You can give God's gift to the world, you can deliver faith to the lonely and the sick."

His eyes lit up and his feet began to shuffle. He began to dance. He teetered from side to side and shook himself like a dog come out of a lake. He held up his bible and chanted and he smiled. Folks in the front row began to stand and sway and a small group of regulars began to hop and bounce around like Indians trying to coax rain down from the heavens. People standing around the outside began to stir as well. Some snickered and turned to each other whispering with their hands held to their mouths. Those people did not dance. They did not chant or move. They showed no sign of emotion until the boy came down the aisle with the box in his hands. The boy teetering on crooked legs. The boy with the whammy eye and the pumpkin head. Jacob parted the crowd at the back of the arbor holding the big awkward box out in front of himself with both hands. People moved back. Some shouted. The box wobbled in the boy's arms. It was alive with the snake inside. Jacob put it on a small table near his father and unlatched the lid. Charles Flint swayed in a trance before it, blind to his son but aware of the box. He raised the hammered tin lid and the crowd gasped. Charles Flint blindly placed his arms inside and withdrew a knotted mass of serpent. The thing raised its head and opened its mouth and it let out a sound like a punctured tire. Chairs crashed over, and people stumbled back as he held the snake over his head. It rattled its little corn cob tail and Charles Flint began to dance with it. The snake's flat stupid head bobbed, its tongue flitted towards the crowd and a woman near the front row fainted. She pitched forward over a chair and crashed to Flint's feet at the foot of the pulpit. Nobody touched her or tried to help.

"It's a fake." Someone yelled from the back. "It's fixed, he trains them snakes." Two young men stepped through the crowd. Big corn fed boys with flat topped hair and mongoloid eyes. They held before them a wooden dynamite box with rope handles on either side. Charles Flint was oblivious to them. He danced with the snake as they dropped the box in front of him and kicked it for effect. There came a rattle from inside. The crowd stepped back. The men began to laugh and Charles Flint smiled. He put his snake back into its box and went to the other one. He opened the lid as Jacob closed his eyes and began to pray. The congregation murmured as he reached inside and grabbed hold of the strange new serpent brought in by the unbelievers. It was a huge, black snake, a flat-nosed rattler thick and long like a slash of darkness, like a crevice in rock. Charles Flint pulled the snake from the box and held it near his face. A wind of fear ran through the crowd and they fell over themselves around the outside to flee. The men who brought the snake stood in the back jeering. "Bite 'em, " they said. "Give 'em a kiss."
The faithful prayed with their eyes closed, chanting from the bible. Charles Flint shook the big black snake, taunting it. Pulling it like bread dough. The creature remained calm. Jacob was still holding the serpent box when he felt a rush of bliss and joy wash over his body like rain. He shivered and he smiled. He opened the box and stared down at the snake inside. It stared back at him, head bobbing, eyes alight, and Jacob felt his hands around the reptile and he felt it rising up, hovering above the box. It wrapped around his arm, and he danced with it. Strange words came from his mouth and his flesh felt alive with the surge of the spirit.

"You've got the light in you. That's for sure." Charles Flint bent over his son and pulled the blanket up around his neck. He tucked him in. He kneeled down by his side and whispered to him.
"Remember this, it takes more than light and faith to be a good man. " He looked into the eyes of the boy and swept the hair from his forehead.
"Only through the purest of hearts will he protect us," he said. Moonlight shined in through the trees outside the window and cast broken shadows on the wall above the bed. The shadows danced across an oil portrait of Jesus. A suffering Jesus, with the crown of thorns pulled down around his head, rivulets of blood running from his scalp and a pained, tortured expression of pathos on his face. Jacob had long been afraid of the picture. It was a portal into a world he did not understand. A world much darker and sadder than his own. A place of suffering and death. He found himself both drawn and repulsed by it.
"Why didn't the snake bite me?" he asked. Charles Flint stood, also looking into the eyes of the portrait.
"That's the Lord speaking to you. Telling you that the path is narrow. That each day is its own and that pride goes before destruction. Today was the first test of many. You're young yet. One day you'll understand. Now go to sleep and pray, give thanks for what you've learned."
Charles Flint left his son to ponder in the dark and the boy did not sleep. He laid awake above the serpent box and below the crying eyes of Jesus and felt upon him a weight and an ignorance beyond both his tolerance and comprehension.

Night had not yet turned itself into morning. The darkness lay thick and quiet around him like smoke from a fire. He licked his lips and tasted lye. The mantel clock clucked like a faraway metronome. He stared up at the ceiling and turned all his thoughts to the serpent box. Above him hung the framed portrait of Jesus cloaked in a white robe. A golden nimbus of holy light radiated from his head. A large crimson heart hung from a gold chain around his neck. He held his porcelain right hand up in a gesture of faith, index finger crooked. He held his left hand over his bosom and no matter where in the room he stood, Jesus stared into his eyes. He felt that stare everywhere he went. He could not escape that pleading gaze. He lay small and scared beneath it. He often spoke to it in his time of need, he whispered to Jesus in the darkness, and often times from the depths of the night, Jesus spoke back.
"I'm not afraid of you," the boy said. He felt his heart beating in his chest. He felt it would explode. Jesus stared down at him in the cold silence of the house and under his bed he heard the faint scuffle of the rattler. He knelt, and mattress springs popped beneath him. He stared into the soulful eyes of the painting. He turned it around so that it faced the wall. It hung there like a tombstone, a stained label glued to the back, curled at the edges and brown. It said, H. Rorcher and Sons, NY.

Jacob moved through the house like a ghost. He walked downstairs to the mantel clock and watched the brass pendulum pass through the vacuum of time. He moved like a cat to the kitchen, the icy tile beneath his feet. The kitchen faucet dripped water into a glass. He watched the ripples made by the dying droplets and listened to their hollow plunks. He took the glass and filled it with fresh water from the tap. He reached under the sink and found the poison jar. It bore the grinning face of a bright red cartoon Satan on the label. He unscrewed the cap and shook a large quantity of the powder into the glass. It fell through the water like a blizzard of flakes in a souvenir snow globe. He stirred it with a spoon and watched the frosty vortex swirl. He raised the glass to his lips and he closed his eyes.

"Lemonade," he said. "Lemonade."

He gulped down the poison in one large swallow and waited there at the table for God.