Southern Legitimacy Statement: One time in Chicago I had to ask some teenager working in a booth at a parking garage whether I could get back in with my ticket if I left. He didn’t even look up from his phone when he mumbled “yes”. I stood there, dumbstruck. Drooling a little. It didn’t compute. He must have felt my presence because he eventually looked up and saw my deer-in-the-headlights expression. He explained, “Yes, you can leave and come back, it’s OK, man.” It was then I realized he wasn’t rude. He was nice. But he was a yankee. That’s how they talk. A yes/no question gets yes/no. Perfectly acceptable to him, but I was expecting something more along the lines of: “Yes sirree, you can leave and come right on back, just keep that ticket in your billfold there. Where you goin’ anyway? 3rd street? Oh you gotta go to Larry’s, ask for the fried shrimp, tell ’em David sent you. Best fried shrimp this side of the Mississippi…” and on and on and next thing you know, I’m best friends with David and we’re drinking iced tea together.
They Shall Take Up Serpents
Robbie was on his way to get good and high when he ran into Courtney outside the Citgo. She’d gained a little weight since he last saw her, like she’d learned what a cheeseburger was. But Robbie knew that wasn’t why, even before she said it.
“I don’t use any more,” she said. “I’ve been healed of my addictions.” Her smile glowed warm against the backdrop of cold fluorescent light. “I’ve found God.”
“They say He’s everywhere.” Robbie spit a wad of sunflower seed shells. “Cain’t be too hard to find.”
She laughed, ignoring his mockery. Then she turned serious, narrowing her eyes and leaning in close, lowering her voice. “If y’want I can show you.”
Her intense focus brought back memories from when they’d run together. Clouded though they were by whiskey and cocaine the essence remained. Living wild with reckless abandon. Always seeking the next thrill. Keeping the demons of their dreams at bay.
“Yeah,” he said, kicking himself. “Alright. Show me.”
The drive was long enough for Robbie to regret it. Casting Crowns had replaced Black Sabbath in her stereo. A worn Bible lay on her dash. She even prayed when they passed an old roadside cross. He blew cigarette smoke at the pines whizzing by out the passenger window of her old Taurus. It was full night when she slowed and parked next to Kitchen Creek.
“I don’t see no church.” Robbie leaned out the window, looking up and down the pitch-black road. “Don’t seem like the kind of place God hangs out.”
She opened the car door, the dome light throwing shadows down her face. “Weren’t you the one said He’s everywhere?” Then she got out and ran down to the creek.
He hesitated, watching her pull off her shoes, roll up her jeans, and step into the water. He wondered why he wasn’t in Shreveport hitting a few lines. But then she beckoned to him.
Even stripped of her features, reduced to a silhouette in the darkness, she emanated an undeniable gravity, her charisma pulsing out in waves and drawing in those around her.
The canopy robbed the moonlight of its reach in the swamp except in short flashes upon Courtney’s golden hair. Cicadas rattled their eardrums.
Courtney began to whisper as they waded towards the lake, her voice barely audible above the din. Robbie’s heart pounded and doubt grew in him like weeds, but he could not stop.
Her voice rose and he heard her speaking of the Lord and of salvation. Of the Holy Spirit. She spoke in English. She spoke in tongues. The syllables came out of her from another world.
At once she went quiet and held up her hand, the inky water kissing her calves as it settled.
Robbie’s hair stood on end. The silence stretched until he couldn’t stand it. “Court?” he said. “What’s happening?”
She ignored him, walking to the muddy shore. She bent at the waist over some cypress knees and waited. Then she struck out with an open hand. Wrestled up a large stick.
A stick that moved in her hands.
It looked at Robbie. Flicked its tongue at him. Tasted him from a yard away.
It was the biggest fucking moccasin he’d ever seen.
His pulse thundered in the tight skin around his ears. He took a step back, but one look from Courtney sucked him back in.
“You ever read the Bible, Robbie?”
He gulped, shook his head no.
“Mark sixteen.” She hoisted the cottonmouth. “The Lord says: They shall take up serpents.”
He looked behind him, started to turn away.
“It’s okay. Trust in God.” She let go of the snake with one hand and held it out. “Here.”
He was shaking when he took her hand, still leaning back from her and the death she held between them.
Courtney closed her eyes and intoned words of prayer. They flowed over Robbie, unheard but resonant, irrelevant yet weighty. She guided Robbie’s hand to the snake. His fingers brushed the serpent’s scaly body.
Adrenaline seized him and it was like old times. Screaming through the night, higher than they’d ever been but not high enough. Throwing away tomorrows to live for the day. Hellbent on riding the edge of death to fathom the fullness of life.
It was divine.
He accepted the weight of the snake in both his hands. It undulated curiously, calmly.
But then Courtney took Robbie’s hair and yanked. His face jerked towards the heavens. He gasped and staggered back, sinking to his knees. The snake whipped angrily in his hands.
She stood tall over him and choked the flailing serpent just behind its triangular head in a death grip. It worked its white mouth, fully intent on killing now, stretching its jaws and searching desperately for purchase.
Venom dripped onto Robbie’s chin.
“They shall take up serpents!”
Robbie trembled with terror, with excitement, with focus and clarity and being alive.
“And they can drink any deadly thing, the Lord God says, and it shall not hurt them!”
She squeezed the snake. Venom rained into Robbie’s mouth. It went up his nose. It stung his eyes. He coughed, choking on the serpent’s musk.
Courtney howled above him, exultant. “Yes, God!” She shook the moccasin savagely in Robbie’s hands. “Save this man from his addictions, Lord! He is healed!”
She continued and Robbie stared wide-eyed into the gnashing maw of the cottonmouth, its venom mixing with his tears, his screams joining Courney’s revelations. In that gaping white visage of fang and flicking tongue he saw life and death and all between. From the throat of that serpent, he found all he sought.