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Greg Garrett

Dept. of English

Baylor University

Greg Garrett is Professor of English at Baylor University, and

author of the novels Free Bird, Cycling, and Shame, the memoirs

Crossing Myself and No Idea, and a number of nonfiction books. He is

also a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

“I wrote ‘Serpents’ under twin influences,” Greg says. “The first

was the Assembly of God Pentecostalism of my paternal grandparents,

a simultaneously riveting and horrifying way of worship and of life.

This story is also a response to one of my favorite books, Dennis

Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain. Francois Truffaut said that

the best critique of a film was to make another film; I wrote a story

about the things I loved in Dennis’ story. The two come together in

‘Serpents’ in a powerful way, I hope, to show how institutions may fail

us, but hope and love endure.”

but it’s also true that I have made some mistakes of judgment in my life. The Watonga Church of Jesus Christ Holiness doesn’t normally look more favorably on Indians than they do on female preachers. He’s dead and all. I myself always thought I would love to be a certified saint because you could do miracles. although my family never considered this a big honor. and we haven’t practiced Indian ways for . The only woman who ever talks in our services is Sister Eloise who is ninety-four years old and a prophetess and can translate tongues and tell the future. which my church says is an abomination unto the Lord. This was all about a hundred years ago. since we’re all saints in Jesus Christ. but my family looks white. My great- great grandfather David Oakerhater was a Cheyenne Indian who became a Christian and opened an Indian mission at Whirlwind Creek. 2 SERPENTS by Greg Garrett My name is Cynthia Oakerhater. and everyone says that I am a smart girl. and I also had a soft spot for the Episcopal Church because I heard that they had women preachers. but the Episcopal Church has made him a saint. about thirty miles out in the country. and since my family didn’t believe that Episcopals are really Christians. The story I am going to tell you now happened when I was fifteen and didn’t know everything I know now.

Brother Claude’s family brought snake-handling to this part of the country in the 1930s. We are all of us Holiness people white and pretty poor. look down on us because we speak in tongues and because they don’t understand about the snakes. My English teacher at school asked me last year if our name was German. “Scandinavian. men will go down front to the altar and open the boxes where the poisonous snakes are. our church is a serpent-handling church. The reason land could be got cheap here was because it was all blowing away. at least they probably won’t die. and if the Spirit is strong in them. which means that when the Spirit is moving.” I said. Methodists and such. It’s a strange and holy thing and it beats just about everything I ever heard of. Brother Claude Butler has been bit above a hundred times and is still around to testify. and I don’t think many people have ever heard about David Oakerhater. when the church had to go underground for awhile. or if they do get bit. His father came across from Tennessee because he heard that land could be got cheap in Oklahoma. We learned about the Dust Bowl in my Oklahoma History class a few years back. and I remember thinking then about Brother Claude and his family and wondering what kind of fool would come to a state which was mostly airborne. but that was usually as far as I got. I have seen people get bit and some of them have gotten real sick. and some people in town. I generally . and take them out and hold them up high and pass them around. rattlesnakes and water moccasins mostly. See. So much for our Indian blood. because whenever I thought about Brother Claude’s family. they won’t get bit. which is okay since almost nobody does. 3 generations. but nobody has died since 1954.

He was wearing his one dark blue suit which was shiny at the elbows and the knees and a white shirt and a blue tie. who was Claude’s only son and who was two years older than me. but the rock would stay firm in place. and he had been handling snakes since he was twelve and had never been bit once. One Sunday morning in May. which is mostly how the men were dressed. for they were faithful Christians. We women wore blouses and skirts and our hair was long and pinned up on top of our heads because Paul said in First Timothy that we should dress with modesty and in First Corinthians that our long hair should be our glory. Brother Claude spoke from the Book of Matthew about the man who built his house on solid rock and the man who built his house on sand and said that the solid rock was Jesus Christ and the sand was the world and that the world could up and blow away anytime. but I could feel their disappointment. . and who was chosen in the eyes of the Lord and as beautiful as an angel. 4 ended up thinking about Jeremy. and both of them-- my tall farming father and my frail stay-at-home mother--were chock- full of the Holy Ghost. I could stare all I wanted when everyone else was looking at him too. He even preached now and again at our church and other churches round about Western Oklahoma. My parents never said anything. I loved it when he did any of these things. but I was ashamed to look at him other times because he was so holy and because even though I prayed with all my might and opened myself up to God. He had been speaking in tongues since he was filled with the Holy Ghost at ten years old. which I guess he and his family would know more about than most. I couldn’t get the Spirit to save my life. the rock would not be moved.

5 Brother Claude moved around behind the pulpit and stepped up and back and shook his head. Jesus.” Amen. Power over the things of this world. You better know his name is Jesus. the guitar was playing and the tambourines jangling. and the Spirit was moving. one way to Heaven. who took the snake just behind the head and brought it close to his face and danced in a circle . “There’s one church. Help us. one God. and this is what he said.” Amen. Power to raise the serpent and not be bit. Power to resist the serpent. “You better know who your savior is. and some of the men. there’s but one God. although his hair never moved.” Amen.” Amen. “Let’s praise God. speaking in tongues all the time and praising God.” We stood up from our folding chairs and struck up a chorus that Brother Claude wrote about Christ the Solid Rock. “He gave us the Holy Ghost to give us power over this world. and my heart leaped most out of my chest as he raised it high. He passed the snake to Jeremy. He danced a little skip-step as he preached. My dad pulled out a four-foot rattler that wound around his arm and went to rattling and raising back its head like it wanted to strike. That man used more hairspray than anybody I ever heard of. Praise His name. stepped forward to the snake cages and began taking them out. “Brethren. and his name is Jesus. You better know he gave us the Holy Ghost to fill us up and draw us to him. my dad included.

“When we got the snakes out. and it was good that he did most of the talking at first.” he said. fried chicken and potato salad and baked beans and cole slaw and my mom’s chocolate pudding cake that was so rich and moist that Jeremy came over twice to our table to pass on his compliments. . I had a tingling feeling that I thought might be the Spirit working in me. and he would surely misunderstand if I tried to tell him where I was going and who I’d be with. and I decided. “Meet me at the church tonight. I had never really even talked to him before.” I said. my dad would kill me for sneaking out of the house. and before I knew it church was over and we were outside under the tall cottonwood trees having dinner. 6 and his face was bright and eyes were shining and I wanted to feel what he was feeling and at the same time I wanted to be that snake next to him and then I dropped to my knees and prayed to God to take away those unholy thoughts.” he said. “I was watching you today. and moreover.” Besides being our pastor. Do you want to see them up close? Touch one?” “Women don’t handle snakes. “Okay. Brother Claude was produce manager at the Homeland grocery store and he had to be at work before dawn. That night he called my house. “I can’t.” I wasn’t worthy to do such a holy thing. because there was a lump in my throat so big the words couldn’t squeeze past. “I’ll get the keys when my daddy goes to sleep.” he said. “Meet me there at midnight.” I managed to get out.

Then he looked over at me and there must have been something in my face.” I thought the church was far enough in the country that no one was likely to see lights. and he wasn’t at all slimy like I thought he would be but dry and cool. and that’s all I wanted to see. You got to have faith and you got to be in control. His tail dangled below my arm.” he said. because he undraped the snake from his shoulders and gave him over into my hands. and his eyes gleamed in the dim light. and there were thoughts that went through my head that I thought might finally be the Spirit. At first Jeremy didn’t act like he heard me.” I said. When I arrived at the church. and then he raised it above his head and the snake was draped over his shoulder and around his neck and was opening and closing his mouth. long and gleaming black. was parked around back. Jeremy’s car. The moon was big and bright and I saw well enough. “I want to hold him. 7 I went out my window at eleven and walked across the fields. and I could see his fangs. “I can only turn on a few lights. . “I don’t want anybody to be able to see from the road. but I could see the cages. He stepped up to one of the cages and pulled out a water moccasin.” he said when he opened the door and led me down to the front altar. but he raised his head and body to look at me. “There’s no place to be scared. an old Mustang. I took hold of him about midway along his body and my arm muscles strained to hold him straight out. wheat brushing against my shins. with white around his mouth.” He raised the snake up to eye level and then passed it over to his other hand. He was waiting inside the church. “You can’t be scared when you handle a snake.

only it must not have been a long way off.” I felt heat rising up into my cheeks. “Get back!” he said. Much closer now I heard Jeremy shout “Great God Almighty!” which I thought at the time might be a prayer but now am pretty sure it wasn’t.” He looked at me and shook his head. “Your unbelief might have let a demon spirit into him. because all of a sudden I felt his strong hands at my waist and him nestled in right against me. his blonde hair flying in a way that his father’s hair never ever would. You just scared me. which appeared to be ready to strike at his foot. that’s all. in the whole world. “I can’t pick it up now. “Just pick him up. There’s no more demon spirit in that snake than there is in me. “Jeremy Butler. I let the snake uncoil and drop to the floor right in front of us.” . you’ve got no business grabbing someone who’s holding a snake. and then turned his attention back to the snake. and in trying to push Jeremy away from me. “It’ll kill me sure as there’s a God in Heaven. and we regarded each other and he coiled on and around me and I could feel the weight and the movement and the thrill and the fear and the peace all at once. 8 It was just me and the snake.” he said. pushing me to one side as the snake wound toward us. “I knew you wanted to. It was like a miracle.” I said.” Jeremy said from a long way off. and it surprised me so I yelled and lost my grip.” he said. like we were the only things in the room. “I can’t.

and I realized that the tingling feeling I’d had when I talked to him on the phone was not the Spirit moving. I wasn’t mad at him anymore. which got the snake to thrashing about mightily which induced Jeremy to poke it harder with the chair until finally the snake quit thrashing and quit twitching and just lay there silent and still. which is what I did. and then he leaned over and kissed me. which had been a beautiful creature. “You shouldn’t oughta drop a snake just because a guy puts his arms around you. he picked up one of the folding chairs to fend it off like a lion tamer. but was pretty powerful in its own way and could even be life-changing if I didn’t get up and get out of there. .” I said. although I didn’t go to sleep for a long time. I was also a little scared about what was going to happen. His snake-taming chair fell to the floor and rang against the concrete. had nothing in fact to do with the Spirit.” he said. “I’m sorry.” I said. because he ended up pinning its head to the concrete floor with one of the legs. I walked across the fields of grain under the full moon and climbed through my window and into bed.” Jeremy said.” I said. “My dad’s gonna kill me. “He’s dead. just felt a hollowness which must have been sadness about the snake. I sat down next to him. Before I could so much as make a move. but I didn’t let him. He wanted to drive me home. and he must have slipped or something. and he smiled at me. plopping heavily into a seat. 9 “Then let me. though.

“Did you get in trouble?” “I put the snake back in the cage. the phone rang and my dad answered. .” I said.” he said and raised an eyebrow before handing the phone over to me. He was gone when I looked in on them this morning.” I said. because come midnight I had made my way across the fields and through the fences and into the dimly-lit church. Maybe the other snakes ate him. the oneness with God or the Spirit or whatever it was I had felt. “Hello.” I looked at my father’s broad back across the room and spoke queitly into the receiver. “I’ll be there at midnight. although I would have to make up a story when I was done because he would want a full report. which caused him to look up and smile. 10 On Tuesday night.” he said and hung up. “A boy. He must have been pretty confident for whatever reason and I guess he had every right to be. I wanted to take up snakes again. after my dad had walked far enough away to indicate that he wasn’t listening. the confidence. “Hey.” which I knew was a lie as soon as I said it. the exhilaration.” “Which thing that happened?” “Everything that happened. Are you coming?” “I don’t want to. “It’s Jeremy.” I said.” “I can’t. “What happened last time won’t happen again. wanted to feel the calm. I want you to meet me at the church again tonight. I’ll be strong in the Spirit.

” he said as we looked down at the cages. The light bulb stays on all the time to keep them warm. “I been thinking maybe we oughta pray over these snakes this time before we open the cages. and then to . It was a rattler with a short thick body and a head so pointed I had a vision of an arrow in flight. which he did at last and pulled me to my feet. and Jeremy dispensed a long prayer which confessed our weakness and frailty on our own and our strength in Jesus and made reference to the serpent that Moses lifted up and how people who looked on it wouldn’t die but would live.” he said. a look that said he was deep into something. and Jeremy began to shuffle and then to turn. “Sometimes my daddy takes them home. “He’s got a terrarium in his bedroom that always has a couple of snakes in it.” I nodded. and we stood over the cages. and several snakes stirred inside. The snake drew back to strike and launched a sort of half-hearted assault. and he brought that rattler up close to his face. Without looking. he reached in and took one and pulled it out and raised it up. A look came into Jeremy’s eyes that I knew from church. but he stopped short of Jeremy’s face and just hung there. Every now and then he would look over at me and then he would smile and go back to talking. 11 “Hey. He came about halfway toward me and then stopped to wait for me to walk up. It was like a night light when I was little. You’ve got to be strong in the Spirit if you’re gonna raise a serpent up to God.” He opened the lid. He went on for so long that I was near to nodding off--it was a regular sermon of a prayer--but at last he asked the Lord to give me strength and fill my weak vessel with the Holy Ghost and commenced to conclude.

and it took all my strength to hold him up and at first he squirmed in my grasp like he sure didn’t plan to put up with any more of this. and there was Jeremy’s father standing at the back of the church. and that feeling came over me that nothing could happen to me. like I was completely safe and under God’s care.” he said at last.” I whispered. I kissed him hard myself. after a time that could have been a few seconds and could have been an hour. . Jeremy was looking at me the way I imagined I used to always look at him. at last. but then we looked each other in the eyes. and Jeremy handed him to me. He took the snake gently from me and laid him back in the cage. Jeremy dropped the snake to his side and looked up at me like he was surprised to find me there. “Let me have him. which surprised me no end since I didn’t think men even knew how to use that word in a sentence. “It was a blessing. and when I came to myself.” “I know it.” I said. and I thanked Him for watching over me and it seemed that I could hear Him answer. and then he closed it and just stood there for a little bit before turning back around. “That was beautiful. 12 do a jig full out in a circle and to move the snake up and down until he was all but slinging it around. my heart pounding with fear and longing until. and they were a blur of motion and Jeremy was speaking in tongues and I watched and listened. He walked across and took me in his arms and he kissed me long and hard and I let him. I let him ease me down into a chair and I might have let him do more than that but for the fact that there came a noise behind us and all the lights went on and I looked up.

judging by what followed. . “Don’t you know that this boy is a holy vessel?” “We didn’t do anything.” I said. and it lasted for the few moments it took Brother Claude to hoist his jaw back into place and storm to the front of the church. and for Brother Claude and Jeremy and their ministries. 13 There was a silence that came over the place then. and for strength to resist Satan. and I couldn’t say anything else. and for another blessing sometime in my life like I’d felt handling the snake. and he took me by the shoulder and shook me. I was so filled with shame I started to cry. and I knew it. I thought Satan must have brought me to that place to be a stumbling-block for Jeremy Butler and now he was stuffing my mouth with untruths like the Father of Lies he was. “We were just praying--” Jeremy began. Brother Claude had let loose my shoulder and so I got up and ran out the back of the church and across the fields like there were demons on my trail. but maybe it wasn’t so audacious after all. and for the church. and I didn’t let up until I climbed into bed and threw the covers over my head and lay there until I fell asleep praying for forgiveness. which seemed to me a pretty audacious theory to advance when your daddy has just caught you with your hand up a girl’s shirt. which didn’t feel like the complete truth to me. “What did you do to him?” Brother Claude asked me. and finally for just about everybody I knew individually because I was still awake and while I was praying I didn’t have to lie there and think about anything that had happened.

their eyes were all on me and the room was silent. I danced before the Lord with the snake in my hands and my eyes up to Heaven. 14 In church the next Sunday the Spirit moved on the congregation when Brother Claude started singing a chorus. who were appraising the concrete floor. I dropped the snake to my side and then handed him back to Brother Earl who drew back from me like he was happier to touch the snake than he was to touch me. and for Jeremy. or to ascend like our Saviour. he went cold silent and the electric guitar stopped playing and the church stopped singing and the tambourines jangled away to nothing. I wanted to sink out of sight. My footsteps seemed to echo on the concrete as I walked back to my seat . some of the men danced down to the front of the church and the music swirled and I could feel the excitement building as the snakes got handed from one man to another and all of a sudden I stood up and I stepped to the altar and I took the big thick rattler from Brother Earl Barnes before he could think about what he was doing and I turned around to the people and raised it up to God and from what I heard later. Brother Claude was deep in the Spirit. It didn’t last long. but I knew neither of those things was likely to happen and that I was just stuck there standing naked in front of those people who’d known me all my life and whose mouths were now open and eyes wide.” and even before the sermon or the praying over the snakes. but when he could see what was going on. I looked around the church and saw every person staring at me except for my parents. who was likewise checking for structural defects. and when I stopped dancing and praising God. “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right.

Let us ask God to forgive her for her blasphemy. “This is our sword and shield. I tried to take his hand. ‘Suffer not a woman to teach. Into that silence stepped Brother Claude. “Brethren. “Let us pray for our sister. Don’t believe it. Everything God wants us to know is right in here. “The Apostle Paul tells us. this is the Word of God. Praise his Holy name. She’s not a teacher. our day-to-day guide and our wisdom. which I hadn’t done since I was a baby girl. She’s a helpmeet. She’s taken from Adam’s rib to stand beside him. First Corinthians says a woman’s supposed to sit quietly in worship and be in submission.” . Jesus. A woman’s not to force her way to the front of the church. but he pulled it free of my grasp and crossed his arms and stared straight down and left me sitting as alone as I’d ever been since I came forth out of the womb.” Amen. our strength.’ A woman is not a preacher. 15 and sat next to my father.” Amen. by the whoremongers and the unnatural women who are of this world.” Save us. and anybody who thinks that what we saw here today is of God is deceived by the lies of the world and the false prophecies. and she’s not to take up serpents like a man. who pulled his handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his forehead and then held up his Bible so the congregation could look upon it. Don’t believe it for a second.

but in that silence you could have heard a worm crawl.” Brother Claude said. Never has give us cause to worry. and what I say about our sister now. He stood there while Brother Claude went on about the Whore of Babylon and how women were always the ruination of man.” . I heard somebody say “Jezebel” and my father stiffened beside me and my mother began to weep softly. this holy vessel of God. Lord. Jesus. “There’s more. “Cynthia’s a good Christian girl. but the pastor is the authority over the souls of his flock. and he stood up himself. His voice was quiet as always. I have to say. There was a rustling. like people were trying to shift as far away from me as they possibly could and still sit on their chairs. 16 The heat had been rising in my cheeks again and I knew everybody could see my face flushing and if I could have borrowed a shovel I guess I would have tried to dig my way into the concrete. I don’t think she’s to blame here. brethren. “And it pains me to say this. “You got no call to talk about my girl that way.” Save us from temptation. like he did when he was in the Spirit and speaking in tongues. but my father pushed me back down. but he raised his hand and pointed one finger right at Brother Claude and Brother Claude seized up with surprise in the middle of a sentence about Delilah. Save us. “there’s more. and slowly my father raised his hand.” my father said. The other night I walked through that door”--and he pointed toward the back of the church and everybody turned around like they’d never seen it before--“and found our sister here with her hands all over my boy here. no matter what you say. I started to get up and run for the door. not to heaven.” and he wiped his forehead again. I’ve seen the way your holy vessel there looks at her.

but I also know it says somewhere that God helps those who help themselves. I took two rattlesnakes and three water moccasins out of the cages and put them in two old plaid pillow cases I had brought from home. And anybody who says otherwise is out of the Word. he’s been bit over a hundred times in his life. The papers say he got bit at least six times.” and he shook it by way of illustration.” “Or out of the flock. “Hush now. Then I hauled them through the dark night to the Butler’s house and circled the white frame farm house until I heard Brother Claude snoring through an open window and saw the glow of his snake lamp inside. The door was locked. “says I’ve got authority over this flock. 17 Brother Claude raised his own finger to point at my father and people between them drew to one side or the other like spiritual gunfire was going to be exchanged. I don’t think I could have spoken a word if I’d wanted to. though. “This Bible. but I let myself in a window and walked down front to where the snakes were kept. Hush. We didn’t speak a word to each other on the way home and didn’t say much all that day. Everything’s gonna be all right. It didn’t kill him. I could hear him start in screaming. and I hoisted myself up and emptied the snakes onto his comforter and as I walked away.” And I believed him. and I . and I stumbled more than once. so that night I snuck out the window and walked to the church. Like I said. All I could do was throw my arms around my father and weep into his broad shoulder and he held me tight and at last he pushed me back and wiped my face and said. and he took my hand and took my mother’s hand and lifted us up and led us out the back of the church. The moon wasn’t as bright.” my father said. as I remember.

although I’m hard pressed just now to think what that reason might be. I haven’t told my parents yet. which I think would make my grandfather proud. but I don’t think being a Baptist is going to work for me. I can be their leader. being Baptist has expanded their view of Christianity far enough so that now they think that most everyone besides Catholics are going to Heaven. I’ve decided that I’m going to be an Episcopalian. but it didn’t drive my family away from God. Of course right now I’m the only Episcopalian in town. A few months back. even though we did have a genuine crisis of faith there for awhile and we have never been back to the Church of Jesus Christ Holiness. (Originally published in Windhover. my parents joined a Baptist church. and although I know they feel the loss of their old friends and speaking in tongues and snake-handling like a hole in their hearts. That just means that if any more ever show up.) . It seems to me that the church probably drives more people away from God than the Devil ever could. but I think that’s okay. 18 guess God has some good reason for keeping him around.