Continued from Page. 10 of Windhover LV 
Snakes by Holly Brantley


Girls hid their giggles behind their hands and boys snorted like they would’ve done something better. The tops of Jamie Arlo’s ears and the back of his neck started to turn red. The laughter got a little louder when Kevin pushed Jamie and he dropped his bag of marbles, but before I, or anyone else, could do anything to console Jamie, he’d gotten up and taken off for the schoolhouse. Josiah and Bobby ran after him and everyone started laughing harder, but I just stood there, clenching my fists. I squatted down to pick up Jamie’s marbles and then, whether it was a fit of immature rage or a fit of unprecedented bravery, stood up and faced Kevin Valentine and his posse, the red bag clutched to my chest. 

“It’s venomous,” I said, catching the attention of the bystanders. “Snakes aren’t poisonous, they’re venomous.” 

Kevin Valentine gave me a confused look, but a couple of the smarter kids giggled, and I ran off before Kevin could work out what I’d said. 

###

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

Jamie Arlo looked up briefly at me and then turned back to his brown paper bag. “You want to be seen with me?” 

I nodded, sitting down next to him on the school steps. “Josiah and Cora are coming. They’re buying lunch today.” 

“What about Bobby?” 

“Josiah dared him to ask the lunch lady, Miss Gilligan, how much she weighed, so he’s got lunch detention.” 

By the time Cora, Josiah, Bobby, and I found Jamie after the playground incident this morning, it was time to go inside, so we couldn’t talk to him about what happened. Still, we could tell he wasn’t acting right. 

“Figures.” Jamie sighed and kept his eyes on his brown bag. “I didn’t wet my pants, by the way.” 

“I didn’t think you did.” I paused and took my cookie out of my brown bag, handing it to him. “But, even if you had, I’d still be your friend.” 

Jamie took it and gave me a small smile, but not before breaking the cookie in half and handing me the bigger piece. “Thanks, Emmy.” 

“We’re going to kick Kevin Valentine’s ass,” Josiah announced, sitting down on Jamie’s other side. He motioned to Cora, who just got to school about an hour earlier. “Cora’s uncle is a murderer and–”

“I didn’t say that. He’s a coroner, not a murderer,” Cora interrupted, giving Josiah a dirty look. “He doesn’t make the mess, he just cleans it up. And anyway, we’re not going to do that.” 

“We’re not going to do anything about it,” Jamie said flatly, picking at his sandwich. 

Cora gave Jamie a look. “Jamie Arlo, you know just as well as I do that if Kevin Valentine’s figured out a way to get under your skin, he’s just going to keep doing it until you do something about it.” 

“Maybe we can put a snake in his car or something,” Josiah suggested, biting into his apple. “I bet he’d cry too if–”

Jamie’s face turned bright red. “No. I don’t want to do anything to him. Making him look bad ain’t going to make me look any better.” 

Cora smirked. “You never know until you try.” She started spreading peanut butter on her crackers.  Look, this is what we need to do. We need to go see Father Abraham.” 

Jamie raised an eyebrow. “Who?”  

“You know, from the signs that’s been all around town?” Cora waved a hand. “The traveling preacher? His name’s Father Abraham and he’s real great. He’s holding a tent revival this week about half a mile past the church. I went with my granny the other night. Father Abraham looks a little scary, but it’s all very John the Baptist. He needs money to go save the starving children in Nigeria.” 

“I can’t ask a preacher to pray for me not to be afraid of snakes,” Jamie said, shaking his head. “I got to do that myself.” 

“Well, that’s just the thing,” Cora explained, popping a cracker in her mouth. “Father Abraham ain’t your normal preacher. He does all these strange things. One night, he got out this bottle of oil and poured it on this woman who kept saying her heart felt all tight.” Cora snapped her fingers. “Ten minutes later, that woman was dancing all around and tuckered herself out so much, she fell down.” 

I frowned. “Did she get hurt?” 

“Just a couple of scratches.” Cora pointed a finger at Jamie. “You know what else? Father Abraham’s got all these snakes.” She stretched her arms out as far as they’d reach. “He says that if you can hold one and it don’t bite you, then God’s grace is with you. Anyone can try to hold a snake, too.”  

“He doesn’t sound like a real preacher,” I said, shooting Jamie an apprehensive look. “Momma says God helps those who help themselves.” 

“If you go,” Cora said, looking at Jamie, “you can hold a snake, and not just any snake, but a snake from a man of God and then you can tell Kevin Valentine where to stick it.” 

“Cora might be right,” Josiah remarked, turning to Jamie. “Why wouldn’t you be in God’s favor? That snake ain’t going to bite you.” 

I shook my head. “The Bible says you shouldn’t test God.” 

Cora turned to me. “It ain’t testing God, Emmy. I promise. Father Abraham says it’s like doing a self-check.” 

“I don’t know about that.” 

Jamie drummed his fingers on the table, eyebrows scrunched. “I think Cora might be onto something,” he said finally. “I don’t know why I wouldn’t be in God’s favor, so that snake ain’t going to bite me.” He looked at Cora. “When’s the next meeting?” 

“Tonight. Starts at six-thirty. You think your momma and daddy would let you go?” 

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t.” 

“My momma and daddy will let me go,” Josiah said. “Momma says I need church more and more every day anyway.” 

Cora nudged me. “What about you, Emmy? Are you in?” 

I shifted in my seat and then glanced at Jamie next to me, the split in his lip having widened since this morning. “I’ll ask.” 

Cora smiled and locked her arm with mine. “Fantastic. We can meet at Peterson’s and walk together from there.” 

###

Peterson’s Country Store, which was owned by my Uncle Sherman and Aunt Rose, had been around since before my parents were born. Uncle Sherman’s daddy owned it before Uncle Sherman did, and his daddy owned it before that, and so on. The front of Peterson’s consisted of faded bricks and had a huge window that went down the building lengthwise. A crumbling sign and a rusty bell hung over the door and entrance into the store revealed what seemed like an endless supply of tools, candy, and goods. The only thing that topped Peterson’s fascinating interior was the way the sunshine illuminated the storefront. When the sun began to tickle the trees and the Carolina sky turned orange and pink, the streaks of sun basked Peterson’s in a golden light and made it look like it was glowing. I always thought Peterson’s looked most beautiful in the evenings, and as I approached Cora, Josiah, and Jamie, I couldn’t help but be momentarily distracted. 

“You look so grown up!” Cora exclaimed, laughing and running over to hug me even though I just saw her that afternoon. She motioned to my pants. “My momma still won’t let me wear britches outside of the house!” 

I giggled, hugging her back. “My legs are cold.” 

“She shouldn’t be wearing britches outside of the house,” Aurora grumbled, two steps behind me, “especially if she’s going to church.” 

Momma and Daddy didn’t have a problem with me going to the church revival, but the only catch was that Aurora would accompany me since we’d be out after dark. 

Josiah snorted. “Who pissed in her cornflakes?” 

I hid my grin behind my hand and Jamie laughed. 

“It’s an outdoor revival, Aurora,” Cora said, hooking her arm to mine and throwing Aurora a look over her shoulder, “not the Kentucky Derby. Leave Emmy and her grown-up britches alone.” 

Aurora’s nostrils flared. “Do you even know how to get there?” 

Cora rolled her eyes. “No, Aurora. I was just planning on walking around in circles until I figured out I was lost.” 

“It’s a straight shot,” I interjected, still smiling. “Once we’re past the church, we should start seeing some signs.”  

The closer we got to the tent revival, the more I started to wonder if coming hadn’t been that great of an idea. With the sun below the horizon, the golden glow of the day had been replaced with dimming light and a chill descended through the air. By the time we approached the white tent, the only attraction in an otherwise barren field of dead grass and trees, the uneasiness of the whole situation was making my stomach churn. The woman standing at the entrance to the tent, with her long, tangled hair and ragged yellow dress, didn’t make me feel any better, either; she was looking at us like we were prey, not parishioners. 

“Are you ready to experience God tonight?” the woman asked us, her eyes wild behind her Coke-bottle glasses. She pointed a long, dirty fingernail at me. “When was the last time the Spirit of God moved in you? When was the last time you repented?” 

I started trembling, but Aurora pushed me on past her and into the white tent. Inside the tent, it was unbearably hot, smelled like vomit and wet dirt, and there were so many people that I started to feel lightheaded. To make matters even worse, in proper Southern fashion the only seats left were the ones on the front row. By the time I worked up the courage to suggest that we leave, I was wedged between Cora and Jamie and watching a man with a long, scraggly beard walk up to the empty refrigerator box that served as a pulpit. The second the congregation noticed him, the tent went completely silent. 

“Brothers and sisters!” the man boomed. “May tonight we find God’s mercy!” The tent cheered. “May tonight we find God’s grace!” The cheering grew louder. “And may tonight, we examine our own hearts to see if we are in His favor!” 

To my horror, Cora and Josiah were happily cheering right along with everyone else and even Aurora was politely clapping her hands. In fact, the only other person in the tent who seemed even halfway skeptical of this man was Jamie. He glanced at me, sweat beaded on his brow, and his eyebrows quirked. I shook my head. 

“My name is Father Abraham,” the man at the pulpit continued, his voice rising with each syllable, “and I have been sent to deliver this town from the evil that resides in it! The evil that resides in the heart of every person in this town!” 

The crowd went wild again and the scary woman from outside joined Father Abraham on stage, three burlap sacks in her hands. She set them on the wooden table next to the pulpit and then got on her knees, bowing her head as if she were praying. Father Abraham put his hands on her head and then mumbled something. Instantly, the woman fell backward, kicking her legs in the air and screaming. Father Abraham pulled her dress down, took two snakes out of the bag, and then threw them on her. 

“My own wife can experience the demons in this life!” Father Abraham shouted, eyes on us as the orange and yellow snakes slithered around the woman, working their way around her torso and face. “And is God’s grace with her simply because of me? Is it, church?” 

No!” the crowd erupted, as the snakes continue wrapping around the woman, eventually coiling themselves up on her chest and part of the way around her neck. 

Father Abraham shouted something that I didn’t understand and then smacked the snake on the top of the head. In an instant, the snake’s forked tongue lurched out and it bit the woman right on the cheek. She screamed, writhing around on the floor in pain and continued to do so until two men and a woman came rushing in and carried her out. As soon as she left the tent, everyone became silent again. 

Father Abraham softened his voice but kept it firm. “Was she in God’s grace, church? My own wife had fallen out of grace.” He began to pace. “Is it my fault? As her husband, isn’t it my responsibility for her welfare, spiritual welfare included? The question is, church, how can I care for her spiritual welfare if her physical welfare isn’t taken care of?” Father Abraham stopped and bowed his head. “Right now, church, you’re going to see buckets being passed around. If the Spirit so leads you, consider how much a soul is worth. How much is it worth to you that my wife’s spirituality is restored? Let’s have a moment of silent prayer.” 

I bowed my head, but with everything calm and quiet, I noticed that I was no longer the only one trembling. To my right, Jamie Arlo’s entire body was shaking. I peeked an eye over and noticed that instead of just a few drops of sweat on his brow, he now looked as if he had been swimming. I closed my eyes, clasped my hands together, and prayed to God that He would help me figure out a way to get us all out of here without being killed. Once I finished, I found Jamie’s hand and put mine on it. He turned his hand over and laced his fingers with mine so tightly that I thought he’d break them. I couldn’t help but hope that nobody noticed. 

“You don’t have to do this,” I whispered, just loud enough for him to hear. “Don’t do this, Jamie.” 

He didn’t say anything but instead held tighter to my hand. 

“Amen!” Father Abraham shouted. He wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “I’m being led to believe that there are others who want to see if they have God’s favor. I believe…the children! The children!” He closed his eyes, reaching a handout toward the audience. “Children, rise up!” 

At that moment, it was as if God gave me a spiritual revelation. As Jamie Arlo shakily tried standing to his feet, I shot up, making sure that I let go of his hand before I did. The second my bottom was out of my seat, Father Abraham’s eyes were on me, watching me longer than they should’ve. I hugged myself, ignoring Aurora and Jamie’s pleas to sit down. 

“And once again, the youngest of these is the bravest!” Father Abraham shouted, coming over and holding out a hand for me to take. “What’s your name, darling?” 

I swallowed, feeling my face get hot as every eye in the tent settled on me. “Emmeline. Emmeline Kindness Wilkes.”  

“I want to hold a snake, too,” Jamie said suddenly, standing up next to me. “I was going to stand up, but–”

Father Abraham snapped his fingers at Jamie and pointed to his seat, but kept his eyes on me. “You wait your turn, boy. Ladies first.” Father Abraham smiled at me in a way that made me want to cover my face and led me up to the very front of the tent, putting his hand on the small of my back. “Emmeline Kindness Wilkes, do you believe that you are in the Father God’s grace?” 

I nodded, my pulse quickening when I looked out toward the seemingly endless audience. “Yes, sir. I do.”  

Father Abraham’s smile turned into a twisted grin and he grabbed a snake from one of the bags. “Are you prepared to embrace your childlike faith, Emmeline Wilkes?” 

I swallowed, the dizzying feeling coming back. “Yes, sir.” 

Father Abraham finally removed his hand, pulled a green and blue snake out of one of the bags, and then draped it around my neck. It slithered down my left arm first, wrapping itself tightly around my wrist, but it didn’t do anything. After a few moments, I reckon it got bored because it moved to my chest, its cool, scaly skin prickling my body as it worked its way down and then back up. By this point, my shirt was sticking to my sweaty back, though it wasn’t the snake that bothered me so much; it was the people and the silence. Despite there being at least five hundred people in the room, each one having eyes on me, it was completely silent. I guess I got overwhelmed, but even still it wasn’t until the snake coiled around my arm and then flicked its tongue out at me that I couldn’t take it anymore. The last thing I remembered before hitting the ground was Aurora and Jamie screaming my name.

###

“What happened to your eye?” 

I looked up from the marble circle at Bobby Brewster and shrugged. “I fell.” 

Bobby’s eyes flickered to Jamie, Josiah, and Cora. “What happened to her eye?” 

“She already answered you, Bobby,” Jamie replied, not looking up. “She fell.” 

Bobby pouted his lip out. “Y’all never tell me anything.” 

“Maybe it’s because you can never keep your trap shut,” Cora snapped.

Before Bobby could offer a retort, a dirty shoe kicked the marbles from their careful placement in the circle. When we looked up, we weren’t surprised to see that it was Kevin Valentine standing there. 

“You gonna let a girl boss you around, Brewster?” 

Cora stood up, her fists clenched at her sides. “He knows what the other option is, Valentine, and so do you.” 

Kevin Valentine snorted. “I’m not interested in you, Cora. Don’t worry.” He nodded at me, smirking. “I heard we’ve got a little snake charmer in the schoolyard today.” 

Jamie moved to his feet, eyes squinted. “Leave her alone.” 

“How does it feel for your girlfriend to be braver than you?” Kevin Valentine sneered, poking Jamie in the chest. “Does it balance out that deal she’s made with the Devil? That’s the only thing that can explain that snake not biting her.” 

Jamie turned red and glared at him. “She’s not my girlfriend and you better leave her alone, Valentine.” 

“I’m not braver than him,” I said, rising to my feet and looking Kevin Valentine square in the eyes. “Jamie got the snake off of me. That’s why it didn’t bite me. Jamie picked it up and threw it into the woods.” 

Kevin snorted. “From what I heard, after you passed out, the snake slithered off of you before Arlo and that sister of yours could get you outside.” 

“You heard wrong, then,” I said, keeping my gaze. “Jamie got the snake.” 

Kevin took a step closer to me, making a show of looking down at me. “And why would I believe you? You’re just a little girl.” 

“Leave her alone,” Jamie snarled, grabbing my hand and pulling me behind him. He stood up straighter and narrowed his eyes at Kevin Valentine. “I mean it, Valentine. Leave Emmy alone.” 

Kevin Valentine laughed. “You think I’m scared of you, Jamie Arlo?” 

Jamie licked his lips. “Well, I’m not scared of you. Go pick on someone your own size.” 

“Or what?” 

Jamie Arlo swallowed. “Or I’ll kick your ass.” 

Kevin Valentine’s nostrils flared. “I tell you what, Jamie Arlo, I’m going to–”

“You’re going to what?” Jamie asked, his voice rising as he took a step closer to him. “You don’t think I’ve been hit before? I might be stupid, but I know how to get someone to leave me alone.” 

Kevin Valentine stopped, and the schoolyard got so quiet that all anyone could hear was the sound of the wind whistling through the trees. Jamie’s busted lip had faded, but the bruise looked even worse than it did the day before. Finally, Kevin Valentine let out a laugh.

“I know what you’re trying to do, Arlo,” Kevin Valentine sneered, shifting on his feet. He turned to the group that had formed around us. “Y’all really think I’m going to beat up the kid who gets the shit beat out of him at home? Naw. I’ll just let his daddy do it.”   

  Jamie’s face flushed, but he didn’t move, keeping his fist clenched at his sides and staring at Kevin Valentine. Finally, after a few minutes, Kevin Valentine let out another high pitch laugh, flipped him off, and turned to leave. 

Once Kevin was gone, Josiah and Cora slapped Jamie on the back, congratulating him while Bobby was confused as to what happened. Before long, the crowd dissipated around us, and we went back to shooting marbles, but what concerned me the most was that Jamie wouldn’t look at me. Finally, the bell rang for class to start and, unable to take his ignorance any longer, I grabbed Jamie’s arm when we stood up.  

“Jamie,” I said, my eyes set on his as the question stirred in my heart, “were you really going to fight Kevin Valentine?” 

Jamie squirmed for a minute but eventually nodded. “You held a snake so I didn’t have to. I can stand up to Kevin Valentine so you don’t have to.” He paused. “I couldn’t let him hurt you.” 

I smiled, a warm yet unfamiliar feeling stirring in my heart. “Jamie?”

“Yeah?” 

“You still haven’t given me my Dragonfly marble.”

Jamie grinned, shifting the red marble bag in his hands. “You still haven’t helped me with my theme.”

“I’ve been busy lately, but I do have an idea of what you can write about.” 

“What?” 

I grinned back at him. “Snakes.”