Daddy hates snakes. Hates them.
I see a few of the church elders poke along the river bank as they overturn rocks and logs. This reminds me of how Daddy despises the serpent, all serpents. I was with him once coming home from Tea Creek when we spied a thick black racer crossing the service road that had been bulldozed for the logging crew. Black snakes aren’t even poisonous; didn’t matter to Daddy. He backed the truck up, shifted into first, and slowly turned up the lane, following the fat reptile to its doom. I felt the bump as the right front tire wheeled over the luckless beast. I shivered, as if I had stepped on the snake myself, barefoot. Daddy got out to inspect his kill, and with the elation of a cheerleader after a touchdown he grabbed his hat, slapped his leg with it as he yelled, “I got you, ya son of a bitch!” And to be sure, he backed his Ford over the limp snake again as we resumed our trip home, to Horse Ridge.
As I watch these men, Delbert Baber and Walter Dobson and two others whom I don’t know, scour the bank of the Gauley opposite me and Preacher Burnell, I am surprised as to how little they know about snakes. It’s only mid-April, the day after the ramp feed at Richwood High School. It could still snow next week here in these mountains. And now, the sun has hardly risen above the ridge. It’s just not warm enough to move any snake to sun themselves on the river bank, especially rattlers, and I know that’s what they’re huntin’. Faye says they take them out of boxes sometimes during services at the church, pass them around for folks to hold as they shout praises. Some folks talk real excited, real fast, like in a foreign language. And to think, people say it’s creepy to hear our priest talk in Latin at church when I go with Mom to mass at Sacred Heart.
Faye is the reason I’m standing here in this frigid river. A year younger than me, she has dark eyes, long hair as black as mascara, and firm legs as stout as a coal miner. We’ve been sweet on one another and I’ve been walking her home, up on Orchard Heights, after school. From her house, off Greenbrier Road, you can see all of Richwood. Well, her parents ain’t keen on me yet, ‘cause I’m a Catholic. She thinks if I go with her to prayer meeting they’ll soften. I’m happy to be with her, but it means getting home late, walking up Horse Ridge after dark. The Bragg family attends the Church of the Holiness Pentecost with Signs Following, down in Little Laurel. I see some rough folk worship there, and they don’t sit much, but I like the piano and guitars and singin’. It’s an old wood frame, one-room building with crutches hanging on the wall, crutches discarded when the crippled regained their ability to walk after the laying of hands. I never did see any snakes at the meetings, but Faye told me about it and I know that’s what these boys are shakin’ rocks and logs for now, to grab some timber rattlers and copperheads for their bag.
Mom don’t know I’m here today, about to be dipped into the river and baptized, washed of my sins in praise of the lord. I got up while it was still dark and walked into town, for Faye to pick me up at the Pure gas station on Oakford Avenue. She drove us out of town through LaFrank, Fenwick, Holcomb and Curtain, and here just a couple hundred yards downstream from where the Cherry River drops into the Gauley. Preacher Burnell Truman likes this swimming hole for his baptisms. Some of the church folk started to arrive, including Holly Caldwell, who’s out of the penitentiary in Moundsville, out on parole after 21 years for murdering his brother. Everyone up on Cranberry Ridge knows Holly. He was drafted during the war, so he hid out. Folks on the ridge said he’d go about his business wearing a dress, tryin’ to fool the Army that he was a woman. The only reason they caught him was he took out his .38 during a disagreement with his brother Ed and shot him dead. So Holly and I begin life with renewed spirits in just a few minutes. Can’t be soon enough. It is cold, and I’m stripped to my swim trunks and sneakers up to my waist in this river.
The light is such that you only see as the sun rises on mountains in the green of spring. There’s a slight mist hanging over the river. I hear warblers whistling from a nearby rhododendron thicket, woodpeckers barking over each other on a decaying sycamore. I see kingfishers floating over the stream, and a big blue heron scooped a fish from a pool along side a boulder as big as a garage on the river bank. And perched on that boulder was Faye Bragg, about to witness me get dunked below the flowing waters. She smiled and waved, a gesture that made me forget how cold I was.
The holy ritual proceeds first with Holly, the prodigal sinner eager to repent. Preacher Burnell pulls on his waders, the pair he wears when he casts for brook trout up on Cranberry. The gray, waist-high boots match the color of his suit jacket. His neck-tied collar looks a couple sizes too big for his neck. I see his wire-rimmed eyeglasses start to fog as he enters the Gauley and pulls his hat snugly over his high forehead. The King James New Testament in his right hand, with a nasally drawl, he reads:
“And now, brother Holly, knowing that you give your heart to the Lord Jesus, and that you are resting entirely on His finished sacrifice for your salvation…” I see him raise his left hand and plant it on Holly Caldwell’s nose, pinching his nostrils…”I baptize you in the name of The Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost.” And as the consonant “ghost” escaped the preacher’s nose he pushed Holly’s head backward under the surface of the stream.
By now a couple dozen cars and trucks have parked and 40 or so church people have arrived to witness. A collective “Amen” arises accompanied with many cries of “Praise Jesus.” And I am next. Brother Holly has returned to dry land with his daughter swaddling him in a blanket. A crow cackles nearby. Preacher guides me by the shoulder as the surface of the Gauley ripples by. He repeats the same litany, “And now brother James, knowing that you have given your heart to the Lord Jesus…” I turn my head slightly to get a glimpse of Faye, still perched on the boulder overlooking the holy pool of baptism. But wait, what’s HE doing there? Next to her? Holding her hand? I know who he is, but I don’t know him. He’s Argil Hanna, a couple years older than us, and he just quit school to join the marines. And he gives her a kiss, and Faye kisses back, and then repeats this kiss again, longer. Wait, she’s MY girl. She’s not even paying attention to my imminent submersion into salvation…”and that you are resting entirely on His finished sacrifice…” the minister continues.
I bolted out of the water.
I heard Preacher prattle on, completing his sentence before it occurred that there was no one present to save. By this time I had climbed out of the river bed and was racing up Route 41, running on the very pavement beyond Curtain, towards Holcomb. I’m running away from a horror never expected, a girl, my girl, but no longer my girl at all. I’m shirtless. I’m wearing soaked swim trunks and worn Chuck Taylors. I want home.
To save time I leave the highway at Holcomb to take the shortcut up Morris Creek, we call it Holcomb Hollow, uphill all the way to our place on Horse Ridge. The gravel road narrows to a dirt tractor trail, to a footpath along the creek, through the laurel and scratchy blackberry bushes. I reach the top of the ridge, climb out of a patch of poplar and oak and over the barbed wire fence into our back pasture at home. It’s not yet noon. I’ve been up for eight hours, I’m wet, scratched and blistered. Daddy sees me crossing the yard. He’s waving a hoe up over his head, like a greeting signal. He hollers “I got me another one,” and shows off a freshly beheaded timber rattlesnake that he’d decapitated with a garden hoe.