Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
once, a woman fell in love with a snake handler. She drove out to the country to visit him in a church that was a trailer. There were fire ants in the driveway, mannequins in the yard. The handler was the only one inside except for the snakes. His arms were covered in scars. The woman said, I heard you teach people. The handler switched on an orange light so the woman would see the snakes sleeping in glass aquariums along the chapel walls: pit viper, diamondback, cottonmouth, copperhead. He took the woman’s hand and pressed it to the glass. Forced his hand inside an open tank and held it there until the copperhead struck. Showed her how to cut open the wound and suck out the poison. The problem with most people is they don’t know the right way to get bit.
The problem with me, she said, is that I’ve been bit before. She showed him the fang marks on her back. Lifted a viper from its cage, Like this? She held the snake’s head, stroked its body. The handler adjusted her grip. Offered her warm red wine and a spot on a pew. She asked if the lesson was over and didn’t believe him when he said yes. Eventually she kissed him, and he kissed her back. Her pupils shrank to slits, her tongue flicked into his mouth, and venom flowed into her teeth. She didn’t bite; she didn’t know if she could. He seemed kind enough, seemed like he knew what he was doing. When the babies came, he would protect them. Her, too.
She drove out every night, and every night they confessed. He told her he didn’t believe in God. She told him her boyfriend was in jail. They lay on the pews and talked until their bodies demanded more. Eventually he noticed her belly. She didn’t confess how she thought there must be dozens in there, maybe a hundred. She didn’t confess that they weren’t his. She let him smile and murmur and rub her navel. She let him feel for a kick. She confessed that she had three children already. He told her he didn’t believe in staying together for the kids.
She didn’t like when the church people came in. Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights. They flung the snakes around, whooped and hollered, spoke in tongues. Their songs were okay. They called unborn babies acts of God, but hers were acts of nature. Hers were acts of opportunity from the nice-enough guy at Bible study who wasn’t the person she’d thought he was. Hers were a roiling ball of poison and perfection. Hers were hers, and she hid them from the church people by hanging back in the kitchen with the boxes of live mice. When the chapel was empty, she deposited a mouse—which she stunned by flicking the back of its head—in the cage of each weary snake.
Once, a man fell in love with a preacher’s snakeskin boots. The boots belonged to the God-talking man whose sermons slithered, whose arms were scarred. Both men kept their boots on in bed. Dirty heels scuffed sheets and bones. One night while the preacher was dreaming of hellfire, the man pulled the boots off his lover’s cold feet. In the morning, what could the preacher say? Barefoot, he stumbled home to his new wife. Gone fishing, he told her; waded into the water. Just like the parable of the alligator and the pick-up truck, God told him to take off his boots and cast them into the swamp.
You will be rewarded, he told his wife, in the Kingdom of Heaven.
She sat with her lap full of squirming mice. She knew she was supposed to stun them, drop them into the cage where snakes waited to swallow. But in dreams, she slept with them instead. Woke to a blanket of breathing mice, red eyes blinking, nuzzling, in love.
Once, a congregation fell in love with a sloughed-off snakeskin. Rumor had it this was no ordinary snake. A woman birthed it, then let it loose in her husband’s bed when she found him lying with another man.
Thou shalt not, said the new preacher. He was still getting used to the fire and brimstone lifestyle. He’d come from the city, where they did things differently. He wore comfortable shoes and worked out at the gym.
Nights, the congregation gathered in the trailer and spoke in tongues with the voice of the snake. They lay on their bellies, slithered and teemed. When heat stunned them, they tore off their clothes. Come Easter, they ground the snakeskin into powder, mixed it with whiskey, and passed the cup.
In the morning, when the city preacher arrived at the trailer, arms full of large-print Bibles, he opened the door to a room full of snakes.
My God, my soul’s unclean.
He slammed the door, lay down on the driveway, and let fire ants write parables all over his body.
Once, a copperhead fell in love with a mouse he’d meant to swallow.
Their eyes met.
What is a long life, thought the snake, compared to a moment of comfort shared with another creature?
The mouse thought of saints, of a nest he’d burrowed yesterday or maybe today. The mouse wondered about time. How did it move? Did it taste like cheese? The mouse smelled bread baking in a trailer six towns away, and set off through the field.
Carol Guess is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn and Doll Studies: Forensics. She is a professor of English at Western Washington University. Follow her here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com.
Kelly Magee’s first book, Body Language, won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Literary Mama, and others. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. You can find links to her writing at kellyelizabethmagee.com.