Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mr. Snake Gets Religion

Ruth Ann came to live on Black Mountain through a real round about way. Aunt Beatrice, due to the unfortunate circumstances, came down the mountain to fetch Ruth and her belongings, which amounted to a sack full of worn out clothes and a pile of beauty magazines. Aunt Beatrice didn’t acknowledge her Asheville family. She was married to Scott Weehunt, whose family owned the largest farm on the mountain. They didn’t much approve of Beatrice because her parents were poor farmers—her mama wasn’t even from the mountain—but she worked her way in like an earthworm tunneling through the dirt. She was a faithful, loyal, church-going wife and that won the approval of her biggest enemies. Within a year the Weehunts just cooed over Aunt Beatrice, and ten years later when she took in an orphan girl from the wrong side of the tracks down in Asheville, where all the sinners lived, an orphan girl with Aunt Beatrice’s cornflower-colored eyes and a real hankerin’ to be a hairdresser, those church-going folks from Black Mountain Baptist Church made her head of the choir and Aunt Beatrice couldn’t sing a lick, much less read music.

Aunt Beatrice knew a good thing when she found it and crushed Ruth’s dreams, explaining that folks like her never amounted to more than maids and laundry girls. Ruth refrained from reminding her aunt that her mama came from the same part of Asheville, but the seed of revenge was sown.

The whole incident began on the hottest afternoon Black Mountain could remember. The air was so thick a soul could slice it with a knife. Here came Uncle Scott stumbling in the house after a visit to Charles Ray’s moonshine still a couple of farms over. Aunt Beatrice had gone to some church function all dressed in fancy clothes, seeing how all the women ooed and ahhed over the new preacher. He was the replacement for the preacher who was murdered down in Georgia the year before. Ruth didn’t live on the mountain when the murdered preacher was alive but she could bet he got what was coming to him. It had been her experience that preachers came a dime a dozen. And, Uncle Scott backed her up. He claimed the new preacher was as slick and conniving as Hobbs Pritchard. When she asked him who Hobbs Pritchard was, Uncle Scott only shook his head and told her she didn’t want to know.

Her dislike of preachers didn’t mean she had lost her belief in God. Lord, she had to believe in him. She trusted he would be the one who made her dreams come true. Anyway, that hot morning, Ruth heated water on the coal stove to wash the cooking dishes. She did all her Sunday cooking on Saturday because the church insisted no work on the holy day. Aunt Beatrice pulled both Uncle Scott and Ruth to church each Sunday morning whether they wanted to go or not.

“What are you doing there, Ruthie?”

She ignored her uncle. And, he continued as if she weren’t really standing at the kitchen sink pumping water into a large tub. He chose a big wooden spoon from the counter, scooped a spoonful of scalding water, blew on the steaming liquid, licked his lips, and slurped it down. “That’s mighty tasty soup, Ruthie. No one can cook like you, missy.”

She yanked the spoon from his hand. “I guess so. You’re so drunk, you killed your own taste buds. Get on out of here.”

He laughed and slapped his knee, nearly falling over. “You know Bea, she would just throw a fit if she knew I was drinking again. Lord, that woman should’ve married a preacher or better yet, became one herself. She wasn’t nothing like that when I married her. She was the prettiest girl on the mountain and the boldest and a darn good kisser.”

His bony arm didn’t resist her tug. “Go sit.” Uncle Scott was a good soul. She guided him to one of the two rockers, where he stumbled and fell missing the rocker by only inches. She poked at him with the toe of her shoe. “Aunt Beatrice will be madder than hell when she sees you laying out here on her sitting room floor.”

“Let me be, child. Go back to that soup. It’s burning.” He rolled on his side; his breathing turned heavy and changed to loud snores.

And, fate being an old friend picked that time to send Aunt Beatrice speeding into the driveway, throwing gravel with the back tires of her car. And, what did she see when she opened the door: On the wood floor, in front of the fireplace, lay her loving husband dead to the world. She held her hand to her heart, stamping her foot with a petite little tap. Her passenger, the preacher, dressed in black, a dark wide brim hat placed on his head, unfolded from the car.

Aunt Beatrice did a dance, two steps toward Uncle Scott, and four steps back to the preacher, who fast closed in on the scene. Ruth removed the stained apron and smoothed her housedress, noticing how the pattern disappeared into a bland description at best.

“Pastor Williams, you must excuse my husband. He is quite sick. So, sick we made him a pallet in the front room.” Aunt Beatrice’s voice climbed three octaves with the last few words. Ruth rushed to the rocker, grabbing a lap blanket and cushion, tossing the blanket over Uncle Scott in a haphazard way. She pulled his head up by the hair, threw the pillow down, and slammed his head on the floor, missing the pillow.

“Ah, ah…”

Ruth knelt down beside her uncle. “Now, now, you just rest.” She watched Pastor Williams. He was a fine looking man, and that made it hard for her to believe in his dedication to the Lord.

Aunt Beatrice, hands fluttering, panic wrinkling her face, stood in front of Uncle Scott. “Ruthie light a fire!” She looked at Pastor Williams. “He’s not catching. He just has these spells you know. It runs in the Weehunt family. Pace, his little brother, has them all the time.”

Ruth smoothed the blanket. “You’ll feel better soon. We’re praying for your soul. I can’t see how a fire can help you on such a hot day, but I’ll light one.” She smiled big at Pastor Williams.

Aunt Beatrice frowned. “Go get the wood, Ruth Ann!”

Ruth went to the shed to gather some of the firewood left over from winter. She was convinced that Aunt Beatrice and Pastor Williams’ god was an entirely different god from the one she knew. God couldn’t smile down on women who walked around acting like the Queen of Sheba. Mama always said: once a mule, always a mule. Aunt Beatrice couldn’t never be nothing but a darned old mule. Ruth stacked wood in the crook of her arm, small round pieces of the old apple tree tipped over in the ice storm. The snake lay curled on the last piece, in the shade; he raised his head with an irritated look. Then, it came to her, clear, like them visions the Catholics talked about all the time, the Virgin Mary standing in the air, hovering, small children witnessing. Ruth’s vision was just the same, holy, glowing around the edges. The snake was curled in Aunt Beatrice’s Garden of Eden. He wasn’t nothing but an old chicken snake, wouldn’t hurt a flea, but he was good and long, lazy. He wiggled a bit, twisting and turning, when she scooped him into the feed sack.

The flames leapt into the growing heat, the sweet scent of apple wood filled the room. Sweat beads popped out on the good pastor’s forehead and he loosened his tie. Aunt Beatrice acted as if sweat stains weren’t ruining her blouse and running down her back.

Ruth brought a tray with two glasses of tea, warm, probably sour, and some three day old peach tarts with tough crusts and too much sugar. She placed the tray on a small coffee table, yelling over Uncle Scott’s snoring. “Here’s some refreshments.” Pastor Williams’ eyes were clear blue, too blue for a pastor muddled with a congregation.

Aunt Beatrice swiped at drops of sweat on her upper lip, beading in the fine blonde mustache. “Thank you so much Ruthie.” She turned her attention to the pastor, touching his hand with hers. “Ruth came to us from a family in Asheville, dirt poor and nothing to wear.”

Ruth never was sure if it was the heat from the fire or just pure spite that led her to the next set of actions. It was really quite simple, this vision: She rolled the feed sack into the fold of a fresh blanket, making that snake good and mad. Carefully she spread the blanket on top of Uncle Scott, who could care less about snakes and such. “Put the devil behind these souls, Lord, cleanse them.”

“What? What did you say?” Aunt Beatrice watched her.

“Maybe Pastor Williams would like to pray over Uncle Scott.”

“You’re stepping out of your place, Ruth!” Aunt Beatrice never did care much for praying.

Pastor Williams sat his glass on the table. “No, no. Ruth is correct. I will pray.” He smiled and dropped to his knees.

“My mama always said the devil finds our weaknesses and chips away at them.” Ruth turned on her charm.

“That’s enough, Ruth.”

The pastor closed his eyes. “Dear God in Heaven heal this fine man of his affliction whatever that may be.” The flames licked in the fireplace. “He is a good man, married to a beautiful woman in our church.” Aunt Beatrice, kneeling beside him, smiled behind closed eyes. “The devil has found the weakness in this family. We know what weakness is Lord. We know of souls with weak faith.”

Mister Snake slithered free of the blankets.

“Lord God.” Pastor Williams raised his closed eyes to Heaven. “God cast this evil from this unfaithful soul.”

Mister Snake scooted across the floor and lay on the tail of Aunt Beatrice’s skirt as she kneeled near the pastor.

“Heal this man oh God!”

Aunt Beatrice stirred, opened her eyes and caught sight to the three foot chicken snake. “Oh God!” She struggled to her feet. Mister Snake latched his fangs in the hem of her skirt and swung with her. “Oh my God! Help me! Help me!” Aunt Beatrice grabbed Pastor Williams by the hair. “Help me you stupid fool!” She twirled around in an attempt to release the devil from her.

Uncle Scott picked that very minute to wake. Ruth liked to think God chose this moment to pass retribution onto Aunt Beatrice; in other words, she finally got what she had coming to her. Uncle Scott wiped sweat from his forehead. “It’s hotter than hell in this house! What is going on?”

“Oh God, help me!” Aunt Beatrice twirled around like a horrible ballet dancer, pure terror written on her face.

The laugh built in Ruth’s chest. Pastor Williams pushed a chair over scrambling to his feet, pushing Aunt Beatrice away from him. “Get away from me you devil!”

Uncle Scott joined in Ruth’s laughter. “By God Bea, I don’t think I’ve seen you dance since we stopped going to the roadhouse.” He shifted on his unsteady feet. “I think we all need a good stiff drink.” He stumbled forward.

Aunt Beatrice took one last twirl, screaming. Mister Snake released himself in midair—floating in what seemed like slow motion—and slapped around the good pastor’s neck, skin against skin.

“God in Heaven!” Pastor Williams looked around crazed just in time to see Ruth double over in giggles. He ran from the house, his hands pulling at the devil wrapped around his neck.

When Aunt Beatrice settled down, Ruth would speak with her concerning a beauty college down in Tifton, Georgia. She heard it was the best school in the south.


Ann Hite's Beautiful Wreck - Semi-Finalist in Amazon Novel Breakthrough 2009 Contest

Ann Hite’s Black Mountain stories were featured in the May 2008 Issue of The Dead Mule as an ebook, Life on Black Mountain. Beautiful Wreck, her new novel, was a semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. Circle of Light, a Black Mountain story, was nominated for Sundress Best of 2008. Believing in Magic, a personal essay, will appear in a new anthology published by Adams Media October 19, 2009, Christmas Traditions. The Christmas Tree Hunter appeared in Christmas Through A Child’s Eyes, published by Adams Media in 2008. Her personal story, Surviving Mom, was part of Marlo Thomas’ latest collection, The Right Words At The Right Time, Vol., 2

Ann has taught numerous workshops, most recently at Scribblers’ Writing Retreat on St. Simons Island. She lives with her family in Atlanta where she has over 1,000 books, a butterfly garden, and her laptop.