The Subtlety of Serpents
by J.M. Rowe
“She stood you up, huh?”
We’re in the plaza at the West Texas campus, drinking cold, non-brand Frappuccinos in the autumn heat of a Texas afternoon. The asphalt shimmers and lawns glisten under the rotating sprinklers.
I tell Kimberley, “No. I’m seeing her later.”
“Always later,” says Kimberley, slurping her drink noisily, then belching and grinning. “I do it because I feel comfortable around you,” she explains.
That’s the thing about Kim: there’s no mystery. The crumpled Texas Rattlers tee-shirt, heavy jeans, hair in a scrunchy, no makeup. What you see is what you get. Yet, if she lost, I don’t know, even just ten-twelve pounds – made an effort, you know? What I’m saying is, she could be quite something to look at. But she doesn’t care.
Kim says, “So where is Mystery Girl?”
“Harper. Her name is Harper.”
“Harper!” Kim snorts into her oversized cup.
“It’s a name.”
“It’s a fake name.”
Kim is suddenly very serious and I’m discomforted.
“It… she … you’re lying.”
She grins at me.
“Yeah, I am lying,” she says, “but you believed me, just for a moment, and –” now she gets animated, sloshing her coffee onto the bench “– and that’s the point, right? You know nothing about her. But you’ve known her for, like, two months?”
“Ten weeks,” I correct her, mentally adding 4 days and 8 hours.
“Ballpark figure,” she says, rummaging in her canvass bag for something among her papers.
I remember seeing Harper for the first time, over at the student lounge. She was sitting all by herself, pencil-thin, her dark hair tied up high in a style that made me think of French women, or at least sophisticated women, women you don’t find in Sweetwater, TX. In my imagination, she was smoking a cigarette in a long slim holder, her dark lips pouting with each draw. But really, Harper doesn’t smoke. She’s too neat for that. Too self-contained. Everyone else swept passed her like she wasn’t there, even the sports who usually hit on any lone girl on point of principle. But they didn’t mess with her. She looked like she could hurt you.
I didn’t think she would hurt me. I bought her a coffee, which was just about the boldest thing I’ve ever done with a female stranger in my life. She looked up at me with her soulful eyes. She didn’t smile or touch the drink. But she told me her name.
“Harper,” announces Kim, “is Harper Elizabeth Osmond, of the Kentucky Osmonds.” She straightens her face: “Not the Seventies boy band.”
“What the hell, Kim? Have you been snooping into her?”
“What the hell, Sean?” she parrots me. “Aren’t you curious about Mystery Girl, just a little bit? Jeez, I’m like your best friend and I’ve not even met her yet. You’ve not even got a picture of her on your phone.”
“You looked through my phone?”
She shrugs. “You should look after your stuff. There’s nothing interesting on your phone anyway. Get rid of Candy Crush. It’s a time sink.”
I know Kim means well, it just all comes out crazy with her. It’s like, she finds it so hard to make a good impression on people, she just figures ‘Screw It’ and does these outrageous things. She drinks too much too. But so did I. We both used to get pretty wrecked together. Not so much now. Harper doesn’t drink.
Kim says, “You’re not just a teeny bit curious?”
“About what? She’s from Kentucky? Big deal. Lots of people are from Kentucky.”
“She’s from a crazy religious cult in Kentucky. What about that? Are lots of people from crazy religious cults in Kentucky?”
She produces a paper from her bag. It’s been printed from some news website. There’s a clapperboard building: Church of Christ With Signs Abounding. A photo of cops and paramedics. The headline says: Shocking Deaths of Snake-Handling Pastor And Family.
“They call them serpents,” I tell her. “Her father was a pastor. They used to pick up serpents because of this weird Bible verse.”
“You knew about this?” says Kim, astonished.
I’ve known about this for weeks, since Harper started coming round to my apartment. She never rang ahead: there’d just be this little knock at the door and there she would be. She would come in and sit on the couch, at the furthest end from me, sit there and watch me with her wide eyes.
She never said much, but somehow, I don’t know why, it seemed to draw words out of me. I’ve always been pretty shy around girls, which I guess is why I hang out with Kim so much, on account of she never shuts up. But with Harper it was different: she would watch me and I would just talk, talk about my course and my old school friends, my parents’ divorce, about the hole in the ozone layer. To be honest, I’ve no idea what I talk to Harper about.
We watched a lot of YouTube videos, mostly documentaries about alien abductions and the Pyramids of Egypt. Then, this one time, there’s a show about these snake-handling Christians and Harper sat up and said:
“Serpents. Serpents. Mark 16: 18 says They shall take up serpents.” She added, “If you’re pure.”
Then it all came out: how her father was a pastor of this church where they picked up snakes – no, serpents, they picked up serpents during the worship. They put them around their shoulders. Not harmless corn snakes and ball pythons, but actual venomous snakes, the sort that can kill you. It’s like a test of faith or something. The serpents won’t harm them. Not if they’re pure.
Then she told me about the night her parents died along with her brother and sisters, when the serpents bit her, I moved close to her.
“Serpents turned on all of them: mama, Elizabeth, little Noah. Papa didn’t want no doctor, said the Lord would decide about living or dying.”
I wanted to hold her but she flinched away.
But still, that kind of changed everything. Now Harper was talking and I was listening. She told me about growing up with serpents, in a house full of copperheads, rattlers and cottonmouths. She told me about snake-hunting expeditions to Texas with her Papa; age just ten and she was pulling diamondbacks out from under desert rocks.
“I put my hand on the adder’s den,” she said with her sorrowful lilt, “and Papa said that meant I was pure.”
She was pure for me. I listened to her voice, her curious backwoods twang, the way her dark lips held each syllable, and I lost myself in the mystery of her eyes, so wide and pale, her lashes laying shadows on her white porcelain skin.
She started sleeping over. She would lie on the couch and I would sleep on the floor. But I didn’t sleep. I would lie awake, just tripping on her nearness, on the sheer fact that she was there, only inches away, breathing the same air as me. I wanted to reach out and touch her, but I knew I had to take it real slow. We had come so far.
How can I explain any of this to Kim?
“You got to explain this to me,” says Kim. “You know about the psycho snake cult? And you’re still crushing on this girl?”
“I know it’s none of your business.”
“None of my business?”
She shoves the news story into my hands, jumps up, stalks over to the trash can and slams her cup into it, like a quarterback spiking the ball. “You’re my business, Sean, you idiot!” she says, making passers-by stare. “I’m worried about you. I don’t like this girl. It doesn’t feel right.”
“It feels right to me.”
I get up, sling my arm through my knapsack and walk away, scrunching her news story in my fist. That’s just about the harshest way I’ve ever treated Kimberley. I’m kind of glad when she comes running after me, but pretty irritated also.
“Sean, wait up.” I pause and she collects herself. She blows out her cheeks, doing an impression of her old man. “I’m just a redneck girl and I run off my redneck mouth. Ignore me. I’m trash. What do I know? I can’t even diet.” She chews her lip, then says, “Danny Orseco is having a party tonight. We could go.” She punches my arm. “Brewskis, amigo. Old times, mon frère. What do you say?”
“I can’t. I’ve got –” I shrug, suddenly awkward and ashamed under her level gaze, like a child caught in a lie “– I’ve got a thing. With Harper.”
“Documentaries at your apartment? Blow it off. Come to the party.” She inhales deeply, then makes a dignified offer: “Bring Harper. Maybe I’ll like her. Maybe we’ll be like BFFs or something.”
“I’m going to her apartment.”
Her face crinkles in surprise then falls as she realises what this means.
Me and Harper, we’re so much closer now. She reckons she’s about ready. Ready to be touched. I’ve been buzzing with excitement all day. I keep thinking people are going to notice, that motorists are going to stop and people are going to run out of buildings and point: “That guy is going to get laid!” Or maybe not laid. Maybe, we’ll just kiss. Or lie on her bed together. Hold hands. I don’t freaking care. I just know that if I don’t get to touch her, get to hold her, get to feel the delicious weight of her body, I will simply explode.
“Jesus, Sean.” Kim turns away. She rubs her face. Her voice sounds strange when she speaks. “She has an address then, does she? Her own place?”
“She’s got an apartment,” I tell her reluctantly, “in the Ridley Building.”
I nod. Kim is facing me again. She looks very pale. I can’t tell if she’s angry or sad or both.
“Sean, that building is derelict. Get a clue! It’s full of junkies. It’s where rattlesnakes go to die.”
“Well, that it isn’t true, is it?” I shout and I turn and walk away, yelling, “Because Harper’s got an apartment there.”
“Oh yeah?” I hear her call after me, her voice breaking on her tears. “Well good luck with that, lover boy. Why don’t you read that news story about the real Harper Osmond!”
Everybody is staring and my cheeks are burning. It’s so hard to walk away from Kimberley. I want to turn back and look at her. I know she’s standing alone and forlorn in that big plaza, with crowds barging past her, just watching me go, with tears running off her chin. But I won’t turn round. I have to focus on Harper. I have to be pure.
At the bus stop, I shove Kim’s paper into a trash can. Then I pull it out. I read the bit she’s circled in pen.
“Pastor Jeb Osmond (48) died as a result of his injuries. Also among the dead were his wife Susannah (42), son Noah (21) and daughters Abigail (18) and Harper (16).”
There’s more, about allegations of domestic violence and rumours of sexual abuse. Then there is the dateline: it’s from ten years ago.
Which is ridiculous and it just shows what garbage they write in local news. So, Harper survived and they got the ages wrong. I’ll show it to Harper. We’ll laugh about it, about Kimberley, about the whole thing.
Except I can’t imagine Harper laughing at anything.
I catch the bus to Broadway and get off at the Ridley.
The building sure looks abandoned. It used to be some big factory, but they’re always turning those buildings into apartments and the Preservation League gets all bent out of shape about it. I climb the steps to the first storey and it’s dark as hell in there. No sign of a light switch. Cool and dark: I remember what Kim said about rattlers coming here. But wait – there’s a light at the end. There’s this one door with light shining underneath it. Nice, flickery light, like candles on a birthday cake.
I knock and hear Harper’s voice telling me it’s open.
It’s a relief to step inside and find a proper apartment. There are candles everywhere: little tea candles on dishes and big church candles along the walls, candles floating in bowls of water, candles under glass, candles half-melted along the window sills. Everything feels warm and golden and slightly shadowed, like the inside of a Halloween pumpkin. There are sheets on the walls, big blankets, tapestries maybe, with angular designs: they look kind of Mexican.
But I’m not looking at them. I’m looking at Harper. She stands in the middle of the room. She’s waiting. She smiles.
She says, “I’m ready.”
I step forward to embrace her, but she steps away, shaking her head. Then she turns and nods in the direction of the bed.
It’s not really a bed. It’s a pile of cushions, rugs, pillows. There’s a sheet on top: a creamy white that glows in the candlelight.
“Get into bed.”
I pull off my shirt, then ask, “What about you?”
“You can watch me.”
Shirt on the floor, jeans in a ball, hopping to pull off socks – then I slide under the cool sheet. Harper is watching. Her sorrowful expression is replaced by something more enigmatic. Curiosity, perhaps.
She lets down her hair, running her slim fingers through the tangles. Then she steps out of her clothes in two easy gestures: out of the pants and the crop top, then out of her bra and panties.
The candlelight embraces her whiteness and turns the blackness of her hair and eyes to smouldering embers. She’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen.
I can’t hide my excitement. The sheets rise between my legs.
“Oh Sean,” she says, with that familiar sorrow.
I feel pain lance through my leg. I cry out and then I see them. The sheets are moving. They are rippling and undulating. Pain bites into my hip, my arm, my chest. I throw off the sheet.
Writhing snakes everywhere. They lunge and snap. Their teeth flash.
Harper lifts a huge rattlesnake and drapes it over her bare shoulders.
“Serpents,” she says.
My limbs swell. My chest tightens.
“Oh Sean, you’re not pure after all.”
The rattlesnakes’ fury vibrates around the empty building; my throat becomes a tight knot around my screams, as the serpents plunge and bite.
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