Here's a short story I wrote some time ago about the snake handlers of West Virginia:
The Holy Ghost People
by Kimeron Hardin
The best thing about the meeting place had always been the music. The old Yamaha organ with eight pedals (two of them broken since he could remember) was sounding “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” Mrs. Jolly, the organist, had always been there, playing the same songs and wearing the same faded and frayed choir robe. He always sat in the same pew, in the same spot, every time his momma made him come.
“He’s such a good boy, always tryin’ to do right and comin’ to church when he can- you know how hard he works since Mr. Jackson was taken from us.” His momma used to tell the other ladies of the circle meeting how hard he worked, to excuse his many absences from the services.
Isaiah Jackson was getting more restless than he had remembered in the past. It had been years since he had been to the Holy Ghost Divine Gospel Church with his mother.
“Why did I even come tonight?” he thought. “I never liked to sit here and listen to somebody tell me how bad I was when I was growing up and momma don’t try much to make me come anymore. Maybe things’ll get better if I go to church…can’t hurt.” He’d been through a bad string of luck lately and was feeling low.
Preacher Stamey made his way from the back of the church to the rough wood stand he called a pulpit, holding his guitar under one arm and the jacket to his worn gray suit under the other. The Reverend was a hefty man with the start of a double chin. His crew cut was already glistening with sweat and the veins in his nose were bright red.
Mrs. Jolly cranked up a quick intro to “Take Me Lord” and his momma got whole-heartedly into each of the four verses. His momma was a true believer and she believed every word she sang. He could tell she loved her church and her faith by the way she stood straight up- tall and proud- and smiled at the preacher as she sang.
A fervor was building in the crowd, a quiet intensity at first, but then slowly louder and more powerful as the service progressed. Preacher Stamey started his opening prayer with a burst of the tongues.
“Habaarabashanibadoba…PRAISE THE LORD! Hallelujah!”
The preacher listened for the “Ay-y-mens” and “Hallelujahs” echoing back from throughout the congregation.
Somehow, Isaiah had never received the gift of tongues. His Momma said it would come when he got older and grew in his faith. He watched the bare incandescent light bulbs hanging from their long, thin wires. The temperature seemed warmer now and he tugged at his collar.
Testimony time began with Henry Millard telling how God had saved two of his crops from the blight this week. Sister Sarah, from Beaufort, shared her testimony about how she was near death, and then something about an angel dressed in white nursing her back to health overnight. Isaiah tried to listen to the speakers, but his concentration was pierced with shouts of “Amen!” and “Yes Lord!”, and the slow buzzing of the people speaking in holy gibberish.
“Shananaribantahosh…” screamed the young woman behind him, startling him into turning around.
He had never felt so strange at the meeting place. The intense heat was making him squirm and he wanted desperately to close his eyes for a few moments to re-organize his thoughts.
Preacher Stamey coaxed the congregation to their feet and to the front of the tiny sanctuary to kneel at the altar. Carried away by the “spirit,” a woman (Isaiah couldn’t remember seeing her before) began shaking from head to toe and dancing some exotic steps into the aisles. It was like seeing a life-sized puppet on a string with no control over her body. She had a blank look on her face and a piercing stare as her arms and legs whirled faster and faster through the air.
“Hallelujah!” shouted the crowd “the Lord’s got her now!” Squeals of delight and syncopated cries of joy came from everywhere.
Isaiah felt strangely drawn, almost compelled, to join his mother at the altar.
“Am I going crazy? Or is the Lord God really dealing with me?” he wondered.
“Come….COME! The Holy Ghost is drawing you to his bosom. Be saved NOW if you’re guilty! Come on, do it now!” he heard from the pulpit.
“Hallelujah, Amen! Praise to God….naahbarabida! Lord, have mercy!” People wailed, screamed, hissed and shook on both sides of him.
“Should I go?” He paused.
“But God’s dealing with you Isaiah. “
“NO! NO!” He tried to resist the seductive call from the front, to snap himself back into reality.
The room was swaying as he felt himself slip out of his seat and begin o walk slowly and mechanically to the altar. A quartet started singing in the corner of the room and several more stringless puppets rolled on the floor and jumped around the prayerful.
Preacher Stamey signaled for the snakes.
“And the Lord God said, ‘Let my people handles my most despicable creation, the serpent, without fear.’” He reached into one of the black boxes carried to the front by the deacons and pulled out four hissing and spitting rattlers, two in each hand. They wriggled and twined around his arm, obviously upset and agitated, but not one of the struck. The preacher seemed to have control…over the snakes and over Isaiah’s very thoughts.
“It is the Lord! Yes Lord, I hear you. I’ve been bad Lord, REAL bad!” He flashed back on the turn his life had taken through hard liquor and the gambling and the women. He thought about the shame he brought on his family and his momma. He knew it was wrong at the time, but he couldn’t stop himself after he lost his job at the mill and then losing his daddy. He gave in to the devil and he knew it was time to make things right. He knew he had hurt his momma bad.
“Hallelujah!!” Isaiah shouted.
Just like his momma said, this power…this intoxication…that had entered his mind, MUST be the Holy Ghost. It was strange, and new…exciting.
The Reverend passed the snakes around the crowd, throwing them through the air, to be caught and caressed by men, women and children.
“You must believe! Have faith! If it’s God’s will that you die by snakebite, then die you WILL! God knows all. Come…PRAY!! Preacher Stamey walked over to Isaiah and extended a large, shiny rattler.
“Here son…do you believe?” he said.
“Yes, Preacher, YES! Look momma, I’ve got faith…look!”
He was immediately carried away by the excitement, the euphoria, like a child discovering something wonderful. And then suddenly, he felt a sharp quick sting on the back of his left hand. Within seconds, he realized what had just happened.
“Oh my God! I’ve been bitten!” He jerked back into reality as he flung the snake to the side.
“What the hell am I doing here? How did I get up to the altar? Who are these people? Where’s momma?” His thoughts began to race and he felt his breath start to quicken.
He felt a searing pain now, starting to throb its way up his forearm. His pulse was racing and the room started to blur and clear as he dropped to his knees.
“SOMEBODY HELP ME… HELP ME!” he screamed.
All he could hear was “It’s God’s Will” and “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord.”
“God’s Will, God’s Will, God’s Will…” The voice was familiar.