“Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
-Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
Story by Sean Herman
Out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Out in the dark
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
"Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God," words rise from a lone voice, growing from the small country church congregation, lying deep in the heart of the American South. The voice barely has a discernible echo, floating to the back of the room.
"No higher power," is proclaimed loudly by one single voice in front of a hungry crowd of worshipers. The echo now fills the room. Head down, concentrating intensely, his movements look as though he is storing up a body full of potential energy.
"Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation,” say’s another voice rising eerily out into the room.
"Whosoever resisteth the power of God," is echoed from the man, now circling, almost nervously, his energy building.
"Come on, come on. Tell it,” a multitude of voices now filling the room, giving force and vigor to the man now circling the stage.
"Those who resisteth receive damnation," proclaims the man, now breaking a sweat, as he circles the small stage once more.
"Amen. Come on,” rises like an on coming wave in the distance from out of the crowd.
Voices continue. "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same."
"We're fixing to find out what the power was," loudly proclaims the man on stage, now starting to pour sweat, with the room beginning to fill with the energy he is manifesting with his proclamations and movements.
Voices continue loudly. "But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."
Our stage master stops a movements, looks outward, posing a question to the congregation,
"A revenge,” surrounding voices proclaim.
"A revenger,” as the words leave his lips, it gives signal for the rest of his body to now move, almost like the introduction to a dance with a veiled partner. One lone guitar riff is strummed quickly and with a punch, echoing with feedback throughout the room. The sound is like a roar of a distant wave, now approaching ever closer.
Without warning, a deafening crash echoes throughout the room, halting almost all activity.
Silence that feels like a lifetime ensues. Our speaker quietly murmurs words, gaining rhythm, growing into the final wave, about to pummel the shore. With a thunderous crash, he proclaims from a deep, guttural voice,
”You hear me good—heh. We better be scared of the terror."
"Bring it on!" cries a lone soul in the crowd, almost challenging him, "Yeah. Come on."
In one motion the man shoots up into the air, his legs dancing before they hit the ground, proclaiming proudly before them all,
"I'm ready to go," he says. "I ain't afraid to die. Heh. Come on down."
The man is floating, almost dancing on the energy and air filling the room.
"You gonna be judged for the deed that you've done," he warns to an invisible defendant. "Heh. We need to be ready to go." He runs violently, as if his bones are trying to leave his skin, from one end of the church to the other, until falling to the stage, almost as if his body was broken from the dance. With his head down, he proclaims, "Bless Your holy name, Jesus. Satan's shedding big ole tears." The flames of the spirit now created grow within the congregation, larger with each howl, each jerked movement.
"Bless you. Come on. Praise the Lord," these words rise in almost one voice in unison from the crowd.
"He said ask
and you shall receive,"
says our energized preacher.
"He said seek and ye shall find."
As sweat pours onto his face, he continues to proclaim,
”You people know I'm going to a better place.”
"If the Lord didn't visit you, you wouldn't be here.”
A rattle can be heard in the distance. Echoing through the old, dilapidated building.
"Amen," says the chorus. "Think about it."
"You can't have Jesus—heh—and hold on to the world." He points to the boxes that the rattle noise is coming from. "When they go in this box and get bit, they got a good excuse. No matter how much they ridiculed the apostles—heh—they kept right on preaching.” These words give him confidence, holding his faith steadfast.
His energy now overflowing, fills the crowd, like a high tide consuming the congregation. As the water like energy hits, the people stand, one by one, arms stretched upward, as if reaching for a saving grace. As the energy rushes inward once more, they fall back into their chairs, and the man on stage falls to the ground, waiting for the next wave. He shoots up, and rushes to the now noisy boxes, and sticks his arm right in, as if performing a magic trick. As his arm comes back out of the box, a large, yellow timber rattle snake, the size of a child, comes with it, coiled around, as if becoming one with the man. The voices now rise, he has their attention as he holds up his new partner for the next act of the elusive dance they engage in. At this sign, mothers quickly move their children to the back of the church, and so begins the ritual that brought them there.
Words flowed from his lips, creating a narrative that demonstrated to the masses a belief he wanted to hold so true. With every step, holding the serpents ever close, he felt his faith must be strong, for now he had meaning. With every dance he knew his Lord was moving close to him, on his right side, while he held his dance partner, the venomous viper, in his left hand. Quickly his partner snaps towards his face, just missing his cheek. Twenty two times he’s received that kiss, and fought off that venom, declaring an absolute faith, a truth stronger to him than the force of a thousand horses running wild. Over twenty years of this dance has made his faith feel strong, though the cracks worked their way through the walls created, no matter how hard he fought them off.
“If they don’t bite, ain’t no need to be scared,” he screams confidently.
The dance now intensifies, with the venomous rattler in his left hand, he circles the stage, to the crowd, and back again to the pulpit. A delicate sway, a quick spin, his eyes upward searching for Zion, intent on fulfillment tonight. As his gaze soared, he was suddenly brought down by another quick caress from the serpent, this time making contact. As he jolted his hand back instinctually, almost effortlessly, he continued his dance, as if it had all been one more move was added to the piece. Those close to him, standing on stage, knew what happened, and a pensive unease filled the air.
In confidence he southed their fears stating,
“God don’t ever change, it will be alright.”
As the warm poison coursed through his veins, sweat began to pour from his head. His vision became clouded by the blood he unknowingly wiped into his eyes, blood that poured from his finger, a gift from the enraged viper that had kissed him goodnight. Out of the crimson clouds arose a vision of beauty, his love, his life he longed to have again, his Melinda. She moved like smoke around him, embracing him, passing through him. Memories poured out before his eyes. An eternity passed in a second, a lifetime of devotion in a quickened exhale. Lost in her gaze, those eyes, as it was for the first time, looking through him, to who he truly was. Taken now to their first kiss, a time of embrace, looking at their life ahead as they sit atop a small country bluff. For a brief moment, he had her again, he was alive.
With an agonizing thrust, he was torn from his beloved, owed to the excruciating pain of the venom racing through his veins, on it’s way to the final port of call, his enlarging heart. Through his now tear stricken eyes, memories continued to move in and out of the foggy haze before him. He saw the birth of his children, holding them close and feeling their heart beating in time with his own. They were one again, united flesh and blood, they were complete. Reaching for one more touch of her pale skin, he was hurled violently again, writhing in agony, as the venom made it’s way closer to the finish.
As he fell to ground behind the pulpit, he found himself in a familiar place. As he looked up he was with her again, where he had been only a few years ago. He watched as his love danced in front of him, spinning, her hair and dress encircling her, creating a water like motion moving through the sky. She too was kissed, from the bite of a black timber, rattling a deafening beat. Tears streaming, he reached to embrace her one more time. To feel their hearts beating in tandem, to feel complete. The pain of the emptiness left was almost as horrific as the venom now shredding his fragile veins. For a moment, he was there again, with her, begging her to go with him to the hospital, to save her from the same poison that now flowed through him. He looked into her ghostly eyes, begging, pleading to rescue her, to think of her children, but she refused. She danced, faith never wavering, claiming to feel as she had never felt before, she was euphoric, she was doomed. The serene gaze from her eyes begins to enrage him, causing his heart to pump more quickly, moving the venom ever rapidly to fill his heart.
The battle raged on within, a feeling of abandonment by his love, while left alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood that now burned his worn eyes. Panicked thoughts sped through his mind, just as they painfully had years before. He held his arm upward, outstretched to grasp her face, and as his fingers grazed her cheek, the ghost evaporated into the air before him, becoming one with the maroon clouds that filled his sight.
As he hung his lonely head, a phrase echoed.
“Eli eli lama sabachthani… “
As the congregation watched, waiting for him to arise from behind the pulpit he had stumbled behind only seconds ago, he sat motionless.
“Eli eli lama sabachthani…”
“Why have you forsaken me?”
“Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?”
“O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.”
The cracks of doubt had worked their way through the great walls created to demonstrate his steadfast love. The loss of his companion, created a loss of his completion. Who was he? Where was his guide and protector? The vines pushed their way through the cracks in the wall, creating a garden of doubt around him. As he prayed, his sweat bled down his face, staining his skin in crimson.
Isolated and alone in his garden, his veins shredded now throughly with the poison from the serpent, he realized his last kiss was from the fork tongued partner he had danced with so many nights before. Even more of a realization now became all to apparent.
In agony, and his throat closing up, he uttered his last words.
“No matter what, God’s …still… God.”
With that, his vision blurred to a blinding reflection of what was, as he fell in reverse, descending for what seemed like an eternity. The roars of the church seemed to move away, like the out going tide. “Praise His Name” repeated over and over, with each word growing further distant from the last. The venom now embraced his heart, holding it tightly, constricting as one last beat pushed out of it. As he fell, his blood pooling in his chest, he felt comfort in the venom’s embrace. Descending, he felt the arms of his love take hold of him, and that last heart beat from his enlarged heart was in unison with her, destroying the barrier of time, and finally fading everything away into nothing, for eternity.
The dance was finished. From behind the pulpit, the serpent slithered away, with a kiss never fulfilled.
Within five minutes of being bitten, John Wayne “Punkin” Brown had perished.
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
John Wayne “Punkin” Brown died in Macedonia, Alabama October 3rd 1998. The official amended autopsy report signed by Pustilnik on October 5, 1998, reads as follows:
"Decedent John Wayne Brown, age 34, race W, sex M, length 69 in., weight 223 lbs.
1 Puncture wounds on left third finger with soft tissue hematoma of the left third finger.
2 Visceral congestion.
3 Cardiomegaly (500 grams).
4 . Bilateral pulmonary consolidation.
5 . Cerebral edema, mild (1450 grams).
Cause of Death: Snake bite to hand.
Contributory Cause: Hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
Manner of Death: Accident."
The report concludes,
"The postmortem examination demonstrated apparent puncture wounds on the left third finger associated with soft tissue hematoma of the left third finger. An abrasion on the dorsum of the left hand was suspicious for a bite mark without evidence of puncture wounds in that area. Also identified was cardiomegaly with mild atherosclerosis. Also identified was bilateral pulmonary consolidation and mild cerebral edema. Visceral congestion was also seen. Toxicology demonstrates no arsenic, strychnine, lead or mercury.”
On August 6th, 1995 Punkin’s bride, Melinda Brown was bitten by a black timber rattler during a church service, resulting in her passing. Melinda was only 28 years old, and the mother of five children at her death. To this day, Melinda and Punkin's son is deathly afraid of snakes, craving a safety he may never have, from two star crossed parents who fell in love with the dance of the serpent.