Caleb Johnson planted the last of the pumpkin seeds in the last hill he had prepared. There were fifty of them, and he had spaced them about six feet apart to give them some room. If he had figured right, come late October he would have an abundance of giant orange pumpkins, and relying on his knowledge that there had been a dearth of them the last two years, he hoped that he would make a little money. Also, he had kept his ears open, and no one else around seemed to have picked up on the recent shortage, so he had a bit of a confident feeling.
The only thing that worried him was if there came to be a real wet September, which happened from time to time; he had seen it and it was a death knell to such a crop, the orange orbs rotting on the bottom and becoming a big pile of
mush within a week. So he hoped for the best as he made his way back to the little three-room house he and his wife had. His wife, Helen, was getting big, and as near as they could tell would be bringing them their first born about the same time the pumpkins would be ready to pull.
“That would be ‘bout perfect,” Caleb said to himself as he got to the porch. Their house had an L porch which wrapped around the front and right side; a rusty tin roof kept the rain off them.
Helen was sitting on a straight back chair on the front part of the porch; it was five in the afternoon and the other side of the porch faced due west, so she had sought the cooler haven of the north faced venue to string her beans.
She put her pot aside as he approached and came to him with a broad smile and hugged his sweaty, tanned neck.
“How’d it go sugar,” she said and gave him a big smack on his cheek.
“Got ‘em all in,” he said, and sat down in a chair. “Been a long day, but maybe we’ll have a payday down the road. Ya feelin’ any little kicks?” he asked looking at her big belly.
“Yep,” Helen said, and walked over to stand in front of the pumpkin farmer. She placed his right hand on her bulging belly, and Caleb grinned broadly as he felt a couple of thumps.
“Feels like a boy to me,” he said, laughing and looking at his twenty-year old bride.
Helen laughed. “Only God knows, but we will take what we get, right?”
“Of course, honey, any critter of our union is fine with me,” he said.
Helen resumed working on her green beans. They would have them for supper, along with a piece of side meat she had cooked, having cut the chunk off from their small storehouse of meat in their tiny smokehouse.
They had been married for two years, and had immediately moved into the house after the wedding; Caleb’s daddy had given them the house and five acres of tillable land for a wedding present. His parents lived just down the road.
Helen thought of Caleb’s people, and how nice they were to her; but the bonus was that they didn’t just pop over any time they wanted; Caleb and Helen liked their privacy and Helen figured they could sense it. But they were friendly and helpful and she had no complaints.
After supper Caleb went out to the barn while Helen rested. As the pregnancy progressed she tired more easily, and what wither numerous chores and cooking she got pretty tuckered. Caleb strode into the barn, past the feed room and the stalls. The pungent odor of pig shit laced the air; the hog pen was attached to the side of the barn and he had two big Poland-China sows out there.
He went on to the back corner to the little pen covered with hardware cloth, the kind with the small openings. “Wouldn’t do to use chicken wire on this pen,” he chuckled, “for sure these rascals would be gone in a heartbeat.”
Caleb turned away from the pen and went over to a small screened wire cage where he kept the mice. There were at least twenty of them scurrying around in there and taking into account their rapid reproductive cycle he was well satisfied that the food supply was in real good shape. He unlatched the hatch and picked up two mice, cradling them in the palm of his hand and walked over to the cage, the mice squealing all the way.
The male copperhead struck one at once and started swallowing it. Caleb watched the head being engulfed until all that was showing was a length of tail. The female followed suit, but much more slowly; she was heavy with babies, so it took her a while to catch the scurrying critter, but when she did she swallowed it the same way as her mate.
Caleb’s eyes were bright and intense as he watched the feeding. He would know when it was time to move the female to a cage with no openings. The babies would easily be able to crawl through a quarter inch square and be gone, and they were much too precious to lose; the future of the Solid Rock Reformed Pentecostal Church would be riding on their slender scaly backs.
Caleb had grown up in Solid Rock Reformed Church; his father had first served as a deacon and had then become the pastor. The ascension to the ministry was noteworthy. Caleb’s father, Eli, had taken a trip to backwoods Tennessee to visit some distant relatives while he was serving under the quiet and benign Reverend Potter. Turned out the Tennessee kinfolks handled poisonous snakes in their church and Eli became fascinated by it; he returned with a fervent belief in snake handling and two adult copperheads.
But Eli also came back armed with two Bible passages to support his nascent belief. The first was Mark 16:17-18. “And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”
The second passage was from Luke 10:19. “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”
His family found the conversion exciting and quickly accepted and embraced the Pentecostal practice. Further emboldened Eli talked up the snake handling in Sunday school class, out of earshot of Reverend Potter. Eli spouted the virtues and the power involved and quoted his two Bible verses which he had memorized.
So it came to pass that only three weeks after Eli Johnson returned from Tennessee there was an emergency meeting of the Official Board of Solid Rock Reformed Church. In this session on a Wednesday night, they accomplished three things – the firing of Reverend Potter, the installation of Reverend Eli Johnson as the new pastor, and the adoption of a hastily written proclamation informing the world that Solid Rock Reformed Church was now Pentecostal.
Caleb Johnson had been ten years old when all this stuff happened, so he remembered it quite well. He recalled his daddy handling the snakes, and preachin’ his ass off; for whatever reason, the novelty of a new faith or true belief, the little church had increased in members each year since Eli had introduced the new doctrine.
Of course, there had been a couple of negative situations along the way; for example, old Jim Colliers, who had very poor hearing, had misunderstood Reverend Eli Johnson’s instruction to hold the snake right behind the neck. Apparently ol’ Jim had heard “hold him by the tail” and the copperhead had struck like lightning and moments later Jim Colliers was lying still on the wood floor with a snakebite mark on his left temple.
But this sad scene was eventually explained away by Reverend Johnson simply as someone not following instructions, which were the “Word of God,” so a few weeks later Colliers was a faint memory.
Then there was the Sunday when Jed Singer, who was less than the village idiot, sorta went crazy and grabbed the snake out of Reverend Johnson’s hand and put its head in his mouth. His demise was as lightning fast as Jim Colliers; but Reverend Johnson explained that it was most likely that the poor fool Jed Singer was possessed by demons. The congregation would believe about anything relative to Jed, so that attitude combined with the fact that he had no family greased the wheels for a very short period of grief for the dear departed.
Eli Johnson had brought his boy along slowly in handling the snakes, but after a year and a half of careful prompting by the Reverend Caleb was ready. For his debut it was planned that Eli would mount a stirring sermon and at the time that he quoted his two favorite Bible passages Caleb would enter from the front of the church, so people would turn around to see what was going on as the excitement built. Reverend Johnson had painstakingly taught Caleb how to handle the copperheads, and had schooled him on the most important aspect of snake handling – never handle a hungry snake.
Reverend Johnson religiously fed the two copperheads each one mouse every Sunday morning and things had worked out just fine. Eli had never been bitten; in addition to soothing their hunger, a full belly made the serpents appear languid and sluggish. Of course, all bets were off if some idiot put one in his mouth, but fortunately that Jed Singer episode had not been replicated.
They picked a Sunday right after Caleb and Helen had announced their engagement; Helen was on board right away; having some relatives in the backwoods of Kentucky who were Holiness snake handlers.
On the appointed day Caleb and Helen sat together on the front row of the little church until Reverend Johnson started the recitation of his now famous verses, stopping after every few lines to exhort the parishioners with shouts of “Do you believe, do you believe.”
About halfway through the verses Caleb slipped outside and reached into the gunnysack he had laid behind the big gardenia bush at the front of the church near the entry door. The copperheads offered no resistance when he put his hands around them; he walked into the little church and waited for the sign; when he entered his father was to stop stock still and point toward him. As soon as he entered Reverend Johnson fired up his eyes and arched his bushy eyebrows and with a grand flourish, thrusting his long right arm over his head and behind him, swung it quickly back to the front, pointing toward the approaching Caleb. The group moved like a shutter opening, their eyes sweeping to the front door of the church, where Caleb was striding down the aisle, beaming, holding a copperhead in each hand, the rear of their bodies wrapping around each arm, and their tongues slowly moving in and out of their mouths.
The parishioners were in awe of Caleb Johnson and were transfixed in their wonder at what they were seeing. Caleb continued up the aisle to where his beaming father stood, still pointing at him, and then walked back down the aisle to the entry door, slowly, milking every moment of admiration being showered upon him.
When Caleb got outside he put the two copperheads back into the gunnysack, and stood alone basking in the glory of what had just happened. He thought back to some less wonderful moments in his snake-handling career, when he was experimenting with different approaches of how to connect with the general populace and spread the word.
Caleb had told his father of his plan; the Reverend Johnson disapproved but did not forbid it, figuring that it would more than likely teach his son a valuable lesson about people and how one needed to approach them to effectively relate your message.
Caleb’s idea was to take a more ecumenical approach; he noticed that many Saturday mornings the Jehovah’s Witnesses crowd would be out going door to door; he thought maybe getting up close and personal would be a good approach to introductory snake handling and viewing. He had also seen the young Mormons, spotless and clean cut, bicycling around the neighborhoods; in his mind he melded the two approaches and came up with a plan.
Every Saturday he was going to dress in a white shirt, slacks and a tie, and bicycle around the area. The difference between him, the proselytizing Mormons and the tract distributing Jehovah’s Witnesses was only one thing, but it was a purty big one – wrapped around the handlebars of his bicycle was a gunny sack with his two copperheads inside. Caleb had even thought up a nice introductory speech to give as he pulled the snakes out of the bag.
It was gonna go like this: “Good morning, (Sir or Madam), I am Caleb Johnson of the Solid Rock Reformed Pentecostal Church, formerly the Solid Rock Reformed Church, and I would like to introduce you to a very integral part of our belief and worship service.”
At this point Caleb would open the gunnysack and pull out the two copperheads while he quoted the two venerable Bible verses pertaining to serpents. In his master plan Caleb would quote scripture while the spanking new converts lightly touched the serpents and inquired about the time of the church services.
But what really happened was quite different; out of the five stops Caleb made before he capitulated with a long and ignominious sigh, at two places no one would come to the door, at another a woman opened the door a crack but slammed it when the word “Pentecostal” passed Caleb’s lips, at another a man answered and told him to get his “friggin Mormon ass off his property,” and at the last stop the front door was opened only wide enough for the business end of a double barreled shotgun to be inserted. Caleb pedaled away quickly, heading home to reflect on what had happened, and to ponder on where things went wrong and what he could do about it.
When Caleb got home and had time to think about what had happened he then recalled what his daddy had said, and how Reverend Johnson had not approved of Caleb’s approach, while not forbidding him to follow his idea.
Caleb had quickly gone to see his father, told him all that had transpired, received a wry smile, a pat on the head, and a heartfelt “Don’t worry, son, it was a learning experience.”
Since then Caleb had stuck by the direction of Reverend Johnson, and as he tied a piece of twine around the sack of snakes there in the churchyard, he felt good about the way things were going at home and in the church, and he remembered he needed to consult with Reverend Johnson soon about his upcoming marriage and plans for the future.
It was late October and a lot of things had happened; the Solid Rock Reformed Pentecostal Church was thriving, the pumpkin patch had been a smashing success, brimming with large orange pumpkins, and Caleb and Helen were now parents to a healthy baby boy, Elijah Eli Johnson.
But Little Elijah Eli was not the only baby around; Caleb’s female serpent had given birth to six baby copperheads. They were about nine inches long and possessed the characteristic yellow/sulfur colored tail. Caleb had been watching the female closely for a month before he had decided that it was time to put her in a screened wire cage.
It was less than a week later that he checked on her and discovered that the blessed events had occurred. A month after they were born Caleb returned the mother and babies to the cage with the father, the girth of the children having expanded enough to where they could not escape through the quarter inch openings in the hardware cloth.
Caleb fed them flies and crickets; this fare would serve them well until they became large enough to devour the mice.
After the copperhead family had been reunited Caleb came to think about how he might shake things up a little at the Solid Rock Reformed Pentecostal Church. For a few years now he and Reverend Johnson had handled the two snakes each Sunday and had been well received, but Caleb had a notion that maybe the parishioners may be getting a little too accustomed to the weekly exposition. That was when he had come up with the idea for the new wrinkle; and if it worked it might aid him in getting rid of his pumpkin plethora.
Caleb Johnson figured it this way; he would open the field up to all comers, each of whom would pay $2.00 each for the right to search for the biggest pumpkin in the patch – the largest being judged by none other than the unimpeachable Revered Johnson. But the icing on the cake was going to be Caleb’s idea that would get the young folks more involved, for Caleb was going to core six of the smaller pumpkins and place one of the baby copperheads inside, then re-insert the plug.
The six lucky children would be chosen by drawing numbers out of a hollowed out pumpkin. Caleb was satisfied that the pumpkin sale would bring him a reasonable profit, and that the copperhead in the orange orb would stimulate the children’s interest in snake handling. The largest pumpkin, as adjudged by the Reverend, would pay out five dollars; Caleb assured the pastor the idea would be a big hit, and his daddy agreed.
Caleb and the Reverend decided to set up the event a week from the next Sunday afternoon. After ruminating a bit Reverend Johnson suggested that they set up tables at the pumpkin patch the day of the event, and have a good ol’ fashioned reunion style lunch. He also suggested that while everyone was in a joyous and giving mood that he would announce that the congregation would “pound” the preacher on the same day.
To “pound” a minister meant that the church members would open up their pocketbooks and contribute what they could to their minister, and his family – a kind of “love offering.” Reverend Johnson was careful not to suggest this pounding too often, but the last one was almost a year in the past, so he felt himself to be on pretty solid ground.
“Like the solid rock of Peter, on which Christ built his church,” Pastor Johnson thought to himself as he considered how he would present Caleb’s idea to the congregation the very next Sunday.
After a lot of consideration Reverend Johnson sent word for his son Caleb to come see him in his study on Saturday afternoon at three o’clock. At that time he imparted to his son and comrade in snake handling how his pronouncement to the congregation about the next week’s coming agenda would go. The Reverend’s ideas were thoroughly embraced by his protégé and Caleb left with his walking orders – go build six small screened wire snake cages and have them at church on the day of the event.
On the next day at worship service Reverend Johnson, after a truncated session of snake handling, revealed his surprises to the congregation, and the plan was well received. The Reverend did notice a slight gasp emanating from some of the mothers of young children when he spoke of the copperhead loaded pumpkins six lucky kids would receive, but he swiftly assuaged their fears by telling them how Caleb would be on site with the snake cages, and how he would remove the baby snakes from the pumpkins and place them in the individual receptacles so that each lucky child could carry their prize home safely – he was even supplying a generous number of crickets to each and every winner.
Subsequent to this heart-felt explanation all was well; Reverend Johnson took heart that to a person no one blinked an eye at the mention of the “pounding,” and everyone left the church with loving smiles and thoughts of what delightful dishes they would prepare to bring to the lunch preceding the Pumpkin Extravaganza.
Young Caleb spent the next week building the little snake houses and turning the pumpkins so that they wouldn’t get too moist on the bottom and get a rotten spot. Saturday afternoon he pulled six medium sized pumpkins and put them up in the yard. Then he carefully plugged each one, and restored the plug to the pumpkin; he would wait until just before the event to insert the lovely little baby copperheads.
Then he spent the rest of the afternoon setting up the tables for the feast; using saw horses and rough sawn 2 X 12s from his lumber supply in the barn. The next day Helen would drape the tables with white sheets and the scene would be in place. As the sun set with a cloudless sky Caleb, Helen and young Elijah Eli were on the porch relaxing, and Caleb was going over the snake handling scenario that his daddy had told him about last Saturday.
Helen listened, or at least pretended to, as Caleb went on about his daddy and the snakes and Biblical justification. Sometimes she wondered what she had gotten herself into, for the initial thrill of the snake handling Pentecostal ideas was now a faint and unpleasant memory. And lately she found herself looking at Caleb, and wondering how she and little Elijah Eli could make him a faint memory.
Helen felt trapped with no way out, in a life of what she had come to consider backwoods ignorance; she tried not to think about it, but it crept and slithered into her mind, not unlike the serpents her husband and father were so enamored of.
The glorious day dawned splendidly with azure sky and puffy cumulus clouds, a light breeze blowing them about. After a short church service everyone headed to Caleb Johnson’s house for the event.
Caleb watched as the parishioners arrived; he especially watched the area of the tables designated for desserts. Caleb based the success of any food gathering on the number of and tastiness of banana puddings. At a homecoming a few years back there were seven great ones, but Caleb’s heart soared when he counted ten meringue-laden delights.
With all in attendance Reverend Johnson called for everyone’s attention and said the blessing: “Our loving and gracious Heavenly Father, who knows all we say, think and do, we entreat that you bless each one of us on this hallowed day, and we especially thank Thou for giving us the gift of taking up serpents and Lord we want you to know that we will continue to do your bidding in this love laden endeavor,” and at that moment the Reverend recited the two Bible verses sanctioning the Holy Serpent Handling, not missing a word or inflection due to his countless repetition.
“We graciously accept your blessing of this beautiful day, and we thank you for Caleb Johnson and all the work he has put into this glorious event. Amen.”
A chorus of “Amens” went up from the crowd and the Reverend looked out of the corner of his eye at the rapidly filling gallon paint can Caleb had so kindly placed on one of the tables to receive the “pounding” offering. The Reverend’s sharp eyes had even spotted a couple of tens and a twenty among the paper bills.
Then the feast ensued, and the bounty was great and diverse. There was country ham, several meat loafs, corn on the cob (silver queen), fried chicken, squash casserole, cucumbers and onion in vinegar, banana sandwiches, pimento cheese sandwiches, two big bowls of fried okra, country fried steak, tomato sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, crowder peas, creamed corn, and about any other good ol’ country dish you could imagine – and each and every one of them out of the garden or the smokehouse or the barnyard of the faithful followers of the Solid Rock Reformed Pentecostal Church.
These wonderful dishes filled two of the tables, but the desserts covered nearly another one. That was where the marvelously coveted ten banana puddings resided, along with three coconut cakes (they all used Baker’s), two chocolate cakes, a prune cake, two containers of cut up watermelon and cantaloupe, chocolate fudge with black walnuts in it that the Wilder Self always brought, and a big surprise – at the last minute Brother John Harvey drove up with three freezerfuls of hand cranked homemade ice cream he had done at his house, vanilla, chocolate, and banana. The ice cream would go well with the two pumpkin pies Helen had baked.
As the old saying goes, once the eating started the talking stopped; even old Mrs. Rodman, the worst gossip in the whole congregation did not say a word for a full twenty minutes.
Caleb Johnson ate sparingly of the meats and vegetables, taking only a little country ham and corn on the cob, with a little bit of cucumber and onions in vinegar and a pimento cheese sandwich; he gobbled that quickly and was the first to invade the dessert table.
Once there Caleb took his customary large tablespoonful of banana pudding from each entry, and stopping off to replenish his sweet tea found a shady spot under a big water oak and sat down to check out the bonanza of banana pudding. He savored every bit, noting that they ranged from average to splendid, but he admitted to himself that he loved every one of them and would surely brag long and hard about the wonderful cooks that had brought them.
But the Pumpkin Party awaited, so Caleb Johnson went over to where the crowd had gathered. First the children drew numbers out of a hat, and the six with the highest numbers were the lucky ones to get the baby copperhead pumpkins. At this point Caleb pulled the plugs on the pumpkins and placed a baby copperhead inside, replacing the plug afterwards. Then he went over and collected the $2 from each of the “biggest pumpkin” combatants and sent them off into the field, the Reverend Johnson having installed himself behind a makeshift desk with a crudely written banner proclaiming him “Judge” waving behind it.
Caleb watched as the men ran around in the pumpkin patch looking for the biggest one; then satisfied that everything was under control in that venue headed back to the baby snake pumpkin area. He had not paid that much attention to who the kids were before he left, kinda bein’ in a hurry, but as he neared the six pumpkins was alarmed to see that two of the kids were the twin sons of Kerr Plonk, who owned the local hardware store.
Having never, ever, forgiven his parents for his moniker, he had very benignly chosen Ronnie and Donnie as names for the twins; however, the names were the only thing benign about those two – they had the reputation of being the most ill-behaved and obstreperous children in the community.
And man were they in form. Each of them had already smashed into their two pumpkins with a small hatchet they had brought from home and were running around holding their snake and shaking it at the other children, who responded by picking up their pumpkins and smashing them on the rocky ground, then quickly grabbing the baby copperheads and, following suit, running around shaking their snakes at the other children who had missed out on the lucky numbers.
Fortunately for the baby copperhead shakers they were doing it rather vigorously and to a one were holding the babies by the tail; this movement kept the snakes from being able to get at the kids. But after a few minutes of this activity the lucky children grew weary of it and started just walking around holding their baby still by the tail.
The adults, with the exception of Caleb Johnson, were watching the frenzied movements of the men in the pumpkin patch searching for the big prize, so the snake handling children were not even noticed, that is until little Donnie Plonk walked up to Eliza Young, who was quietly nursing her infant daughter, and stuck the baby copperhead right in her face.
This action fomented two reactions; first, Eliza a young lady of nineteen holding her first child, shrieked and dropped the child, and second, the shriek scared the little miscreant Donnie Plonk to death and he threw his baby copperhead to the ground. The little snake, now way beyond agitated, landed square on the unsuckled baby and immediately placed his fangs into the spot he hit, the baby’s temple. Eliza shrieked and grabbed for her child, her actions securing for her a nice bite on her hand, then pushed away the snake with her shoe and picked up her now motionless baby.
Little Donnie Plonk’s dumber brother Ronnie was slinging his baby snake around by the tail and wondering what he should do with it when he remembered the Sunday that Jed Singer had put the copperhead in his mouth; Ronnie Plonk had always secretly idolized Jed and his antics and in a moment of remembrance and adoration did ol’ Jed one better – he popped the nine inch baby copperhead in his mouth and managed to swallow it, the little booger biting his way down his esophagus until Ronnie fell to the ground.
All of this activity corresponded with the final judging of the biggest pumpkin about sixty yards away. . . Following Reverend Johnson’s explicit instructions Caleb had placed the two adult snakes, encased in their box, directly behind the esteemed pumpkin judger; for the Reverend had a bang up idea for the announcement of the winner.
Reverend Johnson had scrutinized all of the proffered pumpkins and had concluded that the orange orb offered by Jim Hancock was the winner, so, following his plan, he first brought out the snakes, one on each arm, and called for order. As he stood up holding the copperheads he felt something was amiss, for the usually languid serpents seemed agitated, their tongues flicking in and out rapidly.
The Reverend quickly dismissed this behavior as a petty anomaly, but as he raised his arms above his head and prepared to announce his decision each snake struck simultaneously, pushing their poison laden fangs into the side of his neck. The winning pumpkin, which had been placed in front of Reverend Johnson was the recipient of a dead load of preacher face as he collapsed.
Caleb had walked up just as he saw his father holding his arms skyward and he noticed the unusual demeanor of the copperheads, and then he remembered that with all of the hurry and hubbub involved with the event that he had not had time to feed the snakes that morning.
Grief stricken, he lunged to his father’s body and pulled the serpents from his neck, but in his emotional state he did not grab them behind the head where he could control them, but caught both of them about ten inches down from the top, leaving them with plenty of maneuverability.
They both thanked him swiftly him and viciously, the male hitting him in his right eye and the female on his jaw. Caleb fell on his dear father’s body and writhed for a bit, his last thought being a recollection that he absolutely knew that he had made arrangements for the feeding of the mice to the snakes.
Helen Johnson had watched from a distance the unfolding of the last few minutes of the lives of her husband and revered father-in-law. She had stood silently, cradling little Elijah Eli in her arms, thinking of his future, a future that would not be involved with the Solid Rock Reformed Pentecostal Church, and would not be touched by the late pastor Eli, and would not be tainted by his son Caleb.
As she walked toward the furor where these two men now lay she stopped by the dessert table and picked up a large piece of Widder Self’s chocolate fudge with the black walnuts, and suppressed a smile, thinking of how conveniently she had “forgotten” Caleb’s request that she feed the snakes.
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