The First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers
Eric J. Guignard, 2018
Originally appeared in The Fiend in the Furrows, An Anthology of Folk Horror, ed. by David T. Neal & Christine M. Scott, Nosetouch Press, 2018.
I never heard of basilisks ‘til the night of Murrell’s barn dance, but that was the night I met Rosalie, so the basilisks sorta took a back seat in my thoughts. I think it was Ronny Loom who told me, though his brother, Carter, was there too, and they’re one ’n the same, being just a year apart and closer than spittin’ twins.
“Poppa told me basilisks are crossing the Nolichucky River,” Ronny said. “Heard Lilac and some men from Kingsport bagged half a dozen already, but more keep showing up. Lilac says they’re worth more’n cougar pelts.”
“That old trapper’s still around?” I asked, more interested in hearing ’bout him than gabbing on new mountain game. Legend was, Lilac Zollinger had once been engaged to my great-granny Lizbeth, but Great-Grandpa Micajah dueled him for her hand and won, leaving Lilac with a bullet in the shoulder.
He healed, except for his pride, which supposing got wounded the most. “Heard Lilac caught the scythe two summers ago by way of momma grizzly.” “He survived that,” Carter said. “Thought everyone knew.”
Me and the Looms passed under the banner for Murrell’s dance and into his barn. Its double red doors were shuttered open and breathing yellow light like a hell cat, silhouetting straw-hatted farmers and their bonnet-hatted wives.
“Harv Ridout says Lilac won’t sleep under a roof, but rather beds down amongst the trees each night so he won’t soften up like us townies,” Ronny said.
Carter added, “Harv Ridout says Lilac punched a wolf that was fightin’ him over a cottontail.”
I rolled my eyes. “Harv Ridout’s got less sense—”
The sudden scream of fiddle severed my words, then the clang of guitar followed, and soon a gaggle of folks lined the varnished floor kickin’ up their legs like a train of asses. I never cared much for dancing and don’t know what others see in it. It’s not like kissin’ or anything, not even a little, and I should know ‘cause I done both. Dancing, you’re not even allowed to touch girls ‘cept on their hands, or Pastor Wright’ll whip your bottom scorched as Hell’s eternal fury for such a sin.
That’s when a girl I never seen before swung from the dance line, twirling delicate as a marigold bloom. Right away, my insides turned light and fizzy, like if ever I thought to float on moonlit mist, now would be the moment. She was tall and skinny, like me, but her hair went dark, and her eyes shone like copper pennies set in fire ‘til they glowed and sizzled. She wore a dress pretty as first snow, and it clung to her in the middle and billowed out everywhere else as she moved.
Truth was, I never felt that way looking at a girl before, not even when kissing Aimee Greenwood last Harvest Day. I only kissed Aimee ‘cause she started it, but I liked it too, though how it felt didn’t compare a blue belle to how seeing this new girl weave and bow to each man in line did. Suddenly I felt dancing would be the greatest thing in the world, especially if with her.
“New girl in town,” Ronny and Carter said together. “Heard her name is Rosalie Jacobs.”
“Rosalie,” I repeated, and I wondered where she came from. In Whaleyville, everyone knew everyone—even new folks—but she was a puzzler.
Murrell’s barn was stuffy hot that night, and the back of my neck stuck to the shirt collar with sweat. I ran a checkered sleeve across my forehead and it came away damp and grimy, though I still felt my best in over two years, since that terrible day at the revival.
“I’m gonna ask her to dance,” I vowed. But no sooner had the words been spoke did that vow fall to bitter ash when I saw Rosalie link arms with Luke Holder.
Ronny and Carter shook their heads somber as grave diggers. Luke Holder was older’n us, sized the three of us together, and meaner than a pecker full of sin. It was the cruel joke of the county that he was good looking too, with a big, perfect smile that made gals do funny things, and with eyes blue as winter quartz: cold and hard and sharp enough to cut, should you fall on ‘em the wrong way.
“Hellfire,” I muttered.
Rosalie and Luke swirled and dipped in the center of everyone, and Luke’s hand dipped below her waist too, lower than was decent. I couldn’t believe no one blinked at that, not even Pastor Wright, who would’ve had my hide skinned and burned for offering to His Heavenly Mercy. Rosalie giggled, and I could’ve puked.
“Heard Missus Janey’s got sweet tarts she made from honeycomb,” Carter offered as consolation.
“Sounds fine,” I admitted, and we went off, the sounds of music and scuffin’ all around, Joe Halverson’s mouth harp pickin’ up speed and Holly Barber calling steps.
Must’ve been forty, fifty people dancing in the barn that night, and the big oak beams shook with the ruckus of stomping feet and caterwauls and everyone-but-mine’s laughter. We settled on a bench of hickory and tasted the sweet wonder of Missus Janey’s tarts, and I started feeling better.
“Wonder if Lilac would take us with him after some of those basilisks,” Ronny mused. “Wouldn’t mind to mount one for Poppa’s trophy room.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “What’s a basilisk anyway?”
“Ain’t you heard?” Carter asked. “They’ve been crossing the Nolichucky.”
“Yeah, I heard. What of it?”
“Well, they ain’t natural. Jonas Teakle called ’em the kings of snakes, but said they’re not entirely serpents either, only half-so. They were called forth by the pastor at Swannanoa’s church, and he’s to blame they’re escaping, on account he’s false and their church is awful wicked and full o’ sin.”
“Can’t be worse than ours,” I said, mocking.
Ronny and Carter both threw me strange glances, and I pretended to wipe away crumbs, hiding my face. They might’ve said something unkind next, but then trouble occurred. Seemed Luke Holder hankered for sweet tarts, too, and he wanted Rosalie to delight in their savor alongside him.
Each was panting and flushed from dancing when they came beside us. “… and then I split three logs at the same time,” Luke told her.
“And Judge McClellan said he never seen anything like it.”
“Three logs?” Rosalie repeated back, that coppery fire of her eyes seeming to burn brighter. “You’d have to be strong as an ox.”
“Bet I am!” Luke answered. “And hungry as one. Wait ‘til you try these tarts.”
Missus Janey had stacked several dozen tarts upon a porcelain plate, and set that on a tub for folks to help themselves. You could now see the painted rose blooms and vine swirl whimsies covering the plate’s face, ‘cause most of the tarts had been taken off and eaten within the first hour, they tasted that good. In fact, only two sweet tarts remained, and Luke and Rosalie reached for them.
I can’t help it, but sometimes there’s a sore, vindictive part of me that resents others gettin’ things I can’t have. That little voice took to whispering: It ain’t fair Luke Holder gets to have the girl and the last of the tarts.
My arm didn’t seek counsel with my brain and seemed to shoot out on its own—I snatched the last two tarts from the plate and stuffed ‘em both in my mouth.
“Oh, no,” the Loom brothers said.
“What in thunderation?” Luke yelled. “Those were our tarts!”
I tried to smartly reply how his name wasn’t written on them, but my mouth was so full of the honey-baked pastries when I spoke all that came out were chunks of sweet pie and sugar-berries spittin’ into Luke’s face and the front of his fringe-lined dress shirt.
“Oh, no,” the Loom brothers repeated.
My face flushed at the realization of what I’d done, and what I knew would be given in return: I expected the color filling my cheeks was probably as crimson as Luke’s own face, though I wasn’t mistaking his reddening for any type of shame.
I wanted to tell him it wasn’t my fault, I just act without thinking sometimes, but my mouth was sticky, and I feared what else might come out. I raised my hands to him, fingers outstretched in surrender, and they were smeared by the guilt of delicious berries. He lifted fists that could split three logs at the same time… I expected Luke to be angry, and I expected I’d be hit, and I expected the Loom brothers to stand idly aside. What I didn’t expect was Rosalie’s reaction.
She nodded at me, like we were akin in something, and when her copper eyes glinted, I wondered what terrible secret she knew.
Then Luke’s fists arrived.
* * *
Next morning was Sunday, and no one in Whaleyville missed attending church, regardless how poorly or humiliated they felt, or how many bruisings their face took the evening before at hands of the town lout.
Breakfast weighed heavy in my guts when we packed the rough pews of Whaleyville’s First Methodist Church of God Holiness, and that was not a good thing. Never a sermon passed that I wasn’t compelled to rise and sit and rise again, jostled and shoved by gibbering neighbors, forced to my knees, yanked by my collar, and threatened with eternal brimstone by frothing Pastor Wright. My innards cringed at the thought, as did my quivering knees. I hated it, just hated it, and each week I thought I might water my trousers wonderin’ if the Lord would again save me.
“Receive the genuine Holy Ghost fire!” Wright shouted. “Receive, because God loathes any man who keepeth sin in his heart. Receive!”
“Receive!” Pa and Ma and my little brothers and everyone else in the congregation shouted in kind.
“Don’t question His will like a puppet of Cain, fill yourself with faith! Receive the Word of God!”
Pastor Wright was fat, and I don’t mean overweight like the seams of his suit coat needed loosening, but he was so over-sized he couldn’t even wear a coat, and the Ladies Auxiliary had to sew special garments for him, cobblin’ fabric gathered by collection plate. When Wright bellowed The Good Word, his chins shook back and forth like each was battling to be saved first, and his belly plummeted down and bounced back up like a supplicating heathen. Suppose gluttony wasn’t so much a sin to him as it was a half-handed suggestion he could shrug off while suckin’ down a couple wine-basted pheasants.
“Receive!” Wright shouted again, and we echoed it, and he rattled off a thousand Bible verses, and everyone swayed and repeated those verses by heart, and they cried tears and fell to their knees while doin’ so, and a couple old ladies even fainted.
Before the revival, that would’ve been the culmination of our sermon, the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth response to satisfy any holy roller that he’d put the fear of Satan in our hearts and brought us begging for salvation.
But Wright wasn’t like other pastors and, for him, our worship thus far was just stretching before a ball game.
Prior to the revival, we’d been Whaleyville’s First Methodist Church, without the “of God Holiness” tacked on its end. Walt Brackenbury was pastor then, and he was a fine enough man, tough on Sundays, but friendly thereafter. Then Creighton Wright came challenging, and he brought his tests of “true” faithfulness: The snakes.
For Wright, it was simple enough to uncover nonbelievers by way of handling rattlesnakes: After all, God would shield those who led a Holy seasoned life. The snakes knew your heart, and if you were faithful, then by Grace you’d be saved, and the rest be damned.
Pastor Brackenbury must have been a charlatan, not living a genuine godly life, for he didn’t survive that first test of purity, nor did any others who clung to Brackenbury’s “flaccid” style of worship. Indeed, I thought myself faithful enough, but that hubris proved me as corrupt as Cain’s puppets, for the snakes bit me too—and I nearly died that day.
I’d since been terrified that my failings would prove too indecent an abomination to be weekly forgiven. I wanted to live God’s life, not from fear of damnation, but from fear of the serpents. I tried, but my flaws were known…
“Satan throws lies in our face, and you must throw back those lies! Armor yourself with the genuine Holy Ghost fire. Receive!”
Ronny and Carter stood in front of me, and they screamed with arms lifted to touch the rafters, “Receive!”
Jenny Teakle, cousin of Jonas, started convulsing and fell to the floor flopping like a fish pulled to the bank of the Nolichucky.
“She’s received!” went the joyous cry.
Old Mrs. Kittenridge, filled with arthritis, leapt in the air like a fervent hare.
Mary Ruth Barton started screaming, only they weren’t just shrieks, but actual words, though I couldn’t understand them, sounding like a duck quacking in Latin. Her rabid tongue hung from her mouth, and she jabbered away as the others cried, “She’s received!”
Four boys each carried in a snake box to Wright, and the sound of rattles clawed at my senses, louder and louder, promising to finish what they began two years prior. The beading sweat like I’d had at Murrell’s barn dance returned to my forehead, only now it turned cold, even though the church already felt hot enough to cook us all. Someone shrieked and another collapsed.
“Behold the agents of God!” Wright proclaimed, pulling out a rattler that must’ve been seven feet long. “Blessed be their judgment, for we will cast out the nonbelievers!”
That snake was a monster, hideous and terrible, striped orange and black with eyes yellow as angry flames. Wright held it to his huge face and the snake bared long fangs. “Jesus shield me!”
And he kissed the thing right on its awful mouth, a deeper kiss even than I gave Aimee Greenwood last Harvest Day, tongue and all.
“Only the repentant receive benediction!” the pastor shouted. “Come forth in faith!”
And we came: Pa and Ma pulling me in a rush with the crowd to prove none of them was less holy than any others, and I shook with terror.
The serpents were passed around like taking communion, people accepting and crying in tongues, and the snakes answering back. Parents and children caressed the rattlers together as if they were precious as a mewling infant’s cheek, petting the sinewy coils and glittering scales. The crowd surged like a swirling whirlpool with Wright at its center, and his rattlers hissed and judged, and one-by-one the people of Whaleyville were found righteous, unless they weren’t. Three people screamed for real and fell to the floor, filled not with His heavenly spirit, but rather filled with the wicked yellow venom of the vipers.
“Open your heart to the Lord, and repent your sins,” Wright said, “or the snakes will know ye!”
Pa cried out, “I coveted my neighbor John Loom’s crop of bean shoots last week!” and he took a snake.
Ma admitted, “I lied when I told my sons our dead dog went to heaven, since I know animals ain’t got souls!” She took the snake passed over from Pa.
I was next, and Wright shouted, “Repent!”
Horrible thoughts of the revival tent came to me, two years back when I first took a snake. I hadn’t been found worthy then, and a viper’s bite sickened me with wither and seizures.
Memories brought terror, and I cried tears and shouted, “I had unclean thoughts about Rosalie Jacobs last night in bed!”
The shame washed over me, the stigma and guilt of everyone knowing my deficiencies. And suddenly I saw her, halfway back in the clutches of our shrieking and chanting flock, and I averted my eyes, but not before I saw Rosalie’s red lips rise in a strange, biting smile.
But the power of salvation took hold and must have leeched the sin from my heart, for my mind cleared and I immediately felt righteous. I took the rattler by its neck and its mouth hissed open and a probing, forked tongue shot at me, testing, but I stayed strong, unflinching, even when its fangs reached for my wrist…
O! It rattled its war cry and tried my spirit, but finally acquiesced that my faith was good, and the serpent grew harmless as a spring pond.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” went the cries, and I was proven righteous as the lot.
* * *
The congregation picnicked afterward, as the weather was fine, and folks gotta eat, so we may as well do it together since Whaleyville likes to call itself “tight-knit.”
I still felt righteous, but I also knew I lied to myself a little, as part of me didn’t regret at all those unclean thoughts of Rosalie… I only repented from fear of the snakes, which was greater than my desire of her, though that didn’t cause my longing to be any lessened.
Gingham cloth was spread out, and some splintered benches and tables moved beneath giant boughed trees that were fat as Pastor Wright. The women set to laying plates and pouring drinks, and groups of men gossiped around us. I made out Herb Cranston’s voice above the others.
“… Heard a basilisk got at Philemon Talbot’s cousin in Kingsport last week, and that cousin died faster than a flying turd hits earth.”
“We gotta do somethin’ about it,” said Holly Barber, who called the dance last night. Holly was a stout, zealous man with side whiskers that billowed under his chin like wild brambles. “Those snakes are crossin’ the river.”
“Ain’t natural snakes, either. Hell spawn, called forth by Swannanoa’s church. It’s a wonder they ain’t been struck down for the abomination they are.”
“Snakes with the heads of chickens,” Jonas Teakle added, winking at his cousin, Jenny. Jonas was always winking at her and, rumor was, he’d taken her in the husband-sense long ago and continued still, even though it wasn’t allowed, them bein’ cousins and all. He turned and winked in the other direction at another cousin, Jimmy.
Herb replied, indignant, “We oughta teach them what the holy judgment of rattlers can do…”
Other men joined in, and their voices and words became indistinguishable.
“You hear that?” I asked Ronny. “They’re talking about snakes with chicken heads.”
“That’s what we were telling you last night. Don’t you listen? And the basilisks ain’t chicken-headed, they’re rooster-headed.”
“Heard it true from George Templeton.”
“Well, I never heard of such a thing.” We sat squeezed between devout Jameson Lightspeed on one side and the freckled Peckingpaw sisters on the other. I thought briefly of the three folks snake-bit today, of what they might have done worse than the rest of us, then presumed God or Wright would either save ‘em or damn ‘em, and join us for chicken wings and slaw afterward.
Carter said, “Lilac’s been trackin’ the basilisks down, but the things ain’t amiable to extermination.”
Ronny added, “Heard you look at one and it’ll turn you straight to stone.”
I couldn’t even reply, that notion sounded so asinine, and I made a face that told as such.
“And if the basilisks bite you,” someone added from behind, “their venom will melt the flesh off your bones.”
The voice startled me, being so near. I turned, and it was none other than Rosalie Jacobs.
I puckered with humiliation. No one wants a gal to publically discover she’s the object of his midnight fantasies, and now I had to face her after professing all in church.
Ronny gulped. Carter sputtered, “A-Ain’t heard that.”
“I hear a lot of things,” she said, “though just because it’s preached, don’t prove it true.”
Rosalie stood over me as I sat, and her hip nudged my arm, and her hand squeezed my shoulder. The touch felt gentle and beguiling, a lush cloud to wrap me in scented billows. “That was brave,” she said, “to reveal yourself like that.”
“I—I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I, uh… it just slipped out.”
“You possess good qualities, Davey.”
“You know my name?”
“Doesn’t everyone know everyone around here?” True enough. She still held my shoulder, and I saw the tips of delicate fingers splay toward my heart. Her skin was bronzed, and her nails white as daisy blades.
When I looked up to her face, all I could say was, “Where’s Luke?”
Her red smile hinted that secret again from last night. “Luke has good qualities, too.”
Naturally, I didn’t know what that meant.
Carter brought the conversation back to him. “So what’re you sayin’? Basilisks ain’t real?”
“Oh, they’re real all right,” she replied. “Like your brother said, they’ve got the heads of roosters. And they have little wings midway up the body, stubby things like a baby bat. Not good for much, except lifting the serpent halfway off the ground.”
Ronny said, “I gotta see one.”
“So you shall,” she murmured, and he looked at her curiously.
Carter got himself excited. “I heard they’re born from an egg like a chicken, only it’s the rooster that lays it, not the hen. You hear that, too?”
“A male laying eggs?” I asked. “That don’t make sense. Has the basilisk got the plumbing of both sexes?”
“Actually, a male from any species may lay the eggs for basilisks,” Rosalie answered.
My brain twisted on that, while Rosalie gave me a look that sent all wits leaping overboard. She continued, “Though basilisks themselves are always female.”
And she stared into my eyes…
I heard in school one time that snakes on the other side of the world—cobras—can hypnotize their prey by staring deep into their eyes, and I thought of her look as that: I was immobile, transfixed, rent open for her to peer inside my soul, judging me, as did the rattlers.
Her gaze broke and she let go of my shoulder, shrugging a signal she was done with us.
“See you later, Davey,” she said, and I knew that was a promise.
Rosalie walked away, though at the same time I could’ve sworn I saw her walking away also from Jonas Teakle, winking at him the way he winked at his kin.
* * *
Next day, I woke to screams coming from the neighboring farm, and not at all like the rapturous screams during Pastor Wright’s sermon. Pa took his shotgun and ran out, not even wearing a shirt. His bare chest was a carpet of thick black hair, whereas my chest sprouted but few hairs, and those light and scraggly at best.
He didn’t wait for me, but I got my own rifle from the oak cabinet and ran after him, as it was my friends, Ronny and Carter’s family, who neighbored us.
I arrived there and saw Mrs. Loom was a terrible mess, clenching and unclenching her fists like wringing out an invisible cloth. A pile of bones lay at her feet, pooled by stinking muck that breathed steam and bubbles. She looked like she wanted to touch it, but couldn’t bring herself to do so.
Carter stood in the doorframe, pale as a bed sheet. He mouthed, “Oh no, oh no.”
“Where’s Ronny?” I asked, and Carter’s tears told me exactly where he was.
I felt to collapse.
“Goddamned snake monster got in here,” Mr. Loom roared. He carried a shotgun bigger’n Pa’s. “It slipped out back by the coops. We gotta get it.”
He and Pa went that way, and I followed, though they didn’t care if I was there or not, so taken were they by hunter’s bloodlust.
“Must’ve crossed from over the river,” Mr. Loom yelled. “Damn that hellish town!”
I followed only halfway across the long yard, Mrs. Loom’s cries nervously holding me back like a leash.
Just as Pa and Mr. Loom turned out of sight around the coops, I saw it.
The basilisk seemed to be waiting for me, poised behind a row of hedges, for only when I was alone did it pop out from the dewy leaves. A mask of feathered crust was the creature’s face, and the red comb atop its head waggled like swaying sawgrass. Indeed, I’d heard it described, but that didn’t lessen my shock seeing a snake with the head of a rooster. It wasn’t big, maybe the length of my arm, and half of that was just a long, ropy tail, covered in jade-green scales. Its stumpy wings flapped like crazy, only strong enough to lift the serpent’s upper body, just like Rosalie said, so the creature looked like a kite that isn’t quite airborne yet, its tail still dragging the ground.
I raised the rifle, but too late, its eyes caught my own! I froze, remembering what Ronny said—look at one and it’ll turn you to stone.
And it was true… I wasn’t stone yet, but I couldn’t move either, taken by the spell of its magic eyes, and I knew, just knew, the thing was reading me—the way Rosalie had—communicating something, or testing some quality of my spirit, and if I didn’t pass, transformation of my likeness into rock would befall.
Its ancient eyes glinted at me, a wink of copper-hued acceptance, and I was released. The basilisk dropped tight to the ground, tucked in its lil’ wings, and slithered back through the hedges.
I pointed my rifle under obligation and fired half-heartedly. My aim is terrible, and the bullet went wide, as I knew it would.
Pa and Mr. Loom came runnin’.
“I shot at it, but it got away.”
Mr. Loom cursed and dashed toward the hedge, where I’d blasted.
I saw Pa glance, not after Mr. Loom, but the other way, enviously at a stand of golden peach trees, knowing that our own trees were withered and gave us shriveled and bitter fruit.
Pa caught my notice, sighed, and clapped me on the shoulder. “Good try, son. At least you tossed lead at it.”
* * *
Ronny’s death launched the town into arms-bearing fury. By late afternoon, a group of men gathered outside our church, led by Pastor Wright spittin’ and frothin’ and screamin’ how we got to claim retribution, there being no allowance for serpents to kill folks in Whaleyville and get away with it (his own serpents being the exception, I presume).
The call went up for a party to hunt downriver next morning and kill every basilisk found, and then cross over to Swannanoa and see what needed doin’ there.
Judge McClellan shouted agreement, and so too did Herb Cranston and George Templeton and all the others. Joe Halverson, who played the mouth harp, joined in, only he was smilin’ all the while, though it was malicious-like, not a nice or secretive smile the way Rosalie gave to me.
“We oughta catch ‘em alive and slice off their wings and tails and eyes, and send ‘em still squirming back to Swannanoa’s church,” Joe said. He was known to break the legs of barking dogs just to watch them suffer for keeping him awake at night. Most folks felt righteous to avenge John Loom’s son, but Joe Halverson was of a wrathful and vicious ilk, and he just liked cutting and torturing critters for any reason.
I felt uneasy going, but it’s considered a queer thing in Whaleyville to ever decline a hunting trip. Plus Pa was big on it, and since I was friends with Ronny, everyone expected me to crave vengeance.
Though it’s true Ronny was my friend, I didn’t feel any obligation to avenge him; that small, resentful part of my brain reminded me neither of the Loom brothers ever defended or sought vengeance for me, even when Luke Holder practiced log splittin’ techniques on my face at Murrell’s barn dance.
* * *
Cold night fell, and it was all Pa could do not to wallop something, he was so excited and anxious about the basilisks, both killin’ them tomorrow and double-checkin’ every room to make sure they didn’t slither inside tonight and get us first. Like me, he was temperamental, and I knew that small, resentful voice in my head sometimes also filled his own.
“The Looms have a stronger fence than us, and the creature still got through,” Pa raged.
“The Looms thought they were better’n everyone else. That’s what got ‘em.” Ma was wary of his moodiness, and weary, too, chasing after my brothers who were fightin’ and hollerin’ as always.
Pa kicked over a chair, shoutin’ at no one. “Why should their peach trees and bean shoots grow more fertile than ours?”
It all seemed too much, and I decided I’d had enough and said so. “I’m turnin’ in.”
“Night, Davey,” they replied and went back to it.
I bedded down.
Outside, the moon was full like a pregger’s belly, it glowing through my window, me pacified by its calm. I gazed upon it, letting sleep rise in slowly cresting waves, when a pebble ticked off the glass. The waves of sleep receded. Another pebble, another tick.
I went to the window and opened it, and saw fiery copper eyes lit upon a bright, pert face.
“How’d you know where I live?” I whispered.
“Doesn’t everyone know everyone around here?” Rosalie replied.
True enough, I thought. Except for you…
She added, “I’m going for a stroll. Care to join?” “Right now? At night?”
“Now is the time for all good things.”
My mouth went dry. Quick as a whistle, I tossed on my trousers, shirt, and boots, and went out the window to join her.
She took my hand in her own, and it was like seizing a shooting star.
“Thought I’d head to Swannanoa,” she said.
“That’s fifty miles across the river! And what’d you want there, anyway?”
“There’s shortcuts everywhere.” Her voice fell somewhere between a whisper and a sigh. “And I’ll tell you what I want…”
The road from my home was gravel and hard earth, but already it seemed to soften under my steps and grow dim beneath rising mist.
“Like to know a secret about your town leader?” she asked.
I acknowledged that I’d love to know Pastor Wright’s secrets.
“Your pastor drugs the snakes,” Rosalie said, enjoying my eagerness. “The vipers he keeps are harmless, much like a growling bull dog with no claws or teeth.”
“Those rattlers got teeth aplenty,” I countered. “I seen ‘em, I been bit by one!”
“Yes, the snakes retain fangs, but their venom glands are removed. Only parishioners that need be taught his lessons are ‘bit,’ and sometimes unfortunate others, just to keep the rest of the congregation honest to him.”
The perplexity on my face must’ve been obvious as a cannon blast.
She continued. “It’s Creighton Wright himself who bites people. He’s got a needle hidden up his sleeve that’s double-pronged to match the width of snake teeth. It’s filled with rattler juice, and he sticks folks while they’re clambering around him, half-frenzied and clutching snakes, so it’s not noticed he’s the real culprit. People can rile themselves up as much as any rampaging spirit.”
I thought of Wright and how large he was, wallowing in the center of us poor, teeming sinners who were unable to see from one side of his girth to the other. He could block our sight with one hamhock arm and we’d be none the wiser while he pricked someone.
“The usual cravings: power, ambition. Wright hails from Swannanoa, though he was cast out years ago, trying to supplant certain factions. He’s a dwarf of a man with a giant’s measure of himself.”
She did. “Your former pastor was a faithful man, kept the river strong between our sides. And he died first at Wright’s hand. Now the waters of the Nolichucky are shallowed to puddles.”
And so it was, for I saw the once-mighty river far beneath us, a bare and cracked thing, winding between two worlds with no less impactful a boundary than a cobweb before charging steeds. Around us, the night shone brilliant, and flecks of gold and rubies twinkled in the sky, and planets and suns moved aside as we passed.
“You possess good qualities, Davey. Attributes I find attractive.”
I blushed that she’d find anything attractive in me compared to Luke Holder. I asked, “And what’re those?”
I blanched. “Imperfections, like my flaws?”
“Aren’t flaws what make men beautiful?”
“I’m not beautiful.”
“You are to me,” she said, and my heart filled my mouth.
We arrived in Swannanoa, and what I saw seemed nothing like Whaleyville, nothing like any town I’d ever known. Tall stone buildings crumbled at their tops, like towers long ago marred in siege. The walls were slick with dark lichen, their doors and windows mere openings rough-cut in masonry that showed distant fires burning within. The town slumbered in gloom as if being peered at through shadow wisps.
And it all swept by as a moving picture in fast motion.
Rosalie continued. “I have walked among you and chosen five whose qualities I love.”
At this, my heart sank that I was not alone in her favor. “So you’re sweet on five of us who are flawed?
Wright must be the love of your life.” “Wright is too wound up in his own beliefs. He is wicked, yes, but not… obedient.”
Rosalie’s face was still of beauty, still of midnight longings, but I felt confused, beguiled, even with her arms linked around me, and we swirling though shadow wisps, the way I first saw her swirl at the barn dance.
And the sore, vindictive voice whispered in my mind, Life ain’t been fair since that revival…
We arrived at the end of roads, the bedrock of dreams, the crossroads of light and dark. There was no signage, but I knew it was the fabled church we feuded with, the one Wright laid all blights: Swannanoa’s First Church of Ecclesiastical Holiness.
And it seemed nothing like First Methodist Church of God Holiness. Whereas our church was a steepled box built of whitewashed wood planks, here a columned façade rose above the stars, and there was no door to close people out or in. A pair of stone basilisks stood at each side of the entry, and their eyes followed us as we moved inside where murky gloom wafted like the rest of Swannanoa.
And inside were more basilisks, and they came slithering to our feet.
“Wright binds you through fear,” Rosalie said, her voice a slippery thing, like the serpents. “Here it is only love… love for the First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers.”
“The what?” I said, feeling myself tense nervous, fearful, surrounded.
“They love those who love them,” she replied. “For basilisks are not invulnerable. Like everything, there’s ways to kill them, methods that are timeless, though not oft believed. Our congregation is growing, but still small, still weak. We need men of faith to help protect us.”
“Truth of it, I ain’t got much faith in anything.”
“I will teach you faith. I will show you what it means…”
And when she kissed me, a plume of fire charged through my loins, and my eyes rolled back, and my heart slammed against my ribs like an untamable beast raging at its cell. My confusion, my fears melted away, and I gasped.
Rosalie’s tongue prodded, slipped between my lips, entered me. It tasted hot and sweet as Missus Janey’s tarts, as supple and smooth as butter cream warmed on the hearth. It was lush forests and flowered springs and misty sunbursts. And it was not like kissing Aimee Greenwood either…
Rosalie’s tongue was slender, delicate, and longer than I imagined. Its tip split to a fork, and each end teased a place of my palate before slipping down the back of my throat. Her tongue filled my mouth, filled my airway, and still it kept sliding lower and lower like her hands as they plummeted below my belt.
My whole body went erect, and it seemed hard to relax and lie back on the stone floor when the whole of me wished to bellow in triumph and leap to the sun, but I let myself be led by the feel of Rosalie’s blissful instructions, for she told me what to do without any words.
And the entire time, another little voice cried in my brain that this was wrong, this was a terrible, grievous calamity, and I must find the grace and strength to stop, stop! This was a different voice, unlike the mutters of resentment so often filling my head, but this new voice sounded mighty akin to the sermons of Pastor Wright, whom I hate, so I told it to shut the hell up.
Hell is exactly what this is, the voice replied, none too subtly, but by then me and Rosalie were as one, and nothing else mattered.
* * *
It was dark when I woke in bed, having slept not at all, and dawn when I arrived at the wooded banks of the Nolichucky, dreading what must be done: I gathered with Pa and the others to hunt down the basilisks.
Twenty or so Whaleyville men were there, though Wright wasn’t among us. I doubt he even knew how to hunt, and his bulk would’ve given him a heart attack anyway, walkin’ a quarter mile in those brambles. He was all talk in more ways than one.
I knew most of the others by sight: Philemon Talbot, Joe Halverson, Jameson Lightspeed, Luke Holder, Harv Ridout, Carter and his father, and a dozen more. Only one man I didn’t recognize, and he moved among us with purpose and quick words, carrying a rifle and a pack made from ‘coon pelts. Though I’d never met him, I’d heard more legends concerning Lilac Zollinger than any other superstition.
He was short and stumpy with a drawn, sallow face carved by hard lines like a mining expedition hacked across it looking for precious, pretty things, of which they found none. He was the oldest man I’d ever seen but he moved like a moonlit whisper, in fleeting darts and cloaked by shadow.
“You’re Lizzie’s kin,” he said, eyeing me while ignoring Pa. “I can tell by the hook nose and way your shoulders slump. Always told her to keep her head high, but she didn’t listen.”
Took me a moment to figure he was talkin’ about Great-Granny Lizbeth, who was granny to Ma.
“Didn’t listen either when I said Micajah would do her wrong,” the old trapper continued, though his loud voice fell quiet. “That duel ’tween us, my gun misfired. Should be my blood runnin’ in your veins, not his. But tell her my regards still remain.”
“She died before I was born, sir.”
“That don’t matter,” Lilac shot back. “Don’t matter t’all to tell her.”
I didn’t know how to reply, so cleared my throat in response. Some claimed Great-Granny Lizbeth died mid-life of a lingering sadness, while others said it was no more than Micajah’s drunken fists. A fortnight later, Great-Grandpa Micajah got his throat mysteriously slit while sleeping in bed, and that was that.
“Ready to bag some basilisks?” Lilac asked to no one in particular. The other men grunted and hollered and raised their rifles in the air like a group of pale savages, he their elder chief.
“Whatever you do,” Lilac said, “don’t look in their eyes.”
He unshouldered the ‘coon pelt pack and pulled out small plates of reflective glass, explaining only, “Mirrors.”
Holly Barber replied, “Pastor Wright said quotin’ Old Testament scripture outta do the trick as well as anything else.”
“Wright’s got less sense than a filled crapper,” Lilac snapped, passing out the small mirrors.
“What in Hades we need these for?” Curtis Merriweather asked. “Ain’t gonna shave out here.”
That got a laugh from the others who were in higher spirits than myself. Most treated the morning as a festive occasion like the annual buck tourney, wagers laid on who’d return home with the highest count.
“Use the mirrors,” Lilac repeated. “Don’t look in their eyes or you’ll turn to stone.”
* * *
Curtis Merriweather was the first to look in their eyes and turn to stone. He let out an awful holler like a caught hen, knowing its head was about to elope at the nearest chopping block, and his flailing motions slowed, and his skin hardened to a cracked grey shell, and then Curtis froze solid. It didn’t make sense at all, and yet there he was, become like the marble statue of Andrew Jackson that anchors our town proper.
Jameson Lightspeed was next to look into a basilisk’s eye, and his cry sounded like a lark that’s got its wing shot off, all high-pitched scrills and a fusillade of ruckus. George Templeton was a mauled bear, roaring and bellowing until he became silent.
“Don’t look at their eyes!” Lilac reminded us by shouts.
Harv Ridout, like a jackass, followed Lilac’s order by closing his own eyes. He stood there, rifle in hand, with eyelids clenched shut as if playing hide-and-seek, and a monstrous gold basilisk slid over, sinking its fangs into his foot. Harv screamed.
Lilac fired at the creature while it was vulnerable, pumping venom into Harv, and the serpent burst in half. Its body convulsed once and collapsed, while its winged rooster-head detached from Harv’s foot, flew two flaps, then dropped to the scree with a gurgling squawk. Harv’s skeleton fell next to it in a puddle, the venom having already melted flesh from his bones.
Several of the hunters surrendered their guns right there and fled for home, and maybe they were the smart ones.
“Use the mirrors!” Lilac ordered, and he shot another serpent.
After that, the remaining men sorta fell in line, ‘cause the basilisks didn’t get any more. Nonetheless, I can’t say Whaleyville’s men did much damage either, taking pot shots here ‘n there, but at least by following Lilac’s lead and using the mirrors, they avoided the serpents’ gaze and even turned some of the basilisks’ eyes back on themselves, which fossilized the beasts.
Lilac Zollinger proved a beast himself, a marauding archangel delivering bull’s eye retribution through gunfire and mirror flash. He didn’t miss a shot, and basilisk after basilisk froze to stone or blew to bits. It’s a queer thing, gettin’ in the way of a hurricane, and most of us ducked for cover, out of the line of his rampage.
And as I watched him move, victorious, indefatigable against that strange enemy, I thought of Lilac as being righteously triumphant, the sort of man we needed to lead Whaleyville, the sort of man—though gruff—who stood his ground for honor and justice and truly inspired faith. Here was a man who should never lose… yet in dueling for the hand of Great-Granny, he’d been jilted by a misfiring gun, and such are events that prove our fallibilities. No one can insure against all odds, no one can imagine all outcomes…
And surely Lilac did not imagine Luke Holder suddenly lifting a rifle to him and firing.
Lilac’s forehead blossomed red, right ‘tween his eyes, which bulged funny-big in surprise. It was a perfect shot and Lilac dropped like a load of grain. There wasn’t anything Luke wasn’t perfect at.
Carter mouthed, “Oh, no,” just like he did when his brother got killed. I lifted my rifle and shot Carter also in the head, but of course my bullet somehow went askew, even though I stood only two feet away. His cheek blew in, and his temple blew out, though I aimed at his forehead like Luke had, but it was good enough regardless, and Carter fell beside the old trapper.
Joe Halverson shot Holly Barber, and Jonas Teakle shot Judge McClellan, and Pa shot Mr. Loom, declaring, “I never liked John Loom, anyway.”
After the shootin’, one other man was left over, Herb Cranston, who didn’t know which hand to crap in. Luke levered in another cartridge and shot him, too.
That left just five of us, and together we lowered our guns, sharing in the moment.
Though I was with Rosalie all night, it seemed I wasn’t the only one she’d bedded, for if I looked close enough at the other men I could see the slight matching bulges in their stomachs—like my own—marking the beginning signs of a basilisk egg growing inside.
Five remained, the First Order of Whaleyville’s Divine Basilisk Handlers: Luke Holder, vain and mean; Joe Halverson, wrathful and vicious; Jonas Teakle, lustful and incestuous; Pa, petty and envious; and me, resentful and vindictive. Our weaknesses were known by Rosalie, and our weaknesses were loved.
Later, I’d wonder exactly how those eggs were supposed to come out, but there, on the way home, all I imagined was a fine and mighty revenge coming against fat Pastor Wright and his damned rattlesnakes.
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