Lizard Lips

I never believed in hell.  That was Mama, she was touched by fire, but the flame never burned.  A rare kinda trait, even amongst the truest believers along the Appalachian.  Gifts run deep through these woods, but here in Heckler, our Baptist church didn’t like it one bit.  Chucked us out on account of her being a witch, said she wasn’t right in the head.  Mama always went too far for the regular folks, speaking in tongues and strange voices.   Most church people just go to service to get out of the hot Georgian heat.  They want religion, not the holy spirit.  At least, thats how it is with Baptists.

Didn’t take me or my twin brother Isaiah long to figure out we were different.  Used to be I didn’t like that neither; didn’t want a mother who forgot the potato salad at Potluck and sang hymnals all hours instead of doin’ house things.  Two of us gave up believing for a while when daddy died, snuck out of church sundays to drink a soda at Mabel Farms Grocery.  I liked gettin’ a look at folks that mingle with damnation.  Isaiah just wanted refreshment.

We always made it back to the wooden pews of the balcony before the closing hymn.  Bowing our heads, slowing the breath as the sermon exhaled into a fervent prayer.  When my eyes are closed,  I’m still there, walking through a sea of floral print dresses and the smell of sins scrubbed clean like clorox bleach.  I can’t see so high, just eye level with the stretched tight buttons closing down the bellies of middle-age men.  And the mural walls that go down each long hallway of the sunday school basement.  The bleeding lambs are painted in such a rich wet red that I’m scared for the doves that seem to fly so close and such a pure white.

Mama told me once I was meant to be the leader of some new order.  Looked up when she said it till her hair nearly touched the back of her thighs.  I think she meant after revelations came the beast, and the locust would eat our house, and then there would be me.  Thats why she named me Lypse, short for Apocalypse.  Said I had a gift.  Told me how I’d know it,  that a cobra could touch my cheek, but it would never bite me.  Sometimes she knew things other people didn’t; saw the unseen.  Sometimes I just wanted to shut the door and sit on the porch swing, or wear pants instead of flowered dresses, or go fishing again with Daddy.   I never was afraid of god like they told us to be in Sunday school.  Fear the lord, and a bunch of stuff about walking through dark valleys.  I was fearful though, afraid I’d get sucked away in the middle of the night by aliens, afraid mama wasn’t getting out of bed again, afraid that I couldn’t tell whether what she said was true or if the fast part of her was touching something crazy.

Mostly I was afraid of my dreams that came back night after night.  I used to dream of a forest with all white trees, and I was laying in a clearing giving birth, a kid from a kid, with a three foot rattler coiled asleep around me.  And in the dream there’s always a voice proclaiming “Why, It’s the first virgin birth since Mary!”  I never can tell if its a girl or boy, but when that baby looks at me its always grinning with reptile teeth.  Told it once to Isaiah in secret, and now when he wants to tease, he calls me Lizard Lips and runs off fast before I can smack him. Truth is, I had that dream before Mama ever said a thing about my destiny.  I never wanted to be something special.  But somehow I felt too much, and I figured it was cuz she passed that on to me.

I didn’t take to fire like mama.  She can create rapture when the spirit is in her.  Thats how they explain it at our new Church of Jesus Christ, in the old barn behind Bramble Grove.  I don’t know if its god or magic, figure its all the same.  Wasn’t till the day before my thirteenth birthday my gift was revealed to me.  I walked into the produce of Mabel Farms, wasn’t even there to buy vegetables, they just happened to be on the way to the candy and cold drinks.  Then the old lights stopped their flickering, and in that moment of pure florescence I was snared by the mist that sprayed down every few minutes, making things look more juicy or green.  I never noticed before how mist can sound like snakes whispering.  It surprised me.  I leaned in over the sweet onion when the sprinklers turned on again, and it was like a choir of serpents speaking to me; washing away the curls in my hair, bringing me to my knees.  The moment I touched down on tile I knew, some gifts you’ll never know the giver, some gifts you can’t return.  Thats how I became the youngest serpent handler east of Tennessee.

The Church of Jesus Christ promised to give me eternal life, then they took away all my jewelry.  Bible says real clear the gifted can’t be weighed down with earthly treasures.  Its heavy in a soul kind of way, even if its just a Cracker Jack ring.  Pastor Evans made me a deal, a timber rattler in exchange for my golden heart locket and the black hills gold chain.  I gave it all to him last Sunday, except for the single silver bangle Papa left me.  Buried it middle of the night right in our backyard under the tire swing.  Mama says Daddy died for our sins, but when the grizzly got him, I knew he died protecting me.  Pastor Evans says living is God’s bizness, but my guess is; ain’t nobody safe if death wants you.

“I done took ’em up.” Pastor said, the candy mint breath blowing icy warm onto me. “The bible didn’t say they wouldn’t bite.  He knows every serpent I ever took up and why.  God has control over his mouth.  Fear the lord, Lypse.  And when the spirit moves inside you, reach down into that pit, and bring up the slithering beast.”

Woke up this Sunday extra early, the sun still baby orange peeking over the creek, coloring the dust with mornin heat.  Me and Isaiah put on our matching green corduroy jumpers mama had sewn, and walked the back-road to church, kickin’ a rock between us all the way to the door of  Mabel’s Grocery.   I ordered a lemonade and Johnson’s littlest looked at me with eyes of a double full moon, steppin backwards behind his sisters skirt.  Word gotten round I was touched by serpents, and regular folks started keepin their kids away from me.  Isaiah ordered cola and we turned our backs on the place, slurpin’ our way along the creek to Bramble grove.  Could smell the ripe peaches coming on the waters breeze.  Before Jesus Christ led Mr. Evans to the barn, Papa used to take us diggin for crawlers there in the moonlight.  He said they liked the soil best in the grove under the sweet peach tree.

“Think Mama’ll be madder n’ a hornet we comin so late?” asked Isaiah.

“Thing is, you don’t gotta worry, cuz she never stings you.”

I tossed my the lemon rind down in the dirt, lookin for a fresh fallen peach.  Isaiah grabbed one from under a root and smashed it against the trunk.

“Think I got a gift too?” he asked.

“Everybody’s got one,” I said, lookin over at the barn.

We could hear the folks already singing when Mama cried out in a deep voice that reached me louder than all the rest.  Words I didn’t know the meaning, just the feeling she was calling me in.  But I didn’t wanna go just yet, not without a taste of peach.

“Hey, found one for ya, Lypse.  Its real juicy.” Isaiah tossed a rosy ripe one over, looking at me all expecting.  I saw his careful combed down hair was parted crooked.

“So what’s my gift.  Come on, Lypse, you gotta tell me.”

“You’re dumb as nails.” I smiled,  “Plenty of folks would kill for that blessing.”

“Oh yah. Rather be dumb than have Lizard Lypse.” He grinned and started running.  Felt the peach squirming in my hand, didn’t take a second to realize the underside was covered in larvae.  I threw it after him, and missed.  Little brat slipped to safety in the barn.  I stepped over a pile of dung after him, and saw my peach.  Picked it up, wiped it clean on my skirt and rubbed that soft baby fuzz on my cheek.  Took one big bite before dropping it again.  I walked to the door of the barn, and with a deep breath I moved through the upraised arms and swaying.

‘Gonna get you’ I mouthed towards Isaiah, takin my place in front next to Pastor Evans.  Spirit was already in him from what I could tell,  he was shaking and hollering, waving the open bible around.

“Jesus said:  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; Mark verse 17.  He’s here among us, in these very bales of hay, in the dirt at our feet.  Now God has called forth upon Lypse to bear witness, a mere girl of thirteen…”

“Praise Jesus”


When he looked at me I felt my heart trembling and a lightness creeping in my toes and up my fingers.  My ears filled with the singing and chanting, folks getting louder and louder, filling up to the point it was like I stepped outside of me, into the unseen.  Moving to the pit was like someone else inside these feet. I came face to face with a knot of shiny green and brown creatures wriggling as one being.  All but one timber rattler who was alone, his tail swaying slow with a clear ring.  And then his forked tongue hissed,

“Let the little children come unto me.”

I opened my palm, as he slid upon me.  And wrapping my fingers round him, the scales felt soft and dry, felt like strength.  Snake stood up strait in my hand like a stick as I moved it over my head.  Pastor Evans started preachin about the power of God over man over beast.  I looked up to the heavens through a crack in the barn roof as the head of that snake went limp.  Dropped right down till we were cheek to cheek.   When his tongue flicked across my lips it cut thin but the taste of blood seeped in. Knew right then, I shouldn’t of lied bout that bracelet, shouldn’t of gotten caught up in believing.  He hit hard like a baseball poppin me, the fangs piercing below my ear and then a slow liquid spreading deeper and farther inside me.

Isaiah was the first to see, probably ‘cuz he always kept his eyes open,  ‘cuz he never learned to pray, ‘cuz he could always feel when my breath was stopped up in me.  He was moving fast toward me when the venom coated my eyes from the inside out.  I yelled out to him in silence.  I tried to tell him he was special, to tease Mama like he’d always done with me.  But my lips swelled like sausage, keepin in my words.  Keepin’ him innocent like he’d always be.

Second time in a year, my knees found ground.   Felt the hay pressing under my dress like little needles, the weight of serpent hanging heavy off my jaw, wrapping his tail softly round my neck with a gentle squeeze.  A cold chill passed within, but I was dripping hot wet off every part of me.  Couldn’t hear the singing no more. Couldn’t hear nothin except the barn filling up with a soft flap of wings, figured it was the doves of purity flying up close to me.  This time there was somebody with them.   Turns out; I wasn’t what I was meant to be.  Things never are, but there wasn’t a thread of fear in me.  When he took my hand, I knew giving up was same as getting.

“Daddy,” I said, “I dropped your arm band under the old oak tree.”

LIZARD LIPS | 2007 | writings | Tags: ,