Gathering
Sheldon Lee Compton

 
It’s illegal to handle snakes in a public place, but that never mattered. Your grandmother gathers up rattlesnakes and copperheads from around her house and takes up serpents. She does this twice a week and places them in a large, wooden box. There is scripture carved along the sides of the box, across the top, with pocket knives, with ceremony.

The hills around her house are hair-lined cracked mounds of earth covered in brush and trees thick as wool. The series of caves at the top of the south ridge is the spot for snagging snakes, but the hardest part is making it through the hills. Briars and hidden streams, a dryness in summer that could burst into flame underfoot until, scorched and shrunken, the cliff would emerge like a knotted fist at the skyline.

You’re not scared to hunt for snakes, but you let her do the snagging. She plunders the cliffs and you toe through sprouts of grass and thickets growing like hair from the insides of the mountain. You spot them for her and she hauls them out.

In her living room you stand against the wall, watching older family members jerk their arms and legs, throw their heads back and roll their eyes. They cry and try to pull down the ceiling with their outstretched fingers while the snakes around their necks peer out confused.

The carved box is at your feet. There are Mason jars of arsenic on the coffee table, lined up in empty chairs. Three full jars are perched along the fireplace mantel.

A great-uncle grabs the box from the floor and springs the latches. His arm dives in to bring out a timber rattler, its head adorned with a centralized patch of tiny hairs.

Its eyes stay on you while he takes it across the room and, bending his knees to get its under it, lifts and wraps it around your grandmother’s neck. The snake still watches you while your grandmother starts turning in slow circles, tossing her arms in the air. It only stops watching you, measuring you with darts of its tongue, after tightening up in the middle, readying to break that which can be broken.

 

Sheldon Lee Compton lives in Kentucky.  His work has appeared in PANK, Keyhole, DOGZPLOT, Boston Literary Magazine and elsewhere.  He has one birthmark, a patch of white hair just off-center from the top of his head, which is called a blaze.