Ceiling Snakes and Slithering Saints

by Barbara A. Barnett

The thing about ceiling snakes is this: there ain’t just one kind. Rattlers, copperheads, cottonmouths—you name it, they’re up there, slithering round where your church trusses ought to be. Nobody can tell you how they get up there or where them trusses disappear to, and it sure don’t seem like a bunch of twisty old snakes should be able to hold a roof up, but as my grandpappy used to say, things is what they is and ain’t nothing else.

The morning our snakes showed up, we was all in the church listening to young Reverend Ambrose preach—well, folk called him young, mousy as well when he wasn’t like to hear, but he was a good fifteen years older than my fourteen. But wasn’t anyone who could keep more than half an eye on him when they noticed the slithering going on overhead. You’d think a truss was moving, then you’d realize that truss was a snake. They just sort of slipped into view like that.

Reverend Ambrose trailed off in the middle of a passage from Matthew 4. Looking up at them snakes, his eyes went as wide and round as the rest of him. “I reckon we ought to clear out and—”

“You keep preaching, Reverend,” Elder Mayfield said from his seat up front. Being an elder meant sitting on the bench with the fewest splinters and the sturdiest legs, my ma liked to say. “God will protect us.”

“Amen,” said Elder Clayton beside him, bobbing his head so hard I was surprised his spectacles didn’t fall off.

Reverend Ambrose went pale as a milk cow, but he kept on preaching. Had to raise his voice to compete with all that hissing, though, and ’specially with those rattler tails. I’d swear those snakes was commenting on the sermon.

Reverend Ambrose was just starting to talk about how you can’t love God while hating your brother when a coral snake dropped straight down from the ceiling. Fell over his shoulders like a red- and black-striped stole. He tossed it off real quick, and it landed right at Elder Mayfield’s feet. Now Elder Mayfield’s usually a tough old fella—built like one of them new-fangled steam trains, people say—but that morning he leapt onto the bench and let out an awful shriek like raccoons make.

The elders was always lecturing us boys on how we was supposed to be brave and protect the women from evil, ‘cause God built us strong and built them soft. But that morning there was just as much screaming and swearing and bolting for the door from the men folk as there was from the women. And my schoolteacher, Mrs. Simpkins, was just as quick fetching her shotgun as Elder Clayton. I think she only let him take the shot so as not to wound his pride.

The blast was loud enough to get those ceiling snakes hissing something fierce. You wouldn’t think Elder Clayton could see so good given those thick round spectacles of his, but he took that coral’s head clean off. We was left with a splintered hole in the floorboard, though, not to mention a big old splatter of blood and snake guts.

Reverend Ambrose shooed off everyone who hadn’t already run. He couldn’t move none too quick on account of his bum leg, but you’d think those snakes was snapping at his heels given how fast he shuffled that morning. Once we was all outside, he slammed that church door shut and fell into a heap on the front steps. His shirt was always coming untucked, and a bit more than usual had snuck out on him during all that ruckus.

“That coral bite you, Reverend?” I asked, ’cause he was puffing and panting real hard.

“No, son.” He’d gone even paler than before, though, white as the chalk dust down at the schoolhouse and looking like the breeze would blow him away just as easy. “You tell your ma I won’t need your help round the church for a bit, though. Not so long as we got ceiling snakes.”

That set me frowning. I didn’t mind patching things up for him the way my pappy used to, ’cause Reverend Ambrose was real kind to me and my kin after Pappy died. Let me have a good cry instead of telling me I had to toughen up and be the man of the house like the elders did.

“What we gonna do about them snakes?” I asked him.

“I reckon we—”

“God will take care of it,” Elder Mayfield cried out. He and the other elders had gathered near that twisty old oak tree with the roots as thick as a grown man’s arm. “So long as we have faith, He will protect us from those serpents.”

Reverend Ambrose heaved himself up to his feet. “I think we―”

“What if God’s punishing us?” I couldn’t even tell you who said that. Folks was circling round the elders in a tizzy like I ain’t ever seen, hands waving and lips flapping and faces so red I wouldn’t have been surprised to see smoke coming out their ears. “What if we did something to deserve this?”

Reverend Ambrose stumbled forward, one arm raised like he was asking permission to speak, but wasn’t no one looking his way. “We—”

“This is Satan’s work!” Elder Clayton declared.

Got me steamed the way the elders was always talking over Reverend Ambrose—young or not, that’s not the way you treat a person with a title and learning, my ma taught me. So I started clearing a path through the crowd for him; he like would have given up and gone home otherwise. Folks was packed in so tight my nose was full of damp salty sweat, and that was only a mite more unpleasant than the things they was all shouting at each other. Started with old bushy-bearded Elder McTaggart saying our trouble was on account of the baker’s boy being a cow thief, but the baker said them snakes was here ’cause one of the elders had been skimming off the collection plate and just wait ’til he caught him in the act, but then Elder Clayton’s missus said adultery was the reason but she wouldn’t go naming names since surely we must all know who the harlot was.

“The Lord is testing us,” Mrs. Simpkins said, fanning herself with one hand, her shotgun still clutched in the other.

When I finally reached the center of that crowd, I felt like a cork popping out of a bottle. Reverend Ambrose was right behind me, but he couldn’t so much as open his mouth before Elder Mayfield was pointing a meaty old finger in his face.

“Or is the Lord testing you, Reverend? You’re the one the snake fell on. Maybe you ain’t right with God. Maybe we should be sending for a new preacher.”

Reverend Ambrose made like he was gonna slink off, his shoulders all curled in, but I gave him a nudge forward since I could see my ma on the other side of the crowd. She was eyeing the elders as hard as she eyes me when I ain’t tending to my chores fast enough. I reckoned she wanted to hear what the reverend had to say.

“Those snakes,” he began, tucking in that loose bit of shirt of his. “It’s real tempting to go about our business and leave it in God’s hands.” His voice was so thin people was leaning in trying to hear, but he got louder with each word, like someone was cranking him up the way you would a bucket of well water. “But the Lord don’t throw a problem at you without also giving you the tools to fix it. I think we need to take a good look at our—”

“Been making my own snake repellent for years,” Elder Clayton said, running right over the reverend’s words like they was horse flop in the road. “Bit of sulfur and cinnamon, mix in my missus’s little special something—it’ll do the trick.”

Elder McTaggart snorted hard enough to send a ripple through his whiskers. “How you gonna get your repellent up on that ceiling?”

“Never mind that,” Elder Mayfield said. He got all squinty-eyed, looking at the other two like they was the snakes. “What’s gonna hold that roof up if those serpents slither off? You’d send the whole thing crashing down on your own thick head.”

The elders lit into each other for a bit, tossing round words like “lunkhead” and a few less charitable things my ma would slap me for repeating. Reverend Ambrose sagged against the old oak, as limp as one of my little sister’s ragdolls.

Once the elders stopped fussing long enough to take a breath, Mrs. Simpkins cut in. “Word has it folks over in New Hope Valley had ceiling snakes a few years back.” She was always asking what the word was in other towns when folk passed through. “Had to call in some serpent wranglers.”

“Serpent wranglers?” Elder Mayfield chewed on the words like they was a thick slab of beef. “Where you think we gonna find serpent wranglers, woman?”

Reverend Ambrose straightened up so quick you’d think someone lit a fire in his britches. His shirt snuck loose again, but he tucked it right back in. “I know some folks who know some folks.”


Ain’t none but Reverend Ambrose had ever heard of the Slithering Saints, but word was they had a reputation that spread further than I knew there were places you could go. How we was gonna pay them was another matter.

Reverend Ambrose said folk had been putting more than enough into the collection each week. Before those snakes came along, he’d been planning to use the money for that leak we could never seem to seal up proper. But turns out the church coffers wasn’t near as full as he’d thought.

“Gonna have to go door to door and raise that money,” he said. “Might move folks to hear a young person like yourself saying how much the church means to you.”

So of course I went with him. I’d spent too much time helping him patch that church up to let them snakes have it.

It’s strange, though, the way folk act when they ain’t expecting you to drop by. Like Mrs. Simpkins. There was a whole lot of ruckus inside her house when we knocked, and her hair was all a tussle when she finally opened up. Said she’d have to talk over her donation with Mr. Simpkins when he got home.

“You by chance seen Elder Clayton today?” Reverend Ambrose asked.

She said “no” and wished us good day, but before she shut that door, I was pretty sure I spied Elder Clayton’s spectacles sitting on her rocker. Mr. Simpkins ain’t never worn spectacles, let alone ones that thick.

Next house over, Elder McTaggart invited us in for lemonade and said it was hard to believe the church was so short on money when folks had been so generous lately—and he’d be one to know, seeing how often he helped out with the collection.

“That a new hat?” Reverend Ambrose asked him.

“It sure is,” he said, and tilted his head and stroked his beard to better show it off.

Reverend Ambrose thanked him for his time and shuffled me along without taking him up on that lemonade.

Every house we went to, Reverend Ambrose’s frown got a bit deeper. By the time we was almost done, his face was sagging like my grandpappy’s old basset hound, ’specially when he saw that Elder Mayfield’s wife had another black eye. She said the cow got spooked and kicked her while she was trying to milk it. The last black eye had been on account of her slipping and hitting her head on a table.

“Mrs. Mayfield sure do meet with a lot of bad luck,” I told Reverend Ambrose as we was leaving.

“She sure do,” he said, and wouldn’t say no more.


Once we’d rustled up enough money for the serpent wrangling, my ma started pestering Reverend Ambrose to let her give the church a good cleaning. The Slithering Saints was due to arrive any day now, and she said it wasn’t good manners to invite strangers inside a dirty church, snakes or no snakes. Reverend Ambrose looked green as a toad when she asked, but he finally gave in, so long as she let me and a few other boys stand guard in case one of them snakes came falling down again.

The elders insisted on being there too—don’t know why, other than they never seemed to like anything happening without their say-so.

Soon as Reverend Ambrose got that church door open, the elders barreled on through and let slip some words me and the other boys would have been whupped for saying. In the days since we’d last been inside, you see, them snakes had gotten worse. You couldn’t even see the ceiling no more—just them long, wiggly bodies slithering around.

While everyone else stared up at that, my ma was wrinkling her nose at that mess of snake guts we’d left rotting on the floor. Place smelled real nasty on account of it, and there was enough flies buzzing round to compete with all that hissing from above.

“The Lord is testing me,” my ma said. “I ain’t never had to mop up after no dead thing in here before.”

“That’s why we don’t shoot ’em,” another woman’s voice said. “The cleanup can be a right old bitch.”

Elder Mayfield had gotten all hunched and twitchy since stepping inside, but now he near leapt straight up to the ceiling; maybe he would have if it weren’t for all them snakes. “Mind your language in the house of the Lord, young woman.”

The young woman in question was dark-skinned and tiny. Even with her slouch hat she weren’t no taller than my little sister. Except she weren’t dressed like no woman I’d ever seen: trousers, cracked leather boots, and a weathered brown greatcoat. She held herself like that was the most natural thing in the world for her to be wearing, likewise her two companions—a thick-built old lady with short-cropped hair and a young native girl with tattoos down her face and neck.

“The name’s Abigail Pickett, not young woman,” she said, tipping her hat. “Folk usually just call me Miss Abigail. And if you want us to take care of them serpents for you, then you’re gonna have to put up with a whole lot more cussing in here.”

The other boys chuckled—I might have too if my ma wasn’t standing there—but the elders went all huffy and red-faced, like they’d been told someone had lit off with the collection basket.

“You’re supposed to be the Slithering Saints?” Elder Mayfield spit on the dead snake, then shot a nasty look at Reverend Ambrose. “Wasn’t expecting no lady wranglers.”

“I reckon you wasn’t expecting no ceiling snakes either,” Miss Abigail said, “yet here we are.”

“Here you are.” Elder Mayfield eyed the women up and down, mouth quirked like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to frown or laugh. “Two little girls and somebody’s grandma.” He went with the laugh. “Go home, ladies.”

The old woman stormed forward with a hard heavy stride like a bull, but Miss Abigail stopped her with just a raise of her hand.

“My team can do this job as well as any man.” Miss Abigail nodded up at the ceiling. “All them venom spitters you got up there? We’ve trapped more than that in any given month.”

“These ladies are the best there is,” Reverend Ambrose said, flinging his words out fast before the elders could cut him off. “In my traveling days, I heard folk in every town ’tween here and the mountains vouch for them.”

A lot of mumbling and shuffling from the elders followed, but seeing as we’d invited the Saints and raised all that money, they agreed to let the ladies give it a try—well, all of them except Elder Mayfield agreed. He stomped on out of the church, muttering something about heathens and sending for a new preacher.

Reverend Ambrose shook Miss Abigail’s hand.

“I promise we’ll take care of your snake problem,” she said. “Afraid I can’t help with what else is ailing y’all here.”

I didn’t dare say nothing ’cause I knew my ma would give me a mouthful for it, but I wanted to let out a big old whoop. I’d never seen nothing like those ladies before; it’d be a right shame if they lit out of town as fast as they’d come. We hadn’t had this much excitement since that traveling circus came through and Elder Mayfield’s eldest ran off with a girl who could twist herself into all sorts of acrobatics while riding a horse. Maybe that was why he was so cross now, worrying he’d lose another son to a snake wrangler this time.


The Slithering Saints had themselves a crochety mule named Percy and a rickety wagon full of supplies. But before they could start any wrangling, Miss Abigail set a bunch of us to work putting up supports so the ceiling wouldn’t come crashing down as the snakes was cleared.

“It’s on y’all to get some new trusses up there once we’re done,” she said. “We’re only paid for the serpents.”

The snakes didn’t like us shoving those supports in place. They’d slither aside, but they’d hiss something fierce. Some of the men took to hissing too; don’t think they much liked taking orders from a woman. But when Mrs. Simpkins came by with lemonade and heard her son talking some sass, she smacked him right upside his head.

“Ain’t said nothing worse than Elder Clayton,” he grumbled.

You can believe Mrs. Simpkins had some words for Elder Clayton after that, and he was right quick to apologize. Heard some fellas snickering about how she had him tamed better than his own missus.

Once the supports was up, the wrangling started. Bunch of us stacked up crates so we could watch through the windows—had to keep the door clear in case one of the Saints needed to run out to the wagon for something. Usually that was the native girl, Inola. She told me her name meant “black fox,” and she was as quick as one.

Inola was about my age and the only one of the Saints I ever got talking to. Miss Abigail was always too busy, and I was too scared of the old lady—Permelia King was her name. She was thick and tough and grunted more than the surliest of our pigs.

First part of wrangling a ceiling snake, Inola told me, was getting the snake off that ceiling. They tied bits to the end of a rusty old crook until it was the length Miss Abigail needed, then she’d poke it up there and yank one of those serpents down to the floor. That’s when Miss Permelia stepped in. If the snake was a mostly harmless one like a garter or a hognose, she’d just grab it with her bare hands. But with the venom spitters, she had this long old stick she’d wave near its face, real slow like to keep its attention. Meanwhile Miss Abigail’d sneak up behind with her own stick, only hers had a steel cable loop at the end. She’d get that loop over the snake’s head and pull it tight.

Took a few tries with the ornerier snakes. Some would twist and strike quick as a tornado. More than one got its teeth into Miss Abigail’s boot. Others just slithered off to hide under a bench, curling round one of the legs so they was harder to pull off. But she’d loop ’em eventually, and that’s when Inola would dart up with a basket. They’d force that snake in there and close it up right fast. Once they had as much as their wagon could hold, they’d ride about a mile or so out of town and set the snakes loose.

“Don’t that cause trouble somewhere else?” I asked, but Inola said once you got them snakes far enough away, they’d just coil up and disappear by sunrise—there one minute, gone the next. Nobody knew where they vanished to any more than they knew where they came from in the first place.

By the time Saturday rolled around, it looked like they were gonna be finishing up real soon—only a dozen or so snakes was left up there. Elder Mayfield had nothing but scowls for the Saints, ’specially when he spied one of his boys flirting with Miss Abigail—much as you could flirt with a woman who mostly ignored you. But otherwise folks had stopped grousing about having those lady wranglers in town, though little Minnie Wirt still got a paddling when she told her pa she was gonna wrangle snakes when she got older.

While the Saints was off carting some more snakes out of town, Reverend Ambrose and me stood in the doorway of the church looking up at the ceiling.

“Gonna need your help getting those new trusses up first thing,” he said. He had this real big grin on his face. But then one of the ceiling snakes hissed like it’d been stepped on, and that set the others off. Reverend Ambrose’s face got all sad and saggy. “We gotta look to ourselves like Miss Abigail said, or we’re just gonna end up with more snakes up there again.”

“What’s that mean, Reverend? Look to ourselves for what?”

“For the things we like to pretend ain’t there.”

I can’t say anything would have changed had the Saints gotten to clear up the last of those snakes without a fuss. Folk might have gone right back to doing like they did. So I’m not sure if it was for good or bad that the Reverend Whitney Herschel Wallace came riding into town right then.

His wagon was the flashiest thing I’d ever seen. Had this white canvas over the back with his name in swirly letters, striped red, yellow, and black like a coral snake. He had a scrawny little pock-marked boy traveling with him who beat a drum as they went, keeping that sleek black horse of theirs at a pace so slow you knew they was doing it for show and not to get nowhere. All that noise got folk pouring into the street. Reverend Whitney tipped his top hat at everyone he passed, smiling like they was his best friend in the world.

Reverend Ambrose got real quiet. If it weren’t for the way he started chewing on his lip, I like would have run out to greet that wagon too.

The drumming stopped, and so did the wagon, right in front of the church. Reverend Whitney climbed on down. He took long steps, like he was on stage in some weighty old drama, the black tails of his coat flapping behind him. A few of the ladies was swooning, so I reckon he was a good-looking fellow by their account. Elder Mayfield ran on up to him and shook his hand. The two of them talked close for a good bit, then Reverend Whitney addressed the crowd.

“Elder Mayfield here invited me on account of your serpent problem,” he said, and the way he spoke put me more in mind of the barker from the traveling circus than a preacher. “And I’m not talking about those snakes in your ceiling.”

He pointed west, just as the Slithering Saints’ wagon came tottering over the crest of a hill. That set folk whispering, and Elder Mayfield led a few others in an “Amen!”

“Bit more theater than the Lord with this one,” Reverend Ambrose whispered to me. “You watch him close.”

“With your permission,” Reverend Whitney said, though he didn’t wait for it from nobody. He strolled on into the church, right past me and Reverend Ambrose like we wasn’t there. Such a rush of folks came scurrying in behind that we was pushed along inside with ’em.

Reverend Whitney strode up to the pulpit but didn’t settle there. He kept pacing, like he was waiting for something, and finally we saw what. That scrawny boy of his came running inside with a crook, bit like the one the Saints used, except this one wasn’t rusty. It was silver and shined so clean the sun glinting off it could blind you. And the reverend’s boy didn’t have to tie on extra bits to the handle to get it long enough for the ceiling. He just pushed a little button, and more length of silver came shooting out with a clank.

Some folk backed toward the door when they realized the boy was about to yank a snake down, but Reverend Whitney threw up his hands and cried out, “Those who run now show no faith in what God’s own son told us: ‘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.’”

There was a bit of nervous scuttling, but folk stayed put, even when the reverend’s boy hooked a snake, red-orange like fire, and tugged it down to the floor.

Reverend Whitney grabbed that snake with his bare hand and held it up high, paying no mind to the way it slithered round his arm. “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.’”

That got him a whole lot of gasps and amens, and Elder McTaggart’s missus right out fainted, but a whole new fuss followed at the sound of Miss Abigail’s voice.

“Of course that one ain’t gonna hurt you,” she said, coming through the door with Inola and Miss Permelia in tow. “That’s just a corn snake. Kept worse than that in my pockets when I was a little girl.”

“Don’t you see what’s happening?” Reverend Whitney shouted. He shook the snake real hard, and it twisted its head like it was a mite annoyed, but it didn’t bite or hiss. “The Lord sent these snakes as a test, and Satan sent those women to lure you away from facing that test.”

Miss Abigail laughed. “We got a contract here, Reverend, and Satan ain’t got no part of it. So why don’t you clear on out and let us finish what we was hired to do?”

“I think you ladies are the ones who oughta be clearing out,” Elder Mayfield said. He pulled some crumpled bills from his pocket and threw them at Miss Abigail’s feet. “Count yourself lucky you been paid anything at all and go.”

“Hold up there,” Reverend Ambrose said, stepping ’tween them—or limping rather. His bum leg looked to be bothering him real bad, shaking as much as his voice. “You don’t get to make decisions for everyone in this church, Elder Mayfield.”

“Maybe I ought to from now on.” He nodded toward the Saints. “You got all our children thinking these women are something to look up to. But they ain’t natural. Not one of ’em. I won’t stand by and see all the good money this town donated handed over to heathens.”

I knew my ma would give me hell for sassing an elder, but I couldn’t help myself hearing him talk like he was the one who’d raised all that money. “Who’s gonna clear out them snakes then? You?”

“Don’t need to, boy, or wasn’t you listening to the right good Reverend Whitney just now? Our faith will protect us.” Elder Mayfield spat at Reverend Ambrose’s feet. “Not this fraud. He wouldn’t fear those serpents if he was right with God.”

Miss Abigail scooped up the money from the floor. “I’m sorry, Reverend Ambrose, but like I told you: y’all gotta look to yourselves. We just catch snakes.”

She started for the door, and her team followed right after. Inola gave me a little look-see back, along with a shrug that said there weren’t nothing she could do, and then they was gone. Reverend Whitney started more shouting, something about the Lord casting out evil, but my eye was on Reverend Ambrose, red-faced and puffing for breath as he limped along after the Saints.

Reverend Whitney shook that corn snake real hard again, and folks was crying “Amen!” and “Praise the Lord!” and then we had another fainter. They sure thought God was protecting Reverend Whitney, even though more than a few had to know that snake had no fight in it like Miss Abigail said. So I followed on out after her and Reverend Ambrose.

Outside, the Saints was loading up their wagon, which looked even shabbier alongside Reverend Whitney’s. Had to admit that was one reason I was willing to take Miss Abigail’s word over his. I’d been watching Reverend Whitney real close, and he didn’t look like he’d seen a hard day in his life. Only thing he had that wasn’t shiny was that boy, who looked like he wasn’t fed on the regular.

“Cure the symptom, leave the disease,” Reverend Ambrose was saying to Miss Abigail. “I suppose you wouldn’t have no more business if you tried to do more than that.”

“I ain’t no doctor, Reverend.” She rummaged under a pile of ratty blankets for a spell, then finally pulled out a scratched-up lockbox. “I meant it when I said I was sorry. You seem a good man. But I spent years shouting myself hoarse trying to get folk to change, and I’ve got no more time for it. I ain’t got a silver tongue like ol’ Whitney in there, and the ones who need to hear it most are more like to listen to you than the likes of me.”

“You run into this preacher before?”

“Yeah, we got some history. Likes to get us driven out of town without getting paid. So today?” She took the money she’d scooped up from the floor and locked it up in that box of hers. “Today was a good day by them standards, even if this ain’t near half what we’re owed.”

Reverend Ambrose kicked at the dirt and rubbed his chin for a long minute. Looked like the Saints was gonna leave without getting another word from him, but then he said, “How about I pay you what you were promised?”

Miss Abigail laughed. “For what, Reverend? You can see we ain’t welcome in there.”

“That’s not what I wanna pay you for now.” Reverend Ambrose got a right wicked grin on his face. “Where is it you take them snakes after you catch ’em?”


Next morning, Reverend Ambrose and me was sitting on the church steps before most folk started waking. We hadn’t gotten so much as a wink of sleep, but he made some coffee strong enough that I wasn’t feeling it too bad. And it was worth that bit of pounding in my head to see Reverend Whitney climbing out young Ellie McTaggart’s window before dawn and back to where he was supposed to be housing, still buttoning up his drawers as he went.

The McTaggart family was the first to show up for Sunday morning service—one to be preached by Reverend Whitney now. They didn’t make much of me and Reverend Ambrose sitting there; Elder McTaggart just gave us a puzzled cock of his head before leading the ladies inside. I felt a mite bad knowing what was gonna happen, but I also couldn’t help a chuckle when Mrs. McTaggart let loose a scream and came running back out.

“There’s more snakes,” she wheezed.

Course Reverend Ambrose and me already knew that, on account of us being the ones who put ’em back in there.

Wasn’t long before the whole town was gathered inside the church, waiting for Reverend Whitney to stroll in and start preaching. More snakes had to be God’s work, didn’t it? Another test—that’s what most of ’em was saying. Me and Reverend Ambrose just sat there grinning.

Elder Mayfield nudged one of his boys. “Why don’t you go see what’s keeping the preacher?”

That’s when we heard the sound of hooves and wagon wheels rumbling so fast you’d think the town was on fire.

“He’s leaving!” That was Elder Clayton, staring slack-jawed out a window. “Reverend Whitney and his boy both!”

While everyone else was running to the windows, Reverend Ambrose gave me a nod. I grabbed the crook Inola had helped me fashion before she and the Saints left town. Just like she’d taught me, I hooked it round the nastiest rattler I could spy and pulled real hard until I’d yanked him down. Landed him right on top of the pulpit too.

Mrs. McTaggart was the first one to notice the rattler, and her screaming got a whole lot of others doing likewise. Elder Mayfield ran up front, waving his arms and shouting for folks to calm down.

“God will protect us,” he said. “These snakes are a test of our faith.”

Elder Clayton snorted. “Let’s see you handle that rattler then.”

Elder Mayfield went real pale, and I can’t say I blamed him none. That snake was close to a six-footer, head raised and fangs bared, hissing and rattling from that pulpit like he was giving the most hateful sermon you ever heard. Yet Elder Mayfield took a step toward it, sweat beading up all over his face.

“Elder Mayfield, stop.” Reverend Ambrose took to the front, keeping clear of that snake, and laid a hand on Elder Mayfield’s shoulder. “I know Elder Clayton don’t want you to touch that snake any more than you want to admit to being wrong. But Reverend Whitney was not an honest man. Honest men don’t tempt you to danger then run out of town at the first sign of it. Honest men don’t try to force God’s hand, asking him to perform a miracle to protect them from serpents when He already gave them brains enough to protect themselves.”

Sure as I stood there, Elder Mayfield dropped to his knees and started bawling. Most said it was the weight of his sins finally bringing him down. I think it was more relief no one was expecting him to touch that serpent. Whatever it was, it set off a whole slew of others falling to their knees, crying out so many sins at once you couldn’t tell who was ’fessing up to what. What matters is that moment changed folks some—not real quick, and not without a whole mess of stumbles after. But I think we all started looking to ourselves like Miss Abigail said we oughta.

First, though, we had to look to that rattler. ’Cause he didn’t seem intent on giving up that pulpit on his own.

“Hope you got some real good tips from those ladies,” Reverend Ambrose said, readying a stick with a loop on the end like the Saints had. “We’re gonna be wrangling our own snakes here from now on.”

Barbara A. Barnett is a Philadelphia-area writer, musician, Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, coffee addict, wine lover, and all-around geek. In addition to Mysterion, her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Fantasy Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. Outside of writing, she’s spent most of her career working for performing arts organizations, first as a grant writer and database manager, and more recently as an orchestra librarian. You can find her online at www.babarnett.com.

Barbara says, “One summer, two unrelated things happened in fairly short succession: (1) I learned how to catch a rattlesnake (a long story that ends with the snake getting away), and (2) my church discovered the trusses were pulling away from the roof (another long story). A bit of wiring near the trusses looked rather snake-like to me, and thus a story idea was born.”

“Ceiling Snakes and Slithering Saints” by Barbara A. Barnett. Copyright © 2021 by Barbara A. Barnett.

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