There were two hundred kids and a bonfire. An hour before the sheriff’s department came to break it up, Grace killed Rose by cutting her neck open with a boxcutter when Rose squatted down to urinate behind a bush just out of range of the fire’s light. They had walked out into the darkness, hand-in-hand like girls who have to pee at outdoor parties do, and Grace killed Rose with the boxcutter once she’d let go of Rose’s hand.
"You go first," she said to Rose. "I’ll look out for you, then you can look out for me."
Then she imposed the edge of her boxcutter’s blade into Rose’s carotid artery. Whether she was jealous, slighted, or just trying to prove that she was una mala cabrona, only Grace knows.
Rose looked confused at first, then she lay down and died. Lying there, she looked like someone angry at being woken up and someone who, now awakened, resolved that they would keep their eyes closed until they were left alone to sleep again.
Grace thought about letting Rose slip under the water of the old mill pond near the fire—there, hopefully to rest concealed under an old timber or in a bed of rushes, invisible to all but the red-winged blackbirds that flew overhead—but the sheriff came, and the red and blues made her think better of that. She spent the next four hours dragging Rose through the scrub and up the hill until, at last, she was able to lay Rose on her side in a small ravine and bury her under one hundred pounds of small rocks.
In the predawn light, at the top of the little ravine, she saw two coyotes walking in single file. The lead animal leaned to its right and stopped to look at Grace and Rose. The second animal looked out past the first animal on the first’s left side, and they did not judge Grace at all, and they did not care what she had done. They moved away from the ravine in tandem, one beside the other, and did not come back. It began to rain, and the rain turned hard and set in. And it rained like that for the better part of the next three days.
Grace left the boxcutter in the garbage outside of a 7-Eleven.
Of the disappearance of Rose, the investigation, the statements and the speculations, there is nothing to say, just like there is nothing to say of the innumerable thoughts and prayers. All words are blind. All words are the wind from the mouths on the wall of the eyeless—no shape, no conveyance. No one ever found Rose. In her pictures, she is always the same age, and she is always smiling.
Grace moved away, and then moved away from where she had moved to, and then she moved again and, in time, her moves could not easily be counted. She became, in the way of people who roam, a person without a past.
A hundred days short of twenty years later, Grace went with her new man, Clint, to a county fair in South Carolina. Clint paid ten dollars to fight a monkey in a tent where a carny promised fie hundred to the winner, paid in cash to any man who could beat the monkey. The five hundred accumulated ten dollars at a time from the wallets of defeated challengers. The monkey turned out to be an orangutan that the carny had said was a sasquatch. The bell rang, and Clint dropped the orang with a heavy right hand like he would any man or woman he’d fought before, but the orang got up and grabbed Clint with the strength of the infernal and beat him unconscious by slamming him against the canvas and plywood floor of the ring until Clint’s head rang and he dreamt that he was roofing again and that he had fallen off a ladder. He laughed like he was alright, but he was not alright. The orang pulled on Clint’s right arm until he dislocated Clint’s shoulder. It took the carny and two other men, each with a cigarette in his mouth, to pull the orang off of Clint. One told the other that he’d never seen the orang so mad before, and that there must have been a woman on her period in the tent and that the blood is what got the orang up. The other man shrugged it off.
"It’s a monkey, numb-nuts," he said. "Not a shark."
"Someone has blood on them," the other man said. "Someone in here."
They got the orang settled, but it took them fifteen minutes to wake Clint. Once he was up, they led him out the door while another redneck with six beers in his belly and ten dollars in his hand stepped in to fight the orang. Clint stopped outside a revival tent and sat on a bench in the afternoon sun with his eyes closed until he finally turned his head and threw up from the pain of his shoulder. Puke-mouthed and beaten, he asked Grace to get him a coke and she did but, when she got back, Clint was asleep because the sun had gone far enough to put him in the kindness of some shade. She set the coke beside him and went into the revival tent, only because it was close and she did not want to get too far from Clint.
In the revival tent, an evangelist took up a large rattlesnake in a wicker basket and prayed that the assembled might all repent.
He stated this, as opposed to asking it, and he took out the largest of the snakes to let it twine around his forearm.
"CROTALUS," he said. Then, "YOU SEE."
He waited a bit before proceeding. When everyone was quietly swaying, he spoke again.
"If you come clean with God—if you repent—repent all of your sins with all your body and all your heart, you need not fear the servants of Satan. You need not fear the sharp of their teeth or even the venom of their bite. These things hold no terror for the saved."
He held the snake up into the yellow light of the revival with his right hand and, with the open palm of his left hand, he struck it across its face so that he could entice it by his contempt to bite him on the forearm. It did bite him, and the triangular head of the serpent pumped like a bellows, and the evangelist’s blood ran in two lines off of his arm and dripped onto the floor at Grace’s feet. It seemed to her that it had become clear like water from a well. She could see through it and, in seeing through it, saw that it had become pure. Without a word, she raised her arms up to the rapturously envenomated evangelist with her palms facing the canvas ceiling. He allowed the snake, by its own unfathomable way of moving, to let itself down onto her, and she saw in the serpent’s eye—in its black, vertical slit of pupil—her confession, his judgement, and the wordless wisdom of it. It bit her, slowly and carefully, in the center of the palm. Her blood, darker than a deer-tick’s eggs, walked in parallel streams down her wrist to her elbow where, briefly, it pooled before falling to the temporary wooden floor of the pavilion. It lay there, blacker than still water on a moonless light. The rest of the assembly in the tent had begun to sing. Grace fell over backwards into the arms of the shrieking congregation. The saved passed her around above their heads and prayed in tongues. Grace, aloft on their hands, fell into a particular sleep and dreamt that Rose came to her. Rose in her jeans still pulled down just above her knees. Rose without her shoes (where are her shoes?). Rose with a thin, black cutline on her neck. Rose, squatted to urinate in front of Grace, and the pool of her urine staining the floor as black as Grace’s own snake-bitten blood and Rose, her eyes still closed like when she had died, trying not to die by sleeping, spoke to Grace:
The most remarkable thing about coming here to see you is this feeling of being alive. It's the most extraordinary sensation. All I am afraid of is that some boys might try to see us. I have to pee. I really have to pee. You have a boxcutter. Without a sheath. Where is the sheath? The world shines in the night. I see two coyotes up on the ridge. They are looking at me, not at you, but with you here, I am not scared. The most remarkable thing about you standing here now is that it's you. Do you have your boxcutter? Can I ease it from your hand? I am overcome with joy to see you again. The world glows by the light coming through your hair while you stand above me. Why do you have your boxcutter in your hand, Grace? Who else is here? To see you here, in this revival tent, at this state fair…this is nowhere, but it feels like being alive again. It feels like being alive.
The paramedics brought Grace back to life but could not save the preacher, and he died on the floor with his blood running clear and fast with the rattlesnake’s venom. His blood smelled like it might burn.
"It’s always like this," one paramedic said to the other. "But even with big ones, there’s not enough venom to go around and kill all of the saved. Don’t worry, though. Next year, they’ll be back. We’ll be back too."
Grace, revived, her hand in cotton bandages, oozing plasma, drives thirty-six hours back to the old mill pond. She leaves her car without shutting the door or turning off the ignition and walks up into the hills to find Rose. There, at her foot, a king snake—black and white like a Templar’s flag, round of pupil and fierce of eye like the archangel Michael—has half-swallowed a rattlesnake by its head. The last remainder of the lesser serpent’s body extends from the king’s mouth and undulates back and forth slowly, as if it is experiencing some passion. She steps over the seraph and its prey. What took four hours in the dark of night twenty years earlier when the police chased off the drunken teenagers with their red and blue lights, and the bonfire burned down to orange embers that were crushed under the rain of the next day, now take less than twenty minutes.
There, in the bottom of this cleft in the earth: a cairn of stones strewn with the chalk-white-bones of two coyotes and marked by a cross from under which clear water seeps. The architect of the memorial is unknown to Grace, and it frightens and thrills her to see it so, a thing made and purpose-built. There too, a boxcutter, its blade oxidized to an ethereal frailty over seven thousand days of exposure. It will disappear on a touch. Set beside that, a weathered pair of girl’s running shoes, almost indistinguishable from the rocks beneath them. They too have waited this long to be held and crumble.
Below the cross and with the relics, on the topmost stone, close to and warmed by the sun: Crotalus, the same snake as in the revival tent. His scales are the color of earth. He has diamonds, made of diamonds, like the king of diamonds, in patterns for armor on his back. He has his thin black pupil and his eternal yellow-iris eye. He is the shedder of his skin—born and reborn—the collector of relics, the finder of unmarked graves, and the bringer of the light: the light of sun and stars and all the wisdom that can be found in this world in seven thousand and two hundred days. He is all-seeing and all-knowing. He doesn’t speak because he doesn’t need words. Grace holds out her good hand to him, palm forward and fingers splayed, and he sings to her with his tail and tastes of her with his tongue.
His fangs, like knives, have no sheath.
STEVE PASSEY is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short story collections Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books, 2017), Cemetery Blackbirds (Secret History Books, 2020), and many others. He is a Pushcart and best of the Net Nominee and is part of the Editorial Collective at The Black Dog Review.
Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.