ANY DEADLY THING
By Emily Bay MooreJohannah was eleven the first time she took up snakes.
It was long as she was tall and the color of old pennies. It stank of ammonia. When Daddy opened its tank, Jo wanted to cover her nose. The zookeepers on Animal Planet picked up snakes just behind the head—so they couldn’t snap back and bite—but Daddy said the whole point of taking up serpents was to put your faith in God to see you through. Taking precautions like that meant you were a coward and an atheist.
Jo held the snake two-handed. It was as soft and dry as the leather seats of her grandpa’s Cadillac. It squirmed so hard Jo almost dropped it, which would have been worse than getting bit. The entire congregation was watching. Daddy’s hands were heavy as cinder blocks on her shoulders.
She was glad when Daddy took it away. She got to sit down next to her sisters and try not to touch her face with dirty snake hands while her parents passed around a bottle of strychnine for the grown-ups to drink.
That night they had fried chicken for dinner. It was Jo’s favorite and Daddy said she’d done good, up on stage. Halloween only being a week away, but the kitchen was summertime hot. Every burner had a bubbling pot. Opening the oven could singe the peach fuzz off her cheeks.
Together, they were a conveyor belt. Ma fixed plates. Jo delivered them.
“Open this for me, Hannie-baby.” Ma was struggling with a bag of chips. Her thumb was in a splint and she couldn’t grip things right.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jo stole a pickle chip so vinegary it burned her tongue. She poured the rest into a plastic bowl. It was University of Kentucky blue and white.
“Take those out to Daddy.” Ma was hunched over the open oven, just where she liked to be. Ma was a hundred pounds wet. She loathed how cold Daddy kept it in the rest of the house. Maybe that’s why she hung around the kitchen during family parties.
Their kitchen table only seated four—not including the high chair for baby Sarah Lynn—and with the entire extended family over, there wasn’t enough space. They ate in the living room. Adults got chairs. Little kids sat on the floor.
Today’s service meant Jo didn’t have to sit with the babies anymore. Daddy dragged out a rickety folding chair just for her. Too bad she was on her feet playing hostess the whole night. Her cousin Naplan stole the chair out from under her.
She dodged between chatting grown-ups without interrupting conversation. Good hostesses didn’t bother their guests except to refill drinks. It didn’t matter that she was supposed to be the guest of honor. At Ma’s last birthday party, neither of them got a slice of cake.
She made it to Daddy’s easy chair without spilling a single chip. He was talking with his brother, Jo’s Uncle Emmett. She tried to covertly replace Daddy’s empty bowl with her fresh one while they were both distracted arguing about John Calipari. She failed.
“Were you scared, Jo?” Emmett was smoking in the house again. Jo’s parents hated it.
“Johannah,” Daddy emphasized her Christian name, “didn’t have any reason to be scared.”
“C’mon, Lionel, you can’t blame a little girl for being scared of snakes.” Uncle Emmett ashed into what Jo hoped was an empty can of beer. Last Christmas he accidentally dropped a butt into Grandpa’s dip spit bottle. The burnt smell made her gag.
“We prayed for forgiveness together before the service. As long as she had the Holy Spirit with her, everything would be fine. Mark 16:18, they will take up—”
“I know the scripture too. I dropped out of high school, but I can read. I was asking the girl.”
Daddy’s teeth clacked together. Uncle Emmett was cruel to wind Daddy up this way when he would never have to deal with the repercussions. It always fell back on Ma.
He better pray on that before next Sunday. God didn’t protect the unrepentant.
“I wasn’t scared. I was happy that Daddy thought I was finally ready. We had a real great prayer session, just the two of us.” They kneeled together in the preacher’s office until her knees were printed with red bumps from the carpet.
Uncle Emmett hummed. “What's a sweet thing like you got to say sorry for? Did you take your Daddy’s car on a joyride? Rob a liquor store?”
“No.” Jo picked at her cuticle. “But we’re all sinners, aren’t we, Daddy?”
He patted Jo on the back. She knew he’d like that answer. It’s what he said just yesterday when her little sister Loralie drew on their bedroom wall. Everyone’s a sinner and everyone has to take responsibility for their sins.
Ma had to mix oatmeal into Loralie’s bathwater for the welts, after she took responsibility for her sins.
“We didn’t all raise junkies, Emmett.” Daddy sneered.
Uncle Emmett froze. Leave it to her Daddy to dump a bucket of ice water on any conversation. There was a reason Uncle Emmett’s daughter—Jo’s cousin Kaitlyn—wasn’t allowed in Daddy’s house. Jo hadn’t seen her since last Christmas when Aunt Clarice caught her stealing from Granny’s jewelry box.
Daddy lifted his chin. He hitched his thumb behind his belt buckle and tugged. Everyone’s clothes were feeling tight after so much home cooking. “You don’t mind your uncle. Go get Daddy a cherry Pepsi.”
Jo slid across the back wall to avoid talking to anyone else. Her stomach hurt all of a sudden. Her mouth tasted yeasty like old cereal.
She brushed by her Ma and out the screen door. The night was alive with singing cicadas. Down the mountainside, Jo saw the lights in town flickering like the reflection of stars.
“Baby,” Ma’s hands fluttered around Jo’s shoulders like nervous birds, “you’re letting all the heat out. Is something wrong?”
Jo swallowed. Her stomach settled as soon as she was away from the crowd. She closed the door. “I’m fine. Sorry, ma’am.”
Ma scraped Jo’s hair off her forehead. Her sharp nails raked her scalp. Jo leaned into it. “Alright, alright. How about you have a Sprite?”
“No thank you, ma’am. Daddy wants me to get him a drink.” She set a hand on the kitchen table. It was wet with steamy condensation.
“Let me pour it.” Ma bent to grab the two-liter from the floor beside the fridge. Her shirt rode up. Her back was stained with purple bruises.
“I’ll get it!” Jo darted over. She cracked it open and gave the bottle a second to hiss. “Ma?”
“Were you afraid the first time you took up snakes?”
“No.” Ma shook her head. Her ponytail swung. “But I was the first time I drank strychnine.”
Jo stuck her tongue out. She cracked the ice tray to release a few cubes. Guests got bagged ice from the corner store, but Daddy only liked ones made with tap water. Jo wasn’t looking forward to drinking poison. Daddy said she wouldn’t have to for a long time. He said you shouldn’t drink strychnine until you could legally drink whiskey.
“I know the Lord protects us so long as we’re properly faithful and repent for our sins against him. I know that. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t something awful about seeing the skull and crossbones on the bottle.” Ma shook her head at the memory. She smoothed out the collar of Jo’s church blouse. “Were you scared today, baby?”
“No, ma’am.” Jo frowned. “Ma, why don’t you go outside and have a smoke. You’ve been working all night keeping everybody fed. You deserve a break.”
“Hannie! You know I can’t do that.”
“Please? I’ll get the cornbread out before it burns, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Ma looked tempted. “I couldn’t just leave you here to fend for yourself.”
“Why not? If I can take up snakes I can keep a pot of peas from boiling over.”
Ma reached down and touched the pack of smokes bulging in her apron pocket. “Five minutes. Not a second more.”
Ma grabbed the egg timer on her way out. Jo knew she’d set it and be back before it buzzed.
She didn’t have much time.
There weren’t any baby locks on the cabinet under the sink. Sarah Lynn was starting to get into everything, but Daddy refused to be inconvenienced in his own home. He liked to keep the drinking-strychnine in the fridge, but run-of-the-mill rat poison was different.
They got infestations every winter. Last year, Daddy got the apple-flavored stuff to make sure the rats ate every last thing. Uncle Emmett ribbed him. Daddy made the congregation drink the nastiest tasting stuff on the market, but the rats ate good.
The label said: Causes internal bleeding. If ingested, call poison control.
Jo giggled. Nobody in this house would ever do that.
She poured it in first, then the Pepsi on top. It didn’t smell off, although it didn’t fizz as much as it should. She mixed it with a plastic spoon until it was nice and combined.
“Johannah?” Daddy called.
When someone repents for their sins, they can drink any deadly thing and it shall not hurt them.