This is another part of Jack’s story – how she was found at birth in an Alabama snake den.
Maude was walking the hot fields of Alabama when she heard the child cooing and giggling in the summer heat. She and her sister had squabbled, and Maude was stomping out her anger in the red dust. With each kick, the dust rose in little clouds around her sensible square toed, black shoes.
As usual, the women had argued about Hoppy. “Little freak bastard,” Maude muttered, and stomped forward. “Carnival freak!” Maude threw her fist out and imagined punching Hoppy. “Always sniffing around my house, trying to get with Jenny.”
Maude hated Hoppy. The evil little man had worked the girly show at carnivals for most of his life. He had thick black hair, a dark complexion and dwarfish features, though Hoppy wasn’t a dwarf that she could tell – just crippled, so he seemed shorter than he was.
“Miserable little crippled bastard!”
Hoppy’s legs bent backward at the knees, like a bird’s, but he could not walk a step without his crutches. He was adept with the crutches, and he caught Jenny’s eye by whirling on one crutch without falling. He was glib, too, and had a running banter that he had to have picked up during those dirty days in the carnival.
“Little shit,” Maude muttered. “I’ll kill–”
Maude paused in her tirade and cocked an ear. “Is that a baby?” She looked around. Maude was more than a mile from her house, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, when she heard another giggle.
Maude looked around. There were low, red hills covered with sprigs of sunburnt weeds, rocks and a few scraggly trees. “Hello!”
She heard the giggle again. “Hey! Is someone there?”
There was no reply, only more giggles and cooing.
“I thought that I was out here alone,” Maude mumbled to herself. “Now some damn mother is out here with her baby. Jesus! Can’t I get some peace?”
Maude kicked through the dust toward the giggling child. “Damn people,” she said. “They’re just everywhere where they ain’t supposed to be.” Maude clapped a hand to her mouth. “I mean ‘aren’t!”
Maude had a horror of bad grammar and had a habit of talking to herself out loud. She was proud of her speech and had learned those proper Yankee tones by spending hours watching television and mimicking the nasal tones of what she presumed were proper Yankee women.
“Damn kid!” The giggling was closer now – just over the next low hill. “You and your mom have no business out here. This is my area.”
Maude stumbled to the top of the hill, and a low breeze caught her gingham dress as she crested the hill. She smoothed the billowing dress and looked down, then stopped suddenly with her mouth wide open.
There was a small gully below, washed to ragged stones by storms past. There were no weeds in the gully, just red dirt, rocks and a naked, squirming, pink baby girl.
And snakes. Hundreds of snakes oozing around the child, and she held one in each fist, like Jesus.
The child giggled and shook the snakes that she held, while others crawled over her body and swept the dirt clean next to her. They were massed, almost like pillows on either side of her pudgy body. Black, green and gray scales flicked in the sunlight, as did snake tongues tasting the air for violence and fear. They clearly knew the child was there, but none struck at her, nor tasted her flesh.
She giggled and flailed her feet, clapping snake heads with toes and soles. The snakes curled around the child’s fat legs and arms, oozed over her head and stomach. The child was nearly hidden in snake scales and bright red tongues
Maude stood as though stone. Her mouth was open and she emitted a tiny squeak. Several of the snakes turned at the sound and peered at her suspiciously. A rattlesnake broke from the group wrestling on the child’s body, raised itself and stared directly at Maude. It buzzed its displeasure.
Several other snakes looked to what had taken the rattler’s attention. Black snakes and gartners, green snakes and water moccasins: They turned to Maude and saw her bright gingham dress highlighted in the sun. Frozen, she seemed a statue above them.
Now the scream came, and Maude’s faced quickly brightened to a deep red as she gave voice to her horror. The squeak rose to a full-throated roar, and Maude brought her hands to her cheeks. It seemed that she was pushing on her face to force the scream even higher. Maude’s face was distorted by the scream – red and elongated. A wind at her back whirled red dust around Maude. Her dress billowed in the breeze, and with the sun at her back, Maude’s face was hidden in shadow: The shriek seemed to emanate from within her darkened face.
The sudden howl frightened the child and she startled. Her own cries of terror rose with Maude’s high pitched scream. And as the child cried, it shook hard the snakes in its grasp, flailing her legs, beating the snakes around her with her feet.
The writhing mass of serpents appeared the hesitate for only a moment, as though a flicker in time had caught them unaware. They seemed to be frozen for but a blink, like a moment caught in a lightning flash.
The moment passed quickly – a seeming flash and a jerk. Maude backed up a step, and a ball of snakes unwound themselves: The rattlesnake led the way up the hill. Writhing in the dust, threatening and striking, hundreds of snakes oozed upward toward Maude.
She back up another step. Then another. Maude flung her hands out, still screaming, turned and fled. Her howls seemed to echo across low red hills. Maude’s mind filled with her own cries, and she ran blindly, stumbling over rocks and catching herself low to the ground.
In her mind, a single vision; a babe wrapped in snakes.
Maude pushed on through dusty fields. Tears, now, streaming down her face. Her screams had dwindled to a babbling cry – a mutter of fear. She twisted her head to look behind herself: The gully of snakes and child were in the distance, but Maude still seemed to feel the flicker of tongues, the suffer under the doll-like black of their tiny eyes.
She moaned as she stumbled to the ground and raked her open hands across sharp rocks. There was a dull raspberry of pain in her palms, and she lifted one hand to stare at it. Maude was on her knees in the dust, holding that hand in front of her face. She saw blood filling the creases in the palm, coursing down her wrist to her bare arms. Maude opened her mouth again in a low cry. She rocked back so that she no longer had one hand on the ground and clutched her bleeding hand. Only then did she notice the other hand, too, was torn – a gaping wound.
Maude whirled at the sudden sound of her name. “No! No!”
“Maudey! Are you okay? What’s wrong with you, woman?”
Maude held her hands above her head and looked toward the sun. A woman was silhouetted in the brightness. “Help me?” Maude croaked out the plea as a question. “Please. Help me?”
The woman stepped to one side, out of the sun, and Maude could see her through her tears. “Angel! Oh my God, Angel.”
Angela’s name had been shortened to Angel when she was still a child. It was her father’s way of acknowledging her bright smile, as well as unconditional love of life and the people the people passing through.
Angel crouched in the dust and gathered Maude’s bleeding hands into her own. It was a dichotomy of Maude’s soft pink hands covered in blood, and Angel’s own calloused and dusky fingers. “Maudey, what happened to you?”
Maude blubbered and tried to pull her hands close to her face, but Angel held them tightly in her own. “I was running. I fell.”
“Someone’s chasing you?”
Angel let go of Maude’s hands long enough to tear a piece from her skirt. Maude’s hands flew to her face, almost of their own accord, and smeared blood into her hair and across her mouth. It appeared as though she was scrubbing her skin.
Angel grabbed Maude’s wrists and pulled her hands down. She tried to look into Maude’s eyes, but the latter dodged her gaze. Angel struggled a bit, but managed to wrap Maude’s hands.
“Who’s chasing you?” she asked again.
“Sn- sn- snakes.” The words came out in stutters, and Maude kept her gaze on her hands. “Sn- snakes. Thousands of snakes.”
Angel rocked back on her heels, still holding Maude’s wrists. “You found a den?”
“N- n- no.”
“Thousands of snakes?”
“They were all over her!”
Angel’s eyes widened. She shook Maude gently by her arms. “Her? There’s a dead woman out here?”
“Not a woman.” Maude’s head bobbled on her neck, and finally she looked up and into Angel’s dark eyes. “It’s a baby. They were on a baby!”