Here’s a story about Silby, the lost girl in The Boardinghouse.
“Bird Legs and the Snakes”
~~~Half the year our door stood wide open, but in the day there was too many feet to step on his tail so it was only after dark when Old Booger snuck in and curled up under the table. Pa said he could stay because of the snakes, but I never saw Booger get a snake on his own. No way he ever could of climbed the ladder to the loft when a black snake crawled up the side of the house and come in through the window by my bed. And any time a bird came down the chimney or a bat flew through the window, Booger just barked and got underfoot.
Bats didn’t hurt nothing, just swooped from one wall to the other, but birds crashed into things and pooped all over. The big girls would scream and flop their towels to chase out a bird but when a bat was in the house they put the towel over their head and hid in the corners. Last time we had a bat in the house I ran to the barn and brought back the mama cat, which Pa always kicked out if he saw her in the house. When she saw that bat she jumped on the table and when it swooped by she leaped in the air and caught it. Still, Pa wouldn’t have a cat in the house.
I was the one got the snake in the loft, me, Silby French, least of the eight girls, and till then nothing special. We had a houseful o’kids and not one liked me best. Pa’s best friend was Old Booger, Ma had the baby, the big girls stuck together, the little twins never noticed me unless one was mad at the other, and the little boys were all the time with each other and too young for me anyway.
The little twins was older’n me and after the big twins was married and gone they was the only twins in the house but I still called them the little twins. They hated that. Their names was Sarah and Susan and they called me Bird Legs. I didn’t care—names don’t mean nothing.
I wanted to tell Ma I was getting titties like the little twins and I was tall as them and shouldn’t have to sleep with boys that was four and three and sometimes wet the bed. Plus the boys kicked all night so sometimes I slept on the floor. But Ma laid a lot in bed so I didn’t say nothing. When the big twins left there was just six girls in the house–Imogene, Ethel, Agnes, Sarah, Susan and me. I thought the little twins would move to the other side of the loft and leave their bed to me but the girls over there said no. We never took our fights to Pa; most of the time he was fed up with us girls, though the big girls did the cooking and we did all the cleaning and laundry and helped outside, too. Mostly my job was to keep track of the little boys, Bias and Branford. Ma and Imogene took care of Tillman, the baby. The little twins was likely nowhere around when work was wanted.
The black snake in the loft wasn’t a tall growed up, about two feet and skinny yet. I knew it wasn’t poison but it could bite, and when it wiggled across our floor the little boys was still sleeping. Pa wasn’t in the house and the big girls wouldn’t come near it and I didn’t want that scaly thing making itself to home under my covers. So I got a stick and poked it at the snake like I’d seen Pa do and that snake coiled around it like a bean runner. I stretched that stick out before me and carried it to the window with the snake hissing and writhing like a woman seized by the spirit. Then I gave it a big toss to the outside. I don’t think the snake was killed because when I went down to sic Booger on it the stick was there but the snake was long gone.
After that if a snake came in the house they said, “Bird Legs! Get it!” If it was little I picked it up with my fingers. I was always scared but never let on. I think snakes or bats in the house was about the only time anyone remembered me.
Lotsa times you gotta do what needs doing even if it scares you. Like me and Pa tromping out the fire in the grass when the little twins was burning trash. Pa didn’t look scared but he was hollering at the little boys to stay out of it. He didn’t yell me away, and I couldn’t figure why he didn’t holler at Susan and Sarah to come and help—they was backed off as far as they could get. I guess he knowed him and me was enough to take care of it. Ma was sorry my shoes was burned but Pa said they was just shoes. Summer was coming and all us went barefoot in summer, but I had no shoes for church meeting.
I was scared when two big black snakes went to crawling up our pine trees after birds’ nests but I couldn’t just let them have their way. I whacked the first one in the middle with a hoe handle and it dropped to the ground. The little twins was hollering for me to bash it to pieces but I let it get away. I told the little twins there was no need to kill a thing for doing what comes natural, but I was just happy it didn’t turn around and come after me. I didn’t do that good with the other’n—it was too far up the tree and I just caught the tail a whack and it scooted on up. Poor mama and papa bird flew around the top of the tree in a fuss, but didn’t stay in the nest with their babies. I guess that was the smart thing for them but I felt bad they had no way to fight that snake.
The little twins didn’t treat me no better for that but they bragged to their girlfriends at church who was talking about the revival that was gonna have some snake-handling. Our church was no snake-handlers but the preacher wanted to bring one in, make a big final night of the revival, they said. The little twins told them girls I was gonna come and show everybody how to do it. I told the little twins I could if I wanted but there was no need to show off.
“It’s for God,” Susan said. “It shows God you believe what he said about handling snakes.”
I said I figured I’d handled enough to show I’m a believer and she said but I hadn’t handled rattlers. I said maybe she should try it.
Mama made us girls go to the revival all six nights. Pa never did go to church and Ma was sick like usual so she stayed home with the baby and the little boys and asked us to tell the congregation to pray for her. Ma let me wear her Sunday shoes with paper stuffed in the toes. I knowed the little twins was jealous of them shoes though they didn’t let on.
The big girls liked to get to the church early so they could get the seats in back where the boys was. If their boyfriends wasn’t there already they’d make the little twins and me spread out in a row so there’d be room when they come. On the last night of the revival the back rows was clogged with all kinds, most folks wanting to be far away from the snakes, so the girls went to other seats with their boyfriends and left me and the little twins to find our own place. I wouldn’t of been surprised if the little twins had left me on my own but no, they fell in with their friends and saved me a spot between the two of them. I should of suspected something right there.
The church floor was on a slant so everybody could pretty much see the stage down front. There was guitar players off to one side plunking and turning their pegs and holding their ears close to the strings, and the regular preacher on the other side talking to the revival preacher. That was pretty much as usual before the start of service. But you could tell by the shifting and buzzing in the room that everybody was keeping their eyes on the crates setting in the middle of the stage. I bet if everybody’d been quiet we could of heard some rattling.
Our regular preacher stood up to give the first prayer. We liked our preacher, who had a way of making people feel good about being there praising the Lord. When he asked if we wanted to ask prayers for anyone I thought one of the big girls would give up Ma’s name but I guess they was too taken with their boyfriends so after a lot of folks had spoke out but no one for Ma I said in my biggest voice, “Please remember Lois French.” The preacher repeated her name and the ladies in the row behind patted me on the shoulder and the ones in front turned around and said, “Bless you child,” and shook my hand. They was good people.
Our preacher’s prayer was long but it was calm-like and familiar, asking the Lord’s blessing on this meeting, the purpose of which was only to give Him glory and save souls, Praise Jesus. We’d stood up for the prayer and we stayed on our feet for the singing, and maybe because the prayer had made us feel good and a little weepy and ashamed of ourselves, we pretty quick got in the spirit, raising our arms and swaying. When we sang “That Good Old Gospel Ship” there was a man busted outa his seat and went all over the church whooping and praising and hugging any woman standing close to the aisles. He’d done that every night of the revival so he didn’t scare me like the first time and I wasn’t close to the aisle and was glad for that. But the praying and singing made me sorry for my jealous thoughts and sneaky tricks. The little twins pressed close on either side of me and I thought they were sorry too. For me it would of been satisfying if the meeting had ended right then and there. But that was just the start.
When the revival preacher started up he never so much as glanced at them snake crates but he seemed more fired-up than the other nights and all the rest right along with him, us girls too. You could tell he aimed to get every unsaved soul to the altar before it was time to go home. Some of the meetings had run long with the singing and sermon and an hour or more of testifying after that, but I think he cut the sermon short to get to the part everybody had come for: the snake-handling. After the sermon he gave a lengthy prayer about obedience to the word of scripture, with a lot of reference to the fact that those who were in the Lord would handle vipers and never be hurt. I’d heard folks say that being committed was the key part about not getting bit. Some said it was a test and them that died wasn’t as true to the Lord as they thought they was. When the string players started up and the revival preacher and two other men went toward them snake crates, me and the little twins scooted to the edge of our seats to see better.
The revival preacher was the first to put his arm into a crate and pull out a rattler. The guitar players was strumming and whooping and folks was singing and lifting their arms in the air and the preacher began to hop around holding that snake by the middle. It wasn’t a real big one, maybe two feet, and it hung kind of limp but his jumping around made it flop. The two men with him pulled out snakes and they hopped around too. Then the man who’d done the whooping and hugging and running all over the church went up and got him a snake.
About everybody in the room was swaying in their seats and singing, and me too, cause somehow doing all that together made me feel safe in the Lord, like the snakes wouldn’t get loose and slither up and bite our legs. Then the guitar players tuned up “Are You Washed in the Blood” and we all got happy singing and watching them men in front hopping around with their snakes. I was kind of scared but excited too and I wished Ma could of heard the singing because she liked that song.
Everybody crooked their necks to see when a short woman in a blue flowery dress went up on stage and spoke to one of the men with a snake and lo and behold she held out her hand and he put the snake in it and didn’t she start jumping around to the music with that snake flopping. I kept my eyes on its head but I thought she was brave or maybe she really did have the true spirit. I hoped she did.
That’s when the little twins started, one pulling and the other shoving me till I was in the aisle. I knew what they wanted me to do and I half felt like I should do it, not for show but maybe for Ma. I heard a gasp or two from folks as I went toward the stage. I kinda felt like something was pulling me to them snakes, the music or the singing or the hopping around and whooping, three men and that one woman.
When I got down front the revival preacher passed off his snake to one of the others and came down to the altar and asked me questions about what did I believe. I don’t remember what I said but he must of thought it was all right because he took my hand and started me toward the stage steps. That was when I felt a jerk on my other arm.
It was Pa. I was so surprised to see him I burst out crying, for Pa never bothered with church. Our regular preacher came over then and put his hand on Pa’s shoulder and Pa said I was his girl and he was taking me home.
We stood there maybe a minute longer while the guitars switched to “I’m in the Glory Land Way” but the singing kind of died down like folks wanted to hear what Pa and the two preachers was saying. I was watching them snakes and I don’t think I could tell you myself what they said.
Then Pa turned me around and we walked up the aisle and he motioned to the one side for the little twins and to the other for the big girls to leave their boyfriends and they did and we all walked out.
“Don’t any of you dare tell Ma,” was all he said.
I know I never did. But that night I went to the other side of the loft and got in bed with Imogene who had a bed to herself now she was the oldest. She acted like she didn’t notice I was there but that was all right with me. ~~~
Read more about Silby French in The Boardinghouse.