Signs & Portents

Sunday, March 20

Sully returned home, stinging from Blavatsky’s cavalier dismissal. “Dr. Rathskill, I’m such a fan,” he mimicked. Sent packing like he was some delivery boy. Who was she, queen of Shantytown? It wasn’t his fault someone stuck a crow on her roof. Heknew exactly where he’d like to stick that crow.

He pulled a cracked coffee cup from the dirty dishes in the sink and filled it with cheap rum. He wasn’t a happy drunk. With each cupful, he dove deeper into resentment until there was no more rum and nothing left todo but go to church.

Sully had a complicated relationship with religion. He was fluid in his faith. His belief was genuine while it lasted but it didn’t last very long. He had attended services at almost every church in Port Angeles and devoutly believed in each congregation’s cockamamie theology for the length of the service, then gutted their beliefs on the church steps.

Sully’s father had been pastor at the Church of God with Signs Following, Tellico Plains, Tennessee. He died when a big timber rattler bit his hand during Sunday service. His older brother, Jerimiah, followed their father into the snake-handling ministry. Like their father, he was bitten several times before a copperhead killed him. Like their father, he refused medical treatment. Both believed the proof of their salvation was their ability to handle poisonous snakes without harm.

Sully never had the opportunity to ask his father whether death proved his lack of faith. His brother explained their father wasn’t fully possessed by the spirit when he picked up his last snake. It wasn’t the fault of his salvation, just his timing. Presumably, the same sort of circuitous logic applied to Jeremiah’s death. Their reasoning was as twisted as a snake devouring its own tail.

Attending church made him feel less lonely, less alone, at least for the length of the service, but he had to be careful which service he attended. He was banned from several Pentecostal churches. They had pinned photocopied pictures of him on bulletin boards for quick identification.

He settled on the strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha. It was on Highway 101, far enough out of town he probably hadn’t been there before. Since he usually attended church drunk, he couldn’t be sure.

The Strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha was an austere, whitewashed building as angular as a pitchfork. A few dozen rusted pickups and aging sedans were parked in the dirt lot beside the church. Sully parked facing the highway for a quick exit if needed. 

The service had already begun. Sully slipped unobtrusively into a back pew beside a dour woman with a young boy whose face was still flush from scrubbing.

“Brothers and sisters,” the preacher intoned from behind the pulpit, “we live in periloustimes, ungodly times. Mark my words, there is evil afoot.”

The preacher was a small, round man. He was sweating heavily as if he felt the fires of hell already near.

“We are the chosen of God, his elect, and the last. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, the end times are upon us.” There was a rumbling assent among the 30 congregants. 

He read from an open Bible carried in one hand. “The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.”

He looked accusingly at the congregation over the top of his reading glasses. “Names written in the book of life from the foundation of the world. You can’t earn your salvation with good works. You can’t beg for forgiveness. You can’t cajole a righteous God. Weeping and gnashing of teeth won’t avail you. From the beginning of the world, your salvation or damnation was already determined. Nothing you can do about it.”

There were scattered amen and a hallelujah. The members of the Strict Particular Baptist Church of Elwha were pretty sure their names were written in the book.

“We chosen few, we band of brothers, stand at the end of the world and face the rising beast,” the preacher said.

Sully was pretty sure the quotation was wrong.

“Make no mistake,” the preacher’s voice was rising, “we stand alone. And the darkness is coming.”

“Yes, Lord,” the woman beside him sang, her arms raised. “Sweet Jesus,” someone else cried.

Sully felt himself caught up in the rising emotion of the crowd. He felt himself swaying, his arms wrapped around himself like an autistic child. His head was spinning from the rum. He didn’t dare close his eyes.

“Signs and portents,” the preacher thundered. “Signs and portents. You’ve seen them, each of you. Things in the forest. Things that shouldn’t be there. Impossiblethings. Devilish things.”

The believers muttered assent and nodded their heads.

 “You,” the preacher pointed toward the other side of the church, “Jake Spinner. Tell us what you saw.”

Jake Spinner was thin and rough as a split-rail fence. “I don’t know,” he hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

“Tell us, Jake,” the preacher demanded.

“Go on, Jake. Tell us,” the congregation encouraged.

“I thought it was a man. Then I got a closer look and thought it was a horse. I saw it and then I didn’t. It was there and then it wasn’t. And then it was. Just like the bible verse.”

“The beast that was, and is not, and yet is,” the preacher confirmed. “Mary Ellen, tell us what you saw in your corn crib.”

Mary Ellen was less hesitant than Jake Spinner. She stood defiantly, arms akimbo. “One of my chickens laid an egg in the crib. It was all misshapen and piebald. I figured it was dead and was going to throw it out but when I went to pick it up, it started shaking and shivering. And then it cracked. And this thing crawled out. It looked like a snake but it had a face, like an old man’s face or a newborn,all wrinkled. It looked at me.”

The crowd gasped.

“I swear on the good book,” Mary Ellen continued, “it was…”

“Signs and portents,” the preacher thundered, wrenching back the congregation’s attention.“Mary Thatcher, tell us about your sister.”

The woman sitting beside Sully stood up tentatively. “She was a good woman but misled,” Mary began. People turned in their pews to look. “She died in Colorado.” She seemed to gain confidence and speed. “Her boyfriend drove her body halfway across the country in a cardboard box in the bed of a pickup truck. We buried her in the family plot by the south pasture. That was three years ago. I saw her yesterday dancing in the pasture, naked as the day she was born.”

There was a sharp breath drawn by the congregation. One old lady crossed herself, apparently confused.

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,” the preacher said, quoting from memory, “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” He held his bible over his heart like a shield. “There are devils dancing in our fields,” he thundered.

The congregation responded on cue, swaying on their feet, arms raised. “Jesus, protect us. Come to us, Lord. Hallelujah!”

“My sister wasn’t a devil,” Mary Thatcher said but only Sully and her child could hear her.

The preacher was now dancing across the stage, carrying his Bible aloft, lifting his knees high, sweating like a stoker. “Brothers and sisters, the day of judgement is upon us, the day of everlasting life or everlasting contempt, the day that was written in the book of life from the foundation of the world. The horsemen are loosed,” he shouted.

The crowd looked to Sully like a meadow of swaying salt grass. It was hard to focus. He found himself on his feet, hands aloft.

“Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears,” the preacher harangued. “The day of the Lord is at hand.”

“Sweet Fucking Jesus,” Sully shouted, gagged, then projectile vomited on the three rows in front of him.

Whistlepig

In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

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