He plunks the box down on the kitchen table. “Do you love the Lord?” he says. I know what’s in there. I swallow my Cheerios, take the extra few seconds to breathe.
“Dad,” I say. “You’re scaring me.”
The box has a quincunx of holes drilled in its top. I made the box for him when I took shop freshman year, but the holes he himself drilled last year, about the same time he started going to the new church, some sorry place in a run-down strip mall on the other side of the mountain. This was right after Mom died. He didn’t ask me to come with him. I was pretty glad, to be honest. Before she died we all went to the Baptist church together, and I didn’t have the heart to tell either of them I’d stopped believing a long time ago. So when she died I just stopped going.
Dad ripples his fingers on the box’s edge. He’s in his Sunday best, khakis and blue button-up and tie, brand new belt, his hair still wet and slicked to the side, his shirt sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He’s even clean shaven. If you saw him you’d think he was a car salesman or something; you’d never guess what he does on summer nights, what he’s done every night for the past two weeks. He doesn’t wear rubber boots or even gloves, just a cross pendant, and he doesn’t carry a knife, only a forked stick and the wood box. He took me with him once. He poked around the caves of tree roots with the stick until one peeked out. Then he pinned its head against the ground with the forked end, all of its body writhing and flailing, and flipped it into the box. He keeps them in the kitchen cabinet next to the creamed corn. Sometimes I hear hissing when I reach for the peanut butter.
I scan his arms for bite marks. He doesn’t have any, not that I can see, but that doesn’t matter.
“Whatcha looking for?” he says, and rolls down his shirt sleeves. He pushes the box towards me. It nudges the edge of my cereal bowl and the milk splashes onto my sweatpants.
“Hold on,” I say. “Hold on.” I wipe my mouth. He’s leaning halfway over the table, his gut smooshed flat against the scratched wood. The morning sun looks so pretty walking in through the window. I can’t believe I’ve never noticed that before.
“Do you love the Lord?” he says again, insistent. His pupils twitch. My brain shivers like a souped-up engine. Dad and I stopped talking much after Mom died. What we felt just didn’t match – not that either of us didn’t care, I don’t mean that, it’s just that the texture of the feeling was different. Mine more a slow burn, his more didn’t-ever-leave-his-bedroom; mine more talk-to-the-guidance-counselor, his more find-this-crazy-church-and-prove-himself-to-the-Lord.
He lifts the lid and thumps the side of the box. I hear it in there, like tilting a milk jug full of BBs. I have to admit it’s a beautiful animal. At least four feet of continuous muscle dripping over itself, knotting and unknotting. Panels of scales the color of tree bark and river mud, sunlight polishing them. Dad reaches in and brushes the creature’s head. It looks up at both of us.
“Do you love – ”
“You’re crazy,” I say. “Batshit.”
“Do you love,” he says again, “do you love,” but he can’t get the last word out.
My tongue pushes against my teeth, my lips are stuck together.
The snake’s head drifts side-to-side before resting on the box’s edge. Dad rubs between its eyes and the snake rises up against him, lazily blinking, its tongue brushing the underside of his finger.
Dad looks at me, straight on, and I see there’s something shaking around his eyes, the little ring of muscles. The corners of his mouth tremble.
My hands leave two sheens of sweat on the table.
I hold my breath and reach inside the box. I glide my fingertips along the snake’s cool spine. The snake’s tail loops around my hand, over and under my knuckles, like something trying to find its way back.