It all began on that night so long ago. It was hot when it happened, it was sometime way down in the summertime. I remember it was about the time the crickets start to hollerin’ but before the nights start to get chilly. I remember that I was wide awake that first night because it was too hot to sleep. Me and brother slept upstairs in the little bedroom, and it was there that I first seen it. I was lookin’ out the window upon the moonlit night and watched as it casted shadows over the trees whenever a cloud happened to pass by. It was then that it happened, I see them start to crawling. It was snakes, lot of ‘em, and they kept crawling and writhing all around the sill and even tried to get traction up on the glass. Then a giant yellow snake appeared in amongst all the rest of them and it was clear to me that he was the snake king. I took to hollerin’ for Maw and Paw and soon enough they come runnin’ to find out what was the matter. By that time, brother had run over to the top of the steps as if that in some way would speed up Maw and Paw. When they finally got to me, I told them what I seen, Maw just grabbed me up in her arms and started bawlin’ and mumblin’ out loud about how I was marked. Her baby was marked. That night and every night after that I kept seeing them snakes and they kept comin’ back to the window night after night.
Maw did what she could to keep them snakes away from the window, she put little pots of mint out on the window sill, and she would hang dried snake root inside of the window from the curtain rod. I think she knew that what she was doing was going to be of no use since they were spirit snakes, but she done it anyway. Every morning when we’d get up, those little pots of mint would be knocked out onto the ground below the windowsill, and the pots busted. The snake root would be all dried up and shriveled, and would be as black as coal. After a few nights of this, Maw talked to Granny about it because that was the only person she trusted with this information. If people were to find out that I was marked, I would have a hard row to hoe.
Granny said it sounded to her like I was witched, and that we should see Bromie, the old woman that lived way up on the mountain. It was rumored that she was marked as a child and that she was forced to live up on the mountain, out and away from everybody else, because people was afraid of her and thought her to be evil. Granny told us to go right away because she’d always heard that spirit snakes would keep coming night after night until eventually they got inside and then I would be in real danger. Granny took out a handkerchief and put all manner of stuff in it and tied it up, and said to give it to Bromie when we went to see her.
We left that day about noon and it took about an hour to climb up the ridge to Bromie’s little house. As was expected of callers, Maw started calling out Bromie’s name long before we got to her house so as to let her know we was coming. By the time we got to the clearing that led to Bromie’s front door, she was sitting there waiting on us.
Maw made the appropriate niceties to Bromie and gave her the tied up handkerchief that Granny had prepared for her. Maw explained to Bromie how she thought I was marked and how the snakes was coming to me every night. Bromie, with her eyes slightly squinted, looked at me and then back at maw and said, “Nothin’ much to worry about, as long as they ain’t a yeller one in amongst them.” I blurted out, “there is a yellow one, he’s their king.” Upon hearing this, Bromie looked a bit shocked and muttered, “They must be at it again…”
Trying to be polite about it, as quickly as she could, Maw asked if there was anything that she could do to help me. Bromie explained, “Snakes come to youngin’s a lot, especially in the heat of the summer. They sense a pure heart and if there’s one thing snakes don’t like, it’s that. But that yeller one is what bothers me. That is the boy’s soul snake. They say that everybody has a soul snake out there, but it’s seldom that the soul snake finds its match. When it does it means one of two things, either the soul snake will keep on trying to get to its match until the match dies or the match will be marked as a snake witch.”
I remember being scared to death at what Bromie told us. Maw was too, but she was also smart. She asked Bromie was there anything that could be done to stop it. “Sure is,” Bromie said, “but it ain’t an easy thing to do. You need a snake witch to stop that yeller snake.”
“Ain’t you a snake witch, Bromie?” I piped up.
Blood drained from Maw’s face when I said that, she was just sure that I had offended Bromie by calling her a snake witch.
“I was marked years ago. Young man, I’ll help you because you are pure of heart and I know you mean well. I wouldn’t wish this life on my worst enemy. Besides, I reckon I owe your Granny a great debt for all that she has helped me with over the years. I reckon I would have starved to death long ago if it hadn’t been for her leaving me jars of food and sacks of dried apples and such out in the woods where I could find them.”
“I didn’t know Granny knew you,” I said.
“Nobody knows it. Your Granny does things for me that nobody knows, for if they did, your Granny would be an outcast, too.”
“She’s a good woman, that’s for sure,” Mama said, “I know what people say about you and I knew you lived up here but I never did think about it. I always reckoned you lived up her because you wanted to.”
“I live up her because this is the only place I can live. I can’t live anywhere that would make my life an easy one, for that is when the snakes would return,” Bromie explained.
“What causes this sort of thing. Why are the snakes bothering us my boy?” Mama asked.
“Because they can. You see, somebody long ago witched this whole mountain, and everybody who lived on it and everyone who would ever live on it. At any given time there has to be a marked snake witch that lives on it. There can only be one snake witch at a time, but there is always going to be one that lives here on this mountain,” Bromied added.
Mama asked, “But you said that you were a snake witch, and since you already live here, then why are they bothering my boy?”
“I reckon we both know the answer to that,” Bromie said softly. With her eyes cast down and the gray strands of hair poking out of her old worn-out sun bonnet, “The good book says we don’t know the hour nor the day, but I reckon I’ll come closer to that than most. To be honest, I welcome the death angel even though I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone else.”
Bromie added, “Here’s what we’ll do, you’re going to have to leave the boy with me tonight, you can stay here to if you’d like, but you can’t interrupt anything or say anything once the sun goes down. Now I mean that, you don’t know the things I know so I’m only going to tell you once that if you stay, you can’t do or say anything once that sun goes down until the sun comes up tomorrow morning.”
“I understand,” Mama affirmed, “but I would like to stay with the boy. I’m going to have to go down and tell everybody where I’ll be staying tonight so they won’t worry, but I’ll be back long before dark.”
“Just leave the boy with me,” Bromie stated, “we have work to do anyway.”
I was scared to be left there with Bromie, but I trusted her. She knew my Granny and that meant a lot in my book. We watched as Maw made her way down the path on the ridge, and when she was out of earshot, Bromie turned to me and said, “Young Gentleman, what you say we get to work.”
From an old pasteboard box up on a shelf, Bromie took out a little black book. “This here is the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. It has everything we need to stop these snakes. Now, I’m going to have to make you sleep in a burlap sack but we need to keep it covered with a quilt at all times. I know it is going to get powerful hot under there, but that is what we need to do. I promise I won’t hurt you and I’ll do my best to see that those snakes don’t either.”
It seemed like a short time when Maw came walking back up the ridge. I reckon it seemed so short to me because me and Bromie had been making plans for that night. She read the books over me, and did some chants, and she tied some roots onto a piece of twine and told me to hang it around my neck. She told me to take off my shoes so I’d be more comfortable, and she took them from me as I pulled them off my feet. It wasn’t long after Maw got back that we ate a bite of supper and waited on darkness to arrive.
That night it was dark. Real dark. There was no moon at all, and there was no breeze to speak of neither. It was stifling. Bromie said, “Yep, they ain’t going to make it easy on us.”
Bromie told Maw to settle in somewhere in the room and to stay put, and remember what she had told her earlier.
Bromie put me in the sack, only my shoulders and head were out of it, and she covered that with a big, heavy quilt. “What keeps out cold will keep out heat,” she said as she prepared me for bed. “Try and get some sleep if you can. It’d be better if you didn’t know what was going to happen anyway.”
I was tired from walking so far that day, and the heat just took it out of me. As uncomfortable as I was, it wasn’t long before I was fast asleep. Maw stayed awake and heard Bromie praying over me, and watched as she opened all of the windows and the door and welcomed in all spirits that was seeking me. Maw said she seen it with her own eyes, it wasn’t long after Bromie started calling up the spirits that a giant yellow snake poked it head in the door from out in the darkness. It looked around and slithered in and toward the bed where I lay.
Making slow, deliberate movements, Bromie made her way toward the open door and she quietly shut it, and one by one, she closed the windows. Then she picked up a large clay pot and loudly started chanting in a tongue Maw had never heard. When she started that chanting, Maw said that ol’ snake just froze in its path and turned and looked at Bromie. She kept right on singing and slowing lowering the pot down to the snake. Just then, the snake reared up on its tail and swayed back and forth. Bromie paid it no mind and kept on with her chanting. The snake began to coil and strike out at the darkness, but Bromie continued her chanting. Then, the snake turned toward the bed where I lay and started coming closer and closer. Bromie kept right on singing, though now a little louder and with more feeling. Maw said she could tell things was getting very tense. Maw said that snake laid its head right down on the foot of that bed but then turned back toward Bromie and that clay jar. Then in one fluid movement, it made a great lunge at Bromie. Just as quickly, Bromie threw up the open jar in front of her and the snake went right into it. Bromie quickly put a lid on it, and with seemingly otherworldly skill, she grabbed up a bundle of herbs of some sort and lit them and threw them into the pot, and then she sat down on top of it.
After a few minutes, and much thrashing about inside of the clay jar, Bromie turned to Maw and said, “I believe that will do it. You can speak now.”
Without saying a word, Maw just lay there, and remained silent. Bromie repeated herself but Maw again ignored her.
Morning came in a few hours and the light of day brought with it some remarkable sights. Bromie was sitting on the front stoop when Maw walked outside. “I reckon you seen things last night that you never hoped you would.”
“Yes,” Maw said matter of factly. “I don’t reckon there is much any of us can say about that.”
“I’m glad you remembered what I had told you. You see, when that soul snake went in that pot and I threw the burning brand in on him, part of that spirit went into me. That is why I am marked,” Bromie continued, “all snakes great and small, spirit or living, can share my body. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is what it is. If you had of answered me or made any movements, that spirit probably would have attacked you, and there wouldn’t have been anything I could have done.”
“Can you tell me why that snake went for you instead of the boy on the bed, since it was the boy it was seeking?” Maw asked.
“Well you see, while you were gone, I had the boy take his shoes off and give them to me. I put the shoes down in the clay pot. I knew that soul snake would get the scent of the boy from those shoes. Of course,” Bromie added, “the boy still had his scent on himself, that is why I gave him a charm to hang around his neck that kills scent, and I had him sleep in a burlap sack that I had gathered chamomile in last month so the burlap also hid some of his scent. The quilt on top is the one I use to lay out my drying herbs in the sun. I never use it so it wouldn’t have people scent on it. That helped cover up his scent even more, and it would have protected him had the soul snake tried to attack him.”
She continued, “I reckon you heard that singing that I done. It is part of being a snake witch. What I done was use those words to put that soul snake into a trance. One it was in the clay jar, I threw in the cleaning herbs which ridded this world of that spirit. You’re boy will not be bothered by snakes again. I just want you to know that what I done wasn’t evil, what I done is straight out of the good book, from the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Most people just don’t know where to look for those books. I don’t want you thinking that I was witching the boy.”
“Bromie,” Maw said, “I want you to know that I will forever be indebted to you for what you have done. I don’t think you are evil and I want you to know that you are welcome to visit our home any time that you want. You will always find a plate set at our table for you.”
“Oh no, you mustn’t do that, people will shun you as they have me,” Bromie pleaded. “I reckon I can invite to my home whoever I want to” Maw replied. “Besides, Granny must set a great store by you to have helped you out all the years as you said she has done, so you must be a good person. I reckon between me and Granny, we can set the old gossipmongers to packing should they ever utter a bad word about you in our presence.”
“I’ll not hear anyone speak ill of you in my presence.” Maw added, “You’ll find that I am loyal to those that are loyal to me and mine, and what I seen you do last night was far above and beyond what I have ever seen anyone do for us. So if you ever find yourself down on our property and see something you want, why you just take a share of it and all will be well. That way, you can still live the way you must and we will be able to begin to repay you for all that you have done for us.”
Bromie just said, “I’d appreciate it. I reckon now that I have done what I done, the snakes will rethink their plans about replacing me with somebody younger. I suspect they’ll come around and aggravate me for some time to come but nothing I ain’t used to. I’ve been marked now, oh, going on 70 years. That’s why I reckon I done what I done. I couldn’t bear the thought of that youngin’ in there having to live like I’ve had to live all these years. Like I said before, I wouldn’t wish this life on my worst enemy.”