Thorne finished his sermon and the band members ambled back toward their instruments and the crowd began to curve in toward the aisle. Their bodies moved and their knees buckled with odd timing. Thorne came down into the middle of them and held his hands out to his sides. Jacob looked behind him at the cages. The snakes were flipping their tongues between the chickenwire and hissing.
When the music started, the parishioners shuddered like a cold body and a woman fell to the floor and writhed as though her muscles were shot through with electricity. Men and women leaned over her and shook their hands back and forth while they tapped their toes in rhythm with the music. Thorne stepped around her and watched while her lips moved wildly and her fingers shot out at jagged angles. She rubbed her heels on the floor and arched her back and she shouted “Fibbilitee mygravee hmmmmm, hmmmmm, hmmmmm!” and the folks dancing around her cried “Amen! Amen!” Thorne took a rattlesnake from someone’s hands and wrapped it around his shoulders. It pressed its head against his cheek and he lowered his eyes to stare at it; Jacob watched as its thin red tongue slipped out across the whiskers growing short across Thorne’s lip. The pastor straddled the woman on the floor and cocked his head toward the ceiling and, eyes closed, stretched his arms above him and shouted nonsense at the sky.
The aggression with which the little house shook startled Jacob. The worshippers were fat, lean, old, child, gray, wed, widowed and all of them sweating like the sides of soda bottles. The smell of the air began to rise and come up over the top of them, mixed in with their shouting and the music and became a thing of such immense weight its burden could actually be felt settling on their shoulders. Several of them at a time broke rank and went to the side of the room to crouch against the wall and catch their thick, mustardy breath. Jacob stared at one point in the center of the dancing and each body began to lose its shape; the crowd became one writhing, stamping mass, like a thundercloud caught in a bedroom, a herd of beasts crowded into a kennel.
Several older women were circled around someone at the side of the pulpit, and when Jacob looked closer he could tell it was Sadler, and that she was holding an infant, and that the infant was hers. He knew it because of the way the baby’s eyes opened, because of the way it tucked its chin into Sadler’s skinny chest. The women parted and walked behind her and she used the child’s blanket to wipe tear stains from her cheeks; the group of them went outside and some minutes later Sadler returned empty-handed. She looked up at Jacob, still standing with his hands behind his back, and his eyes said something like Why didn’t you tell me? and her eyes said something like There are things I don’t want to say out loud.
He couldn't bring himself to leave. Though everyone had gone from the yard and there were no more children scrambling in the woods, he'd not seen Lee or Thorne come away from the house. A light still shone in a room in the very back, and Jacob came down off the drive far enough to make out people moving inside. He saw Thorne, who'd removed his cowboy shirt. He stood smoking a cigarette, yellow stains at his armpits and bold drops of sweat beading at his nose. An old man came into the room – Dr. Wesley - , followed by Sadler, and when Lee came in he switched off the overhead and the house sat in total darkness before a black light came on and Jacob could see the bright blue pop of Thorne's t-shirt and the preacher's skin became that of a phantom, grayish and electric as though filaments had been stretched the length of his arms. Sadler's blonde hair was brittle and wild. They had turned on music - the rumble of a long-drawn cello slid under the window sash and out into the darkening forest.
Jacob lowered onto his haunches and pressed into the first layer of fallen orange leaves, closer to the house and farther away from any place common sense expected him to be. He watched Thorne set his hands on the girl's shoulders and the preacher pressed her with some force down onto her knees and her body disappeared from where Jacob could see anymore. He eased up to the side of the house and leaned against its clapboard edge and the vibration from the cello emptied itself into his aching chest.
It's time to go, he thought.
The little whispering sobs of a girl.
Words from the mouth of her father.
A prayer in an old man's voice.
Lee had gone.
He stood, set his eye in the corner of the window to where he thought the smallest piece of his head would be visible should they look outside, and watched Thorne tip a pitcher of liquid over the head of his daughter. It slid slow down her shuddering shoulders and into the cracks of her clenched fists. It glowed blue-green and the way she moved altered its path like a dancer wearing strands of beads. Her dress shrunk against her chest and the liquid pooled beneath her knees. Her bare feet slipped back and forth in it, sliding in arcs by the shoes of the two older men, who were silent and somber and seemed to be getting no pleasure from what the were doing to the girl.
When the boy Lee said blood from behind, Jacob's fingernails dug into the windowsill and the strength fell out of his legs. He turned and Lee was crouched in the brush, picking at the leaves and grass.
“S'posed to be lamb blood,” he said, “but ever so often they use cow blood 'cause they couldn't get at no lambs.” He raised his head to look at Jacob and one of his eyes was darker than the other, rings of bruise going outward from its center like an eclipse.
“What are they doing?” said Jacob. This event was something altogether different from the service he'd just witnessed. He held the flat of his hand against his breastbone.
“It's a thing my dad came up with. A ritual, I guess. A sin offering.”
“What’d she do?”
“Ain't no specific sin. But we live in sin, Jacob. Sadler's sinned. The spilling of that blood is like... an atonement, I guess.”
Jacob looked back through the window. The men had gone and Sadler was wiping streaks of blood away from her eyes and flinging it at the floor.
“Why don't they do it outside?” he asked. It was all he could think to say.
“Smell of that blood attracts animals,” Lee said. “Coons cain't get enough of it. It cleans up real easy off that linoleum.”
“You're okay with this?”
“What I am or ain't okay with isn't something that comes up much around here.” The boy pointed a shaking finger at his eye. When he left, he patted Jacob on the back and told him it'd probably be best if he moved along with his life real soon. Go back into town and get him a proper shrink. Do some talking. Get over what you need to get over. Your plans is ruined here.
Jacob waited for almost an hour for Sadler to come out of the house. The men had left her alone to stand up, tiptoe through the blood drying on the floor, and turn the light on. She was covered in a red so deep it was almost purple, and it darkened in streaks that came down from her eyes. She tried to mop blood from her armhairs and from her neck with paper towels, but when she’d used them all up she looked like a stain on the drywall, her rib bones popping in and out with her sobbing.