26 Mar Hypatia’s Snakes
“Hypatia’s Snakes”Written by Chisto Healy Edited by Craig Groshek and Seth Paul Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 27 minutes
Divine Word of the Holy Trinity Commune – Utah
March 17th, 2023
St. Patrick’s Day
“And so the Lord said to them…”
Pastor John stopped mid-sentence, his eyes on the door to the church, or more so the man that opened it and stood in the doorway looking down the aisle at him. He was dressed in a fine buttoned-down shirt, black dress slacks, and shoes with a long gray overcoat. His head is what stood out the most as it was the head of a serpent, long-necked, scaled, and equipped with a slithering tongue. Either it was some kind of mask, a prank of sorts, or the Devil had come to visit the Pastor and his flock.
“Mark, Thomas, please close the doors.” All heads turned at his words to see the strange man standing in the doorway. He didn’t seem to regard them in return or if he did, they couldn’t tell. His beady reptilian eyes stared forward. The people in the pews, young and old alike let out a unified gasp. Some began to murmur quietly, panicked but having too much respect for God’s house to be loud.
The two men John had spoken to rose from their seats and cautiously approached the man. “Hurry now,” Pastor John told them from his podium. “Be sure to lock it once it’s closed, please. Thank you.”
His words stirred some of the more daring to speak out. “Lock it? You’re going to lock us in? What is happening?”
“I’m not locking you in,” John said to the woman in the front row glaring at him. Mary was always independent, even in the house of God. Blind trust had been hard for her since the day she moved there and joined them. He had hope for her though and didn’t want to show frustration. He did his best to always respond to her fears with reassurance. “I’m locking the Devil out.”
He watched as Thomas and Mark reached the doors. The man in the center made no threats or sounds. He just stood where he was, staring forward, that thin forked tongue slithering about like the muscle itself was a serpent. “Please step back,” Thomas said as they each grabbed one of the large oak doors. “I’m sorry but we need to close this. Perhaps you can come back later.”
Pastor John saw that Thomas was trying his best to be polite in order to keep from frightening the others and eliciting panic, but it was pointless. He could see how scared his family was already and the words Thomas spoke came out trembling like a child in the rain.
“Just go,” Mark said more forcefully. “Go back to wherever you came from.”
Pastor John and the rest of his community watched as Mark shoved the door toward the serpent-headed man. Thomas followed his lead and closed his as well though more tentatively. The stranger didn’t move. He still stood there staring forward as the doors came towards him. Then at the last second before the eyes of God and all his children, he grabbed Mark, stepped backward, and yanked him out of the building as the doors fell shut.
There was no stopping the shouting then. Mark’s wife was in the mix. “Open the door!” she commanded, tears already shining on her cheeks.
Pastor John knew he couldn’t oblige her though. Mark was one of the people that helped him build this church from the ground up and establish this community, but he couldn’t risk everyone for one man. He rushed around the podium, down the steps of the stage, and into the aisle. “Do not open it,” he said, his voice booming. “Lock it.”
“What?!” Mark’s wife, Margaret bellowed.
“You can’t be serious,” a man on the other side, Paul, said, standing up. His voice was angry. A woman stood up then a few pews behind him. “Mark could be in danger!” she growled accusingly.
“We are all in danger,” Pastor John said, doing his best to keep his voice even and the fear from his tone. God had entrusted him to lead these people; this was his most significant test in the forty years he’d been running this commune. He would not fail. “Now lock the door before someone else gets taken.”
“A woman on the other side of the room said, “You can’t just leave him out there.”
John ignored her and stared at Thomas. The poor man looked terrified but nodded, his red hair bobbing as he did, and he grabbed the large wooden beam they used to lock the door. Many of their ways were outdated but John, Mark, and another man named Dennis who had long since passed built it all with their own two hands. They felt the old-style nature of things added to the power it commanded. A man in the back, Jeremy, jumped up to help Thomas with the door.
Margaret left her pew and charged toward them screaming. As the board fell into place, she fell to her knees before them, her body racked by sobs. “What did he want with my husband?” she cried. “What is he doing to him?”
“I’m going through your office and leaving out the back,” a woman named Theresa said firmly, daring him to contradict her. John sighed. He turned to face her and gave a calm retort. “If you do, then I will lock the door behind you. It is currently locked and it needs to remain so. I cannot risk everyone in our family for your whims.”
“So you’ll leave me to death as well?” she asked angrily.
“If I must, to protect everyone else. I cannot sacrifice the whole for the few. I’m sorry.”
“This is insane,” she barked. “What if there are more of those things out there?”
“There are more,” Pastor John said matter-of-factly.
“Well, they could be hurting Mark while we’re all just sitting in here.”
“They are hurting him,” John said again, his voice steady, his truth plain.
“And you’re okay with that?” a man named Peter said, jumping to his feet like so many others.
“Of course not,” his pastor said back. “But I cannot change it. What has been done has already been done. I need to accept it and do whatever I can to protect the rest of you.”
“Do you think that was really the Devil?” someone shouted.
“Not the Devil himself, but definitely his followers. A pagan monster obsessed with a world that no longer exists.”
“What do they want?”
“Who are they?”
“How many of those things are out there?”
“Are they demons?”
The questions were coming from everywhere now. They were frantic and panicked. Pastor John raised his hands to quiet everyone. “Let us secure the church and I will do my best to answer your questions.”
“What else can we do?” Paul asked him.
“Make sure any windows that aren’t stained glass are sealed and locked. Someone needs to check the wine cellar and make sure the door to the outside is locked from within.”
Paul, Thomas, and Mary took off to do as he said. John was glad for that. The few that acted quickly would calm the others and help him maintain control of this terrible situation. When they left, others went to the stained glass windows and did their best to peer through them, commenting on how they couldn’t see anything clearly. John huffed quietly but didn’t say anything.
“How long will we be trapped in here?” Jeremy asked. “I don’t handle being closed in well.”
“I don’t know,” Pastor John said with honesty.
“You don’t know?” someone else fired off. “You can’t keep us prisoner. This is mad.”
“Would you prefer to go out there with them?” someone from across the room yelled back before John could even respond.
Someone pointed upwards then. The pointer was a young woman, Michele. She was Peter’s daughter. John as well as many others followed the path of her finger. She was pointing towards the opening in the roof that let the sun in. Its golden beams fell directly onto the large cross that the Lord Jesus hung upon as penance for their sins. It looked truly holy and blessed the way the light made him shine, but that wasn’t the reason for her to point this out to the others. “Could they get in up there?” she asked sheepishly.
“How would they get all the way on the roof?” someone responded. “Snakes don’t fly. Did the demons bring ladders?”
“Maybe they can’t get in that way, but we can get out,” a man named, James said as he bounded to his feet, squeezed past the others in his pew, and flopped out into the center aisle. “We can see what’s going on out there?”
“Mark!” Margaret shouted from her knees. She bowed her head once more but this time it wasn’t to cry; this time it was to pray. Many of the others joined in and the room filled with prayer. John felt this was good. This was what they needed, to be bound together by their faith, to use it as a strength to combat the evil that had come to them and brought violence to their doorstep.
“Go with him,” John said to Paul as James ran for the door to the stairwell. “When he comes back in, slide the trap closed.” They had a piece of wood that slid over the opening. He didn’t like to block the sun but they need to protect Jesus on the days of rain and snow. There was no lock on the sliding door but perhaps it would at least be a deterrent.
“Why don’t you go yourself?” someone asked angrily.
“Because if something should go wrong it would leave you without leadership in a time of turmoil,” Pastor John said evenly. “God put me in this position as your mentor, your holy guide, and I will not forsake that, especially now.”
Peter’s wife, Ann, stood then. “I’ll go,” she said, working her way past the people sitting beside her.
“Be careful,” John told her.
“Please tell me what’s happening,” Margaret said then, crawling towards her as she followed James to the stairs. “Tell me if he’s okay. Please. I must know.”
“I will,” Ann said with a frown. Then she ripped the door open and tramped up the stairs. The door swung shut and the bang made everyone jump. They were on edge and John couldn’t blame them. Even still, their voices fell to a quiet murmur and ultimately the room fell silent. They were all waiting, waiting to hear what James and Ann saw outside. John worried that they weren’t even breathing. He walked the aisle and gave supportive pats and squeezes on the shoulders of the people he passed. He wanted to slow their racing hearts, to help them to feel safe as he had for so many years.
Seconds ticked by like hours in the quiet church. John feared for the people that hadn’t come to church this day. They were but a few but they were out there nonetheless. Old man, Henry had taken ill. He stayed in bed this morning. Had the snakes gotten to him? John felt like it was not even a question. He was sure the old man was dead. What about Claire and the little ones that remained at the house? She had yet to learn how to quiet their cries and didn’t want them to disturb his sermon. They were set to receive private and personal counsel later in the day. She was having a hard time with the twins she wasn’t expecting and John did his best to accommodate the needs of his flock. The teenage boy, Michael, was in his necessary adolescent stage of rebellion and refused to come when his parents left for church. They had called John in a panic and he told them not to worry. He was sure that Michael would come around in his own time as they all did eventually. Now he feared that the boy wouldn’t have a chance. Silently, Pastor John prayed for the safety of everyone that had stayed home today.
They had gone through decades worth of St. Patrick’s Days before this one, all of which were full of love and celebration, excitement and prayer. He had not ever seen this day coming and he felt disappointed with himself for not being more prepared. He finished his prayer by asking God for forgiveness.
When more time passed before James and Ann’s return, the murmurs began to rise again, nerves taking control and paving the way for fear’s release once more. John wondered if he should send someone to check on them. His reassuring walk down the aisles had turned into pacing, his fingers drumming on his leg as he went. His eyes remained focused on the opening in the roof. Then the door to the stairwell finally came open and he whirled around with more anxiousness than he meant to display.
“Pastor John,” James said, his face serious. “I really think you should come up and see for yourself.”
“What does that mean?” someone cried out.
“Is it Mark?” Margaret cried. “Tell me what you saw!”
Ann walked past James and went to Margaret. She helped the woman to her feet and walked her to a door at the front. It led to a hall where they had classrooms that they used for the religious instruction of the young. “Let’s go speak privately,” Ann said quietly, leading the woman along by holding her elbow with her other arm around Margaret’s shoulders.
This made people talk even more. “Pastor John?” James said again.
John nodded in his direction. “Alright. Everyone stay calm. I will go with James and return with haste. Thomas and the others returned then. “Everything is locked?” he asked them.
“Yes, Pastor John,” Thomas said.
John nodded again. “Alright. Thomas, why don’t you lead them in prayer while I’m gone? Maybe Theresa will even lead us in song with that beautiful voice of hers. I know she could find just the right hymn to give our family the strength that we require during this hard time.”
Theresa looked annoyed but she didn’t offer a rebuttal. She made her way to the center of the room and stood beside Thomas. “I’ll return quickly,” John said quietly to them both. Then he followed James back through the door and up the stairs to the second floor. Abel, their organ player, was seated on his bench looking down at the congregation with a mask of worry. “Now would be a good time to play,” John said, patting him on the back as they went by him.
Abel didn’t offer a verbal response. He let his hands answer for him as he turned around and let them find purchase on the keys before him. Immediately, the entire building was filled with music, the deep organ sounds reverberating off of the acoustics. Theresa took the cue and began to sing. She needed no microphone. Her voice commanded power even though the notes flowed with grace.
“Show me,” John said to James once he knew their voices could not be heard. “I know it is bound to be grim.”
“It’s beyond grim,” James said back. They went to the hole in the roof and James cupped his hands to give Pastor John a boost. He wasn’t a young man anymore and there was no way he could climb out on his own as James had. He groaned with the effort even with the assistance of the younger man. He came out upon the roof and hunched over, needing a breath before he could even look out at the scene beyond the church. When he lifted his head, he said, “God help us. Have mercy on us all.”
There, about fifty yards in front of the church’s main entrance, Mark’s naked body had been nailed to a crucifix. It wasn’t just his clothes that were gone. His flesh was missing too. He had been flayed. All around the cross that ran with his friend’s blood stood men and women wearing snake heads. They looked up at him as if they knew he was there watching. Pastor John gasped and stumbled backward almost falling through the hole that got him up there. He caught himself at the last moment and panted for breath. When he stepped forward and looked at the crowd of murderous serpents again, he saw the jagged oyster shells in their hands and at once he understood the significance. He heard the statement they meant to make with Mark’s displayed death.
Pastor John hurried back to the hole. He had trouble getting back inside even with James’ help as his limbs were shaking. He was going to have trouble displaying confidence for his people when he made it back downstairs. They needed him now but he was shaken to the core. In his mind he prayed on a loop, begging God to take care of them.
“It’s horrible,” he said when James helped him to sit down on the floor. “Please close it. Don’t let anyone else out there. Poor Mark, poor, poor Mark. May the Lord take care of him now.”
As James did as he asked, closing the lid and cutting off the light of the sun, dropping the statue of Jesus below into the shadow of darkness, he said, “It’s disgusting, but what does it mean? Why are they doing this? Who are they?”
“They’re Hypatians,” John said to him before quickly putting a fist to his mouth. “I think I’m going to be sick.” The vision of Mark’s skinless form nailed to that cross was etched into his mind and refused to leave. What was worse was the movie of what he didn’t get to actually see that his imagination created for him. He saw those monsters cutting into Mark’s buttocks, back, and chest with their jagged oyster shells. He saw them reaching into the cuts and peeling his flesh from his body in large unmarred strips. It was enough to send him over the edge. He turned away from James, dropped to his knees, and vomited.
“I’ll get the mop and bucket,” James said to him.
Pastor John nodded, not trusting himself to speak without throwing up again. He had to get himself composed somehow. The snakes would be here all night and John had to do all he could to keep his family alive. He could mourn Mark’s loss later. His heart broke for Margaret and he was glad that Ann had taken her away from the others before telling her that her husband was gone. They had been married since they were teenagers. They met here when they were young and eager Christians following John on his mission. The couple was the definition of becoming one soul in marriage as God intended. Now half of that one was gone in the most gruesome way John could even imagine. Come morning, if the snakes left, John would have to have someone keep Margaret in the building while he worked to get Mark down. He couldn’t allow her to see him like that. She would never come back from that. Before he could even think of how to do that though, he had to make sure they made it through the night. His eyes fell upon the lockless board that blocked the sun and he felt suddenly vulnerable. Maybe he could find something in his office to make a lock with.
As he thought about it, James returned with the mop and bucket and worked to clean up his sickness. “God thanks you and so do I,” John told him.
“Who are the Hypatians?” James asked as he wrung the mop out.
“I will explain it to everyone at once,” the pastor answered. “I can’t keep our family in the dark any longer. They have a right to know what we are up against and to understand the gravity of the threat that stands at our gates.”
James didn’t say anything. He just gave a slight nod of his head and continued to mop the floor. When he was done and John got to where he could stop trembling, they made their way back. As they passed Abel, John said to him, “You may as well come with us, my loyal friend. There is no need for you to be up here by yourself. Come on down.”
Abel didn’t say anything but he stopped playing and got up from the bench to follow them to the stairs. He glanced back at his organ as if the instrument was in danger before going down the stairs. Abel was John’s uncle. He was almost eighty and had been the organ player for the entirety of their community’s existence. His own wife had passed a year ago and they never had children of their own. That organ must feel like family to him, John surmised. He understood. He felt for every board and nail, not just in this church but in the houses and outhouses as well. They were all the fruit of his labor and a testament to his faith.
When they reentered the main room, they made their way to the room’s center and John patted Thomas and Theresa on the back in silent thanks. They parted and stepped away. James helped Abel to a nearby seat. Pastor John took a deep breath and then he began.
“This is not the sermon I intended to give today, but it is the story I must tell, for the Devil attempts to destroy us as we sit in here. Please do not interject, hold your questions and I will answer them all to the best of my ability at the end. We must keep our resolve and our faith strong and stand together on this day. Let me get an ‘Amen.’”
“Amen,” the congregation responded though it sounded as if their hearts weren’t completely in it. He led them again and again until there was power in that singular spoken word. Only then did he move on.
“In the beginning, the word of God was not easily received. Christianity was not simply accepted. The heathens of this world would have preferred to maintain their baby-killing ways rather than embrace the one true God as their Lord and Savior. Instead of allowing Jesus into their hearts, they sacrificed their own children to false Gods. They ate human flesh and lived like demons on earth. We had to fight for Christianity, fight in the name of God to bring this world into a time of compassion and love, to create a world of civilized people that didn’t behave like the Devil’s flock. And we did. We won. The Pagans were pushed out and conquered in the name of God Almighty.
One of the mightiest heroes in this fight was St. Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland. The snake was a Pagan symbol. The serpents legend spoke of were heathen humans not actual snakes.”
“Is that why those things are here?” Mary demanded to know. “Is this something about St. Patrick.?”
“Please, let me finish,” John said in answer. “I will explain all that I know. If you still have questions when I am done, then you will be free to ask them.”
He paused and waited a moment. When Mary said nothing else, he took a deep breath and continued. “The final act in our victory over the Pagan beasts was the felling of a prophet of theirs. The Romans had already bested most of the Druids and none of them put their teachings in writing. Their blasphemy was exchanged only by word of mouth so when those mouths were silenced, so was their evil. There was a woman, a teacher they deemed a philosopher. Her name was Hypatia. She was the line that kept strong the Pagan faith until our monks killed her and displayed her body for her people to see. It was brutal but they needed to know that they had lost, and it worked. The message had gotten across. Paganism died with Hypatia…for a long time anyway.”
“There was a singular sect that continued on in secret. They called themselves the Hypatians in her name. They continued to spread the word of their fallen Druids and keep alive their archaic travesties. Their numbers grew and the Pope tried to seek them out and eradicate them but he was never able to find them. Once a year on St. Patrick’s Day, they don serpent heads and seek to murder Christians as we murdered their leader and teacher. As St. Patrick rid the snakes from Ireland, they intend to rid the God-fearing good-hearted Christians from everywhere. They are mad zealots. They are disgusting, dangerous, and horrifically violent, and they are here, just outside our doors.”
After a breath, Mary deemed it okay to speak and said, “This is mad. The pope never even sanctioned Patrick. He’s not a true Christian saint. Why would they punish us for his sins?”
“Don’t you get it,” Paul snapped. “This is a war, a war that has been fought for centuries.”
“Then why don’t we fight,” Peter said, rising to his feet. “Let’s take arms and show them as our ancestors did, who the true God is.”
“What exactly do you mean to do that with?” Michele asked shyly. “We are locked in a church.”
“She’s right,” said Pastor John. “We don’t have access to weapons unless we leave here and go to our homes and those killers stand between, and they are already armed.
“Armed with what though?” James asked. “It looked like shells.”
John nodded. “Oyster shells. That’s what our own monks used to flay Hypatia. It was a brutal time back then.”
“Dear God,” someone said.
“I heard they also cut her arms and legs off,” said an older woman to his right. “Drove her limbless body through town burning it.”
Murmurs rose and people sounded as if they were going to be sick. “As I said, it was a brutal time,” Pastor John told them as he worked to regain control of the room.
“But it’s no wonder they hate us,” a woman named Catherine offered. “The sins of the father are the sins of the son. Violence begets violence and so on.”
“The hell with that,” a man shouted back. “That was hundreds of years ago. It has nothing to do with us.”
“No matter what you feel or believe, they are out there and they mean us harm. I had heard of them sacking churches and killing congregations in the past but it seemed more of a horror story meant to frighten than a reality. I never imagined they would show up at our door. I’m sorry.” Pastor John sighed. He felt so tired. His shoulders slumped. The visions of Mark’s skinned body nailed to a cross kept pushing their way back into his mind. “I believe if we can make it til morning when St. Patrick’s day is over, they will leave.”
Outrage rose among his flock. “So we’re expected to stay here all night, locked in like goats in a pen?”
“What about my family? They’re home. I need to get to them.”
“What are we supposed to do if they get in?”
“Would they hurt our crops, our cattle, the chickens?”
Pastor John rubbed some of the tension from his face. “I don’t know. I don’t know in detail what they will do or what their intentions are. I don’t know what they have already done to our homes or family members that aren’t with us in this room. I do know, however, what they have already done to Mark, and it is something that will plague my dreams for however many days I have left. I can not in good conscience allow any of you to leave. This commune is mine. You are all my responsibility. This is the best way I know to keep you safe.”
A man in the back stood up then. “You can not keep us here as prisoners. If we want to leave, we have that right. My stubborn son refused to come today and you said he would be alright. For all I know, he could be dead already. I’m going to him and you’re not going to stop me.”
“He’s right,” another man said, “My wife Claire is home with my twins. How can I stay here, tucked safely away while they could be getting hurt? I have to go home, Pastor John.”
John exhaled his frustration. He understood how they felt. He believed they were already too late to save any of their loved ones from the heathens outside but how could he keep them from trying? “Alright,” he said. “Anyone who needs to check on loved ones will go out the back door in my office. Thomas will lock it behind you and James will watch you from the roof so we will know if you make it or not. That is the best I can offer.”
The people talked amongst themselves for a minute and ultimately came to agree upon that plan. Four men and two women left out the back door and Thomas went to lock the door behind them. James did as his pastor requested and went back up to the roof to see what transpired from a place that seemed reasonably safe.
The rest waited in numb silence. Pastor John began to worry when Thomas didn’t return but he feared going to check. If Thomas failed to lock the door then the snakes could already be inside. If he went to check it could mean his death. Just the same, he couldn’t in good conscience send someone else to what could be their death.
The door to the stairwell banged open and James stumbled out. He was white as a ghost and stepped like he was drunk. “None of them made it,” he said. “None of them. Those Pagans move like actual serpents. They are lightning-fast and slippery. They broke ranks and dispersed catching everyone and dragging them off into the trees out of sight.”
Pastor John hung his head. His heart felt heavy. So much of Utah was desert and red rock. He chose to build up north by one of the temperate forests so they would have more access to animals and vegetation as they planned to be self-sustaining. Now that choice gave the serpents in their midst somewhere to hide.
Michael’s mother stood in the back of the room. “I have to go. They have my husband. I have to go.”
Pastor John shook his head. “No. I’m sorry. I can’t let you. Do you think you will make it where they did not? Your husband is as good as dead and you will only join him if you go too.”
“How could you say that?” she screamed.
“Because it’s the truth,” Mary said across the room to her.
“Where’s Thomas?” Peter asked then, voicing John’s own fears.
“Thomas never came back,” someone else echoed.
John looked to James for the answer but the other man only shook his head. “I didn’t see him. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll check,” Jeremy said.
“Wait,” John said, stopping him with a raised hand. “We should go with several people, and have greater numbers in case there is a threat. I will lead the way.” Several of his God-made family filed in line behind him and he slowly made his way toward his office. His heart was in his throat and he couldn’t find breath. When he reached the office, he opened the door and stepped inside. Jeremy and the others poured in to surround him. The back door was wide open and Thomas was nowhere to be seen.
“Why didn’t they come in and get us?” Jeremy asked quietly.
“Maybe they want us to be afraid,” Michele said.
“They can go back to hell,” Peter chimed in.
“What do you think they did to Thomas?” a woman named Elizabeth said.
“I don’t know,” Pastor John said with quiet honesty. The image of Mark’s flayed corpse returned behind his eyes. Slowly he approached the open door. The others hung back and watched with bated breath. Pastor John reached the open door and stepped into the doorway. He peered out at the trees beyond and immediately lost his footing, falling to his knees, even as his hands grasped either side of the door jamb.
“What is it?” someone said from behind him.
“Go! Get back! Get out of here. Don’t look,” he commanded them.
Mary stepped forward anyway as she was prone to go by the beat of her own drum. She bent over to lift him back to her feet and he saw her eyes fall upon the scene that took his legs. She froze where she was. “I told you to go,” he said to her, his voice weak.
She didn’t respond. She just stood there, bent over him, staring out at Thomas. His abdomen had been slit open and his intestines wrapped around a tree. He was being led by serpent-headed people in a walk around that tree, his intestines pulling out more and more as he went, and winding around the base of the tree like an invasive vine. Thomas looked their way then. “Go,” he croaked.
“How in God’s name is he alive?” Mary asked.
“He could live for hours still,” Pastor John told her, his sickness evident in his tone. “He’s right. We have to go.”
Mary didn’t say anything, but she finished the task she set out to do and lifted him to his feet. They leaned on each other as they made it back into the room. Then John slammed the door shut and locked it. His face was pale and beaded with sweat when he looked back at the others that backed to the office door but never went through it. “Is Thomas dead?” Michele asked.
“Not yet, but he will be soon enough and we can’t save him.” Mary was the one to answer. Pastor John could still barely stand.
“What are we going to do?” Jeremy asked then.
John simply shook his head. “We’re going to wait. It’s all we can do. We can’t open the doors or windows anymore. We can’t go out. All we can do is wait and pray for them to leave.”
Everyone looked shaken and frightened but no one offered any argument. Pastor John was glad for this because he didn’t have the energy to fight them if they did. They walked back to the main room. As they did, a stained glass window to the left shattered inward and several people screamed and shouted. Two all too human arms came through and seized Paul, pulling him up the wall and through the broken glass to the outside. A serpentine head peered through at them, black eyes staring and forked tongue lashing before it too disappeared. Some people ran to the broken window to look for Paul but most scattered and ran away from it. Pastor John could do nothing but watch. “They’re forcing some kind of metal rod through his heels by his Achilles’ tendons,” Peter yelled, his voice cracking. “Dear God, they’re stringing him up, upside down. They’re treating him like a slab of meat.”
“Get away from the window!” John screamed then. “Stop watching. It’s sick. Leave it.”
“But he’s one of us,” Peter said. “He’s family.”
“And he’s dead! Leave it. Respect him enough not to watch such a thing.”
“He’s right,” Ann said returning without Margaret. “Leave it. Please.” Paul was Ann’s brother. Peter looked like he wanted to protest but he didn’t put a sound to it. Instead, he frowned and stepped away from the window.
“Stay away from all windows unless you see one of those things trying to come through,” Jeremy said. “If they try to come in we have to keep them out but we don’t want anyone else grabbed.”
Pastor John nodded his agreement as Mary helped him to the stage and he sat on its edge. Everyone else took seats in the pews. For the most part, they didn’t even speak. Maybe they were like John and waiting for something big, for the monsters to come through the ceiling or bang at the front door until it broke. They all looked nervously towards the broken window every now and then but nothing else appeared at it.
Time passed at a crawl. It was a terrible thing to be waiting for death even if you were as devout as Pastor John. He believed in heaven and what joy waited for him after his passing but he wasn’t prepared for the suffering that would send him there at the hands of the serpents beyond his walls. He couldn’t help thinking about Thomas. Mark, he was sure was dead, but Thomas could just be suffering, tied to that tree by his own entrails in excruciating pain. John prayed for him to pass quickly and join the Lord’s flock in heaven.
“Why us?” someone asked then. “I don’t understand. We don’t bother anyone. We live out here by ourselves and we just live a simple life of quiet joyful servitude.”
John didn’t have the energy to answer. He just sat on the stage’s edge with his head hung over his chest, praying silently behind closed eyes. Mary answered for him. “That is why. Because we’re out here by ourselves, away from everything, ripe for the picking. It would be harder to attack a church in a busy bustling city with police and everyone just around the corner and a million witnesses. We’re prime targets.”
“God help us all,” someone else said.
“Wait, do you smell that?” Ann said loudly. “It smells like smoke.”
This made John raise his head. Their church was hand built. It was in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t stone and mortar. It was wood. The wood was treated but it would still burn, just not as quickly. He smelled it too. When he hopped down from the stage, he found many of the others were also on their feet. They were looking upward. The second floor was smoking. “That’s why they didn’t come in the open door,” Pastor John said.
“My organ,” Abel said sadly.
“I’m sorry,” someone said, hugging the old man.
“What are we going to do?” someone asked.
“How much time do we have?”
“If we leave we’ll be caught just like the others.”
“Are we all going to die?”
“I don’t know!” he screamed then. When the others fell quiet he repeated it in a hushed tone. “I’m sorry. God trusted me. You all trusted me and I’ve failed you. I don’t have the answers. It will take time for the building to burn but the smoke will choke us before then. We will have to flee and they’ll be waiting.”
“Maybe if we all leave at the same time we’ll be too many for them,” Peter said. “They’ll catch some of us but many of us will make it.”
“We have no idea how many of those monsters are actually out there,” someone said in answer.
“Do you have anything better?” someone else chimed in.
“If all they have is broken shells, I say we rush them,” Mary said then. “It is possible that we do outnumber them. We could wind up getting the better of them. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. Let’s do like St. Patrick and run the snakes out of here.”
People murmured quietly at first but then the excitement rose until everyone was on their feet cheering and feeling empowered. John felt like they were probably going to die either way, they might as well go out in a blaze of glory. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Already people were coughing on the smoke that was beginning to fill the room. The people filed into the aisle and waited as Peter and Ann removed the lock from the door. “What about Margaret?” she said. “She’s sleeping in one of the classrooms.”
“I’ll get her,” Michele said, heading that way. John didn’t say it but he knew she wasn’t going to make it. The moment she saw Mark she would collapse and they would get a hold of her. People were covering their mouths and noses with elbows and shirt collars and still, they coughed and choked, especially the elderly. “Are we ready?” Peter asked when Michele returned practically carrying Margaret who looked like the shadow of the woman she once was.
“Ready,” Mary answered.
Peter and Ann tore the doors open and everyone rushed out of the building, battle cry on their lips. That cry died away quickly when they all saw how futile it was. The serpents were everywhere, their scales shining in the blazing Utah sun. Pastor John just stood in front of his church, frozen in defeat as chaos ensued all around him. His people screamed and ran in every direction and they all ran into the waiting arms of snakes. Some fought and even won but more snakes would join and they were ultimately overwhelmed, disappearing beneath a pile of bodies and slithering forked tongues. Some of the congregation was killed outright, their deaths made quick, but many were taken to be killed slowly in some form of ancient torture like John’s friends before them, had been. Death was all around him and he could do nothing but watch and wait for his own turn. St. Patrick died in his sleep at a very old age for the time, but that would not be the case for Pastor John, and he knew it. His death would be anything but peaceful.
All around him were the screams of his people, the people he loved, and the community he created. They screamed in terror, in agony, in battle. The serpents, however, said nothing. They spoke only through violence, through pain and death, and yet their message was as clear as day. Vengeance does not die as easily as man. It lives on, breeds, evolves, gestates, and continues until it is fulfilled.
Hands came from every direction then and seized him. He didn’t bother to fight. Coal-black serpentine eyes of glass on the masks of his murderers were everywhere, staring at him lifelessly. He couldn’t help but wonder how they made their tongues whip and move like that. Were their actual tongues forked and split?
Pastor John just closed his eyes and prayed to God to receive him with open arms and welcome him into his Kingdom. He felt himself being dragged away then, through the cries and screams of his loved ones. They tied his arms and legs and dragged him away from all that he had built. He refused to open his eyes. Only when he hit something hard and solid did he dare to look. He found himself in a boat. It was a small rowboat the length of a single man. His head was sticking out of a cut in the top of it. One of the snakes forced milk down his throat and it filled his nose, choking him. Another followed suit with honey. He knew enough about history to know what they were doing and he let loose his own scream as they put an upside rowboat of equal size over the top of him encapsulating him in a shell like a walnut. He watched in horror as they bolted it down. Only his milk-and-honey-covered head was exposed. “This is not Pagan,” he cried at them. “This was done by the Persians. It’s all wrong.”
It was a strange thing to argue when he was being sent to his death, but for some reason, it mattered to him. Maybe it was because he had nothing else left. Then one of the serpents removed their mask and Pastor John fell silent. It was her. It was impossible but it was her. “Hypatia,” he said quietly.
“I have learned many great techniques from others that were mutilated and condemned to death by the Greeks and Romans, Persians, and the like. When I found my way back from death, brought to life by the faith of my Druids, I brought so much knowledge with me on how to kill. You would be amazed.” Pastor John could say nothing. He could only stare at the woman who had been violently murdered so long ago. “The strange thing is, I was just a philosopher. I taught Pagans and Christians alike until your people murdered me. Your St. Patrick was a tyrant and a torturous murderer too. You all act like you are our betters but look at what you did to me simply for being a learned woman.”
The image of her changed then and Pastor John found himself staring up at the charred remains of a fleshless corpse, blackened and limbless. Her eyes remained, staring at him with hatred. He screamed then. He screamed with all he had until his open mouth was filled with flies attracted to the sweetness of the milk and honey.
“Congratulations on being right,” Hypatia said to him as he choked on insects. “Your hell is real. I would know. And now you get to join me in the flames and burn as your ancestors burned me, but first, you will be food for the flies, bees, and worms. It will be slow and painful, and I will be waiting for you when it’s all over. Me. Not your God. Me.”
There must have been cuts in the top boat because Pastor John could feel more milk and honey being poured in over his body. He felt the bugs follow suit and he cried as he was pushed out into the Great Salt Lake. He prayed for her to be wrong, for God to embrace him and forgive him his failures. He prayed for the Lord to save his soul. He wouldn’t know if the Lord would answer those prayers though until death finally came and that would take days, several horrible days of being eaten bit by bit by the tiniest mouths available. In the distance, the cries of his friends and family rang on and he could do nothing but listen to their horrible anguish. He wept until the sun dried his eyes and he couldn’t produce tears any longer. He closed his eyes and focused on the buzzing that surrounded him because it was a better sound than the screams. This was all there was and all there would be until he got to find out what came after, and if he was right about Hell, he prayed he was right about Heaven too. He remembered Hypatia’s words though, even as he prayed against them. “It will be me waiting for you, not your God, me.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek and Seth Paul Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Chisto HealyPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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