And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16:17-18
It's kind of amazing that my great-grandmother is still alive and just as sharp as she was in her younger years. Of course, being almost 90 she has slowed down just a tad but she's still just as fiery and her memory hasn't lost its edge. She has a lot of stories in her, my Granny, and every time she shares one with me I make sure to pay close attention; it's not everyday you get to listen to someone who's been through what she has. My family comes from West Virginia; generations of poor, Appalachian miners and mountain folk who take pride in their history. Granny is no exception: she's witnessed wars and a Depression, not to mention burying both her husband and a son who died from Dementia a few years ago, but she's a tough old bird and I enjoy my visits to her house.
I realize as I get older she starts telling me stories I haven't heard before; I guess I'm adult enough to know about family secrets. Nothing too shocking; just tales of Pap's days as a moonshiner or about the baby she lost soon after the War. I like hearing these stories because it gives me a deeper understanding of my family, and I like hearing about what my grandmother was like as a rebellious teen in the 1950s!
One story, though, was different. I don't even know what prompted her to tell me the tale, but it was a late evening in July when I heard it. It was such a warm night; I had brought a watermelon over for the two of us to share after supper and we sat there on the porch in the twilight, enjoying the sweet taste of melon and watching the fireflies begin to light up the pastures below. I was spitting the seeds over the porch, seeing how far I could shoot the bastards, and Granny laughed that I was going to turn her flower garden into a watermelon patch come August. As we enjoyed the evening cool Granny became thoughtful, retreating into her memories for a time. She did that now and again and it never bothered me. Having lived a life as hers I assumed she had a lot of memories to keep in line.
Suddenly she began to tell me a story from her past, a story that I'll keep with me until I pass away...
Throughout the Southern part of the state, scattered deep in the mountains, are the remains of old towns and vacant coal camps. You won't find them on the map, but if you know where to look and enjoy a good hike in the hills you'll eventually stumble across one of these ghost towns. A few have already been demolished and some have just collapsed over the years from weather and time, but a good number lay sleeping deep in the hills.
A lot of these coal towns dried up after the closing of the local mine due to accident, economy, or if the ore veins puttered out. Since the mining company owned the property, and all the buildings on said property, if there was no reason to keep a mine in operation in the area then the whole town was shut down and abandoned. No coal, no business. It was pretty common in the old days, before the Unions, and even afterwards it was still a possibility.
Willow Fork was one such town, nestled deep in the southern hills with the company houses built in neat rows. Granny and Pap moved to the town soon after Pap came home from Germany and got a job in the mines. Pap came from a long line of coal miners; it was his life and he was proud of the work and proud of the Union. It was modest pay, what with a wife and five children to support but he and other men toiled under the mountains to mine the coal deep within. It was dangerous work and the prospect of a cave-in or explosion was always present. Maybe that's why so many West Virginians are devout in their faith. Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal...Each miner knew the Sinner's Prayer by heart and every Sunday the churches were packed with mining families giving thanks to the Lord that none of the men had died in an accident during the week.
Religion was a big part of the community and it seemed everyone in town was a member of some church and had a place for God in their lives. There was one church, though, that was a little different from the others. It was tucked away from Willow Fork, nestled in a holler to the north not far from the yawning entrance to the mine. It was a small, white wooden building with tiny windows, and painted on the pitched roof were the words “Church of the Shepherd's Flock”. The congregation was lead by a Reverend Gerald Roberts, a 'fire-and-brimstone' preacher who some believed was a prophet. He would claim that the Lord had spoken to him on such-and-such day and talk of the Rapture was always a topic he relished.
While some people in the town believed him to speak the Living Word, others regarded the man with a mixture of contempt and fear. Along with claiming to be a prophet, the Reverend also encouraged his flock to take part in the handling of snakes. It is rooted in the belief that if one's faith is strong enough then the Lord will protect the believer from the venom of snakes, as well as that of poison and also be able to heal the sick. The congregation gets whipped into frenzy, seized by the Holy Ghost, and begins to speak in tongues as the Spirit seizes them. Copperheads are brought out and held by members of the Church, sometimes biting believer or remaining docile during the services. Other times members of the church will drink poisons like strychnine and remain unaffected afterwards. If someone does fall ill, the congregation will gather around and lay hands on the body as they attempt to heal the stricken. People have died for their faith doing this, but still the tradition continues even to this day. West Virginia is one of the few states that allow the practice of snake handling to continue.
Of course, not everyone in Willow Fork agreed with the practice. Some preached that it was an act of vanity and pride to try and tempt the Lord with such behavior. Others said that they were not seized by the Holy Spirit at all, but instead possessed by the Devil Himself and that the Reverend was a false prophet. They that did belong to the Church of the Shepherd's Flock, however, truly believed in the words of Reverend Roberts and the power of the Spirit when they took serpents and poison. They were fanatical in their beliefs, zealots to their faith.
In the summer of '49 life in Willow Fork seemed serene. My grandmother was a bored thirteen year-old and work in the mines was thriving, even if the pay was small. Granny and Pap worked hard to provide a safe home for their family, like everyone else in town, and despite being poor things seemed okay. The only thing happening was Reverend Roberts' tent revival in a few days. Tent revivals were always happening in the summer; it was perfect weather for the three-day events, with all the food and singing and baptisms in the stream. Granny's church had just held theirs a few weeks ago up in Little Beaver and a few new souls had been brought to the Lord. Maybe it was the preaching or maybe it was delicious fried chicken that won them over. People looked forward to revivals, but Church of the Shepherd's Flock was different. They held theirs in the clearing outside of the church and on the way to the mines Pap and the other men watched as the worn canvas tent was slowly raised in the dirt clearing by the road.
Now, Pap was a tall, strong man of German stock and well respected in town. He had toured in Germany during the war and saw his share of fighting, so nothing in Willow Fork seemed to scare him in the slightest. However, on his way to work that morning he spotted the Reverend and something inside him shuddered. Roberts' eyes were lit with a fiery glow, a crazed possession that Pap hadn't seen in any man before. Were he a catholic he'd have crossed himself, but instead he just looked away and continued to the mines with his lunch bucket and cap. There were other things to worry about besides a zealous preacher like explosions and cave-ins...
One man who worked with Pap was named Jake Whittaker. His wife was a member of Roberts' church but he didn't want anything to do with it. “Speaking in tongues, laying of hands: that I understand,” he would say. “But snakes? The minute I see a Rattler or a Copperhead, I'm done. If holding snakes proves I'm a Christian, then I guess I'll take my chances.” His wife, Ida, was constantly on him to join her and the children at church and would always worry over the status of his soul. She finally wore him down when he agreed to attend the revival with her that evening.
He wasn't looking forward to it but Jake loved his wife and if it made her happy and brought some peace to the house then he supposed one night wouldn't kill him. The other miners chuckled and nodded; a nagging wife just wasn't worth it, but Pap still felt something chewing at him after seeing Roberts that morning. He hadn't felt this kind of anxiety since the time he was in France during the war, when suddenly the line shifted and he and his men suddenly found themselves in enemy territory. They hid in the cellar of a kind farmer, but leading up to the moment Pap just knew something was in the air. Now he felt that same way after hearing Jake talk about the revival, but he dismissed it and continued to work.
Work ended and the men walked home down the wide road, thankful for another day done. Once again Pap passed the dirty canvas tent, now upright and ready for the revival and once again he felt that sense of creeping dread in the pit of his gut. Young men were carrying the wooden snake cages into the tent, as well as mason jars filled with what looked like rusty water. He knew that sometimes strychnine was drank, as a testament of faith, and wondered if that was what the jars contained. But strychnine was a white powder; the poison drink created when it was mixed into water…did it turn the water such a hue of orange? Again he felt that sense of dread and as he watched the set-up continue he suddenly locked eyes with the Reverend.
Gerald Roberts’ eyes burned with such zeal and fire as he looked at the coal miner. Roberts was by no means a large man, in fact he was easily dwarfed by Pap, but power and energy that man exuded was enough to topple any seasoned GI. The preacher smiled, his white teeth glistening in the light and Pap was suddenly reminded of the flashing of bayonets.
“Why don’t you come and join us, Brother John?” he called out, “Lest you ignore the voice calling in the wilderness.”
“That’s quite alright,” he fumbled over the words, feeling uneasy over the fact that Roberts had spoken his name, “I know where I stand with the Lord.” He started to walk away but the Preacher called out to him once more.
“It’s a frightful thing to fall into the hands of a living God, John.”
That evening Granny and children were cleaning up after supper in the kitchen as Pap listened to the radio. It was a wrestling match, broadcasted out of Beckley, and Pap loved wrestling. Usually he would get worked up over the match, yelling and hollering as the announcer detailed the chaos in the ring, but tonight he was still troubled by his meeting with Reverend Roberts and the strange liquid. Something wasn’t right. He wasn’t sure what it was he had felt when he first laid eyes on the jars or the presence of the preacher but slowly it dawned on his as the second match started; he has felt the hand of the Devil touch his soul. He shuddered and took a drink of his Dr. Pepper. Granny knew something troubled her husband but didn’t press; if he needed to tell her he would.
As she finished washing the last of the dishes a blue Ford pick-up erratically drove up to their front gate before parking. The driver’s door open and out fell Jake Wittaker, his white dress shirt and pants covered in blood.
“John!” he yelled, picking himself up and running to the door of the small company house. “John, come quick!”
Pap quickly went to the door and opened it to see a panicked, blood-soaked Jake.
“Jesus Christ, Jake-“
“It’s Ida! It’s that damn preacher! They’ve all gone insane! You gotta come with me, John! Something evil has taken hold of everyone! My kids, John! She killed our kids!”
Pap grabbed the hunting rifle off the mantle and turned to his wife before heading out to the truck.
“Don’t let the children out, and don’t come looking for me okay?”
“John, be careful!” she yelled after him. She felt the same dread her husband felt as she watched the blue truck speed off, followed by a number of other trucks. Jake must have alerted other men in the town before coming to their house, forming a posse to inspect the scene. She quickly shut the door and bolted it, telling the children to do the same with the back door as well as the windows. Whatever was out in the woods might be coming to the village.
As Pap drove the truck, Jake rambled about the revival. It had started like any other, prayers and gospel singing as the congregation felt the Holy Spirit take possession of them. Jake sat near the back with his wife and children, a son and daughter, as the rest of the congregation testified and sang. He felt out of place and a little uneasy, but his wife was so happy to have him there. “Like a real family” she had stated.
Soon the Reverend entered and began his usual hellfire preaching; talking of the Apocalypse and the Wrath of the Lamb. He continued to speak of the visions he had seen from the Lord and the message of destruction he was to spread. True faith had vanished, he proclaimed, and the lambs are easily pulled from the narrow path into the wilderness. Then the Devil appeared to him, he claimed, and said if he really did love the Lord then he would drink of this cup. Roberts then gestured to the mason jars lined behind him. The Devil Himself had given him the poison, stronger than any made by the hands of man, but the power of the Lord is stronger he cried! The congregation praised the Lord, shouts of ‘Amen!” erupting in the seats. Roberts took a jar and held it up before the people. He would show the Devil just how unshakable his faith was and if anyone wanted to join him in an act of pure faith then they would join him.
Jars were distributed out as gospel music started up from the choir again. Jake suddenly felt scared as he watched the Reverend take the first drink; just what was that poison? His wife jumped up to take a drink, urging her husband to join but he refused and stayed behind with the children. He should have stopped her, he knew something wasn’t right but he just couldn’t do it. He watched as she a good number of people drank the rusty liquid, gagging slightly as it went down. The singing intensified and people were now speaking in tongues and clapping to the music. Those that drank the poison were even more active, jumping up and down and praising the Lord with upraised arms.
Reverend Roberts was shouting now, claiming how they had just defeated the Devil and how Jesus would receive them in the End Time. Everyone was cheering singing praises until one member of the congregation doubled over and vomited a stream of blood. Others began to follow suit and for a moment there was wild panic but the Reverend called out for order. There was no reason to be alarmed; it was just another test of the Devil’s! Those not afflicted began to lay hands on the ill members and pray over their bodies. Jake quickly looked for Ida and spotted her as she slowly made her way towards him and the children. The front of her dress was soaked in blood and dribbled out the side of her mouth. The children screamed in terror as she approached them, her arms outstretched towards her husband.
“Jake…” she weakly called. Another gush of blood and black bile poured from her mouth as blood began to trickle from her nose and ears. She fell to the ground, convulsing before his feet. All round them a large number of people had done the same and the tent walls were splattered with red and black. The Reverend had succumbed as well, retching and screaming in pain as a geyser of blood erupted from his mouth. Jake grabbed his wife and tried to rouse her, the children weeping in fear and terror at the chaos around them. As Jake screamed Ida’s name her eyes snapped open, bloodshot, and stared at him for a solid 5 seconds. A grin began to divide her scarlet-stained face, ruby teeth flashing. Her gaze jerked away from Jake and locked into their two young, sobbing children.
“Come…to…mama.” She wheezed. Suddenly, with a speed and strength Jake had never seen before, Ida jumped up and fell upon the children. He watched, paralyzed with shock, as his wife began to tear apart their small bodies and rip chunks of flesh and muscle with her teeth. Screams of terror and pain began to fill the tent as more blood stained faithful began to pounce onto other parishioners. There was blood and bone and gore all over the tent, a sea of red collecting at their feet. Jake wasn’t sure what happened next but he was suddenly in his truck driving back into town, speeding and swerving like a madman.
Pap’s hands were white-knuckle as he listened to Jake’s tale. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be true. When he and the other men reached the revival site, however, his guts were filled with icy fear. They walked towards the tent, rifles and guns ready, as the smell of blood filled their noses. The canvas fluttered in the rosy sunset and the clearing was still. Slowly the men advanced to the site. Jake was muttering to himself, eyes wide in shock as he walked behind Pap towards the tent. He kept repeating to himself “They're all dead!” as he pulled at his hair. The lead man was a miner named Holt. He was the first to enter, signaling the rest to wait for his signal.
Upon seeing the sight within he simply said: “Lord have mercy.”
“What is it, Holt?” one of the men yelled as he readied his rifle. Holt said nothing but motioned for the others. Pap hesitated before advancing. He didn't want to know what was waiting inside, what horror the tent had in store. He had seen enough of that in Germany, left it all behind when crossed the Atlantic back to the US. Now it was coming back: the blood, the death, the dread...Pap found his feet moving forward despite his fear. Jake was weeping like a child now. His pitiful sobs were the only sounds in the clearing but as the group entered the tent there were more sounds. Sounds of disgust, sounds of terror.
Pap ducked in through the canvas opening and stood beside Holt, surveying the scene. The first thing be noticed was the blood. It was everywhere; the walls, the wooden podium, all over the packed dirt floor. There were bodies too, mangled and partially devoured bodies, strung all over the tent like Christmas garland. The snake cages had been ripped open and the serpents nowhere to be found. A few of the miners became sick and quickly exited the tent while the rest stood in silent shock. Pap knelt down and picked up an empty mason jar. There was a little rust colored liquid left inside. He sniffed it and quickly jerked his head away. His eyes watered and his vision blurred for a second.
“What do you have, John?” one of the men asked. He handed him the jar.
“Poison. Probably what they drank, but I don't reckon it's strychnine.”
“Devil's blood!” Jake screamed from outside the tent. “They drank the blood of Satan and the Lord made them pay!” The group looked at each other with unease. There was a thick fog of evil in the room and every man felt a chill to his bones.
Holt pointed to the other side of the tent. There was a large tear in the canvas and a trail of blood leading out of it. “It looks like whatever caused this left that way.”
They followed the trail of blood for a few feet before realizing where it led: to the mine. As they neared the mouth of the mine they saw them: they who drank the poison. Pap's eyes widened in horror as he watched the group slowly walk into the blackness. There were about forty or so of them, pale as Death and bathed in blood and other bodily fluids. Their eyes were gold and slit like a snake's, staring straight ahead as they walked.
“They're goin' into the mine!” one of the men yelled.
“Sons of bitches,” another muttered, leveling his rifle at one of the faithful. Before anyone could protest he shot the man, blowing off the top part of his head. The man staggered back for a bit before stumbling forward with the others. The shot should have killed the man. He should have fallen to the ground dead but he didn't; he just kept walking forward. It was then that the group realized that perhaps Jake was right: what they were dealing wasn't of this Earth but instead was pure evil. Pap was a God-fearing man but also a rational man; things happened for a reason and there was a logical explanation for everything. Now, he wasn't sure. The only thing he could think of was the Bible's talk of the dead walking the Earth once more and the judgement of the living. Had judgement day come for them?
As the men stood there in shocked silence, watching the parade of the bloody damned, Jake stood up and pointed down the road.
“Ida!” he yelled in horror. The men followed his hand and saw the woman. She was the last of the group, shambling towards the mine entrance, and carried in her arms the bloody remains of what they assumed were her children. Her simple, yellow dress as so soaked with blood that one would think it was red and her blonde hair was matted with gore. Jake whimpered in terror as she passed the group, not paying the miners any heed. But as she walked she stopped and slowly turned towards Pap and Jake, that same grin spreading across her red face. The men aimed their rifles at the woman and prepared to fire should she lunge towards them, but Ida remained still. After a few seconds she spoke. Her voice was gravely and low but Pap heard her word's clearly.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a Living God.”
She turned back towards the mine and walked into the darkness with the others. Jake screamed aloud, pulling at his hair and clothing. The men tried to restrain him but it was no use; he ran into the mine wailing after his wife and dead children. His voice slowly faded as he went deeper into the mine before dying out all together.
Holt decided it was best to seal the mine's entrance and bury the creatures within. Whatever evil the Reverend unleashed could not spread into the village, not to mention no man in Willow Fork would dare step foot in the mine knowing what now lurked within. A few of the men asked about Jake. Should they go and rescue him? Holt shook his head. Jake was probably dead, or perhaps one of them now. It was best to seal him inside. Pap numbly nodded in agreement and helped in wiring the explosives and quarter-sticks around the mouth of the mine. They detonated the charges and in a cloud of dust and rock the mine was sealed. The explosion echoed off the stoic green mountains, as if they too agreed with the decision.
That evening Pap came home but didn't say anything even as Granny and the children asked about Jake and the explosion. He said nothing but did something he hadn't done in years: he went to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of whiskey Granny kept for when she became ill. Sitting at the simple wooden table, Pap poured himself a drink and downed it in silence. Granny put the children to bed, despite their protests, and joined Pap in the kitchen. After a few more drinks he simply told her that they were leaving tomorrow and moving to Farco, another coal camp to the East. He didn't explain why, but his words were final. In the morning they weren't the only ones to be leaving Willow Fork and by the end of the week the entire town had been abandoned. It wouldn't be for many years until Pap told Granny about that day. It was shortly before he died and maybe he was feeling guilty for letting his friend Jake Wittaker go into that mine, only to be sealed within.
Granny sits in silence as she finished the story. The night is dark now and the frogs sing in the pond down in the pasture. The watermelon had been long forgotten. I say nothing but now the mountains look more menacing in the blackness. Granny simply shakes her head and sighs. I'm the only person she had ever shared this story with and I know she wouldn't make these things up.
Of course, the mine is sealed and Willow Fork isn't even on the map. Whatever still remains in that mine is trapped within and can't get us. We're safe in the hills; they keep our secrets and our sins. Only...lately I've been watching the news and I hear that they're looking to revive the mining industry in what was Willow Fork. I know it's still talk, but the demand for coal is high and West Virginia will do anything to keep the industry alive. I wonder if they do reopen the mine what they'll find in the old shafts. One can only keep a secret for so long...