Authors: Christopher Paul Curtis
To the original twenty-one former-slave settlers of the Elgin Settlement and BuxtonÂ Mission of Raleigh: Eliza, Amelia, Mollie, Sarah, IsaiahÂ Phares, Harriet, Solomon, JacobÂ King, TalbertÂ King, PeterÂ King, Fanny, BenÂ Phares, RobinÂ Phares, StephenÂ Phares, EmelineÂ Phares, and Isaac and CatherineÂ Riley and their four children.
And to the Reverend WilliamÂ King and his love ofÂ justice.
It was Sunday after church and all my chores were done. I was sitting on the stoop of our home trying to think what to do. It was that time of day when the birds were getting ready to be quiet and the toady-frogs were starting to get louder with that chirpity sound they make most the night. I wondered if it would be worth it to go fishing for a hour afore it got dark. I got that question answered when Cooter came walking up the road waving at me.
“What you doing, Eli?”
“I was thinking 'bout getting Old Flapjack and going fishing. You wanna come?”
“Uh-uh. I got something that's more interesting than watching you fish, I got a mystery.”
This might not be so good. I ain't trying to be disrespectful 'bout my best friend, but there're lots of things that Cooter sees as being mysterious that most folks understand real easy. I asked him anyway, “What's the mystery?”
“I was cutting through M'deah's truck patch and seen some tracks that I ain't never seen afore.”
“What kind of tracks? Were they big?”
“Uh-uh, they's long and wiggly. I followed 'em but they disappeared in the grass.”
Cooter's pretty good at tracking so maybe this
a mystery after all.
We got to Cooter's home, opened the gate, and went 'round back to his mother's truck patch. Cooter was right!
There 'mongst the rows of his ma's beets and corn and green peas were some of the strangest markings I'd ever seen.
I studied 'em real close. They were long and skinny and in six wiggling lines. Two of 'em were a good bit thicker than the rest. They started on one side of Cooter's ma's truck patch, went clean through her vegetables, then disappeared in the grass.
I got on my hands and knees to really give 'em the eye then told Cooter, “You got me. I ain't never seen such tracks nowhere. Let's ask my pa once he comes out the field.”
But afore we had the chance to ask Pa, the Preacher came walking down the road in front of Cooter's. He ain't atall like a common preacher that's got a church or nothing, but he tells anyone that will listen that he's the Right Reverend Deacon Doctor Zephariah Connerly the Third, and that he's the most educated, smartest man anywhere 'round. 'Stead of saying all those names, me and Cooter just call himthe Preacher.
He leaned on Cooter's fence and called, “Evening, boys.”
“Hot one today, why aren't you two off swimming?”
Cooter said, “We trying to solve us a mystery, sir.”
“Really? And what would that be?”
I told him, “It's some kind of animal tracks we ain't never seen afore, sir.”
“Where are they?”
The Preacher opened the gate, walked into the truck patch, squatted down, and peered at the tracks just as sharp as I'd done. He took a jackknife out of his pocket and dug a little scoop of dirt out of one of the tracks. He looked at it so close that his eyes started to go crossed.
I quit breathing and my blood ran cold when all the sudden he shouted, “Lord, have mercy!”
The Preacher quick stood up and looked all 'round him the way you would if someone screamed out, “Wolf!”
Me and Cooter looked too.Who wouldn't've?
The Preacher said, like he's talking to hisself, “No!No! No! I knew this was going to happen, I just prayed it wouldn't be this soon.”
Me and Cooter called out together, “What? What was gonna happen?”
The Preacher looked like his best friend just got killed. “I warned them they had to check out those new-free folks better, and now somebody's accidentally toted some of those horrible creatures up here.”
I noticed that 'stead of folding up his knife, the Preacher kept it open. Then worst, he held on to it like he was fixing to stab something.
I said, “What somebody tote up here, sir?”
He said it in a low hissing way that told you whatever kind of snake this was, you didn't want to run up on one!
Cooter's eyes scanned right and left. “What? What's a hoop snake, sir?”
Being any kind of snake was enough for me to start getting nervous, but the Preacher made matters a whole lot worst when he said, “I suppose I have to tell you, but I don't want this to get any further than the three of us.”
He used his boot to rub most of the tracks out of the dirt.
I said, “Please, sir, tell us what you mean!”
The Preacher started talking but never looked at me di-rect, he was too busy eyeing the road and the woods. “Down home there's a vile breed of snake called a hoop snake. Not only can it outrun a racehorse, it's been known to kill a fully grown bear with one bite!”
I looked at Cooter and hoped that I waren't looking scared as him.
The Preacher went on, “They look like near any other snake, except for one thing.”
“They have the habit of sticking their tails in their mouths then biting themselves.”
That don't make no sense, that don't make no sense atall! If what the Preacher was saying was true, these snakes sure ain't too sharp-minded.
I said, “How're they gonna bite you if they're clamping down on their own tails, sir?”
“Good question, Elijah. But they don't hold their tails when they're ready to bite, they hold them when they're ready to chase after you!”
Cooter said, “But â¦”
The Preacher held up his left hand. “Listen! And, my young brothers, you better listen good! This may save your lives. Once they've bitten their tails, they form the shape of a circle then stand up like a wheel or a barrel hoop and commence rolling after whatever they've decided to kill!”
The hairs on the back of my neck started jumping like a skeeter'd brushed up 'gainst 'em.
The Preacher said, “After they catch you and bite you â¦” He snapped his left hand shut like it was the mouth of one of these hoop snakes. “â¦ the true horror begins. You're doomed.”
Cooter said, “How come?”
“Because, Cooter, their poison gets into your blood too quick. Within hours you commence swelling till your skin looks soft and rotten as a ripe peach left in the noonday sun!”
Cooter said, “
You swells up?”
The Preacher said, “You swell so much that after exactly seven and a half days the pressure in your body becomes too great and you
like an overheated steam boiler! In seconds your stomach and your lungs and your other entrails are flung around you for miles and miles!”
I couldn't believe folks who'd got free would do this to us! Even if it was a accident!
But the Preacher waren't through. “Worse, the swelling affects everything but your head, so you're forced to watch the whole tragedy unwinding right in front of your eyes!”
Cooter edged close tome and choked out, “Well, sir, at least you dies quick and ain't left to do much suffering.”
“No such luck, Cooter.” The Preacher held up two fingers. “Two weeks! It's fourteen endless days after your explosion before you pass on. And it's no pleasant death either, you finally die from starvation.”
Cooter said, “Starvation? How come you don't eat nothing, sir?”
“Because, Cooter, no matter how much food you swallow, it simply falls through the hole where your internal organs used to be and drops to the ground right in front of you!”
The Preacher stared hard in the direction the tracks were headed and said, “Those tracks were fresh, looks like a momma and poppa and a slew of babies! Which, God bless us all, means we're too late, they've already started breeding! And from the way those tracks were going, I'd say they're hungry and have started up a hoop snake hunting party!”
The Preacher throwed his knife into the ground where the tracks use to be and put his hand on the fancy holster and mystery pistol he always totes. “Boys,” he whispered, “I need you to solemnly promise me something. I want you both to swear on your mothers' lives that if I'm ever bitten by one of these beasts, you'll take this pistol and put a bullet in my brain! I'd rather be shot
than face such a horrible, prolonged death! Raise your hands, I need each of you to promise that you'll blow my head right off my shoulders!”
I near jumped to the moon when a loud bang came from behind me! I looked back and Cooter'd already run into his house and slammed and locked the door. He waren't 'bout to promise nothing!
Afore I knowed what was happening I was through Cooter's gate and right in the middle of a good long hard run home. I had sense enough not to take no shortcuts and stuck to the road so's I could at least see the hoop snake hunting party if I ran up on it. Ma must've heard me screaming from a ways off 'cause she was running out our front gate by the time I got there.