The Missionary and the Snake

James Harner sharpened his seven inch hunting knife. It had been six months since he had arrived at the village of Kapi, reached by river through the Amazon rainforest, east of the Andes, where he had come to attempt to establish a church among the Kapi people. Such attempts were unsuccessful. The native religion resisted, his presence resented.

In fact, his church had only five attendees, Magda being the most devout. She was the black sheep of her tribe, rejected by her four sisters. Within three days she had already warmed to the gospel, and had since become his second right hand. Her enthusiasm alone would have been enough to save many of the tribesmen if it weren’t for one thing--the snake.

Oh the snake, that damnable snake! About fifteen years earlier, a neighboring tribe made a peace offering to the Kapi people of a thirty foot anaconda. It was carried in by seven strong men. The Kapi prince delighted in this snake, believing it could guide his rule. He was only twelve at the time. He did not live to see thirteen.

The snake crushed him in his sleep, swallowing him whole. The entire tribe mourned in amazement, until the village priest exclaimed that, as their religion proclaimed, the eater becomes the eaten, for the soul of the eaten atones with the eater: when the sacred anaconda eats a man, the man lives immortally within that god. The prince had now assumed the form of a serpent, to lead his people forever, speaking in a language the priest alone could interpret.

Since then, many young children, especially the sick and cursed, were offered to the prince to be made likewise immortal. The anaconda had eaten eleven children in addition to the prince.

James had been trained for this. He knew of tribal superstitions, and he knew that the Gospel was strong enough to defeat any deception. The deficiency was his own. He had not appealed to the people. He was a man of action, not eloquent with his words. He preferred building churches to preaching in them. Yet he had a mission, a mission he would finish.

He would--even if the village was the most stubborn case. The sacrifice of children had to be stopped! It was precisely this point which made him so unpopular; his emphatic denunciations cost him the trust and respect of the tribe leaders. The women feared him. The children taunted him.

He sheathed his knife and put some logs on the fire. Then he tightened his belt, stalked out of his hut, and headed towards the serpent’s lair. It was nearing midnight, and the pit was unguarded.

There was no stirring within. He held his torch to look inside, and beheld the snake upon its altar, coiled and staring, unblinking, with the solemn regard of cold intelligence behind the torchlight in its eyes.

James leapt into the pit. Still the snake failed to stir. He approached it boldly, unsheathed his knife, and vee'd his hand to grab its neck.

It sank its fangs into his left hand, throwing a coil around his arm. He dropped the torch, and the pit fell dark. He stabbed at the snake, where it crushed his arm, and cut a bloody hole into its slick body. The snake spasmed, and the knife fell from his hand. As he rolled away, the snake threw a second coil around James’s chest -- and squeezed.

James wheezed for breath, falling flat and jerking to kick himself free. The snake would not relent. He rolled over and grabbed blindly for the knife. The snake threw a coil around his legs.

Finally, he saw from wincing eyes the reflection of the dying torch upon the knife’s silver blade. He grabbed the handle, threw his arm skyward, and swung the blade into its cold straining neck.

The snake spasmed again, and quit its grip. James pressed the blade deeper into the neck, pivoting it around like a paring knife through an apple. His hands were drenched with blood. At last the snake’s head fell clear off. The serpent had been crushed.

James gasped for twenty minutes, even though the deed was done, every sound of night made him jerk and perk his ear. At last he stumbled to his feet, cleaned his knife on his shirt, and sheathed the blade. He hefted the snake, coil by coil, and wrapped it over his strong broad shoulders, so its coils twined round his outspread arms. With strength made superhuman by his fight with the beast, he pulled himself out of the pit.

After dragging the corpse to his hut, he exposed his blade again and crudely stripped its flesh. For the next two hours he prepared the meat, cooked it, and ate. What he couldn’t eat, he burned. By morning nothing was left of the snake but scales, bone, and ash.

The shriek sounded at dawn when the keeper of the snake discovered the blood and severed head. The entire town arose. They sent for the priest.

The priest immediately accused the missionary, and the village gathered like murder at his door. They shouted for his blood.

James praised God in his heart as he walked before the sea of people, striding his faith as he faced the angry crowd. Magda pushed through the waves of people and meekly stood at his left side. James spit a fragment of snake rib from his mouth, and panning the crowd with the placid detachment of an anthropologist’s camera, exclaimed:

“See, I have devoured your snake, so the soul of the serpent is now within me, as the prince was within it. You must now listen to me, and not to your priest. No longer can your priest interpret the words of your snake, for I have devoured the soul of your serpent, and I therefore have become your new priest.

“I have come to teach you the glory of God, made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ his Son. He came to destroy the wicked serpent who bruised his heel, but Jesus crushed its head.

“Jesus came that your sins might be forgiven, that you would not bow down before false idols and pay homage to wicked priests. Listen to me, your true priest.

“Magda will now distribute the bread I have prepared. This bread represents the flesh of Christ, and this drink his blood. Consume it now, as a group together, and become with me as Christ.”




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