Serpent

by Steve Almond

Pity poor Thomas Hough, who spent his days among the Shipibo Indians in the Amazon basin, teaching them Christ’s ways and fighting yellow illness. The Shipibo lived closer to animals than other men. They were patient with Hough and allowed him to witness the ritual of their shaman, who drank a bitter mixture and took the protection of sacred animals. This was their battle for the souls of the wicked among them. They lived beside the great river, closer to animals than men; they sinned without knowledge of having sinned, without shame or honor. Hough desired them as he might a child or a lover, with the same doomed persuasion.

In the year one thousand nine hundred and ninety five after the death of our lord Jesus Christ, Hough was arrested at the Miami International Airport. Inspectors found thirteen red-tailed boa constrictors and a green anaconda in his suitcase. He hoped to sell the snakes – gathered by the Shipibo – to a reptile broker in Boca Raton for cash to aid his mission. This was hard to explain to the Shipibo who know nothing of God’s grace, only that serpents are holy creatures, not to be eaten, not even during times of hardship.

Steve Almond is the author of a bunch of books, some of which he makes himself [This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey].

“Serpent” begins, “Pity poor Thomas Hough.” Should we? Do you? Yeah, I do and I hope the reader does, as well. It’s like JC always says: Forgive them father, they know not what they do. Missionaries always make me think of that statement. The whole idea that they’re going to travel across the globe and convince people to follow their idea of God goes beyond arrogance into delusion. But as badly as he might behave, he still deserves our compassion. Why write about him otherwise? The first paragraph ends with doomed persuasion, the second with difficult explanation. Who in “Serpent” is doing the persuading? Hough’s trying to persuade, but it’s doomed. Most of our effort to persuade are doomed, actually. I’m not suggesting anything that history doesn’t already affirm. Hough just provides a more glaring example than most. His audacity speaks to the evangelical tradition. It’s not so much a seduction, as a criminal enterprise underwritten by God.

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