“Run, Little Girl” by Sheryl Monks

A story about trying to undo the devil


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I can’t say that I enjoy reading “Run, Little Girl.” But that’s not an indictment of the story’s power or cold beauty, because certainly “Run, Little Girl” is not a story that is made to be enjoyed. It is a story that is meant to undo the reader, as the story itself undoes its protagonist. It is not a cautionary tale, precisely. It is a story that dares to be wrong, because its fidelity is not to the writer’s or the reader’s idea of what is right. Instead, it pledges allegiance to the special logic particular to its speaker-protagonist: a little girl caught in a terror not of her own making, who believes the terror to be of her own making, the way so many of us who have faced similar terrors have, at times, come to believe that the fault must ultimately be our own.

“Run, Little Girl” belongs to the Southern Gothic tradition. There are echoes here of Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, and Erskine Caldwell. But there is also something singular here. Unlike O’Connor, Monks is writing out of a position of empathy rather than of righteous judgment. Unlike Caldwell, she seems more interested in the story on the character’s terms than in the spectacle of the crude surface. Unlike Crews, she seems to understand that a woman possesses a wholeness of consciousness and intellect the same as a man.

It is a story that is meant to undo the reader, as the story itself undoes its protagonist.

Of course, the story stands alone, but it also serves as a fitting introduction to the broader project in which it is collected, Monsters in Appalachia: Stories, by Sheryl Monks. There the reader will find more of these tales, written not with the ethnographer’s distance nor with the pious orthodoxy of the insider-protector. They are, instead, intelligent dispatches from a hard-nosed writer working from inside a place and a tradition.

If that seems a lot for a writer to accomplish, perhaps that is only because so few writers have taken the time and the care to achieve it.

Kyle Minor
Author of Praying Drunk

“Run, Little Girl” by Sheryl Monks

Brother Harpy delivered serpents to their house, to her daddy, the minister of Lick Branch, who put them in the icebox so they’d grow sleepy enough to handle next day at church. “Takes just as much faith to reach into a bag of sleepy serpents,” her father said, for the congregation was unaware, if she wasn’t.

Brother Harpy caught snakes all over McDowell County, and every Saturday, she watched him pull into their dirt yard and unload sacks writhing with rattlers and adders and copperheads. When he handled them, the sacks twisted and hopped as vipers struck the sides of the bags, fangs sometimes snagging and poking through the burlap. Brother Harpy would untie a sack as she sat straddling the porch railing, swinging her long legs back and forth or painting her toenails with her mama on the steps. She and her mama would watch him reach inside the bag and bring out a cottonmouth the size of his forearm. The snake would strike and its fangs would catch in the cowhide and rubber sole of his boot.

Then he’d look over at her mama and her and smile, and they would smile back, couldn’t help doing it, even though Brother Harpy didn’t belong to church and everything about him looked sinful. He was an old man, older even than her mama. His hair was down over his collar, almost as long as hers and had been dark once but now showed lots of gray, salt and pepper, her mama called it. He wore sunglasses and shirts with the sleeves torn off and a necklace of a kind that made him seem to have Indian in him, which is what they liked most about him, her mama and her. Something about the roughness of his face and the color of his skin, brown as a pear, made her think so, at least. He was an old, old man, but neither of them could take their eyes off him.

And he couldn’t take his eyes off them either. Her mama was the sexiest woman in Lick Branch, had a body as good as her own only looked like she knew how to use it. Before she had firmly lost all faith, her mama had backslid six times. She was weak-minded, people thought. Weak willed. Spiritless. Of the flesh. Wicked, though none went so far as saying that. It stopped just short of that, for she was their pastor’s wife.

Her daddy bore the shame of her mama’s transgressions with humility and forgiveness. He forgave her her sins, he said, each evening. He was a meek and righteous man, and until she had reached a certain age, the girl had been his charismatic little angel, reaching into the burlap sack and drawing out diamondbacks and copperheads. Her child’s faith convinced the sinners of Lick Branch that God would protect any who sought Him. She had saved many souls.

Including the soul of Elwood McGuire. When the news had reached Elwood McGuire about her, this young thing reaching into a sack of snakes and drawing them out and wrapping them about her arms and neck, when Elwood heard that, he had to see. And so he was drawn to the little white church he passed by every day, twice a day, on his way to the mines. He was drawn to the church and to the girl and to God Himself. And he became a great believer, picking her up under her arms and setting her up on the backs of pews where all could see her, this child of God.

And he traveled to churches and tent meetings far and wide, telling of her. Even when he got throat cancer and lost his real voice, took on that robotic voice of the tracheotomy, even then he praised God. And in a tent meeting over in Jolo, he took his leave, shouting and testifying. “Hal-le-lu-jah! I’m-a-be-liev-er.”

The congregation had swollen up and stood on its feet, and each one had begun to fall away, each into his or her own spirit, some singing “How Great Thou Art,” and others laying hands on Elwood, and still others speaking in tongues and shouting, their bodies no longer under their own control but filled with the Spirit of the Holy Ghost and moving about the tent wildly and falling to the dirt floor in convulsions, folks moving back metal chairs and making room so they would not hurt themselves too badly.

It was on this occasion that Elwood McGuire had been so fully filled with the Spirit and with a satisfied mind that he could have hugged and kissed the girl, that child who had drawn him into the bosom of Abraham. If she had been there at that particular tent revival that night. But she wasn’t; she was home watching television, fanning flies with her mama. And so, he had shaken the hands of everyone in the congregation and stepped outside, his wet handkerchief not yet even pushed back into his hip pocket before he was run over by a Lick Branch Colliery coal truck, highballing down Bear Town Mountain, and killed.

There was something about him, Brother Harpy, something she couldn’t name exactly, but something she felt and mostly at night, lying awake for hours the way she did, thinking back over her day. She’d heard he lived alone in a ramshackle, old company house somewhere near Johnnycake, and she wondered whether he could throw a tomahawk, and she guessed he could, that maybe he could kill a wildcat with one if he felt like it, or a snake.

She wanted to catch snakes herself, hot snakes with flicking tongues, angry serpents, not the sluggish pieces of rubber she’d handled at church. She felt she could, or at least she might have been able to at one time, when she was full of faith, before the coal truck and Elwood McGuire. You couldn’t grab up snakes with fear and doubt in your heart. And that is what made her love Brother Harpy. He had no fear, and just looking at him, that slick hair, both dark and light at once, that rough-looking face with its dark eyes, made her feel something funny, something akin to courage, a boldness. She drew nearer and nearer to him when he came delivering snakes. She helped him carry the jumping sacks into the basement, and he did not warn her to be careful. “I ain’t afraid,” she said.

And he said, “You ain’t, huh?”

She shook her head, and her blond hair fell down both sides of her face and moved like a soft breeze had picked it up and let it down again. He looked at her, standing under the single bulb of the hand-dug basement, her bare feet and calves gleaming white against the dark packed earth beneath them, her pretty pink toenails catching the light like opals. He tossed a sack into the basement and it jumped and rolled as the serpents fought each other inside the bag.

“How come they don’t kill each other?” she said. And he told her he couldn’t say. He stepped into the damp cellar and walked past her, picking up the sacks and throwing them into the icebox that was plugged into the same single light socket above their heads.

She had not flinched when the sack he’d thrown had flopped itself near to her, and he reached now to get it and throw it into the fridge. She stood still but the motion of his body caused the hem of her cotton dress to billow and lift slightly away from her legs. She pushed it down and he watched her and rose slowly, the sack still in his hand, and looked at her pretty face, her eyes so blue people had a hard time looking away from them, and so did he, she thought, staring back into his, which were dark and shiny, but not black. She couldn’t tell what color they were, and she couldn’t hold her gaze long enough to find out. She looked away first and smoothed her dress and stepped toward the door. “How old are you?” she said, and she saw his eyes lift from her hips to her face as she stepped away from him out into the light green of the day.

“How old do you think?” he said.

And she felt sassy, having caught his eyes where they’d been. “A hundred,” she said. And he laughed, and his smile was a candle inside the dark cellar and his laughter a black boom.

When he came back outside, she was sitting on the tailgate of his truck, her legs swinging slowly, one then the other, then the one again and then the other. Her skin was the toughest it would ever be, soft as it looked, tough in its softness, for she could walk barefoot over sharp rocks and the skin of her feet would not break but stretch over them, like wax or clay that would then go back to its own shape again. He could see her knees now, too, and her legs parted slightly like a boy’s, for she was a girl who hadn’t yet made up her mind about what she wanted to be.

“You got Indian in you?” she asked when he stepped around the truck and threw the last batch of empty sacks he had retrieved from the cellar onto the floorboard. He came back around to her, leaned over the side of the truck and draped an arm inside no more than a foot away from her own bare arm. She turned to face him, drew one leg up onto the tailgate and settled it under her weight. “I bet you got Indian in you,” she said.

He smiled at her again, but this time with no laughter, a different kind of smile, somber, more with his dark eyes than with his mouth, his face. And before she thought to look at his eyes again, to see their color, she fidgeted and hopped down from the bed of the truck, little pieces of weeds and dirt stuck to the backside of her dress. “What time is it?” she asked and looked at his wrist for a watch, but didn’t see one there. “Don’t you wear a watch?”

“Found none that’ll run on my arm,” he said.

“How come?” she said, and he looked at her with untelling eyes and rounded his shoulders. “Hmm,” she said. He had tattoos on his arms, a long-stemmed rose on his right forearm and some kind of funny black design on the shoulder of his other one. “What’s that mean?” she asked, but his eyes were drawn to something over her shoulder, her mama, standing on the porch watching them. She did not call to the girl, only stood holding onto the railing and looking. He walked toward the house, and the girl chased after him and ran around ahead of him and plopped down on the metal glider before he reached the porch.

He stood in the yard with one boot resting on the bottom step and the girl smiled broadly for having outrun him and breathed heavy, not trying at all to slow her breath, but breathing in and out hard like she was enjoying her lungs for the first time. Because a girl like that would not need to breathe so heavy after so short a run.

Her mama smiled at him, but he did not return the smile. He gave her mama a different look, a look the girl could not decipher. He parted his lips and the look seemed to emanate from there between the flesh of his lips, from somewhere inside his mouth and somewhere deeper, darker, wetter. Her mama held her daddy’s wallet in her hands, the same thick brown leather of his belt, which had striped her legs and had even striped her mama’s legs, maybe had striped her mama’s legs even more than her own.

Her mama pulled money out of the wallet and handed it to him without counting it; whatever there was, she gave him. Then he smiled, that same full sober smile from the cellar, and took the money and folded it and lifted it to a make-believe brim of a hat he didn’t wear. He nodded his gratitude, and looked again at the girl on the glider, rocking back and forth. He looked at her the same way another man had looked at her a couple of weeks earlier at the park when she had tried to ride a blue, iron pony she was too big for, her legs bent up like an insect’s to fit in the mock stirrups. “Get up off that,” her daddy had said, and given the man a bloodless look.

Her mama waited a minute more, as if there were something hanging between them to say, or as if maybe whatever it was had already been said, long ago, but not so very long. She looked at the girl, then, and turned to go, pulling open the screen door and pausing. The girl smiled at her, but her mama only half- smiled back, and then went inside without a word.

The girl walked across the porch and straddled the railing again, her dress hitched up high on her thighs, just barely higher than eye level where he stood at the bottom step. He looked at her long legs without apology and made no motion to go, though he had no more reason to stay now that he’d been paid by her mother.

“I bet your hands are fast,” the girl said, snatching at the air and laughing. “And strong. To grab them snakes.” She climbed down from the porch railing and came around to the steps where he stood, walked down to him and picked up his hand. She held his palm up and studied the lines. His hand was nearly as wide as half her body. She turned it over and rubbed her thumbs across the purple veins there. His hand was tan and warm, his fingernails slightly longish but clean, and she thought of a pocketknife somewhere amidst the fold of money he had shoved in his front pocket.

He was older than her daddy, but she wondered if he would kiss her if she kissed him first, and she guessed he would. She heard the fans blowing inside the house and longed for their breeze. It was hot there in the sun, but she knew a cool place, and she told him she did. She held onto his hand and pulled him into the woods, and he followed her, even when she turned loose and ran ahead again. He followed her.

They came down by a place in the river where the water ran fast over the rocks and shot through the exposed roots of gnarly, old oaks and ghost birches that grew out of the bank and leaned toward the sun. At the edge of the creek, she saw hoof marks and pointed them out. “Look,” she said, her eyes already tracing the tracks farther down along the water and up the bank. She never saw them, she said, but they came there to drink. He stood watching her, unhurried, his gaze measured and exact. Just the sound of the water was enough to cool you, she told him. “It’s colder than it looks, but we can go in if you want.”

He only stood there, shook his head, but not with conviction. If she wanted to go in, he would.

But she didn’t know what she wanted to do, only that she wanted to talk to him, to make him look at her, cause she liked that, how he looked at her. “I never showed nobody this place,” she said, to have something say, “and here I bring a stranger to it. I don’t even know you.”

It was a question, a request. She wanted him to make himself known to her. “Has anybody ever told you, you look a little like the devil?” she said, smiling, not catching his eyes now because she was afraid to. “I think you are the devil,” she said, walking around a tree and looking back at him. “That’s how you catch them snakes, why you ain’t afraid.”

“And you ain’t afraid either, huh?” he said, and something swept over his face, something ugly but it was too fast to tell what it was. Then he was smiling again, the most radiant he had smiled yet, and stepping toward her. “Kiss me,” he said, taking her hand, pulling her to him. His body was warm; his arms folded around her like wings and warmed her.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she said, already tasting his kiss but pulling away.

“Kiss me,” he said.

“I can’t.”

“One little kiss. It’ll be fun. It’ll be sweet. One little cocktail kiss.”

It sounded funny, him saying cocktail, this snake catcher, and she realized she had no idea who he was, or where he came from, or what he wanted from her.

But he was so beautiful to her, like an angel, a dark angel, Lucifer himself, she thought, and she knew she should run, but she didn’t want to.

“One little kiss,” he supplicated, and his breath entered her mouth and settled on her tongue and it was as if she had already done it, kissed him, and so she did. She opened her mouth and let him come in, and it was like a scourge of demons had slithered inside her, his mouth upon hers so hard, his tongue darting deep inside. He pulled her long hair and twisted it around his fists and wrenched her neck to him. He lifted her off the ground and pressed her into the tree until her bare flesh was shorn by its bark. “Run, little girl,” he said. And she knew if she did, he would only chase her down, grab her up with those big rough hands, and that’s not what she wanted — to be caught. And anyway it was too late now, though her legs worked themselves as if she had willed them to, and that’s what made her whimper, made him laugh. She would not be saved.

But she didn’t care, because she loved him and she knew that he had never lied to her; somehow she had known it all along. He wasn’t afraid of anything. Even if her father came, he wouldn’t care. She opened her eyes and looked at him. They were eye to eye, and she saw their color at last. They were blue, his eyes. Blue as her own, but inky, double dyed, blue black like the wing of a wasp.

She smiled.

For what was happening now, her dress being ripped and shoved down over her body, his hips lifting and forcing her harder into the tree — all of it, everything, was entirely of her own doing.

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