At the stroke of the hammer the stunned cottonmouth sprang to life, coiling and lashing its fat serpentine body wildly side to side. Renoir, a tall gaunt man, had driven the ten-penny nail through the snake’s nose into the tree.

Renoir stepped back to take in the reptile’s agony. He had practiced nailing snakes through the head without killing them for years, starting when he first began eating them for their magic.

Howard Butcher’s underwater thriller brims with authenticity, energy, and thematic depth. Buy Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea today on Amazon. Check out the first excerpt, “The Tiger Shark’s Head.” and the second, “The Lidless Eye.”

After a few minutes, the cottonmouth struggled less and started to hang under the weight of its exhausted, stinking body—they always gave off the strongest smell near the end.

With his fillet knife in hand, Renoir cut the full circumference of the serpent’s neck and throat, taking great pains not to cut too deep and kill it. Again he stepped back to enjoy his work, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he grinned and swallowed.

Renoir’s filthy jeans stuck wet to his thighs, and his knee-high boots were full of marsh water that sucked at his legs when he walked. Dark hair hung down on his neck in a greasy short ponytail, and his eyes were red-rimmed from crystal meth. With chipped and muddy fingernails he tugged on the seam of cut skin around the cottonmouth’s neck. The serpent wheezed and in a frenzy tried again to thrash free of the nail.

“No, no. You en’t goin nowheres,” said the man, enjoying the snake’s agony. When Renoir got a good hold, he yanked the scaled integument downwards, skinning the cottonmouth alive. The stinking black skin came away with a wet tearing sound, in one long piece, like a sock peeling off a man’s foot. Moving quickly, to do it before the animal stopped suffering, the gaunt raw-boned man began carving the meaty flanks from the ribs and dangling viscera. Even though crank killed his appetite, he knew he had to keep up his strength, and cottonmouth meat was the only thing to do it.

Renoir was well-known and appreciated for his maniacal work habits and sleepless nights on the barges and oil rigs of certain companies. It was commonly said he performed the work of two good Riggers—offshore topside laborers who did all the gruntwork. He could never be found idle, even after his shift. Most of his co-workers knew the source of his unnatural energy.

Renoir was a Cajun outcast from the Atchafalaya Swamp Basin. His parents lived in an old cypress house in Butte LaRose. He hadn’t seen them in the twelve years since he became the leader of an infamous ring of thieves who relentlessly robbed families all over the basin. His gang had caused terrible hardship and aggravated the mistrust among the fishermen and trappers in the swamps. Renoir and his gang had stolen more than a thousand nets, crawfish traps, cypress lumber, outboard motors, and anything else they could sell.

When his father found out Renoir was responsible for the thefts, the old man leveled a shotgun to his son’s chest and told him to clear out of the woods for good. His father cursed him for bringing shame on the family and told him that if he ever came back home he’d kill him even before the others could. “You en’t my boy no more. You en’t my boy no more,” he’d said. Renoir’s mother stood crying on the porch by her husband. Wordlessly, she nodded.

Renoir ran off to Texas for the next eight years. His last year in Texas, he spent locked up in the substance-abuse felony-punishment facility in Huntsville for selling crystal meth. As soon as he returned to Louisiana, he got himself sent to Angola for a two-year stretch for assaulting a man in a bar.

Now that he was a free man, he’d come back to Louisiana for good, but he never went far back in the woods, except sometimes at night. Mostly he paddled his pirogue along the outer regions of the basin after the sun had risen enough to bring out the water moccasins. The cottonmouths were everywhere, sitting on branches in the Spanish moss, laying out on logs, or coiled up in the mud on the banks. They never tried to run from Renoir. Sometimes one came straight for him, especially at night, if he put a flashlight on it.

Renoir had been bitten three times: once as a boy and twice as a man. He’d gotten sick enough to die each time, but the venom never quite killed him. His mother blamed the cottonmouth that bit him as a boy for turning him vicious. Whenever someone lived through a snakebite, copperhead or cottonmouth, she said it changed him. Everybody ever bitten by a venomous snake that she’d known was different afterwards. She believed that the cottonmouth venom had settled in Renoir’s heart, that it had rotted his goodness out.

He walked quickly, his face shiny with sweat and spotted with mud where he’d scratched his chin and temple. He emerged from the shaded stand of slash pine behind his trailer. In one large bony hand he carried the raw snake meat and in the other he carried the hammer, the burlap sack, and his snake stick.

What remained of the dead cottonmouth he left nailed to the tree amid the riotous buzzing of flies. The trees nearby it were studded with nails and clean snake skulls.

Barefoot inside his squalid trailer, Renoir curled back his lips in a grimace to check his decaying teeth in the mirror. He didn’t mind if they hurt a little; he only wanted to see if they looked worse. Renoir had no trouble getting around routine urine tests, but it was a paranoid worry of his that his bad teeth would cost him his job. He rarely smiled, but when he did, he tried not to expose them.

After dropping the snake meat on the skillet he checked his answering machine for messages. There was an advanced job call-out leaving from Port Arthur, Texas, sometime in the next several weeks. The dispatcher needed to assemble a standby relief crew for a deepwater pipe-lay barge operating far offshore. They were laying a new ninety-mile pipeline in 590 feet of water. Sounded like a big job with a big paycheck.

The second message came from Seed—he needed to talk. Renoir had heard about the hanging and had a big laugh over it. He knew Seed from Angola and it sounded like Seed was up to his usual tricks. Seed could be more fun than a rabid dog eating its own tail, but after hanging a corpse in front of his friends, guys would want payback. Renoir expected Seed wanted him to put the word out that Seed belonged to his crew. That he was protected. Renoir and four ex-cons from Angola were friends and looked out for each other in situations like this. Although Seed was the only diver in the group—Renoir and the other three were Riggers—he was still a member, and willing to do almost anything to stay a member. Some people referred to them as the Angola Club.

The Rigger sat down in a chair by a sour smelling pile of dirty laundry. He thought a minute if there was anything important he had to do the next day but nothing came to mind. He returned the work call to confirm he’d be there and with a pencil stub wrote down the details. Then he called Seed and told him to stop by anytime.

Even though Renoir hardly noticed it himself, he knew he stank of cottonmouth musk, crank sweat, and rotten breath. He didn’t care, but he decided to shower anyway and put on his cleanest clothes, so he could go into some of the better bars and clubs. He cooked and ate the snake before getting wired because he knew that he surely wouldn’t eat anything afterwards.

On the glass of an old picture of his dead sister, he cut the ivory powder into two neat lines. He cut generously, taking more than he really wanted. There was no shortage. He had several dime bags stashed away. Before his time in Huntsville, Renoir used to run a meth lab himself and cook it up in his own bathroom.

He snorted up the powder. With burning eyes and stinging sinuses, he raised his face from the glass, then thrust an eyedropper up each nostril and moistened the powder. He breathed deep, with teary satisfaction, feeling the raw energy and fresh rage coursing through his veins.


Click here to continue your journey into Jonah: A Novel of Men and the Sea by Howard Butcher

Also check out the first excerpt, “The Tiger Shark’s Head.” and the second, “The Lidless Eye.”