Uncle Dude and Aunt Lura lived across the field beside us when I was growing up. They were both born between the two World Wars and lived through the Depression. Dude was born at the foot of Mount Saint Helens, Lura was born in the same room where she died in the Arkansas Delta.
They had lots of odd superstitions and remedies. Partially because of folklore, and partly because folks just want to believe that Providence is the sort of thing that can be nudged in one direction or another.
Dude only got haircuts when the moon was full for fear of going bald. Aunt Lura wouldn’t sweep the floors on a windy day; “that’s how one digs up the past.”
Dude never drank a drop while he ate, and only drank lukewarm beverages of any kind. “Cold drinks shock the stomach and cause tumors.” His daily avocado and honey sandwich went down dry.
I don’t know how many times I had salt thrown in my face as she cooked, or how many times she made me turn around 7 times and spit when I “presumed on good fortune.” I remember at least once I was sent home because I told her she couldn’t know who’d die next from peering into a pan of red eye gravy. But mostly I remember the copperheads hanging from the crabapple tree.
In our part of the country you can’t hardly turn your boot heel without kicking up a copperhead in the late spring and early summer. The short vipers are ill-tempered and territorial. Not at all neighborly. A copperhead little bigger than an earthworm is venomous enough to kill a child and hospitalize a grown man. By the time I was 6 or 7 I had been instructed on how to identify them and dispatch them with a switch or sturdy stick.
In addition to an abundance of mean nests of “no shoulders,” we also had long periods when the rain was lean. And it’s hard to grow peas and corn without rain.
One dry season, I saw Uncle Dude take five copperheads he’d killed and hang them in the crabapple tree by their tails. Then here came Aunt Lura throwing salt at the tree like she was scattering chicken feed.
“What’s that do?” I says. Knowing every odd goings-on at their house had a purpose.
“To make it rain” Dude said, looking at me incredulously like I’d just asked why a dog wags its tail.
I was half-scared to get close to the tree, even as much as I liked crabapple jelly on hot buttered biscuits. I don’t care anymore for being struck by a dead snake than I do a live one.
“That don’t make it rain” I said.
Aunt Lura stopped pitching salt and stared at me for a minute. I don’t think she was angry as she was just interested in other methods.
“How do you make it rain?” She said.
“I can’t.” I replied.
“Well, hush then. Them snakes work. It’ll rain just to wash the meanness off.”
I didn’t say anything else. I walked back to the house and told my grandparents. They just laughed. Grandaddy then snorted and said, “Well, I reckon I won’t be going fishin’ tomorrow.”
And he didn’t. It rained for five straight days.
Know the truth and the truth shall set ye free. But you must hang them snakes right side up to get a lasting rain.
I have a tolerance of sorts for black snakes only because they are death on copperheads, which are only good for one thing, making it rain. Lovely essay as always Mr. Meeks.