Thursday, May 14, 2009

Snakes and more Snakes.

Today I thought I’d write another post about snakes. I wrote a blog post about snakes a few months ago, click here to read it.

I remember when we lived up Johnson Holler we had to watch whenever we went outside, it was a real snakey place. And they weren’t just any snakes that seemed to be all over the place, they were timber rattlesnakes. Many times, we’d kill some rattlers whenever we’d go out to feed the dog. It is no wonder that place was overrun with snakes, it was right at the foot of North Mountain and it was a very rocky and rough place.

I remember one evening when we were coming home, Dad got a good surprise. You see, right before you entered our place, you had to get out and open a gate that blocked the road. There was an old spring box located near the gate, and since Dad had opened this gate hundreds of times before, he didn’t think anything of it nor was he overly careful in looking around. He just got out of the truck, walked over, grabbed the gate latch, and started to pull open the gate.

About that time, he was startled by the unmistakable singing of a rattlesnake. He instinctively jumped back, and it is a good thing because as he was jumping back, the rattler struck at him. Dad was just far enough away to where it missed him. The rattler then slithered out into the road. All of us kids were screaming, just sure that the giant serpent was gonna eat us all. Dad, a little more calm than the rest of us, ran back to the truck and grabbed out a shovel that he always carried with him. Dad meant to kill the rattler with the shovel, and since he was now armed, he was a little more confident when he went after the big snake. About the time Dad got to the rattler, the rattler rared up to where it was nearly staring Dad right in the eye, and Mom hollered out the truck window, “He’s trying to charm you!” We all knew how a snake will try to charm its quarry by doing a little mesmerizing dance…it will lull someone or some thing into a false sense of security, which will end with a fatal bite.

Well, Dad wasn’t having none of that, so he whomped down on the big rattler with the shovel. As soon as the shovel connected with the snake, there was a loud crack and Dad stood there holding a broken handle of a shovel! The big rattler wasn’t even phased, and it look pissed off! Dad then ran back to the truck and looked around for something else to kill the rattler with, but could find nothing so he ran up on the road bank and grabbed a big tree limb and a few rocks. First, Dad threw the rather large rocks at the rattler, and connected with it with a few of them. The last one hit the snake in the head and knocked it down into the road. Dad then ran up with the tree limb and beat the snake repeatedly in the head until it was dead. It was quite an ordeal. It was such a large snake, we measured it, it was 9 feet long and was 8 inches around. It also had 12 rattlers and a button! It was a monster.

I remember Dad saying it was the granddaddy of them all, and he figured it was the snake that came over on “Noey’s Ark”! Dad said he’d never seen anything like it. It was in late summer and it was quite dry that year, so Dad took the dead snake and laid it over the garden fence. We all knew that if you hung a snake over a garden fence it would rain until you took it off. Sure enough, that night it just poured the rain and continued to do so for the next week or so. Finally, my Grandmaw Mary told my Dad to take that snake off the garden fence because if he didn’t she feared it was going to flood.

People might laugh, but there has to be something to those old tales.

Another story I’ll share is about how one time Grandmaw Mary’s milk cow stopped giving milk. Grandmaw couldn’t figure it out, all of a sudden the cow seemed to dry up. Grandmaw puzzled on it, and come to the conclusion that something had to be milking the cow out, so she started keeping a close eye on the cow. Granny suspected a milk thief. Sure enough, on one of her frequent checks on the cow, she caught the culprit…a big blacksnake sucking on the cow. Now I know a snake ain’t supposed to be able to suck, but my Granny seen it with her own eyes. Granny picked up a hoe handle that was there in the stone cow barn and cracked the blacksnake with it. She had to be real careful so it wouldn’t bite the teats of the cow. Well, the blacksnake coiled up and Granny proceeded to kill it with the hoe handle, and she dragged it outside of the cow barn. She said it was unreal the amount of milk that poured out of that snake when she stretched it out.

North Mountain rocks.

I also remember a story that my Grandmaw Mary used to tell about a girl named Hallie who lived further up on the mountain. Granny grew up near there. She said that up on the mountain, right near the frost line, there used to be a house that was owned by a man and a woman by the last name of Wildfang. Granny said they were real good people, always willing to give a helping hand to anyone who needed it. She said that the man’s name was Hanse and the woman’s name was Mag, and they had tried for years to have a child but it seemed that Mag would always miscarry late in the pregnancy.

Eventually, Mag was able to carry a child to term and gave birth to Hallie. She said that old man and woman Wildfang doted on Hallie something fierce. They gave her anything that she wanted and never made her do any kind of chores or anything. Granny would tell how every morning after breakfast, Mag would give Hallie a cup of buttermilk and a piece of bread and Hallie would carry the treat around with her as she walked around the yard and poked around the barn. Mag and Hanse were very happy and proud of their little girl, and talked about how smart she was, and how fast she learned just by watching things around her. Grandmaw said that one morning, Hallie got her usual snack and walked outside, and seemingly made a beeline for the corncrib. Mag said this wasn’t typical because usually Hallie would walk around the house and look at the flowers and go out to the barn and look at the baby animals and such, but really she didn’t think too much on it. But Hallie was so intent on her walk toward the corncrib that something just struck Mag to follow her that morning, and she did.

My granny told that when Mag opened the door to the corncrib, she saw Hallie sitting on the floor among the cobs, and a snake was drinking the buttermilk out of the cup, and Hallie was telling it, ‘You be sure and eat your bread, too.” Mag, of course, was quite startled and said to Hallie, “Girl, what in the world do you think you are doing feeding that snake,” but Hallie didn’t answer her. She then hurried to Hallie and noticed that she had a real blank stare in her eyes, and Mag knew at once that Hallie had been charmed by the snake. Mag got up and killed the snake, who had kept drinking the buttermilk this whole time, and as soon as she dealt the fatal blow to the snake, Hallie took to screaming at her mother, “Stop killing him, please stop it, you’re killing him.”

Grandmaw Mary, at this point in the story, would say that most people thought that the girl had been witched but nobody could ever figure out who done it. Granny would then continue the story by telling of how after the snake was dead, Hallie became listless, she had no energy, she had no appetite, and Hanse and Mag got really concerned about her. They consulted the doctor down in Riverton, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with her. He just told them to give her Cod Liver Oil. And they did, but it didn’t help. Well, this went on for a couple of weeks, and Hanse and Mag went to a woman in the area who was known as a good witch. She told them that there was only one thing that could be done, the snake had charmed little Hallie and unless they could somehow break the charm spell that the snake put on her, that Hallie would die. The old witch woman then said a few words over her, and all of a sudden the old woman got sick and took to throwing up a vile green fluid. She raced outside and took to pulling up grass out of the yard and eating it, but she kept throwing up over and over. She managed to tell Hanse and Mag that the snake had a powerful hold over Hallie, and that it had charmed her like nothing she had ever seen, and it was too powerful for her. Well, Hanse helped the old woman back into the house and put her into bed, and he thanked her for trying, and he and Mag took Hallie and returned home.

The next morning, word came to them that the old witch woman had died the night before, and it looked like her whole face and neck was covered with snakebites. Hanse and Mag were doubly concerned over Hallie now, and they relayed everything that the old witch woman had told them during their visit with her the day before. After that everyone believed that evil was afoot, and word spread about Hallie’s condition and the old woman’s death. Granny said that soon after that, there were all kinds of preachers that went to the Wildfangs and prayed over Hallie, and one had even come from all the way over at Harrisonburg, VA, to pray over her, but nothing helped. A few days later, Hallie died right after Hanse and Mag had breakfast. Granny said that Hanse and Mag went out of their heads with grief and that they couldn’t even prepare little Hallie to be buried. My Granny’s grandmother, MaryAnna, went and cleaned the body and laid it out for them. Granny said that she’d always been told that while laying out little Hallie, her granny noticed that there was a mark on her that looked like a snakebite, and it was located right over her heart!

Soon after Hallie was laid to rest, Hanse and Mag moved away, Granny said she always heard they moved off to “Ohio somewheres”, but that their old house stood for many years after they moved away. Nobody would ever live in the house after that, and eventually it fell down. Grandmaw Mary would then conclude with telling exactly where the house was located and she would tell that you could still see the foundation of it if you looked real close.

So, do any of you all out there have any snake stories to share? I’d love to hear them.


Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

Now, that there's some good storytelling! I swear, you need to put these in a book! Good one, babe.

Janet, said...

Matthew you are a good storyteller. I don't know how you have such a good memory of things. You can call your book "Tales from Germany Valley"

Matthew Burns said...

Janet & Shirley--Glad you all like my stories. Janet, to be honest, the more I write these stories, the more stories I am reminded of. I'm sure it also is in big part to my family always retelling these stories the whole time I was growing up.

It sure does seem now like the Pendleton County of my childhood was a completely different world than anywhere that could be found today. I was lucky to be of there. I miss it. Times were tough but so were we. I think those times made me into the person I am today.


Granny Sue said...

Hi Matthew,

We were up in the mountains this weekend and saw a timber rattler up on Dolly Sods. Funny you should have posted the story at this time.

I've heard this story before, but it was told by a Virginia storyteller. I've read it in several places too, although of course each version is slightly different, as is always the case with storytelling, and I considered adding it to my repertoire.

The Virginia teller's version was almost identical to yours although I don't recall her giving names to the people in the story. But the buttermilk, etc, are the same. If you google it (like "girl charmed by snake") you will find several versions of the story, including 2 from Hoosier country.

Which makes me wonder: was your grandma just a very good storyteller, or was there actually some truth to these old tales? Did people tell it as a cautionary tale to keep children from playing with snakes, perhaps? or...(shiver) did these things really happen? I tend to the cautionary tale perspective because the story details remain largely the same although the story is set in different locales, which is typical of folktales. Still, it's chilling to even think there is a possibility of it being true.

Great story. Very well told.

Matthew Burns said...

Susanna---I had no idea that this story was widely known and in so many versions! I just thought it was a Germany Valley original. I've found that so many of the stories that I heard growing up have their roots in Germany.

My granny was a great storyteller, but probably the reason I remember most of the stories is because they were told over and over, and each time told as the gospel truth. I'm sure the story was meant to learn us not to play with snakes.

After looking around and googling this story like you suggested, I see that there is a version of the story that was compiled by the Brothers Grimm! Very neat! It seems that the version Granny told had been Appalachianized quite a bit (of course, if this stories was brought from Germany by my ancestors, that would put it in Appalachia by the early 1700's).

The puzzling thing is I know other stories that Granny told about Hanse and Mag, but I wonder if they ever existed or if they are a fictional couple meant to teach a lesson. Ever hear of Hanse and Mag in any other stories?


Granny Sue said...

Isn't that amazing, Matthew? It's a perfect example of how folklore and stories traveled from the old world to the new. Your family, like those of the old balladsingers, carried forward the old stories to their new home. I do not know any Hanse and Mag stories, and googling quickly did not turn them up either, but Hans was the European Jack and there are stories about him. The one in this story, obviously, isn't Jack!

What I feel so excited about is that you remember these stories, and are now also passing them on. That is a unique heritage you have, to be treasured--and put into a book, daggone it! or maybe a CD?

Tipper said...

Matthew-I don't have any snake stories that would compare to yours. Loved all of them-but especially the one about Hallie-I can't wait to tell it to the girls. Loved the conversation between you and Granny Sue in the comments too-so interesting how the stories were brought to Appalachia and changed to fit the need-but kept the original plot.

Angelena said...

We have a problem with rattlesnakes where I live at in Pocahontas Co WV. I am constantly telling the boys to watch were they are walking and playing. 3 years ago I had a huge one on my front porch. UGH! I do not like them at all.

Becky Mushko said...

My Aunt Belva (who died about five years ago) once told me about a snake who ate her "nest egg"—an old-fashioned white doorknob she kept in her chicken house to encourage the hens to lay.

One day,she saw a blacksnake come out of her henhouse and there was a round place in its body. She figured what had happened, grabbed her hoe and killed the snake. Sure enough, it had eaten the nest egg.

Aunt Belva cleaned off the doorknob and put it back in a nest.