Thursday, February 24, 2005

Snakes Alive

You know, I got me a cousin Verbina who is dead afraid of snakes.  She don't like them no way no how.  She don't even like them fancy snake boots or one of them rattlesnake heads displayed in a bubble of glass for a paperweight.  I reckon she is adverse to snakes of any type.

I didn't really know Verbina had this adversity for the longest time.  I had been around her at family gatherin's, weddin's, funerals an' suppers on the ground an' had never heard it come up.  Actually, I found out sort of accidental an' without plannin' to find out a family secret.

Several years ago they was a jim dandy cabbage harvest back home in my hometown of Beloved, Kentucky.  For some reason the plantin' had been just right accordin' to the Farmer's Almanac, the weather had favored truck patches filled with cabbage plants an' Mama Nature had gently watered the hollers of home with rain all through the summer.  Folks had record breakin' cabbage plants as well as a bumper crop of corn, taters, tomaters an' enough green beans to put up for the next three years.

I had stopped by to see Verbina an' her husband William Joseph on my way down home.  Verbina was the only one in the whole country down there that called him William Joseph.  All the rest of us called him Billy Joe.  Verbina was like that.  She always kept a Toni hair permanent in her hair an' kept it frizzed up an’ all.  She read all the Hollywood magazines an' mail ordered from Sears an' Roebuck for fancy dresses an' all.  Verbina even wore denim dungarees in the garden when no one was around.  Course, she when to the Methodist Church an' them Methodists didn't church - that is kick out- women folks for wearin' pants an' all.

As we was talkin', Billy Joe mentioned to me they was wantin' to make some sour kraut in crocks an' didn't know how to do it.  They asked if I had a recipe an' I told them my Daddy had taught me an' I just did it by feel with pinches an' sprinkles.  I offered to come by Saturday an' help them put up some crocks of kraut if they would split the proceeds.  Of course Verbina jumped at the offer.  My Daddy had put up some of the best kraut ever tasted there in Beloved an' had won many County Fair blue ribbons over the years against Sister Hazel Budder, Annie Pankey an' even the school teacher, Miss Birdie Sue Poovey who took Home Economics in college over to Berea.

Saturday came an' we was up to our ears in cabbage.  We chopped, sliced an' shredded it till we was wore out.  That is when my expertise took over as we started layerin' the chopped cabbage in the crocks.  I would put a layer in to a certain depth an' then sprinkle in the salt till it looked an' felt right.  We did layer after layer this way till each crock was full up.  Last thing we did with each was to cover the top with a big ol' plate an' put a big rock on each plate.  Verbina scrubbed each rock for a long time before she pronounced each clean enough to sit on them plates.  The plates an' rocks were to keep the cabbage pushed down when the water starts to come out of the chopped leaves.

Verbina called to William Joseph to come help us take the crocks into her root cellar over in the hillside.  We carried crock after crock - some up to fifty-gallon crocks full of chopped cabbage waitin' to be reborn into wonderful kraut in a month or two.  I couldn't wait for my first mouthful of the savory stuff.  When it was done workin' we would eat a bit an' can it for long term keepin'.

As me an' Billy Joe stood in the cool root cellar we looked around at all the shelves filled recently with summer's harvest.  Billy Joe stared at a corner for a long time an' pointed.  "Looky there, cousin.  Over on that post in that corner."  I looked an' hangin' on that post was a shed skin from a big ol' black snake.  I started over to get it but Billy Joe stopped me an' told me to wait.

Verbina had gone back for one last crock - about a two gallon one.  She strolled in an' placed that crock back close to that corner on a low shelf an' stood up.

"Verbina, what is that?" Billy Joe asked innocently.

"It is that last crock, Willam Joseph.  What do you think it is?"

"No, Verbina, darlin'.  I cain't see past you, but what is that on that post yonder behind you?"

Verbina turned around an' searched in the dim light till her eyes lit on that shed black snakeskin.  It took about three seconds for her to make out what it was before she let out a beller that woke up the dead.  I swear that some of them mason jars cracked from the volume that woman let out of her lungs.

Billy Joe had the sense to move out the way an' was tryin' to pull me over by the shirtsleeve when Verbina turned an' began her escape.  He didn't pull fast enough or my feet didn't move as fast as Verbina's.  Whatever the reason, she knocked me down like I was a leaf in the wind.  She climbed out of that root cellar an' started a puttin' one foot in front of the other in a desperate attempt to get as far from that snake skin as she could.

Verbina knocked over both dogs as she ran.  The chickens had gathered an' was eatin' the scraps we had thrown out till Verbina went through them like a tornado in Kansas.  She left chickens a flyin' an' a squawkin' in her wake as she made for parts unknown.  Her right shoe came off as she ran yet she still did not stop, even as she ran over the rough gravel in their lane.

They is a little pond in front an' to the left of the short lane to Verbina an' William Joseph's home.  Verbina made for that pond with the instinct of a goose flyin' home after a long winter down south.  She jumped into the johnboat in that pond an' pushed off to the middle of the pond.  Verbina never sat down.  She held the paddle like a warrior woman from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, ready to beat the life out of any snake that came close to her in that johnboat.

No matter how Billy Joe an' I coaxed, she would not come in from that boat.  Billy Joe told me to never let Verbina know he did that on purpose.  It would be the end of their marriage for sure.  Finally he said, "what was it, darlin'?"  She hollered in a shaky voice that it was a snake.  He acted shocked an' went back to the root cellar with me as if he was a lookin' for the snake.

We put our heads together an' determined for the good of their marriage that he would drag that shed skin out into the yard an' commence to beatin' on it.  He grabbed a tobaccer stick an' wrapped the skin around it an' went a runnin' out into the yard.  He threw the skin down an' bellered an' carried on as he beat it with the tobaccer stick.  Finally he stopped.

"Darlin...Ver?  Don't move, darlin'.  I have kilt it, but I am goin' to walk the dead carcass back to the back field to throw it into that ol' sinkhole.  You stay right there an' I'll get rid of this ol' thing."

I stood an' watched with a little awe.  A few minutes later William Joseph came back an' gently coaxed his bride in from the pond.  He helped her out of the johnboat like she was royalty stepping off a majestic boat an' she hugged him tight.  Over her shoulder he winked at me an' I could tell he hoped I would keep silent.

Verbina turned an’ said, "Well, cousin...I reckon you must be worn out.  Why don't you go on home now so I can thank my hero this evenin'?"

I went on home an' pondered this event for the longest time.  Over the next few years I found out that Billy Joe had a stash of shed snakeskins he would get into now an' again.  He would place them where Verbina would find them just so he could play the hero and receive her grateful thanks.  I ain't gonna spoil a marriage.  I sure ain't gonna tell an' even though I told y'all... it better remain out secret.

Well, we finally canned all that kraut an' had 237 quarts of kraut even after we sat one day an' filled our craws full before we canned it.

Life is good down home in my hometown of Beloved.  A little odd at times, but good.
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