A couple of summers ago I came across by chance an old Bible that had survived through time and remained in one piece while tucked away in an old rail travel bag in the attic of my fathers house. Inside the back cover of this relic I discovered an old and faded passage, a crude warning of sorts written in pencil so long ago that I had to tilt the page to gain better light in order to read it. The words bore on my mind greatly for some time before I submerged myself into the research necessary to discover their meaning. This passage was apparently written by my great grandmother shortly before her death in 1939. She was 82. I suppose it was directed towards her immediate family. My fathers family was descended from a line of people that had been deeply embedded in the mountain areas of Kentucky over and around where the boarders of Kentucky and Virginia and West Virginia intersect. It was a community called Macklinsville. It no longer exists. Here is what I read:
Dec. 28, 1938
"A skift of snow fell this morning and Bud prepared the balm from the balm-a-gully buds and the Jerusalem oil poltice and let all holds go. He cut a big figure hisself for a while but this neumony fever will not break and I think I'm headed for the shuck bin. Acrost the water they argy all day and all night . I fear darlins thut it will come over har and we'll hat to go back to the castin of lots and the sicklethrones. More chilrin will perish. Not jest yourn."
Well I hardly knew what to make of this but I was determined to learn something about it. First off, there was hardly anyone left to speak of it from first-hand knowledge and those who might have, wouldn't speak of it. I did eventually claw my way to some truth, and in this case the truth didn't set me free. It was actually a sad and grizzly tale. You see after the War for Southern Independence , there was a noticeable shortage of men not just here, but every where, and the effect on every day life in these mountains was especially devastating. This was a brutal country even in the best of times. In order to survive the harsh and barren winters the locals arrived at the solution that at a certain time of each year lots would be cast to reduce the population, ease the burden so to speak. Included would be all those under six years of age and all those over sixty. In effect, the sacrifice would be taken from those too young to have a life or those that had already lived one. The number involved would depend on how many had been born that year and how many had died. This took on sort of a noble connotation in the community, a necessary part of life. It was even sanctioned in the local pulpits. The word "Cyclethrone" referred to the time each year that the event was to take place thus "cycle" referring to the time of year (fall) and "throne" referring to going to your heavenly throne. In writings from that era and place one will sometimes see "cyclethrones" used as a time marker such as "it happened right after the cyclethrones" or "my youngest was born just a few years after the last cyclethrone". In the dialect of that time and place it might come across as sounding more like "sickle-thrones".
There is not really more to add to this story. I stumbled across it, I wondered about it, and now I know. Does it effect me? Not really. My family broke the links to that time and place a long time ago. I guess really it could have been anyones ancesters. I hope that's true. Anyway I'm just going top go on thinking it. That's all I can do.
I looked at my hand. It was swollen like a baseball glove. This glove was black and purple and looked like it could just bust right open at any time. It was not at all like the one I had stolen at Wal-Mart. I wish now that I had neither of them. My head pounded. My arm and my shoulder were red and sore. They hurt. I hated to feel this way but it was my own fault. The serpent had smelled the lies in me and he struck out at the lies and the fear and the guilt. It was just like paw-paw had said it could be. I was not only the snake-bitten, I was also the wicked. That hurt just as much, even more probably.
Paw had went back to his house, By now he had returned the serpents to their hutch. This trial by fire was ended, at least for the time being. I knew we would build our strength, strengthen our faith, battle Satan in a test of our faith and his resolve all over again, when the time was right, when the signs of the times said it needed to be.
Doctor Hinkle was in the room. He looked me over. He told me what to expect in the coming weeks. He told me how to care for the wound and when to come back. He was kind. He wasn't all excited and throbbing like I was. I looked at his shoes. They were clean. For a minute I wished I was his boy. I wondered where I would be and what I would be doing right now, right this very minute. I thought that maybe I'd be sittin' somewhere eatin' spaghetti and playing video games, maybe on a porch overlooking a pond. Funny how your mind wanders, and me sitting here with a swole-up hand just allowin' these thoughts to go on.
The doctor said something to me before he left the room. He said " I've known your granddad for over 50 years. He's a good man. You are a young man. You can have a good life if you pay attention to the things you do". "See if your paw might get interested in something else. Maybe you could get him interested in baseball or wresting or something. Something you can do together to take your mind off things"
I still think about that a lot.
I carried the 6 2-gallon jars to paw-paw. 3 for the deacons, 2 for the elders, one for paw. He had me to bring them out to the hutch that sat elevated on concrete blocks under a pecan tree a ways back off from the yard. Paw opened the top of the hutch and using a metal rod bent crooked on the far end, hooked the snakes one by one and dropped them down into the jars. Hooking onto a seventh snake he deposited this serpent into a large-sized playmate cooler and after carefully closing the lid, he handed it to me.
Paw had told me a lot of things over the years. He told me the difference between snakes and serpents. "The ones with venom in em' are serpents boy." "Man and snakes never got along, but a serpent, well a serpent is in close relations with the Devil." "These serpents hide from the light. They live under rocks, in holes, in creeks. They hate the light of day. They fear the light of the Lord. Today we're exposing em' to the light of the Lord. Today we're bringing em' to the house of the righteous. Watch how they act. Just watch how they act. And I tell you son, Satan has given powers over to the serpent . A serpent will spent his whole life just waitin' for a chance to strike at the heel of man. It's their wicked nature. A serpent can smell a lie. To him it smells just like a fresh apple pie. He can see the truth and the truth hurts his eye bones. A serpent always squints. It hurts his eyes like black smoke from a burning log. Always remember that boy."
Well I did remember that and I was remembering it more and more often lately. I hadn't done anything really bad but I had done a lot of little bad things in my time. Would that ole' serpent, that ole' slithering demon smell the lies on me? Would he strike at me to reveal my wickedness? To expose my shame? Should I be the one down a hole somewhere, or layin' out warming on a rock somewhere squintin' when the sun strikes my brow?
Paw-paw said it's time. I walk to the car resolute. It's too late to take back what I said to that girl on the school bus. It's too late to put back that wrench I stole, or that ball glove I stole at Wal-Mart. I can't take it back. I can't say "un-fuck you" and turn around the cussin' I gave the girl in the parking lot two weeks ago.
Nobody should have to be scared to tote a play mate cooler to Sunday school. It just ain't right, but paw says it is. He's almost never wrong.