The Known World

Kathryn Nuernberger

-for Old Hodges, the ginseng poacher

Red on yellow will kill a fellow, red on black is a friend of Jack. Red on yellow, deadly fellow; red on black, venom lack. Yellow and red, you are dead; black and white, you’re alright. Red next to black, venom lack; red next to yellow, run away fellow.

It is good luck to kill the first snake of spring. It is bad luck to see a snake climb a tree. It is good luck to keep a rattle in your pocket. It is bad luck to dream of a snake you let live and worse luck to tell anyone what you saw.

They are supposed to eat slugs, crickets, earthworms when young; skinks, frogs, other snakes when grown. But the story goes they milk the cows for nourishment and comfort. “In the morning, a couple of our cows would come in with one quarter completely milked, and on the teat was two red marks all swolled and red,” the anthropologist’s transcription reads.

I dreamed a snake nursed me like I dreamed before the baby in my belly was a hammerhead shark in a plastic egg from the quarter machine at Pizza Hut.

The story goes an old timer they called John Jackson, but could just as easily have been Uncle Leon or one of the Moses Boys, had a black snake that lived in the house with him and his family. For five years, he couldn’t catch it to spade the head off the thing. On several occasions, it cut the nipple off the baby’s bottle and drank what was in there.

Norris went out one morning to gather the eggs, and a black snake in the nest as thick as his arm got wrapped around him so quick his daddy practically had to chop his own son’s foot to get the neck out. I never put my hand into a nest easy again, and twice now it’s been a good thing I keep my throat so laced up with snake fear.

Snakes go blind during dog days. Snakes go blind in the last of summer. A sidewinder will kill any living thing it touches. A blue racer will chase you if you run but run if you chase. A frightened snake will swallow its young.

The whip snake whips with its tail. The joint snake breaks into pieces. The hoop snake rolls. The stinging snake, the milk snake, and the thunder snake do what they do.

As cold as a snake, as crooked as a snake, as deadly poisonous, treacherous as a snake. Lower than a snake’s belly, madder than snakes in haying.

Where they come from none can say, but when you go root digging with Chuck to get cash for beer, he’ll tell you a smell of cucumbers in the leaves means there’s a copperhead in there.

At the first thunder of spring, the snakes rustle forth. Put a snake in the fire and his feet will come out. Step on a snake, get boils on your fingers. Step on a snake, get sores on your feet. Sew on a Friday, snake in the house on Saturday.

Sometimes when you look across from one holler to the next, you’ll see the shadow of Old Hodges digging out ginseng from under the old growth trees. What you have to know about Old Hodges is that he’s new blood and he’s got no claim.

A snake with a poison sac must remove it to drink. When John Jackson was a boy, he could just as easily have been your father the boy, could just as easily have been you when he crept on one of those sidewinders and stole its little bindle. Oh, that beast went wild with anger, dashing itself like a joint snake against the rocks.

A snake won’t die until the sun goes down. A snake won’t die until it thunders. A snake won’t die until the sun comes up. No matter how many pieces you hack it into, a snake will put itself back together.

I’m new blood, which out here is the same as no blood. But my daughter is one of account. You can tell by how she came home one day from the briars with a possum skull in her hands and the milky lace of a shed skin around her neck.

The sweetest fiddle has a rattler’s rattles inside. The sourest fiddle has no rattles, and the wasps filled it up with mud nests and moaning. Snakes are the abiding place of the devil, you know. A man like John Jackson was when he was young and handsome fiddled me once a tune, and I loved him something awful forever more.

“If I make my bed in Hell, you cannot help it, and I will have to lay on it.”

Jesse Howard: Thy Kingdom Come
CAM, Jan. 16-Apr. 1, 2015

After doing my time looking inward, I start to draw conclusions. A lot of times people are boring.

This is because they aren’t angry.

A person who is angry is always thinking.

It makes walking through the woods of knowing them exciting.

I told a man I like that when my own private apocalypse comes, I will let him live through the fire of it and after I will have someone to hunt.

He laughed, which is how I know we are getting along. Every last can of soup on this earth will be mine.

It will be quiet and I can say whatever I like.

I can do that now, but the apocalypse will help me remember I can.

Jesse Clyde Howard of Sorehead Hill had twenty acres in Fulton, MO.

Twenty acres isn’t much in this world, but it’s more than a lot.

A compound = land + patriarch + poverty.

City people in a gallery loving this folk art do not understand what they are looking at.

House-painted plywood jeremiads hanging around the perimeter of some property line are a dime a dozen.

“This is the Corner Tree to Hell’s 20 acres.”

“These People sneak up here when They think I am asleep.” I’m city people in a gallery.

I’ve known for some time I sorely need an equation for sincerity.

Lying, I read, is the consequence of not understanding the possibilities of what could happen between two people or a community of people.

I smile and lie and say nice things.

I do this after deciding I don’t want to stand in the churchyard of what might happen between us.

Jesse Howard might be just such a one as these two or many people. He might be such a one as me.

“God bless the Owl that picked the Fowl and left the Bones for Old Man Howard.” I am a pot of righteous indignation for all of you.

I think there is a possibility of something in that pot, and I don’t expect it would be you coming to agree with me.

“The voice of the Bird, for a Bird of the Air shall carry the Voice. Ecclesiastes 10=20.”

I think our stew is long since thick of meat. I think I have this bowl for you.

I propose, Sincerity ≥ not giving up on the possibilities ÷ giving up entirely.

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the essay collection Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (Ohio State University Press, 2017), from which these two lyric essays derive. She is also the author of two poetry collections, Rag & Bone (Elixir, 2011) and The End of Pink (BOA, 2016), which won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Recent essays have appeared in Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Green Mountains Review, Redivider, Brevity, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at University of Central Missouri, where she also serves as the director of Pleiades Press.