Elixir for snakebite and revised memory

from: graymare

She is tiny, elfin, running after her brothers and sisters across the meadow. The chorus of locusts in the hackberry trees joins the hum of bees among the lavender thistle and the bitterweed, yellow in the afternoon sun. The children run and leap barefoot in the grasses, pausing from time to time to pull a sticker from a calloused toe or heel. And she brings her small self up into midget jumps, joins them in the joy of togetherness they feel after months of boarding schools. She is too young to be sent away, has passed lonely hours while her next older sister, Marjorie, is in the three-grade school up the road and her mother tends to her baby brother, Roger, and to the hundred daily tasks that sustain life on the farm. But they are together for this summer day, six of the seven, running and leaping and shouting, daring each other to accomplish various physical feats--How high, how fast? Teasing and poking and chasing. They jump ditches and bushes. Across their path lies a row of barberry, a low hedge in a wild state, not much challenge. The older five clear it easily. Little Winnie lands in the middle of it, and screams. The others turn and see a small copperhead snake slip under the gray-green leaves. She has landed in the middle of a nest of baby snakes and been bitten. They snatch their little sister from the hedge and set her down at a safe distance. Then they pause and ponder. Should their first concern be with killing the snake or with Winnie's predicament? Her brother Joe, full of boy wisdom, advises whiskey. He remembers that their father keeps a bottle "for Christmas and snakebite only." The rest nod agreement; so in order to begin treatment quickly, they challenge little Winnie, with the venom creeping into her bloodstream, to a race back to the house. The whiskey is hidden well, so another brother—Ryder, I think—suggests "tourniquet" and ties his bandana around her leg, while eldest sister Marie runs to fetch Mama from the softball game. Mama finds her little girl, looking pale and scared, with a dirty kerchief round her slender thigh, and dispatches two brothers, Joe and Francis, to the orchard for peach branches. Having brewed and applied the peach poultice, she rings up the doctor on the crank telephone (a long and two shorts) and tells him the problem and what has been done. "You've already done everything I could have done," he assures her, and promises to stop by tomorrow. That's how I remember the oft-told story of my mother's snake-bite, and how I pictured it when I was a child. * One by one all those brothers and sisters who gamboled so in that meadow on that summer day, they all grew up, moved away, married, had families, and troubles and sometimes divorces – all those different lives that members of large families lead. They matured and grew gray, and one by one they began to die, two brothers, Joe and Francis, in the same year, Marie and Marjorie in succeeding summers. The baby brother, Roger, who sat on his mother's lap at the softball game on that balmy day in 1904, was the first to follow their mother. As he grew ill with diabetes and heart trouble, he loved to sit on his Florida porch and watch the Atlantic Ocean. He left two daughters, who, following his wishes, sprinkled his ashes over its waves. The brother who had used his bandana for a tourniquet was next, after many transfusions to prolong his life. Ryder's legacy to his granddaughter was a thick garden, ripe for picking. Marie died of a stroke, leaving an Arkansas goat farm and five grown children. Marjorie quickly followed, though her illness had been slow. She left three unpublished books of poems, one surviving daughter, and ten grandchildren. Joe, the eldest brother, was next. He left a rich widow and three surviving children, but the wealth of his mind went with him. (He was the one who had thought of whiskey for snakebite.) Last was the brother who had first turned when little Winnie screamed. He left a bouquet of flowers, the last of a weekly order made from his bed of pain, a gift to his wife. The bouquet not yet faded the day of his funeral. But little Winnie remained. And by and by her nephews and nieces began to mature, and some to die. She wept for each, and a gentle stoicism stiffened her back and firmed her chin. She herself became gravely ill twice, and survived. She is elfin still, with blue eyes and silver hair, and slender, fragile bones, so delicate she seems to be teetering on the edge of extinction. And yet she survives. She was the only one of the seven children blessed (or cursed) by the snake on that June day over eight decades ago. Perhaps its venom is an elixir in her veins, sustaining her yet.


She remembers it differently, of course. She was one of three girls coming back from the softball game over on the bluffs. One of the girls was a neighbor, the other was Winnie's next older sister Marjorie, nicknamed Moy, who was about twelve. Winnie would have been ten, and the year, 1909. "Baby Roger" was no baby at all by that time, but a strapping lad of eight. Perhaps my mother first told me this story when I, myself, was around five or so. "When I was a little girl..." would have translated in my child's mind as "littler than me, therefore, around three." My mother always remembers things from my childhood as happening when I was eight, and from hers when she was ten. Anyway, the three girls were playing in the pasture behind the barn when the copperhead bit Winnie. The neighbor girl thought they ought first to kill the snake, so they wasted precious minutes in that futile project. Then they realized that speed of treatment was necessary, so they equated "speed" with "race" and raced Winnie back to the house. Winnie won, climbing the barn gate along the course. Ryder was at the house and thought of whiskey and tourniquet and vinegar and salt. (My mother used vinegar and salt for every kind of bite thereafter, including my husband's recent spider bite.) My grandmother, whom I always knew as "Ma Thorn", sent Moy out to the orchard for peach leaves, which she used with cornmeal to make a poultice. The doctor was thirteen miles away and opted not to drive his buggy that distance, as everything had been done.


My mother survived for two years after I wrote this, and then ran out of elixir. The copperhead lifted his curse two weeks short of her eighty-eighth birthday.



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