The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Snakes, Music, Old Wells and Stuff

By Jess Wilbanks © 1991

Issue: April, 1991

Editor's Note... This is our "tall tale" for the month. In the true tradition of storytellers, the tall tale is perhaps our favorite. Every tall tale has to have just a touch of truth in it as a starting point, and as this one, a moral at the end.

Jess Wilbanks lives in Mineral Wells, Texas now, but writes, "I am past sixty and write for fun. I was born and grew up around East Ridge, Tennessee. I had a junk antique store for more than twenty years. I like old things and tales both old and new."

We hope you enjoy this piece of old fashioned storytelling. Read it as if you were a wide-eyed child sitting at the feet of the storyteller.

Susan Thigpen, Editor

Old Earl used to pick a guitar and sing a song called, "I'm The Man That Rode The Mule Around The World." He'd sing, "I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring around the roses, and I can whip the man that sez it isn't true."

I guess that song must've had a hundred verses, and old Earl made up a few more; nevertheless, the people who lived around close to him never tired of his picking and singing.

I grew up around old Earl and thought he was the best musician in the World, but then I moved away and old Earl died.

After more than forty years, I went back to that part of the country and found the place where old Earl had lived. There wasn't much left; the old house had rotted down, and the trumpet vines had grown up all around the place. The vines had even climbed to the top of the two old chimneys that were still standing. A new road had been built, and it missed the old house place by a mile, but I managed to drive about halfway from the new road down to the old house place and walked the rest of the way. Being old and out of shape, I was out of breath when I reached the place, so I sat down on a maple tree stump. As I sat there, I remembered the big maple tree standing in the front yard. I wondered why anyone would cut it down. I remembered how old Earl used to sit in a cane bottom straight chair out there in the shade of that tree and pick and sing.

After a few minutes I got up and started poking around. I don't know what I was looking for. I was just looking, when I found a large spoon. I picked it up; it was shiny as a new one, and looked as if someone had just dropped it there. Then I came to what used to be the back porch, and part of the floor was still there. I couldn't believe it; the rest of the house had rotted away, but that old oak floor was still there. I sat down on the edge of the porch to rest a minute. As I sat there, I was enjoying the quietness and the smell of wild flowers, and as I listened, I could imagine and almost hear old Earl picking and singing.

In a little while, the sun went behind a cloud, and I could feel a cool breeze from the north; it was nice, cool and quiet there. I decided to lie down for a minute and just laid back on the old porch, pulling my hat down over my eyes. As I lay there, I remembered there was a well on the back porch; then I dozed off for a minute of two. I might have slept longer, but the sun came back out, and I could feel it burning down on me.

I raised up for a minute and noticed there was shade farther back on the porch; it came from one of the old chimneys and trumpet vines. I scooted back out of the sun. I thought I felt the floor give a little; then, I heard timbers cracking, and the floor began to sink lower and lower where I was sitting. I began trying to crawl to the high side, but I couldn't make no headway. As I was scrambling around, I remembered the well again. Suddenly, me and part of the floor was on the way to the bottom of the well. Part of a rotten sill and some floor boards were still nailed together, and I, along with them, fell slowly to the bottom of the well. The boards would hang up for a few seconds; then they would fall a few feet farther. When I was finally on the bottom, more boards and dirt fell in on top of me.

When stuff stopped falling down on me, I wiggled out from under the mess and found that the old well curb and other timbers had fallen into the well long before I did. The well had also caved in a lot down near the water, filling the center of the well with dirt and rotten wood. I was dry and standing on firm footing.

I had enough light to see what was around me from the hole I made in the floor when I fell through. I wiggled around and managed to sit down, and thought about what an idiot I was; knowing the well was there, and that the floor was rotten, I still poked around and fell in it. My car was parked where no one could see it from the highway, and I was probably the first human to be around that place in years, so it looked like the end of the line for me.

I could see water back under the banks where the walls of the well had caved in and made kind of an island in the center, so I had water, but what about food? As I sat there wondering about my future, some dirt fell on me from above, and then something fell on top of my head and kind of wound itself around my neck. I guess the sun had gone behind a cloud again, for there wasn't much light in the well; however, I could see well enough to tell it was a rattlesnake that fell on me. I pulled it from my neck and found its head. My first thoughts were to kill it, but I didn't.

The fall seemed to have knocked the wind out of the snake, and I just sat there and held it. I thought of using it for food, but that would be prolonging my misery. Another thought was to let it bite me; that would end it all very quickly; however, I could see no need to be in a hurry.

The sun came out again, and there was more light. The snake began to move around a bit.

"Did you know that you and I are in one hell of a fix?" I asked.

The snake didn't say anything; it just looked at me.

"I can understand me being here, because I'm stupid, but you look intelligent." I said.

The snake continued to look at me; it seemed friendly and didn't try to get away from me. As I held it, I began to relax my hold a bit and gave it more freedom.

I still had the spoon I found; it was sticking in my shirt pocket. I noticed the snake was looking at it, so I took it out of my pocket and let the snake get a better look at the spoon; wherever I held the spoon, the snake wouldn't take its eyes from it. As I moved the spoon around, the snake followed it with its eyes. I soon tired playing spoon with the snake and just stuck the spoon handle down in the mud near the edge of the water. Right away, a small snake not a foot long came from somewhere behind me and curled around the spoon. As the big snake and I watched, another little snake came; then another and another. Soon seven little snakes were curling around and rubbing up against that spoon. They were crawling all over it as if they were really happy.

After a little thinking, I realized what had happened. The little snakes had fallen in the well with me, and the big one was their mother. She was crawling around up there trying to see where the little ones went; she got too close to the edge and fell in the well too. The shiny spoon had been something the little ones played with. I talked to Mama snake and apologized for causing her and her family to fall in the well.

It's all my fault," I said. "If I hadn't of come poking around, you wouldn't be here; if you and all your children bite me, I won't blame you one bit."

Well, I don't guess anybody would believe it, but Mama snake seemed to understand that I meant her no harm; she looked me straight in the eye for a long time, and then she curled herself around my arm. I was still holding onto her head, but after that long look eye to eye, I trusted her and turned her loose.

"We're in this mess together," I said. "So I guess we ought to be friends."

I guess snakes can go a long time without food, and humans can too if they have to. The snakes did better than I did; almost every night a few bugs fell in the well, and once or twice a frog fell in. Mama snake was willing to share the bugs and frogs, but I didn't accept.

We talked a lot and played games. I'd hold the spoon up when there was light, and the little snakes would scoot upraising their heads six inches off the ground and would slide over the spoon one after the other. That spoon was their only toy and they loved it.

When it was dark, I would tell them about old Earl and how he could pick and sing. One night I thought I heard old Earl picking and singing, but I didn't tell the snakes. I figured I was getting near the other side, or death was catching up with me. However, when it was light again, Mama snake began to do a kind of dance; she'd move her head about and hold her tail up high and shake her rattlers. I didn't understand what she was doing at first, but she kept it up as long as there was light. when darkness came, I heard old Earl again; he was picking and singing, and I could hear him pat his foot against the floor just as he did when he was alive.

While old Earl was picking and singing, I could also hear Mama snake shaking her rattlers, and she was playing the same tune as old Earl.

Earl sang, "I'm the man that rode the mule around the World.

I saw Socrates and Homer, Plato and all the rest.

And I can whip the man that sez it isn't true.

I'm the man that rode the mule around the World.

I saw Rome, Athens, Bagdad and Quebec.

And I can whip the man that sez it isn't true.

When the light came again, Mama snake had all the little snakes line up in front of me, and they did a dance as she made the music. There was no doubt about it; she was playing old Earl's tune, and she was playing it well. I think she knew almost as many verses as old Earl.

As the days passed, my hunger was present but not painful. The well seemed to get larger; sometimes it seemed like a room with furniture, and we had candles. When the darkness came, Mama snake would light them; she crawled up to them and blew a little flame out of her mouth, and the candles would burn. When they were all lit, old Earl would appear, and we'd have a party; we'd sing and dance all night long. Mama snake and her family enjoyed what we did as much as old Earl and I. We didn't worry a lot about anything, and we really had lots of fun.

One day when the sun was out, I thought I heard old Earl calling my name from above. "That's old Earl ain't it?" I asked Mama snake.

She got really excited and began stretching her mouth open and looking up toward the light; she made a sound I hadn't heard her make before. She looked at me as if she thought I should do the same, so I yelled, "Hey Earl, come on down."

In a minute some dirt fell in on us, and I heard someone call my name.

"Is that you Willie?" a voice asked. "Are you all right?"

"We're O.K." I said. "We thought you was Old Earl."

"Who's with you?" asked the voice.

"Oh, just Mama snake and her family. Old Earl was here last night. Do you know Old Earl?" I asked.

Someone had finally found my car and started looking for me. After they cleaned the rotten lumber away from around the well so it wouldn't fall in on us, a windlass was set up, and a harness was lowered. I managed to get into the harness, and the snakes curled around me, and some went in my pockets. Everyone was afraid to touch me when they brought me up.

We had been in the well for seventeen days. I turned the snakes loose on the spot and gave them their spoon. When I was able, I went back for a visit. When I yelled, Mama snake, snakes came from all directions, but Mama snake was there first. As she took the lead, the others did a dance and played old Earl's song with their rattlers.

I guess you have to be pretty close to the other side to speak with the dead and with snakes, but I know that old Earl is still picking and singing over there; also I learned that when the end is near, friends are dear. Your worse enemy may become your best friend, even if she's a snake.

I was so close to death, that I'd bet old Earl couldn't believe it when I came back over to the living, but I guess I'll be joining him permanently pretty soon now, but since I've already had a look at the other side, I kind of look forward to being with old Earl, and I guess Mama snake will be there too, sooner or later.

We'll have a party and laugh about old times; it'll be nice. I'm betting on it.