Now it was in the Springtime, as I recollect it, when the mountain was dotted with petite dabs of fresh pale green, a virginal shade from the Master artist’s sage palette, when I sat at the dinette in Granny’s modest kitchen, looking out the window at the blooming redbuds that stood out like merry boughs of cotton candy along the hillside. Winter had retreated, and the whole blooming world seemed to rise up from the dead.
It was that day that I first saw Granny’s cookbook.
Her spindly fingers found the pages she sought out quickly. It was nothing more than a spiral bound notebook, truth be told, the page edges frayed and tattered with several decades or more of elbow grease, garden soil, and that good ol’ Granny magic.
Oh, magic, indeed. Now Granny would have never proclaimed herself to have ever been more than a mountain sister, a daughter of the Highlands, or one of the heirs to the Appalachian throne of mystery and the craft of her foremothers and the wild blue.
I said, “Granny, what you got in that book?”
“Nothin’ I don’t know already,” she said.
Now Granny never did read the words in that tattered cookbook; she knew all the recipes already, like she’d said. Instead she took out a pencil from her silverware drawer and made notes in the margins as I watched on.
Granny was older than those pages, and I’d once asked her just how many years’ old she was. She had laughed and opened her mouth wide enough for me to get a glimpse of her sparkling gold eye tooth — an honest to God golden tooth! — and then she told me she couldn’t say, because it would likely scare me to death.
If anybody asks, I’m thirty-nine, she’d say. Now thirty-nine seemed awfully farfetched to me, and I knew Granny was twice that, if not more, and the lines etched into the furrow of her brow and forehead could easily hide a good eighty or even ninety years’ worth of scribbled secrets. And I listened well when she would speak, for she didn’t spew out words just to hear her head rattle or make idle noise. She said things that ought not be spoken in company, and she divulged her thoughtful contention when I’d dare to look upon her mystic countenance.
Granny was so old that she appeared to me like a candle that had been burning from both ends, and the wax of her had melted into a shapeless, expressionless, indomitable figure that wore a red gingham apron and a high and mighty mound of graying black hair that sat atop her resolute form in a mess of bobby pins and whorls of practicality. Her lips were thin and intentional, her words firm and absolute. She was oddly beautiful.
I recollect vividly the things she spoke of, and I have not released a single breath of them until this day.
She said that where God has walked once, the Devil has made his rounds twice. And that ol’ Devil is especially jealous of us women, and for no other reason than we hold the opportunity for life inside of us, and that men want to either love us or have us, and they hate us when they can’t or when we won’t let them. And it ain’t no wonder that we live longer than the menfolk, because we have more to do.
Ain’t nobody gonna save you ‘cept you, she said. So quit looking for that storybook thoroughbred and take up your seat on the ol’ mare. She’ll serve you better and carry you further. She’ll take you beyond those cotton candy redbuds and up into the yonder where nobody and nothing but the wild painters squall and the winsome Jenny wrens warble. They’ll sing a song just for you, if you let them. Listen with your ears and heart wide open.
Go out into the grassy flats where the honeysuckle and jewel weed flourish; they’re meant for more than just a passing butterfly. They’re for you, too. Those old touch-me-knots can take the sting out of poison ivy and the pleurisy root can cure what ails the aching and grieving chest. And ain’t nothing as delectable as the pokeweed that’s been fried up with cornmeal and a flick of table salt if you pinch ‘em off just right. And if you’re ever in the worst kind of shape, good ol’ yeller root in enough quantity can stave Death itself away.
But I witnessed stranger things, too, like when local girls from the holler would come up to have Granny look into their coffee cups and study the ominous grounds within, and she’d tell them of births or meetings of destiny, and even warn them of approaching dangers or faintness of their hearts. She’d more than once been known to let the neighbors’ daughters look behind their backs with mirrors down her spring water well, and tell them if they mused blindly enough, they’d get a glimpse of their fate or fortune. And she’d blown more than a few fires out of the sting of warts and even a broken heart or two. I’d seen it with my earthly eyes or I’d likely have dismissed it as a chimera or hallucination.
But as Granny said, where God walks once, the Devil rounds twice. There are vipers lying in wait of you amidst the plentiful saving weeds, and more than one mountain sister has fallen casualty to the snare of a rattler or copperhead or a handsome man ready to strike. Look for snake spit on the clover and never reach blindly into an inviting bough of cloying raspberry or a plentiful display of chicory or romance. There’s much worse than poison ivy to be found up in these woods.
And never forget, just as Granny once warned me, that there’s always somebody bigger and meaner than you are, and even if a woman is too tired to feud and wrangle, she ain’t never too spent or old to hold her peace and pull a trigger.
When the lights would go down in the late evening, after the supper dishes were cleared and put back in the cupboard, Granny would share a sip of her reserved home brew with me, and we’d lay out in the yard with the crickets underneath a blanket of the brightest stars that the Heavens ever conceived, and she’d talk about regular things, like how to get a perfect stitch on a Drunkard’s Path quilt (have a few nips of ‘shine first) and the secret to fixing the best biscuits this side of the Mason Dixon (a loving pinch of sugar in everything, even the gravy) and she’d remind me that the best things must be figured out for one’s self. I could tell you all day long it was a mistake, but you’d have to make it yourself to know for sure.
Granny is long gone to the Hereafter now, and I last saw her in final repose in her modest casket, her proud chin pointed heavenward and her spindly fingers crossed over her chest like a warrior’s armor. Even though I stood in the funeral parlor and looked upon her still figure, knowing well that there was not enough yeller root in the free world to bring her back from that long sleep, sometimes I still hear her voice when the mountain falls quiet in the twilight of the evening. I hear her telling me about the pokeweed and pleurisy root and her warning of the vipers. And, of course, where God makes one round, the Devil makes two.
As for that tattered cookbook, I couldn’t discern a single recipe. The words were written down with a pencil from Granny’s silverware drawer, and have all but faded completely into oblivion. But isn’t that how the most precious of things are? Graying moments become memory, and just like Granny, memories don’t stay.
Every so often I look at those timeworn words, so obscure and so secretly veiled, and I remember that Springtime day by her kitchen window, when the fading Winter had withered away and the cotton candy redbuds dotted the hillside, and the whole world seemed to rise up from the dead, and I can’t help but wonder if Granny ever existed at all. How supremely clever. And how like her. I have no choice but to make those old mistakes for myself, just as she had laughed and said I would. But regardless of pokeweed or saving yeller root or ‘shine beneath the stars, one thing is for certain.
I am thirty-nine. And always will be, if anybody should ask.