September 2012 Featured Writer: Courtney Marcelo Norton

Courtney Marcelo Norton is a graduate writing student at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta.  She lives in Buckhead with her husband and four-year old son.  She has also practiced as a trial attorney in Atlanta since 2004.  She enjoys writing fiction.

Snake Oil

A Reconstructive Tonic, says the sign, the words curling above a delicately drawn glass bottle.  A nerve and bone cordial for man or beast.  Recommended for:  rheumatism, seizures, sprains and bruises, hysteria, stiff and weak joints, corks, chafes, galls, nervous disorders, cuts, wounds, Etc.  Serpentine patterns undulate like water moccasins down the length of the bottle.

The words have a kind of breathless untrustworthiness.  They appeal to me the way a wonderful lie does.  A cure for everything, apparently, has materialized out of the February drizzle.  The sign, and the wagon it leans against, arrived in the middle of the night, settling at the edge of town, across from the graveyard where white crosses blossom in tidy rows.  There is also a cross on the side of the wagon—deep scarlet.  I wait, with the rest of the town, for the wagon to open, clouds of cold ghosting up around us.  Blackbirds huddle above us on the bare oak limbs like musical notes on a chord.

A mud trail leads to our town, Quitman, Mississippi.  There used to be a railroad line, but it is gone.  There used to be a bridge crossing the Chickasawhay River, but that is also gone.  Even the trail gets overgrown occasionally, and our visitor, the owner of this traveling medicine show, probably slashed his way through blackberry bushes and trumpet vines and hibernating wisteria.  Quitman is miles from anything, surrounded by thick pine forest.  Thirty years ago, a brigade of Union soldiers came through.  And there are still reminders of the raid everywhere.  Gnarled metal loops sit at the edge of town where the railroad lines were torn up.  The metal was bent around trees, twisted so that it could not be reused.  At Christmas, we hang decorations on them.

I was born shortly after the raid and so the relics of the former city are all I know about it.  It would be strange to see anything other than the charred foundations of what used to be plantation homes and stores.  The courthouse was rebuilt, and a few stores huddle in its shadow, forming a kind of main street.  But gradually the buildings become unfinished thoughts:  lumber skeletons, red clay foundations, and finally just creeping forest.

When I was younger, I would sneak through the brambles to the blackened ruins of the hospital.  Like a scientist exploring a forgotten world, I would pick through the charred wood and inspect the things I found there—metal clamps, mildewed vials, a rusted handsaw.  I pulled a chair with wheels out of the rubble.  I sat in it and rolled around in the ashes.

Miss Elizabeth, the oldest woman in town, now leans toward me:

“Will the medicine fix my hands?” she whispers.  And she is close enough that I can see the papery quality of her skin, the green veins curling like tendrils at her temples.  “They swell at night.  My feet do as well.”

She holds her hands up and they are not swollen.  But they are wrinkled, the nails crooked.

“We’ll have to see,” I tell her.  She lays one of those craggy hands on my shoulder.

“And perhaps it will take the spots off your face,” she says helpfully, smiling at the marmalade freckles on my forehead and cheeks.  “You’d be so pretty without them.”

Her withered talon rakes through my black hair.  It occurs to me that she smells unpleasant, a kind of sour milk smell wafting from her mouth.

“And then you’ll find a nice man to marry,” she says with confidence.  She has me diagnosed and fixed in the same daydream.  The improved me, with smooth skin and a husband.

Judge Hickman has come down from the courthouse to inspect the sign.  He is not from Quitman.  He lives in Meridian and rides the circuit, coming here a few days out of the month to sign papers at the new courthouse, the best building in town.  Then he leaves and the building sits empty for weeks.  Judge has knocked on the door of the wagon but nobody responded.

“Peculiar choice of words,” he says, pointing at the sign, his ashy tongue tasting the air.  “What is a reconstructive tonic?  Restorative is the better word, isn’t it?  I believe that’s the intended word.”

He looks around for our concurrence.

“A restorative tonic,” he explains, “is one which might return the drinker to some previous state.”

He picks at his white beard.  He has one of those meat-colored complexions—red even when he isn’t sunburned.

“A reconstructive tonic,” he continues.  “Well, that suggests something else.”

He pinches at the air, as if the words are there, waiting to be nipped out of the mist.

“It suggests a rebuilding,” he says. “An improvement upon the original, a removal of defects.”

It seems that we all glance quickly—guiltily—at the Millers’ boy who has a cleft pallet, his top lip parting under his nose like a grotesque curtain of skin, revealing his teeth.  And we look from the boy to Emmett Rogers, with his right pant-leg tied into a knot because the leg is no longer there.  It was injured.  It rotted.  And later it was sawed off.  The knobs of his crutches sink into the mud.  These are our defective citizens.  They would not be rebuilt, not by any tonic.  Emmett would not bud a limb where the old one had been severed, he was not a starfish or an earthworm that could regenerate himself.  The Millers’ boy would not seam his lip together.  He was not an oak tree that could grow back its bark, closing the wound.

“We should remember that this, most likely, is quackery,” says the judge.  “Be cautious.  Be mindful of—oh!  See here.  The door is opening!”

We hear the unbuckling of a latch.  We look expectantly at the wagon.  The doors swing open.  And a man steps out with a snake draped over his shoulders.  I have never seen anything like it:  serpent and human braid together, black-eyed man and reptilian beast.  He wears the snake like a fox-fur stole, and the animal is blackish-green, shiny as a mallard’s head.  Its skin is a quilt of wet-looking diamonds, which, together, stretch and shrink as the animal adjusts itself around the man’s torso.

I startle at first.  A prickling feeling, like reaching for a spindly hair-comb and seeing, instead, my hand closing over a black spider.

“God almighty,” someone breathes.  There is a moment of soft, shocked laughter.

Then we start to clap.  We cheer!  The judge slides two fingers inside his ruddy cheeks and whistles with approval.  It is not entirely clear why we are applauding.  A man caught in the squeezing caress of an untamed animal—that is enough to entertain us, apparently.  The jungle beast seems not to notice our appreciation.  It blinks its black eyes and tries to wrap its tail under the man’s jugular.  Its face is impassive.  Its tail is murderous, feeling around, trying to squeeze the man to death.  The man casually pulls him loose.  Then he walks into the crowd, bringing his jungle creature touch-close.

“Don’t let that thing near me,” says Miss Elizabeth, clutching my hand and burying her face in my arm so that I can smell her milky breath.

“Makes a cottonmouth look small!” someone jokes.

“Wouldn’t want that curled up in bed with me,” someone else responds.

There is a kind of nervous shuffling.  The snake is arm-thick and when it opens its mouth, the black ribbon of its tongue unfurls.  This animal is foreign, much larger than the grass snakes that hide in the cabbages.  The man is also exotic.  His eyes are lined in black kohl.  His dark hair is slicked back, sleek as the glittering snake that clings to him.  The make-up around his eyes makes him look like he has wandered into Mississippi by way of the Spanish hill country or the jungles of India.  Under the snake, or perhaps, by comparison to the richly green animal, his clothes are shabby.  His rust-and-cream striped trousers are muddied at the hems.  His flax-colored shirt is yellowed around the neck and at the armpits.

He comes close to me.  He smells like wood, a moldy tree trunk baking in the sun.  He fixes his black eyes on me.  His flat-headed snake turns toward me too.  Two pairs of glittering eyes settle on me.  I feel my face, with its scatter of freckles, burn.  The sear spreads all the way to where my black hair is pinned behind my ears.  He reaches for my hand, turns it open, and lays the snake’s head in my upturned palm.  It opens its mouth, making a kind of clicking sound.  I can see the pink roof of its mouth.  I hold the animal’s head in my hand.  More applause.

Meanwhile, the animal’s tail inches back around the man’s neck, as if lured by the pulse there, wrapping itself like a noose.  What an untrustworthy animal; it looks you in the eyes as it kills you.  I reach up to touch the snake where it is wrapping around the man’s neck.  And the man’s hand closes over mine.  He feels at his neck, where the reptile clings to his throat.  He smacks the snake, a light tap for a naughty child.  He yanks on it, the way one loosens a scarf.  There is a brief struggle.  The snake is stubborn.  It would prefer to continue choking its owner.  But in the end, the man shrugs off the serpent, discards it into a basket with the casualness of someone putting away a heavy coat.

The snake is gone.  We clap again.  Having won our attention, the man waves his arm toward his wagon.  Inside, glass bottles are lined up, filled with amber liquid.  Objects float in the bottles, bobbing like jeweled fruits.  I strain my eyes to see what is in them.  And when my eyes adjust to the dim light of the wagon’s interior, I gasp.  The bottles are filled with snakes.  Half coiled, half erect, with their mouths open to expose their needle-fine fangs.  The creatures bob in their watery prisons, brined to death and bottled just for us.  Here is the medicine we have been waiting for, a cordial of snake blood.  Here is our miracle tonic.

The man spreads his arms wide.

“My friends,” he says.  “I’ve come to take your pain away.”

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