Thanksgiving Tale: 'A Fountain Of Snake'

In an annual tradition, writer Bailey White spins a fictional tale of love and life. This year's entry is about a woman dying of cancer who is attended to by a series of old boyfriends, each of whom contributes some sort of minor service. The story ends with a symbolic event at an old hollow tree in the woods, where a coiled snake meets a violent end.

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ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Ari Shapiro.

Now, a decades-old tradition here on the program, our Annual Thanksgiving Story from writer Bailey White. Often, her stories are about love and the things in life we're thankful for. But this year's story comes from a darker place. It's called "A Fountain of Snake."

BAILEY WHITE: Dying brings out the best in people. That's what Louise found when she got sick - cancer, a bad kind. Maybe a year, the doctor said. Then all the old paramours from Louise's whole life started showing up, one after another, to do what they could to help. Louise had never taken a narrow view and an extensive range of abilities and skills was represented by these men. While she was recovering from the debaulking surgery, a carpenter patched the porch floor and put in a grab bar by the bathtub.

This was Thomas from junior high school, who had begun his life of woodworking by carving his and Louise's initials on the dock at Reed Pond with a Case knife. Louise made a pot of coffee and Thomas sat at the kitchen table staring into his cup. Louise, Louise, he said.

Stop that Thomas, said Louise, and poured more coffee.

When her chemotherapy began that she was feeling wan and addled, Harold came by to see her. And they reminisced about those months in 1970 when they had a plan that they would live in a cave, and they burrowed into the side of a hill with a pick and shovel. Imagine being that strong, Louise said. She remembered herself wearing a skirt with elephants parading around the hem, hauling out buckets of dirt.

Harold was just a born digger. He had grown up to be a bulldozer operator. And on this April day, he sat down in her kitchen with his long, sad face smelling like fresh dirt and sassafras roots. Louise, he said, I just dug a pond for Mr. Macklemore out at Wacissa(ph). It's got a nice clay seam, will always hold water. And I pushed up the nicest little island. Mr. Macklemore has planted black gum and red maple trees, and it's got those beautiful long leaf woods up on the hill behind it.

It's going to be the prettiest place. Louise, you know Princess Diana was buried on an island. And when the time comes, I'll take you out there and bury you on that pretty, little island. Tears began to roll down his gritty cheeks. Because you'll always be a princess to me, Louise, he said.

Louise was wearing a fuzzy black chemo cap with loose multicolored threads poking out in all directions. And she looked more like a sea urchin than like Princess Diana, but she took it graciously. Thank you, Harold, she said, and poured coffee. He just wants to dig another hole, said Louise to her lawyer - another old admirer. It was one of her good days and she'd gone to see about her will.

Don't let Harold bear you out there, Louise, he said. There are all kinds of rules and regulations about it.

They went over the will item by item and he never sent her a bill. He gave her a little kiss and a sack of golden Hurricane Lily bulbs. He had thoughtfully chosen all big, double nosed bulbs, she noticed, knowing she might not could wait for the smaller ones to reach blooming size. Louise hardly had the strength to put her foot on the shovel but she managed to plant the bulbs outside the kitchen window.

In late August, Arthur from her cooking school days showed up with a bushel of scuppernong grapes and a shiny enameled steel contraption in the back of his truck. Arthur was a vegan philosopher cook and he believed that certain foods have almost magical powers. He ground his own heirloom wheat berries into flour and dried all his kumquat rinds in a big dehydrator.

This year, we're going to get to twine, he said. We're going to capture it and preserve it - never been done before. The twine will restore you, Louise. I'm sure of it.

For years, Arthur had tried and failed to preserve the famous twine; the defining, yet indescribable flavor of scuppernong grapes. The twine is an extremely restricted phenomenon, never tasted north of the Mason-Dixon Line or past the month of October. No matter what you did in the way of canning and bottling, by December, the elusive and ephemeral twine would have dissipated, leaving nothing but pink juice tasting faintly of sugar.

This is a sap kettle from Weck, the finest cooking equipment on Earth, said Arthur. And he began rearranging Louise's kitchen. He shoved the coffee pot under the sink and set up an induction hotplate and a steam juice extractor. Soon, the whole house smelled like scuppernong grapes. And that night, Louise fell into an exhausted sleep to the little clicks and snaps of the dozens of bottles of grape juice sealing themselves as they cooled.

Louise's chemotherapy ended in October. And by November, a little fuzz appeared on her head. The CA 125 test showed no evidence of disease - what the doctors used to call remission, N-E-D, NED. NED seemed like a mild-mannered, pleasant young man come to stay for a while; a cheery, comfortable presence about the house. Louise could feel her strength coming back. She could work a little in her garden.

Dutifully, she opened a new jar of Arthur's scuppernong juice every week and drank a little glassful every day, checking for the twine. By December, in spite of the fine German cooking equipment, it was gone. She hated to break the news to Arthur.

In the new year, Louise formed the habit before falling asleep of lying very still in her warm bed and making her mind creep into every part of her body. She closed her eyes and thought about her liver, her lungs. She imagined the little hollow places where her ovaries had been in her filmy omentum. A night would come, she knew, when she would feel something a little different - a twinge, a stirring, a presence that would mean NED was gone. Had packed up his little cloth bag and caught the next train north.

Who will help me then, she wondered. All these kind people, everyone doing for me the things they're good at. But no one is good at dying. There's no opportunity to practice.

On a really cold day in February, Thomas came with his chainsaw. And he and Louise went out in the woods to cut up the Dogwood trees that had died in the three-year drought. Thomas cut it into firewood and Louise stacked up in the truck, enjoying her new strength. They were working in a pretty place in the woods; a little open hardwood patch - hickories and twisted oaks with the road curving gracefully into the distance.

All the leaves were down and the low sunlight lit up the glowing heads of the grasses all through the gray and tan woods. Thomas had cut the limbs off the tree, leaving the truck still standing. And now he was cutting sections off the hollow trunk.

In one instance, something happened so unexpected, so amazing, so quick and so spectacular that even when Louise thought about it over and over in the weeks after, the memory never came without a gasp of wonder.

Into the gray and tan of the winter woods came an explosion out of the hollow tree. A fountain of bright red and shimmering white shot into the sky and rained down all over them - plunk, plunk, plunk. Thomas put his chainsaw on the ground and sat down beside it. Louise stood with her hands over her ears and her mouth wide open.

WHITE: A huge white oak snake had coiled itself around and around in the hollow of the Dogwood tree away from the cold. And Thomas, with his chainsaw, had cut through all its coils. The hollowed trunk of the tree had acted like the barrel of a canon and the pieces of white snake and red blood had shot out of it. Had such a thing ever happened before, asked Louise. What are the chances, asked Thomas. They wandered around in a daze, staring at the ground and poking at little pieces of snake where they had rained down.

Somehow that incident in the winter woods became a comfort to Louise in the next months. She gave up her creepy nightly monitoring of her internal organs. And all through that winter and into the spring, she snuggled under her down quilt before falling asleep and pictured it over and over in her mind, the flash of red and white in the silvery woods, a fountain of snake.

SHAPIRO: Bailey White lives in southern Georgia.

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