My Kingdom for a Dead Snake

Local author Audrey Atkins talks Southern superstitions and the “Dawg Days” of summer in this excerpt from her book, "They Call Me Orange Juice."

Illustration by Carl Calderone

Dawg Days are upon us. Go on, draw that syllable out just like the heat and humidity that threatens to stretch clear to Halloween. It’s too hot to talk fast. Too hot to think fast. Too hot to do much besides indolently stand in the yard dribbling precious cool water on flowers as parched as you are.

This annual late summer conflagration, and the contemplation thereof, is some serious and Sirius business dating all the way back to ancient Rome when it was believed that the appearance of the Dog Star was a precursor to the hottest, most sultry days of summer. Back then, a brown dog would be sacrificed to appease the god in hopes that his wrath would be assuaged and the crops would not wither and die in the fields.

Now, I’d be hard-pressed to kill a dog no matter how hot it gets, but a snake is another matter entirely. According to Leroy, who helped Granny tend her vast gardens and hothouse and who was a veritable font of valuable information regarding all manner of superstition, all it takes to break the dark spell of Dawg Days is a snake. A dead one. Hung carefully over a tree branch.

Now I am unclear as to whether the species of snake matters, and there seems to be a debate about whether the snake should be hung belly up or belly down, in a tree or on a fence. But about one thing I am completely certain — this is some powerful mojo, and it works. Fast. Without fail. In fact, Leroy made it his common practice during the summer months to kill every snake he ran across and hang its carcass up in a tree. Consequently, we always had plenty of rain, but not too much, Granny’s flower beds thrived to her delight, and two little towheaded kids thought he was a mystical rainmaker capable of performing miracles.

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I warn you in advance, if you go hanging dead snakes in the far reaches of your yard — in the far reaches because you don’t want company to come and there be a big, dead rattler right by the driveway scaring your guests, not because it works better if there is a distance -— anyway, if you go hanging up dead snakes, forget where you put them, and go strolling about, you might be in for a nasty surprise. But should you decide you wish to pursue this line of defense against the most torrid, sweltering days of the year, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

Leroy guarantees it.

Born and raised in Citronelle, Audrey now lives with her husband in Birmingham where she is the Director of Community Engagement at WBHM Public Radio. A raconteur at heart, she shares her often funny and sometimes poignant stories about growing up and living in the South in her recent book, They Call Me Orange Juice, and at her blog The book is available at The Haunted Bookshop on Dauphin Street or through Amazon.

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