Minnie and the Terrapins

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The man known as Greenwood Red has tales to tell. Many of them involve his family. He says his family tree’s a single branch. He swears that one more bad Kentucky marriage and his skin would be positively transparent, which may or may not be true. Nevertheless, Greenwood Red has family tales that sound like movies or folk tales or American legends– sometimes all of the above. There are moonshine and kinfolk and Cherokee. There are gangsters and hillfolk and hootenannies. In short, Red’s stories are enthralling. There are times I find myself saying things to him, like a child: Tell me the one about…

And here, only slightly beating out the Ballad of Al Capone’s Pipe, is my favorite:

Greenwood Red’s great-grandma was full-blood Cherokee and lived in Kentucky. She was probably dragged there by her hair by some obscenely tall redhead (knowing Greenwood Red and all). There are tales of her barn; large, with a hundred beds, referred to as the “Ho-tel” (emphasis on the first syllable, please; it’s the south). There, to the “ho-tel” in the hills and the hollows came the kinfolk every blue moon or so for a hootenanny, sleeping in the bunk beds in the barn by day and dancing to bluegrass and moonshine by night.

Listen to Red tell the tale, and you smell hickory smoke; you can hear the hiss of bacon in a cast-iron pan; better still, there’s the fragrance of summer nights and cricket-song, the whirr-chirrup of cicadas in endless trees under countless stars and not a power-line in sight. And for all that, the part that lingers, the piece of the tale that gets me every single time, the bit that keeps me asking him to tell me about Minnie is this: She kept a journal (I envision old, battered leather with very thick paper. The binding is a little frayed). And in this old journal she tracked every single terrapin that crossed her neck of the woods for her entire lifetime. She knew them by their marks and she noted in that journal when the terrapins arrived and when they left. Seasons, days, and hours. A lifetime of little terrapin turtles, each individual and important enough that their tracks across her land merited not only attention but accounting for, jotted down in between hanging the wash, making the dinner, and keeping her wits as the “ho-tel” filled up and the fiddle and the moonshine got going.

If God’s eyes are on the sparrow, well, that’s probably because He knew that Minnie had the terrapins covered. When Red tells the story, it’s like she still does.

 

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