by Michael Gosack
It is cool and quiet under the gnarled pines around the cabin. The silence is watchful, as if hateful eyes lie in wait in every shadow and behind every tree. Something like a dead fish stench hangs in the air here. Heads of rusted nails protrude from the trees, and the posts and frame of the porch. According to the reports that I have managed to uncover, this is a result of the Rattlesnake Doctor’s foul prayers.
His was the Black Work. No one knew where he’d been raised. No one knew of any sure kin, though a few lost souls came forward after his death claiming to be his bastards. Trick babies to a one, they shared his legendary hatchet face, fiery dark eyes, and straight black Indian hair.
Twenty miles east inland from the Lake Michigan coastline and the county seat, well into timber country, just outside a whistle-stop town populated largely by rough men and their loose women, there arose the not-infrequent need for incorporeal revenge. To get him to do a job, all you had to bring him was a bottle of whiskey. All ten of my sources agreed on this detail.
The single mother in the tar-paper basement shack had the most information to offer. Her mother had brought him a bottle in exchange for the death of her own stepfather, for crimes which remain shrouded in the oblivion of history. They walked together through the trees, as was apparently his custom, him sniffing the air like an animal until he found a snake nest. He broke a rod from the lower trunk of a lone old red pine and tormented the serpent until, rattling with fury, it struck out at his riding boots. A flick of his buck knife severed the reptile’s spine, and he plucked up a thing alive, in agony, and harmless.
On his table, in the single room cabin reeking of drink, the Rattlesnake Doctor slit open the snake’s belly and shoved inside of it was the name of the stepfather written nine times on a page torn from the Book of Revelation, along with some hair stolen from the cursed one’s genitals. With muttered prayers in some unknown tongue, the Rattlesnake Doctor stitched up the serpent with black thread and nailed the snake to a tree through the neck. As it rotted, the single mother’s stepfather sickened, going into a terrible fever in which he vomited and shat a black purge fluid that stank like a dead reptile. He screamed throughout the night, hideous cries about poison and ghosts, and things that dwelt in the trees, until, after seven days and seven nights, he lay wasted and dead.
An interview at the local nursing home with one Mister Seppanen, formerly a sheriff’s deputy, revealed more of the Rattlesnake Doctor’s character. Of Finnish blood, the deputy had been raised on witch stories going all the way back to the land of the midnight sun, though the community had been tamed by the doctrines of Lutheranism and had abandoned the reputation of readiness to resort to either knives or sorcery to settle dispute. Still, there remained a healthy respect for the black arts in his generation. He’d removed the Rattlesnake Doctor from the back room of an Ottawa roadhouse, the girl the Doctor had assaulted all stained with tears and blood. She refused to press charges and would only mutter medicine prayers in response to questioning.
Nothing remains of that roadhouse now. It was built on wooden foundations, and the Ottawa’s land has all been piece-mealed away by trickery and squattage. And no one ever agreed to testify against the Rattlesnake Doctor. He silenced all witnesses with a glare from his black eyes. Former Deputy Seppanen shuddered to imagine it, sixty years hence, from the safety of his wheelchair.
What crimes gave the Rattlesnake Doctor authority over death? A country and western song, which had enjoyed brief notoriety a few decades ago, mentions the Rattlesnake Doctor and his crimes. Though there was only one pressing of the album, I was able to listen to this rare piece of vinyl due to the generosity of the county seat’s own AM radio station. Entitled “the Rattlesnake Doctor’s Hand” for its main hit, it added relatively little to the information I have gathered here, save for the claim that his mother was a full-blooded Cherokee and his father was a dark Spaniard.
We pass now from direct sources to folklore, and thus the veracity of this claim can be neither confirmed nor denied. But the song explicitly discusses his powers of malice, identifying his as a “killing hand,” its potency lost if his heart ever flushed with kindness, or love, or mercy. Regrettably, the artist in question was crushed shortly thereafter while working at his regular employment on the county seat’s train yards, when a freight car became uncoupled during a switching move, causing the train to derail and roll forward, striking him dead. As yet, I have not been able to locate any members of the family to interview and must assume that they, like so many others, left the area looking for work.
One source asserts that the Rattlesnake Doctor drained his captive reptiles of blood, which he kept in small bottles hung by rope deep enough down his well so as to preserve them from decay in the cool of the earth. A drop of this cursed blood, secreted in a man’s drink, could infect their bodies with a plague of serpents. Some lay the death of the unfaithful young wife of the owner of a local sawmill, which culminated in her vomiting a clutch of freshly-hatched serpents in a black mess of blood and rot, squarely at his feet. Other alleged murders occurred by even more surreptitious means. When one of his maledictions dried into a mummiform length of bones and hide, he allegedly crumbled the remains, mixed them with shavings of bullet lead, belladonna, and dirt bought from the graves of murderers.
Such a potent killing powder, blown through the bars of the county jail, cast down an unnamed traveling gambler, held imprisoned to save him from the wrath of those half-starved men who’d caught him gaming with lead-loaded dice. He never awoke from the fever, save to scream obscenities at the chimeras he described assaulting him from every corner of his cell.
I can picture it as clearly as if I stood before it in his time, my own bottle of whiskey in my hands, a hateful name written nine times on my lips. In my sleep, I have walked the long path through the miles of cullwood from the whistle-stop town, a cluster of buildings along the railroad tracks, mud and water puddling its filthy streets. In my mind’s eye, the whole cabin hangs with nailed serpents, each one with maledictions stitched inside its rotting hide. Each jack pine slithers with the poisoned shade of a cursed soul, watching you with slitted eyes, dripping death from spectral fangs.
How did he sleep at night, with the pine needles rustling against the dry scales of hungry ghosts? The answer is clear–he drank himself into nightly torpor, to drown out the endless rattles of his victims. When he woke up and drug himself into the sunlight to wash his face in the well, did he listen for the sound of reptiles in the leaves?
Originally hailing from rural Northern Michigan, Michael Gosack lives and writes in New Orleans.