I first learned whittling at 6 years old, holding my grandpa’s beloved hunting knife with so much caution you would have thought it was a venomous snake. We’d been on the back porch of my grandparents’ home in Young Harris, Georgia, with the Blue Ridge Mountains cradling everything they could hold in every direction you looked.
He’d taught me the basics of it all, where to keep my hands in relation to the blade, the speed at which I should go, and how judiciousness should never be sacrificed to the sheer joy of seeing the wood pull away from itself in angry curls. Rather than setting me off to carve a bear or even something unimaginative like a fox, he’d simply told me to whittle the wood off of the pine branch he’d given me and that we’d take it from there.
My grandfather, a life-long raccoon pelt trader, had traded for this knife years prior. Even at that young age, I’d committed to memory that the old man was an expert knife trader. Disinterested in flashy designs with antlers for handles, he could spot reliability almost instantly and never once got cheated out of a cent. Whatever he exchanged for this knife, I knew he had not traded poorly.
At the time of his death, I was 25 years old and teaching high school English in Washington, DC. I had completed my transition from male to nonbinary. I’d not lived in Appalachia in eight years and had somewhat deliberately built a life for myself as remote as possible from how I’d grown up.
I’d been teaching when my mother called to tell me. In Appalachian Georgia, a now-defunct tradition dictated that when a person died, the church would ring the bell the number of years the person had been alive. This tradition was somber when it got up to around 20 clanging circles of iron disappearing into the sky, but if the truth were told, once you got into the 60s and 70s, it could get understandably taxing. I said nothing as I walked around my classroom watching my students busily annotate House on Mango Street, but I silently performed the reverberating arithmetic of 79 church bells spilling their bitter noises inside my head. And then some needy, rapacious sliver of my soul thought of his knife.
I’d never discussed my transition with my grandfather. He could show surprising tolerance for social progress when its ambassador was a member of his own family. However, my fear of what he might say in response to the concept of his eldest grandson blithely casting off the weight of maleness restricted that aspect of my life to secrecy. By that point, I only saw him once a year on Christmas, and, for all the untidy holiday conversations that filled my grandparents’ house, Judith Butler never once came up.
From the vantage point of the environment that had raised me, my life had been something of a disappointment. While I had been and remain an enthusiastic whittler with an excellent memory for folklore and traditions, that had been the extent of my ability to perform Appalachian masculinity. I’d been bookish and had, I realized, learned nothing from my ancestry of dirt-under-the-nails and cramped trailers except to avoid it at all costs in my adulthood.
Age and experience illuminated truths about myself that stood starkly in contrast to my surroundings. I slowly began to believe that whatever future I wanted for myself, I would not find it in north Georgia. I attempted the dissection of my life into “before” and “after” Appalachia without appreciating the messiness and complexities that such an action would require.
I left Georgia at 22 on a plane to Laguardia Airport and began teaching in the Bronx shortly after. Weekends whose vacancy might have been filled with whittling, baking, hiking, or camping on the banks of some mountain river were now filled with hours spent in the Met or meandering through basement bookstores in the Village. I got my first of two master’s degrees. I spent criminal amounts of money on funky clothes from thrift stores. I got my first boyfriend. I paid for coffee instead of brewing it because I was so perfectly pleased with my own bookishness, my own cleverness, and the self-anointed aura of mid-Atlantic sensibility that I wore like a suit of armor.
However, just below that veneer, I was incurably homesick. The attempt at breaking from home had been messy, with bits of tendon still holding tight between two worlds. I would listen to Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Wanda Jackson on repeat. I would show up to summer potlucks with a fabulous family recipe for potato salad. Whenever I did manage to visit home for a weekend, I would fly back north with my checked bag full of jars of apple butter and peach preserves wrapped in my jeans and sweaters.
One November weekend, I took a trip up the Hudson Highlands on MetroNorth specifically to walk a brief section of the Appalachian Trail, the same meandering spine of the East Coast that was visible from my grandparents’ porch in Georgia. As the wind blew through my coat too thin for the weather, I realized in a moment of clarity that both thrilled and disturbed me: If I walked long enough, this same stretch of trail would spit me out right back to where I’d started.
Through the disorienting fog of simultaneously loving and fearing a place you once called home, one thing proved unshakably orienting in the wake of my grandfather’s death: I wanted that knife with an intensity that pawed at my insides with a vicious urgency. Due to historically higher rates of poverty in Appalachia and unreliable access to morticians, people were customarily buried as close to their deaths as possible, ideally before rigor mortis could set in. Even now when embalming is more widely practiced, a flight delay could still mean missing a funeral in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As such, I had to leave that same day my grandfather died to return to Georgia in time.
For much of the drive, I chided myself for the backward step I knew I was taking by wanting the knife. I could imagine the funeral before I had lived it. It was January of 2016, and I knew I was driving into a world of goodwill bereavement sheet cakes and Donald Trump signs. Accepting the knife, I told myself, would be an act of self-betrayal, of taking something that would come to me only if one accepted that I was the eldest grandson. Male heirs got first pickings of the material lives of the departed. Agender ones got whatever no one else wanted.
Without anyone asking, I’d been assigned to be a pallbearer, joining five men to carry the casket that contained not only my grandfather but several cans of his favorite dip (Grizzle long natural cut), a Bible, and several handguns. The coffin was such a dreadfully heavy thing that it felt like it was filled with clay. This, I’d told myself, was an act of contrition, some sort of divine punishment for so anemically accepting the part of myself I’d long since abandoned and allowing my family to temporarily mold me into the thing they still remembered me to be. If the cost of the knife was carrying my grandfather’s body to the open gash of earth in his corner of the fashionable West Union Baptist Church cemetery, I would not have traded poorly.
The speed of mourning in Appalachia strikes those unfamiliar with it as callous, but that is not precisely true. Death, burial, and the division of the assets still subscribe to a combination of cultural fatalism, an aging population, and poor rural health care. In Appalachian Georgia, mortality follows a somewhat unemotional set of traditions that all tend to rely on the inertia of each other to ensure they are completed before grief becomes potent and clouds the judgment.
The things my grandfather had accumulated, such as his short-sleeve button-downs still stained with tobacco juice and an extensive collection of mouse-nibbled Louis L’Amour books, spilled forth from their containers with such abundance that everyone could have more than their fair share. His remaining handguns went to his five adult children. He’d not collected jewelry or anything else of value, so the grandchildren contented themselves politely with memories of him and several snapshots kept in a shoebox as being enough of an heirloom.
I’d assumed the bestowing of the knife would, therefore, take place privately so as not to provoke ire or the open comparison of grandchildren. Like many large families from the area, mine is as loving as it is fiercely competitive. Game nights and pick-up games of basketball had ways of working toward shouting and profanity before ending with guttural belly laughs. Perceived slights and score-settling mixed with compassion and intimacy between us to a point where the flavors became difficult to distinguish.
However, no one pulled me aside to silently place the knife in my pocket and wordlessly signal to me to put it in the car before anyone noticed. At first, I’d feared the worst, that someone had put the knife in the casket, and I’d stupidly carried it myself to its interment. For all I know, this could have been the truth. My next hypothesis was that it had gone to one of the two younger male cousins he was objectively closer to and who had hunted with him much more than I had; like my first theory, though, this had no basis in evidence.
My father, himself a middle child, seemed like the best ally when it came to a direct answer. When I returned home for Easter two months later, I asked him if he knew what became of the knife, and my father stated plainly that nobody seemed to know where it was. He was kind about it, but he clearly did not understand my urgency.
The grief I felt for the loss of it in and of itself felt absurd and regressive. I had no real use for masculine trappings like hunting knives. I could whittle just as well with a Swiss army knife that I could buy brand new if I so desired. However, as I sat with the maelstrom of loss and self-admonishment for fixating on something so trivial as an old hunting blade, the awful truth of its absence became increasingly clear. The knife was the reminder of a home I no longer wanted and one that no longer wanted me. It was the summation of my evolution from a sensitive child who wished nothing more than praise for their cleverness at scraping away the fibers of wood curl by curl until they were satisfied with what was left to what I was then: a person who had so deeply loved a place that had been a home until it wasn’t. The knife would have been a private talisman, a discreet relic I could place in a drawer when I was done with it that would constantly remind me of a life I so deeply loved and reviled at the same time.
Several months passed, and I fluctuated between feeling the increasing national dread surrounding the 2016 election and the feeling that the one heirloom I most wanted had been pulled from my hands. Unable to simply accept that for all intents and purposes the knife had died right along with my grandfather, I searched frantically on every online market and bidding site I could find for an exact replica of it, down to the fading on the handle and the parts of the case that had worn through the patina of the leather casing. I imagined the men who were selling them. Hunters? Veterans? Men who, like my grandfather, were spending their final years shedding the memories of things they could no longer do? If they knew my reasons for wanting it, would they still sell it to me?
In the end, I purchased one on eBay for $78.51 using the “buy it now” option rather than bidding for it. If my grandfather were alive, he’d have been disgusted at my poor trading, at the foolish sum of money I’d pissed away on a knife that was not even new without even attempting to lowball the seller first. He’d never have been fleeced like that, not in a million years, no matter how close to death he had been, and we both knew it.
I held the imposter knife in my hands as soon as it arrived, trying to see the greatness in the blade that my grandfather had seen in its twin. I sharpened the blade as I’d intended, staring at my distorted reflection in it as Isaac might have looked at the infant Jacob as he clasped to Esau’s heel. I sat down to whittle from a block of wood that I’d purchased at a craft store; it didn’t smell like anything. With the third stroke, I sliced neatly into the meat of my finger. As the taste of earth and copper filled my mouth from the wound I instinctively brought to my lips, I found myself more homesick than I’d ever been.
Coyote Shook is a cartoonist and disability studies scholar living in Austin, Texas.