Dana Rodriguez for Vox

I didn’t know where the original had wound up, so I went in search of my own.

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...

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