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Beside Still Waters

I have recently completed the first revision of my novel, Beside Still Waters. Here are the first two chapters. More will follow. If there is interest!

WINTER, FALLOW

1 – IT HAD BEEN WINTER THEN TOO

The rays of the weak winter sun, diffused by high thin clouds, flooded the kitchen with pale, white light. The old man’s hands rested on the checkered tablecloth that covered the kitchen table, big hands, weathered, curled in repose.
It was warm and quiet in the kitchen. The only sounds were the susurration of gas vaporizing in the heater, tiny tongues of blue flame heating the waffle pattern of the ceramic bricks cherry red; that and the soft, domestic clattering of his wife at the stove. A one-pound coffee can half-filled with water sat steaming on the fender of the heater, releasing moisture into the stove-heated, dry air.
From time to time the northwest wind, sweeping unhindered down from the Great Plains and across the Mississippi Delta, would whip another gust against the house with enough strength to rattle the windows. But inside it was warm and protected and redolent with warmed-over leftovers.
The old man told a story which was at one moment rich in vivid, life-giving detail, draping flesh to bone, then opaque, lost in a frustrating paucity of telling features, like an old man’s memory, which it was, dredged up from over a lifetime ago, memories long buried, subsumed, as a long-suppressed shame, which in part it was, but recounted now with a firm conviction that the years of silent, unshared retrospection had imparted, obliterating any uncertainty or equivocation of thought, will, or intent that might have existed at the time.
He shifted his gaze from the boy across the table and stared absently out the window across the ocher stubble of the pasture and field to the gray smudge of the distant forest, a diminished remnant of what it had been when he had first come here, still rich in thick stands of oak, wild brakes, sloughs and bayous, small game and deer, gray and red fox, too. But it was only a shade of its former self, too little left to sustain the bear and panther which were hunted out long ago as the shadowed world they roamed was remorselessly reduced by axe and plow and given over to pasture and field, the woods still wild but no longer primeval, subdued now, diminished if not tamed.
His wife, almost as old as he, adjusted the heat on the stove as she warmed their supper and listened with belying inattention. She knew some of the story but not all. She never had. They were of a time and place, another world really, where the orbits of men and women, the things they shared and discussed, even if married to each other, overlapped far less than in these days.
But it was more than that, much more. There were things he talked about with men, men who shared the same goals, desires, and hopes: bank shares and loans, cotton prices and gin rates and yields per acre, things he would never have even thought to share with her. Just as he would never have presumed to interfere with how she managed their home and household expenses or raised their children.
But it was even more than that. There had been men he could not understand with motives he could not fathom and threats he could not ignore, things that he wanted desperately to shield her from.
But even that was not the whole of it. He had never shared with his wife, the mother of all his many children, the only woman he had ever loved, all that he had risked, all that he had dared, the part of him that he had sacrificed during that first year of their marriage.
The house in which they now lived was larger than that other one but still wood-framed, still simple, still painted white although green striped fabric awnings stretched over metal frames shielded the windows from the remorseless Delta summer sun. That other house, long gone now, had been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces, cooking done in a wood-burning stove. Now gas appliances made all of that easier, although he was not convinced it was better, only easier, but there was something to be said for that.
It had been winter then too, when it had all started, not deep winter with the ground frozen iron-hard and brittle branches rattling in the northwest wind like the sound their antlers make during the tentative jousting of bucks in rut, but that last gasp of winter when one senses that spring is just holding its breath waiting for the right moment to exhale.
The old man paused and without conscious thought ran the blunt fingertips of his left hand along the scar on his left temple just above the templepiece of his wire-rimmed glasses. The scar was as wide and long as his forefinger, not deep, not even puckered, faint, lighter than his sun-browned face, almost white. His big hand drifted down his cheek and across his mouth, then dropped back to the kitchen table.
“This all happened a long time ago, 1905, to be exact. Your grandmother and I had only been married about a year,” the old man spoke slowly, softly.
He hesitated and looked at the boy across the table not sure exactly why he felt compelled, after all these years, to tell the story or why he chose to tell it now, to this boy, one of their many grandchildren. Was it because the boy had spent so much time with them, had followed him all over the Place until he knew every inch of the farm and woods as well as the old man did, had listened enthralled to so many old stories?
His decision made, the old man continued, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have to now. Son, old age doesn’t just take your strength, it takes your memories too. Almost everyone else is gone now. All but one, and she doesn’t know the entire story, no more than I do. When the two of us are gone it will be lost.”
The old man hung his head. “And I don’t want the story lost,” he said, even as he thought, too much had happened, things that had shaped him and consequently his entire family, even this smooth-faced, eager boy across that table from him.
He raised his dark eyes and looked into the boy’s face, unlined, innocent, trusting, on the verge of manhood, just a few years younger than he had been when it had all started. The old man paused. Could he have been that young, that innocent then? No, not quite so much. After all, he already had a family at that time and responsibility for a farm, the farm which he now owned and on which he still lived.
“I wadn’t much older than you when I first came to New Bethel,” the old man sighed. “But I already had a couple of crops behind me when it happened.”

2 – THE FADING OF THE DAY

With a gentle pull on the reins and a light touch of the brake, the man eased the creaking wagon to a halt in the middle of the bridge. The mules stood patiently in the weak, late winter sun, their hindquarter muscles twitching in that peculiarly equine manner to the perceived presence of imaginary flies. The only sound was the soft rattle of trace chains and the occasional hollow thump of a hoof against the sun-bleached planks of the bridge when one of the mules shifted its weight.
The man draped the reins across his thigh, stretched his back, and lifted the brown hat from his head to run his fingers through his short, dark hair. Settling his hat back on his head, he re-gathered the reins, but instead of calling up the team, he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and let his eyes drift over the edge of the rail-less bridge to the still, brown water of Flautt Bayou far below. The low-angled rays of the sun filtered through the trunks of the cypress trees rising from the murky water in fluted columns like ancient architecture, casting alternating bands of light and dark across the water, sun and shadow.
The man pulled his makings from his coat pocket, folded the paper into a little trough which he filled with tobacco from his pouch, and rolled a cigarette. He struck a match on a bolthead of the wagon’s seat, lit his smoke, and again stared at the water.
The sluggish water was brown, but not really muddy. It was so still that one had to take it on faith that the water in the bayou even moved at all, except after a heavy rain. Rather, silt and untold number of decaying leaves and other vegetation had released tannins giving it that distinctive flat, almost milky, brown color, like cloudy tea. The occasional bubble broke the otherwise surface, gas released by rot and decay in the murky depths. The man knew all these things without even thinking, knew it as one understands and internalizes his world.
Even seated on the wagon, it was obvious that the driver was a tall man. His attire was as dull and monochromatic as the surrounding countryside: hat, jacket, tie, trousers and boots, everything was some shade of gray or brown. Only his stark white shirt relieved the monotony.
He shifted on the hard wooden seat and stared at his wrists protruding from his coat and wondered why it was so hard to find a coat that fit his frame and had sleeves long enough to cover the wrists on his inordinately long arms. One of the mules shook its head. The abrupt movement was transmitted up the reins and brought the man out of his reverie. The day was fading, more cold already seeping into the chill, late winter air. He had just enough time to make his last delivery.
The fruit trees, their root balls wrapped in heavy burlap, had been delivered to the train depot in New Bethel from Stark Brothers Nurseries on Monday. The rest of the week he had been at the depot by dawn to rewet the burlap, load the wagon and make his rounds, delivering the trees that local farmers had ordered months ago. Many of the farmers ordered and planted in the fall, but some preferred the spring. The Mississippi Delta’s long growing season and relatively mild winters allowed for success either way.
As a representative for Stark Brothers, it seemed that between selling and delivering trees that he had met nearly everyone in Okaloosa County in the few short years he had lived north of New Bethel. But the time away from the land he farmed meant that fewer chores had been accomplished, although the extra money was welcome. Any money that he didn’t have to borrow to make his crop was money he wouldn’t have to worry about repaying.
After one last draw on his cigarette, the man rolled the last shreds of tobacco and flimsy paper between his fingers. The remnants cascaded from his fingers only to be lifted away by the winter breeze, as ephemeral as the smoke that drifted from his nostrils. He flicked the reins and the mules eased back into their plodding gait, pulling the wagon off the bridge with a clatter and into the ruts in the hard-packed dirt road. The Gentry place was not far, but it would be dark by the time he made it home. It was his last delivery and Mattie would have supper waiting, maybe squirrel stew, one of his favorites.
He hated being away so much this week and not just because of the untended chores. The baby was due soon, their first, and the strain on the once slender wisp of his young wife was obvious. Not that she ever complained. In fact, the patience and serenity that was so inherent in her character, if anything, seemed to be enhanced by the mere idea of the new life growing within her.
The road stretched away through gray, fallow fields, stubble from last season’s cotton was barely visible, having been cut and plowed under after last season’s harvest leaving softly rounded furrows after the winter rains. Soon turning plows and middle-busters would be digging deep beneath the dry surface to reveal the moist, black earth below where the moisture from those winter rains and snow was stored. Jake knew from experience that the Delta got more rain in the winter than in the summer, his rain gauge and records didn’t lie, but it sure didn’t seem that way.
Maybe it was because he was indoors a little more in the winter, or maybe it was because in the summer he was always concerned about whether he was getting too much or too little rain. Too much early rain could flood the fields and drown the crop; too much rain later could mean that he wouldn’t be able to plow the rows to kill the weeds that would sap the moisture and nutrients and choke his crop, compelling him to the alternative of sending the hands into the fields for the exhausting, back-breaking work of chopping the weeds out with hoes. Too little rain at any time could stunt the crop, and if it was dry for too long it could burn the cotton up in the fields. A lot could go wrong, either way, during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons.
No, he thought, winter was somewhat of a respite for farmers. Not from work, there was always plenty to do, but it gave them the opportunity to think of weather in the abstract rather than the particular. In many ways it was a hard life and a challenging one, the only life he had ever known. It was such a part of him, so deeply planted, that he never even thought in terms of whether he actually cared for it or rather he would rather do something else.
Making a crop was what he did, how he provided for himself and his family, but it was more than that, too. There was a deep satisfaction that he felt but hardly ever articulated, even to himself, but it was there nevertheless: the relentless, renewing wonder of growing things; empty, desolate fields erupting with life; then tended, cared for through growth, blossom, maturity, and harvest; ever new and ever beautiful, but in its own way a violent struggle, the struggle for life anew.
A wagon wheel dropped into a rut with a jarring thud, jerking the man from his contemplation. The fields on either side of the road were giving way to the scattered frame houses of farmhands on the Gentry place. Twisted tendrils of woodsmoke curled upward from brick chimneys into the still air before slowly dissipating among the bare limbs of black-trunked trees spreading above shacks of weathered boards huddled desolately along the road.
As the road curved, the man could just make out Mister Gentry’s Commissary through the oak saplings, saplings he had delivered here only a couple of years ago, his first season in Okaloosa County.
A sharp crack almost like a pistol shot shattered the winter stillness. The man jerked his head around toward the nearest house to see two men, bodies clutched together in a frantic, clawing embrace, hurdle off the porch and land with a dull thud on the hard ground.
The man hesitated, realizing he had only heard the door of the hovel slam open against the wall. It looked like it was barely hanging from its hinges. He stared at the motionless bodies amid the softly settling dust. Slowly the more slender man, the one on top rolled to the side and up onto his knees, his mouth bleeding, a smear of blood on the front of his patched and stained overalls.
The man hauled back on the reins and flipped them around the brake pole and leapt from the wagon before it even stopped rolling. Charging across the yard toward the two men, he came to a halt and gaped at the body of the larger man lying face-up on the ground. Thick, dark blood, nearly black in the fading light, oozed around the blade of a small hunting knife which jutted from his chest and was already soaking into the man’s clothing. The man recognized the body still sprawled out on the ground. It was one of Gentry’s hands, Rad Timmons.
The man’s mouth tightened into a grim line as he stared at the kneeling man. “What happened here? You hurt?”
The smaller man gradually became aware of his presence and pulled his stunned, anguished face up from staring at his cupped, bloody hands. Tears pooled at the edges of his eyes and made moist tracks down his dusty cheeks. It was not a man. It was only a boy, Rad Timmons’ oldest son, Henry.
A flat, hesitant voice answered, “I – I don’t know, Sir. It’s hard to say just what happened. Is he dead?”
The man squatted by the body carefully avoiding the spreading puddle of lifeblood, already beginning to soak into the packed dust, and kneaded the still-warm flesh of Timmons’ neck, searching for the pulse he never found. The sweet-sick miasma of cheap liquor hovered around the dead man’s face. The man grimaced, swallowed the bile rising in his throat, looked sideways from under the brim of his hat.
“He certainly is, Son. How about you? You hurt?” he asked for the second time.
The boy, his blood- and sweat-soaked overalls and shirt plastered to his chest, rose slowly, unsteadily to his feet. Tall for his age, he looked no more than 15, and rail thin to boot. He was so thin and dazed that he looked insubstantial, as if he might disappear in bright sun or be completely dissipated by a strong wind.
No, Sir.” The boy’s voice was flat. “Only from being hit.”
The man stood too. “Wanna tell me what happened?” He prayed it was an accident.
“He come home drunk again. H–he kept hitting Momma. He wouldn’t stop. I tried to make him stop. You know how he could git.”
The man really did not really know that much first hand but had some idea based on his few experiences with Rad Timmons, what he knew about some of the company Rad kept, and certain things that he had heard, some of which he believed.
“Go on.”
“That’s when he started hitting me. I hit him back, the first time I ever did that.” The boy sighed. “That’s when he went crazy-like. He kept hitting me, harder and harder. The next thing I knew he had a knife. Everything else is just a jumble ‘til we landed in the yard. Did I really kill him?”
“I’m afraid so. Let’s get him covered up. Where’s your momma?”
He looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway, simultaneously tugging at her torn dress and apron while trying to push stands of her disheveled hair back under the faded rag tied around her head. Her thin, almost gaunt, face already livid red where her husband had struck her, could not hide the stunned expression on her face nor the deep lines that life had carved there.
“He’s daid, ain’t he, Mister Jake?” Her gaze was steady but the question caught in her throat.
“Yes, Vertie, I’m afraid he is. Are you hurt?” Jake felt curiously uncomfortable looking at her, kept involuntarily averting his eyes. He had never seen a woman who had been beaten.
She sagged against the doorframe and a sob wracked her shoulders, whether from the death of her husband or the fact that her son was responsible Jake could not tell. Both facts had distinct and profound dimensions that the new widow would be forced to plumb, if not articulate, after the shock wore off, but not now. Now they were just part of the enormity of a single act.
“I’ll be alright,” Vertie replied, gingerly drying her battered face with a corner of her apron. “Besides, a coupla bruises ain’t my biggest worry right now.”
As uneasy as he was looking at her, Jake could sense the weight that was beginning to settle on the woman, inevitable and crushing. She looked like she might collapse at any moment.
Jake started toward the porch, but the boy leaped up ahead of him, gently placing his arm around her shoulders for support, taking care to keep his blood-smeared hands and clothes from brushing her. Jake watched as the boy’s dirty, tear-stained face softened as he comforted his mother. Not the first time, I’ll bet, thought Jake.
The boy looked down into his mother’s upturned face. “Don’t worry, Ma. Everything’ll be alright,” he whispered.
Brave young man, Jake thought, especially considered what just happened. I hope he is right.
The distant, happy, unaffected chatter of children drifted over the fields in the crisp air and brought Jake’s attention back to the task at hand. “Where are the other children?” he asked.
“Down by the slough, playing,” Vertie answered.
“They weren’t here for any of it?’
“No, thank heaven,” she sighed.
“Probably for the best. Mister Gentry up at the house?” Jake wasn’t sure if the Gentrys had returned from their trip.
“No, he and the family’s been visiting kinfolk for the last coupla days. Should be back later tonight.”
“Sounds like him. Wouldn’t dream of traveling on Sunday or even being away from home, would he?”
“I reckon not.”
Jake thought for a minute. “If you’ve got something to cover him with, I’ll unload these trees over at the Commissary and bring the wagon back so we can load the body and take it into town. I expect I had better take the boy along with me.”
“No, no,” she pleaded, clutching her son more tightly to her. “Please don’t, Mister Jake. Henry’s only a boy.”
“I know that, Vertie,” Jake said, staring at the boy, “and I know how much you depend on him, but a man is dead. The sheriff has to be told, and he’ll want to talk to him. But first I ought to get this body to town. Doc Tate ought to have a look at you, too.”
Gathering herself together, she pled, “Oh, no, no, I cain’t go into town looking like this. Folks think poorly enough of us as it is. I’ll be alright. Besides, I got the kids to gather in and feed.”
“Well, alright then, but let’s get this cleaned up. Don’t call the children up ‘til we are gone,” Jake said with finality and turned toward the wagon.

It was less than a quarter-mile to Gentry’s Commissary, a large, low building with a wide, deep porch that ran all across the front and halfway down both sides. As Jake suspected there was no light within. The Commissary would be locked. A black and tan hound resolved itself from the dusty gloom of the crawlspace as the wagon rattled up to the porch. The dog stretched, head low and hindquarters high, then clambered up the steps onto the porch, waiting expectantly to be petted.
Jake pulled the wagon right up to the edge of the porch for ease of unloading and stepped right onto the porch. The old dog ambled over and Jake scratched him behind the ears.
“Hey there, Old Fella,” Jake said into the deep brown eyes.
The hound closed his eyes in apparent bliss. When Jake withdrew his hand, the old hound moved aside, walked in a circle, and settled on the well-trod planks and dropped his chin to his extended front paws as he watched Jake unload the trees.
Jake lined the trees up neatly along the south wall to provide them warmth from the morning sun. He considered going to the wellhouse for a bucket of water to rewet the root balls, but decided against it. Too much to do, and the trees would keep until tomorrow when one of Gentry’s hands noticed them.
Jake reached down to pet the old hound one last time before settling back into the wagon seat and turning back toward the Timmons’ house.
By the time Jake got back from unloading the trees at Gentry’s Commissary, the last of the sun’s rays were brushing the distant treetops, burnishing them all golden even as their lower limbs and trunks were dissolving into gray.
Jake knew that Mattie would soon begin to worry a little, not much, but a little. She knew as well as he that a mule could pull up lame or a wagon wheel might cause a problem. Life had its uncertainties, as Jake knew now more surely than ever before. There was just not much he could do about it at the moment.
Vertie Timmons had cleaned her face, straightened her hair, and changed into a clean, though shabbier, dress than the torn one she had removed. She had also found a faded but clean piece of blanket to cover Rad’s body, the outline of a man’s body distinct despite the sickening way the handle of the knife held the blanket clear of the chest. Like a teepee, Jake thought.
Henry had changed his overalls and washed up. The boy’s hair was still damp. In his ragged coat, he stood beside his mother on the porch, his arm again around her shoulder.
“Time to go, Son,” Jake called softly.
What a grim job, Jake thought, having to load up your own father’s body, especially when it’s you that’s killed him. It was going to be a long ride into New Bethel.
Henry embraced his mother and reassured her again before stepping down from the porch to help Jake. They loaded the limp, sagging, unwieldy body into the wagon bed. There was nothing left but a small pool of drying blood. With the toe of his boot Jake kicked some dust over it, but though obscured, the stain remained.
Jake looked up. Vertie was coming from the porch with a sloshing pail of water.
“Leave it, Mister Jake. I’ll dash some water over it,” she said with finality and a sense of resignation.

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The Mississippi Delta

I have just finished reading Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, and yes, the title is perfect because not only is there a Pluto, MS, but the Mississippi Delta in many ways might as well be another planet. Or former planet. Or dwarf planet. Or whatever.

Regardless, Mr. Grant’s book about a British travel/adventure writer and his then girlfriend who move to the Delta on a whim, grabbed me by the throat. Having been born in Greenwood and having spent an inordinate amount of time on my grandparents’ place two-and-a-half miles north of Brazil and generally roaming around the Delta visiting my 32 aunts and uncles and numberless cousins, the book was somewhat of a travelogue of my youth.

But more than just a travelogue of places,  more importantly it was a travelogue of the cultural, social, and racial geography of a place like no other. A place that one never quite gets out of their system no matter how many years pass or how far away they roam. I have not lived there in 54 years and presently reside in North Carolina, but I will always be a son of the Delta.

A place of friendly and open-handed people of all races, of wealth and soul-crushing poverty, of strangely institutionalized racism where people mostly get along with each other, the Delta makes me laugh until tears roll down my face, renews my faith in humanity, and breaks my heart again and again. Often all at the same time. And this is the part that Mr. Grant gets absolutely right, not just the dichotomies of the place and its peoples, but the polychotomies, if you will. People of the Delta cannot only hold two opposing views simultaneously but often several. With very little effort. That is just the way we are. That is just the Delta.

And this too is the Delta. I recently connected with a childhood friend that I have not seen or had any contact with since the third grade. He too has wandered far from the Delta, all the way to the west coast but has returned to land farmed by his great-grandfather. We have had a high old time catching up online, but that is nothing compared to the time we will have on my next trip to the Delta. We will travel some backroads, both actual and metaphorical, and continue to try to make sense of this place we still call home.

In the meantime, I suggest that if you get the time, correction, I suggest that you make the time, to purchase and read Dispatches from Pluto.

 

 

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Filed under Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant

Autumn Musings

It is a glorious November morning, cool, with a crisp bite to the air. Crimson and vermilion and gold leaves etched against a cerulean sky flutter like tattered flags from bare, black branches.

The harvest is in. Fields that held corn and soybeans and cotton are now but corrugated rows of gray and ocher stubble. The last vegetables have been gathered from neat garden rows and are being put up for winter.

The far line of woods is a gray smudge, the bare trunks indistinct in the distance but known for what they are: tall, silent sentinels rising from a carpet of autumn’s reminder of summer’s riotous growth.

Wasp and dirt dauber nests cluster under the eaves, abandoned, the drones and workers dead, starved, willingly sacrificed to the survival of the colony, the newly impregnated queens underground, dormant until spring.

Spring and rebirth are only a promise held in abeyance through the long winter, taken on faith as the rising of the sun.  Is it that promise that brings beauty to this annual death? Or is it some deep, unvoiced appreciation of the bounty gathered in? Or is it the wonder of the thing itself, accepted for its contrasts, cool air and warming sun, bare oak trees and luxuriously verdant cedars, crunchy leaves and soft grass?

I hope it is for the thing itself, but I know that buried in the back of my mind, subsumed, dormant like the wasp queen, is the kernel of knowledge that the annual violent eruption of life will roll around, a kernel which will sprout and bloom come springtime.

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Uncle Bill

Maybe it is because I am a Mississippian, born in the Delta, raised in the Hills, but I have been a devotee of William Faulkner’s writing from the first time I opened one of his novels when i was 15 years old. I was captivated by his concatenation of adjectives, precise and descriptive; his often elliptical way of telling his story, each cycle offeing more illumination; his rich, fully-fleshed characters; his ear for regional speech patterns reflected in his wonderful dialogue; and his subtle yet wicked sense of humor.

I call him Uncle Bill when talking to myself, not because of any blood kinship, but because, in so many ways, it seems that any of us who attempt to tell stories about the South in general or Mississippi in particular, are beholding to him, like a favorite uncle whose influence is neither gentle or harsh but always profound, always there in the background.

Attend any writing seminar or fiction writing class, and you will be bombarded by the mantras of start with a bang, set the hook early, avoid adjectives, and only use one modifier at a time, all of which were rules that Faulkner broke regularly and relentlessly. A novel is not a pop song or a Tweet or a text to be quickly consumed and discarded. It is, if it is a good novel, filled with the complexities of emotion and motive, action and consequence, accomplishment and loss, that make up life, things that take time and effort to plumb, assimilate, and appreciate. That is why we go back again and again to great novels, to savor them and gain a deeper awareness of the beauty of life.

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