A River Goes With Heaven
BY HOWELL VINES
FOR more than three years I have thought endlessly of a golden North Alabama summer. I cannot get over that season that is now gone, the cabin I lived in on the Warrior River twenty-five miles from Birmingham, the woods, the roads pictured over a variegated landscape, two rivers, my grandfather, and a girl named Halma.
If anything will bring tears to my eyes it is the thought of the past. The past is close kin to pain, and it is near to happiness. For four months I gadded about with my enthusiastic soul, doing what was best for it. These things I write down, harnessing up the unbacked horses of my brain. And in doing this I can best relive those surpassing hours, that summer half spent with Halma, that season like a wildflower hunt.
Not farther from my cabin than a man can throw a stone lived my youngest uncle, though I lived in the woods and in the dark alone when I was in the hut. A young man still, he runs a fishing camp on inherited land, has a wife good to look at, and a growing boy. When his carpenter, a plug of a man, had finished my cabin, this fine young riverman said to me, ‘That cabin would be mighty fine for two.’
There’s not a person among those who knew me well in my home communities but thought I would marry Halma then, thought she was to share the cabin with me. They had no way of knowing that I had for years housed a passion that consumed, that urged, that burned. My creative passion was driving me far and fast. I was secretly living a hard, full life.
I did not live in this cabin all the time, only about every other night; though I was there part of nearly every day for more than three months. The rest of the time I lived in Hueytown with my parents and my sisters and within short walking distance of Halma.
Old river settlers used to camp in the woods where Hueytown now blossoms prettily as they made laborsome and long scheduled trips to Old Elyton, Old Jonesboro, — forerunners of Birmingham and Bessemer respectively, — and Tuscaloosa. And later it was Hueytown logs which served as heading and fuel to old-timers from the river on their trips to early Birmingham and young Bessemer. And a full history of the community would tell of the days when almost every old man living there to-day, or else his father, learned to swim in the Warrior River. Hueytown’s good acres were coveted by the rivermen, who cared more about farming than about nature at its best. It must now be passed through in order to reach the city part of Jefferson County from the two Warriors. In truth it is a gateway to the city, the gateway to the rivers.
Copyright 1930, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
There are two Warriors: the Big Warrior, the Little Warrior; the Big River, the Little River, the latter emptying into the other about two miles below where I lived in the cabin. It was a cabin built for a secret passion. No fisherman lived there.
The family name of Halma gives Hueytown its name. The place is full of disturbance from the mocking birds in their season. My parents have found in it a place that satisfies. There lives the girl who made life a thing different to me, made it a peeping into a treasure box. For such reasons I think well of the community. ‘Fine as a house in Hueytown,’ said an old-timer and Big River man to me once during the summer when speaking of a certain man’s house in another settlement.
My heart is always such a dominant part of my life that I am kept full of myself all the time. In the presence of the Warrior River, restfulness flows down my marrow, autumnal calm comes upon me. It is a calm, a long admiration, ever good to think about. Week after week I tied myself anew to these two rivers; to their hills, their bluffs, their hollows, and their running levels; to their woods, their birds, their creatures, and their people.
Halma helped me glory in all these things with all her strength.
Not a day of the aggregation of one hundred did I travel roads riverward without hearing birds singing to one another, or seeing others showing off to one another, — the redbird is best at this, — or seeing a rabbit cross in front of me, making, with dawn or dusk and road, a picture ahead of my Ford. I never failed on such an occasion to exclaim inwardly, to give silent thanks to the Lord God of beautiful sights and sounds, and startling colors. Oftentimes I exclaimed aloud to another, for Halma companioned me many times.
It was a great joy to see my grandfather’s figure, more than that to hear his voice, usually loud. I never failed to be astonished at the thought of the experience that had drained through his distinctly tall and naturally swayed form. During his prime his features were particularly dark, and even yet, when approaching his mid-seventies, gray was partly held at bay. With the dark bead of his sharp eyes he could still aim truer and quicker than any one of his five sons, all experts at looking out a gun barrel. His hair was thin and short, and only exactly on top of his head was it practically gone. Without a smooth shave he was fidgety and restless.
He was as spry as I was and without my pallor, with a scant ruddiness of face and some haleness of chest, and masterly in bearing. The spectacle of his large, slim form, with its natural sway, walking his immediate premises with his hands to the small of his back, cramming in his shirt tail whenever my grandmother told him to, and tightening his belt about his long body, is one of the best things of my life. To see a somewhat broad black felt hat is to think of him, with his dark clothes and soft collar-attached shirt. I often advanced to him as he hunkered down, looking or studying, and playfully considered the unusual top of his head and his moderately broad forehead which sloped back like an athlete’s pompadour. His head was neither long nor round. Even when watching him smoke a cigar or take a chew of oldtime twist tobacco, drink a dram of whiskey or a bottle of home-brew, I realized that I was seeing and knowing an enormous genius. Not once do I recall having seen tobacco stain about his person.
His youngest son, Raymond, is one of his two boys most like him in figure and features. My own figure has something of his, but more of my father’s, whose form is distinctly average, though once rather slender. But my features and favor come from my mother, his daughter, and from her mother. More than anything else in form, mine is a line without fleshiness; more than anything else in features, it is a darkhaired race. And my eyes are gray.
It was one Thursday near the middle of June when I made the cabin look good to live in, made it enticing to men who love to sleep alone with the dark, made it attractive to men who love to listen to all the attentive ear can hear in Alabama summer woods at night.
The furniture had been borrowed from my people, a reading lamp had been given me by Halma. No other cabin that I knew had a reading lamp. However, I did not read, not as much as any one of my uncles did in reading the newspaper. I had books, writing material, a small black trunk, and a homemade table for my business. I only handled the books and nothing more. But those who passed by and noticed doubtless thought that it was the shack of some student. Halma knew better, though I had bashfully kept it from her up to this time.
It was yet a few hours before my first night alone in the woods. Supper was to be had with my uncle and his wife. There was nothing to do but loiter about and feel important, important as a wealthy Warrior River landowner. The river was the very place for me, me with all my reflection. I was kept away from it about half of the nights by a girl who had the river’s influence and something besides in her great blue eyes. It was good to be alive, better than I had ever known. This girl on my brain and in my marrow, a willowy strip of rapture to me, had brought the bridegroom’s mood into my life.
I had a front porch: this porch was built on the ground through a mistake of the codgering carpenter, and my uncle did not like it. This, he said, would cause it to rot. I found that I liked the porch: I could walk right into my house without having to climb steps. My brother-in-law had helped me cut three cedar trees for porch posts from a bluff nearer the mouth of the river. We had a hard time cutting down these young trees, — trees with a touch of life everlasting about them, — but it was a hard time we enjoyed. We hauled them up the river with an outboard motor; and it was a good ride I had sitting astride one of the unbranched saplings. Then the carpenter blundered again, sawed the posts too short. He pieced them out with lumber; and I forced myself to be pleased with the house as a whole, despite the instantaneous anger over the matter of the posts.
The cabin was mine for the summer. I resolved in my heart to consider myself an important human being on the Warrior River — living there, belonging there. That feeling of belonging to such a river, to two such rivers, that I was close to the ultimate with these two rivers, was a peace giver and a pleasure.
Time to waste in a delightfully useful way before supper. My cabin faced an old field. When a man in this part of the world turns a field out to the birds and rabbits, and dry cows, persimmon bushes and young pines usually soon take it. There was a patch of small wild persimmon trees not far from my admirable little front porch. I sat on this porch in my good chair. The chair had been borrowed from my grandfather and was made for him years ago by an old chair maker across the Big River.
The merest passing thought of each little earthy thing made the very fibres of my body thrill and sing. The katydids, I thought, should start their summer singing. They were late. Making such observations inaudibly, I walked out of the porch and into the persimmon thicket, plucked some leaves and bit off their stems. An old habit of mine, an obsession, this biting tender leaf stems. I am always doing some such thing when I idle about. On such occasions everything is wonderfully earthy, as fresh wild-poplar honey is earthy, as the old wine Keats once had in mind was earthy, and I know that the mysteries and the inexplicables are not out of my territory.
I went into my room, went in there to try out the cot, to admire the thick red and white coverlet borrowed from my mother. Her father gave it to her when she married, and it had been kept almost unused. And I handled my books, handled them as setting eggs are handled in the spring. Then I took to writing down men’s names, the names of my favorite great writers. I thought to myself how I ’d been doing such things for years. The period under the oaks of my highschool grounds was recalled; the four years under Tuscaloosa’s water oaks were reviewed; the year under Cambridge elms summoned. I shuddered when I thought how hard it had been to live in the same hull with this tremendous passion as long as I had without doing anything about it. To comfort myself I reflected that not the harmony of verse but a great different harmony of prose was mine, and for this I needed some maturity. Then stepping out upon earth again, sandy soil where my grandfather’s men farmed for fifty years, I faced the cabin and its trees, stood by my Ford, and I knew that the time to do something had come.
Afterwards I walked to the boat landing, borrowed a skiff and paddle, and was soon on the other side of the river. Dusk was with me, and dry cows and yearlings were sauntering with the dusk under scores of young sycamore trees, trees scaly, slender, smooth. I made my way in a shade as old as the leaves of the sycamores, the sweet gums, and the willows that formed it. In that shade and with that dusk I could not contain all of myself. I was sensitive as a worm is sensitive, and Mabel, my aunt, roused me from it all by calling me to supper.
They were waiting for me. At the table sat my uncle, his wife, his growing boy, and his whiskey-drinking carpenter, a man with a very important air. I sat with them, talked with them, and enjoyed a well-cooked, savory meal. The cold supper was made up of new boiled potatoes, large butter beans, homemade mustard dressing, ice-cold clabber milk, cornbread made of water-ground meal, macaroni and cheese, plum pie, pineapple pudding.
Raymond said, ‘I know you hope that lavender-colored girl of yours will be as good a cook as my wife. My wife’s a pretty good woman. I know that. Only, she won’t brag on me like she ought to. I’m a good-looking man, and she was lucky to get me. I could have married up at Short Creek or at most any old home place in Toadvine. She should brag on such a nice man as your old uncle. Little things like that help a man. But if anybody brags on me I’ve got to do it myself.’
In my cabin that night I listened for katydids and did not hear them. They were to sing the next night, one of my nights in Hueytown and with Halma; I was to hear them the next night for the first time. I heard a goat bell and the bleating of a strayed kid across the river. The dark and the woods haunted me to the kernel of my being, took hold of my body and influenced my blood; but I was inspired, not afraid. Two rivers, the two Warriors, refreshed my brain; the one to match my passion for the girl, the other to pair with the creative impulse.
An outboard motor sped the river. It was whirring towards Birmingport, near where I was born, at the mouth of Short Creek. I was almost asleep when a mocking bird broke loose in a hickory sapling as if everything sweet must be said in a few minutes. I wondered if its song did not contain more good than the early morning song of the bird I had heard in Hueytown that morning.
I was saying myself to sleep on Halma’s words of the night before: ’That part of me that’s higher never has found anything it cares for but you.’
I mused to myself in thoughts to this effect: ‘Her figure and voice conserve the attar of the best bird worlds I have known. All of this has been put into a beautiful female being. I have never before seen a girl who in her movements reminds me of the purple martins I have always loved to watch about their gourds. And I am satisfied that she is the one being yet issued who so adequately compacts the world of the redbirds. She holds at her subtle fingertips all such things. Nowhere else could I find kisses so like the motions and ardor of a redbird.’
All’s deep about me these happy days, deep as the Warrior River, and as placid. In going to the river I had to pass my grandfather’s house, and I stopped there many times.
One day I remember I stopped there. It was getting on in June. I was longing for the night song of the katydids, the little green throbs so completely at home in the green world informed by the Warrior. There was my grandmother alone on the well porch. She would talk about them willingly to me. Yes. They were, she said, at it good and proper last night. It’s glad I’d be, I told her, if they would sing to me when night came. And of course they would. Summer would not be summer, I added, without the little noisemakers. I did beat all. She just knew I loved such things more than anybody she ever saw in her life. But, too, she liked to hear them herself. There came then from an old walnut tree near by, — as I drank cold water from a cedar bucket, water which I had just drawn from a well over one hundred feet deep, — a tree my mother played under as a child, the day song of the katydid. Not an approach to the night song, but good to hear.
Leaving the small seventy-threeyear-old woman with her six walnut trees, her favorite trees because of a long life lived with them, I walked to the front porch where that extraordinary old man sat and watched the public road.
‘Have a chair. I want to talk with you,’ he said.
‘I always like to talk with smart men,’ I replied.
‘Thank you for the compliment. Thank you. Thank you for the compliment. You know I always did say I’d give anything to see that princess you ’re going to marry. I believe you’ve found her at last, and I want you to bring her down to see her old granddaddy. And pay attention to what I say: you’d better not marry without telling me. You just try it. Your grannie wants to see her. She was talking to me about it to-day. Bring her down and you’ll be surprised how well everything will turn out. I had thought that I did n’t want you to marry for about five years. I wanted you to wait till you was thirty. But what you do is all right with us. We don’t mind a bit. I don’t know whether there’s any use in waiting or not. You may do better with her than without her. If the pressure’s so great you can’t, stand it, you go on and take her now. I mean that. If it will do to bring her to see us, do it; if it won’t, let it alone. Now that’s what I’ve got to say about it. Only, do bring the girl down; we both want to see her more than you can imagine.'
‘I’ve told her about you. She wants to see such a curiosity.’
’Bring her down and let me give her a history of my life. Reckon she’d run ? ’
‘She’s twenty, and a girl. You’d better tell it to me.’
‘It would take a long time, my young gobbler. . . .’
That sunset, that sunset! I was riding into one of the finest sunsets of my days on the earth, riding toward the river, headed for a great bend with its long, beaut iful bluff. That bend and its bluff would be an indelible scene for any world traveler at any of the four seasons. I was then considering that bluff as a possible summerhouse place; it being my grandfather’s land. A heavenly field of myrtle, skirted with purple, was being lowered into the clear water of the river right before me. From my grandfather’s house I could coast most of the mile to my cabin. What could I do about such beauty? I coasted along and looked at earth and above earth as at a redbird.
As I neared the great bend something happened. A redbird darted across the road ahead of me and flew over the small hills of one of my grandfather’s famous old fields. When Nature wants to show off, when any particular spot needs to be displayed, she sends the rooster redbird darling.
It is late dusk at my cabin. I muse to myself that I will reason out a wonderful thing. ‘Yes. I have an actual passion for the dusk. What if it should assume the form of a young woman, the likeness of a girl with large eyes? I once knew a girl who was made up entirely of the dusk, and another made in large part from the dusk. Dusk and beautiful young woman, for all I know, are kin. It is a time when a thousand sensuous things become one sensuous thing, beautiful and wonderful.'
A little later my ears began to take in something from every tree. The woods were full of strange-throated things, things with noisy mouths. That’s all I knew about some of the singers. I recognized the katydids (in the lead), the crickets, a whippoorwill in the distance, tree frogs, river frogs, a whoo owl, a screech owl, and a mocking bird. My grandfather would say, I laugh to myself, that the pressure is too great with that bird.
Night, and not dark. The moon makes the old field in front of my cabin light. This land was first settled by one of Halma’s ancestors. Bareheaded, throat open, in love with a girl, hands slinging, hands in pockets, exchanging looks with the heavens, humming an exchange tune with all the katydids, breasting the indelible bend, I walk on a white road that leads through the old field and alongside the river. I surrender myself to the night song, the earth song, the greenwoods song, the river song of the katydids, and I live only on the earth with them. And the Warrior is the great wonder of that earth.
I looked at my watch. By the light of the full moon I saw that it was growing late. I was satisfied as with cud. On the return walk to my hut I sidled up to the strip of woodland that bordered the river. This woodland held private cabins, then public shacks. Mine was the fartherest cabin up the river.
Then I touched tree after tree to make the katydids stop singing. I had seen it work many times. The resiny piece of throb, wing, and leg never failed to stop short when so much as a forefinger touched its tree. The katydid must have an inviolately natural universe or it will not sing. During that silence I was very familiar with the earth and its beautiful river. And it all came about through my intimacy with the trees, through tankering with the katydids.
It is near midnight. A clock is ticking, a clock I bought in Cambridge. I think thick, fast, and full of misses. I muse to myself something after this fashion: ‘A splendid rooster redbird crosses the road ahead of me almost every day. That one to-day was large, and overly beautiful . . . yes, it was beautiful as a turtle’s hard.’
The feeling of the little road, the intimacy with the trees, the peace of the shade, the inspiration of each other, all these things are ours. She takes my hat. She loved me better, she told me, with my hat off.
’I could go to these trees and touch them in the dark, and know just exactly which tree I was touching,’ I said.
’And hush the katydids,’ she replied. . . .
’There’s no piece of sculpture in the world as beautiful as a poplar’s body.’ We had been stopped by a hollow of poplars. . . .
’And the bodies of these beech trees are just as beautiful,’ she said, as we passed several fully grown beeches.
On down the spring-branch hollow road. Over this road our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents had traveled to mill, to town, to the old meetinghouses, to gatherings — about their business and their pleasures. They had, we knew, traveled before us on foot, on horseback, in hacks, in surreys, in wagons, and in buggies. This summer we were traveling it all alone. During the whole course of the summer we met only one person on this road, and that person was, I knew, a whiskey maker and a rum runner. Yet the road was in excellent shape and was always shady and altogether rustic.
On my grandfather’s road, and we made it last a long time. At the Old School House Place we paused under the great red oak where I had talked with my whiskey-making friend. Halma wondered if he saw us that other day we were under the red oak together. If he did, I answered her, he only saw two people very much in love. As we drove on I told her that I had often wondered what Hardy would have thought of this road.
At the old man’s house I left Halma in the Ford and walked to the back yard to let them know that I would be back by with her. My grandfather was on the back porch, and he had on only his underwear, his socks, and his trousers. He was immensely pleased with what I told him.
We neared the river and the sun had set, but the after colors remained. When we lived on the Warrior, I told her, I wanted her to match her dresses with its sunsets. Her face was lavender, just like her dress in color, and they both matched perfectly the colors above the river. She kept her eyes on a large green knoll in the middle of an old field. I had always liked that knoll.
Now I would never be able to pass it again without thinking of her words about it.
After passing by my cabin, where I lived an impassioned life with the katydids, and visiting Raymond and Mabel, where I ate very good suppers and drank very cold water and cocacolas, we drove from the river.
The old man was all feeling, and he did practically all of the talking. ’Glad to see you, mighty glad to see you,’ he said as I introduced Halma. ‘Have a chair. He’s one of the two or three grandchildren I’ve got. I’m proud of him. When did you-all get married?' Halma was embarrassed. He talked away, and, in his talk, he considered us man and wife. Why were we off together at dark if we were not married? He’d like to know that. Halma laughed and smiled, and was confused. I knew that she had met a new kind of human being. My grandmother was on the front porch, too, but the old man filled the darkening scene, held the attention, said it all. I walked to the well shelter. The old man, I knew, wanted to say a private word or two. While I was gone he talked to Halma about me. As I walked back through the hall towards the front porch, I heard him say, ‘He’s funny. But you’ll catch on to him, you’ll soon learn him.’
He talked about his young days and his young wife. ‘I loved her so good that I could have swallowed her whole, and I’ve wished I had a thousand times since.’ He was in a big way and out for fun.
He shifted and continued. ‘I was a great friend of your old granddaddy. He was a man of his word. His word was his bond. When that old man told you a thing, you could depend on it. He was a man, not one of these things. I’ve always told this boy of mine you ’re with to let his word be his bond. Yes, he was one amongst the best men that ever lived. But, in his way, he was one more sight. I’ve told this kid lots about him.’
We’d have to be going, we told them. It was already past dark, and we had to drive to Hueytown.
The old man said, ‘Come down and stay with us when you do marry, if you’re not already married. We’ve got plenty of room, and we’ll try to make you enjoy your stay. You ’ll get such a welcome you won’t forget it soon. . . .’
That night we sat in the large room on the davenport she had bought with her own money, money made teaching school. Already it was ours. Late in the night I said, ‘Do you think I ’ll ever amount to anything?’
‘You do amount to something,’ she said. She consoled me.
‘Yes,’ I said jokingly, ‘I’m quite famous in these parts. Why, I’m a professor in a big college somewhere in Texas.’
‘And he makes hundreds of dollars a month, and he don’t do much work. Best-educated person anywhere in this neck of the Woods. Why, he’s been to Harvard.’ We laughed heartily.
‘They have no notion that I do not like to be considered and called a professor. They think it’s a fine thing. You know what I think about it. If you don’t, I can tell you.’
‘Your grandfather believes in you. And I believe that you can do anything in the world that you want to. I know your ambition, and I believe in you. I do. If you don’t want to teach, I don’t want you to. I want you to be satisfied. My happiness is almost too much for me now. . . .'
It was after midnight when I drew water from my father’s well in Hueytown. I made a practice of drawing a fresh bucket every night when I reached home after the date with Halma. Oh, it was so cold and it tasted so good!
I heard a hard-pressed mocking bird in a holly tree, another in a magnolia tree. I could not rid myself of Halma’s words: ‘You do amount to something. You do.’ I ran on to other words she had said: ‘ You ’re the only one who has ever courted at this place except those who courted my sisters. And you ’re the only one who shall. There’s none else beside you — and there’s none like you. . . . None like you on earth. . . . None besides you. . . .’ She’s beautiful . . . yes . . . beautiful as the two Warriors . . . and as good as the two Warriors. Yes, that’s just it. I ’ve thought it all out, and that’s the way it is.
My good days have come. Halma and the two Warriors are with me all the time. I roll on the grass under the magnolia tree at home and give thanks to my God for every breath Halma breathes. Comfort such as I have never known comes upon me every time I go off alone and see the Big River. To see the Little River is to be full of peace, the peace that comes to me when I drink from freestone bubbling springs. . . .
Always something was happening to touch my life with beauty. Quite often, and at different hours of the day, I would have blithe-hearted encounters with two mocking birds. They were raising what seemed to me a late brood of young singers in a thorn tree on the fence row of our back yard. I would harmlessly bother these birds by walking to the bush and, on tiptoe, looking into the nest. Usually bareheaded, I was careful to guard my eyes against the oncoming floggers. I was always totally passive, and I found out that the mocking bird is an accurate and persistent fighter during-the raising season. Upon hearing the fussy sound, I knew immediately to cover my eyes with one arm. Then the bird, sometimes both birds, would hit at my head and catch snips of my hair. Before I could reach the back porch the birds would sometimes get three or four dives at the top of my head. Sometimes I stood still under their onslaughts. The mood of the woods went through my body on such occasions, and I gave thanks for every bird dart in the Warrior world that day.
It was a sight my mother loved to see and it always made her laugh. My sisters, too, would walk to the back porch or to the swing under the chinaberry tree and a water oak and watch the encounter. I started this affair with the birds by merely wanting to see the young ones. Now a walk in that direction is a challenge to the mockers. My sisters would not brave the attacks; but my mother would travel the path near the thorn tree, laughing and protecting her face as she hurried along.
This morning I amused myself for a long time with a to-do with the birds. The young birds were grow ing off fast. While this was in progress, our nextdoor neighbor came to see about something. She talked to my mother and my sisters about my affair with Halma. There were people in many communities, she said, wondering whether I intended to take her with me to Texas. She just knew before we ever met that we should just suit each other. We were, so her daughter had said, just alike in about every way.
At my grandfather’s house I talked with my grandmother and left a dozen ‘rosenears’ for the old man. He was, she said, at the Fork of the River. She was stringing beans, and I helped her string a few. I’d better come back for supper that night, she said, for Bert Prescott was going to spend the night with them. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘he’s a case. He’s one more sight in this world.’
After a short time the old man came in. He had, he said, just had his nigger driving him around. He’d just been looking at the world.
‘Here, you must come up here tonight for supper. Bert Prescott’s coming here to see me on business and he’s going to spend the night. He’d tickle a dog, the way he talks, some of the things he says. Bert’s a sight. But I like him. He’s got about a hundred bee gums in his house. Every morning before Bert gets up his room is full of bees. They never sting him. He’s stingy as he can be away from home. He won’t spend a nickel in town if he can get out of it. But go to his house, and he ’ll treat you like a governor. He’s got plenty of honey, molasses, meat, lard, canned goods, and everything else. He always does have. He ’s a Bert. You come on up here for supper. It does look like you could stay for dinner.’ . . .
At my cabin I had a long time alone. I pulled persimmon leaves and bit the stems, pulled black gum leaves and bit their stems, and tried to choose between the two. Then I bit grass stalks, pulled the stalks and enjoyed doing it, and dropped the seed part on an old wagon road as I meddled along to the river. At the river I pulled sweet gum leaves and bit the stems. For beauty of leaf and stem they have few equals, and they are better for biting than most other leaf stems. But there is a taste about them that I do not like.
I walked back to the cabin, and as I walked I gathered poplar leaves, and I gathered pink and red leaves from the black gum tree where my little alarm birds roosted. On my porch I sat and studied the colors in my hand, felt the coldness of the poplar leaves against my face. A grasshopper sang his song of nonsense and nothing in the wild clover in front of my cabin. There was nothing to that noise, but I liked to hear it well enough. . . .
Mabel was canning string beans, and would have a pot of beans and meat for dinner, and I clerked for myself in the fishing-camp store. Then I played light-hearted pieces on the victrola. As I heard the records, I looked at the river through the screen wire, pranced to the tunes, snapped my fingers from a hummer’s mood, and talked with Mabel. . . .
I walked under great red oaks and poplars at my grandfather’s cow lot and old gin lot. And in the deepening dusk I strolled a path to a spring, and the katydids drowned the whole woods world and smothered my being with their dusk song. Suddenly the whole above woods was black, and lightning bolted towards the great poplars above the spring. I hurried to the house and found my grandfather and Bert Prescott at the two long water shelves washing for the supper table. We walked to the back screened porch and sat down for the night meal. My grandmother poured milk and coffee, said she was not hungry but might eat a bite later on, and the old man started eating, and Bert and I did likewise. A great rain was falling.
The old poplar tree outside the porch had ceased to drip and the whole rain was falling through. The katydid song had stopped short for the night. The carbide lights were burning, and Bert said that he could tell who I was by the favor. I studied the small, dried-up, dark bachelor from across the Little River.
‘Well, Bert,’ the old man said, ‘it’s a wonder in this part of the world for you to stay away from home a night, ain’t it?’
‘Yes, Lat, this is the first time I’ve stayed away at night for several years. I’ve lost count. I thought I’d better saneter over here while my brother was there to look after the place and tend to the things.’
Bert, old-timer that he was, ate grease and sugar with his biscuits, though the table was full of good things to eat. And, though he was the keeper of a hundred beehives, I noticed that he was eating honeycomb. A large platter was full of home-cured ham, and it was sweet and very good, but hard. I had trouble cutting my ham with a dull case knife.
Bert said, ‘I’ve got an old butcher knife at home that’ll cut like hell. I keep it on the table and use it.’ The drawl to his words was as singular as the content.
‘Bert,’ the old man said, ‘there’s a fine red bull that stays over here. I seed him to-day. Raymond says he’s yours.’
‘Yes. I’m going to sell him.’
‘A brute like that’s valuable to a settlement, Bert.’
‘Yes, you’re just right about that. I guess I could keep him. I don’t want to kill him if he’s going to help anybody.’
‘Cindy’s got a Jersey cow with twin heifers, and they’re the prettiest things you ever seed. She likes them so well she hobbles to the cow barn every morning to look at them.’
‘She has? I ’d like to see them.’
‘Yes, you must see them in the morning.’
‘I allus let my calves suck lots of milk. They grow off as quick again. Damned if they don’t.’
‘I don’t need much milk even if I do nearly live on sweet milk. I turn my calves to it and let joy go with them. By God, that’s the way to raise a calf. Oh, hell yes.’
My grandfather said to me, ‘Bert cans more things and fixes up for winter more than most women. You just ought to see what he’s got at his house.’
‘Well, Lat, I sure have got a good place, and if I can’t make a good living on it by myself, I’m just not worth a ’sarned damn. I’ve got a whole passel of cowcumbers put up, and they’ll be mighty fine when I kill hogs and cook collards. My smokehouse is full of canned stuff and my kitchen floor’s so full I can’t get about in it well. And my hall’s full. Yes, my porch is full of bee gums.’
‘What kind of a man is it that don’t want a smokehouse? Every old-timer does. But the smokehouse here belongs to Cindy, and the cellar’s mine. I’ve got the best cellar in this country. Everybody knows that.’
‘I’m just of the opinion you are.’
‘Bert, have you got many hogs in the woods?’
‘Yes, the woods is just full of them. I’m going to get shut of them-a. It’s too hard work, and it takes so bygodded much of my time. What in the name of hell fuzzy do I need with a river bend full of hogs?’
‘Bert, you just work all the time, don’t you?’
‘Yes, Lat, I keep busy all the time. I saw and split stove wood and split rails of a winter when I ain’t got another form thing to do. I’ve got all the shacks on the place full of stove wood and fodder. I’ve got some fodder fifteen years old. Well, I believe I like the old holler black gum better than anything else for my bees. I’ve got all kinds of gums. Doust if I ain’t cut about every holler black gum tree on my section of land. I had to hunt a long lime before I could find the last tree I cut.’
‘Bert, you’ve got a great outlet for stock there where you live. Have you got any goats and sheep?’
‘I’ve got a hundred or more damned old goats up the Big River on the bluffs. I would n’t stand them anywhere around my fields. Hell fuzzy, I don’t need the damned old goats. And they stink like hell. They can turn to pine knots on the bluff for all I care. I used to keep a lot of sheep, but the lowdown dogs killed them out and scattered them. My old daddy allus kept a gang.’
The downpour has ceased and it is raining gently. Thick clouds make the night dark. Carbide lights are burning on every porch and in the kitchen.
‘Come on around to the front porch, Bert. I believe we’ll set there instead of here on the back porch or the well shelter. Hal, bring you one of the chairs you like to set in. We’re going to talk.’
Settled comfortably on the front porch, the road a few steps away, I do as the old man, prop my feet on the banisters. I look out on the obscured earth and listen. Bert’s feet are not propped up. My grandmother has remained in the back part of the house.
‘Bert,’ the old man began, ‘you’re not old and doty. You’re still in your prime. Do you ever think of marrying?’
‘There ain’t no use to buy a cow when you can get all the sweet milk you want free. No sir. Women just ain’t worth keeping up, the majority of them ain’t. They are pretty near all so by-godded triflin’. I just won’t fool with one long at a time.’
The drip of the house denotes peace. The breath we breathe is refreshing. The chairs we lean back in are comfortable.
‘Lat, Milly Macmillan is one of the few old-time girls left. Let me tell you she’s a good cook and as good a housekeeper as ever lived. Her house stays as clean as new ashes.’
The old man had told me that he expected Bert and Milly to marry when her old father died. She lived alone with him in a great hollow of beeches a mile or two from Bert’s house.
That Bert. He is mightily drawn toward woman. She is a loadstone to him. Yes, that’s what she is to Bert. A man made by the woods, a man made in the woods, a man grown peculiar by much solitude. Solitude has made him think strange thoughts, and it has made him want woman. He is a properly subdued man of the woods, but nevertheless a ball of fire when woman is around his bed or on his paths.
An automobile passed in a drizzle of rain going toward the river. A voice we did not recognize called, ‘Hello, Uncle Lat!’
The old man said, ‘Bert, we ought to think a lot of our woods. What would we be without them? We would n’t have a bit of sense. And our rivers, the Big River and the Little River, what would we be without them? We would n’t have much peace without them. And what would our country be? Just take the second thought.’
‘I’m just of the opinion you are on that.’
‘When I get ready to die,’ the old man said, ‘I wish I could change a little and go off in these woods around here and get lost, and drink branch and creek and spring water, and sleep on the roots of beech trees in the summer and in pine straw in the winter, and eat leaves and live on what the animals and birds do for a thousand years. It’d take that long and that kind of a life and my mind to learn all about these woods. But I would n’t be satisfied without a woman. I’d want a young woman with me part of the time. A woman with that kind of a career would get wise, would n’t she? No wonder young women don’t know no more than they do, the kind of lives they have to lead. A woman with me that long and young all the time would be wise when I got through with her under any conditions. And I’d like to go to the Big River and the Little River of nights. Just think what it would mean to go to the river bank with the foxes, and the groundhogs, and the minks, and the muskrats, and the coons, and the weasels, and the whoo owls, and the scrootch owls, and everything else of a night for a thousand years. And of a day we could take out after the redbirds and keep right with them and learn to live like they do. A man could amount to something if he had the time. We’ve certainly got the place here.
‘Why, if it was that way there’d be other couples around in the woods and on the paths we could meet when we wanted to. Looks like the Lord would try things out that way: have, say, me to test out the way of life I ’m talking about and give me time, and give some other man the chance and time to try out some other good way of life. Of course you both know I’m mostly just talking. But I think this would be as good or better than the scheme we now live and die by. Why, I’d be content to just go around and look at my part of the world and do nothing else for a thousand years. If I could think it’s beautiful once a day and feel it, that would be enough happiness to live on and enough to live for.’
‘I’m just of the opinion you are. And I’d a whole hell of a lot rather do that, for I know things here, than to go to the good place the preachers talk about. And I’m just of the opinion you are about hell. I don’t believe in such bosh.’
Another automobile passed on the wet road headed for the river. A second voice the old man did not recognize called out, ‘Hello, Mr. Lisper!’ Tree frogs were hollering for more rain, for the rain had ceased, and the old man carried on the talk.
‘Bert, do you know what woman you’d like to spend a thousand years, or eternity, with in these woods? If I ask you for the truth, will you tell me? Well, who’s the sweetest, best woman — I mean woman — you ever fooled with ? ’
’Hildy’s the sweetest woman I ever touched. She was enough to run as puny a thing as me plumb crazy.’
‘Give me a slim woman or no woman at all. Now, without any foolishness. I’m serious now. This boy of mine here says his woman’s as slender as a young poplar and always will be. She was down here with him the other day nearly at night, but it was so dark I could n’t see her. And I forgot to strike a match. But if she’s slim like that, she’ll be worth her weight in gold to him. I mean that. I’d say that on a stack of Bibles. I know women. I would n’t have a fat, chumpy girl. When I see a young man marrying one, I shake my head to myself, for I know he’s not getting much. They’re just like logs.’
‘Yes, that reminds me,’ said Bert. ‘That Josie was the sorriest woman I ever had dealings with. If she’s the one I had to spend a long time in the woods with, I’d rather go on to some other place and walk city streets. And I certainly had rather live in these woods than go to any city to stay, no matter how golden it might be. Why, I don’t like to stay in Birmingham twenty-four hours. It might be different in some ways. But there’d be too many people to suit me. I would n’t want to be scrouged up. Right now I just would n’t live in the city twentyfour hours. Oh, hell no. If there’s anything I like it’s elbowroom. I would n’t sell any of my land on that account. No, I don’t want to be scrouged up. Doust if I do.’
‘Well, Bert, when you’re dead, you’re dead for a long time. I know how it is. I think I do. They’ll put me down in the red sandstone of my land, though it’s white on top and blue deep down. When I’ve been in my red sandstone for a long time, I hope somebody’ll set out the finest red oak or water oak that can be found right about on my grave, and let it feed on me. I ’ll be there in the sandstone, and I’d like to get back in the open air through a tree like that oak in the old gin lot. And if the generations would be kind and knowing enough some oak tree could feed on my grave as long as there are oak trees here.’
‘And the end of it all with me will be that I ’ll be dead and in the ground under the pines and dogwoods there on my place, by the side of my old daddy and ma, for a long time. I ’m like you. I believe that when you ’re dead, you ’re dead for a long time.’
I drove to my cabin in the night and left the two men in a business conversation.
(To be continued)