Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Kudzu, Snakes and Poetry

Photo of kudzu vines by Frank DiBona 2009

“Why are you so resistant?”

Rennie leans back against the lawn chair, clasps hands behind his sweaty neck, puts his feet up on the stump. Listens to cicadas buzz their overpowering song–it feels like they’ve taken up residence in his head.

This is the weekly question, asked one way or another. It flees their mouths with little effort, words soft or rough, as an aside out of nowhere, after another discussion. It is Jillian, his mother or Zach, his older brother– and on alternate days, Pops, his grandfather. Mia has been gone near three years; she is never going to take him to task. She would not have before.

Rennie at first took it all seriously and tried to answer–a thoughtful, embroidered statement to keep them satisfied awhile–but then he tried to lighten up, have fun with it. Which aggravated them so they came back at him two-fold. But he’d had enough after the first few months they started on him. After a year it was noxious, tiresome. It made his head want to explode or just take off, running to unknown territory.

This now makes him laugh: his head running away, tiny legs trying to balance with their heavy load all the way to Iceland or the Galapagos Islands or India. What might they think about that image?

To be fair, their emphasis on words changes now and then: why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant; why are you so resistant–and so on. It’s a refrain or a chant he hears as background noise. So he has different answers, if he answers.

“Resistant to Sal Rogers’ charms? Her hair is just too shiny brown.”

“Resistant to the colds you get? Lucky, I’d guess.”

“Resistant to snake venom? Well, it depends on what type, if I am in the mountains, hills, marshes or fields. If I make it out. So far, so good.”

“Resistant to your words? Repetition does the trick. I don’t hear them, anymore.”

“I’m not resistant to lots of things–let’s talk about those, alright?”

Jillian is hanging out the sheets on the line. She could dry them in the dryer but she likes how they flap and billow–lavender, white and beige with faded leaves–and the sun soaks them with its natural disinfectant properties. When she takes them down she presses them to her face and breathes in the fresh happiness that imbues them for awhile. She likes to hang dry her underwear, too, and the boys’ and Pop’s t-shirts. Makes them whiter, last longer. Makes her feel more secure to smell the sunshine when she hugs them.

Rennie appreciates that she does this. He likes the sun sweetness and roughness of the cotton sheets when he crawls into bed. That moment will endure as a favorite memory when he is old, he realizes: sheets like crazy sails in the world, like peace covering him in bed.

He picks a tiny daisy from dew-dropped grass and twirls it, touches his nose to it though it has no perfume, and looks about. He needs to clip more of the hedge, so he gets up, searches for the pruners.

“Rennie. Please.”

“I don’t have a new answer yet, I’ll think on it.”

“You have to let the college know in a month or it is gone for good. They have lost their sympathy and very long patience.”

Jillian used to cry about it every single time he shot them a smart ass answer, every time he refused to share thoughts at a deeper level. It was hard beyond hard for awhile, what with Mia gone. Then Zach with a broken hip from the fall during a mountain hike. Rennie was there but couldn’t stop his brother’s sudden loss of footing right at the rocky, narrow path’s edge, of course. A pure accident, Zach said it was though Rennie felt to blame. It could have resulted in far worse. But Zach is good now, has re-started his HVAC trade apprenticeship. He’s lived at home to save money. And is about to move in with his girlfriend. She at least has Pops, he’s not leave her. Until he is done and gone one day… please God, not yet.

Sorrow and the clutch of stress has loosened its hold, though, year after year. They slowly got used to the way things were without her daughter…their granddaughter and sister.

Except for Rennie, they might move on a bit more. He is holding things up, she thinks often. He needs to go forward, too.

Pops says to ease up; he’ll just dig in his heels more if they don’t stop. But even he wonders why Rennie has about thrown away opportunity, that decent scholarship to Blue Ridge College. But he also thinks it is more complicated than they know. Might ever know. The boy–going on twenty, taller than he is and strong as an ox, both boys inherited their fool father’s strength and height–had been struck down by Mia’s illness as if it was his, too. And then she died. It might take a lifetime to get his head back together. She was his twin, yes. But being alive is right here and now; being dead is just gone, the past. It dims, despite what you think.

Rennie is different about things, they have to agree. He takes the raw of life into him and it carves out hollows or plants unexpected seeds or is churned into words that they rarely have gotten to read. Even though this is what got him the scholarship. Pops has lately for many nights seen him on the ramshackle back porch writing by candle light while the other two were to bed. It could be 1889 from the looks of him hunched over in baggy overalls and sweat-stained work shirt, face nearly to paper, the old fountain pen scratching away, his dark hair flopping forward, feet bare. His mind might be from a different time… maybe that is why he’s hard to reach at times. That, and the old visitor with havoc to unleash: the malingering of grief.

Pops gave him that pen as he turned thirteen, along with a new hunting knife. Why not? The boy always had such daydreams stuck in his head, may as well help him get them out. And the knife?–a good hunter when he puts his self to it. But like most things he does well–and there are quite a few–he seldom ever hunts now. He does what he does. Writes and works with his hands.

Why is he so resistant to college, bettering his lot? Though he can repair darned near any broken thing, so that’s good, It is Pops’ own fix-it gene passed to the boy. He learned–Zach, too, and Mia–right at Pops’ shoulder. Rennie can make a decent living with a repair business and that will make Pops feel calmer. Prouder than fancy words might do, if he’s entirely frank. But he wouldn’t stand in the way if the boy has to do his own calling. Too high a price to pay, his will versus the boy’s. They could lose him, too, and that would be impossible. Every man has to make a mark his own way.

Zach is moody lately; he wants his brother to make up his mind so they can all stop pushing and prodding. He isn’t as close as he may like but the several years difference and, well, he wasn’t part of the twindom, was he? But that’s how it goes, and he misses Mia, too…If only Rennie will face up to the next phase of life, get on with it, maybe they’ll be closer in time.

Rennie sees them. He hears them, pleasant creatures with deft mouths and mighty hands and good minds, with ways that are in his bones, too, as he lives on land his family has owned for one hundred-ten years. But he sees and hears as if they enter a stage, say their lines, do their bits and then saunter or dash off, taking their lives with them while he stands there in the middle, quietly observing, waiting for more, hands clenched by his sides, eyes straining at the dark swirling before him. What should he do? Even though he is tall and broad, owns any space in a manner he hasn’t quite realized, he feels invisible to them when it matters the most. It is not even his stage, not even his story–yet.

******

It takes an easy fifteen minutes to get there, through a wooded acre then down two hills, then following the music of tumbling water until he comes to Fielder and Backward Falls. The second name is due to the way the stream splits off there, around a boulder, and switches to the left. Most of the moving water goes its merry way forward as it should, over and down the earth and rock ledge in a cascade of clear liquid, pure enough to drink. But this is a small waterfall, diverted by a surprise route, and it pools in a natural dip in the land before seeping back to the main tributary eventually.

He settles on spongy dirt by a contortion of roots at pond’s edge. The falls splash and gurgle as it gathers, pools. He glances around to check for creatures, removes his sneakers, sticks feet into the warmish pond, plant debris floating on top. His toes stir up mud and it resettles. The odors of this spot are strong and reassuring, stones and rich dirt and mosses, waters carried from far away. Kudzu vines twist and reach, travel up trees in ownership. Birds call out and he calls back lightly with a thin whistling song that coincides enough with their chorus. The cicadas are relentless with urgent, rasping overtones.

Rennie falls silent. There, a stick cracking, a rustle. He waits. Another soft crackle, and a shushing among birds, their wings closing.

He feels her near, or does he only think it? There is a fine but penetrating charge in the air; his anticipation, yes, but it is their connection that re-makes this into a vibrant site he likes better than any other. It has always been their place. The one they disappeared to over and over. Where they found solitude, or found one another when no one else could or went to, together for a catch up. No one else knew for sure it was theirs, not in all their growing up years. Others might visit, but they alone claimed it at age nine and had a ceremony to mark it as such> Two poems were loudly intoned above the burning of wild grasses in a wide mouthed vase, and a song that Mia offered about trees’ eternal protection and the falls’ “most royal healing waters” and that was that. He closes his eyes.

It was a separate children’s time and place, and the moments made of simplicity in mind and heart. A true and perhaps holy place to Rennie. For she was there with him for everything that mattered all their shared lives.

His eyes blink open. The woods are unusually quiet; even the cicadas are talking in a dull buzzing note that descends into a lull.

“I’ve sure needed to talk to you,” he begins then pauses as his gaze sweeps the woods and water to check for anything or one else. “I miss sharing time and events with you. It doesn’t get easier, though I hear it will. It’s okay. I don’t expect it to be one way or another. I don’t expect you to come back. So I come here, you know.”

He waits; quietness enfolds him more densely.

“If I leave, then what? Will you still find me?”

He feels it, the sadness a net tossed about him and tightened, and he swallows hard, swipes a hand over forehead, stands in the pond. He looks again. It is only the woods, the moss-touched rocks and kudzu-encased trees. Mia is not now going to come out of the thickets and talk to him. He knows she never will, not really. But he wants it, anyway, yearns for the female reflection of his face to come forward, her being to offer words that make such good sense when spoken around his.

There is a distant call, perhaps deer or a bear on the move with a cub, or a grazing horse in fields even farther out. But suddenly he spots movement, a cottonmouth that slips into the pond at the other side, a younger one with light brown and banded scales, the telltale triangular head lifting as it swims. He sits down, scoots back, pulls up his feet and slips shoes on. Stands. He knows it will not harm him as long as he doesn’t threaten it but he backs up, instinct with a hold on him. The snake is placidly swimming into a murky spot and though for a moment it seems to eye Rennie squarely, it gracefully turns its thick body, silently moves across the pond.

It is the snake they saw most often, that semi-aquatic venomous creature at first scaring them, then just a part of the wild. At the falls they often stood on a rocky prominence and held contests, tossed stones into the pond or at any number of trees on the other side. Once Mia accidentally hit a cottonmouth and it raced across the pond and crawled out, searching for their heat. It was well-known for its often-deadly strike when disturbed; they knew better than to wait around. They fled as if for their lives, screaming then laughing all the way home.

He watches the snake now with keener eyes as it turns, swims back round to him, half-floating with head up as it again fixes on Rennie with it’s cat-eye pupils and opening its formidable white mouth. The young man freezes, heart throbbing, wonders if it will come to the ground…but just as quickly the three foot snake moves around the irregular edge of the pond in search of food, perhaps.

The cicadas start up again, unimpressed with his earlier speech or the snake; birds flap wings, chitchat among themselves, tend babies.

He rests at the rim of the woods before entering Tennessee sunshine that will beat on his skin and like a giant spotlight make him go blind a moment. He recalls the last time they came to Backward Falls. A bright blue and gold scarf was wrapped around her bald head; her eyes looked huge, turquoise in the light, her skin whiter than white, her full lips thinner then, slack. But they had read the poem in turns; they’d written together then buried it by the little waterfall. They knew it was their last time there. She leaned heavily on him as they made their way back, and they stopped often.

–Why you and not me? he asked her often. Why not both of us since we’re twins? And how will I manage, sister?

Finally, her answer came then.

–Because, you were meant to travel the world. To find its poetry. I was meant to make sure you did. I’ve been happy enough. I’ll pop up wherever you go. Don’t let us down, Rennie.”

The wind came up after that as a skirmish of storm clouds let rain down fast and hard, with lightning swift as jagged arrows piercing the dark sky. They’d walked as fast as they could hand in hand, drenched and unafraid. Jillian had been worried, waiting on the porch, but when she saw them together she just went in to heat up butter biscuits and make a pot of tea.

They always believed they were safer, better, smarter when closer to each other. Even near the end of the end, when they knew they’d not be in touch as they had all their lives. But the fact was, they weren’t really apart. Even when three days later she was gone.

He’s not disturbed the buried poem; it was a happy story of time together, and yet a stab in his center as they’d read it. Let the earth hold it close. Let their happiness be protected there.

******

They are done with dinner already, reading aloud the paper and chatting over coffee when Rennie comes in, panting some from running.

“So, family, I have an answer for you. I’m not going to college. I’m going to work at the hardware this year–already talked to Herb about it. I’ll continue small appliance and other repairs on the side for Herb and from home. I need to save a lot more. But then, by next June, I’m leaving.”

“Where to?” Zach asked, incredulous. He was on track to become a teacher but travelling sounded even better. Maybe he needed a road buddy? They hadn’t been all that close–he wasn’t in the Twindom, was he? But it was what it was. He’d like to know him better, it might happen before it was too late.

“First the West and Northwest, then Canada and Alaska, then…who knows. Might have to take a pause to work or come back now and then.”

“What about college? Your writing?” his mother asked, face gone softer with disappointment, her eyes damp, the barest amount. She managed a smile. “Though having you here longer will be nice.”

“I won’t stop. Have I ever? College won’t make me a writer. Writing will.”

Pops folded the newspaper and set it aside, stroked his beard in muted surprise. “Rennard Ames Collings: small appliances repairman. Traveler. Author. Good heavens, some life ahead of you.”

Rennie smiled at his grandfather and gave his mother a hug, his brother a quick tap on the shoulder. Then took a plate of potatoes, pork chops and fried okra and went to the porch. He settled on the top step to better see the dusky horizon, and Mia–it was what he felt so was what he believed–quietly sat down, too.