Home In Growing Season
From June through August, every few days an afternoon grows gray as a swelling shadow is cast, and soon the short lived patter of rain drops striking parched soil can be heard from inside our house. We wait, and soon we go outside again into the breaking sunshine, hot on our hair and shoulders, the air thick and weighty in our lungs. The ground and groves of our home are more verdant than before, the storm leaving enough perspiration on the leaves to quicken what had slowed in their veins. Insects buzz and birds chirp with renewed onomatopoeia. Colors give the illusion of being brighter, the thin new glaze acting like a mirror.
The air is motionless as we feel not the slightest breeze against us; only that old nameless sense, almost like smell or sight or sound but not quite, that all around us is growing, breathing, breeding. Topsoil moist, clinging, caking to the bottoms of our bare feet as we walk out into the fields, the vine bushes of butter beans, dark and hanging low with moisture, brush against our ankles until the water, too warm to be noticed, trickles down in-between our toes, streaking the mud that has climbed up our legs. Everything around us shares our temperature. Sun and water on land. Wet heat.
There have been years when the rains didn’t come, years when the topsoil dried and cracked open like ashy lips in winter, all the moisture in the ground slowly,
inexorably retreating from the surface. Soon the roots of crops we have planted are surrounded by earth as worn as windblown sand, and can find no mooring; a strong gust uproots them. Leaves become husks, yellowing before their time; blooms whither rather than bear food. The dirt of our fields covers our feet in a thin hard film, smooth, dry, almost the color of our skin. Dust permeates the air; it weights down our tongues with its plain taste.
We grow quiet, pensive, and we wait. We speak low and laugh less. Our step is slower. We feel thirsty.
One August of such a year I was walking in the wood around our home, touching the trees, humming, listening to the sound of dead pine needles beneath my feet. I reached the end of our grove and stood quietly looking across the grassy field which belongs to our neighbor, his cattle grazing in the setting sun. When the wind stirred, I could smell something new; sweet, nauseating, like nothing I could remember but close enough to aging compost to conjure an unpleasant image in my mind. I turned and my eyes searched the trees, following the sound of congregating flies. The new smell was death.
A cottonmouth dangled limply above me, its head nearly severed, its form carelessly stretched over two dogwood branches. In the breeze, the branches undulated in small circles with the certain timing of a metronome. The snake, its scales a color between blue and black, swayed like a jiggling chain. I stared silently for what could have been minutes; it seemed to me a puppet.
In that great quiet I could hear the somber thud of my father’s workboots as they tromped about the loose dirt of our garden; that deceptively hollow sound called to me all
the way through the trees. I stepped back into our grove and crossed through, emerging from the wood at the edge of the half-acre which grows the food we eat every winter, and saw him in silhouette against the burning orange and red and purple of the August sun. His shadow loomed far out behind him and to the tips of my small feet. I stepped into it and drew near him until I was at his side.
“Your scuppernongs ain’t gonna make,” he said, and tossed his head back in the direction of the root the two of us had planted with my younger brother years before. In his hand be held a tan pea hull that crackled when he pressed it. He picked it open, his short fingers broad, muscular, the small hairlines of his callused skin smutted black with years of machine work ground into them. I could smell labor on him, dried sweat, like long-shaded loam and old onions kept cool beneath a house. “If we don’t get some rain in the next week, we ain’t gonna have nothing to put up.”
“We could get Maylon’s irrigator. The pond still has water in it,” I said.
I could just make out the dark, shaded form of his narrowing eyes under the brim of his plain blue cap. “They’s others need it worse. If Seth Myatt’s tobacco don’t make he’s liable to lose his land.” He cast down the hull, peas the size of pinheads scattering soundlessly into the dirt. “Ain’t but so much water, I reckon.”
We stood for minutes in the quiet, the sun not yet set but having retreated below the wall of foliage to the west. There it blazed with all the incendiary colors associated with flame, the trees themselves seeming to burn without falter or destruction, as if living kindling were immortal. My father’s arm brushed against me.
“Feels like it’ll never rain again.” I thought aloud.
He stood for a long time saying nothing. “It’ll rain. Just pray it don’t come too late.” He scratched the growth of salt and pepper stubble on his round cheek and sighed, his exhalation sounding long, deep, like heavy cans rumbling around in his chest. “I’da been a farmer if the time had been right.” My father made me think of an old bear as he turned slowly and began the long amble towards our front porch.
“Daddy?” I called to him softly. In the dry air he heard me clearly and turned. “What’d you hang that snake up for?”
He shook his head and looked at his feet. “Found it coiled under the persimmon tree.” He paused and kicked at something that was absent. “Heard tell if you hang a snake up in a dogwood it’ll rain in three days.”
I was quiet a moment. “You believe that?” I asked.
My Daddy looked up at me. The shadowed form of his eyes narrowed again, then relaxed. “It don’t matter,” he said gently, and then he turned towards the house and walked away.