There is history in all men's lives.
The newborn banks cut across the land like veins flowing with crystal clear water, nurturing the land and sustaining life, just as the blood in the veins of the “River People” coursed fiercely through their bodies. People who built fires on the river side sand and sang happy songs that morphed into screaming war cries as the new world sprouted a growth of white strangers, who battled their way onto the banks, as the “River People” faded away. Pioneers cleared land, built homes, grew crops, raised families and eventually spread closer into communities, villages and towns. And for a time peace prevailed.
Yet, time travels on and once again war cries began to be heard in the the soggy bottoms beside the water. Rebel yells chilled the blood of the blue coats, but didn't damper their determination to trample the people and the land. The gray screams of defiance melted into moans of defeat as the north moved south and pledged liberty and justice for all... but both will be a long time coming. After the fray, greedy men grabbed their empty carpet bags and headed south to fill them. The strong currents of the river pulled them to its virgin shores , where they built mills. The river turned dark as the buildings emptied the bowels of progress into the once clear water. The slow song of the south was forever changed as men who once found their living on the land were forced to move to the mills and experience a subtle bondage of their own to the textile empire.
The twenties offered another avenue for ill-gotten gain, as the prohibition opened the hidden hollows and river bottoms to covert hideaways that flowed profusely with illegal alcohol and other dark vices. When the prohibition ended, the men it had enriched wandered boldly back into the towns. Engorged with wealth, yet hungry for more, they used their affluence to gain power and the system worked with them. Perverted judges, with black hearts, covered themselves in black robes, and stuffed their bottomless pockets with the fat of the land. Yet, we know every day has its reckoning, after the sowing and growing always comes the reaping. Delayed justice is only a deferred payment and someday whether here or there all wrongs will be righted.
A Snake in the Grass
“Every great story seems to begin with a snake.”
The wind danced over the knee high grass, causing it to ripple in waves down to the bank of the river. A viper lay in the weeds near the edge of the water. Halfway down its body a bulge distended its form. A bull frog, slowly dissolving in acidic bile lay trapped within. With swaying movements the reptile slowly raised its head, flicked its tongue and tasted the odor of the air. With a grotesque heavy-sided slither the satiated serpent began to move soundlessly through the night.
The rooster crowed as the sun rose. The water moccasin crawled out of the wet river bottom and into the weedy tobacco field. It slithered across the short row next to the river and into the row beside it. The snake wrapped its corpulent body around a grass-entangled tobacco stalk, flicked it tongue once, then grew as still as death and waited.
Crow caws cracked the sky as the soaring birds covered the sun, casting a dark shadow across the field. Like cowards clustered together to bolster their own bravado, they formed a tightly packed flock that dispersed like scattered pepper when they settled in the branches of the trees. Stillness ensued for only a breath, then the creatures again began to squawk and take wing as a bevy of rocks assailed them from the ground below.
Laughing, three boys continued to fling rocks until the last of the crows sailed across the noonday sun and disappeared into the willows down by the river. Running from the waist-high tobacco row, Harlan stopped and leaned his hoe against a tree. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. Close on his heels followed his two younger brothers. They dropped their hoes and fell to the ground.
“I'm tired, I'm sleepy and I'm as hungry as a horse,” Jesse complained. Curtis, the youngest, replied with a fake sore, pretending to have fallen asleep on the spot. “You fella's just stay up here whining and napping while I run on to the house and eat my dinner and yours too!”, Harlan flung the words across his shoulder as he darted off toward the house. Jumping up like rabbits, Jesse and Curtis kicked up dust as they hit the path running after him.
In the kitchen Aunt Dorrie pulled the hot pan of biscuits from the oven. Setting them on the table, she glanced out the window and saw the boys racing toward the house.
“Bessy,” she called, “Go tell your brothers to stop and wash up at the hose pipe before they come in to eat. They're as dirty as the hogs.” “Yes, ma'am,” Bessy answered as she bolted from the kitchen, the screen door banging shut behind her. The slamming of that door ushered in the beginning of the most poignant memory of her thirteenth year ...
I ran out that door like a streak of lightning, delighted that I'd been given some authority over my brothers, especially my twin brother, Jesse, I headed them off at the edge of the yard and held up my hand like a stop sign“Halt right there,” I commanded. “Y'all can't go in the house yet.” Jesse tried to step around me and I held out my arms straight out blocking him and said louder “I told you, YOU CAN'T GO IN.” “Stop mess'in with us, Bessy. We're star'vin “Harlan said as he pushed my arms away. “Go on in then and see what happens, Aunt Dorrie said all y'all gotta wash up out here, cause you're too dirty to wash up at the sink. She'll be mad as fire if you don't listen to me.” I said. “Well okay then” Harlan answered, but you ain't got to be such a bossy britches about it.” They all walked over to the well house and I followed them and stood to the side with my hands planted on my hips. Jesse picked up the hose and turned on the spigot and before I could even blink he spun around and turned the water on me, in an even quicker instant I lost all my puffed up dignity and I lit into Jesse like a wildcat. Doubling over in laughter, Harlan and Curtis watched us ,drop the hose and fall onto the ground rolling in the mud. Wanting to get in on the fun,Curtis grabbed the hose from the ground and turned it on Harlan, who quickly wrestled it out of his hands and ran it down the back of his overalls. We were all brought to a sudden stop by the banging of the kitchen screen door.
Aunt Dorrie stood on the steps wiping her hands on a dish towel and shaking her head. “Not only are you as dirty as the hogs but you're act'in like 'em too. Wallowing around in the mud like you ain't got no sense at all.” she hollered across the yard. “Get yourselves sprayed off and into some dry clothes, then get in here to eat.” She turned and went back into the house. We took turns spraying each other off, laughing with the kind of laughter that makes you feel real clean inside. We began to move a little faster as we heard the sound of Daddy's pick up truck coming up the driveway.
Roland parked the truck next to the barn. Cutting off the engine, he set the parking brake and opened the door. Hearing a ruckus, he looked across the yard and saw his four children at the well house hosing each other down. He got out and shut the door. As the sound of their unified laughter rang across the yard, a sad smile slid across his face. It was a painful comfort to still be able to hear Esther's laughter in the voices of their children. Even after nine years he could still see her face, hear her singing in the kitchen, feel her heart beating in his world, because of them. In their children she still lived on. Oh God, how he missed her, and how confusing his world was without her. He still struggled to understand what happened the night he lost her. It had been so hard at first, Curtis a newborn, Jesse and Bessy five year old twins and Harlan, the oldest at eight. Dorrie, his sister, had been their saving grace. She moved in the very day Esther died and with her help they'd made it this far. Walking to the back of his pick up, Roland lifted out the box with the tractor starter in it and carried it into the cool sanctuary of the workshop.
Inside the kitchen, Aunt Dorrie cut the hot apple pie into slices and set it on the table. She looked over the spread that included a pot of pinto beans, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, thick slices of ham and a large tupperware pitcher full of ice tea. Deciding , due to the well house fiasco, that she had some time to pretty up the table, she ducked out of the kitchen to the flower garden to cut a bouquet of flowers for the table. A white picket fence enclosed the flower beds and lush red rambling roses spilled over it and into the yard. A black wrought iron gate gave access to the garden. Dorrie loved working the dirt and tending the flowers, but her reason for nurturing the plants went much deeper than the soil. This garden had belonged to her sister-in-law Esther, who had cultivated it with love. Dorrie had made a vow to herself that she would always tend Esther's flowers. It was something she could do that made her heart feel a little better, a small way to keep Esther's memory alive.
Curtis was too young to remember his mama. She'd died the night he was born. Such an awful night it was. Such an awful memory. Dorrie shook her head and came back to the present. It did no good to muddle herself up with bad memories and unanswered questions when dinner was waiting on the table. She opened the gate and walked to the back of the garden where a late-blooming lilac bush still displayed a fragrant array of blossoms. Taking a pair of scissors from her apron pocket she snipped a handful of the purple flowers. Carrying them back into the kitchen, she rummaged around under the kitchen counter and found a blue mason jar. Turning on the spigot at the sink she filled it with water and arranged the flowers in it. As she was placing it on the table, Harlan, Jesse and Curtis entered the kitchen. “Gosh, I'm hungry” Jesse said. Turning sharply to him Dorrie said “What did I tell you about say'in “Gosh”?” “But Aunt Dorrie, you just said it too” he replied, laughing. “You can't get out of it that way, “ Dorrie answered. “Don't let me hear you say it again, you hear?” “But “Gosh” ain't the same as saying “God” is it?” Jesse protested. “Its close enough,” Dorrie replied. “Now , where's Bessy?” she asked. “Aunt Dorrie,you know her” Harlan answered. “She can't eat unless she's got something to read. She went out to the tree house to get her book.”
After I finished changing into dry clothes, I headed out back to get the latest book I was read'in, Daddy came out of the workshop as I was coming out of the woods . He saw I had something under my arm and asked “What'cha got there princess?” “Its my book, Daddy” I answered. We met at the back steps and I handed it to him. He read the title then opened the cover. With his finger he traced the name written inside, Esther Jones. “ It was mama's book , daddy.” I told him. “Yes, it was “ he answered. Shutting the book , he handed it back to me. “Lets go get some grub “ he said as we stepped onto the back porch. Opening the screen door, he held it as I slipped inside, then followed me into the kitchen.
Daddy hung his hat on a peg by the door and washed his hands at the sink. I jumped into my chair and immediately stuck my nose into the book. Pulling out his chair and sitting down Daddy bowed his head, Aunt Dorrie and the boys did as well , but I was already lost in my book. I heard Daddy loudly clear his throat. Sheepishly putting my book to the side I bowed my head. After grace was said, Aunt Dorrie began passing the food. She made sure everyone's plate was full before she filled her own. There was no conversation during the first five minutes of the meal. Breakfast had long ago worn off we were a hungry bunch.
As the feeding frenzy wore down, Daddy looked up and asked “Did yall spend all morning out there playing at the well house or did you get any hoeing done?” “Yeah, Daddy we worked the field, we're almost finished .” We only have four rows left down by the river side. We can finish those up this afternoon and it'll go quicker if Bessy can help.” Harlan answered. “We can each do one row. We'll give Curtis the short row closest to the river.” Curtis looked up and frowned. He didn't like to be treated like the baby of the family. “I can work just as hard as anyone else” he said. “Don't treat me like I can't, I can hoe all four of those rows by myself, Daddy, if you need me to.” He was serious too. If he thought Daddy needed something , Curtis would move heaven and earth to please him. “I know you would son” Daddy answered him, “but I think Harlan has a good plan,” he looked at Aunt Dorry and added “That is if Dorry don't need Bessy here at the house.” “Aw, no” replied Dorry. “It won't take me long to wash up these dishes, then I'm just going to spread a table cloth over these left overs and we'll have them for supper.” I plan on working out in the flower garden this afternoon and I don't need Bessy for that.” A sad smile fell across daddy's face as he glanced at the bouquet on the table.
I decided it was time for me to get in on this conversation and wrangle out a deal that would benefit me. Putting my book aside I said. “Are y'all talking about me?” “Yeah, “ Jesse answered. “You gotta help us out in the field.” “well, in that case I get the shortest row” I said. “We already gave that row to Curtis, cause he's the baby” Jesse fired back at me. “I'm not a baby” Curtis cried out, and besides Bessy's a girl and daddy says we gotta treat girls better than we treat ourselves, ain't that right ,Daddy?” “you got me there” Daddy replied. “So I think” Curtis continued, “That since Bessy is a girl she ought to have the shortest row.””I can't argue with that logic , Daddy said, “Okay, then Bessy, you can have the shortest row and Curtis will take the one beside you.” I shot a smirk at Jesse, and picked my book back up. “Now that that's settled,” daddy said “Would someone please pass me the apple pie?”
After dinner Roland headed back out to the work shop. He planned to spend the rest of the day putting that new starter on his old tractor. He knew most folks would have junked that old tractor years ago, but Roland had a way with machinery. He knew how to tear a piece down into a thousand parts and put it back together again. No one had ever taught him how, he was just born knowing. His oldest boy Harlan, wasn't like that. He had no head for parts and pieces, at least not machine parts and pieces, but give him words, parts and pieces of sentences and he could grow them into paragraphs on a page and write you an argument that was hard to refute. He had a writing desk in his room and usually spent a couple hours writing at night before he went to bed. But Jesse, well, he was mechanical, like his daddy. If he wasn't needed in the field, you could always find him in the workshop tinkering with something. His twin sister, Bessy took after her mama and Harlan. She loved words too but right now, she would rather read them than to write them. Her mama, Esther, had left a small library of her books and Bessy was working her way through them one by one. She always had a book somewhere close by and if you ever got to missing her she could usually be found out back in the tree house, reading. And his littlest was Curtis, a tender sensitive child. He wore his heart on his sleeve and his light was always shining, although he didn't care a whit about socializing, he was the type to be a true blue friend to a few. And Curtis had a gift. He was an artist. His side of the room, that he shared with Jesse, was papered with his drawings. Curtis spent most of his free time in the woods down by the river' quietly watching the wildlife and capturing it on paper.
Roland loved his children with a deep and steady love, a sacrificial love. When times were tight, and they often were, Roland saw to their needs before his own. If someone was going to have to do without, it would be him. His greatest sorrow in life was that their mama wasn't here to share that love. She was buried on the far side of the farm, in the Jones family cemetery. He often visited her grave, and never missed a special occasion. It was his habit to buy a card, wrap it in wax paper and leave it on her headstone. He always signed it “I love and miss you, Roland.” He was glad , his sister Dorrie kept Esther's flower garden growing so he could carry a fresh bouquet to her grave when the flowers were in season.
Harlan got back to the field first. Picking up the hoe he'd left leaning against the tree, he walked into the longest row and began chopping the weeds. Bessy, Jessy and Curtis followed him and began working in their own rows. With full stomachs and the sun sliding slowly toward the west, they fell into a rhythm of work that allowed their thoughts to wander into daydreams all their own. Chopping with the hoe, bending ' pulling and throwing weeds they worked steadily as the afternoon marched on toward evening.
Placing the last dish in the rack, Dorrie pulled the drain plug from the sink and dried her hands on the dish towel. After arranging the tablecloth so that it covered all the food, she reached for her straw hat, hanging on a peg by the door. Settling it firmly on her head she stepped out onto the back porch. Dorrie stood for a minute surveying the farm yard. To her left was the graveled dirt driveway that ended beside the barn. Roland's truck was parked there. The work shop was on the other side of the barn and she could hear him in there banging on something as she made her way to the shop to get her gardening tools. When she entered the building, Roland was was all up in the guts of the tractor. He didn't see her come in. She gathered her basket of hand tools and quietly slipped back outside. The flower garden was beside the house and the vegetable garden was behind the barn. Dorrie made her way to the flower garden. Glancing across the yard and up the hill she could just make out the four siblings hard at work weeding the field.
I was chop'in and slapp'in...the sun had just dropped past the tree tops and the mosquitoes were buzzing up from the river, sensing our warm flesh and blood, they hummed into the tobacco field and began to sink their needles into our skin. Now, all our sporadic slaps accompanied the rhythm of chop, bend, pull and throw...it sounded something like this...
Chop, bend, pull, throw slap
Slap, slap ,Chop, slap, bend
pull, slap, slap, slap, throw...
We were all tired and nearing the end of our separate rows when it happened. Curtis told us later that he had been struggling to pull up a clump of Johnson grass growing up tight against the tobacco stalk. He was cleaning his row perfectly so that when Daddy cam out here tomorrow to inspect the job he would be proud of him. In exasperation he'd gotten down close on his hands and knees and leaned in close. He grasped the weeds in a firm hold and in an instant realized he'd grabbed more than weeds. The mouth was open wide and Curtis was near enough to see the inside of its cotton white mouth ,right before he felt the fiery sting burn his right wrist. The snake whipped out of the grass and wrapped itself around his arm. He began screaming and stood up, trying to shake the viper loose. But with every shake the snake held on pumping more venom into his wrist. Hearing Curtis' screams we flung down our hoes and ran to his row. Harlan yelled “JESSE HOLD HIM STILL!” Jesse wrapped both arms around Curtis and did his best to hold him . Harlan got ahold of Curtis' arm, and using his free hand, he began to strangle the snake.
It was too much for me, I began to scream myself and calling for Daddy, I ran from the field toward the house. I saw daddy bolt from the shop and Dorrie running out from back of the house. With Daddy way out front they both ran up the path toward me. When they reached me, I cried out “CURTIS GOT SNAKE BIT, OH DADDY ITS AWFUL!” Daddy ran on up the path to the field, with Aunt Dorrie panting behind him. I just stood in the path shaking and sobbing ,thinking It was me that should've been in that row...then I took off runn'in after them.
When I got there, I saw Harlan and Jesse holding Curtis up. On the ground at their feet was a dead water moccasin. Daddy was lifting Curtis up in his arms as Aunt Dorrie ran up behind him. I saw her pick up a hoe and in a frenzy she chopped that snake to pieces.. I watched her till she threw down her hoe, and then we both followed the others who were already running down the path to the truck.
Thirty Pieces of Silver
But if your eye is bad
your whole body will be full of darkness.
If then the light that is in you is darkness,
how great is the darkness. ~Matthew 6:23~
Our farm was a few miles upstream from the largest mill in Anderson county. It was built by Captain Sherman Bender and had been passed down through the generations of Bender heirs. The current owner was old Arlo Bender but he was stashed away in the nursing home, while his son Buchanan Bender, ran the mill. Buchanan was his given name but no one ever called him that. He was known by everyone as “Buzzard” Bender and had been since he was twelve years old.
Granny Harrell, said it was at the very moment that he acquired this name, that he sold his soul to the devil.
She said what that turkey buzzard did wasn't normal and it was a sign for those “who have eyes to see” . Granny said up to that moment, it could'a went either way, but when Buchanan made that choice on the playground to choose evil one more time, he sealed the deal. She said the LORD takes particular notice of the “least of these” and that He had His eyes on the the school yard that morning.
As for me, I don't know if the hardening of a heart works that way or not, but what I do know, and know for sure, is that Buchanan Bender never got better, he wore worse. From that day forward he pulled evil to himself like he had it tied to his heart with wagon cords. They say it happened like this....
On that morning the sky was dark and threatening rain. In the distance thunder bumped across the clouds in a low rumbling growl. The West Glen Elementary school yard was full of children, waiting for the morning bell to ring them inside. First through sixth graders huddled together in age appropriate groups except for three students who were roaming the yard looking for trouble. Buchanan Bender, Ortho Cates and Walter Newton, sixth graders who shored up every insecurity and deficiency inside themselves, by intimidating and bullying the younger students.
The third graders were huddled together near the school entrance. As the thunder grew louder they moved closer together jostling one little fellow and causing him to drop his lunch money onto the ground. His name was Milton Harrell. He was Granny Harrell's grandson, her only daughter Viola's boy. No one knew who his daddy was. Viola was seventeen when she gave birth to Milton a month prematurely. The birth happened quickly and there wasn't any time to get Viola medical care. Granny Harrell delivered her own tiny four pound 10 ounce grandson into the world. As soon as Viola gained back her strength she took off for parts unknown, leaving Granny Harrell to raise Milton. The early birth had affected him mentally. He was slower than his classmates, but his kind heart overshadowed his incomplete intelligence.
Milton was down on his hands and knees scrambling to find all of his dropped coins when Buchanan Bender spotted him. “There's us some fun,” he said nudging his two sidekicks. Sauntering over to the the third graders, Buchanan raised his foot high and stomped on Milton's hand . Milton raised his head and looked up. “HHHHey.......you're standing on somebody.....somebody is down here and you're standing on them. Hey, I said, its Milton down here.” The first drop of rain fell, baptizing Milton's forehead , he continued “And now its raining down here too...I need to get my money before it gets wet...please walk somewhere else, you're hurting my hand.” Buchanan laughed and ground his boot down harder. Milton trying to stand up, felt Buchanan's foot lift, then cried out as the boot kicked him brutally in the side knocking him into the dirt. Milton held his ribs and looked at his dirtied clothes. The rain began to come down sharp like BB pellets . Milton's pain melted into tears. He cried, “Now I can't go to school...I'm dirty...I'm a dirty mess.” “You were born dirty.” Buchanan said with a laugh, and looked around to make sure Ortho and Walter were laughing with him. “ And you ain't gott'a worry about that money gett'in wet cause you're gonna pick it up and give it all to me .” Sobbing , Milton crawled around gathering up the scattered coins.
Roland, was in the sixth grade too. He was standing with his classmates when he heard someone crying. Looking behind him he saw Milton Harrell crawling around in the mud on the ground. He heard him saying “Thhhis...is my school money...III've got to buy my milk and mmmy lunch with it....I ain't got no more. Granny told me nnnnot to lose it. I got to buy my lunch bbbut I 'll share...you can sit at mmmmy table and I will share my lunch with you.” Buchanan and his goons just laughed at him.
Roland bolted over to the third graders and grabbed Buchanan by the back of his collar and spun him around. Buchanan hooked out his leg and swept Roland's feet out from under him. Outweighing Roland by thirty pounds Buchanan quickly got the better of him . Pinning him to the ground Buchanan leaned in so close Roland could smell the anger on his breath and see the pin hard pupils of his eyes. Buchanan whispered “This is all your fault, you should 'a never laid a hand on me. You deserve all you're gonna get.” He began punching Roland over and over in the face. The rain was coming down hard now. The students had made a circle around the fight and were holding their books over their heads to ward off the rain. The school bell was ringing but no one was paying it any mind. Roland's nose was bleeding profusely, little Milton saw it and ran over to try and wipe the blood off with his hands. Buchanan shoved Milton away and then continued his frenzied attack. Milton ran and jumped on Buchanan's back to trying again to help Roland. Buchanan stopped hitting Roland just long enough to swing around and land a blow to Milton which knocked him back onto the ground unconscious.
Roland took that second to wipe the blood from his face, as he did he saw a dark shadow fall from the sky behind Buchanan. With a cry of “WHAT THE...?” Buchanan jumped up off Roland and turned around beating frantically at his back. On his shoulders with its claws firmly embedded through his sweater and into the skin of his back was the biggest buzzard Roland had ever seen. Buchanan was struggling, reaching his arms around his back trying to knock the buzzard off. The buzzard was flapping its huge wings, looking as if it were trying to lift Buchanan up and fly away with him. Buchanan couldn't budge the buzzard so he began to run. He ran out of the school yard and down the road toward town, That was the last anyone saw of him that day and no one ever knew how he managed to get that buzzard off his back, but from that day forward everyone called him Buzzard Bender.
As a man, Buzzard had lived up to his name. He circled the weak and vulnerable waiting till they were desperate then like a vulture he'd fly in with his sharp beak and pick them apart. Most of them found themselves working in the mill with below minimum wages and manipulated to such a point they actually felt mis-guided gratitude toward him. And with that jolly old smile, that never reached his eyes plastered to his face as he robbed them blind
Buzzard lived in a large restored plantation house on the other side of the river from Roland's farm. He owned the property from his place all the way upstream to Bender's “Fabric's Cotton Mill”. It encompassed about seven hundred acres. Back behind the mill in a river bottom Buzzard had renovated an old prohibition clubhouse , He called it “Bender's Riverside Bar & Sportsman's Club.” Rumor had it that a man could find just about any kind of sport he wanted at Bender's Bar.
Buzzard's wife's name was Brenda Bender. She preferred to be called “BB.” She was a skinny little woman, all sharp knees and elbows but with a backbone of stainless steel. She was obsessed with Jacquelyn Kennedy and tried ever so desperately to copy Jackie's sophisticated wardrobe style. On BB, it came off like a chicken trying to impersonate a swan. Which made Buzzard and BB the perfect couple, a buzzard and a chicken, being as how birds of a feather flock together and all that sort of thing.
The Writing on the Wall
“Everybody has a chapter they don't read out loud.”
I can't give you any specific memories I had of the Anderson County Hospital before we arrived that evening, or why it sent a chill down my spine when we pulled up to the emergency door, but it did. I was afraid to go in yet I was afraid not to. Me and Harlan and Jesse were in the bed of the truck. Daddy and Aunt Dorrie were up front with Curtis. We hopped out of the back and Harlan opened Daddy's door. Curtis was laying across the seat with his head in Aunt Dorrie's lap. She was holding a handkerchief over the bite on his right wrist , his arm was swollen twice its normal size and blood and yellow fluid was oozing out through the handkerchief. Curtis was conscious but talking out of his head, he was muttering something about losing his math book and feeding the cat popcorn. I began to feel sick to my stomach.
Roland turned off the ignition and slid out of the truck. He was remembering the last person he'd carried through those doors and remembering that he didn't bring them back out with him. He hurried around and opened Dorrie's door. She gently moved Curtis' head off her lap and laid his arm down by his side. Roland reached inside and carefully shifted Curtis into his arms. The movement caused Curtis to utter a low moan and vomit.
An orderly met the family at the door and held it open as the they entered. Two more orderlies were coming down the hallway with a gurney. They wheeled it up to Roland and he laid Curtis on it. Curtis roused back into coherency and said “Daddy , please don't leave me.” “I'm right here son, I'm not going anywhere.” Roland reassured him. “What happened,?” one of the orderlies asked. “He was bit by a water moccasin,” Dorrie replied as the gurney was being rolled toward the emergency exam rooms. A nurse met them at the double doors and asked if Roland and Dorrie were Curtis' parents. I'm his father, Roland answered and nodding towards Dorrie said, “She's my sister.” “Both of you come with me,” the nurse said, gesturing toward a door across the hall she said “The rest of you may wait in the waiting area.” Harlan opened the waiting room door and they walked in.
The first thing I noticed was the overwhelming smell of stale tobacco. The room was rectangular, the walls were lined with hard red chairs and at the far end was a table with an overflowing ash tray . Beside the ash tray was an empty paper cup and a telephone book was laying on the floor beneath the table. Magazines littered the table and the chairs. The room felt helpless and forlorn, so did I. I was still grappling with the fact that I should have been hoeing the row Curtis was on. It was my selfishness that hurt Curtis. I was older, if I'd been there I probably would have saw that snake before it bit me or even if I did get bit my body was bigger the venom wouldn't hurt me as bad.
Overwhelmed by these thoughts, I burst into tears. Harlan reached out toward me and I crumpled into his arms. “It should've been me” I admitted. Just speaking the words aloud dumped another shovel full of guilt onto my back. The weight was unbearable and I slid from Harlan's arms to the cold linoleum tiled floor. I felt Harlan settle down beside me, he reached and touched my chin, he attempted to pull my face up to look at him but I wouldn't let him. I sat sat cross-legged on the floor staring down at the black and white pattern of the tile. The colors blended into gray through the deluge of tears that were flooding my eyes. I felt Harlan's hand reaching toward me again. I felt him sticking something under my nose and I cold smell the scent of sweat. It was his handkerchief. I took it and blowing my nose loudly, I raised my eyes to his. He was crying too. I felt an arm reach from behind and settle across my shoulders. Looking behind me I saw Jesse settling down on the floor and Harlan stretched out his arms around us both . We all three just huddled there on the floor together. No one spoke any more words with our mouths because our hearts were talking too loud to hear them.
We were still sitting there together on the floor when we heard someone push open the door. We raised our heads as one and we watched as J.M. Smyth walked into the room and said,“Your daddy called me from the emergency room, he told me what happened. He asked me to drive over here and check on you.” We stood up and sharing that one handkerchief between us we wiped our tears and blew our noses.J.M. was our Preacher. Harlan spoke first saying, “It looks bad Preacher.” Jesse broke in and said “It was a dad-blame cotton mouth that got'em, one of those mean river moccasins, but Harlan choked it to death then Aunt Dorrie killed it again with the hoe.”
I took a deep trembling breath and rushed out these words “What else did daddy say?” Did he say how Curtis is doing?... Did he tell you this is all my fault?... Did he say Curtis is gonn'a die?” That last word did me in again. Die...I just knew Curtis was gonna die, just like mama did. Then I realized why this place chilled my soul so. Mama died here and now Curtis was gonna die here too and it was because of me, and if Curtis died, I was gonna die too, I couldn't live with myself, and if me and Curtis died, then daddy would die too, it had almost killed him to lose mama and like a train off the tracks my thoughts ran head-long into a crash,.I felt the bile rise in my throat and before I could find a trash can I vomited right there on the Preacher. Harlan , who had a hold of that shared handkerchief began to try and dab off the Preacher and me too. That handkerchief had sure done its share of work today.
The Preacher reached into his pocket and took out two clean handkerchiefs, I wondered just how many did he carry around with him anyway, maybe Preachers were required by Preacher code to carry a certain number, it seemed likely to me that , that should be the case as preachers went around dealing with tragedy all the time. Maybe he could just keep pull'in 'em out of his sleeve, in an endless miraculous supply...my thoughts were headed off the rails again.The Preacher handed me a handkerchiefs and he used the other to wipe off his shirt and shoes. Harlan dropped the one he was holding into the trash can. I kind 'a felt sorry that we couldn't some how keep it ...sorta symbolic like ...with all our tears and stuff blended together and all. There I went , thinking crazy again.I was glad when the preacher suggested we all have a seat ...and... a prayer.
The Preacher bowed his head and we did too. “Father” “ he said, This is a family that You love. I love 'em too. They sure have had an extra portion of heartache in their life, but it never caused them to stop lov'in and trust'in You. It appears tonight they've had another helping heaped on their plate. What's done is done and it don't do nobody no good to blame themselves, we can't go back and change anything that's happened, but now we are here in the present and you're here with us and the future is yet to be decided and we know that You hold that future in You're hands. You tell us that You hear our earnest , honest pleas and that our prayers work together with Your will, so tonight we are asking you to protect and preserve Curtis' life, we ask You to give him an awareness of Your presence wherever his conscious or unconscious might be. Comfort him and enfold him in your peace. And for his family, his loved ones I pray that same peace to wash over them and I pray for Your strength to carry them through this troubling time .In the name of Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ we pray...Amen.
The Preacher raised his head and we did too. He said, “Y'all gott'a be hungry, let me run upstairs and check on Curtis, your Dad and Dorrie, then I'll carry you done to the diner for a hot dog.
Everything was white, the walls, floors, tables, gurneys, sheets, blankets, curtains, uniforms, everything except Curtis' right arm which was badly swollen and turning black . The nurse walked into a curtain shrouded cubicle and the orderlies wheeled Curtis in behind her, Roland and Dorrie followed. “ Tell me what happened” the nurse asked as she took a blood pressure cuff from a drawer. “Ma'am,” he said,” My boy was bit by a water moccasin, in the field about an hour ago, we drove him straight here, “ He's been in talking out of his head some and he vomited when I took him out of the truck.” The curtain was pulled open and another nurse stuck her head inside the room, “I'm going to need one of you to come up to the admissions desk with me and fill out some paper work,”. Dorrie looked at Roland and nodded, “I'll come with you,” she answered.
“What's your son's name and how old is he,?” The nurse asked as she wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Curtis' left arm. “Curtis, Curtis Jones, and he's nine years old,” replied Roland. ” Does you son have any other health issues or drug allergies?” Mister Jones. “No” Roland answered. Curtis whimpered, Roland leaned in close and said “Hang on Curtis, we're at the hospital,” to the nurse he added” Where's the doctor my boy needs help!” The curtain parted and Dorrie entered with the nurse who'd taken her to the admissions desk. The admissions nurse replied, the Doctor's been called he'll be here soon.” then she quickly left the room. The emergency room nurse snapped an identification bracelet on Curtis' good arm, the began rummaging in another drawer and gathering supplies. She wet a gauze pad with antiseptic solution and began to clean Curtis' swollen arm. Curtis started to cry and Dorrie moved to the head of the gurney and rested her hand across Curtis' forehead. The touch settled him and he quieted.
The nurse had finished cleaning the wound and taking the vitals. She was writing in the chart when the curtain opened again. The heavy odor of hair tonic entered the room, followed by a man with dark hair slicked back from his forehead. Strapped around his head was an exam light. He wore a white tunic buttoned across his shoulders and a stethoscope dangled from his neck. Roland recoiled at the sight. It had been nine years since he'd seen this man but he would never forget him. His name was Dr. Evans. Roland felt like he'd been thrown back into the middle of a nightmare. During her pregnancies Esther's doctor had been a kindly gentleman named Doctor Talley but the night Esther went into labor with Curtis, Doctor Talley wasn't available. It wasn't that he wasn't at the hospital that night, he was, but as a patient himself. He'd had a heart attack earlier that day and was in room 204. There were two deaths in the hospital later that night, his and Esther's. Doctor Evans had been called in to take Doctor Talley's patients. He had delivered Curtis and attended Esther the night she died. If Doctor Evans recognized Roland, he didn't let on.
The doctor walked over to the nurse who was still making notes on the chart and without saying a word pulled it from her hands. Quickly glancing over the page, he said “Snake bite ...hmmm...lets have a look.” Thrusting the chart back towards the nurse, he walked to the head of the gurney where Dorry was still standing with her hand on Curtis' forehead and roughly said “You're in my way here, you need to move,” as he nudged her out of the away, and grasped Curtis' black swollen arm. Curtis who had been calm as long as Dorrie's hand had been on his brow began to thrash around. Doctor Evan's tightened his grip on Curtis' arm, and with his other hand, reached up and switched on his head piece light. He leaned in close over the gurney. Curtis moaned then making a retching sound he vomited into Dr. Evans slick-backed hair. Dropping Curtis' arm the doctor bit back an expletive and began barking orders at the nurse. Start IV fluids and 50cc's of penicillin, draw a blood sample and send it to the lab, then have him transferred upstairs. Turning to Roland he said “We will discuss treatment options after I obtain the lab results”. Pulling open the curtain he strode from the cubicle. The nurse quickly completed the doctor's orders and soon Curtis was being moved to a room.
The IV pole rattled along side the gurney, tubing, from an IV needle inserted into Curtis's left arm ran up to a bottle hanging from the pole. The nurse walked beside the pole and guided it as the orderlies transported Curtis upstairs. Roland and Dorrie walked on the other side. Roland was staring at Curtis' arm. The nurse had drawn a line where the swelling was at when the first entered the emergency area, the swelling and discoloration has crept an inch or more past that mark. . The fang marks continued to bleed and the nurse had laid a gauze pad over to absorb the flow. Curtis had been quiet since the vomiting episode in the cubicle and appeared to be resting a little since they had started giving him the IV fluids.
“Roland... Hey, Roland” Roland turned, the Preacher was hurrying down the hall way behind them. He stopped briefly and waited for him to catch up. They both caught up to the gurney as it was stopped at the elevator doors. The Preacher reached out and lay his hand on Curtis' shoulder. At the Preacher's touch Curtis opened his eyes and weakly said, “Hey Preacher,” . Roland noticed the whites of Curtis' eyes were blood red. He made a mental note to ask the nurse about it when they got upstairs to the room. The Preacher said, “It looks like that snake tried to get the best of you, but I hear it wound up gett'in more than it bargained for.” Why, I think that's probably the only snake that ever got killed twice. They tell me Harlan choked it to death then your Aunt Dorry hacked to death!” Curtis managed a slight smile. “How are the other kids?” Roland asked the Preacher. “ They are pretty shook up, especially Bessy,” answered the Preacher. “I was thinking I'd take them to get something to eat.” “That's a good idea,” Roland replied as the elevator doors slid open and the orderlies wheeled Curtis in. “Thank you” Roland managed to reply as he and Dorrie hurriedly squeezed inside the closing elevator doors.