Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born by the river — the Mississippi River, that is, and in its oldest city, Natchez. I and my family are Southern Gothic with the humidity to prove it. We’ve got suicides, antebellum homes, wealth, poverty, slaves, violence, heartbreak, snakes, armadillos, dogs, cats and enough guilt to form our own religion, but we’re not all that crazy about religion.
A Hollow Space
I haven’t been home half an hour when it starts.
“The big sweet sweetgum by the front gate finally died,” he says.
Every death affects him these days, animal or vegetable.
“Oh, really,” I say, still unaware of its significance in the scheme of things.
“I took the tractor and went down to the gate to cut it down last.”
He crushes a pecan with a hammer. Shells skitter across the counter and spill onto the floor.
“I hooked a cable onto it, up high so I could pull it down, you know?”
I nod, having seen it done many times before.
“And then I went to cut a vee out so it’d fall the way I wanted it to. It’s a big tree.”
I shudder. My father has no business pulling down trees like that sweet gum. He’s eighty-three. But to tell him otherwise would be cruel. He refuses to acknowledge weakness. Better to let him die quick and violent than to take away his power.
I think about the time we brought the pony into town in the back of the Scout when I was a kid. My buddies and I wanted to bring him to the Mayfair at school for rides. The pony wouldn’t budge. Stubborn little bastard with a mean streak. Finally, my dad just reached down and picked up its front hooves and put them on the tailgate, then squatted down behind its hindquarters and lifted it into the Scout. We watched, astonished.
It’s the kind of memory you can’t really share, except with those friends who saw it. No one else believes you. They think you’re lying again. But it’s been a long time since I lied about anything. Well, about anything unimportant. I save all my lies for stuff that matters. But people don’t forget the lies, and that’s a bitch. Because sometimes you need to be believed.
“Well, when I started making the cut, I got about six inches in, and realized it was hollow. So I worried that it might not fall the way I wanted. I called Power & Light and told them they’d better send some people out to cut it down. It could fall the other way and bring down those lines out on the road. You know?”
I nod, quiet.
“It was the weekend. So I left it hooked to the tractor ’til they came out on Monday. They brought a crane and cut it off at the top, got it down to a manageable size. Then they said, ‘Let’s go ahead and pull it down with the tractor.’ So we tried to pulll it over, but it broke about halfway up the trunk. And you know? It was the strangest thing.”
“What?” There’s something in his voice that makes me pay attention.
“When it broke, the front half of the trunk fell off, but left the rest of the tree standing. And inside the trunk, about six feet up, was a horseshoe hanging on a nail.”
“You’re kidding,” I say.
“No. You should’ve seen the looks on everybody’s faces. That tree had to be over a hundred years old. And it looked solid, all the way around. No knotholes, nothing. But it was hollow, starting about six inches inside the tree.”
We’re starting out the front door when he says, “Oh, no.”
I ask him what’s wrong.
“There’s a dead chipmunk out here.”
I look down and see the lifeless little body neatly laid at the doorstep.
“It’s the cat,” I say. “He’s brought you a present.”
I smiled. He didn’t.
“I’ve been finding them everywhere,” he says, in the strangest places.
I can tell he’s upset, and I’m puzzled. Things like this never bothered him before.
Now, me? That’s another story. After he’d come home with a bag of squirrels he’d shot for dinner, I’d lay their little bodies out in lifelike poses, hoping they’d come out of it. I’d cry as he pulled the skin off them like taking off a shirt.
How many times had he come home from a hunt with a deer thrown across the hood of the Scout, its eyes surprised, and blood dripping from a tongue hanging out of the side of its mouth? He’d throw a rope over the rafter in the front of the barn, and attach a hook to the end. make a cut all the way around its neck and set a hook into the skin. He’d attach a chain to the hook and attach the other end to the bumper of the Scout. Then he’d back the Scout up, pulling the skin clean off the deer. It was quick and bloody with a thick, coppery smell that hung in the air. He didn’t give it a second thought.
Now he spent his days putting out salt licks and corn, and chasing off anyone who dared try to poach a deer, in season or no. It was late afternoon and the light was slanting at sharper angles, sending shadows out across the field. We stopped by the workshop in the woods.
“See that metal post right there?”
“Okay, now look over there.”
He pointed to another post some distance away.
“Those two posts are forty feet apart. If you take a string and tie it between the posts and measure 20 feet, that’s where you’ll find the water line for the house. I know because it broke one time and I had a heck of a time trying to find it. When I did, I made sure to mark it. I couldn’t mark the exact point because it’s in the roadbed, but you measure, and that’s where it is. I’m probably the only person who knows that.”
He sighed and his shoulders seemed to sag.
“You’re going to need to know these things when I’m gone.”
I nodded but couldn’t speak.
“You know, when people die, it really doesn’t matter who they were or what they did. They’re only remembered by the few people who knew them, and once those people are gone, you’re forgotten. It’s like you were never here at all.”
I knew he was right. I’d thought it, myself, on occasion. We spied two deer eating acorns under the oaks before they saw us and fled for the woods.
“Brandon died day before yesterday.”
“Oh, no. ”
Brandon was the golden retriever he’d rescued a couple of years ago. He couldn’t stand seeing a dog without a home and he now had a pack of about 14 dogs. At least two or three times a day, they’d gather in the front yard. One would begin with short, high yips and within a moment the others would join in, howling and yipping at ghosts.
Brandon had been a steady quiet, companion who never complained.
“Remember how he chased after the car the last time you were here? A few days later he just lay down and died. He seemed just fine, and then he died.”
I wondered how old he’d been.
We stopped beneath the oaks from which the deer had fled. He showed me how to tell the difference between a buck and a doe.
“The scat the doe leaves looks like little round balls, like pebbles. See?”
“Now, look over here. This is a buck.”
Several mounds of scat, larger than the first, like little mushrooms bloomed beneath the tree among the acorns and the leaves. I thought about all the lessons I’d missed by moving so far away.
By the gate, the trunk still stood as he’d left it. I looked down into the hollow. Twisted through the trunk was some ancient barbed wire that emerged again on the outside of the tree.
“Only thing I can figure,” he said, “is somebody hung that shoe on that fence a hundred or more years ago, and the tree just grew around it.”
He reached in and pulled out the shoe where he’d hung it.
“Well, I’ll be,” I said, shaking my head. I wondered why the shoe hadn’t become embedded in the tree. Who had put that shoe on the nail? How long had they been gone? Does anyone remember them? I tried to remember when barbed wire was invented. How many people had come and gone since that day?
I remembered the arrowheads we’d found in the lakebed a few years before, just feet from that spot.
“I’m tired,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m always tired lately.”
We started back to the house so he could lie down for awhile in the cool of the evening.