The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

The Familiar by Sylvia Dodgen


Steamboat gothic mother calls it. That is the architectural style she has dubbed our house in a small town on a river in southeast Alabama. Curlicues are carved around the porch posts and rails both on the upper and lower verandas. Window panes are wavy and tiny bubbles are embedded in the glass. “Abby + James 1856″ is scratched on a pane in the front bedroom. The house was built by a physician in 1852. A federally funded housing project built in the 1990’s stands across the street, rap music lifts in waves throughout the day. Tenants sit on their porches and look at us; we sit on our porch and look at them. It is an amiable arrangement.

I was happy to leave the house, when I went off to college and later moved west. Now I’m back. And whatever it is, is still here, hiding underneath the curving staircase or perched on the crystal chandelier between the upper and lower floors in the entry hall. But mostly it follows mother around from room to room, hovering by the bedside or wandering through the kitchen. I can often smell the acrid, invisible smoke before I feel the chill. Mother says she’s a friend.

“She who? Friend to whom?” I ask.

“To us,” says mother. “Have you ever been harmed?” asks mother.

“No,” I say. “But it’s scary. I don’t like it,” I tell her.

“Pshaw,” says mother.

I have come home to try to discern if mother can continue to live alone or if an assisted living situation should be pursued. Kudzu covers the house. The ceilings in the upstairs rooms are sagging from leaks where kudzu vines have snaked their way inside.

“I thought there were chemical agents now that could kill kudzu,” I inform her.

“I don’t like to see anything wilt and die,” mother says. “It’s unhealthy.”

“What’s unhealthy?” I ask. “Clearing the chimney and roof of kudzu?”

“No, dear, watching things die,” she says. “Seeing what it might leave behind. Little homeless mice or bats.”

“What?” I ask. “Well, we must watch out for the bats,” she says. “They eat the mosquitos.” I am totally perplexed now. Bats eat mosquitos? She makes me crazy, I think.

I call Sam the yard man the next morning and ask him to spray the kudzu on the chimney and roof. Sam says, “Okay” but adds, “your mother likes the shade of the kudzu covering the west windows, and the goats eat the kudzu, when we let them out.” Another opponent foiling my plans for light and order.

“Kudzu-eating goats. Aren’t you afraid it’ll kill them?”

“You can eat every part of that kudzu, vines, leaves and all,” says Sam.

“Me? Why would I eat kudzu? Sam, just go to the farmers coop and get that stuff to spray it with. I’ll spray it myself, if you won’t.”

“No, I’ll spray it,” says Sam.

I make a supper of chicken salad with almonds and grapes. Mother’s favorite. “Thank you, dear, for leaving out the curry; I never liked curry in my chicken salad,” she says. I feel guilty and am trying to redeem myself; I plan to talk to her about the assisted living facility in the morning. She pats my hand during supper and says she knows why I came and I shouldn’t worry about her so much. “I have friends,” she says.

During the night, I hear the television in the den. Is mother awake or did a friend come to watch t.v.? I wonder. When I go in, the t.v. is quiet and dark, although there is a gray glow as though it had just been switched off. Walking to the back bedroom – mother’s, I feel a familiar chill. Her door is ajar, and she is snoring peacefully. As I turn out my light and climb back into bed, wind chimes tinkle in the sunroom and the piano in the living room plays a running octave from middle C. “I’m leaving tomorrow; watch out for her,” I say out loud to no one in particular or, I think to myself, to the one who is slipping through shadows, inhabiting my mother’s house.