Then there was one brief time when we didn’t live in the big brick house with my grandmother, but in a neat two-story green- roofed white house in the hollow below. It was two stories if you stood at the front door; on the other side it was three stories, the ground floor a tall basement garage.
The house was surrounded by hills to the north and east and south. Directly above us lay the family farm and my grandmother’s house. Two miles behind the south hill was the town of Tipton, where the Challenger Paper and Fiber Corporation smoked eternally, smudging the Carolina mountain landscape for miles. A small creek ran through our side yard, out of the eastern hills. The volume of the creek flow was controlled by Challenger; they had placed a reservoir up there, and the creek water was regulated by means of a spillway.
At this time my mother was visiting her brother in California. Uncle Luden was in trouble again, with a whole different woman this time. Maybe my mother could help; it was only five thousand miles round- trip by train.
So my father and I had to fumble along as best we could.
Despite the extra chores, I found it exciting. Our friendship took a new and stronger turn, became something of a mild conspiracy. New sets of signals evolved between us. We met now on freshly neutral ground somewhere between my boyhood and his boyishness, and for me it was a heady rise in status. We were clumsy housekeepers, there were lots of minor mishaps, and the tag line we formulated soonest was “Let’s just not tell Mama about this one.” I adored that thought.
He was always dreaming up new projects to please her and, during her absence, came up with one of masterly ambition.
Across the little creek, with its rows of tall willows, was a half acre of fallow ground considered unusable because of marshiness and the impenetrable clot of blackberry vines in the south corner. My father now planned it as a garden, already planted before she returned.
We struggled heroically. I remember pleasantly the destruction of the vines and the cutting of the drainage ditch neat and straight into the fi eld. The ground was so soft that we could slice down with our spades and bring up squares of dark blue mud and lay them along side by side. Th ey gleamed like tile. Three long afternoons completed the ditch, and then my father brought out the big awkward shoulder scythe and whetted the blade until I could hear it sing on his thumb ball when he tested it. And then he waded into the thicket of thorny vine and began slashing. For a long time nothing happened, but finally the vines began to fall back, rolling up in tangles like barbarous handwriting. With a pitchfork, I worried these tangles into a heap. Best of all was the firing, the clear yellow flame and the sizzle and snap of the vine ribs and thorns, and the thin black smoke rising above the new- green willows. The delicious smell of it.
After this, we prepared the ground in the usual way and planted. Th en we stood at the edge of our garden, admiring with a full, tired pride the clean furrows and mounded rows of earth.
But this was only a part of the project. It was merely a vegetable garden, however arduously achieved, and we planted a garden every year. My father wanted something else, decorative, elegant in design, something guaranteed to please a lady.
The weather held good and we started next day, hauling two loads of scrap lumber from one of the barns. He measured and we sawed and planed. He hummed and whistled as he worked and I mostly stared at him when not scurrying to and fro, fetching and carrying. He wouldn’t, of course, tell me what we were building.
On the second day it became clear. We were constructing a bridge. We were building a small but elaborate bridge across the little creek that divided the yard and the garden, a stream that even I could step over without lengthening my stride. It was ambitious: an arched bridge with handrails and a latticework arch on the garden side enclosing a little picket gate.
He must have been a handy carpenter. To me, the completed bridge appeared marvelous. We had dug deep on both sides to sink the locust piers, and the arch above the stream, though not high, was unmistakably a rainbow. When I walked back and forth across the bridge, I heard and felt a satisfactory drumming. The gate latch made a solid cluck and the gate arch, pinned together of old plaster lathe, made me feel that in crossing the bridge I was entering a different world, not simply going into the garden.
He had further plans for the latticework. “Right here,” he said, “and over here. I’ll plant some roses to climb up the trellis. Then you’ll see.”
We whitewashed it three times. The raw lumber sparkled. We walked upstream to the road above the yard and looked at it, then walked downstream to the edge of the garden and looked at it. We saw nothing we weren’t prideful about.
He went off in our old Pontiac and returned in a half hour. He parked in the driveway and got out. “Come here,” he said. We sat in the grass on the shoulder of the culvert at the edge of the road. “I’ve been to the store,” he said. He pulled a brown paper sack from his pocket. I found ten thimble- shaped chocolate mints inside, my favorite. From another pocket he pulled a rolled band of bright red silk.
“Thank you,” I said. “What’s that?”
“We want her to know it’s a present, don’t we? So we’ve got to tie a ribbon on it. We’ll put it right there in the middle of the handrail.” He spooled off two yards of ribbon and cut it with his pocketknife. “Have to make a big one so she can see it from the road.”
I chewed a mint and observed his thick, horny fingers with the red silk.
It was not to be. Though I was convinced that my father could design and build what ever he wanted— the Brooklyn Bridge, the Taj Mahal—he could not tie a bow in this broad ribbon. The silk crinkled and knotted and slipped loose; it simply would not behave. He growled in low tones, like a bear trying to dislodge a groundhog from its hole. “I don’t know what’s the matter with this stuff,” he said.
Over the low mumble of his words I heard a different rumble, a gurgle as of pebbles pouring into a broad, still pool. “What’s that?” I asked.
“What’s that noise?”
He stopped ruining the ribbon and sat still as the sound grew louder.
Then his face darkened and veins stood out in his neck and forehead. His
voice was quiet and level now. “Th ose bastards.”
“The Challenger Paper guys. They’ve opened the fl oodgates.”
We scrambled up the shoulder into the road.
As the sound got louder, it discomposed into many sounds: lappings, bubblings, rippings, undersucks, and splashovers. Almost as soon as we saw the gray-brown thrust of water emerge from beneath the overhanging plum tree, we felt the tremor as it slammed against the culvert, leaping up the shoulder and rolling back. On the yard side it shot out of the culvert as out of a hose. In a few seconds it had overflowed the low creek banks and streamed gray-green along the edge of the yard, furling white around the willow trunks. Debris—black sticks and leaves and grasses—spun on top of the water, and the gullet of the culvert rattled with rolling pebbles.
Our sparkling white bridge was soiled with mud and slimy grasses. Th e water driving into it reached a gray arm high into the air and slapped down. My father and I watched the hateful battering of our work, our hands in our pockets. He still held the red ribbon, and it trickled out of his pocket down his trouser leg. The little bridge trembled and began to shake. Th ere was one moment when it sat quite still, as if it had gathered resolve and was fi ghting back.
And then on the yard side it wrenched away from the log piers, and when that side headed downstream, the other side tore away, too, and we had a brief glimpse of the bridge parallel in the stream like a strange boat and saw the farthest advance of the flood framed in the quaint lattice arch. The bridge twirled about and the corners caught against both banks and it went over on its side, throwing up the naked underside of the planks like a barn door blown shut. Water piled up behind this damming and fi nally poured over and around it, eating at the borders of the garden and lawn.
My father kept saying over and over, “Bastards bastards bastards. It’s against the law for them to do that.”
Then he fell silent.
I don’t know how long we stared downstream before we were aware that my mother had arrived. When we first saw her, she had already gotten out of the taxi, which sat idling in the road. She looked odd to me, wearing a dress I had never seen, and a strange expression—half amused, half vexed—crossed her face. She looked at us as if she’d caught us doing something naughty.
My father turned to her and tried to speak. Bastards was the only word he got out. He choked and his face and neck went dark again. He gestured toward the swamped bridge, and the red ribbon fluttered in his fi ngers.
She looked where he pointed and, as I watched, understanding came into her face, little by little. When she turned again to face us, she looked as if she were in pain. A single tear glistened on her cheek, silver in the cheerful light of midaft ernoon.
My father dropped his hand and the ribbon fluttered and trailed in the mud.
The tear on my mother’s face got larger and larger. It detached from her face and became a shiny globe, widening outward like an infl ating balloon. At first the tear floated in the air between them, but as it expanded, it took my mother and father into itself. I saw them suspended, separate but beginning to drift slowly toward each other. Then my mother looked past my father’s shoulder, looked through the bright skin of the tear, at me. Th e tear enlarged until at last it took me in, too. It was warm and salty. As soon as I got used to the strange light inside the tear, I began to swim clumsily toward my parents.
Excerpted from Acnestors and Others by Fred Chappell.
Copyright © 2009 by Fred Chappell.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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