Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Persimmon Only Sweetens with the First Frost

William W. Fraker


Relatives of the Algonquian, the Powhatan of Virginia occupied most of the Tidewater, leaving many hamlets, rivers, and creeks named for their communities. The Monacan were Eastern Sioux who spread from the Allegheny Mountains to the fall of the James. The Powhatan and the Monacan did not become rivals until after the English and Huguenot settlers arrived and the dissolution of the tribes began.

Buddy never thought of taking his meager but prized collection of arrowheads, stored in the Panatela cigar box in the bottom drawer of his desk, down to the historical society to find out if they were relics of the Powhatan or the Monacan tribes. He did not need to have his collection validated by a professional historian or archeologist. It was enough for him to know that native hunting parties had found the circular field in front of the house suitable for gatherings. It confirmed for him that his connection to the land went beyond the mere ownership of property. It gave him comfort to know these few acres could not be reduced to a deed registered in the county courthouse. On winter nights, his arrowhead collection was cause to ponder the ties between the native tribes and the land he knew so intimately.

A deep snow, over eight inches, came in overnight. Buddy rarely took a weekday off, but the snow afforded him an excuse. Earlier in the day, flurries showered him as he plowed the lane and the secondary road connecting his acreage to the primary road into town. The hand-made V-shaped snow plow that followed in tow behind his Farm-All tractor provided access only for cautiously driven vehicles. The few automobiles that ventured out needed chains. Buddy ate the sandwich and soup, prepared by Rachael, his wife of over seven years, and settled into his paperwork from the office. He generally carried work home.

Relaxation came only after dinner, beside the fireplace. Buddy thought about how the snow that morning silhouetted each limb. The towering oaks beside the shed spread out a white canopy like the ribs of a massive alabaster cathedral ceiling. He remembered how refreshing the snowflakes felt on his face while driving the tractor. In every season, he relished the care and attention his land required. He pulled out an arrowhead and reflected on finding it the previous summer. He replayed that day and how the field resonated with the seasons.

It was a particularly humid day in August, he recalled. The thunderheads threatened high in the afternoon sky but did not bring rain. After the tractor was parked in the shed, Buddy sipped a Richbrau on the brick steps, while petting the border collie, Curley, lying beside him. The beer did not give as much respite from the sweat of the day as the sweet breeze over the newly cut grass. In those times before the prevalence of home air conditioning, the breeze was a blessing. It seemed to arise at the approach of dusk with the regularity of the train whistle of the Southern passing through Robious crossing on its way to Bon Air. The air tickled the leaves of the oaks and brushed mosquitoes away. As darkness increased, a few small bats and a bevy of lightning bugs punctuated the atmosphere. From the surrounding forests and rolling hills of his neighbors, a concert of katydids, crickets, and bobwhites reached a seasonal crescendo.

On that particular summer evening, Buddy had set his beer aside briefly and grasped the most recent arrowhead out of his shirt pocket. The shirt was unbuttoned to reveal a thin, pale, and worn tank-top that contrasted with his sunburn. Now, as he stared at the milky quartz and fingered the facets, just as he had done on that August evening, he dwelt again in the warmth of the fire on the field's surrender of the prize.

The find happened out by the diminished furrows of an old garden Buddy and his wife had unsuccessfully cultivated early in their marriage. They moved the garden back behind their house, where it seemed to do better. Little grew inside the circle of the field except a lone persimmon tree. The field was surrounded by oak woods. A few cedars, a walnut, and a pecan, along with a couple of fruit trees dotted the lane on the outer borders of the field.

Buddy had mowed about a third of the field in the heat of the afternoon when he spotted the glint in the soil amidst the green of shorn blades of field grass and wild onions. He remembered stopping the red tractor with its side-mounted cutting blades, putting it in neutral, dismounting from the metal seat covered with a burlap bag holding second-hand foam rubber for cushioning, and picking up the shard that barely surfaced through the soil. He birthed the artifact and, smiling, scraped dirt away to reveal the sharp edges. Another smile came in reminiscence of the summer evening on the steps with his dog. He wondered, while on those steps, if the breeze came not just from the far side of the field, but from the same place in history as the arrowhead he found that day. Was the gentle evening zephyr part of the attraction this place held for those who first visited and found the clearing on this plateau special?

Buddy kept such reveries to himself. Others knew him as quiet and practical. He petted his dog that August evening, went inside, and ate a light dinner with his wife, Rachael. The bedroom window shade fluttered and re-settled like a feathered fan that kept the warm night from becoming sticky. Sleep, he remembered, came rapidly and lasted until dawn.

Early last spring Rachael watched a doe give birth to a fawn under the fruit trees. Between a mug of Luzianne and breakfast with Buddy, she witnessed the birth from the den's picture window. Buddy did not need much help imagining the nakedness and vulnerability of the deer or Rachael's wonder. He listened patiently. Rachael had been caught by surprise. Watching what is normally hidden by deep thickets or obscured by the forest embarrassed and excited Rachael; it touched her in a way she did not expect. Her silence, after the barest of details, matched the fragile pink and pale-white buds on the limbs of the fruit tree that gave the nursery cover.

Beside the winter fire, Buddy’s review of the year continued. Each season gave the field a different hue. The daylight played with the colors and shade that pierced the field through the year. Some autumns were muted. Others, like the one that followed the spring of the fawn's birth and the summer of the arrowhead's find, glowed with peak intensity in the high sky days of late October. Hazel toppled a couple of large oaks the middle of that month; adding to the firewood Buddy stacked for winter evenings like this one, when he took time to marvel. The land cultivated memories. The harvest was appreciated in winter in front of the hearth. Hazel’s gale would be remembered by many. The limbs of the hardwoods, during the peak of the mid-October hurricane, looked more like weeping willows than the pride of the forest.

The torrent tracked close to the river; the plateau was just three quarters of a mile from the James. In the aftermath of the storm, the chromatic display of the leaves signaled survival, even as the days grew shorter. The wind across the field combed the grass with increasing briskness. Acorns fell to the graveled lane, where the local dairy truck delivered milk and cottage cheese one morning a week. Buddy drove his Crosley home in the dark as the evenings lengthened. His father died five years before. The memory of most autumns included re-hearing his father’s voice, “The persimmon only sweetens with the first frost.”

On this January night in his rocker, Buddy saw Curley stir on his rug. As a Canadian high blew in, the winter air chilled. Buddy ventured out to give Curley a short walk, while Rachael headed upstairs. The walk lasted longer than intended. Looking across the edge of plateau, pin pricks of house and street lights shined through the bare tree branches from the far bank of the James. Looking up, he witnessed a southern rarity - the aurora borealis. The pastels hung in rhythm in the northern sky. If the colors moved to a beat, it must have been the beat of drums, drums stretching as far back as the Powhatan and Monacan, drums echoing over and through this field that so many deer still shared.

When Buddy went inside to tell Rachael, she was already asleep. He decided not to wake her. His heart was still dancing as he saw the outline of her head upon the pillow. Undressing in the dark, he imagined a tumble of auburn hair down the side of her cheek.

***

William W. Fraker works in health care management and lives with his wife on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. His poetry has been published by The Witness and Muscadine Lines. He has taught at Duke and Virginia Commonwealth Universities.

© William W. Fraker

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012