Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Swamp

Luke Boyd


Zula May was walking through the cornfield. It was sometime about middle of the morning but it was already hot and the tall stalks prevented any cooling breeze from reaching her—even if there had been one. Sweat pasted her faded housedress to her body and she wiped the droplets from her brow before they could sting her eyes. Sim and Caleb didn’t want her to go. “Jest leave things be,” Sim had said. They were plowing out the cotton on the other side of the place and wouldn’t come to the house until dinner. The dinner food was about ready. She’d left it simmering in pots on the back part of the wood cook stove. She’d be back before them. They’d never know she’d been gone.

She could smell it before she saw it. Its aroma laid heavy in the nostrils. It was more mysterious than offensive. Emerging from the corn, Zula May stopped in the shade of a giant cypress and gazed into The Swamp. She came here often—too often for her sons. “Leave things be, Ma; leave things be.” Their words would not leave her. She’d tried. She really had. But they didn’t know of the early years. She tried to think about those when she came here—tried to think about Pleg and those few good years. It seemed she was closer to him when she could see and smell and feel The Swamp.

The Swamp was large. She didn’t know exactly how large. Folks said it stretched all the way to the river and no telling how far up and down its banks. She just knew it was big—big enough to get lost in and stay lost. The water was a brackish brown that hid everything more than two or three inches below its surface. The Spanish moss hung low over the water. Little sunlight penetrated the thick cypress canopy leaving the area in a perpetual twilight even in the middle of the day. Some folks said black panthers still lived there but she’d never seen one. She did know there were gators and loggerhead snapping turtles and cottonmouths. She’d seen those. Folks also said there was quicksand in places that would suck a man to his death beneath the brown water and leave no trace he was ever there. Most people saw the Swamp’s sinister side and feared it. Zula May saw it as a place of refuge.

The water rippled as a snake made its way across a small patch of open water. Zula May’s thoughts turned to those early years. She was sixteen and Pleg was good to her—even tender at times. They both worked hard to wrest the new-ground farm from the underbrush and stumps left by the logging company.

But then, things changed. The boys came along, followed in a few years by the Depression. Cotton prices went down and stayed down. To make ends meet, Pleg started running a trap line in The Swamp. A splashing startled her. She peered into the gloom and just for instant she thought she saw him striding out of the dimness with his gum boots on and the mink and muskrat from his traps thrown over his shoulders. Reality returned quickly. She knew he’d been in The Swamp too long. He’d never come out.

She tried to stop her mind from thinking any further but she was powerless to do so. Her brain was like a runaway team of mules, impossible to turn or stop. She remembered the pointed finger, the nasty words, the curses, the accusations that she and the boys were dragging him down, the first jug of shine, the fists. She could still feel the pain from the blows. She rubbed her face as if to rub the old hurts away and began to cry—not for herself but for Pleg. Pleg only beat her when he was drinking and since she had no place to go, she had determined to endure it. But the night he beat her boys with a doubled-up piece of plow line, The Swamp became their refuge. She’d let him get drunk enough before she and her sons would slip away. He’d be too drunk to find them in the dark so he’d attack the house breaking furniture and kicking holes in the walls.

After he’d sober up, he was always sorry and would try to nail things back together. He’d promise not to do it anymore—and he wouldn’t until another jug of shine would show up. Zula May couldn’t remember how many years this went on—didn’t want to remember really. She just knew it was too many. But she did remember the last time. The thought of that night made her shiver in spite of the July heat. She shoved that memory away.

A blue heron walked out from behind a cypress knee and right up to her and cocked his head to one side like he was asking her a question—just like the sheriff had that day. He’d just walked up on the porch late one afternoon after the boys had come in from the field. He had a deputy with him. Zula May’s heart sank as she answered his knock. They removed their hats. “Evening, Miz Hankins,” said the Sheriff.

“Evening, Sheriff,”

“I believe you know Ike here.”

“Yes. Yes I do. Evening, Ike.”

“Evening, ma’am.”

“Y’all are jest in time fer supper. Would you be staying? We got plenty.”

“No ma’am, we can’t. We’s on bizness. Is Pleg around?”

Zula May thought her heart would pound its way out of her chest. “No. No, he’s not,” she answered.

“What about the boys?”

“They’re here. They’re doing the chores. I’ll git ‘em. Won’t y’all come on in?” The men followed her through the house to the kitchen where she offered them seats in two straight chairs. As she went out the back door, Caleb was just coming in from the barn. Sim was at the woodpile splitting stove wood. She could not bear to see him use the axe so she closed her eyes and turned her head to one side before calling out, “Come on in, boys, we got company.”

When they’d all found seats around the kitchen, the Sheriff began. “Ain’t nobody seen Pleg around for quite some time. They’s rumors about that there might have been some foul play. Does y’all know where Pleg is?”

The three Hankins exchanged glances. Zula May drew in her breath to speak but Sim spoke first. “He’s in The Swamp.”

The Sheriff was surprised by Sim’s frankness. “You mean he’s in The Swamp running his trap line and he’ll be to the house directly?”

“No, sir,” Sim replied. “He’s been in The Swamp going on two months now. We figure he won’t be coming back.”

“You mean he’s lost in The Swamp?”

“That’s what we figure.”

The Sheriff almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “And y’all didn’t tell nobody, didn’t git no help to look fer him?”

“Wasn’t no need, Sheriff. You ever know of anybody that’s been lost in there that’s ever been found?” Sim said matter-of-factly.

“No. No, I guess not. But how could Pleg of all people git lost in there? He’s been running a trap line in there for years.”

Caleb spoke for the first time. “Darkness and shine kin make a person do crazy things, Sheriff.”

“Shine?” queried the sheriff.

“’At’s right,” responded Caleb. “It wuz jest after gud dark when he went in with a jug of shine.”

“Did y’all hunt fer ‘em?” asked the sheriff.

Warn’t no need,” answered Sim. “We figured after ‘bout two days that we wuzn’t gonna find him noway. Figured he fell inna deep hole and drownded or maybe a gator got ‘im.” Zula May winced at the thought. “Anyway, we had to finish plantin’ the late corn.”

“And none of y’all never told nobody?” asked the sheriff incredulously.

“Didn’t see no need to,” responded Sim.

“Did he take anything with him, clothes or anything?”

“No. Jest what he had on—and the jug of shine,” answered Caleb.

“Mind if I look around a little, Miz Hankins?”

“No. Jest hep yourself, Sheriff,” answered Zula May.

As he got to his feet the sheriff observed, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a cleaner kitchen. Hit looks like hit’s been fresh scrubbed.”

“We may not have much, Sheriff, but we try to be clean,” responded Zula May,` nervously wiping her hands on her apron.

She showed the sheriff the front room where the boys slept and the room across the dogtrot that was hers and Pleg’s. “Your furniture is sure in bad shape,” observed the sheriff.

“We’re gonna get some better if cotton prices are good this fall,” volunteered Sim.

“Where’s Pleg’s stuff?” asked the sheriff.

“Rat thar in the chiffer robe,” answered Zula May. “Top two drawers and right hand door.”

The drawers contained some socks and several pairs of underwear. The mirror had been broken out of the door and its hinges bent so that it wouldn’t stay closed. Three pairs of overalls and four work shirts, all starched and pressed, hung on hangers. A pair of gum boots and a pair of high-top work shoes sat on the floor. A straw hat was perched on the top.

“If he does come back, his clothes is ready,” said Zula May. Her voice was noticeably shaky.

“So I see,” mused the sheriff. “But why would he go to The Swamp, drunk or sober, without his boots?”

The three Hankins exchanged glances again. “He had on his old ones,” volunteered Sim.

The sheriff did not respond. He just stood for a moment rubbing his chin in deep thought.

After poking around for another minute or two, the two officers took their leave. Zula May ushered them out. She closed the screen door and leaned against the wall beside it, wiping her face on her apron. She heard Ike say as the two paused at the top of the porch steps, “Well, you know Peck Henson says he sold Pleg a half-gallon of shine ‘bout that time.”

“Yes, that’s right,” responded the sheriff. “But there’s one thing that rally bothers me.”

“What’s that?” asked the deputy.

“Have you ever known a man as pore as Pleg Hankins to have two pairs of boots?”

“No. Can’t say as I have,” replied Ike. The men walked down the steps and out of earshot.

Zula May watched two soft-shelled turtles jockey for position on a dead snag by The Swamp’s edge as they sunned themselves. She tried to concentrate on the turtles so that the memory of that last night wouldn’t come back. It worked for a few seconds but the memory won—just like it always did.

She knew Pleg had left the field early that afternoon, which was not a good sign. She hoped it wasn’t happening again—but she knew deep down that it was. Sim and Caleb had come in from the field and were doing the chores. She was finishing up supper when she heard Pleg come up on the back porch and kick off his work shoes. He washed up in the pan on the wash shelf, threw the dirty water into the backyard, and came into the kitchen. She turned around as he sat down at his place and put the half-gallon jug down on the table with a thud. “Do you have to do that, Pleg?” she asked pleadingly.

“Yes I do, woman.” There was a nasty tone in his voice. “I deserve some pleasure outta life and y’all don’t gimmie none.” She noted that the jug was not full. He’d started on the way home.

She went out on the back porch and pretended to wash her hands. Caleb was still at the barn. Sim was splitting stove wood. Zula May walked out to the woodpile. Sim was good with the axe. He wielded it like a surgeon’s scalpel as he split the white oak into small pieces. He had to have seen Pleg come in with the jug. Sim’s jaw was set hard. Their eyes met. She started to speak but Sim cut her off. “We ain’t going to The Swamp no more, Ma.”

“What . . .” was all she got out before he cut her off again. “I said we ain’t going to The Swamp no more.” There was an edge to his voice she’d never heard before. The wood flew off his axe in a blur. She knew he had just turned sixteen and thought himself a man. He could do a man’s work. But Pleg was a man—even when drunk. She turned and walked back to the house dreading the impending confrontation.

Tension hung heavy over the supper table. Pleg drank from the jug as he ate. “You boys git finished plowing out the corn?” he asked.

“’Bout an hour left,” answered Sim.

“Why didn’t you stay and finish?”

“Had to come in and git the chores done,” retorted Sim.

“Well, git that done first thing in the morning and then start chopping the cotton,” directed Pleg.

“We intend to,” replied Sim as he got to his feet. “Gotta go to the toilet.”

“Can’t it wait till after supper?” asked Pleg.

“Naw, it can’t,” said Sim as he stalked out letting the screen door slam behind him.

“’At boy’s ‘bout to git too big fer his britches,” stated Pleg as he took a swig from the jug and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

In a few minutes, Sim came back but stopped just inside the door behind Pleg. “Git yore ass back to the table, boy, and finish yore supper,” Pleg ordered.

Zula May looked up. The forkful of cabbage stopped half way to her open mouth as she saw the yellow light from the coal oil lamp reflect off the cold steel of the double-bit axe. Zula May closed her eyes.

***

Luke Boyd, B.S., M.A.,Ph.D., is the author of Coon Dogs, Outhouses, and other Southern Samplings. He is also ghostwriter for Don't Call Me Hero by Jim McGregor. Seven of his short stories were published in three volumes of Our Voices: Williamson County Literary Review, and one article appeared in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Boyd, retired after forty-eight years in education, served as principal of Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, Tennessee, for nineteen years. He is a member of the Tennessee Writers Alliance.

© Luke Boyd

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