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 hereven 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 didnt 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 wouldnt come to the house until
dinner. The dinner food was about ready. Shed left it simmering
in pots on the back part of the wood cook stove. Shed be
back before them. Theyd never know shed been gone.
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 oftentoo often for her
sons. Leave things be, Ma; leave things be. Their
words would not leave her. Shed tried. She really had. But
they didnt know of the early years. She tried to think about
those when she came heretried 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.
Swamp was large. She didnt 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 bigbig 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 shed never seen one. She did know
there were gators and loggerhead snapping turtles and cottonmouths.
Shed 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 Swamps
sinister side and feared it. Zula May saw it as a place of refuge.
water rippled as a snake made its way across a small patch of
open water. Zula Mays thoughts turned to those early years.
She was sixteen and Pleg was good to hereven tender at times.
They both worked hard to wrest the new-ground farm from the underbrush
and stumps left by the logging company.
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 hed
been in The Swamp too long. Hed never come out.
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 crynot 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. Shed let him get drunk enough
before she and her sons would slip away. Hed be too drunk
to find them in the dark so hed attack the house breaking
furniture and kicking holes in the walls.
hed sober up, he was always sorry and would try to nail
things back together. Hed promise not to do it anymoreand
he wouldnt until another jug of shine would show up. Zula
May couldnt remember how many years this went ondidnt
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.
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 questionjust like the sheriff had that day. Hed
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 Mays
heart sank as she answered his knock. They removed their hats.
Evening, Miz Hankins, said the Sheriff.
believe you know Ike here.
Yes I do. Evening, Ike.
are jest in time fer supper. Would you be staying? We got plenty.
maam, we cant. Wes on bizness. Is Pleg around?
May thought her heart would pound its way out of her chest. No.
No, hes not, she answered.
about the boys?
here. Theyre doing the chores. Ill git em. Wont
yall 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.
theyd all found seats around the kitchen, the Sheriff began.
Aint nobody seen Pleg around for quite some time.
Theys rumors about that there might have been some foul
play. Does yall know where Pleg is?
three Hankins exchanged glances. Zula May drew in her breath to
speak but Sim spoke first. Hes in The Swamp.
Sheriff was surprised by Sims frankness. You mean
hes in The Swamp running his trap line and hell be
to the house directly?
sir, Sim replied. Hes been in The Swamp going
on two months now. We figure he wont be coming back.
mean hes lost in The Swamp?
what we figure.
Sheriff almost couldnt believe what he was hearing. And
yall didnt tell nobody, didnt git no help to
look fer him?
no need, Sheriff. You ever know of anybody thats been lost
in there thats ever been found? Sim said matter-of-factly.
No, I guess not. But how could Pleg of all people git lost in
there? Hes been running a trap line in there for years.
spoke for the first time. Darkness and shine kin make a
person do crazy things, Sheriff.
queried the sheriff.
right, responded Caleb. It wuz jest after gud dark
when he went in with a jug of shine.
yall hunt fer em? asked the sheriff.
no need, answered Sim. We figured after bout
two days that we wuznt 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.
none of yall never told nobody? asked the sheriff
see no need to, responded Sim.
he take anything with him, clothes or anything?
Jest what he had onand the jug of shine, answered
if I look around a little, Miz Hankins?
Jest hep yourself, Sheriff, answered Zula May.
he got to his feet the sheriff observed, I dont believe
Ive ever seen a cleaner kitchen. Hit looks like hits
been fresh scrubbed.
may not have much, Sheriff, but we try to be clean, responded
Zula May,` nervously wiping her hands on her apron.
showed the sheriff the front room where the boys slept and the
room across the dogtrot that was hers and Plegs. Your
furniture is sure in bad shape, observed the sheriff.
gonna get some better if cotton prices are good this fall,
Plegs stuff? asked the sheriff.
thar in the chiffer robe, answered Zula May. Top two
drawers and right hand door.
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 wouldnt 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.
he does come back, his clothes is ready, said Zula May.
Her voice was noticeably shaky.
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.
sheriff did not respond. He just stood for a moment rubbing his
chin in deep thought.
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.
thats right, responded the sheriff. But theres
one thing that rally bothers me.
that? asked the deputy.
you ever known a man as pore as Pleg Hankins to have two pairs
Cant say as I have, replied Ike. The men walked down
the steps and out of earshot.
May watched two soft-shelled turtles jockey for position on a
dead snag by The Swamps edge as they sunned themselves.
She tried to concentrate on the turtles so that the memory of
that last night wouldnt come back. It worked for a few seconds
but the memory wonjust like it always did.
knew Pleg had left the field early that afternoon, which was not
a good sign. She hoped it wasnt happening againbut
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.
I do, woman. There was a nasty tone in his voice. I
deserve some pleasure outta life and yall dont gimmie
none. She noted that the jug was not full. Hed started
on the way home.
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 surgeons scalpel as he split the white oak into
small pieces. He had to have seen Pleg come in with the jug. Sims
jaw was set hard. Their eyes met. She started to speak but Sim
cut her off. We aint going to The Swamp no more, Ma.
. . . was all she got out before he cut her off again. I
said we aint going to The Swamp no more. There was
an edge to his voice shed 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 mans work. But Pleg
was a maneven when drunk. She turned and walked back to
the house dreading the impending confrontation.
hung heavy over the supper table. Pleg drank from the jug as he
ate. You boys git finished plowing out the corn? he
an hour left, answered Sim.
didnt you stay and finish?
to come in and git the chores done, retorted Sim.
git that done first thing in the morning and then start chopping
the cotton, directed Pleg.
intend to, replied Sim as he got to his feet. Gotta
go to the toilet.
it wait till after supper? asked Pleg.
it cant, said Sim as he stalked out letting the screen
door slam behind him.
boys 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.
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.
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
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.