The Bull Snake

Sad little girl.

Young children scare easily–a tough tone, a sharp reprimand, an exasperated glance, a peeved scowl will do it. Little signs of rejection–you don’t have to hit young children to hurt them–cut very deeply. – James L. Hymes, Jr.

Sunday afternoon Miss Louisa, who lives at the end of our road, came to visit my mother along with Miss Georgina, who lives further down the road. In the South, children call older women “Miss” along with their first name, but Miss Georgina really is a miss as she has never been married. She lives down a dusty road near Miss Louisa in a little four room house with her bachelor brother, Mr. Hershel. She talks a lot and my mother’s says it’s because she doesn’t have anyone to talk to but her brother, and he never says anything, so she saves up all her talking until she visits us.

Miss Louisa has brought us a mess of butterbeans from her garden and we all sit on the back porch in the shade and shell the beans into pans I have fetched from the kitchen. I love to listen to the older women talk as they discuss happenings in the community like Miss Johnson’s new hat, which they think isn’t a serious church hat. I like it best when they talk about funny things that happened in the past and when I hear Miss Georgina say, “Remember when…?” I perk my ears up because I know it is going to be something worth listening to.  One story reminds them of another and soon they are laughing so hard tears are streaming down their faces. It makes me feel safe when they are all laughing because the lines of sadness I see on my mother’s face are erased and she looks young and happy. Even the flies that light on my arms seem to want to be sociable rather than annoying so I let them tiptoe around until I can’t stand the ticklish feeling anymore and give my arm a shake to shoo them away for a few seconds.

Sometimes they talk in a code that grown-ups seem to have. Miss Louisa asks my mother, “How are things with James?” James is my father’s name so I listen intently to hear how things are with him. My mother looks down at me, gives her head a little shake and says, “Oh, he’s fine.” The lines around her mouth are visible again and her earlier lightheartedness is gone. Miss Louisa nods her head and Miss Georgina mumbles, “Um, um, um,” under her breath. They seem to know something I don’t and although I pretend I am not listening, hoping they will say more, the air around us seems heavy with unsaid words. I wonder if they can talk in their heads to each other and it’s something little kids can’t do yet.

We finish the beans and my green-stained thumb has a blister on it from popping the fat butterbeans open then sliding my thumb down the pods to dislodge the brown and white speckled beans into my galvanized metal pail. Mother puts the shelled beans into one big pan while Miss Louisa combines the empty pods into one and we carry all the pans back into the kitchen. Mother puts a clean dishrag over the top of the shelled beans and puts them in the refrigerator. Later she will blanch them, divide them into bags and stack them into the freezer for future meals.

The women sit down at the kitchen table and have a glass of iced tea. I hate tea so I have some buttermilk instead with the slices of pound cake my mother has cut up. It is hot and muggy in the house and mother suggests we go up into the woods behind our house to look for blackberries. We each grab one of the pans that we used for shelling the beans and set off up the grassy road that runs from the side of the house through the woods and ends in a big field of tall grass that is studded with blackberry thickets.

We walk along the old two-track road, a remnant from farming days when it was used to transport crops by horse and wagon. Now it is overrun by tufts of grass and stray weeds with ruts here and there where small rocks peep though the soil, washed naked by rain.  Miss Georgina leads the way with mother and Miss Louisa behind her and I am trailing along swinging my little pail over my head. Mother and Miss Louisa both love plants and they are admiring the wildflowers alongside the road. They stop to watch a fat bumble bee buzzing lazily on some black-eyed Susans. He lands on one bright yellow flower with a spiky brown center and the stalk bounces under his weight.

Miss Georgina says her brother and she used to walk up this road to pick cotton when the farm was still being worked.

“Once we saw a bull snake up here. It had horns and it beller’d just like a bull,” she says.

I can see mother and Miss Louisa are trying not to laugh and I dart off into the woods where I lay down under an old pine tree and give in to a fit of giggles. As my laughter dies away I look up through the branches of the pine. A gentle breeze is making the needles bend and the clean scent of the pine sap is pleasant. The bed of needles under the tree is warm under my back and I just want to stay here and take a nap.

I feel like something really bad is going on in my house but I don’t know what it is. There is an undercurrent of tension in it that makes the air feel just like it does before a summer thunderstorm; heavy and charged.  I sense a big storm is going to erupt, threatening and scary in the power it will unleash. Most of the time I wish the storm would break so the sweet air that follows will cleanse our house with its singing energy. Other times, like now, I just want to sleep on the warm pine needles and dream of happy things, hoping that when I awake happiness will be a reality. I close my eyes and make a bargain with myself, “If I see a red bird today, then our house will be happy again.”

“Tad, where are you?” I hear my mother call. I jump up from my nest, grab my pail and yell, “I’m coming.” I hurry through the bracken fern that grows lush in the drainage area of the wood, carefully avoiding the poison oak patches. I jump out of the woods onto the road with a slap of my red canvas tennis shoes and run down the road to catch up with mother, Miss Louisa and Miss Georgina, all the while scanning the treetops for a flash of red.

Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Gunderman

2 thoughts on “The Bull Snake

  1. Love it Kathy. It reminds me of when I would go to the woods squirrel hunting and wind up flat of my back on the cool ground watching the squirrels instead.


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