a literary review
The snake appeared out of nowhere. It came right at me, moving and sliding across the dirt and grass in that lilting, cursive S shape. I was about four years old, playing in the shade of my daddy’s old pickup, trying to make frog houses and highways for my hand-me-down Matchbox cars. The snake was casting its tongue and hissing and coming to get me. I pushed myself up out of the dirt and started yelling.
Down the rows of tobacco seedlings, there was no one, just waves of heat rising up in the distance. My parents and brothers and sisters and the people who alongside them were pegging tobacco had gone over the crest of horizon into the sloping fields that seemed so huge to me then. I’d been left at the end of the row, by the two-track path. I tried to get myself off the ground to run, but panic set in.
I wasn’t a fast runner and never would be. I took off, screaming, certain I was going to die, the fear of snakes having been ingrained in me from the cradle. This snake was long and dark and scaly and I surely knew was out to bite me and poison me and kill me. No matter where I moved, it followed.
“Help me! There’s a snake tryin’ to bite me! Help! Help!”
Suddenly, a man appeared, tall and lanky. Dust lingered in the air where he had come running down the rows wide open, those long legs closing ground. He had a hoe in his hand and in one instant went from the field to between me and the monster serpent.
“I got it, Michael,” the man said, calm, but out of breath. “Don’t worry ‘bout it.”
He swung the hoe like an ax and with angry force. He short-armed the hoe again, and the snake’s head detached from its body. It still looked like it was hissing. I got behind the man and grabbed the back of his leg, not ready to believe I was safe yet. By this point, my mama and brothers and sisters had appeared—what had taken them so long?
“He ain’t gonna hurt you, now,” the man laughed. Then he did something crazy. He reached down and grabbed the snake’s body, which was unwinding from its S, still twitching and writhing, searching for its head. He took a couple of steps, cocked his arm back, and threw the snake into a tree in the old cemetery next to the field. It did not come down.
I stood looking up with my mouth open. “You saved my life.”
The man picked up the hoe, grinning as he headed back to work down the row. “It won’t nothing. I got you, little man. You holler if you see another one.”
By this point, Mama had picked me up and was sitting on the tailgate, checking on her baby, worried, apologizing for not checking on me sooner, quarreling that nobody had kept an eye on me even though they were supposed to. Between her assurances and scolding, I kept on and on about how that snake was going to bite me and kill me and how the man had gotten there just in time. But I had a question.
“Why did he throw that snake in a tree?”
“Because Martin is crazy,” Mama said. She didn’t add further embellishment.
Some said that if you kill a snake and throw it in a tree, it will rain. It had not rained for days. I remember because the farmers around us had complained and fretted about rain constantly. Only heat and dust and misery. Others said that was a bunch of superstitious shit.
It rained that night, a hard thunderstorm with lightning. As I lay in bed, I wondered if the snake had washed out of the tree.
And so my first memories of the Homeplace were of fear and danger.
It was called the Homeplace because it was where my daddy’s daddy had grown up. A few previous generations lived there and raised crops, drawing life from the land.
The old farm was located a few miles away from where we lived, right off of North Carolina Highway 97, a relatively straight road out of Zebulon that runs to Rocky Mount and other points east as it knifes through the rural and sprawling coastal plain. In the days before the bypass, Highway 97 was the way folks in our part of the state got to Raleigh.
Access to the farm made it seem to belong in another world. After turning onto a long winding dirt path, which often became nearly impassable after a hard summer gully washer, the two-track wound its way past surrounding land mostly owned by the Bissettes—a meander much like the path of that snake. Once past the fields, there was a brief, dark border of thick mangy woods. Thorns and kudzu and a swampy creek made it forbidden and impractical to explore. It was a gateway to the past.
About three-quarters of a mile in, there was one last sharp turn, past a sometimes abandoned, sometimes occupied sharecropper’s house—it was often difficult to tell one status from the other in the abject poverty of that time and place in the 1970s. When it was occupied, the residents stared when we rode by, not waving, but casting a warning to drive on. Daddy always waved anyway.
Around that final curve, there it was: the old house. The path led to what had been the yard, but was now weeds and dirt, with a magnolia tree for shade. The house seemed like something out of a Depression-era photograph. By then it had been abandoned for at least thirty years, maybe more.
It was a one-story stick house on a squat brick foundation. The windows were mostly lost to vandals—teenagers and vagrants who discovered the house as a place to drink and leave their Pabst and Budweiser cans and a target for the rocks they threw at the old glass windows. It was a spooky place to a young boy, deserted like those haunted houses in the Saturday afternoon movies I watched. At the time of the snake story, my grandfather owned the house and the property, but my parents farmed part and my uncle the other. What little I recall of my grandfather, I suspect there was rent and that it was not let below market price.
It never occurred to me when I was growing up that the abandoned house was probably comfortable in its day. Mama warned us not to play in it, although my brothers and sisters—all at least ten years older than me—usually tested this edict as far as their good sense would allow, taking breaks in the shade and breeze that passed through empty doorways. There had never been electricity or running water or a toilet. Even though some of our neighbors, even into the 1980s, still had outhouses, the thought of using one was outside of my understanding. I never managed more than a peek inside.
There was a cemetery nearby, with names on stones I’d never heard mentioned in my house. The buried were strangers to me, long gone and forgotten. The cemetery was walled but hadn’t been well maintained. For a people who put so much value on family, Southerners don’t always do a good job tending graveyards. Many have been lost to neglect and vandalism, as well as lack of resources, no trespassing signs, and time. Looking back, I have to think the cemetery was once a peaceful final resting place, shaded with ancient pecan and walnut trees.
And yet, this place meant absolutely nothing to me as a child. I had no connection to the land or the people. I only knew that time spent there—usually announced the day before—meant time away from TV and my toys and books. It was a place of work and bugs and sweat and snakes. It was a place of dangerous things, dangerous creatures, and I suspected dangerous people as well.
That early summer day of the snake attack when my family went to the fields, I was the perfect age to be a nuisance. The job at hand was pegging, sometimes called transplanting, tobacco, which entailed walking the fields looking for dead or dying plants, plucking and replacing them with stronger seedlings. This was done with a wooden peg that was about seven or eight inches long, cylindrically shaped with a broad, rounded tip at one end, and angled and flat at the other end. This allowed a small hole to be dug, usually with a twist of the peg.
Looking back, some of the fine details are sketchy, but the encounter with the snake was not.
The man who saved me was really not a man, at least technically. He was Martin, a teenager from down the road, a family friend who often was among the collection of paid local workers—a diverse group of white and black and young and old, male and female, who shared the trait of having little money. They weren’t scared of hard work and few had their own transportation. On these field days, Daddy would be up and out by the time it got light, pulling into yards and blowing horns. He didn’t have to worry about waking anybody up—they were anxious to go before the heat went from stifling to unbearable, although they worked in both without distinction. Their screen doors slammed shut behind them as they jumped off their porches and into the back of the truck.
While that day it surely seemed the snake was chasing me, it was not likely so. At the time, I was certain I’d be bitten and die a painful death, much like the careless settlers who were ambushed by rattlesnakes on TV westerns, but I wasn’t in any real danger. Reflecting on everyone’s reaction seems to validate that theory. As a matter of fact, I think that snake might have been a black garden snake—one trying to escape in my general direction. Snakes have been objects of superstition and fear for centuries, perhaps more highly regarded today for their role in the ecosystem, but they were not tolerated on our land when I was growing up. We certainly lived by the credo that the only good snake was a dead one.
At that time, the drama of the situation was real. I’d seen too many Sunday night episodes of Wild Kingdom to misunderstand the dangers of nature. Martin was my hero for years after that, and I often brought up the fact that he’d once saved my life, even as the story aged and became silly into my teens. He still lives down the road from me, but I haven’t seen him in years.
It is an early memory, the snake attack. If I could paint or draw with any skill, I could transfer that image, me trying to run, the hoe coming down, the blood, the snake’s lifeless body twisting through the air like a crooked tree branch. I still remember the way the air smelled—wet and metallic—in the moments before that long-desired thunderstorm brought down its wrath, the way I shuddered when the lightning creased across my bedroom window that night, and the sound of the rain crackling on the old shingles of our house.
When my grandfather died, he didn’t leave a lot of money, but he did have some farmland that was divided between my daddy and my uncle. By that point, Daddy had gotten a public job with a welding company, using the one good thing—clerical skills—he brought home from his army stint in the Korean War, though that wasn’t enough to counter the nightmares that also made the return trip. He still farmed a little, rented the Homeplace, and raised some hogs with my brother.
We were not immune to the farm crisis of the late 70s-early 80s, the one that spawned Farm Aid and other calls for awareness, but that charity didn’t reach eastern North Carolina in any way I saw. My parents ended up selling the farm to a Bissette who had rented it for years and owned most of the surrounding property. He was their friend and was fine with my daddy riding over anytime he liked without having to call first.
I didn’t think much about the sale, other than the sadness it cast on my parents. Sometimes in the summer, after supper, when tobacco and other crops had been in the ground long enough to make a showing, Daddy, Mama, and I would ride over to the Homeplace in the pickup. We’d bounce over the path, sometimes a washboard, others a muddy mess, to look around. A migrant camp had been constructed just past the old sharecropper house. The people in those concrete block buildings redefined the meaning of poor, a word I’d heard attached to us. No, no, that was not true. Maybe we didn’t have much money, but we weren’t poor. I stared through the windshield at the dirty, inquiring faces, the children who played in mud holes and with rocks instead of toys, the exhausted, distant looks on the faces of the adults. There seemed to be little hope in that place. As always Daddy waved. They usually waved back.
After the camp was built, I don’t think we rode back over to the Homeplace more than once or twice again.
Homeplace was a common term I heard growing up. It seemed like almost everyone we came into contact with, whether at the seed store, or grocery store, or church, or anywhere else had something they referred to as the homeplace. I’d often hear of people who had left home and then upon the death of a grandparent or parent moved back to the old homeplace.
I hardly ever hear the term anymore and I suppose that’s a product of how we’ve moved farther away from the farm and the agrarian lifestyle in North Carolina and so many other places as well. Farms aren’t passed from generation to generation any longer, shrinking as they are broken into shares for descendants. As the small farms give way to the giant farm operations, many are leveled for shopping centers or housing developments with names like Farm-something or something-Acres.
Dean Webb and Mitchell Jayne of the Dillards (they played the Darlings on The Andy Griffith Show) wrote a song that became a bluegrass standard called “The Old Home Place.” While it has a light, fast pace, it’s a pretty dark tune: a former farm boy bemoans leaving his family’s old home for the bright lights and a “girl from the town.” He ends up losing his money and the girl, and the house is eventually torn down before he returns. The farm boy regrets it all and wishes he was dead by the time the song ends.
I don’t think Daddy got to that point. Although for a time my wife and I “hobby” farmed with goats and chickens, I never entertained a thought for one minute that I might make my living from the land. Mama certainly had no intention of me being a farmer. My siblings liked to remind me that, as the youngest, I had it much easier than they did in regard to farm life. They were certainly right even though it irritated me when they said it. I was young when my folks abandoned tobacco and livestock as a vocation, but it remained a part-time endeavor until I left home and so I’d say I didn’t have it so easy by today’s standard.
When I made my last visit to the Homeplace, probably 25 years ago, the fields that in my childhood seemed as vast and rolling as the open prairie were more modest. The house, still eerie, was much smaller, the shade trees shorter. The cemetery was covered in overgrowth, never well-cared for in my grandfather’s time, and certainly not valued by owners with no connection. I heard the house was torn down years ago.
It takes time to create value in a place. In the South at least, it seems people have to get some age on them to consider ancestry and genealogy and where they came from. As the future becomes less abstract and certainly not as long and broad, one inevitably starts to consider his identity, and place certainly has a large role.
Now, I’d like to go back and look around that house and imagine waking up each day without a neighbor in sight, no humans but my immediate kin. To work long and hard to make sure there is food to eat. I want to roam the cemetery and read those old stones and see the plot where the bones lie of those names I’ve now memorized from my past. To be among the ghosts who have the same DNA. What did they think and do and love? Did they read and play music or make corn liquor? Were they teetotalers like my parents? Did they go to church? With a half-century behind me now, I’m saying I’d try to connect.
I’d like to stand at the edge of those fields and wonder what was. I wouldn’t even think about that snake at all.
Michael Brantley is an award-winning author, photographer, journalist, and professor from North Carolina. He’s written three books, including Galvanized: The Odyssey of a Reluctant Carolina Confederate. Brantley has an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He teaches journalism and creative writing at Barton College.