Book Review: The Sound and the Fury

This is my 2020 “Southern Month,” and I would be remiss if I didn’t review anything from one of the South’s greatest writers. William Faulkner is renowned for his dark, Southern stream of consciousness, and I’m willing to brave that combo right here, right now.

The Book

51uoptbnrglThe Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner
1928
Amazon Link

I read A Rose for Emily in high school and just simply loved it. Faulkner’s Southern Gothic short story has been a major inspiration for me as a writer, and I strive to have such a deep sense of culture, history, and character in any of my works. Because of this, I decided to try something of Faulkner’s that was somewhat more difficult.

Fair warning, though: This book contained the n-word. A lot. Like a LOT a lot. It made me uncomfortable because I’m a damn millennial, but I will say that the whites who used it the most weren’t supposed to be well-liked.

Review ***Contains Spoilers***

I was rather confused by this book and have no idea if there was an actual plot. That’s part of why I can’t do a non-spoilers review: I can’t figure out what parts I shouldn’t talk about. I can guarantee I won’t read it again, but please stick around for the rest of the review because I think this will be more complex than “I didn’t like it.”

Even though I couldn’t really put together a clear plot beyond “everything falls to crap for these people,” there were a few painfully Southern themes here. One was honor; by attempting to uphold the extremely strict Southern honor, many of the main characters hurt themselves. Caroline, the mother in the book, feels a dishonorable lady for marrying below her station and having a child with a severe learning disability, which leads her to hypochondria and depression. Quentin and Jason feel dishonored by their sister Caddy’s promiscuity, leading Quentin to suicide and Jason to extreme hardness toward Caddy’s daughter, also named Quentin. The Compsons repeatedly try to abuse the people of color in the book in order to feel greater than they really are, and it’s clear that part of their downfall is in their cruelty.

The presence of Southern honor was especially important for me as I imagined the book as allegorical for the Antebellum South, the Confederacy, and the Reconstruction South. The Antebellum – when all the kids were young – was relatively peaceful but filled with tension about to snap. The Confederacy – when everyone was dealing with Caddy’s fling and unintended pregnancy – was hard, filled with death, and brought about ruin. The Reconstruction – the part wherein Jason dealt with young Quentin’s thievery and the people of color become more prominent in the story – was filled with anger, strife, and loss of faith. As an allegory for the South, I thought the story was great.

Still, the stream of consciousness was hard, and section 2 was nearly impossible to sift through.

1/5 Discoball Snowcones

1 Discoball Snowcones

Next week:

Stay tuned for a special surprise in a 5-Monday month! 🙂

Sharecroppers

sugarcane

The amount of sugar I got was pitiful. “What’s this shit?” I asked the sharecropper who rented my land.

He looked to his feet, embarrassed. “Didn’t rain much, so nothin’ grew. This all we got to give ‘less we starve.”

“Then why aren’t you starving?” I ripped the sales report from his hands. “What did you do with this money you got?”

“Spent it on food for the winter.”

I shook the report at him. “That was my money. You’ll give double the percentage next year.”

“Ain’t gonna be no next year. We’re moving west, and you’ll get nothin’.”

Divider

This was written for the February 13th Flash Fiction Challenge at the Carrot Ranch: sugar report. While the definition of sugar report is something entirely different from what I wrote about, I’ve been thinking about this story for a while this month.

February is Black History Month, and sharecropping is a part of black history that’s often been glanced over. Sharecropping is where tenants pay rent to work the land, wherein payment is usually in the form of a portion of the crops. Landlords (usually the people who used to own the plantations) would be harsh in their demands, and sharecroppers would often be trapped since they had to work harder to pay their rent. It doesn’t sound like slavery really ended after the Civil War, does it?

But we also forget that America’s history is shaped by the frontier (aaaand different atrocities associated with that, but that’s for another day). African American settlers helped define the west as part of a way to find new adventures and burst out of the sharecropping/oppression/abuse cycle. That’s why I chose to give that glimmer of hope at the end of the story: the west, the frontier, the ever-shifting upward momentum was a chance many grasped at. Black settlers are getting a well-deserved historical re-examination nowadays, and I’m excited to see what things historians find next.

Sharecropping was also a thing poor whites participated in; I had a white middle-school teacher who grew up as a sharecropper in Georgia, and man did she have it rough as a kid. When I think about her, about the continued wage-slavery imparted by sharecropping and other worker-abusive practices, I think about how people of all races and colors can be helped by the same policies, laws, regulations, and, most of all,

Kindness. 

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

In the Garden

Flowers

My grandmother died on December 27th, 2019. As I reminisced about her during my sudden absence from blog world, I thought about her garden.

“Come down and get you some squash.”

“Come down and get you a mess of beans.”

“Come down and get some of these tomatoes—I got too many.”

I’m willing to bet most of my relatives have heard these words coming over the phone from my grandmother, Ruth. They were utterances of a joyful labor, of a work that brought great gifts and symbolized an even greater love. She grew so many vegetables and fruits, and I don’t think there was a gardening method she hadn’t tried, tested, and judged. I remember looking forward to our own summer corn just to get some of that delicious Peaches n’ Cream variety a week or two early from her. I remember the size of the beans she grew, and some of those enormous tomatoes weighed so heavy on the vine until ripe.

As Jesus said,

3 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
8 But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
—Matthew 13:3-8

The parable speaks of a grain growing on its own, but Mamaw knew something more about how plants worked, and her example shows the truth behind these verses. My grandmother was something special because she prepared the ground to be good. It’s almost never enough to just let it fall where it may and hope for the best, and she knew this moreso than anyone.

Where her seed and plantlings would go, she cleared the way, made sure there was a loamy surface with plenty of fertilizer. Where there was thirsty ground during a drought season, she was prepared with a water hose or a bucket. I remember the relative success of her garden in that scorching summer of 2002, when it barely rained at all during the dog days. I remember the ever-constant battle against deer and squirrels, how she’d even collect human hair from a salon and strew it about to scare off the menaces. She’d prune the suckers off tomatoes, cut out the unyielding pieces and tend the good branches.

Mamaw knew how to tend a garden. She knew how to make the way for her plants, knew how to create the good soil rather than expect it to just be there or expect the field to remain suitable throughout tyhe growing season.

If you know a good person and a Christian by their fruits, then her works make it obvious. Her garden alone was a significant labor and a source of her charity. She may have been quiet, sometimes she may not have said the right thing, but these were just words and that wasn’t how she showed love anyway. She showed it through a basket of squash, through a full stomach, through hard work.

And so she also prepared the soil for other fruit. I’m the second youngest of her grandchildren (my brother is the youngest), so I unfortunately knew her for the shortest time. But this also meant she’d had the time to create a fertile soil for me to grow. I saw it yesterday with all my cousins, of which there are many, how much her influence has carried through generations. She sang in the choir, enjoyed my efforts at Amazing Grace (lord how I cried when we sang that at the funeral), and planted in all of us a love of Christ.

6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
—Proverbs 22:6

There were children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all present yesterday, most (if not all) of them believers. How can the soil she prepared not have been fertile? For her ways to pass down through so many generations, to be known and cherished and followed? She gave so much to see them all grow, to bring forth fruit and to grow in ways someone of her generation could not imagine. Through a birth in the twenties, obvious privations during the Depression, hard times during the war, sons who were coming of age dangerously close to the Vietnam draft, and quickly changing technology as time passed, she practiced values such as thrift and perseverance. She remained a steadfast constant despite all the clutter.

She produced children who valued work, craftsmanship, and charity. Those children brought forth more who followed in those footsteps, and impressed upon them new values like education in addition to those she espoused. Those grandchildren, of which I am one, have done much to further her goals and pile upon her glories and lauds. The great-grandchildren, too, will remember these things and aim for successes and fruits which she never had the ability or resources to get for herself.

And, most importantly, they will remember the life she lived, the garden she grew, the soil she tended for them. Those who are yet to come may not see her efforts, but they will be there, fertile and deep beneath their roots.

People who read this will probably know my familial relationships have been strained, but God knows she meant a lot more than as just a person who gave me food. I hadn’t left her on a bad note, but her advanced age kept her in a pocket of the world I didn’t want to tread for several years. Still, I remember some things that I alone could share with her; one which people will chuckle at was that she, *she* alone stoked in me a fascination with American presidents. When I was young, she gave me a poster and told me that I “needed to know my presidents.” It had all their pictures, the dates of the presidencies, and then a list of facts such as vice presidents and first ladies. I absolutely loved this poster, and I read about these people in the encyclopedia. Granted, my obsession with Jackson came later, but I doubt that essential quality of me would have been so vivid without her. She valued knowledge more than she let on, and she knew what she wanted other people to learn if only they would listen to her acts moreso than her words.

For now, I must cry and know that I can’t see her anymore. She may be gone from here, but I remember her, and I hope to tend those fruits of thrift, perseverance, and charity. I hope that her garden continues to bloom and bear.

And I know it will because Christ spoke,

15 1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.
3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
—John 15:1-6

And what an incredible thought. Since she abided in Jesus, and thus in God, she’s now working with the greatest gardener of all.

Divider

The photo was taken by me at the dinner following my grandmother’s viewing and funeral. I took the picture so I could show my brother, who wasn’t able to come, the quality of the flowers we’d bought for a true Southern lady’s funeral. It was amazing how everyone imagined her as spring and chose flowers to match that despite her fall birthday, November wedding, and cold, Christmas death.

Mamaw Ruth was my father’s mother, and I’ve spoken about her here on WordPress before, but not in detail. She was a complex person, and not even this (which is a Facebook post I made but then cleansed of too much identifying information) is a good representation.

Y’all blogging weirdos can expect a surprise Southern Gothic month coming up. I’m not feeling cheerful.

Morning Beckons – #Haiku

green rice field

Clouds blush in crisp dawn
Tranquil sparrow chirps descend
Even winter smiles.

***

This morning when I walked my dog, the weather was a classic, beautiful, Southern morning.  It’s times like now that I wish I’d taken a photo (I’d had my phone in my pocket), but in the moment I made the decision to keep that fleeting, beautiful moment just to myself. Without a photo to remember it by, I wrote about this delectable winter morning for Colleen Chesebro’s Tanka Tuesday #122. The words that I used a thesaurus to decide on are in bold.  

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Woolly Worm – Haiku

wwphoto

brown stripes on black shades

woolly worm writhes across log

predicting future

***

When I was growing up, we’d escape the teachers and run out into the cornfields.  We’d find woolly worms and race them – the winner would, supposedly, determine how difficult the upcoming winner would be.  In fact, North Carolina has the Woolly Worm Festival – a weird little event where even more woolly worms are raced.   I used Colleen’s Weekly Tanka Tuesday with “Creepy and Color” to celebrate this animal in the larval stage.  I may have change ‘creepy’ to ‘creep,’ but I liked the poem I came up with anyway.  

I couldn’t find a free image, so I will cite the Woolly Worm Festival’s 2015 winner.  The more black rings, the worse winter will be; the more red-brown rings, the easier winter will go. 

Hurricane Prep

I’ve had several well-wishes from so many of you.  First, I am so humble that so many people are thinking about me in the hurricane.  Luckily for me, the storm’s path has turned south, and I’m probably only going to experience minor flooding, maybe brief power outages.  Up until this morning, though, the predictions had looked pretty grim.

Part of those predictions meant that we cooked literally everything that needed baking in the house.  We got rid of those crazy ‘perishables.’

cookin

If the storm doesn’t get me, y’all, my arteries are going to clog for sure.  Now that we have no choice, we gotta eat all of that.

We have a spinach quiche (eggs, spinach, pie crust, and milk needed to be used), 2 pizzas (one was already in the fridge at the time of the picture), vidalia dip (to get rid of a chopped onion, cheese, mayo), and corn casserole (sour cream, eggs, butter, corn, cheese).  With all the butter that went into this, Paula Deen, bless her little racist heart, would be proud.  Or diabetic, take your pick.

My fridge is also crazy full of bowls of water.  We didn’t get out in time to actually buy bottled water like they suggest, so I’m guessing Gladware full of tap water is probably fine.  I don’t think we live in the way of the Duke coal ash spill.

Anyway, thanks for the well-wishes. I’ll keep in touch, but for now I have a few blog posts pre-scheduled for the coming days.

Best,

H.R.R. Gorman

The Embalmists

“Disgusting, heathen practice.  They’re goin’ straight to hell.”  Clive bit into the muddy hard tack and pulled off a piece of the flavorless hunk of bread.  Everyone else dipped theirs in coffee to soften it first, but Clive had a bone to pick.

Johnny rubbed his hand over his fuzzy chin, fancying himself a much older and wiser man than the 16-year-old kid he really was.  “What you reckon they do it for?  Gotta be somethin’ in it for ’em.”

Hiram, a grisly 23-year old who’d been in the Army of Northern Virginia since 1861, poured a touch of a clear liquid into his coffee cup. He leaned over the campfire, and the light bounced threateningly about his sallow face.  “It’s ’cause they’s in league with the devil hisself.  I seen with my own eyes what they done.  Like Ezekiel, but God sure as shootin’ ain’t in it.”  He spat on the ground.  “If y’alld hush, I’ll tell y’all what I know…”

***

I was a new soldier.  Everyone thought the war would be fast, that we’d go home before the biscuits got cold, but they were wrong.  Satan laughs at our folly, and he probably drank the hatred in the rivers of blood.  Don’t y’all dare make the mistake and believe that our blood is cleaner than theirs.  It’s all red, all spilled for something none of us care about.

Most of you have seen a few battles.  You’ll remember the gunshots, the blood, the haunting faces that look at you as they die – both gray and blue – but you take a look-see at some of them Union boys next time, assumin’ the typhoid don’t getcha first.

I don’t remember ‘xactly what battle it was that the embalmists moved in.  They set up shop in a tent to the north, what with a big sign on the door and everthin.  Boy up yonder with the telescope seen it first, and I was still bright eyed enough that I wanted a peek.

But when I looked, I seen somethin’ weird.  Corpses – sometimes just pieces of bodies – would be brought into the embalmist’s shop.  I saw half as many corpses come back out.

I told my officer.  He thought I was crazy, but it was a lull in the battle, and it ain’t like a human life is worth much these days.  He let me take off behind enemy lines, sneakin’ round and figgerin’ up what I saw.  I could look after my embalmist’s ways, but I had to bring back some ideas on what the enemy movement was, too.

I suited up in blue.  Their uniform’s easy enough to come by.  I kep my mouth shut and walked right through their camp without as much as a sideways glance.  It still makes me shiver to think I look so much a Yank.

Anyway, I come up on the embalmist’s tent.  It’d grown since the first time I’d seen it. There were a pile of bodies just outside, and the doctors had nurses what come in and out on a regular basis.

One of the ladies spotted me, so she picked up her skirts and come over.  “One of your friends here?” she asked.  “I got all the paper work, if you want me to find him.  I just can’t have you skulking around so.”  Her Yankee words rung round in my brain a few seconds, stingin’ my thoughts with their harshness.

“No ma’am,” I said in my best Yankee imitation.  “I just never heard of this kind of place afore.  What you do here?”

She lifted a brow then crossed her arms.   “We’re helping our boys in blue get back home.”

“I don’t reckon I much care ’bout that,” I said, “But this place seems a mite weird.”

“I can take you in.  Show you what we do.”  She brazenly took me by the wrist and pulled me towards the embalmist’s tent.  “It’ll be an eye-opener.”   I follered without much thought.   The lady’s hands were sweet and purty, and I couldn’t stand the thoughts of breakin’ such a beautiful, fragile flower.

The tent smelled funny, like nothin’ I smelled afore.  It got stronger when I entered under the flap, but I didn’t ask about it.  Jars full of clear liquid hung from rafters in the tent, and lines ran down to hordes of corpses that covered dozens of cots all down the rows.  “Mercy sakes alive.”

She pointed to the only living man in the hospital as he stooped over one of the Yankee corpses.  “There.  He’s putting the fluid in that man’s body so the remains can be shipped back to New York.  The fluid has arsenic and kills everything it touches, so none of the bugs that eat bodies can make them rot.  Think of what a relief that must be for the poor young man’s family.”

I thought of all my friends who’d been killed.  They’d had no wake, no funeral, just been chucked in the ground often in unmarked graves so they wouldn’t rot and make such a stink.

“You’d like to get back home to your family too, wouldn’t you?  I mean, even you Southern boys must like that.”

“I ain’t no-”

“You are, and you’re a terrible spy.  But I don’t mind.  Me and the dead don’t see a problem with your interest.  You’re just another customer base.”  She snapped her fingers and waltzed alluringly as she went deeper into the tent.  At a certain bed she stopped, looked at the fluid level in a heavily-labeled glass bottle, and tapped the cheeks of a Yankee full of gunshot holes.  “Get up.  I need your bed.”

The dead man – dead, no life in his eyes at all – sat up without a breath.

“Lord have mercy!” I shouted.

A few other heads, both on tables and on the nurses, turned to look at me.

I started to run, but I realized that outside the tent I’d be killed by living men just as surely as the dead ones’d get me in here!

The nurse unhooked the needles from the naked corpse’s arms and legs then brushed off the table beneath him.  The dead Yank reached for a bloody uniform under the bed and started pulling on the trousers and shell jacket.

The nurse held up a needle.  “Like I asked earlier… you want to make it back home, don’t you?”  She smiled, her strangely white teeth glinting like dog’s fangs.  “Come on.  Sit a spell,” she said with sweet, Carolina tones.

I shook my head and started to back away, but one of the dead Yanks grabbed me by the leg.  His fingers were tight with rigor mortis.

“Don’t come adder me, you witch!”  I pushed off the one Yank, but several others got up from their beds to try and stop me.  Other nurses exchanged the fluid lines on their dead patients, and the doctor watched with ravenous excitement.  I remember the look on his face when…

Never mind that.  Eventually, I realized I needed to escape.  I punched the witch square in the face.  I know it ain’t right to hit a lady, but I was desperate.  I couldn’t do much of nothin’ to the Yanks, so I had to go straight to the source.

For all her misbegotten demons, it was like a punch to the gut.  I had to take my chance to escape, so I didn’t let my aches or the grabbing of the Yanks keep me down.  I stole several bottles of the magic liquid, hopin’ to bring a few pints with me to the Captain and prove what I’d seen.  I ran right outta that tent and through the God-forsaken Yankee encampment as fast as I could.

If they’s raisin’ their dead, ain’t nothin’ we can do to win.  Ain’t nothin’ you can do to kill a dead man.

***

Johnny, eyes bright and wide, leaned closer to the fire.  “And did the Captain believe you?”

“Yes.  But he was wise, and he knew no one else would.  Turns out the bottles were just full of arsenic, ‘corddin to our doctors.”  Hiram swallowed the rest of his coffee and put the closed bottle of liquid into his cup, then wrapped both carefully in a hemp sack.

Clive pointed at the practice.  “What you got there?  Moonshine, right?”

“You cain’t read the labels, I take it?”

Clive shook his head no.

“Prolly better that way.”  Hiram stood and stretched, his gaunt face frightening in the campfire, his eyes glinting like a demon.  “See y’all tomorrow.”

Dying With Taste – Southern Funeral Traditions

Tomorrow, I’m posting a story – the first of a series of unconnected tales – about dying in the South.  I was inspired to write that fantasy after a really strange, really interesting Sunday School lesson.

(Edit: Here are the four stories – The EmbalmistsThe Funeral Ribbon QuiltThe WakeThe Preacher’s Wife -)

On August 13th, my church had a speaker from the North Carolina Museum of History come to talk about Southern funeral traditions.  The speaker focused on the tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt, which I’ll include in this little snippit of an article, but other Southern funerary traditions found their way into the talk.  Most of the information presented here came from that lesson.

If you have access, you can read the paper here:

Bell-Kite, Diana.  Memorials of Satin: Funeral Ribbon Quilts in Context.  Uncoverings.  Volume 37, pp. 41-74.  2016.

Embalming and Cremation – Sins That Weaved Their Way In

The first story, the one that comes out tomorrow, speaks about the practice of embalming.  Though invented in the 1700’s as a method to preserve organ specimens for scientific study, popularization of embalming as a means of corpse preservation occurred during the Civil War.  Union soldiers with rich enough families would pay a battlefield undertaker to embalm their dead relative so that the corpse could be transported back home instead of buried on site.

100Once the war was over, the Northerners kept the tradition of embalming and started commercializing death.  Instead of handling a funeral in their home, they would outsource the work to the local funeral directors.  Cremation became an acceptable means of disposing the body due to cost, location, and other restrictions more common in the urbanizing North.

Back in the south, those luxuries were unaffordable.  Association with the North, those evil ragamuffins, served to make them seem evil.  After getting out of church on Sunday, I called my mom and talked to her about what I’d learned.  She audibly shuddered and said, “Cremation’s awful.  Everyone says you go to hell if you get cremated.”  She paused a minute while she thought on it a little more.  “It’s something from up North.  They don’t care about goin’ to hell as much up there.”

“Full of sinners?” I asked.

“Yeah, I reckon.”

That being said, both practices are making their way into the unique and customized traditions of the south.  Some people are even requesting cremation so they can be interred in their favorite mayonnaise jars.

The Wake

The Southern Wake is something I’ve never experienced but have known about.  Though embalming is now a legal requirement in most states, even those down here, the wake was a tradition in which the body rested in the house for the night (two, tops).  The family and those close to the deceased would keep a vigil, staying up through the night with alternating celebration and mourning.  People bring food for the bereaved to enjoy and help ease the moment.

Mr. Bill, one of the most outgoing and personable human beings at the church I attend, had something to say after Sunday School was done.

“I ‘member when Mama and Daddy used to take me to the old-style funerals.  They had all kind of food and it was the greatest.  I loved it.”

The wake preceded a long funerary service at the church, which is usually where I started my experiences with Southern Funerals.  At the church you enjoy even more food, listen to multiple hours of sermon, then the deceased are buried.  From death to dirt, it takes about a day.

Because I grew up in a poor, rural area of the south, the old-style funeral is the only one I’ve experienced.  People would bring an absolute trove of goodies to assuage the bereaved family members and throw a bit of a party.  You could bet there’d be banana pudding and deviled eggs.  Regional trends would determine exactly what kind of food appeared, but there’d always be plenty of it.

Flowers Of a Particular Kind (And Their Ribbons)

sweet-thought-standing-sprayA tradition killed by the recession, Southern funeral bouquets were a major part of dying.  Florists were able to equate the purchase of flowers with a moral obligation, and Southerners bought this line without question.  The more flowers a deceased party had at their funeral, the more well-loved and popular they had obviously been.  To not give flowers would be considered a grave (pun, get it) insult.

The subject of the talk in Sunday School was an offshoot of this practice.  In order to cheapen bouquets and ensure adequate flower supply, florists would tie in long, satin-acetate bows.  Southern ladies would take the bows off the flowers and sew them into a quilt.  The tradition of the funeral ribbon quilt died when the material for these bows changed from the satin-acetate to the weather-resistant polypropylene (short part of the story).

The practice of giving copious flowers at a Southern funeral still remained in many areas, at least the one I grew up in, until the Great Recession.  I remember the piles and piles of flowers at the funerals I’ve been to.  Once the Recession hit, though, people stopped being able to afford such frippery.  In the 10 years since the market crashed, I think the last vestiges of the floral funeral may have finally ended.  A few people remain who will insist on dying the old way, but the more modest and practical funeral of the North seems to have taken over.

Lord have mercy on us all.

 

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Mystery Challenge #3 – Banana Pudding

I’m going to do all of the raynotbradbury Mystery Challenges this week!  The third challenge is the recipe for a mystery dish (fancy).  I chose banana pudding because of its potency as a Southern delight and because of the fiery passion Southern women defend their puddings with.  Brian of BooksofBrian, here’s some reminiscing for you.

In true annoying-online-recipe fashion, I put my mom’s banana pudding recipe at the end of the story.

***

Every good Southerner who was raised in church, and many good Southerners who weren’t, has been to a church potluck or picnic.  Backwoods as my family is, I was no exception.

Our church was a little white building off in a holler, on a flood plane next to a little creek, and didn’t have any space for eating.  Many members believed, in fact, that having a fellowship hall or any permanent dining structure was selling out to the devil, so we instead elected to host all our potlucks and picnics up at the abandoned schoolhouse.

Each year, the ladies would hand around a pen and pad of paper.  On it would be a list of traditional dishes and then a few blank spaces for people to bring something not listed.  Required items included biscuits, fried chicken, corn on the cob (grilled), butterscotch meringue pie, pulled pork barbecue, green beans, and – without fail – banana pudding.

That slot, the banana pudding slot, was treated with extreme care.  Garnering that sacred slot required a dance of social nicety the likes of which few if any truly understood.  One couldn’t simply just take the banana pudding slot.  It had to be left open, then fought over once everything else was taken.  “Oh, it’s just so sad that I couldn’t make green beans, and instead I have to buy everything for banana pudding!  Oh Lord save me!”

And then the slot was of course given to Mama Grace: the oldest matriarch, all around great-person, and a fantastic cook.

(My own grandmother was one of the ‘matriarchs,’ but that’s a very different story for a very different day.)

Evidently my mom, after having attended the church for about ten years, hadn’t gotten the memo.  She saw the list and, this time, thought, “Hey, I found a good banana pudding recipe.  I’ll do it.”

Whispers and gossip ran through the church.  How dare my mom take away Mama Grace’s hallowed pudding duties?  Why, that ungrateful minx!

Mama Grace, as well, wasn’t having it.  She shoved her name down for banana pudding also, and the gauntlet had been thrown.  The banana pudding cook-off had started.  The dish that got eaten first at the picnic would be the one to take the slot next year.

Here’s the thing: only women and children cared one lick about who was the banana pudding chef.  The adult men, who always went first through food lines by tradition among my family and church (backwards from the rest of the South, I gather), saw two equally good looking puddings.  Those who went down the right side of the buffet table took mom’s pudding, those on the left took Mama Grace’s.  No one seemed to notice a difference, especially not the women and children who picked through their scraps.

Mama Grace, however, could tell the difference.  She declared hers the winner and, due to church politics, of course came out on top.  My mom, being the person she is, was perfectly glad to have lost.  She swore never to come between Mama Grace and a pudding ever again.

The recipe below is the one my mom brought to that fateful picnic.  Mama Grace’s recipe will remain secret, since she took it to the grave with her in 2009.

Banana Pudding
Ingredients: 2 boxes vanilla instant pudding
4 cups milk
1 cup sour cream
1 9 oz. container cool whip
Bananas
Vanilla Wafers
Preheat: No cooking necessary
Instructions: Make pudding; fold in sour cream and cool whip. Layer with bananas and wafers. Chill. Best if you let it sit in the fridge overnight.

 

The Dragon Egg

Jenny and me were walking. I sallied on down the gravel road, kicking an empty Mountain Dew can someone had tossed out a car window. I kept my hands in the pockets of my blue jeans, wishing that I’d worn shorts as the day got hotter. At least I wasn’t wearing a shirt.

Jenny walked away from me a bit, stepping off the gravel road into the ditch where a tiny stream trickled downhill. The orange and yellow speckled flowers of the jewelweed had become fruit, so she carefully reached a couple of fingers out to touch the thin, green seed pods. The pods popped open instantly and flung its seedy cargo all over the weed-covered embankment just beside the road. She smiled and sought out another fleshy pod, plucking the stem above a little fruit. With slender fingers, she withdrew the seed and held it up to me.

“Ya ownt to touch this ‘un?” she asked, holding it up. Her face was slender, her body thin and arms lanky. She wore a tank top and shorts with her flip flops, her brown hair up in a messy ponytail.

I gave her a good grin, but shook my head. “You like this more’n me. You can do it.”

She lifted a finger to touch and destroy the pod, but then stopped, her ears wiggling. Her eyes focused on the road to the north, brows tightening curiously. “A car’s comin’ round the corner. Git off the road!” She stepped to the side, into the ditch, and I followed even though I couldn’t hear it.

When the sound of our feet sloshing around in the ditch died down, I listened more closely. It was a car, maybe a truck by the sound of the engine. I listened with Jenny, watched as she popped the pod she held in her hand. It exploded with a fresh-sounding little squeak.

The engine roared louder and I became worried, backing up into the jewelweed with Jenny. I felt the seed pods pop all over me as I did, felt the briars and nettles that intertwined with the weed pricking at my arms.

“That sounds too big to be on this road,” I mentioned as the sound became noticeably louder than a pickup.

Sure enough, I saw a tractor trailer barreling around the corner, the top-heavy craft tilting as it tried to make the turn too quickly. With bated breath I reached over to Jenny, holding her back as far as I could get her while the big truck made the turn.

We screamed, the top of the truck’s cabin scraping tree branches, making wood and leaves and bugs fall down on us. The fear lasted only a second, though, and we stepped onto the road as soon as the truck was past us, the rear door to the trailer swinging wildly. As it made the curve around the mountainous road just in front of us, precariously tipping and turning more quickly than I thought was safe, a wooden box crashed out of the back into the weed-covered ditch.

“Holy smokes,” Jenny said, tugging on a loop of my jeans, “What was that all about?”

I walked forward, looking at the wooden box broken against the side of the road. “Musta been runnin’ away from the law or sommat. You see that box fly out of the back?”

Jenny nodded and followed me. “Yeah. You reckon we ought to go check it out, see if we can figger out who ownt the thing?”

I walked on down the road, Jenny jogging to catch up with me and my long strides. “Sure,” I said. “I reckon it’d be the right neighborly thing to do.”

We got closer to the box, which looked to have been about two feet on all sides until it broke and became smooshed against the embankment. Stepping over the trickling water and onto some crushed nettles, Jenny reached forward and pulled the broken sticks off the top of the box.

Instantly she stepped back and gasped while I swallowed.

Sprayed in screaming red over the top and each side of the box was “PROPERTY OF THE US GOVERNMENT” and “CLASSIFIED.” It was obvious that we weren’t supposed to touch this, weren’t supposed to see what was inside.

“Let’s leave,” I said. “That thang could be radioactive, maybe give us cancer or blow us all to Kingdom Come!”

Jenny, however, lifted a brow in curiosity. “You going to let something some damn Yank wrote stop you?” Her fingers flexed as she stepped forward, leaning toward the box and picking up some of the boards. The pine planks creaked as the nails came up out of them, and Jenny tore the box apart.

“I don’t know if this is a good idea.” I held Jenny’s hand back, causing her to look up at me with a frown and wide, confused eyes. I held tight and huffed, “Now, don’t think I’m doin’ this jus’ cause a Yank spraypainted the box. I’m doin’ this ‘cause we ort ta be more careful than just rippin’ a box that could be full of nukyoolar secrets.”

Jenny jerked her arm away. “There’s hay inside – ain’t no nukyoolar nuthin’ in this box.” She lifted off the freed boards and tore through the hay underneath, searching for whatever important goods were inside.

We both fell to our knees and stared at the bright blue gem the size of my head that had been in the box. It was shiny and beautiful, but cloudily opaque like turquoise or jade rather than transparent like a sapphire. My hands shook as I reached out to touch the perfect thing, following Jenny’s lead as she caressed the jewel.

“What is it?” I asked, thinking Jenny knew more about rocks.

She shrugged and picked it up. “Oooh! Feel of it, Steve!”

As I took the rock and considered its heft in my hands, I realized what she wanted me to feel. The rock had an inside that sloshed around, as if it were liquid. I turned the gem over in my hands, looking at it carefully. “It feels like a giant egg!”

Jenny nodded and took the thing away from me, holding it up so that the sun was behind it. An exuberant smile grew upon her face. “Look! It’s just like that one on TV, it has to be – it’s a dragon’s egg! You can see the wings when you candle it!”

“What? Ain’t no such thing as dragons. Give it here.” I grabbed the egg and looked through the shell just like Jenny. Sure enough, I could see the thin tendrils that bent at an awkward angle coming off its back, the thinner part of the wing evidently translucent. “Jesus Christ on a cracker, Jenny, you was right!”

“Can we hatch it? We can feed it our pigs n’ dogs if’n we have to.”

I nodded. A dragon, from what I’d seen on TV, would be far better a pet than some stupid, inbred mutts and some walking bacon. “Sure can, Jenny. I’m just gonna take this baby home and hide it in my underwear drawer to keep it warm.” Cradling the egg in my arms, I began walking back toward the house.

“What we gon’ do ‘bout the box?” Jenny asked, catching up to me with my longer stride. “Cain’t just leave it there for anyone to see.”

I nodded. She was right once again – if the government came back and saw that box with no dragon’s egg in it, they’d come looking for us. I pointed her back at the box, then said, “You go catch it on fire, then cover up the ashes with weeds real good. Ain’t no good gonna come of lettin’ the Yanks have control over a dragon.”

Jenny seemed jealous as she looked at the egg in my arms. “You said it, Steve.”

And so Jenny started clearing out the brush to get enough room for her fire while I walked the egg home. The trailer wasn’t too far away, just a bit down the road and into the holler, and this little feller would need somewhere nice and hot to incubate. It wasn’t long before I was throwing open our screen door, yelling at our dogs to shut up, and throwing my underwear out of the bottom drawer in our plastic dresser.

I turned off the fans in the room, thinking it’d be hot enough in the bedroom if I just moved them to the living room, and carefully packed the egg into that bottom drawer. I felt the baby dragon inside wiggle and felt excited. It wouldn’t be long until we had our very own baby dragon.

I’d train it to use the bathroom outside the house, kill deer, and fly around with me on its back. Of course, I’d let it eat most of the deer it killed, but teach it to leave me the heads so I could stick them on my walls and pretend I did the hunting. Them damn Yanks didn’t need a dragon, didn’t deserve it.

And so Jenny and I kept the egg happy by turning it every so often in the drawer and sleeping on the hand-me-down couch with the dogs in the living room while the bedroom was so hot. We made sure the jewelweed and thistles grew back where the box had been burned, covering up the spot where we’d found the egg. Just in case the government did show up, though, we even took the time to dismantle the still out back and cook our books up real good.

And so Jenny and I fiddled and farted around the house, what with no moonshine to make, watching this egg. Each day the wings got less defined, curling tighter against the bulbous body. We could feel it wiggling, see it squirming when we candled it.

We knew it was getting close the night we heard a scratching sound. I turned on the lamp and, though sleepy, quickly forced myself to sit up on the couch. I shoved old Blue off me, the dog grumpily snorting as she plopped onto the living room floor. Without a pause, I threw my feet onto the ground just in front of the couch where Jenny was asleep.

“Jenny,” I said, kicking her while she slept in a sleeping bag covered in dogs. “Jenny darlin’, wake up.”

She stirred, her hair a mess, and yawned as she looked up at me. “What you want?”

“Listen.” There was the scratching noise from the bedroom, a bit of movement.

She shoved the dogs off her and got up. “The egg’s hatchin’! Let’s go watch!”

And so I followed her, neither of us bothering to put on anything more than our skivvies, into the blazing hot bedroom. My hand fumbled around on the wall as I searched for the light switch, finally meeting its mark and brightening up the room.

We bent down over the dresser drawer and looked closely at the moving egg. “It’s so purty,” Jenny said. “I hope the dragon that hatches is as purty as its egg. Do you reckon we ort ta move back? In case it breathes fire and whatnot?”

I nodded my head but kept my face just over the drawer. A tiny crack had appeared on the top, wrapping around to the bottom where the dragon had nearly gotten all the way through. I wanted to help the poor thing, but I remembered what they said about chickens and how helping them makes them stupid or something.

Jenny bounced up and down. “What we gonna name it, Steve?”

I proudly announced, “I’m still a fan of Traveller. Ain’t no better name for a worthy steed.”

Jenny snorted. “You don’t know if it’s even gonna be the kind of dragon you can ride, stupid. It might not even get that big. And what if it’s intelligent? What if it can learn to read and write like a person can? I think we should name it Alex. That way, we don’t have to know whether it’s a girl or a boy.” She seemed resolute as she sat, eyeing her side of the egg.

“You’ve got a point.”

I hushed quickly, though, seeing a spindly claw break out one end of the egg. It retracted quickly, another black claw shooting out the opposite side. The dragon kept poking a claw out, all around the egg, as if perforating the sides to break out all at once.

“Here it comes!” Jenny squealed. “Our very own baby dragon!”

The top of the egg burst to pieces as it popped off, eight spindly legs that we’d mistaken for wings expanding from a hissing, black head of a spider.

I screamed and backed up, Jenny scooting away so quickly that she probably got carpet burn.

“Kill it!” she screamed, “Kill it!”

I gulped as I looked at the spider, in the dresser next to my bed, and wondered if I could make it past the creature to get the pistol under my pillow. I sat and screamed, unable to get myself to move past the hissing, crackling bug.

Jenny, however, was smart. She got up and left the room, grabbing two of our hunting rifles and a box of ammo from the gun cabinet in the hallway. She tossed me a cartridge and pulled the bolt on her own, shoving in a bullet.

It didn’t take long before Jenny shot it. I soon took a turn, then she shot once more. The dogs were howling and the spider was screeching in this high pitched wail, its legs wiggling all around creepily as bullets splattered its nasty blood all over the place. We kept shooting and shooting, not stopping until long after the spider had stopped screaming.

When the box was out of ammo, we sighed and dropped to the floor. I wiped the sweat from my forehead, my breathing becoming steadier.

After a few seconds of sitting still, I looked at the dresser drawer full of giant spider parts. “Who the Hell, Jenny dear, would want a giant spider? What the Hell was a spider egg doing in that truck?”

Jenny shook her head and swallowed. It took her a few moments before she answered, “Those sneaky bastards dressed that egg up all pretty and made us think it was a dragon! It’s not even sensible, not even morally right to do something so downright sneaky!” She wiped off her face and let her gun down.

“What we gonna do, Jenny? Reckon we ort ta burn the house down? I ain’t sleeping in here no more.”

She shook her head. “I dunno. One thing’s for sure, though: you cain’t never trust a Yank.”

I nodded in sincere agreement, standing up and offering a hand to help Jenny. “Amen. Let’s go get the gasoline and torch this joint.”