The Red Earth of Alabama
I LIVE in a house in the middle of a county full of red mud. The county is called Randolph. The house doesn't have a name, but in Wedowee or Hadley or Micaville - the nearby towns, crossings, and country-store wood stoves around which the men gather each morning - everybody knows where I mean when I tell them it's the Daniel place over in Newell. That's the kind of place Randolph County, Alabama, is. Everybody knows who owns what place, how long they've owned it, whom they're fighting with, and over exac tly what.
This doesn't mean that people are butting into your business all the time. I've never encountered a single nosy neighbor. In fact, I've never encountered a neighbor at all, unless you count the seven cows that live in the barn at the end of the bend in the lane. The lane is about a half-mile long, carved out of the side of a sleeping giant. When it rains, the lane runs with rusty red mud like blood, but the rains come and go quickly in Randolph County, unlike the memories of the people who live here. The
bloody mud quickly dries to a rusty powder, a pleasant cinnamon dust that settles into the cracks of your shoes, the cuffs of your jeans. There's no blood then, no sleeping giant beneath the blanket of rolling green, although each time it storms I wonder what might happen if he should wake.
The dogs that live at the house don't like the rain and the storms, although they should be used to them by now, having lived here a good 17 years. I am an upstart, having lived here just a few months, but I am more articulate about the weather than either White Dog or Black Dog, and so I am better able to voice my awe or dissatisfaction. Still, words escaped me the night of the tornado.
I sat huddled in the basement, my arms wrapped around my nightgowned knees, wondering what kind of danger I was in. But the storm passed within an hour - a blustery, capricious thing - and I survived to see the morning and the destruction the night had brought. The wheelbarrow had been crumpled like a wad of paper and tossed into the creek a hundred feet down the hill. The woodpile was gone, probably somewhere near Bowdon, Georgia. The stand of pines up the hill from the house had been uprooted like so m any early onions. I was impressed.
As I stood there in the morning sunshine, White Dog was still shaking, whether with indignation or fear I couldn't tell. Probably both. I have decided White Dog is actually a king from another world who walks this earth searching out those who are noble and true and deserving of his companionship. This is apparent from his slow, majestic gait, his haughty, disdainful eye, and the thick folds in the coat around his neck, which could only be a gathering of royal robes.
LIFE is easy in this house in Randolph County. What is difficult is trying to figure out which switches turn off which lights. Emmett Daniel built the house and built it to his satisfaction. Emmett, who is noble and true and worthy of White Dog's companionship, was an electrical contractor in a former life who took great joy in the wonders of electricity. There are nine switches by the front door. I have counted them often. One operates a fan in the living room, one operates a light above the dining-room
table, two are for the outside, and the rest seem to change and metamorphosize overnight. Sometimes they're for the light above the stove, sometimes they operate a small vent in the side of the fireplace. When I leave this house, I will be satisfied to know what switch operates what. That is all.
I write here. Many times, I write about this place. I have not written yet about Emmett's relationship with his dogs, and I'm not sure that I can effectively. Emmett and White Dog talk - Emmett in his soft, gravelly, Southern cadences, White Dog in deep howling baritones. Sometimes Emmett and White Dog don't talk, like an old married couple mad at each other. Emmett explained to me once how he had yelled at White Dog for barking at the cows and how White Dog had then gotten mad and refused to come eat. I
have never met a pouting dog before.
Emmett lives 40 miles away but brings his dogs pancakes every morning when he comes to feed the cows. Consequently, his dogs are always happy to see him, provided they are all on speaking terms. Emmett's pancakes are very light in color, almost white, in fact. This is because he cooks them on low heat. The low heat of the pancake griddle is reflective of the pace here in Randolph County. There is no hurry to life, no pressing deadlines. The phone in the sitting room is a rotary dial; the television gets only two stations. The creek meanders behind the house with a lulling whisper like the gentle snoring of a sleeping giant. There are no 7-Elevens at the crossroads selling videotapes and 64-ounce Slurpees, only pickup trucks full of neatly stacked produce.
I bought green tomatoes at one of these produce trucks once and tried to fry them, succeeding only in filling my kitchen with thick, greasy smoke. I couldn't find the right switch to turn on the stove fan; it seemed to have moved overnight. I also made cornbread once, but when I tried to cut a piece it all crumbled away, like an old magazine will after the silverfish are through reading it. Louise Montgomery, a lifelong resident of this state, told me I needed to put a little bit of flour with cornmeal a nd also an egg. I told her the recipe didn't call for an egg, but she said you have to do it anyway. I figured making cornbread that sticks together must be like learning how to operate the light switches by the door.
THE house is full of living things. Wasps buzz around the windows and vents; moths batter the glass both inside and out. A snake came out of the ceiling in the basement one day and hung down, trying to get at the strawberries I had been eating while working at my computer. That same night, a mouse ran across the counter in the kitchen, undoubtedly displeased by the sudden arrival of his new downstairs neighbor.
The house is full of living things. Part of this is because of its construction, I think. Emmett built his house into the side of a hill like a swallow's nest on the side of a barn, or like the nest the hornets built onto the sliding glass door in the living room. There is a rock along one side of the basement; the ceiling tile in the back downstairs closet abutts the dirt.
I feel sometimes as if I am living in a time-share condominium with nature here, an amalgamation of stone and brick, dirt and tile. The wood paneling easily transforms into the rough bark of trees at night; the high beams become branches stretching overhead. The red brick underfoot is made from the red clay of Randolph County. Sometimes I think this house will merge back into the land completely after I am gone. Sometimes, I think I have merged into the land with it.
I will miss this place when I go, when I return to the North where the rain is nothing more than a mist spritzed by naughty children rather than the buckets of old washwater thrown down here. I will live in a building where the people next door won't know my name or my face and won't want to either, where the only thing that comes down out of the ceiling is the sound of the people fighting in the apartment above, never a snake searching for strawberries. I will use a touch-tone phone everyday, never a ro tary dial; the heat will come out of strategically located registers instead of a fireplace with cat andirons whose eyes glow with the dry snap of hickory. The light switches will all make disappointingly logical sense. A stream will flow by my back window, but it will be made up of steel and exhaust and nothing more.
I will miss this place when I go ... the living things that dart in and out of my vision as I sit writing on the computer, the chirp of crickets at night, and the convoluted song of birds come morning. I will miss the soft voice of Emmett Daniel coaxing forgiveness from his White Dog with a pale yellow pancake. I will miss the rain and the wind and the red mud of Randolph County.
That powdery dried mud has settled deep into the cracks of my shoes, the cuffs of my jeans, the folds of my heart. Like the egg and the cornbread, the red mud is the secret ingredient that holds this land, and its people, together. When I leave, I will take back this thick slice of Alabama that I have carved out, wrapped in the memory of dogwood blossoms and the wings of beating moths, confident that it will never crumble apart over time.