Chapter 24: Kudzu Canyons

The houseboat is peddling along a coastline where kudzu vines, covering everything in sight, are cascading into the shoreline. Mist is rising from the water, so the scene is seen through the mist, a magical view.

The kudzu has covered several trees, which form spires, and has covered the remains of some houses in an abandoned subdivision, the shape of the rooftops barely discernable. Finegan and Joey are in awe, drifting past the sight silently, with Joey on his usual place on the houseboat roof and Finegan at the pedals.

As they round a curve in the shoreline, they see an even more amazing sight - the remains of a car recycling junkyard where cars have been piled high after being crushed. Atop the piles are cars, which are not yet crushed. Kudzu vines have climbed up almost to the tops of the car piles, so the roads between the crushed car piles have become kudzu canyons.

People are living in the cars atop the piles, using the broken down cars as a type of rainproof shelter. The trunks have been popped from some of the cars, propped open as bedrooms for children. Some children are leaning out of one trunk, waving at the houseboat as it drifts past. Most of the cars have at least one door open, with an adult sitting inside. The front seats of some cars have been pushed all the way back to be used for sleeping, and have pillows and blankets tossed about, an unmade bed. In others, the front seat has been removed but the back seat is being used as a bed.

A Confederate flag is hoisted on a car radio antenna, but there are other flags indicating independence. These flags look almost like tie-dye, the paint and lettering faded, and are a variety of colors and faded lettering. One flag that has "Kudzu Nation" painted in green lettering. This flag lettering is fresh, not faded.

As the houseboat drifts toward the end of the car recycling plant, there is a cleared area where a campfire is burning, a large pot hung over the fire, burbling away. Several picnic benches are placed here and there on a level spot nearby, with residents of the Kudzu Nation lounging. Some wear baseball caps, cutoff jeans or pants, and t-shirts with the sleeves torn off or rolled high. This is redneck country. The men have beards. Several of the lounging residents wave and tip their baseball caps toward the houseboat drifting by. Finegan says,

. . Seem friendly enough . .

Finegan pedals toward shore, then backpedals to slow the houseboat, then comes forward to help Joey moor the boat. Joey is already swinging one of the grappling hooks. Children and adults are climbing down the vines, hand over hand and putting their feet against the rusting crushed cars underneath the vine cover. Some adults are climbing just below their young children, so if the child falters they can catch the child, blocking its fall. An old man is climbing down with his cane slung over his back.

The piles of crushed cars, topped with cars as living quarters, and the kudzu cascading down the sides of the piles, all now covered with creeping and hobbling residents, look a bit like an anthill under an evacuation. Finegan comes across the gangplank, followed by Joey. Finegan extends his hand to the apparently leader, the Kudzu King, who is approaching with an extended hand and broad grin. Finegan says,

Finegan Fine here, trader.

The Kudzu King says,

Ain't you the clever one! You got access to all what's flooded. Be damned.

The Kudzu King has a tanned face, a beard that has been crudely trimmed to be only a few inches long, hair that looks just as butchered by scissors, and is wearing well worn jeans, scuffed brown leather boots, and an undershirt with a short-sleeved plaid shirt on top. His shirts look grimy and sweaty, and are torn in several places. The Kudzu King adjusts his baseball cap, and can hardly stop grinning. He slaps Finegan on the shoulder, welcoming him, and walks alongside him as they walk to the campfire. He says,

We're just setting up breakfast. Yer welcome to share what we got. You like kudzu?

______________________________

Finegan is seated at a picnic bench, talking to several adults either seated on the bench or on the ground in front of Finegan. They are all telling tales. Joey is kicking a ball around on the ground with some other boys his age in the background. In the foreground a woman is preparing a picnic table, clearing dishes that have been washed and dried from the last meal away and handing them to a girl to set them aside on a rack.

Four men walk up with a kudzu tuber in a sling, one man on each corner of the sling. An immense 100-pound kudzu tuber conglomeration is in the middle of the sling, roots sticking out in every direction. The men heave it onto the empty picnic table, while the woman and girl bring buckets of water from the shore to slosh over the tuber mass, scrubbing any dirt away with brushes. A man comes with a machete knife and begins to hack at the tubers, breaking the mass into potato sized chunks. Periodically they step back and let the woman and girl collect the chunks in their hands and walk to the boiling pot, tossing the chunks in.

The Kudzu King says,

. . Been our salvation. Like taters. And the leaves too. That's fer supper. Kind'a plain but steady. I still miss biscuits 'n gravy. Dream on that.

A dairy cow is lead past on her way to being milked. The Kudzu King says,

. . About ate all them cows. . . Ate everything in sight. But BillyBob took a stand when they came for his prize bull. Said they'd have ta take him first. Good thing too. We still got milk for the kids.

The Kudzu King flashes Finegan a grin.

BillyBob lived like a king on stud fees too, fer awhile. Had saved the last damn bull. Them cows pasture in the kudzu patch too.

Finegan asks,

No downside, eh?

The Kudzu King responds.

Um . . A patch of this stuff can be home to snakes and vermin. Can't see 'um. I'll show you after breakfast. We'll go on patrol.

Joey comes up with a plate filled with what looks like mashed potatoes and a glass of milk for Finegan, while the girl helping with breakfast brings the same for the Kudzu King. While the Kudzu King is stuffing his face, Finegan poses another burning curiosity question, waving his fork in the direction of the crushed car piles.

How'd you come to be living up high. I mean . . you didn't drive 'em up there.

The Kudzu King looks up through his eyebrows and swallows, pausing in his ravenous eating, waving his fork in that direction too as he explains.

We saw the waters a'risin. An the kudzu eating the trees. Them cranes still had some gas in 'em, so we lifted the hulks waitin to be crushed.

Returning to his mashed potatoes again, he gives a final wave of his fork and a glance toward the car piles.

We got the air. And the snakes don't bother us cause the vermin don't live there. Nothing to eat.

The Kudzu King swings his fork toward the woods behind them.

They like the woods. The rats eat the bugs and the snakes eat the rats and bugs don't live on metal.

The Kudzu King shakes his head while he returns to stuffing his mouth.

That's where we'd be, if'en it twern't for the car piles. Hell of a place. I'll show you right after breakfast here.

______________________________

The Kudzu King and several other men are ready for patrol. They are carrying knives, machetes, an ax, a boomerang, and a length of chain - any weapons they can find. One of the men has a large empty net thrown over his shoulder. Another carries a couple shovels. And yet another carries the sling used to bring the kudzu tubers to the breakfast table. Finegan walks up armed with the houseboat club. He asks,

Are we going to war?

The Kudzu King says,

That about says it.

An outdoor school is being conducted behind the men. The schoolmarm has a chalkboard to the side and is writing words down, having the children recite the words and discuss their meaning. Joey is sitting among the children who range in age from 3 to 15. The schoolmarm has written "sympathy" on the board. All the children say "sympathy" in unison. She asks,

Who can tell me what this means?

The schoolmarm nods at one of the older children. The student says,

It means feeling what the other person feels.

The schoolmarm says,

Very good! Sympathy has a similar sound to another word, which is . .

One of the younger children leaps up with the answer, hand in the air.

Empathy!

The schoolmarm writes the word "empathy" on the board and under this the word "pathos".

Excellent! They both have the same root - pathy, sympathy, empathy, or from the Greek word pathos. Pathos is pity or suffering. See how we can often figure out what a word means by knowing a common root?

The patrol is marching off toward the kudzu forest, the sound of singing insects drowning out the sounds of the classroom. The group of men on patrol are walking along a well-worn path through the kudzu forest. On either side are towering kudzu covered trees, which stand like spires as the branches of the trees have rotted, only the trunk remaining. They come to the area where the kudzu root and the greenery the root system supports have been harvested. A large open area of sandy red clay soil the size of a suburban back yard has holes and piles of dirt where the digging recently occurred.

The Kudzu King cautiously approaches the side of this open area, ax in hand. The rest of the group hangs back, but appears to be at the ready. The Kudzu King grabs a vine where it comes out of the ground and hacks at it, stepping backward toward the group, dragging the severed vine with him. A bird flies out of the kudzu patch, startling some of the men, who are tense. The man with the net spreads the net open while those with knives slice off the green leaves, collected in the net. The kudzu vine itself it cast to the side. The Kudzu King steps forward to hack another vine, but quickly steps back. He says,

Whoa! Snake. Nemind, just a grass snake. Baby.

______________________________

The group now have their shirts removed, are sweaty and covered with dust as the tubers have been dug up. Some are sitting around the edges of a hole, catching their breath. The tubers have been heaved up and onto the sling, also at the side. The Kudzu King is still pulling vines, a separate operation from digging tubers. The vines are interconnected so many are pulled down during any tug.

Finegan is standing close to him, ready for some sort of threat, club in hand. As the Kudzu King leans into tugging he steps back and loses his footing, falling on his butt. A family of frightened baby rabbits scurry out from the burrow he has stepped into. One of the men grabs the club Finegan is holding and clubs away at the baby rabbits which are zigzagging in all directions, attempting to evade and escape. One of the babies does not make it and lies dead and bleeding. Finegan is trying to take this seriously, but has yet to see a threat and is suppressing a grin.

Guess he won't hurt no one no more.

Finegan puts his hand out to help the Kudzu King up onto his feet.

You could use a break. Let me do that for a spell.

Finegan picks up the machete and wades into the tangle of vines, slashing at whatever is preventing the vine they are pulling down from dropping. In the shadow of the kudzu forest just beyond Finegan's feet a copperhead is slithering away. There are salamanders scurrying away as well, typical food for a copperhead. Finegan steps back.

Whoa!

Several men armed with the ax, machetes, and the club spring forward but Finegan waves them away. Finegan says,

He's well gone now. Copperhead. . . Damn.

Finegan returns to slashing vines but is more cautious now, poking the vines aside before sliding his leg into a space.

______________________________

Finegan is sitting at one of the picnic benches with Joey at his side and the schoolmarm on the other. He has several old National Geographic magazines on his lap, one of them open. Joey is watching the interchange intently, as this pertains to his future.

Guess in all this we forget the young'uns. They're growing up with no schooling, cain't read nor write most of 'em. This 'ere 'll perk their interest, far away places and all. Some nekked women in there too, just so's you know. Lots of big words in there too, with, ah, . . Greek roots.

The schoolmarm is smiling as she accepts the pile from Finegan. She asks,

Does Joey have a school?

Finegan says,

Not lately, but he's goin to from now on.

______________________________

Finegan has pedaled the houseboat away from the kudzu shore, into deep water. They are heading for a small island nearby, a clump of flooded trees, to moor for the night. Joey is at the rear of the houseboat, talking to Finegan, as they are clear of flooded objects at the moment. He has an open book on his lap with a copperhead snake skin being used as a bookmark. Finegan says,

That school marm, she was thinking past the troubles. We're all so caught up in what's to eat, what we lost an all. Kids get lost in the shuffle.

Joey says,

I promise. I'll read a book every day. Out loud, even.

Finegan sighs and looks momentarily distressed.

You know that lady did your set of clothes? She and I, we . . well, what we done could'a made a baby. Not saying it did, just could'a. . . What kind a life would a kid have, trying to learn to talk and all, where none do any talking? . . I keep thinking, mehbe, mehbe we should go back there and check, ya know?

Joey nods.

And no copperhead snakes there either.

Both Finegan and Joey laugh and grin at each other. Joey picks up his book and starts reading "Moby Dick", chapter one.