My name is Cassie and I am 12 years old and live in Mississippi. You could say I’m a potential Southern belle. I’m in the gifted class for exceptional children. I am told, and I know it is so, that I am super smart.
This is the year of my parent’s big “D” so Mama sent me to spend the summer with my grandparents so’s I could forget all my troubles for a while. They live on hundreds of acres of woods surrounded by hundreds of acres of more woods in a rural town only about 25 miles from where I live with my mama. I was glad to come here ’cause I love my Grandma Jessie and Papa. Grandma and I have a strong bond because we both love books, fishing and practical jokes. And we share the same passion for corny jokes. We laugh a lot. Laugh-A-Lot therapy, she calls it.
Now, Grandma lives like she’s in the nineteenth century. I do my best to teach her how it is the twenty-first but she’s not very inclined to learn. I reckon young people are just smarter nowadays. My grandparents live a simple, fair-to-middlin’ dull life. They raise and grow their own food, and don’t go nowhere excitin’ except a few ball games. They go callin’ on family, to reunions, church and to funerals. Funerals are about the most excitin’ thing that happens around here. They do have electricity, thank goodness, and their modern conveniences consist of a phone with a cord and a small TV. Grandma shells butter beans and watches “The Guiding Light.” Papa likes to watch the Atlanta Braves so he can give his old bones a rest. They don’t even acknowledge that we are in the computerized information-highway age. Papa thinks log on, log off and download means getting firewood on and off his truck. They don’t know who Britney Spears is or the Backstreet Boys. Papa calls rap music rat music. And they think I’m Destiny’s Child! To Grandma, Elvis is still alive and king. Oh Lord, I am going to be so bored!
Now, theirs is a very small and poor town. There is no urban sprawl here. Rural crawl is more like it, especially when you get behind a tractor. There are no burger stands, Pizza Hut or Wal*Mart, a small grocery store, gas pump, some railroad tracts and a silo.
The only thing big around here are hog farms. Land is so cheap and poor that a company has contracted out to pig farmers and they have sprung up around here. People are so poor they can’t afford to fight them. Some locals complain but I don’t because me and my mama love to stop at McDonald’s in Columbus to eat sausage and biscuits for breakfast. And most important, my best friend CW lives with his dad on a hog farm down the road.
There are some good things about this place. People here are real friendly, especially Miss Mamie at the library. My favorite person is old humble Mr. White who keeps the town nice with his lawn mower and weed-eater. He’s a workin’ for the Lord, he says. Bluesman Big Joe Williams and athletes Jerry Rice and Clarence Weatherspoon are from here.
And CW is here.
CW is homeschooled and is as smart as me. Plus he knows more about fishing and hunting and nature than anyone I know. He can forecast weather by lookin’ at birds, trees and animal hair. He can tell you the temperature by counting cricket chirps during a 14-second period and adding 40, and exactly how many miles away lightnin’ is by counting the seconds after the flash and the sound of thunder and dividing by five. And he helps Papa plant by the phases of the moon. I’ve never seen him wear shoes. He wears overalls and a Braves cap all the time. He’s sort of a Huck Finn type. Maybe I won’t be so bored after all.
My papa is kind of a stern, gruff and mostly shut-mouthed person. When my 15-year-old brother is here and slams the screen door for the umpteenth time, Papa’s jaws get tight and he tells him, “Son, you’re beginning to be a bitter disappointment to me.” He calls my cousin MOTS, which stands for Mouth Of The South. “Boy, don’t you ever shut up?” he’ll say in his low, tight voice. He talks without moving his lips.
But you have to be pretty mature like me to know that my papa really has a soft heart for his grandchildren and especially for Grandma. He’s always sneaking sugar for the grandbabies. And he shows his love by planting special things like popcorn, peanuts and sugarbaby watermelons “just for the grand-young ’uns.” He makes bonfires in the winter so we can enjoy marshmallow roasts. And he takes us hunting.
Papa is always happiest when his family and friends come in November to go deer hunting. Early in the morning he and Grandma cook a hearty breakfast for the hunters to eat out on the back porch. The excitement of deer hunting infects the whole population of Mississippi. Even my mama goes. Everyone is dressed in camouflage. Even the babies have on camouflage diapers, little overalls and hunting caps. It’s a good thing opening day is usually on Thanksgiving because otherwise no one would show up to work.
During the season, Papa, his sons-in-law and his buddies ride the roads in their pick-up trucks with gunracks in the back window. Ridin’ ‘n’ lyin’ is what Grandma calls it. She says there’s a lot of old school buses and moonshine stills deep in the woods around here. She calls that redneck landscaping. But she could never find any on her land when she was on one of her walks.
A body could get lost in those woods so Papa made a smooth trail with his tractor and boxblade all through the woods for Grandma. She likes her morning walks. Papa does a lot of nice things for Grandma. She smiles and tells me that the South is the best place to be an old lady. Papa tells me that old ladies here are secretly called the “Blue Rinse Mafia.”
After Grandma cooks breakfast and gets Papa off to work, she usually wakes me up, takes off her apron, puts on her Reeboks and sun hat, and begins her usual trek.
We both love the country in the morning before the humidity sticks to you. The sweet heavy smell of honeysuckle fills up my senses. The woods are alive and noisy with the sound of birds and cicadas humming. There is lots of deer, turkey, coons, rabbits and squirrels, but also snakes, chiggers, ticks and fire ants. Even coyotes. You can hear them at night but you hardly ever see one.
Grandma loves and enjoys almost everything about her early morning walks but there is one thing she hates: spiders. They make her jump, even little ones. During the evenings and early mornings the spiders spin webs across Grandma’s path. Many make elaborate web circles right in the middle of the trail to catch insects, but they mostly catch Grandma in the face, which does serious damage to her nervous system and mine. I hate screaming! So Grandma always picks up a branch from a hickory tree and whacks the spider webs down with me following behind. I think she really got into it and pity the poor spider still on the web. After she knocks it down, she steps on it with a deadly crunch. This from my sweet, gentle grandma!
Now, me and Grandma are pretty close and we talk about all kinds of things. After our walk while we were shelling peas I asked, “Don’t you feel the least bit sorry for those spiders sometimes? They work every evening to build their webs to catch food, and every day you destroy them.” Grandma peered over her glasses and answered, “Heavens no, child, they ain’t nothin’ but spiders. They don’t have feelings and they can’t even think.” But it continued to bother me when I went to bed that night.
Well, while I was sleeping, little did I know that the spiders in the woods were getting together to discuss their common enemy - the big ugly giant with a stick, who every morning killed some of them and destroyed their chances of feeding their families. “We have to think of a plan and work together if we are to get rid of this monster who threatens our lives,” said Harry, the elected leader. So they stayed up all night, these unfeeling, unthinking creatures, hatching a murderous plot. And I dreamed ...
I overslept the next morning so Grandma went out on her walk by herself. She picked up a nice oak branch and set out. She walked a good while before noticing that she hadn’t run into a single spider web.
After walking nearly a mile, she threw her stick away. As she started to cross the culvert on Rattlesnake Creek, she shivered. It was a rather dark and gloomy place on the trail with overhanging branches that blocked out the sun.
Just as she passed under the lowest branch, she felt a silken weight descend on her head like a scarf. It spread over her eyes, knocking off her glasses and enveloping her whole body. As she struggled, she could feel tiny creatures going around and around her body tightening the silken threads binding her. She tried to scream but the strong silk threads were too close together.
She stumbled and fell into the shallow creek gasping for breath. As she lay there, not able to move or speak, she started praying for someone to come and save her. And she started to pray for forgiveness for undermining some of God’s creatures.
I awoke with a start. Grandma really hadn’t woken me! The house was quiet and empty. Where was my grandmother? I dressed and ran down the path, fear in my heart.
“I’m real sorry about your grandmother,” said CW, with a concerned look. Carl Wayne is 13 months older than me and is as tall and dark as I am short and fair. He is the best summer friend I ever had. I would never make it here without him. He knows how to do all the cool stuff like build tree houses or catch bream with a willow cane, a piece of string and a safety pin. He catches lots of them with the white grub worms he digs up. I’m bad to love to eat the bream fried up whole and crisp, tails and all. I have even hunted rabbit and squirrel with him. And I’ve helped hold the squirrel while he pulls the skin off “slicker than owl shit,” he says. He is bad to use the “S” word. I’d get my tail whipped if I was caught cussin’. Anyway I enjoy hunting with CW because Grandma makes the best squirrel and dumplin’s you ever put in your mouth.
Tears started to well up at the thought of my grandma being missing. “Sheriff Howard and his deputies are scouring the woods looking for her, but where could she be?” I asked CW.
“I reckon they will find her directly,” he answered, knocking some fire ants off his leg and bare foot.
“CW, I had a scary dream last night but I’m not real sure if it all were a dream or not. It was so real.” I could tell CW anything without feeling foolish so I told him about my spiders-kidnapping-Grandma dream.
“Yep, sounds like a crazy dream, all right,” he said, scratching the painful red marks the fire ants had left on his foot.
“That sometimes happens when you’re going through troublesome times.” He had heard about my parents splitting up.
Just then Pastor Bolin from the Friendship Full Gospel Sanctified Holiness Missionary Baptist Church came up on the porch. His wife, Sister Plum Nelly, was dressed up pretty with a flowered Sunday-going-to-meetin’ dress on and a flowered bowl hat to match. In her arms was a box full of Tupperware bowls filled with food.
Grandma and me visited their church sometimes. And the Holiness ladies, Sister Patricia, Sister Ida, Sisters Susie and Ruby, would come and call on us often.
“Child, we brought you some chicken and dressing, crower peas, butter beans, okra and a mess of turnip greens,” said Sister Nelly. “And honey, don’t you worry none, the Good Lord will help them men find yer sweet grandmother.”
“Yes, ma’am, thank you,” I said.
Pastor Joe was was getting ready to leave and mopping sweat from his shiny black head. “Our church peoples are comin’ to help and praying for Miss Jessie’s safe return.”
“Yes sir, I appreciate it,” I said, remembering my Southern manners. I thought of my grandmother again, and how she loved living in the South. I was surprised to learn that she wasn’t born and raised here. She told me being Southern was a thing of the soul. She had lived everywhere from the East Coast to California before she married Papa and he brought her to his home here. She told me in San Francisco she lived in an apartment building for two years before anyone spoke to her. Here in the South people took the time to be friendly and get to know you. That culture was built around the church, family and community. And I was beginning to understand some of these things. Grandma and I had taken food to those suffering and in need many times. Now her house was beginning to fill up with food and love for her suffering family.
I thought about how Grandma regularly left biscuits or a pie on the back porch. We had caught sight of a dirty, long-haired, scary and sorry-looking man in our woods. Grandma said he was probably homeless. I named him Crazy Joe the Hermit but Grandma wouldn’t allow me to talk bad about him. She said every life was valuable.
Papa came in after dark from helping the deputies search the woods. His face was grim and and lined with worry. “All you young ’uns better eat and git to bed. We have to get an early start in the morning,” he stated firmly.
All of my aunts, uncles and cousins had come in. Pretty as a picture Blakney and Jessie (named after my grandma) were here with my cousins Zack, Will, Brandon, Joseph and Dillweed. They were eager to join in the search tomorrow and find their grandma.
In all the goings on we had almost forgotten great-grandma Joyce, or Mee-maw as we called her. She lives here with Grandma and Papa because she has Old-Timers Disease. She was married very young to great-grandpa Johnny. Johnny Reb, he was called, because he was so old when he died we thought he probably was in the Civil War. He used to fly a huge Rebel flag from his front porch and he would die if he weren’t already dead to learn they are trying to do away with the Rebel flag today in Mississippi.
Mee-maw was bad to wander off outside and get lost. Papa said she had a guardian angel because she always managed to find her way back while we were out looking for her. After she got back from one of her wanderin’ spells she would keep saying, “Johnnnee, Johnnnee,” her dead husband’s name. Mee-maw never said much else and stayed confused. She always had a sweet vacant look on her face and was prone to do strange embarrassing things. One time we found her in the pea patch picking peas buck-necked! Didn’t even have her drawers on. She had gotten hot. That night Grandma Jessie and I had to doctor all of her redbug bites with Papa’s medicine he takes when he’s feeling poorly.
That night in bed, I couldn’t hardly sleep. I was heartsick with worry. Memories of Grandma kept running through my mind. I thought about how she loved to have all her grandchildren on the front porch eating watermelons or hand-cranked ice cream until we’re as full as ticks.
And the fire ant project she helped me with for the science fair. We experimented with old-fashioned remedies that older people swore would kill fire ants. Those vicious biting ants come from South America and are a real problem in Mississippi. They can kill you and do kill wildlife and livestock. In our experiments, nothing worked. Nothing will kill them. And we were surprised when we won a Best of Fair trophy!
I lay there thinking more about those fire ants. There were a lot of them on Papa’s place. One mound I saw yesterday was over four feet high and seemed to be getting bigger. I need to check that out. Could the spiders have hidden Grandma under one? Stop it, Cassie, I told myself. You’ve been reading too many scary stories. Your imagination is going wild! I also remembered some of our walks through the woods picking poke sallet to eat and wildflowers for our soul. I remember thinking Grandma wouldn’t be happy if she knew how poor and culturally deprived she was. I learned that she was in my gifted class at school. I had so many important things to share with her. But what can you say to someone who gets such a thrill from naming paths and trails and things after her grandchildren? Let’s see, there’s: Aaron’s Creek, Cassie Lane, Jessie’s Meadow, Joe’s Jungle Road, Brandon’s Bend, Bubba’s Bottom, Will’s Pine Hill, Zack’s Gap, Dillon’s Dirt Trail, Blake’s Lake. After remembering all that, I fell asleep.
Day 2. At 5 a.m. I was up and ready to go. I smelled coffee. Papa was in the kitchen trying to make breakfast biscuits. Oh, how I missed Grandma! Papa can fry catfish and chittlins but biscuits was not his thing. People were already beginning to come to continue the search. CW had stayed up late making a map for the searchers. He knew the woods better than anyone since he hunted every inch of them.
Papa was giving orders, “Ya’ll will need your machetes to get through some places. The vines are really thick right now. And don’t forget there are wild boars in there, so be careful.”
“We need to hurry. The frogs were croakin’ a lot last night, it means a storm’s coming, so let’s git!” CW added, grabbing his over-and-under shotgun.
Just as we were fixin’ to leave, Aunt Wheezy and Ms. Becky from Brooksville came riding up on their horses. “Thought you could use these two critters in your search,” said Aunt Wheezy. A few minutes later, she decided she would stay at the house and organize the care and feeding of the crowd that was forming. She owned Bent Oak Cafe and could handle it all. She gave her horse to Zack to use.
Papa said I could go with CW. We decided we would search the lake area behind the house. The sun wasn’t up yet and it was foggy. Even though it was going to be hot and muggy, I wore long britches and a long-sleeved shirt to keep the ticks off. We were in a thick area and the going was hard. CW had mapped out places for Papa and his buddies to go and we could hear them in the distance. My voice was getting hoarse from calling for Grandma and I was getting tired. After hours of searching, we came to a creek. We sat down and ate a biscuit with a piece of fatback bacon and drank the cool water. Soon CW was up and ready to go. “Come on, Cass,” he said. “We can rest after we find your grandmother.” He was very fond of her.
After four more hours, I was aching, tired and had had it. “CW, I have to stop,” I said.
“Okay, Cass,” he replied, “It’s starting to rain, let’s go in.”
When we returned to the house, it looked like one of our family reunions. People were in the house, the yard and some were still in the woods. There were long tables set up on the back porch filled with all kinds of food. Aunt Wheezy was busy serving and filling glasses with iced tea. “Oh Lord, have mercy,” she kept saying. “What am I going to do and where am I going to put up all this food?” Aunt Wheezy was happiest when she had something to fuss about.
After the sun set Papa and his friends came in. “Nobody saw nothing,” said Papa. I lost my appetite and went to bed.
Suddenly I woke up. Was I dreaming again? The dogs were howling like they were talking to the dead. I was having another dream and Grandma was trying to tell me something. We always had this strong connection and at times could read each others’ minds. “Please Grandma, what is it?” I cried. “What more can I do?” I started sobbing.
Pray, Cassie, pray, I heard her voice deep in my spirit. Remember what I taught you: you’re rich if you have faith. Don’t lose it, Cassie. God has us in His hands no matter what happens.
I fell back asleep, reassured.
Day 3. Another hard and hot day of searching. Sheriff Howard was making arrangements to have the lake dragged and bring in the bloodhounds.
That evening the news channel was at Grandma’s house to report on her mysterious disappearance.
“Could it be related to five unsolved murders of elderly people that happened within 25 miles of here?” the reporter droned.
“Oh, no!” I cried. I ran to my bedroom, fell to my knees and cried out to God. After a while I felt someone on his knees beside me with his hand on my shoulder. It was my papa. We prayed together.
After a bit we heard a commotion outside. We ran to the door and saw the sweetest sight. Crazy Hermit Joe, who most people were scared of, looked scared to death himself. He was leading my grandmother home on his arm! Joy filled my soul.
Later that night, after an excited reunion with everyone, we heard the rest of the story.
Grandma had gone walking three days before and run into a spider web. She stumbled on a rock, fell, hit her head and was knocked out. Hermit Joe - oh, excuse me, his real name is Johnny Smith, lives in an old school bus deep in the woods. Well, he found her, and took her there to nurse her until she woke up. He knew she was the nice lady who set out food for him on the back porch.
And to top things off, when Mee-Maw came out of her room that night and saw him her eyes lit up in recognition and she said “Johnneeee, Johnneeee.” He was the guardian angel who led her home during her wanderin’ spells!
Oh Lordy, I felt my joy rising again. How rich can a person be?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.