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The Levee This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   Many people think the border between Tennessee and Mississippi is the green and white sign on Highway 61, but a few of us know better. It's the front yard of the old white house in Horn Lake covered with kudzu. Kudzu is a weed that attaches itself to trees or fences, multiplies, and taking on the shapes of anything, kills everything in its path. I always saw exotic animals in the kudzu, never zebras or giraffes, but animals that could exist on Venus. Their shapes were different every time I passed, but they were too obvious to pass on as mere mosquito-infested ivy, heaven for the mighty copperheads. Kudzu can decimate entire fields in months, the weeds always taking on the forms of stronger, more ferocious animals.

From this yard you can see the levee begin its final uninterrupted trek to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a man-made hill built along the banks of rivers to prevent flooding. The Mississippi River levee starts in southern Missouri but stops around Memphis, one of the few cities along the river without a flooding problem. Memphis is built on a bluff made from dust blowing over the river from Arkansas. The smell changes at this yard too. Tennessee is hot and heavy, trying to combine suburban farms with small scattered cities. The smell in Mississippi makes your whole body feel warm and slow. The air is thicker and dustier, bursting with stories and simple life-styles. No matter where I am in this area I can feel the pull of the river. I always know which way is west, a securing but not confining feeling. The country is flat, with the symmetrical rows of crops as endless as the levee.

There is a tower near Rosedale, Mississippi where my grandparents live. If you make it to the top, fighting humidity all the way, you can see the levee, following it almost to New Orleans, where the land is so unstable that cemeteries are in buildings above ground, the bodies sealed in metal drawers. The Chinese slaves were the first to build a levee, taking the mud from river banks and reinforcing it with willow, concrete, or stone mats.

The levee provides the local people with recreation. Families use the levee to eat picnic dinners on Sunday after catching fish in the "blue holes" where the river has washed up. The worms are free if you cut them from the knots in the reeds. The men hunt wild game annually, then cook their animals and vegetables over a fire for twenty-four hours, providing the town with a feast of "Brunswick Stew," while relaxing over the madly rushing and spinning river.

My grandfather, Mick, never let us take the levee for granted. Every morning before it got too hot, Gail and I walked across Rosedale's main street, behind the one church, and to the base of the levee. We crawled under the barbed wire fence which protected the cows, not the children. Looking up, tall green grass covered the hill, bright compared to the hazy sky, brown cows grazing lazily, mosquitos approaching slowly from every direction. The levee supported so much life. Not only did it secure the river from overflowing, things blossomed. Wildflowers grew as abundantly as the grass, birds nested in any sunny spot, and I had all the room I needed to look for butterflies, the part of the levee I loved the most. The butterflies were everywhere, wings motionless as they embraced the white petals, colors separating them from the other levee life. Yet when in motion, they all moved as a flock of life. I caught beautiful butterflies in my net made of a piece of cheesecloth, a coat hanger, and a broomstick, but only to look at them. I was careful never to touch or disturb them, just slow them down so I would never lose their image. When they were there, all other people disappeared.

Rosedale is built around Highway 61 and is surrounded by the levee and farms. It has only the necessities: a church, a school, a gas station, and Bill's grocery store. Mick owned a dime store in town that sold sundry things for people's amusement. Miss Mary, the woman who ran the store, gave me a ten-cent ring with my birthstone. Mr. Jake gave me a free fountain coke every time I came to see him in the drugstore next door. Rosedale loved Mick. It was his only home and nothing could demean it for him. He was mayor for seven years, starting a sewer system, improving racial conditions, and inspiring the town to work together.

Grandma and Mick's house was simple and used every corner. No one felt lonely or uncomfortable there. When I was five, my parents left Gail and me with Grandma and Mick after Christmas because they were predicting bad weather in Memphis. An ice storm hit the Mississippi Delta. No one knew what to do since these storms are rare in the South. Gail and I had to stay in the warmer upper level of the house. We watched the ice on the trees at night, terrified that the branches would crack under the weight of the ice, but they didn't, except over the driveway. The next morning we were warm inside, playing cards on the worn, beige rug, sipping hot chocolate carefully so we wouldn't spill a drop, our grandparents looking on, satisfied.

I slept well that night in my mother's old room. It was decorated in green and yellow, my grandmother's favorite colors. There was a yellow armchair so worn out that it hurt to sit on the springs, a contrast to the newly furnished living room down the stairs.

That living room used to be formal and mature; now it's cold and stifling. When my grandfather died of cancer eight years ago I saw his coffin by the oak desk. The whole room was dark and I needed an escape. I had to sit inside all day with my mourning relatives. I was eight years old and didn't know what was going on, but I hated that room. Shadows darkened every book. Dust smothered on every piece of paper, as if the room had died with my grandfather. It is hard to keep a house clean after someone has died. Looking at the stairs all I could see was a crack in one of them where Mick had killed a rattlesnake with one swing of his ax. It scared me to think that his strength was gone forever, and I never wanted to see that stair again. All I could smell was the typical dusty grandparent's house smell, and I wanted to get out, to go run around on the levee where Mick had taught me to be free.

That was eight years ago. Seeing the house like that cast a shadow over it that still exists. I was haunted by the funeral, but I miss the simplicity of life there. I would give anything to be able to go back now, to feel the hazy sun on face, to breathe thick, dusty air, to hear the nocturnal crickets and the mosquitoes buzzing around my neck. I miss fishing with fat, slimy worms next to the river. I miss watching the slow sunset from the top of the levee disappearing behind the river. I can't wait to drive by the kudzu again, noticing the new shapes of the animals, and look at the rising slopes of the beginning of the levee, protecting not only the Mississippi River, but a culture. n


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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