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Kudzu (an excerpt)
By Graham Dunstan
Genre: Fiction Level: College
Year: 1996 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest
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I have no doubt it will be there forever, that it will one day overrun our yard and draw itself in tight green knots about our house. The kudzu has already claimed my childhood. It is entangled in everything I remember.

I can see it as if I'm standing on the deck of our house for the first time, the day we moved. I see our back yard, and the deep ditch that separates the new grass from the large field of kudzu on the other side. My father is standing at the edge of the ditch and I walk to him.

It will be an uphill battle, he tells me on one knee. He fingers a vine and looks up at me. The kudzu was here before the house, he says.

The pine trees on the other side of the ditch are drowning in the kudzu, strangled by it, transformed into strange, enormous shapes. I look out at the green mounds and imagine they are giants who have fallen asleep, covered by preying vines. If the kudzu can trap the trees, I know my father and I are certainly no match for it.

But I can't stop watching it those first days in our house. Watching it grow towards us, inching closer day by day. I can't stop listening to it call to me. Call to us, me and my brother and my two cousins.

It called our names as children. Singing in the day -- the trills of blue jays and whippoorwills, the smells of honeysuckle and blackberries, daring us to go back there. But we knew to be careful. We knew it wanted us, wanted to lull us into forgetting how dangerous it was as we walked through its waist deep vines.

In the day we took the chance, even though we were afraid. But on hot summer nights, when we raced into the back yard with jars and lids, we would stop at the kudzu. We'd chase the lightning bugs until they went over the slinking dark leaves, out of our reach, and we'd stop at the ditch, because at night we didn't dare enter it. We wouldn't wade through the gnarled green vines, through the moon shadows of the pine trees. We knew it would drown us.

So we would sit down in the ditch, our backs against the dirt. We'd stare up at the kudzu, wanting to get closer, but not daring to.

The ditch was all that kept it back. A natural defense against the plant, a trench someone else had dug for the war my father eventually fought. He would try to cut the kudzu, and burn it, but it always came back, heartier than before.

We looked up at the kudzu those nights in the ditch, watching the lightning bugs escape. We would sit until we could feel our backs against the dirt, wet from the heat. The sweat ran down the sides of our bodies from under our arms, it was so hot. We'd talk about everything -- Alex, Angie, Laura and me -- about the other kids in the neighborhood, the teachers we hated, and what our parents had done that day to make us mad. And we would talk about sex.

As far as we knew, boys and girls were boys and girls, although we did have an idea there was more to it than that. But for me, in fourth grade, to go with someone meant you put your hand in her back pocket when you walked down the hall to lunch. She might do the same to you. It wasn't something scary. At that age the kudzu was the only thing I had to be afraid of. I'd seen it.

I had seen my father pull at a few vines of the kudzu and put his ear to the ground. Listen, he said. You can hear the snakes down there. Rattlers. Diamondbacks. Listen.

And you could. Down there, hissing, stretching, like the kudzu itself. I was afraid. I could hear it, the slinking, the shifting, like the sound of hands digging in wet sand.

I watched my father as he cleared a patch of the kudzu and poured gasoline down the snake hole. A few rattlers tried to escape, yellow and tan, five and six feet long. They shot out, heading for the kudzu, for a place to hide from my father and the whish of his down-swinging hoe. But he never missed one. Not that I saw. I got four rattles that summer. My brother got two.

There were other things just as deadly in the kudzu, but the danger made it more exciting. We cut through the vines in the day to get to blackberry patches where there were berries the size of golf balls. I was sure that every brush of my elbow, every prick of a thorn was a black widow, its red hourglass smiling on my leg.

And at night, after dinner and blackberry cobbler, I would go and sit on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor as my mother sat on the toilet lid and ran her fingers through my hair, searching for ticks. Sometimes she had to use a lighter and a pin to get them to let go.

Count the holes, she would say, putting her leg in front of my face, trying to distract me. She'd pull up her nightshirt a bit. How many?

I would touch them. One. Two. Threefourfive. Up her leg. Small dots from where she fell onto the barbed wire fence from the horse. Six. Seven. That was all I could see.

The kudzu hid things like barbed wire, other things too. Nails and horseshoes, tin roofs from old sheds, waiting under the vines, ready to trip you. Ready to cut you. But as we walked through it, we hoped with every step we would stumble across the carcass of a rotting animal, a skeleton from the Civil War, or better yet, a body.

We looked for those treasures, but we never found them. Just the trash, the junk other people had left behind. Once we found three used rubbers and a blanket far back in the field under an oak. We knew Jay Whitener had been out there with his girlfriend. We had seen him before, watching us in the kudzu, eyeing our secret hiding place.

The blanket, under tree limbs covered in kudzu, looked like a canopy bed. It hadn't been there the day before. My cousin Angie lay down on it in the indention they'd made in the soft dirt, clay and damp leaves beneath.

That day we took the blanket and spread it out on the front porch of the Whiteners' house, the rubbers lying on top. We never found evidence of Jay or his girlfriend in our kudzu again. That was when we knew it belonged to us. Dangerous or not, whether it scared us or not, it was ours.

We made hidden forts out of scraps of metal and wood we found in the kudzu. Then we'd spend hours beating and trampling trails that led back there so we could throw muscadines at Old Man Rucker and escape. He'd chase after us screaming, his thumbless right hand clutched into a fist. You little ruffians! Damn hooligans, he'd shout.

And we'd listen, just out of sight, bunched together on our stomachs in the green tunnels of our world. We'd laugh and laugh at him, and he'd finally walk away, cursing at us. Damn hooligans, getting softer and softer.

By the time I was in middle school, we were spending our whole summers out there. We'd go out after lunch and not come home until seven or eight at night. We would have two or three forts to build and blackberries to pick, or we'd have to stock up for our many wars -- green pine cones that were so sharp they hurt your fingers to even put them in a bag, and puffy brown mushrooms that would explode with a green poof when they hit you.

One day my brother and I were going to get Angie and Laura to help us dam a creek. But as we were walking to their house, we met Angie halfway, at the road.

Where's Laura, my brother asked.

Angie frowned and said, Mom says we can't go back there anymore. She says girls and boys shouldn't play alone in the kudzu.

Dumb, my brother yelled. That's dumb!

But I looked at her and I knew. I thought of when Angie lay there on that blanket with the rubbers. Her mother was afraid of things other than ticks and snakes, nails and spiders.

Alex and I hung around our cousins less and less, but sometimes, after dinner, just before it got dark, I'd find Angie out in the kudzu alone.

The first moments we stared at each other felt dangerous. We were alone out there and weren't supposed to be. Almost always Angie would break the silence.

Third cousins can marry, she'd say straight-faced, then laugh.

Or, take me now, please just take me now!

I spent more and more time in the kudzu, sometimes alone, and by junior high my fear of it had worn down. At night I'd go out there with some guys from school. We would stroll along the ditch, the boundary of the kudzu, until we came to the road. Walking in the groaning dark of the crickets, we'd tell ghost stories and talk about murderers and rapists, slapping the lightning bugs from our faces.

We'd walk up Pruitt and Charlotte Drive and begin our mayhem, the kudzu our only witness. It watched us set up small pyramids of Coke cans in the road and wait for cars to send the cans flying. It watched us roll houses and trees with toilet paper until they were ghostly white. It crept up the wall of our old elementary school, and saw us sneak in through a window and steal chocolate milks from the cafeteria. It climbed the fence of our neighbors who were out of town, and watched as we leapt naked and laughing from the roof of their house down into the dark shadows of the swimming pool. It saw us steal each others' clothes and chase around the pool, the moonlight glistening on our backs and shoulders.

The kudzu watched me grow up. I spent more time on my stomach, its thick hairy vines and coarse leaves against my legs, than I did with my parents or my friends. Often it was where I went to be alone any time my father was yelling or my brother was being a pest.

When my mother and father got divorced, I went back there to cry. . . .

About the Author: Graham Dunstan is in the Creative Writing program at University of Alaska Anchorage.

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