A Short Story
Mary Helen Lagasse
He leaned into the gale-force winds despite the debris that came at him like so many arrows aimed by the fury of the storm. The flooding waters that licked his calves when he and Purvis entered the abandoned trailer earlier flushed against his chest. Now he felt the water creep upward through his shirt, threatening to beat him down before they could make it back to Miller’s Grocery.
The straps of the rucksack––loaded with flashlights, multiple batteries, a fixed-blade knife, a transistor radio, indispensible miscellaneous things, and the all-important Gerber hatchet he’d buried deep within––were chafing his neck and shoulders.
“I’ve never run from a hurricane before—and this fuckin’ storm isn’t gonna be the first one to make me!” he muttered into the gusting rain. Storms were old hat to him, but this one, this Katrina, he’d said to Purvis when they’d listened to the TV weather reports earlier, could well be the legendary Big One they’d heard their parents and neighbors talking about ever since they were kids.
Unlike his cousin Purvis, who sported a cocky, don’t-fuck-with-me attitude, Jerry Grainier maintained the tight-lipped manner characteristic of the men of his family. But inside himself he was wringing his hands like his grandma used to do whenever she prayed to a something-or-other Saint of The Impossible that she supplicated whenever things were at their worst.
He was from a fish-packing family and he’d lived all his life in Lafitte and in Barataria, surrounded by water. Within months of having earned a degree in mechanical engineering, he bought a lot two hundred fifty feet across by three-hundred-twenty feet deep in Bayside Park near Waveland, Mississippi a few blocks from the beach facing the Gulf, on which he’d parked the Chinook trailer he’d purchased from a friend second-hand. The trailer was a good deal, as was the Bayside Park property, which had steadily declined in value in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille in ’69, a long way back. The lot had been up for sale so many years that Jerry Grainier was able to buy it for a song. Centered halfway between New Orleans and Biloxi, off the I-10, the property was easy to get to. He had plans for it, plans to build his dream house—an A-frame structure, said to be the ideal model for withstanding hurricane winds. On down the line, maybe he’d even get married and raise a family there, although at the time, he had no particular plans and no particular girl in mind.
The thought came to mind of the day he was driving stakes for the wire fence he planned to put across the back of his new-bought lot. Once more he was suffused by the summer chorus of the insects, the blaze and heat of the noonday sun, the salt-taste of sweat on his lips, and the snake, a live sculpture coiled in the tall grass, its head held back, its cotton-mouth open wide as a man’s hand, its cat-like copper-colored eyes, its fangs––he could have sworn!––dripping with venom. With all his strength he’d thrown the maul he’d been using to hammer stakes at the snake.
“What I want to know is what in hell was it doing so far from water?” he’d said to Purvis, thinking of how deftly the snake had eluded the maul, how it had turned on him, was at his heels, undaunted and so swift he half-expected to see it slithering right behind him when he reached the front road.
“You might-a disturbed a mama snake nesting,” Purvis offered. “Fact is, I’m surprised it didn’t chase you down the road and bite you on the ass. They strike and latch on to you with them fangs, y’know! They’re cocky sonsabitches!” Purvis said. Then he’d demonstrated the lethality of those fangs with two hooked fingers he thrust at Jerry’s face with lightning speed. “They’ll inject you with their poison before ya even know ya been bit! Remember the time ol’ man Curry got bitten when we was fishing back at Simoneaux’s Pond off Highway 90? Curry said that when the big bastid hit his leg it was like being struck with a hammer. He was sweatin’ and shakin’ and gettin’ heart palpitations. By the time we got the old dude to the clinic he was near dead.”
Just then Purvis hollered, his boom-box voice thinned by the squalling rain, “You say somethin’ Jer?”
Jerry didn’t bother to holler back; he just shook his head, mouthed the word No and waved Purvis onward with a flick of the hand. His head was filled with thoughts of the Millers, the elderly grocery store owners and Camila, the pretty young woman with the kid; the four of them huddled together in the Millers’ grocery just about six blocks away now, waiting to be rescued before the eye of the storm would reach them and pass, the storm returning then with a vengeance.
He and Purvis had gone back to the trailer to salvage whatever they could. He promised the people waiting at the grocery that they’d be back within the hour. The Millers had believed them; the girl, Jerry noticed, wasn’t so sure.
He felt himself damn lucky to have found the Gerber hatchet he’d torn the trailer apart looking for; that and the six jugs of artesian well water that Purvis carried slung over his back: two basics without which they could not survive. They’d laughed like hyenas, he and Purvis, washing the few drinking vessels they had with a half-dozen bottles of beer so that, not knowing what to expect, they could preserve the supply of artesian well water they were taking back.
He was not at all certain the old couple could make it should they all be forced to climb up through a chopped hole in the ceiling, into the attic, and then onto the roof.
When he and Purvis stopped at Miller’s grocery just before the storm hit, both husband and wife seemed to have aged ten years since the day before when they were being their regular chatty selves greeting and gossiping and doing their best to calm their fretting customers as they waited on them.
They had had no choice, he and Purvis, but to leave the old people, the girl and her kid, to get back to the trailer for the all-important supplies they needed to get through the storm, whether or not they remained at the store, or be forced to leave. But now they’d have a sure-fire way of chopping through the roof, or chopping down some would-be marauder if it came to that, God forbid. Desperation could get to the best of people at the worst of times. Secretly, Jerry was relieved by the thought they wouldn’t have to rely on what Purvis called his “gook weapon,” as he snidely referred to the machete he’d brought back from Vietnam and kept under the driver’s seat of his pickup. Actually, he hadn’t been at all certain that Purvis, despite all his Marine macho bullshit, could have hacked through the ceiling and roof of Miller’s store with it, strong-built as the old building was.
Jerry dug his thumbs under the webbed straps that were cutting hard into both sides at the base of his neck. He looked up to see something long and dark that slithered with S-like motion, its head held above the turbulence of the water, its cotton-white mouth agape and coming straight at him.
“Moccasin!” he screamed “Moccasin!” then he felt the warm piss creeping in his crotch. He kicked at the snake hard as he could. “Purvis! Help! Help!” he screamed. But fuckin’ Purvis hadn’t turned, hadn’t even heard him! He seemed to be pulling away faster, encumbered though he was by his machete in its battered leather scabbard and the six plastic gallon containers of water strung together and mounted on his back.
Instinctively, Jerry reached back, yanked the wide straps of the rucksack, which slipped from his shoulders and plummeted into the water. In the split second before the snake attacked the sack, missing his hand by a hair’s breadth, he saw the full length of it. It was big and old!––its blackish body without the distinct crossbands of young moccasins; its underbelly segmented as perfectly as if God himself had taken the time to etch it just so. He felt the whiplash fury of the snake’s powerful body as it thrashed the churning waters, unable, or unwilling, to let go of the rucksack. He’d have screamed again, but something—the jugs of water—slammed against his face, stunning him.
Half in, half out of the water, the bedraggled Purvis was hanging onto a huge log. Purvis’s bear’s paw of a hand was clawing the air trying to reach him, to hoist him up in one fell swoop. “Grab hold, Jer! Grab hold!” he yelled.
“The bag! Get the goddam bag!” Jerry kicked hard as he could. He plunged forward and managed to grab hold of the log.
“Fuck the bag!” Purvis gasped.
“Wait!” Jerry said. His fingers groped for furrows in the pine bark by which he could grab a solid hold. Scales of the old bark had peeled away, revealing the reddish-brown pine-flesh beneath. His cheek was plastered to the log. He was face-to-face with a large lizard mindlessly gumping its way to the security of camouflage. He breathed in the mud-stench of decomposition: the water-logged wood, the black-beetle roaches that scampered about, the ants scurrying, the centipedes and other crawling creatures, dead or dying, that had lived in or had crept for survival up the log when it was still a tree standing upright.
“Let go of me Purvis! I’ve got it!” Jerry said hoisting himself by tortuous degrees onto the log.
Purvis eased back. “It’s gotten stronger, the current,” he sputtered, his barrel-chest heaving.
“Yeah! We haveta get back to the store. We told ‘em we’d be back in an hour. I can look at that generator and get it going if I’ve got enough daylight,” Jerry said. They needed to preserve the batteries for the flashlights, for the radio, for however long and for whatever else was to come.
“Aw, that’s no sweat for you, engineer man,” Purvis chortled. Jerry could analyze and fix any problem with any kind of a motor, anytime, anywhere. Purvis himself was a grease-monkey repair man. As J & P Function Engineering Services, together they made a pretty good team.
“That poor little kid, he was scared shitless,” Jerry said, recalling how the skinny knock-kneed boy clung to his mother.
“Not half as bad as that old couple, shiverin’ so much I thought one of ‘em was gonna get a stroke or have a heart attack and keel over,” Purvis said, swiping at the water that was dripping from his brow. “You’d have thought old as they are they’d have had the good sense to leave before the hurricane hit.
“They’d never leave that store—”
“It’s a fuckin’ grocery store, for Chrissake!” Purvis snapped.
“It’s more than that to them.”
“Whatever! It certainly ain’t worth riskin’ your fuckin’ neck for,” Purvis countered.
Jerry opened his mouth to rebut, but shrugged his shoulders and let it drop.
“What’s the girl’s name?” Purvis asked.
“You know goddam good and well what girl! The girl with the kid, that’s who.”
“Oh, Cami, is it?” Purvis sniggered.
“Short for Camila. Camila Lambert’s her full name.”
“Divorced. She was a Genelli before she got married.”
“Ain’t she the one that was—?”
“Yeah. That happened a while ago. She had a real rough time,” Jerry said, not letting himself think beyond that rejoinder.
“She’s a natural blonde, ain’t she? Or a redhead, or whatever it is you call that color hair,” Purvis returned.
“Strawberry blond it’s called. Now, do you think you can concentrate long enough to scoot your big ass over to reach the bag?” Jerry said, pointing at the dense tangle of branches where the rucksack was caught.
It was a pine tree log they were on—the only one of its kind in the area. Its long dark green needle-like leaves in bundles of threes, its gray-brown scales thick as oyster shells, and its trunk, a good sixty inches plus in diameter decreed that it was ol’ Maddie Genelli’s longleaf pine—indestructible through many a storm, now shattered and ripped in half by this one.
Maddie had brought it back with her a sapling when she and her sister Martha had come down from Dothan, Alabama sixty years ago. In its time it had weathered countless storms and thrived through all the low-intensity fires set by well-meaning folks intent on keeping weeds and insects and snakes in check. Its large stout cones had decorated many a local hearth at Christmastime, and throughout its life it had housed any number of species, feathered, furred, and otherwise.
“Moses might live to be a hunnerd plus. It’ll outlive me for sure,” Maddie Ohlrick Genelli said to anybody standing around listening whenever they found her peering into the sky, marveling at the pine’s seventy-five-foot height. “It’s different from these other puny pines ‘round here. It’s taproot’s gotta be as big around as its girth, tapering to depths of fifteen, twenty feet, or more.” No matter what blows this way, the taproot has had to be big enough, strong enough, and deep enough to have kept it from tipping over all these years.
“Trees like Moses grew by the bunches on daddy’s land,” she went on. “Daddy would be clearing a field and he’d find buried stumps and taproots of old longleaf pines—some of them cleared away a hundred years before—and he’d dig up those ol’ buried stumps and sell them for ‘fatwood’ as it was called, because they were so saturated with resin. The fatwood from those old longleaf pines was in demand for kindling for fireplaces, stoves, and such. That ancient wood, so fat and heavy with resin, had been preserved underneath the ground for so long, it would burn forever.”
As Maddie Ohlrick Genelli had predicted, the longleaf pine she’d named “Moses” had outlived her as it had her daughter, Lily Genelli, who gave birth to Maddie’s granddaughter Camila, years after both women survived Hurricane Camille in ‘69, by clinging to Moses for their lives.
“You’re right. For sure we gotta get that bag,” Purvis said, feeling for the handle of the machete tucked in the scabbard strapped to his waist.
“You think you’ll need that?” Jerry asked him. They couldn’t take any chance on losing the bag because of Purvis’s gung-ho histrionics. Had he been closer to that end of the log, he himself would have scooted on his haunches, reached over, and untangled the damned thing.
“Ya never know,” Purvis said, deftly slipping the machete out of its scabbard worn and shoddy from years of being crammed under the driver,s seat of his pick-up.
“What’s that?” Jerry said, pointing at an inert lump hunched at the splintered end of the log.
“What? Where?” Purvis said, his head swiveling this way and that.
“Over there at the end of the stump,” Jerry said, tucking in his chin and pulling his head back to give Purvis a unimpeded view of the stupefied creature half-hidden in the splintered wood. He squinched his eyes so as to decipher the long ears flat as wet leaves stuck to its back, the large eyes glossy in the thinning light. “Looks like a rabbit . . .” he whispered.
“Poor little bastid! It’s scared stiff,” Purvis said, sitting higher to peer above Jerry’s head.
The log thudded hard against something large and immovable. Instinctively, both men huddled down, lying astride to keep themselves from being tossed overboard by the jolt.
“Jesus Cha-riist! What in hell did we hit?” Purvis said, rising shakily to his feet.
“Be careful,” Jerry said, standing cautiously to test the stability of his own legs. “Looks like we’re jammed against the railroad tracks,” he said, surveying the rippling currents extending into the distance on either side of them. “The gradient rises six feet or more above the level of the street. You can barely see the tracks . . .”
The force of the wind had pushed them back so that they’d made little to no progress toward their objective on the waterway that was Coleman Avenue. All around, the darkening water moiled angrily over submerged objects whose identity they could only have guessed at.
“Looks t’me like it’s getting rougher. Like now we gonna haveta swim for it. Cryin’ out loud! We’re farther back than we were before. Eight blocks back now from what I can tell,” Purvis said. “Me and you can make it to the store holding the bag between us. Don’tcha think?”
They traded looks, both men burdened by the thought of the daunting prospect; both hoping for the best—that the store, standing on higher ground and resting on three-foot concrete pillars, was still intact.
Searching for a branch, a plank, anything he could use as a staff to help him keep his bearings Jerry looked at the accumulation of debris gathered around the log.
“Careful,” he cautioned Purvis who was by then inching his way step-by-sideways-step to reach the bag embedded in the massive tangle of broken limbs and bundles of pine leaf.
“All right, mama,” Purvis jeered, pirouetting the machete like a saber above his head.
“You’re a show-off son of a bitch, y’know that Purvis?” Jerry muttered.
“Think so?” Purvis said, teetering backward and forwards so as to rock the log even more. He liked nothing better than to see his cousin squirm.
“Goddamit! Watch it, Purvis!” Jerry screamed.
“Pussy!” Purvis snorted.
“Don’t move!” Jerry said, freezing on the spot, his gaze directed at something beyond Purvis.
Purvis jumped, teetering, rocking the log more than he meant to.
“I said to stop it, you jerk!”
“What in hell’s the matter with you?” Purvis snarled, looking in the same direction as Gerry.
“I think it’s a goddam snake!”
“Where? I don’t see no snake,” Purvis gasped, turning every which way and holding the machete in readiness.
“It’s there, caught in the branches right by the bag. D’ya see it?” Jerry said, pointing with the broken mop handle he’d fished out of the water.
Purvis leaned forward, stretching as far as gravity would allow. “Chrissake! It is a snake!”
“Hold steady! You’re gonna dump us over!”
“It’s a big goddam bastid! Looks like it could be a cottonmouth. If it is, it’s the biggest fuckin’ cottonmouth I ever seen,” Purvis gasped. “You think it’s a cottonmouth?”
“Yep! I think it could be the same one came at me before. Narrowly missed my hand. Sank it’s fangs into the bag instead and wouldn’t, or couldn’t let go.”
“Whatever it is, it’s gonna be a dead motherfucker!” Purvis snarled.
“I think it’s already dead—” Jerry said.
“Might could be,” Purvis muttered hesitantly.
They stood together watching the snake, inert and round as a limb of the great longleaf pine: Purvis with his machete held in abeyance; Jerry with his mop-handle-of-a-staff planted on the log.
As if the thing had become aware of the danger in close proximity, it came to life. It gathered itself in a sprawled coil and flung its head back, jaws agape and hingeless—fangs glistening in the white puffiness of its mouth. Then, feebly, it sank back, coiling into itself, as if it had settled scores with the nameless threat, and that was enough.
“Huh! You ever seen anything like that before? Purvis said hoarsely. “Look at it. It’s just layin’ there, not movin’.”
“It wasn’t able to cut loose from the rucksack and it had to struggle and struggle to stay alive. I think it’s dying.” Jerry said. A vast and sudden sadness descended on him. He thought of the snake on his land alongside the fence guarding its turf, defending itself against all comers, and of the snake with its head held high above the surface of the water, at once striking at and latching onto its salvation in the roiling waters.
“—Maybe so and maybe no. Like they say, ‘snakes are cowards first, bluffers second, and fighters last,’” Purvis said.
The snake lifted its head weakly, its split tongue twitching, its tail vibrating in warning before it sank ever deeper into the tangle of branches.
“Didn’t I tell ya? The sonuvabitch ain’t dyin’, it’s lyin’,” Purvis said, spitting at the thing through the middle gap between his front teeth.
“Leave it alone!” Jerry said.
“Are you nuts or somethin’?” Purvis snapped, nearly losing his footing.
“I said to leave it alone, Purvis.
“Are you orderin’ me, ya li’l twerp?” Purvis said, glaring at Jerry. He lifted the machete, ready to hack through the clumps of vegetation to get to the snake. “Asshole! I think you’re losin’ your fuckin’ mind!”
“What’s the point? Can’t you see it’s nearly dead already?” Jerry said, pointing his mop-handle staff at the snake as crimped together now as ribbon-candy inside an alcove afforded by the broken limbs of the longleaf pine.
“Well, it’s gonna be all dead, and I’m gonna help it get there,” Purvis swore.
You ignorant bastard! It’s no different now than you, or me, or that catatonic rabbit hopelessly sapping this dead tree for dear life! Jerry would have said, but that would’ve been wasted on a numbskull like Purvis, so Jerry sealed his thoughts behind the tight seam of his lips. He gripped Purvis’s wrist, holding onto the hand that wielded the machete.
“Let go my fuckin’ arm!” Purvis yelled.
“I mean it, Purvis. Let it be.” Jerry said.
Purvis broke free of Jerry’s grip, but the wiry man held his ground, his gaze bald in its intensity.
“So, what’re you gonna do me if I kill it?”
“Semper fi—” Jerry said in a voice superseded by the howl of all that was happening around them.
“What? What’d you say?” Purvis snarled. He had often shouted the shortened form of the motto exuberantly, ecstatically, mockingly, flipping the bird at the fellow Marine whose attention he aimed for. And yet, it wasn’t lost on Purvis that this dumbass cousin of his was doing his best to evoke something embedded in another kind of brotherhood––the bond of love between them, a born-and-bred Marine and a brainy limp-dick cousin younger than him by ten years he could've crushed with one hand tied behind his back ...