In The Garden Of Henry King
E. Smith Gilbert
Henry King always worked his own garden. Henry King worked his garden everyday; he was working it this morning. It was just now ten o’clock and already over ninety degrees. Henry King was sweating. The highway toward Macon went past his farm. The traffic on it stayed heavy; this congestion increased the burden of heat with by adding brute noise.
In recent years suburban housing developments had started closing in. Clusters of large houses, of three thousand square feet or more, set on treeless tracts of at least two acres that had been parts of peoples farms were standing within three miles of Henrys’ land. The folks in these houses didn’t farm; Henry didn’t know what they did. There were two golf courses built in the county in five years. There never had been one in the county. The houses and golf places belonged to new people.
Henry King kept working steady; he was close to being done. His heavy breathing and the cuts of his hoe made a sort of rhythm for his thinkings.
He had always lived here, except for the war, when he’d crossed the ocean, seen it, and the killing in France. Henry had always lived on the same land, his thirty acres, in the same house that had started out over a hundred years ago as an overseer’s cabin on a plantation. He’d bought his land, the first land anyone in his family had owned, with a government loan he was able to get when he came home from the war. The last few of the once strong family who’d built the plantation had sold off the place in pieces when the young father, the great-grandson of the man who started it, who’d inherited the place, didn’t come home from the war. With the young major lost, the operation was left with only a sad young wife, the dead man’s mother and her unmarried sister to try to run it. That family took the money from the sale of their land and went to live in the widows’ fathers’ home in Savannah. Henry felt sad for them; but it was his and his kind’s only big and best chance to not work shares until they died.
Some of his kin had gone to Chicago and Detroit to work in plants; they seldom ever came back home after they left. His cousin had been able to go to work for the railroad; he lived in Atlanta. Henry had been all the way to France. He’d come home. He’d gotten the land, improved and expanded his cabin with rough oak sawmill slab he trimmed square with a handsaw. Henry added a wide porch; it was a place for his family to sit in hot evenings. After his first good season of cotton, he’d put on a new galvanized metal roof. It’d lasted. He’d bought a big cast iron fat-man stove the next fall and with the original fireplace, the place was warm enough for his family. The next pair of good cotton years, with selling his produce, and help-work on some neighbors’ farms, paid for the glass windows and screens he put in with Sam his oldest, and young Oscar helping.
The year after the war ended, when he got his place, he’d gotten electric lights, then a Frigidaire. The same well from plantation days had always stayed sweet with plenty enough for him and his. He always fed his family. His vegetable gardening was famous. Henry built a smoke house and made hams and bacon from hogs he slaughtered late each fall
after frost. Henrys’ boys and Louise never missed having a Christmas.
Until this past year, Henry had farmed. For the last four years young Oscar helped Henry make the crop. Oscar had helped out to make Henry happy. Oscar was married now, gone to trade school in Macon and learned air conditioning work, and just didn’t have much heart for farming.
While he and Oscar had worked it, they’d put half the land in soybeans; made rotation with cotton, with both crops they’d made pretty good.
Henry had gotten older. This year, Henry made a lease deal with a big farmer who had put in soybeans. Like always, Henry still made his garden himself, but since his children were married and gone off the place, his wife dead, most of it, went to his children’s families. Henry figured as soon as he was gone; his children would get together, talk a little around someone’s table, and then sell his place to a house developer. He didn’t think his children and their families would
be able to resist cash.
His wife had been dead ten years. She’d always delighted keeping the bare dirt yard swept. She’d sweep the yard twice each day; once right after breakfast and again in late afternoon. Her broom left a pattern in the red sand. The rounded strokes of her tied brush broom had looked like banks of clouds in the sky. Louise used to say clouds in the sky were the resting beds of the angels of tired people who’d got to heaven.
With Louise dead, he could now eat anything he wanted. He fixed and ate as much as he had of what he wanted. Mostly, Henry baked a pan of cornbread in the morning, ate it with butter and the preserves Oscars’ young wife made special for him. His favorite food was watermelon from his garden. He grew a big patch each summer. He mostly ate melon for his meals at midday and night. He loved the big ripe Congo melons, their smell and their rich deep green color. To himself, he thought of their smell especially after he cut one open, as a smell of rain and ground. To him, the smell referenced fertility as potent as the smell between a woman’s legs.
Now, he didn’t miss Louise; he’d stopped the aching of her going long ago. Oscars’ young wife did his laundry, but Henry wouldn’t let her clean up his house; they had fights about that. He’d always treasured his alone with his mind time. He was now able to keep to himself and he relished his thinking time being free of the distractions he had with the duties of a young family man making his way. These days’ whole worlds, ways, and whys came to his mind in sudden and surprising ways. Sometimes his mind time was as vivid as when he’d been spoken to by the rattlesnake.
He’d been real sick from the snakebite. He’d nearly died. He’d been delirious several days. Doctor Williams, and the man Stone, whose hay he’d been bailing that day, had got him through it. They’d told about his being delirious and they thought him a sure goner. His living through was like a transforming story from the Bible.
After the snakebite, he’d been out for a good three hours in the hottest time of the day, in the field beside the tractor where he’d fallen. His employer, Stone, found him. Henry was taken home to die. Stone had stayed on the porch at Henrys’ house waiting with the doctor Stone had sent and paid for, until Dr. Williams decided Henry had wrestled down
the snakes’ evil and had started to get clear of the poison. The two men told Henry his getting out of the bed was as big a miracle as Lazarus being freed from the grave.
They’d told him about the snakebite, but Henry remembered the all of it. He remembered how the rattler struck him from out of a bale of new hay and through the time his fever passed and he could sit up in his bed. He remembered tearing the big snake, a gleaming young one, but a good five footer, it hung from the side of his face, it bit his hand as he freed himself, but he managed to pitch it away from him. He’d watched it crawl beneath the fence. It had coiled, and sat there watching him.
While Henry lay in the sun, beside the tractor, the snake had spoken to him in voices as clear as a choir. Henry King remembered all this. It came in the dreams he’d had when he was sleeping off the snake poison. Over his years, on other nights the dreams from the snake still came. Once, in a gun battle in France against a German tank crew, Henry had heard a voice speak to him, but he hadn’t recognized the voice. That was before Henry was snake bit.
Stone and Stone’s friend, Liege McCondell, had found Henry by the tractor, they’d said they’d searched, but there was no rattler still around. Henry King knew the snake had stayed close and never left because he’d seen him, and heard the songs. The words of the snakes’ songs told Henry how the rattler had put a mark on him; it informed Henry King of the space in the dreams between the two of them.
Both Stone and Dr. Williams always told Henry King he was the luckiest man, black or white, rich or poor, in all of Georgia. The snake poison had left crescent shaped scars on the left side of Henrys’ face, taken Henrys’ left eye, withered that hand, and stolen the good use of his left arm; but Henry was stronger with just his right arm than most men ever were whole. Stone, Henrys’ white friend, and sometime employer, who’d fought the Germans in World War I, came to see him a lot, when they took a drink, Stone liked to say “not even the Nazi German bastards could kill Henry King the mighty man from Georgia. Who’d broke their backs and caused their widows to weep and orphan children cry when he was sent by our Living God to punish them.”
When his kids and grandkids were little ones, the babes would like to touch his snake marks and hold on to his withered hand when Henry would tell his stories about how he knew snakes spoke and carried messages between the worlds. Once, Louise had challenged him, saying such talk was the Devils’ words. Henry had blasted her with “I heard it speak wisdom as clear as hearing a bell rung telling me about the world from the hand of the Good Lord…it be louder than any preacher could shout.” After the snakebite, Henry King never attended church meetings. He knew nothing he could hear there could match or gain beyond what he had heard his day in the sun blasted field.
This day got hotter. He figured the summer would get much worse. There’d been a two-year drought in his part of Georgia. Every one he knew was worn out from it. Brush fires broke out all over, and irrigation on big farms was pushed hard; it wasn’t even deep July, never mind August. He’d hauled up hose and a diesel pump to his well for the precious watermelons and garden.
It was at the hottest yet when he found the third dead cat. He’d found one two days ago, another a week before that. His cats were members of a large inbred tribe started years ago by Louise who was crazy on cats. She’d kept getting more. Henry thought strays crossed all of Georgia and South Carolina to find his place. With Louise gone, they were his best company. He liked them; he fed them every morning. He’d cook them table meat pieces and bought sardines for them. He’d admire any new kittens or welcome a new stray.
Henry had fondness for the cats but would not baby about them. If one got killed on the road, or by quick dogs, or a snake, they just got killed. There were a lot of things in the world waiting on the unlucky. But losing three in a week was a rare odd thing and Henry King was looking out. The third dead cat looked like the other two. This one had died in a hollow place in his firewood stack. The head was swollen just like the first two he’d found under the stairs going up to his front porch. There were no marks or wounds on the swollen small bodies.
His morning was wearing out. He kept working his garden. He was almost done on the patch of watermelons. He’d decided on a particular fine big melon to pick for himself later this afternoon to have for tomorrow. He’d put it in his Frigidaire so it’d get ice water cold.
When he’d started to chop a thick clump of grass, he heard the highbuzz. His hoe cut was in motion. The diamondback was as big as Hell’s Own King and Keeper. It was dusted pale gray- pink on its’ fat sides from the red dirt, it sat in a wide coil like the mooring ropes on the deck of the ship he’d taken to France in nineteen forty- three, was better than seven feet long and was as thick as Henrys’ right arm.
Henry knew it. The rattler had spoken before to Henry King and was talking again in the same voices the words Henry had learned in Stone’s hayfield. At the moment before it struck, the snake locked eyes with Henry King the mightiest man in Georgia. It hit Henry high above his knee, recoiled, and cocked back to come again. As it severed the neck, the impact of Henry’s blow right behind the great creatures’ head shattered the hoe handle.
The snake was as dead as if it had been a man shot through the head. Henry staggered down cracking open the pretty melon he’d decided would be tomorrows’ meal. His leg burned like it’d been pumped full of flaming gasoline. The fire was grabbing him. The burning of it was filling up the inside of his chest and ripping his heart.
A memory picture ran into Henrys’ mind of a day in France, of some German men he’d helped kill, he had won a medal. The enemy soldiers were wrapped in fire; Sergeant Henry King and two other men had blown up their tank. When the Germans tried to escape the wreck, they were aflame from burning fuel. Those solders burned as they ran. Henry remembered the hard feel of the recoil of his rifle from each pull on the trigger. He saw them now. Henry had killed each man and Henry King had killed the diamondback; sadness for it all crossed him. Henry hissed, “That’s all… it’s certain… there ain’t a place for two old fellows in this world now time days. Soon Stone… and McCondell… Doctor Williams gone all them peoples in France… gone now…all of us be goin’ away…”
He stood up tall, tried to lift the huge wonderful snake over his head, but it weighed too much. Henry could not get the full length of the great rattler clear of the ground. The crushed neck remained in the red dust near the severed thick wide triangle head. For the few seconds it hung lifted by the tail in Henry Kings’ strong right hand, the diamondback throbbed and thrashed like a whip being cracked by a mindless moon- blinded child stirring up dust in the middle of patch of brilliant green, fat, and exceptionally sweet-fleshed watermelons where Henry King fell with his wonderful diamondback dead beside him. For only a moment Henry King might have noticed feathery beds of rainless clouds in a searing bright sky.
E. SMITH GILBERT is a pseudonym for a writer living in Tennessee. He is retired from a long business career. He has recently become a writer for documentary film.