Southern Roadwork

For a short spell in April of this year a small group of Left Coast Writers became part of the world that inspired Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Harper Lee. Their hosts, Martha Greenway and Mary Brent Cantarutti, both South Carolina natives, invited them to visit the rural South and write about it—definitely “Roadwork” as we see it. Here is a collection of excerpts from works-in-progress.
— Linda Watanabe McFerrin

Ann Ure
God only knows what they thought when they saw us coming. There were five of them. Five country boys with farmers’ tans dressed in worn t-shirts that advertised whiskey and motorcycles. They wore Wrangler jeans—the kind that George Jones wears. Smokes protruded from their back pockets. They wore baseball caps too, and work boots. Each had driven there to meet us in his truck, each truck towing a small boat, not much bigger than a canoe, and fitted with an outboard motor.We looked like ladies from another time and place—possibly from another planet. Since most of us were from California, we might as well have been from some other planet—or Disneyland, a place that most good old boys would not have visited because it was in California.

There were eight of us: eight ladies who didn’t know what we were getting into, so we had prepared ourselves for the worst. We were dressed in long-sleeved shirts, full length pants. We wore wide-brimmed hats to ward off the sun. Evelyn’s was huge and had a yard of fine netting that draped around her face. She looked like a beekeeper. A couple of us wore scarves around our necks to protect them too. From what? We didn’t know.

When we arrived at our meeting point we slathered on the sunscreen. And then we applied mosquito repellent. Lots of it. Less is not more when it comes to mosquito repellent. As a final step, before approaching our young, country guides, we placed Jackie O. sunglasses underneath our hats and above our scarves to protect our oh-so-sensitive eye areas from any kind of assault. Then, as ready as we’d ever be, we departed the parking lot and toddled towards our destiny.

They sized us up quietly and dutifully dressed us in life preservers. We gingerly stepped into the waiting boats, tucked our purses, cameras, binoculars and journals between our knees, took deep breaths and one last lingering look at the shore, then pronounced ourselves ready to enter South Carolina’s Sparkleberry Swamp.

Anne Woods
There’s only one way to skin a chicken, but in the South there are thousands of ways to prepare grits. One cup coarsely ground corn meal—yellow or white—to four cups liquid is the basic recipe. Everyone seems to have his or her own way. However they are prepared, Southern grits are smooth as a South Carolina accent. Smooth as the accent that explains how grandmother taught her daughter and her daughter taught her daughter that grits are best made with chicken stock instead of just water. That the liquid should be brought to a rolling boil and the pot taken off the burner just as the grits are added. That they should be left to plump and soften in the residual heat. That a grating of cheese into the pot just before serving never hurt anyone. That the perfect grits begin not in the kitchen, but at the mill—preferably a stone grist mill because it keeps the temperature of the corn lower than any other milling process and results in a more flavorful meal. Yes, at the mill, that’s where good grits begin.

Colleen McFerrin
As we turned up a narrow channel I finally saw it: a very round, brown, dappled creature, almost the color of the branch, coiled around one of the tree limbs. It was a poisonous cottonmouth snake.

I had started out on a perfect spring day at high noon, on a jewel of a waterway, known as Sparkleberry Swamp in South Carolina, south of Sumter near the town of Pinewood. Named for the Sparkleberry bush that grows throughout the area, Sparkleberry Swamp is also know as Upper Santee Swamp. It’s part of the Santee Cooper Lake System comprised of Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. The South Carolina Public Service Authority created these lakes between 1939 and 1942 as a hydroelectric project.

On this particular afternoon the bright light was harsh. It pierced through the lacy canopy of tupelo, ash and giant bald cypress, their great trunks submerged below the liquid surface, and reflected against the water in the midday sun. Just staring at where the dark shade met the light was hypnotizing. My eyes wanted to hold on to the cool, dark shade, but were forced into the light as the boat maneuvered through the trees. Over and over my eyes held … and then released. It was then that I realized I could get lost in the swamp. Not just turned around. There were no identifiable bright orange markers or bold, arrowed signs pointing out the watery path. The order of the swamp is random, disorienting. Time slows down. Familiar sounds are replaced with wild quiet, and the light plays with your eyes.

Marianne Betterly-Kohn
Ghost veils

Spanish moss drips
from oak and elm,
hangs like gray veils
on a ghost bride.

Wind moans
through the branches
while they cry.

Some say spirits
live in trees.

I think the moss
young brides
who lost their lives
before their innocence,
like the orange blossom bride
buried in her wedding dress

The gray moss
wraps each tree in a web
but unlike a victim,
the tree welcomes its invader
and wears the long, tangled threads,
as if floating down the aisle,
while Carolina breezes swirl
its ancient silks,
antebellum lace.