We had already turned around, were already on the way back to our grandparents’ house, when the gun appeared.
I was 11, my brother and our cousin both 10, and we were old enough to go anywhere our legs could take us: the pecan orchard, the blackberry patch, the cemetery next to the church, the community house next to the cemetery, the store with the gas pump outside and the penny candy display just within its swinging doors. If the adults were worried about the bull a neighbour sometimes pastured among the pecan trees, or the rattlesnakes coiled under the blackberry canes or the fire-ant mounds dotting the cemetery like miniature monuments to another natural order, no one said a word to us, even though my cousin’s other grandfather — no relation to me — was killed by a rattlesnake decades before we were all born.
Surely someone gave us boundaries of some kind, marked out the territory where our wanderings had to end, but I have no recollection of it. I don’t remember whose idea it was to turn down a red dirt road between two of our grandfather’s fields, a road we’d never been down before, not on foot or on the neighbour’s horses. I don’t remember how we decided just how far to walk before turning around and heading back to the blacktop road where our grandparents lived. Perhaps it was only the monotony of the peanuts, row after row after row. Maybe we were hot and tired, or maybe that vast, silent expanse of agriculture — uniform, blank, impersonal — began to feel alien and unwelcoming to us. We knew all the varieties of pecans by name, could gather and sort them for market unerringly, but we’d not had any hand in the peanut harvest and felt no connection to these fields.
Even before I saw the shotgun resting on the frame of the open passenger window, before I realised it was pointed straight at my head, I saw the woman’s angry face peering at me from the cab.
All three of us remember the moment the gun appeared. That much we all agree on; that much we all remember the same way. I don’t remember the feel of dust in my throat. I don’t remember the red sand ringing my toenails, ground into the cuticles, though surely it must have been, for we were always barefoot in those days — it was too hot for shoes, and sandals were useless in the actual sand. But I remember, just as my brother and my cousin remember, the sound of a truck careening down the road behind us in the silence.
Without any sense of trepidation, we moved to the side of the road to let the truck pass. I was in front, my cousin and my brother single file just behind me, though they both stepped farther off the road and drifted to my right when the truck slowed to an idle. Even before I saw the shotgun resting on the frame of the open passenger window, before I realised it was pointed straight at my head, I saw the woman’s angry face peering at me from the cab. My brother and my cousin must have seen the gun first. Or perhaps they saw only the baying dogs in the bed of the truck — dogs that could have been over that tailgate in an instant.
“You got no business here,” the woman said. “You got no business hanging around this road with my menfolk so close by.”
I stopped walking and turned toward her. My brother or my cousin, one of them, tried to push me forward, to make me keep walking, to make me pick up speed. “This is our granddaddy’s land,” I said. “We got as much business here as anybody. More than you.”
“I’ll not have no city girls stealing my menfolk,” she said.
I laughed out loud. Stealing her menfolk?
We were children, all of us. For me the changes had already begun, but I did not understand them yet because no one had explained them to me.
Did we hear her cock the shotgun, or did we only imagine the sound? Did I stop talking then? When my brother and my cousin tell this story, they remember being afraid my back talk would get us all shot, but I don’t remember a feeling of fear. I only remember thinking it was so funny, the very idea that three children might pose a threat to anyone old enough to drive a car or shoot a gun unsupervised.
That’s what I remember: the comedy of it, the ludicrous mismatch between the visible reality of the world and some crazy grown-up’s inexplicable fears.
Somehow it ended, and the woman roared off in a shower of red dirt, the dogs lurching in the truck bed before finding their footing again.
When we got home we said nothing. We only turned back to hose off our feet when Eola pointed toward the door. No one got shot. No one got bitten by a rattlesnake or gored by a bull. No harm ever came to us, though we were patently in harm’s way. It was years before I understood that I was never safe, not even there.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South