Happy hollow is Gulf Glen now. Popp’s Branch—there were no brooks in Happy Hollow— is a hazard on the Edgewater Gulf hotel golf course. Buzzards’ Roost, that was the upper boundary of the Hollow, has become Lovers’ Leap; and Last Hope Farm, down where the branch runs into Bayou Bernard, has been cut up into “orchard lots,” four stakes around each moss-hung pecan, and sold to school teachers from Indiana.
In my grandfather’s time Happy Hollow was as remote as Samarkand, The branch shrank in the summer, and the bands of sand between its winter bed and the tangle of chinquapin bushes on either side were the highway down to Popp’s ferry, where a shrimp or oyster boat could be caught for Biloxi.
My grandfather used to go in to Biloxi right often. He was a great catcher of Florida gophers, big flat-backed terrapin that could walk under the weight of a small boy. He used to go to their burrows in the soft earth of the swamps and crack his long plaited whip, and they would know their time had come and crawl sidling out, tears flowing from their yellow eyes.
My grandfather would take a gopher to the Lopez and Dukate commissary in Biloxi and lay him down on the counter and buy half a gopher’s worth of red beans and rice, with maybe a week-old Times-Democrat and a pipeful of tobacco for lagniappe. Then Mr. Giurovich, the commissary man, would slide the gopher off into a bin, stick a broom-handle into another bin, and bring up a half-grown gopher clinging by his beak, my grandfather’s change.
My grandmother would piece the half-grown gopher out into a noble courtbouillon with sage, and thyme, and bay leaf, and sassafras root, and some of the rice. She was a Fayard from the Florida parishes of Louisiana, of a family of notable cooks. She and my great-grandmother, Ma’am Alexise, used to try to teach my mother. But my mother came from East Alabama, where the people who have come down out of the Cumberlands scorn even to say “two-bits” and thus remind themselves of the Spanish rule of two hundred years before, so she never could learn to do things “just according,” like the French women. She always had to know exactly how much went in, and you can’t cook Creole cooking that way.
Happy Hollow had neither almanac nor calendar. Most things dated from the year of the Big Storm, which I oriented in later acquaintance with the world outside as 1882. Biloxi and the Bayou Bernard country were caught in the eye of a Gulf hurricane that dashed all the boats that took refuge inshore to pieces on the beaches, then scoured those that tried to ride it out off to sea, to die of hunger and thirst.
Johnnie Lattimore killed his brother Fenton for wanting to eat a coon that rode out the storm with them for three days in their dismasted lugger. The crew of a lumber schooner found them, Johnnie leaning against the mast, his knife in his hand, laughing at the coon chasing Fenton’s body and gnawing at it, rolling on the deck with the swell.
The very oldest residents of the Hollow could remember the year of the two winters and the damn cold spring, when the seed cane and sweet potatoes rotted in their beds, and the squirrels starved to death in their winter nests. The liars of the Hollow dated their stories to the year the woodpeckers ate up the courthouse in Mississippi City,
Seasons ran about the same way. When Brother Bowen, the circuit rider, ended his two weeks’ protracted meeting along about potato-digging time, he would exhort all the brethren and sistren to be firm in the faith until he returned when the lizards ran again. A young couple would announce in church at pea time they would be married in scuppernong time.
The year usually ended with hog-killing time, when the children tramping to the schoolhouse would leave the path to make black tracks in the white frost with their unaccustomed shoes. Then Happy Hollow lay low until Mardi Gras time; Father Kuhn at Biloxi kept what members of his flock got in once in a while posted on Mardi Gras.
Then it was lizard-running time. Small boys just turned barefoot again raced through the swamps, and froze to point like dogs at the fetid smell of a half-awake moccasin, hardly daring to move until the half-blind terror was found and stoned. After lizard-running time came pea time and hay time, and then the sun, swollen with heat, hung in the tormented sky from blackberry time through the long summer, with only scuppernong time, late in August, to mark the approach of potato-digging time, when the Gulf breezes again began to call for cover on the beds.
Even my mother finally succumbed, and I have heard her reckoning the dates of weddings and births in the family by the succession of cows and their calves, and their various ends by straying into bogs or being sold to the butcher, as deftly as any native.
Only Old Man Jorgenson the blacksmith stood out against the general shiftlessness of Happy Hollow. A day was a day, to Old Man Jorgenson; no matter if it was ready or not, if he promised you a tool for one day you couldn’t get it a day before to save your soul.
Every Sunday morning Old Man Jorgenson donned his once-black Sunday suit, long since turned green, and sat on his front galerie and read his huge Danish Bible, his great freshly-washed white beard spilling in a snowy cloud to his broad waist.
Monday morning the beard, still snow-white, fairly lighted up the smoky corners of the forge. Old Man Jor-genson stroked it all day while he argued with visitors and blew the bellows, so Tuesday it was just a little tinged with brown, like the water left in the bottom of a coffee cup to soften caked sugar. Wednesday it was a decided tan, Thursday a chocolate color, and by Saturday night, what with smoking and stroking, it hung down in a black silken curtain from his cheeks.
One Tuesday morning a rider came up the back road, where the ox teams used to haul logs to Dantzler’s mill on the bayou, lathering his horse. Old Man Jorgenson’s brother in Ocean Springs had died. The Bayou Bernard country in those days had neither ice plants nor embalmers, and bids to funerals were delivered in all possible haste. Old Man Jor-genson saddled his own horse and rode away in his Sunday suit with the messenger, shaking his hastily washed beard in the wind to dry.
Next morning he sat in the forge and wished someone would come in and argue with him. All his work was caught up for a couple of days ahead.
His first visitor was Arthur Fred. In Happy Hollow only the head of the family bore the family name. Old Man Fred Switcher—spelled Switzer—Arthur’s grandfather, was still alive, so Arthur and his father were Arthur and Tom Fred.
“Mama wants you to send her her scissors. Aunt Lizzie’s come over for some sewin’.”
Old Man Jorgenson checked up by a glance down at his beard, in all its Monday, whiteness.
“They’ll be ready Wednesday.”
The blacksmith could see the scissors, their new rivet winking at him, in the corner on the wall, but he had his duty to do by these people.
Miz Fred had thought it was Wednesday, and so had Miss Lizzie. Miss Lizzie felt guilty about eating dinner, even such a dinner as sewing day provided, a big pot of soup with the meat and potatoes and turnips and rice thrown in the pot together to boil until the men came in from the fields. According to the rules in Happy Hollow old maids were losers, and they had to pay their way around by helping out.
That Friday some of the old men thought a little more seriously of the time when they would have to sit on the gal-erie in the sun and card cotton for the women folks to make quilts, and some of the mules didn’t want to come out of the barn, but no one thought of lying in bed when he saw the smoke coming up from the forge early in the morning.
That was along about scuppernong time. My grandfather lost a keg of homemade wine when the blacksmith made him wait two days for a broken hinge to be fixed on his press.
It was nearly lizard-running time when a snuff salesman came leading his limping horse over the path from Mr. Giu-rovich’s store, and wanted Old Man Jorgenson to pick a stone out of the horse’s hoof. The old man got very indignant about being asked to work on Sunday, but the salesman fished out a Sunday paper from New Orleans, with the colored supplement of Mardi Gras parade pictures, and stood the blacksmith down that not only was it Tuesday, but we had missed Mardi Gras. Miz Jorgenson filled the bee smoker with soft coal that night and smoked her husband’s beard to its accustomed Wednesday morning shade, but the snuff salesman told Mr. Giurovich, and Mr. Giurovich told my grandfather, and it all came out,
Old Man Jorgenson didn’t work very long in the forge after that. His nephew, named Herman Paffhausen, came over from Ocean Springs, and the old man sat on his galerie and read his Bible every day, Herman was never the man with the horses and mules his uncle was. He’d curse them in Danish for not standing around while he was shoeing them, and the old man would laugh and shake all over—he got fat after he quit working—and shout “Yah, Paffhausen!” as loud as he could. It seemed Paffhausen has something to do with churches, or preachers, and it tickled the old man to hear a Paffhausen cursing like that.
In Happy Hollow we shot firecrackers at Christmas time, to show our contempt for the damned Yankee government and its Fourth of July. Some of the Happy Hollow boys, like my Uncle Calvin, did enlist in the Spanish-American war, but they either stayed in Miami during the whole war, grubbing palmettos where Henry Flagler was to build the Royal Palm hotel, and so were ashamed to come back and be laughed at, or the heady dangers of Yellow Jack and mad Moros spoiled them for the peaceful Hollow.
Our Fourth of July was June the Third, Jefferson Davis’s Birthday. Several days before the Third the old soldiers from Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s home, would be hanging over the fence to wonder with elaborate carelessness if they would see us at the picnic. All the young roosters were massacred on the second, and all the eggs on the place went into salads and cakes and pies. Mississippi had state prohibition even that far back, but after the picnic progressed a few hours there was a strange sort of smell around the place, mingling with the reek of devilled eggs and oniony, potato salad too long confined in baskets, and before the day was over the Confederates’ widows were flirting with the older visitors, and the Confederates themselves were practicing Rebel yells.
Up until I was about twelve years old I thought the War between the States—I always knew not to call it the Civil War—was a descent by a lot of black-bearded stalwarts like the steel engravings in the history books on a lot of harmless old men in faded gray uniforms, who only wanted to be let alone to turn baseball bats and whittle toy boats for polite little boys. It was when my Great-Aunt Mahala had a bulgy crayon enlargement made of my Great-Uncle Jules, who died in the sunken road at Fredericksburg, and he was just as black and bearded as any of them, that I realized the South had been licked in something approaching a fair fight. I went down under the green-peach tree and spent all afternoon getting over it.
The green-peach tree was all that was left of the old home place after the Yankees passed through in the Spring of ‘65. It had been espaliered, its branches pegged flat against the whitewashed wall down by the nigger quarters. When the wall was torn down the tree couldn’t quite get emancipated, and the distorted branches still thrust flatly up in the air like a misshapen hand. Its peaches always dropped off instead of ripening in the fall, so every summer we gathered them, and my, grandmother made green-peach cobblers.
Almost in the shade of the green-peach tree was the white cabin of Uncle Freeman and Aunt Phyllis. They couldn’t quite get emancipated either after the War. While the sun bore down in the summer, and their little garden patch and the gizzards and livers of the chickens my grandmother cooked, with an occasional piece of bacon and the eggs from some hen’s stolen nest, kept them going, they were as free as birds. But when the frost was on the ground, Uncle Freeman would come up to the back galerie of the big house, black pan under his arm, tattered hat and empty meal sack in his hand.
“Where were you when Monty [the old broken-kneed Irish hunter] got stuck in the bog, you triflin’ black rascal? I didn’t see you around when the cows got in the watermelons! By God, I ought to turn the dogs on you! Where were you when the brush caught afire and burnt up the back fence?”
“I don’ rightly know, Squiah, but heah I is now, an’ seems like I’s gittin’ pow’ful hongry.”
My grandmother would send one of us children out with the smokehouse key off the kitchen wall, and a butcher knife, as a hint, which was never taken, to my grandfather not to give Uncle Freeman a whole side of meat. She knew as well as the old nigger did that the louder my grandfather shouted the more Uncle Freeman would get in the end.
Uncle Freeman would follow my grandfather back from the smokehouse, balancing his side of bacon on his pan, to gather up the meal sack my grandmother had filled, together with a couple of brown paper spills of soda and salt. Then he would hobble off down the path, still bobbing and mumbling his thanks.
Aunt Phyllis used to light her clay pipe by rolling a live coal off the hearth on to the tobacco with a deft twist of the calloused heel of her hand. A couple of strong draws would light the pipe, when the coal was flicked back to the fireplace. One morning, leaning forward to get a light, she fell from her chair, crushing her skull on the firedog, her gray head in the coals. They got a young nigger girl, one of his numerous grandchildren, in to take care of Uncle Freeman. For three days he just sat in front of the fire, looking at the flames, never saying a word. The fourth morning the nigger girl went out for something. When she came back Uncle Freeman had let the fire go out. He was still sitting, looking at the fireplace. She shook him. He was dead.
My great-grandmother lighted her clay pipe the same way Aunt Phyllis did, and I was very much distressed every time she did it for weeks after the two old niggers died, but she never came to any harm.
One day Ma’am Alexise came limping up to our house.
“I think me I step on a thawn,” she said.
My mother and grandmother looked at her bare brown foot.
“She’s been bit by a snake,” my mother whispered. Ma’am Alexise was very deaf, so deaf she could only hear what wasn’t intended for her ears.
“Hah,” she said, standing on one foot and squeezing the other brown heel between her bony fingers, “that litta racka snake! Mo’ better he’s look out, biffo’ he’s break he’s jaw.”
Mrs. Conn, who came to Last Hope Farm, summer place of the Haywards, to tutor the little Haywards and such of the Happy Hollow children as cared to learn, one day explained to her charges the animal, vegetable, and mineral “kingdoms” of old “general science” classification. Ma’am Alexise heard the children talking over their lesson, and a few days later Mrs. Conn was nearly scared out of her wits when she met the old woman on the path and Ma’am Alexise screamed at her: “Hah! Get away from me! W’y you don’t go on you’ all fo’s, you hanimal, you?”
My Uncle Gene was Happy Hollow’s historian. He had the liar’s gift of telling a story that was just as sober as the multiplication table until its last sentence, when it tailed off into some wild absurdity so abruptly you almost believed it before you could catch yourself.
He and Doctor Harry, the horse doctor, went up in the Big Thicket one spring to hunt squirrels and ran into a rainstorm. It rained for three days, while Uncle Gene and Doctor Harry and the nigger they took along with them stayed in the cabin. When it stopped raining all the squirrel country, was under water. They walked for miles and miles and never saw a squirrel sign, when suddenly they came to a little knoll with a big oak on it, and saw one crazy squirrel.
The demented animal was racing up the side of an old oak tree that stood in the middle of the little clearing, and diving into a hole in the bole about fifteen feet up. He must have fallen headlong, for he immediately popped out of another hole, just about two feet from the ground. Then he picked himself up and scrambled madly up the tree again.
Doctor Harry made the nigger empty the grub sack and clap it over the lower hole just as the squirrel reached the top one. My uncle struck the tree with a gun butt. Thirty squirrels fell out into the sack, and dozens more escaped to flee splashing through the shallows.
They chopped into the tree and found it lined with scraped-off squirrel fur. As the water rose, all the squirrels in the Big Thicket had taken refuge in that one tree, until the hollow was exactly full of squirrel. Then one more squirrel had arrived and tried to crowd in, and every time one pushed in at the top it squeezed an earlier comer out at the bottom.
After the beach road was put through, it wasn’t so very long until the back road was laid out and shelled, right past my grandfather’s house, and as many as a dozen buggies would whiz by in a day. So my grandfather and my grandmother and the two or three of my aunts and uncles who were just about my own age and still stayed at home moved away, up on the Tchouticabouffa river.
They went down the branch bed to the ferry, my grandmother and my grandfather and the children and a half-grown hound dog Senator Money had given Holmes, the youngest boy. Every time they came to a clearing in the woods, where the sun shone down hot on the sand, the sand burned the dog’s pads, and he would howl, and my grandfather would say: “Holmes, pick up that dawg!” And every time they got back in the shade Holmes would set the dog down again. So my grandfather, who named all the nigger babies in half of Harrison county—he had to bribe two niggers with corn whisky, and a shote every hog-killing time, to marry Mary Waters, a mean-tempered yellow woman, after she ran her first husband off, so he could piece out a set of the nine muses—named the dog Vicissitudes. His parting gift from Llappy Hollow was a distinct resentment at his wasting such a candy name on a hound dog.