Behind the Kudzu
Toni K. Pacini
In all the years that Iīd resided across the street from that boy, I had not seen him play with or even talk to his father. I never witnessed a moment they shared playing catch in their yard or even repairing one of the many old cars that served as lawn ornaments on their eclectic estate. As the years passed and the junked automobiles and other debris accumulated and nature was left to do as she saw fit, it became almost impossible to see them or their home any longer.
My family and our neighbors did not grieve this loss. Eventually only the peaked tin-roof over their crumbling porch was still visible and even that was more than we wanted to see. That wild southern vine, kudzu, laid claim to everything that no longer moved. Almost every part of their property had taken on the eerie appearance of oddly familiar leaf covered sculptures, as if a nature fairy on LSD had been hired to do the landscaping.
His name was Ben Tanner and he never spoke to anyone that I know of. On the rare occasion that he ventured outside of their kudzu fortress he would watch us. He didnīt actually stare, but he watched us. We were curious about Ben and his father and sometimes we talked about them but mostly we ignored them. We pretended there was nothing, no one, behind the kudzu.
My grammie wouldnīt abide gossip. When one of us would start up about Ben and his father, Grammie would pull us up short.
Sheīd say, "No matter what you think you know about somebody, you donīt know squat if you ainīt in their shoes. The only one that knows what really goes on behind that kudzu is the old woman in the moon, and she ainīt talkinī. Learn from her."
I had just turned fourteen when it happened, the day that we finally had a look behind the kudzu. At that time the Tanners had lived across the street from my family since before I was born and Ben and I were about the same age. He and his dad were loners, secretive, so although there were numerous rumors to ponder throughout the years, we knew almost nothing of true fact about them. With all the unanswered questions and years of mystery, I was shocked the day I opened my front door and found him there.
As I struggled to gather my wits and find my voice, he spoke instead, his eyes glued to his rough bare feet, "I need help, please come with me."
That was all he said and then he turned and walked away.
"Wait. Whatīs wrong?" I directed my question to the back of his filthy, tattered shirt.
He stopped and for some time he did not move. At length he slowly turned back to me again dropping his gaze to his feet and simply said in a voice that sounded like a plea, "Please."
I felt ashamed that I was afraid. But somehow I knew how hard it was for him to knock on my door, and actually speak to me. So I followed him as he made his way back across the street that had always served to separate us from them. I crossed that invisible line and trailed cautiously behind him up his driveway weaving through the nature sculptures. When he headed around the old house and toward his backyard I hesitated. But throughout all the years that we had lived across the street from each other, my whole life and his, I had never heard nor seen one thing to make me think he might be anything more than odd, not dangerous, so I followed.
Their back lot was twice the length of our yard and he strode off across it on long legs at a methodical pace. I had to run to keep up.
Winded, I asked, "Where are we going, Ben?"
He responded, but he did not turn nor slow his pace, "Itīs not safe here, please come."
The shack sat at the edge of the woods, surrounded by gnarled trees and undergrowth. The back lot was as un-cared for as the front yard and the shack more so. It seemed a desolate, lonely place. On one side of the door were symmetrically stacked small smooth river rocks; clearly whoever had placed them there had done so with rigorous attention to size and shape uniformity, apparently a talisman erected in an effort to protect the barren sorrowful place they adorned.
I bent to touch one but Ben cried out, "No, those are mine!"
I jumped back, surprised at the assertiveness in his previously meek voice and manner. Once convinced that I had no intention to defile the order of his sacred place, Ben opened the makeshift plywood door that hung precariously on rusty hinges. The door moaned as it opened to expose a four by five-foot room with a dirt floor. Ben entered and I strained to see where he had gone. What was he doing in the gloom of the tiny earthen room? Why had he brought me here? I took one step forward, stepping into the small doorway and as my eyes adjusted, I saw him.
He sat in a corner of the shack, his knees up under his chin and his arms wrapped tightly around them. For the first time his eyes met mine and they were filled with terror. He was trembling, so full of fear that I could see the veins on his neck rise and fall with each ragged breath.
I took a step back but he called to me in a thin frightened voice, "Please donīt leave, I donīt know what to do."
I wasnīt about to go in there but I couldnīt just walk away, he seemed so damaged.
I asked, "Where is your dad, should I go get him?
"No, he ainīt home. If he was, Iīd be in big trouble for bringing you here."
"Ok" I said, "Just calm down, what can I do to help?"
"Help her," he said. "Please help her."
Now, really confused, I asked, "Her who, who are you talking about?"
Ben floored me when he answered, "Momma."
"Whose momma Ben? You live here alone with your dad. You and your dad have lived here alone for at least fifteen years that I know of. So who are you talking about?"
"Sheīs in the house, my dad ainīt been home for over a week. If someone donīt go feed her, she gonna die, but I ainīt allowed to go in the house."
Realizing that a lot more than just odd stuff had been going on behind the kudzu, I told Ben, "Itīs okay Ben. Iīll get help. Weīll take care of her. Now you come to my house with me and Iīll get some help for you and your momma."
Obviously terrified, Ben responded, "No, I have to stay here, if my dad comes back and I ainīt here," he paused, "heīll kill me."
Clearly I needed help to deal with whatever was going on at the Tanner house, so I agreed to leave him there, for the moment, saying, "Okay Ben. Iīll be right back."
As I started away at a trot, Benīs words followed me like a prayer, "Promise youīll help her."
I called back to him over my shoulder, "I promise."
In no time, our quiet street was choked with police cars, fire-trucks, an ambulance, and wide-eyed neighbors maintaining a quiet vigil with their hands clasped over their mouths. Later the reporters arrived. They came and went for days. We all watched. We were the ones watching now.
They never found Benīs daddy and had one hell of a time getting Ben to leave the shack. He said his daddy called the shack the doghouse. They say Benīs body was covered with scars and lice, and that he had been just short of starved to death.
As they took him away he still insisted that he had to go back to the shack, "Daddy wonīt like it if I go with you."
Over the sound of vehicles, rescuers, and reporters questions, I heard Ben beg as the doors of the ambulance were closing, "Someone please help Momma."
His momma was found in the house, chained to a bare pipe in the open wall of a tiny bedroom. The furnishings consisted of a single filthy sheet-less bed and a wooden crate. She had one pillow and two ancient threadbare wool army blankets. The sack dress she wore was filthy and several sizes too big for the tiny skeleton it draped over like a limp rag. Like Ben she wore no shoes and her body was covered with a multitude of scars and lice. The scars were like a sad puzzle telling a heart-wrenching story. Bens Momma still drew breath and she survived, but she is not alive.
Itīs been three years now. Ben is in a special care facility. He still insists that he had better get back to the doghouse before he gets in trouble. In other matters Ben has made tremendous progress. He no longer insists on sleeping curled up in a tight ball on the floor as he did for the first month after he moved into the care home, he now sleeps on a bed with a pillow, sheets and blankets. He eats at the table with utensils instead of his hands and after a few harrowing episodes, he now loves to take a shower
But Ben still will not wear shoes. He says; Daddy wont allow me and momma to wear shoes.
When asked why he answered his doctors with a look that said the answer is obvious, Because dogs dont wear no shoes, of course!
The doctors have tried, but Ben canīt tell them any details about his life in the doghouse behind the kudzu.
They tore down the Tanner house last year and hauled away all of the old cars and garbage. A bulldozer cleared the land and kudzu. Everything is gone, even the doghouse. We can all see it clearly now, too late
As for Benīs Momma, sheīs being taken good care of. Sheīs no longer hungry and the scars on her body have faded. But sheīs known too much terror for too long. In her mind she is still a barefoot prisoner. Sheīs the only one that knows the whole truth, but she canīt say and the old woman in the moon knows, but she ainīt talkinī.