Every landscape seems to have its climber. Bittersweet vines choke gardens in the northeast. Blackberry brambles cover hillsides on the Oregon coast. In the south, it’s Kudzu.
Kudzu is a tough vine that conquers everything in its path, climbing trees, utility poles and chimneys. It moves in and whatever doesn’t fight back is eventually covered.
As a child, I was always a little afraid of Kudzu. It grew so quickly and was vaguely menacing; always on the edge of town, or at the end of the alley or too near the swing set in the park for my peace of mind. Driving down country roads I saw acres and acres swallowed by the plant, the vague rounded shapes of abandoned houses and cars under its bulk. The Kudzu-covered fields looked, to me, like the belly of a gigantic snake bulging with its dinner. I imagined terrible things lived, slithered and crept beneath the broad leaves and snaking vines.
One night, at the dinner table, I complained about the old woman down the street. She was mean, I whined. She peered through the screen door at us and screeched when we cut through her yard. When she caught us picking flowers from her garden, she threw open the screen door, which also shrieked in protest, and waved her cane at us.
“Get out of here,” she would shout. “Get out of here right now.”
We fled, but we always came back to take the path we’d worn beside her peeling and shuttered house. When we thought we could get away with it, we picked the roses from the old vine that ran along the fence. At Halloween the bigger boys pelted her house with eggs and threw tissue up into the tall oak trees at the edge of her garden.
We saw no connection between our trespass and her irritation.
That afternoon, I’d stood at the sidewalk until I could stand it no longer and, taking a deep breath, ran through her yard. And sure enough, she’d seen me. And she’d called out to me through the screen. “I know who you are,” she shrieked. “I’ll call your house.”
I never looked back but she rattled me.
“What’s wrong with her, anyway,” I asked my grandmother. “Why is she like that?”
“Oh, she’s had a hard life and it turned her bitter,” my grandmother replied as she dished food up from the pots and pans on the stove and filled our plates. “I guess that grew inside her until it covered everything else.”
“Like Kudzu?” my little sister asked, with wide eyes.
My grandmother gave a little laugh. “That’s right. Just like Kudzu.”
My sister went back to her meatloaf, but I’d been stricken – fork in midair – by the image of a woman with green vines growing and curling out of her ears and mouth, twisting into her hair and around her glasses, twining around her neck and down her arms and legs. I could see inside her, every hollow, every empty space filled by the clinging tendrils of the vine, until even her heart was choked and strangled by green.
I slept with the light on that night and for several nights beyond.
I’m all grown up now and I’m not (very) afraid of the things that used to frighten me.
But, occasionally, I still think about that woman.
The real danger, to any of us, is being consumed, as the woman had been overcome, by the lingering, insidious climbers inside each of us. Anger and bitterness and fear, especially fear, are always ready to move into the empty spaces and grow. That’s what can pull you down and suffocate you. Not the vine outside the window.
It’s the inner landscape, after all, that needs real protection.
Fortunately, the talisman, the charm that guards us is the same as it was when I was a child with my head under the covers. Sometimes you just have to keep the light burning until the shadows go away.
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