Kudzu for Claire

Published 5:12 pm Monday, October 5, 2015

Abandoned vehicles covered by kudzu vines
This story never happened. It is fictitious, written with Halloween in mind and at the passing request of a friend. But it could happen, and that is the problem for Claire: It could really happen.

It seemed to Claire that to be a rural community, a cluster of small towns gathered in the Carolina foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, linked together by an interstate highway and winding back roads, this place had more kudzu than anything else. More kudzu than horses, retirees, snowbirds, artists, cute shops, barbecue restaurants, fleeting controversies about local politics.

As she drove about, most often alone in her car going about the duties of her job, she could not help but make a mental inventory of all the kudzu that was taking over. It seemed that no matter where she looked, the dark leafy vines had a stranglehold on the forests, the pastures, the creeks, the abandoned buildings and cars. Even the buildings and the cars that were not abandoned but were just left undisturbed for a week or so were magnets for the tender but tenacious tendrils that could cover and consume anything in their path.

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They say that if you stand still for too long, the kudzu will cover you up. The old-timers say, “If you watch closely, you can actually see the kudzu growing.” It was like watching the second-hand on a wall clock: if you watch and wait, you can see it move ever so slightly.

On this fine fall day in October, she was needed at the top of the grade to handle a bit of business. Nothing too stressful, but it was a good excuse to get out of the office for a few hours of alone time, to enjoy the change in the weather, to see the beginning of the fall colors, to get some fresh air, and a new perspective on life.

What she was really enjoying was the ride back down the mountain. She had opened all of her car’s windows and set her left hand at the 12 o’clock position on the steering wheel and her right hand on the 5-speed gearshift. In a different reincarnation, she might have been a racecar driver, but in this one she was wife and mother, working in a high-profile job in a small community. Life was good, and the day was beautiful, and she had about 30 minutes of free time to enjoy a drive down the mountain. It doesn’t get much better than this, except for the kudzu that was everywhere she looked.

It preyed on her mind.

It gave her the willies. She shuddered to think what might lie beneath the vast and lumpy carpet of green. Layers and layers of vines, all tangled, hiding the ground beneath and whatever might be on the ground in the dark, where nothing could grow. What amazed her the most and what she hated the most about the kudzu were the large areas of real estate that were totally consumed by the Japanese vine. There were certain areas — multi-acre fields, mountainside forests — that were completely covered by the kudzu. It was like a sea of green, and God knows how deep it might be in some places.

All you could see, sometimes as far the eye could see, were landscapes of kudzu and nothing but kudzu. In a spooky and topiary sort of way, the kudzu had covered what undoubtedly were pastoral settings of rolling hills and mixed forests of hardwoods and pines. All she could see were the vague shapes of things covered completely and totally in vines. If she didn’t stop herself, her mind could wander and she could imagine these giants shapes as Godzilla-like monsters tearing lose from the land and stomping out of the ravines to descend upon the population.

What would town council do if a kudzu monster broke down the door to town hall during a monthly meeting? Table it? Rule it out of order? Direct staff to investigate and report back next month? Maybe it was a county concern? The state? The feds? Somebody should be in charge of kudzu.

Oh, well, it is just kudzu. Let the land conservancy agency and its goats deal with it. Maybe some of the artists will develop a small business of handmade kudzu paper? Don’t they make a jelly out of the blossoms? It has a lot of protein, right? Cows are supposed to like it. Goats do, but it would take a million goats a million years to eat all the kudzu she saw. Someone once told her it was brought to America from Japan to help stop erosion. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, but there was certainly no stopping it now. It covered the red-clay dirt of the South like green coconut frosting on a crumbly red velvet cake — a bad joke that had gone terribly wrong.

Try as she might, Claire could go only so fast down the mountain. It really wasn’t a matter of giving it the gas. It was more a matter of braking and not braking, turning and swerving, left and back to the right, braking and not braking, turning and swerving in a downward spiral.

It was dangerous and all too easy to let her car slide over into the other lane as she switched left to right and right to left and back again on the hairpin turns. It was good for her reflexes and her hand-eye coordination. If her teenage son was driving, she would be yelling at him to slow down, but she was all alone and loving the opportunity to challenge herself on this tricky two-lane road.

She knew that she needed to keep her eyes on the road — God forbid some other car might be coming up the mountain and decide to take more than its fair share of the road and meet her head-on. But she wanted to see the leaves, the trees, the mountains, and, unfortunately, the kudzu that was often covering the entire embankments on both sides of the road. Nothing but kudzu.

She wanted to keep an eye on the kudzu, which she had noticed was sending tendrils out of the ravines and gullies over the guardrails into the road. Some of the tendrils had been smashed by previous cars, smears of green on the white lines of the road. But for every one smashed, six more were behind it making their way onto the asphalt.

When she could, she would aim her car’s front tires at those encroaching vines and felt a little joy knowing she had ground their green into the asphalt.

About halfway down the mountain, Claire realized that all she could see was kudzu on both sides of the road, covering absolutely everything. It was unworldly. Above, the sky was clear and blue with a few white clouds. It seemed so far away. This twist of road was the only thing interrupting — dividing — the kudzu on the left from the kudzu on the right, and she and her car were the only things moving in what could have been a bad still-life painting.

She decided it was time to get on down the mountain, back to town, back to her office, her desk and computers, her life without all the green. Instinctively, she pressed the gas pedal, which she immediately realized was the most wrong thing to do as she entered a double hairpin turn — left then right, right then left — but she had been distracted, lost her stunt car mindset and concentration for a split second. The little car went right when it should have gone left, and went over the edge of the ravine, right through a gap in the guardrail that was completely covered in kudzu.

The car did literally sail off into the sky, but only for a moment. All four wheels had left the road, left the ground, and she was airborne just long enough to realize that when she would eventually land, she would be in the Never Never Land of Kudzu.

How silly of her, she thought, not to think she might crash and burn and die and never see her family again. All she would see would be kudzu. She would be surrounded by kudzu. It would envelop her car. The car would sink in a sea of kudzu and find rest on the bottom earth below. And no one would see it because the ravine was deep and full of kudzu that would cover the car and her completely.

If she lived, she might look up toward the blue sky, but all she would see would be filtered sunlight trying to come through layers and layers of kudzu leaves. She closed her eyes and wondered if the next thing she saw would be green.