My last post ended with a thought about “sinister simian henchmen,” a.k.a. any creepy monkey that works in cahoots with an organ grinder, or a one-eyed spy for the Nazis in Cairo (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or most recently, Captain Barbosa’s chittering little undead sidekick in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (and the second and third films in the series, as well).
I don’t know why I find monkeys disturbing rather than charming; some people find them delightful and even keep them as pets. (Eek!) The last time I went to the circus, there was an act featuring baby baboons on bicycles, and it was all I could do to stay seated and not run out of the arena. Even the clowns were preferable to watching those sharp, wild, little faces (complete with funky bone ridges like the Klingons) furrowed in concentration on their task.
So…scary monkeys and late summer have combined to put me in mind of one of the scariest short stories I ever read: “Where The Summer Ends” by Karl Edward Wagner. I found it years ago in a compilation of scary short stories, and read it mostly because, as a friend once said, “if something has text on it, I’ll run my eyes over it.” After a moment or two, of course, I was completely hooked and couldn’t put it down.
The story is set in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is about two hours west of Asheville on Interstate 40. Wagner catches the tone and the texture of the town with ease as he begins to spin a tale of late summer days swollen with humid heat and dank, overgrown kudzu on a dead-end street. You can practically smell something dark and sinister beginning to bulge out of the pages. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but I will say there’s *something* in the kudzu, so beware!
After reading that story, I pay more attention to kudzu than I used to. The road from my house to anywhere else passes between banks of the stuff for some distance. This time of year, it’s thick and lush and green…and it grows so fast you can almost see it lengthening into new stems and leaves (the better to clutch you with!) as you pass. My great-grandmother called it “that old seven-mile-a-minute” because it grows so fast and claims its territory in such a hurry.
Believe it or not, kudzu produces flowers in the summer–very pretty purple blooms that tend to shy away from sight under a layer of vines. They smell sort of purple, too, but you only know this if you drive around in smellovision (see the post from June 4) and sniff it out. Some locavores harvest kudzu; it turns up as jelly and pickles and a very fine “flour” that beats cornstarch for its thickening properties.* It’s a popular ingredient in handmade paper (whirl it up in a blender and smooth the fiberous pulp over a flat surface to dry in sheets) and it’s used as livestock fodder in Japan (from whence I believe it originated). Did the Boy Scouts really introduce kudzu into this country, using it as roadside ground cover to stabilize banks and hills along the new interstate system, which was one of their national projects in the 1950s? Could be true; could be an urban myth. Regardless, it’s here–especially in the south–and probably here to stay. And if you read Karl Edward Wagner’s take on kudzu, you’ll stay out of it!
*If you are planning to harvest kudzu for any sort of gustatory project, look for a patch well away from the road. Public right-of-way kudzu tends to have been heavily sprayed with herbicides for years upon years, and that’s not an ideal situation for ingestion.