A true story by Angela Perez
So. This really and truly happened to me not that long ago. One cold gray December day I take a slow and leisurely cruise through the primordial swamps and back woods of Tyrrell County down in northeastern North Carolina. I’m over near historic Somerset Plantation, slicing through the ancient silence along the Scuppernong River, morning sunlight glinting like diamonds on the black velvet waters. As I turn down the long road leading up to the plantation, I slam on brakes and my Jeep jerks to a stop. There in front of the car, smack dab in the middle of the road, is a mangy skinny brown dog staring down a giant turkey buzzard, both angling to devour the flattened carcass of a snapping turtle.
I roll down all of my car windows and listen to the starving dog growl as he edges closer to the dead turtle. The buzzard stands his ground, flexing the broad expanse of his wings ever so often. All of a sudden, I hear a voice to the left of me.
“Now that’s a fight right there,” says a withered old black man sidling up beside my driver’s side door.
I jerk back in my seat away from him. “You scared me to death,” I say, looking around to see what nearby house he must live in. What door he shambled out of. I see nothing but miles of plowed fields dissected by black water canals. “Where did you come from?” He didn’t answer me. Just stood stock still watching the dog and buzzard square off. I wonder how come I hadn’t passed him earlier along the road?
“You know slaves dug those canals to connect the river to that plantation down the road,” he says, pointing at the canal beside us. “They worked them men ’til they wore clean out and if they died while they was diggin’ they got left right where they died. Ain’t even bury ’em. Left the bodies rotting out in the sun just like that ole’ snapping turtle right there.” He whistles at the stray dog. “You better come away from that buzzard, Mr. Dog,” he says, “or he’s gonna tear your ass up when he finally gets mad.” He looks at me, placing both of his gnarled hands on the window sill of the car door. His jagged fingernails are long and dirty. “You know there’s slave bones in them ditches. They come up some nights and try to cross the road but they cain’t get nowhere. You stand here in this road when there’s no moon and they’ll beg you to bring them away from these canals to the main road. But don’t you let them in your car. Don’t you speak back to them. Just leave them be.”
He pats the car door and turns to walk back to wherever he came from. “Watch out for that ole’ buzzard and don’t run over him. He ain’t studyin’ you.” I look ahead and watch the dog chew on the turtle’s rotting head. The bird gives up the stand off, lifts its heavy wings, and slowly flies away. I look in the rear view mirror. The old man is nowhere to be seen.
One night this spring, when there’s no moon and before the mosquitoes get bad, I’m going back to that same spot in the road, turn off the car headlights, and sit there along one of the canals. And I’ll wait and see who talks to me. I say that right now, here in the bright light of day. Nighttime in that pitch black silence might make me change my tune.