By Craig Cunningham © 2006
As the junior reporter at the Rabun Chronicle, I was stuck with the assignments which were either useless or ignorant. Besides the hills and mountains, the cobblestoned Main Street could just as easily have been found in the Delta as here in this nothing town in the Georgia mountains.
Allow me to digress. I'd gone over to Oxford to become a lawyer, but due to various unforeseen circumstances I was unable to continue this pursuit. Having run up a sizable debt playing bridge, my studies deteriorated to the point of a letter from the Chancellor of Ole Miss directly to one of their greatest benefactors, my father, the esteemed Judge Lawrence Forrest. The means to persevere were available; alas, the will was not.
I had spent many an afternoon with my pal Walker before he headed to Chapel Hill. His uncle, Will Percy, was a local eccentric and legend whose cavernous home was a revolving door of all things my father was not. Writers, gamblers, vagabonds, philosophers, and well-to-do intellectuals came and went like a Greek gypsies. I had never been much of a reader, yet I was indeed drawn to the oddities of speech and mannerisms found there. Some of things that I happened upon there were fairly radical, like the mental capacity and educatability of niggers and such, but Walker knew I'd never let out a peep about any of this, so I was able to view their world without becoming a part of it. The scenes and sounds as these men finished off their bottles of gin and scotch and jars of shine were heretical at the least and an abomination in the extreme. Why, Nero himself would blush at some of these goings-on.
Turning to the pursuit of letters and journalism seemed to be a fair detour before I would take on the Judge's affairs. While I did not share the inferior pedigree nor their behaviour found at Will Percy’s estate, I was intrigued by the freedom these writers had. The Judge allowed me to humor myself and why not-I was well traveled, quite articulate with a superb vocabulary, and in fact gifted in my use of the English language, at least in prose. He would not support this pursuit financially, which landed me in the employ of a small regional newspaper in the northeast corner of Georgia. That is how I got here.
My normal areas of responsibility consisted of local baseball or football activities, church socials, obituaries, and debutant activity in Atlanta. Sharing the big city of Atlanta with these simple mountain folk and townsmen gave me some sense of adventure, but Atlanta was no Paris or Chicago or New York. Walker had written occasionally from New York where he was studying medicine, and I hoped to visit him in the fall.
Daniel Greely, the Chronicle's editor, left a note to head to the Hollowland to cover a story about some giant rattlesnake that had been killed. I rarely ventured outside of town and certainly never to the old slave quarters that was outside of Douglaston. It was a series of rowhouses and dilapidated shacks that had housed slaves at Buckston Place, the major plantation in the area. There were still families from that time, working the land within eyesight of the roofs their people had lived under since before the War. There was no one to complain to in the Chronicle's office, and I knew Greely still had it in for me since my scandalous mistake regarding the mistress of Ralph Sessums. His widow was none to pleased to be omitted from the obituary, Roberta Lilly’s name inserted as his wife. Was this assignment retribution for a simple error? It was the first of many slights which would come from both Greely and the townspeople.
As I neared the Hollowland, I asked a boy if he'd heard about a rattlesnake which had been found. He told me that Root-Man had killed said snake, and he offered to run ahead of me to show the way. I had heard of Root-Man Hintham on two separate occasions, his strength legendary in these parts. His occupation was a clearer, one who cleared off land for revitalization. His specialty was taking on jobs no one else would touch. He had an old mule with him, but he mainly relied on a pick, a bar, and a lumberjack axe from Oregon to clear stumps and boulders. An occasional explosion would do the trick for the toughest jobs, but by and large he used his back and his brawn.
We arrived, the boy still sprinting like a young colt on his first run through the pasture, I in the '31 Ford given to me by the Judge. The Hollows looked like an ant's nest that had been stomped on. No, it looked like a big wasp nest that had been knocked from a porch. Half-clothed children playing in puddles, women carrying baskets of clothes or flour atop their heads. A group of men sat under a massive pecan tree, smoke wafting from their pipes and cigars. The stench in the air was common yet putrid, the filth these people wallowed in turning even the strongest stomach at times. A wiry ancient nanny grabbed a chicken hanging from its feet, a quick twist of the head bringing supper one step closer.
The boy dashed toward a shack next to the chicken nanny, and I followed calmly with my journal in hand and my Beau Brownie under my arm. My photographic skills had developed over the last year, and I knew what Greely wanted in a photo. Good light, subject front and center, limited composition. I erred on the staging side, as a picture is worth a thousand words and all that. Old photos from the War were notoriously staged, corpses hauled into positions that told a better story, even if it meant a bone would be broken here or there.
A white man in the Hollows was never a welcome sight, but this was a newsman ready to capture immortality and fame. I heard the footsteps of a throng surrounding me when I saw the crowd focused on Root-Man. Though I’d never seen him, it was an easy assumption. Torn britches, twigs sticking from his hair, a sleeveless work shirt frazzled where fabric had been torn away, arms as wide as my thighs, mounds of muscle perfected through brute force. His smile was subtle as he stood over his achievement in the late sun, and I saw the unmistakable scales as the boys parted upon my arrival. It was something like I had never seen, a viper a foot wide and eleven feet from the head to the tip of that rattle. The rattle itself looked as long as my shoe, yet I was hesitant to even approach this monster.
I had film for ten shots, and the light was difficult near Root-Man's shack. I took one length shot but couldn't get the entire reptile in the frame. Root-Man was not a man of words, known to take on the worst situation with no complaint, never one to doubt his place in this world. I asked for background, how he had found and killed this beast. Stepping over the rattler, he took me back to the cabbage patch. There it had lain, basking in the midday sun between two rows of leafy heads, a safe haven. He had grabbed the pick with his massive hand, and he demonstrated the single blow through the top of the head which tore through its skull. A mess had been made from the short struggle, the writhing rattlesnake unlodging several head of cabbage. The path Root-Man had used to drag this beast to its resting spot was clear.
I quickly found a spot near a clearing, maybe a hundred yards away, which had perfect light for maybe fifteen minutes. I told Root-Man to get some help and bring the snake, but he lifted the beast himself over his shoulders and confidently brought it to the clearing. The crowd held back in amazement, and I came upon the perfect shot. I told Root-Man to hold the specimen doubled over, with head and rattle off the ground if possible. He bent down, and with both forearms underneath stood high, lifted the animal’s carcass until indeed its snout and foot-like rattle hovered over the cracked mud ground. The snake's lips kissed the rattle as they gently swung in the afternoon heat.
I peered through the eyepiece, focused on the strained sinew of Root-Man, the ebony leather of his arm dripping in sweat as he held this beast away from his body. Scale upon scale of the rattler was clear in the lens, the light pouring into the camera from these two beasts, conqueror and vanquished.
I took a breath, made a count, and clicked the shot.
Craig Cunningham is a married father of three boys living in the suburbs of Atlanta. His career often takes him throughout Asia and Europe and he's lived in New Jersey, Detroit, and Phoenix, but there remains in him remnants of the small town in Mississippi where he was raised.