Closer to Mobile than Montgomery, wedged between woods and water, is a place nobody goes. A few homes, a church and cemetery scattered along a road leading somewhere else. Parents hope opportunity. They remember before it was paved. Now broken white and yellow lines on gray stretch up, down, around, away. Maps show a thread, Highway 59, emerging into a rope, Interstate 65. Travelers blurring through at night or without reading the church sign don’t know they’re seeing what’s left of a town. Those that do think they see a peaceful solitary country community, an actual Gone with the Wind Grandma Moses’ Hallmark card where everyday life like nostalgia takes time.
The air is clear, the water pure, longleaf pines scrape the sky. Birds tweet. Crickets chirp at night. Seasons change from green to dead without an in-between. Winters are pleasant and summers tolerable because of the Gulf Stream and air-conditioning. Tomorrow can happen whenever or yesterday years ago. The locals are friendly though they gossip about each other. But strangers passing through Canaan are usually lost. They don’t know how it is or was in a place where memories and dreams have died.
The turpentine still, which sent barrels overseas during World War II, rots in the woods burying hoops and nails found by metal detectors on Sunday afternoons. Miss Charlene’s post office and general store, the white box standing before the house on the curve, is closed. She always wore white gloves and had a Negro child nearby to handle money. The sawmill, which floated lumber to the Capitol, took Mr. Peck’s hand and cut a Negro man in half, burnt long ago leaving mountains of dust. The stores, the hotel-restaurant, the brothel on the river are gone. The town became another victim of progress that, like cancer, settled, spread, sucked.
Folks blame the railroad for skipping them or yellow fever running wild. Others claim they clear-cut the land and for several seasons the spring stood dry. Still others claim, “It was God’s Will, that’s how it’s written, nobody knows His mind.” Children packed up, running from or to something, chasing dollars. They return older, but still so-and-so’s grandson or granddaughter, to put their parents into the ground. If they settle for a while, or their children after earning a life, they live in an energy-effective brick modern with cedar trim and solar windows trying to capture what wasn’t. The two well-kept established homes, the Harper’s and the Williams’s, with Doric columns, wraparound porches, branching magnolias, overflowing gardens, are passed down family lines. Folks say the inhabitants are “Strange, but nice.” Weekend cottages and Negro’s shacks are poked in back, some still without electricity.
What’s left of the Widow Sutton’s place, decaying under sheets of rusting tin, is off the road about a half-mile north of the church. Once Bertha lived there, but after she died, over twenty years ago, the house remained empty. She never married and kept flowers on the blank grave. Some folks do that mourning love.
Trees and underbrush keep the lane dark even in sunlight. Katydids chirp and flies buzz around sweet and dead odors. Locals claim the house is haunted. Boys are accepted into secret clubs by running up and touching the front door at night, keeping their palms flat while counting to ten Mississippi. What is left of the picket fence, peeling and coated with moss, has orange day lilies and Seven Sisters roses spilling through broken or missing boards. The front gate is gone. Inside along dirt paths, leggy azaleas need cutting back. Camellias and crape myrtle are as high as trees. Briers and honeysuckle vines twist and choke limbs. Leaves, powdery white, have jagged worm bites. The middle porch step is sunken. The ceiling is sagging and flaking blue. Most of the railing is gone. The few screens left over the windows and doors are either ripped or rotten with holes.
Dust like snow fills the vacant parlor with the torn wallpaper, rain-stained ceiling, and termite-gnawed hardwood floor. Mold clings to the torn drapes and the few pieces of furniture left. The fireplace is boarded up so teenagers making out won’t start a fire and burn what’s falling in down. Folks say it’s bound to happen. The kitchen is in back once connected by a breezeway, the way homes were. Years ago the Widow’s uncle, Dr. Gerald Sutton, addicted to morphine performed abortions at night. Rumor says Ella Harper’s mother’s sister Lucy had one and didn’t stop bleeding. A husband shot Doctor Gerald for removing another man’s baby, rumored mulatto, from his wife. All three are buried outside the church cemetery on the other side of the fence. That’s the first tragedy of the house.
Behind the house is a path. Visible though the grass has grown back. Winds down, up, across, then down again for about 500 yards before reaching Red Hill Creek, a decent swimming hole, but better home for moccasins and teenage beer parties. The water wiggles for nearly a mile before reaching the Alabama River, the mouth is good fishing, and then empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Folks once hauled water from the artesian well, bubbling up from the ground beyond that dip. Hunters sometimes climb the bluff to shoot deer on the opposite creek bank below, but those spotlighting keep whittling the population down like loggers do trees. Years ago the church switched to the Williams’s swimming pool for baptizing after a dead coon was found floating in the dunking spot anchored by a rock. Red Hill Creek isn’t deep, just around a man’s ankles except in Audrey’s Hole, but after the spring rains the water can cover his head. Those two knives supposedly still rest on the creek’s bottom.
Up the hill under a bell steeple reaching into heaven is a white one-room church, Canaan Baptist with blue and yellow windowpanes, bright enough to be new. Organized over a hundred years ago when preachers were circuit riders, revivals lasted for weeks, and folks erupted with the Spirit. A few sometimes speak in tongues and shout “Amen!” or “Praise the Lord!” during a service, but not like long ago. The church is completely modern. The original chandelier wired for electricity, with central heat and air, red wall-to-wall carpeting, plastic ferns on the altar, an organ shouting hallelujah and moaning amen. The elderly congregation, thirty-one on roll, but less than ten in the pews, is generous with tithes and the less fortunate overseas. The preacher, the Reverend Leonard Stevens, with another church up the road in Damascus where his family lives, the Canaan parsonage caved in long ago, arrives and leaves in a shiny Cadillac. Services have dwindled to the first, third, and fifth Sundays at 9:30 in the morning.
Through a grove of dogwoods, their branches full of green-white crosses, is another congregation. Their stones are flat or rising, long or tall. There’s no gate just a rusty fence, huge log pillars standing guard enclosing an acre in wire. Camellias and azaleas mark plots. A cedar in the corner peels silver. The grass recently mowed smells like watermelon. Most of the graves, over a hundred, the slabs weathered gray or black, are decorated with fake flowers. One has wilted daisies in a mayonnaise jar. Another has plastic poinsettias waiting for Easter lilies. They will be colorless too when changed at Christmas. A couple of headstones are topped with kneeling lambs and one is shaped like a cross. Most are plain with names and dates, but a few have fancy verse like “Rest in Peace,” “An angel swept down carrying our Father home,” or “My Mother’s tears will be no more.” Families are together like for Christmas dinner. The Williams, the Taylors, and the Martins are united in the dirt. The Johnstons surround a granite arch and the Harpers are safe behind a spike fence. Birds constantly sing. A screech owl perches on a post at night. A pleasant eternal home, everybody says so, but like every cemetery everywhere there are stories behind each stone. Some are real or could have been and others made-up. One grave contains a man and his mistress, another a baby grossly deformed. A grave in back is busted. Children get on hands and knees trying to see bones.
Away from these graves are the others, scattered like leaves outside the fence. Nobody remembers exactly where so-and-so was buried; time erases what isn’t important. The blank slabs, dark and ugly, never decorated with flowers or cared by loved ones, are covered with weeds and grass. The earth is swallowing them in. There are three, five, maybe seven turned from the sun. Who knows if they were murderers, thieves, or adulterers? They are the ones that didn’t belong. Unlike the prodigal son, they weren’t welcomed back to an earthly home.
Farther up, under a pink dogwood overlooking the church and creek, is a blank grave. The grass has grown over the slab turned black. Some say the grave belongs to Thomas John Sutton. Others say the body under the stone isn’t human or a boy’s. Some say after the funeral the Widow Sutton went back to Georgia, suffered a nervous breakdown, and died. Others say she married (or maybe remarried?) and lived a ‘happy-ever-after’ life. Some say the Reverend Hale became a missionary then a lion’s meal. Others say he left his wife and became a monk. Some say after digging the grave, Clyde started drinking and didn’t stop until dead, but aren’t sure where he’s buried. Folks say anything because nobody really knows. What happened was years ago. Still they come on the whisper of a rumor, tramp around the woods and leave, pondering a grave with no “In Memory Of.”