King Cottonland

By Andrei Codrescu

How sad is everything? Driving north through Mississippi and northern Louisiana under a huge empty sky, I get the feeling that this world is abandoned. A wooden church spire sticks out of a vast expanse of flatland. Not one human dwelling can be seen from the road, but here and there decaying harvesters or old tractors rust by the roadside like downed alien insects. The sides of the road are littered with cotton that looks like snow. These cotton fields have been harvested and are waiting out the winter. Emptiness and winter are sad enough, but when you listen, you can hear history moaning. You can hear Blind Willie McTell singing about the lash of the whip and the sound of the bell. Actually, it’s Bob Dylan on the car stereo, singing about Blind Willie McTell singing like no one else could the sad songs of these Mississippi lands. We pass a few woefully neglected small towns with busted windows in their dead downtowns by the railroad. I lean out the window and suck in the desolation with my digital camera.

For kicks we stop in Transylvania. It’s Transylvania, Louisiana, a one-store town with a bat painted on the water tower. At the Transylvania General Store I buy a couple of coffee mugs that say Transylvania, Louisiana, and an oval box that says the same thing. I pass over the tee-shirts with the bat and the orange sky and the baseball caps. I don’t tell the old man who rings me up that I’m from Transylvania, the real one. Not that he’d care. Doing his time on earth between the Transylvania General Store, the Transylvania, Louisiana Post Office and, possibly the Transylvania Baptist Church, he seems to have run out of curiosity. I might have too, if not for the Delta Mennonite Church just past Transylvania. There might be a thread connecting the real Transylvania to this forlorn village in the cotton fields. The Mennonites originated in middle-European German lands, of which my Transylvania was once part. This may be a nonexistent connection, just like the one my friend Bill deRidder was looking for when he came from Amsterdam to find out of if DeRidder, Louisiana, had been named for his family. He found instead that the settlement had been named by telegram from Amsterdam by a clerk for the Dutch company that owned the railroad.

Past Transylvania, there is little of real or imagined oddness until we go through Tallulah, a dying town by the banks of a shaded bayou. The nearby environs of Lake Providence flash by, a few cypresses still growing in the water near shore. Rotting piers stretch out into the still water. The cypresses look funereal to me. Their trunks come wide off the root, then narrow before spilling down their weeping rusty tresses.

I can imagine this land bursting into life in the spring and settling into a long, lazy summer, but I think that a deep sadness lies at its core, made of forgetting history, or just plain forgetting.