Those who built the high house at Lakeport could not have foreseen the devastation about to come. In the 1850s, cotton was bringing an average of 11.4 cents a pound, the highest it had been since the boom years of the 1830s. Optimism was as endemic along the swampy banks of the Mississippi as malaria.
Old Man River flowed past this plantation like a super-highway to New Orleans and the world's markets. All good things beckoned. Cotton was king, and its kingdom swelled with pride. The South grew haughty, its fine sense of honor even more prickly. Humility was for those less blessed. We were rich and not to be messed with. The pride that goeth before was reaching its zenith. Oh, those were the days, we thought they'd never end. They did. In blood and ruin.
Old times there are not forgotten. You can almost hear the fiddle music, the laughter of the young of all ages, the basso profundo of a steamboat comin' 'round the bend to pick up the bales. Nothing is ever lost, certainly not in these parts. Here, as Faulkner put it, the past is not dead, it's not even past.
The high, two-story house set in the midst of the cotton fields was a testament to the Delta's antebellum prosperity and the promise of still more to come, with its 17 high-ceilinged rooms, two-story portico, tapered white columns, eleven-foot-high wood-paneled doors, the 26-foot-long entry hall ... all of it supported by great cypress beams from the adjacent wetlands. With high cotton came high times. What grand entrances must have been made here, what elaborate courtesies extended, what weddings celebrated!
How could the master of the grand house, the good Lycurgus Johnson, have foreseen what the near, disastrous future would bring? By the time the surrender was signed at Appomattox, this whole part of the country was being torn apart by looters and freebooters of both sides or no side. Those lucky enough to return whole from the war's various fronts would find little here but desolation.
The tax rolls from 1860 to 1865 tell the story: from pride-and-plenty to Nothing to Declare. Now, with the grand house restored after many years of neglect, you can almost see the ghosts out for a stroll in their pre-war finery. Or waiting to greet you at the top of the grand staircase. As if made for a grand fall.
Things change. And change back. The old boy on his bicycle in the peaceful present breathed deep. And shivered. All was perfection and yet ... it wasn't. He should have been enjoying the ride. And he was, but only in an abstract way, the way you do when you know how you're supposed to feel but don't, not really, not all the way through. He should have been refreshed; instead he was resentful.
Why on earth? Why on this golden earth? It took him a moment to understand. It wasn't the fall he resented. Never. How could anyone not love it? No, it was something else. It was the passage of time -- unrecoverable time. The intimation of mortality.
How he was going to miss all this. He missed it already. How he missed those who had gone before, those who had shared many such a season with him, their breath forming a little mist in the early-morning air as they threw on their coats, laughing and smiling, out to enjoy the day. The girls with their mums pinned on their warm jackets, out to cheer at a football game, returning with color in their cheeks. What has become of them all these years later?
The sun shone, but a shadow fell. The beauty of the physical world only brought the old truths home: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die....
Once he had put the feeling into old Ecclesiastes' words, it was gone. It was resolved now. Words will do that. They resolve. And he was free to enjoy the brisk air, the warmth of the jacket on his back, the old neighborhood all new again in its fall wardrobe. And off he pedaled.
For there is nothing better than to enjoy the now. Just as The Preacher in the Good Book had advised. The bountiful Now is all we've got, and it is more than enough. Certainly this time of year in Arkansas, when fall has finally got here in full, thank Goodness.
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