Bud’s love for the Trent River would buoy us that night as we celebrated the age-old ritual of pulling shad from the water that flowed just behind his sprawling brick home and well below the fanciful tree house he had built over the river as a studio to accommodate his writing habit.
Unbeknownst to me, Bud had already been out in his johnboat that March afternoon to set a net across a narrow section of the Trent upriver from his house—a practice that was surely illegal at the time. Meanwhile his wife, Surena—“Rena” for short—had been preparing some serious eastern North Carolina comfort food for our supper.
Rena was the much-beloved legislative assistant for a string of senate and house members in the North Carolina legislature. Besides commuting to Raleigh for that work, she also launched a company, Inheritance Press, which published the judge’s writings and her own volumes on genealogy and the history of the Tuscarora Indians, who once lived along the banks of the Trent.
When I arrived, she came out to the yard to greet me. We hugged hello. “We’re having chicken and pastry,” Rena told me as I unloaded my bag from the car. For me, the name of this dish conjured a vision of a crisp, brown, flaky piecrust atop something like chicken and gravy, but I was uninitiated. I soon learned that what eastern North Carolinians call chicken and pastry is the same chicken and dumplings my Georgia grandmother prepared with white flour dough rolled out with a baking pin, cut into squares, and then dropped into a pot of boiling chicken parts with a few bones to flavor and thicken the stew.
Once in the kitchen with Rena, I immediately smelled the collards she had been cooking all afternoon, plucked from her sandy side-yard garden. The scent of ham and peppery vinegar softened the tang of sulfur wafting from the pot of greens bubbling beside the stewing chicken.
On first blush, Rena seemed to be an unassuming country woman with deep rural roots, but the more time I spent with her, the more I saw her fiery side that sat like well-banked coals in a stove. Like Bud, she had strong opinions but measured them out more strategically. Bud was a bull to her fox. Her deep knowledge of history cultivated by a lifetime of reading and studying also shone through more gradually, probably because Bud took up so much air in most any conversation.
Bud and Rena’s house backed up to the Trent River about a mile out of Trenton. Like Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi, the approach to the residence was dramatic, but in this landscape, the long, tree-lined drive snaked through tall pines and across a small bridge that arched over the edge of a wetland that they had fronted with nonnative agaves. Their spikes seemed more menacing than the swampy thicket behind them. The house itself, still under renovation then, looked like a railway station, which it once had been.
Bud had somehow finagled the purchase of a vintage train station near Kenansville, in Rena’s native Duplin County. They had it moved to the Henderson family’s extensive acreage in Jones County. The station was built in 1901 by Standard Oil baron Henry Flagler, solely for the purpose of bringing guests to town for a wedding that year—his third. Flagler, then seventy-two, was marrying the thirty-four-year-old Mary Lily Kenan at her ancestral home, Liberty Hall, in Kenansville. Wedding guests would arrive at the new station on a special train he’d commissioned. One car also carried a small orchestra and a team of Baltimore chefs for the festivities. Flagler arranged for carriages to meet the wedding guests and squire them eight miles through the countryside to Liberty Hall on a new road that he’d also built for the event. According to a contemporary newspaper account from south Florida where the couple would ultimately settle, the bride’s wedding gifts from her new husband included “a $500,000 pearl necklace, a check for $1 million, and $2 million in bonds. For their honeymoon they left the steamy August heat of North Carolina for Flagler’s summer home at Mamaroneck, N.Y.”
Bud and Rena hired masons to painstakingly reconstruct some of the station’s brickwork. A team of carpenters installed a two-and-a-half-floor, split-level layout inside, including wrought iron stairs and balconies connecting the three bedrooms. A woodstove heated an informal den on the first floor. Above, a formal living room sat at the house’s front and center, festooned with federal columns, heavy moldings, and electric candle fixtures dripping with crystal.
They also dug out a basement for a playroom with a pool table and a library, where Bud kept his collection of first-edition Faulkners. Beyond the original structure, they added on a kitchen with an enormous bay window facing the front field that they leased out each year for tobacco. The kitchen, in turn, led into a three-car garage with a patio out back, constructed of heavy antebellum bricks in many shades of red, pink, and orange.
On the other side of the house, Bud was adding a broad deck overlooking the swampy section of land upriver, where Musselshell Creek meandered into the Trent. A narrow gangplank connected the deck to his tree house office, which hovered some thirty feet above the river. For several years Bud’s frail railing meant that guests were always cautioned never to lean on the wooden balustrades while moving from deck to tree house, which itself was encircled by a deck with questionable railings. Eventually Bud found a carpenter who could retrofit the barriers to meet code.
He was a bit more successful in designing a sturdy, if steep, set of wooden stairs that plummeted down the riverbank to a small dock protruding out into the water. It was there that Bud kept his johnboat and sometimes a canoe, but on this evening, he had already parked the canoe upstream for our shad reconnaissance mission.
As I learned when the evening’s first bourbon was poured, the plan was for the two of us to retire early and then get up at midnight, climb into his rusting truck, drive up a dirt road, launch the canoe, and, after filling the boat with shad, float back down the Trent the half mile to his dock behind the house. I didn’t ask any questions. Captain Shad was in charge.
Sated by the heavy chicken and pastry and savory collards, we retired to catch a nap. At midnight, Bud rang a ship’s bell and I rose in the guest room upstairs and threw on some jeans and three layers—turtleneck, sweater, and jacket. I came down the iron steps in my sock feet and laced on my hiking boots by the warm woodstove.
Outside, a silver veneer of frost covered the front lawn. Bud already had the truck warming up, spewing exhaust. I could see my breath, too. It didn’t occur to me what we might need for this operation, but the bed of the pickup was cluttered with all manner of tools and coolers.
Once beyond the floodlights on the corners of the house, the gibbous moon took over. It was an oval kite trailed by a tangled string of stars. We could have traveled without headlights. We drove the distance to the paved highway and turned north but soon rolled off the pavement onto a sandy road flanked by deep stands of mature pines laid out straight as corn. “My father planted these trees,” Bud said.
He offered me a sip of whiskey from a flask on the seat as we bumped along. We didn’t talk anymore. I was still sleepy and full from supper, and it honestly never occurred to me that here I was headed into deep woods—the regular habitat of bears and cottonmouth moccasins. I was trusting a man twice my age to paddle me in black water through an obstacle course of cypress knees to some choice spot to catch fish I had also never seen or landed. That I was game could have had two meanings.
Soon, Bud stopped the truck and squinted once, then twice into the woods lit by his headlights and pulled the truck into an open space. He killed the rattletrap engine, which sputtered an extra beat. He handed me a big, boxy flashlight and took another for himself from under the seat. We opened and shut the truck doors as if someone might hear us. We headed into the brush. Ticks were not out yet, right? No. It was plenty cold.
It took him a little while, but Bud finally got his bearings and found the canoe pulled up on solid ground at the edge of the water. I noticed there was only one paddle in the boat. He dragged the canoe closer to the dark water and shoved it in. He put out his clean, chilled hand to escort me into the canoe as if I were some lady in a bustle and hat about to go on excursion. My boots clomped on the metal bottom, and the canoe shuddered. I sat unceremoniously. The cold from the metal seat soaked through my jeans like ice water.
Bud then settled himself in the boat, still holding a rope looped once around a skinny tree and tied to the canoe. We each put on life jackets that were stowed under the seats. Then Bud shoved us off with the paddle and pulled the rope from around the tree, throwing it to his feet. What had seemed to be very still water was suddenly moving faster than I guessed.
“I’ll steer. You shine the light,” he said.
He paddled with one arm, the spatulate end never leaving the water, stirring us silently forward. I shone my light straight ahead, downriver. He swept his light nearer to shore, finally confessing that he was looking for a pole that held one end of the net he had set that afternoon. Was that legal? I didn’t ask. He was the judge.
When his light landed on something white protruding from the brush on the shoreline, he quickly forked the boat over toward shore. He pulled on a single glove and maneuvered the canoe toward the edge of the net. He lifted up one end, which bellied out beside us and somehow held the canoe in place. I pointed my light down into the water, but the river stopped the shine by inches, only giving up brown, like beer glass, then closer gold, like whiskey. As Bud pulled up more net, the water drops shone like opals, by turns persimmon and turquoise in the light.
“New weight here,” he said, grinning, and pulled up another foot of net. At first they looked like a cache of fresh coins rising up, the scales catching light like lenses. Three shad, then six. Bud untangled them one by one with his gloved hand and threw them into the boat. They seemed huge, not unlike the overgrown shiners I caught as a child in my granddaddy’s pond. Then an ugly, red-mouthed fish came up. Bud grabbed it and heaved it downstream with a loud splash.
Years later, I would find this passage in a piece by Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker columnist who was born and raised in Fairmont, North Carolina, near the Lumber River: “Lifting a shad net is like shooting dice—you never get tired of seeing what comes up.”
A trickle of blood soon coiled between our feet as the shad thrashed at the boat’s bottom. We collected a total of ten, and then Bud let the net go. He realigned the canoe with the river. We floated back toward home in the moonlight, giddy with our success.
An excerpt from The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods Through the Year Copyright © 2018 by Georgann Eubanks. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. For more, visit uncpress.org.