To Sing Her Body to the Soil
Brigitte N. McCray
Momma wanted Jasper Waddell’s birds. On days when we trudged up the hill to our patch of woods, where the cherry, pine, and walnut trees waited for our axe, she glanced up at his birds swirling over the trees and whistled just to see if they would come. Some of the birds squawked and the birds behind them flocked closer to the others, as if they believed such safety in numbers would protect them from death.
Our trees were death’s arms and preferred to strangle the hymns and ballads that Jasper’s birds sang. Momma had grown up listening to them singing “Amazing Grace” and “In the Sweet By and By” at every wake in the holler.
“Those birds won’t sing us to our deaths,” she told me. “How is that fair?”
Momma and I, like all Cain women before us, had been attached to death for centuries. We predicted our neighbors’ deaths and made their coffins. We listened to soil eating our trees’ roots. Death’s whisper traveled from the water and minerals and up to the bark. We placed our hands on a trunk, and our insides rotted from the death that came to the holler that year. The sickness ate at us until dirt shoveled over coffin.
Jasper’s birds never died. We couldn’t guess the birds’ ages. Some of the robins and finches had paler feathers and nearly all of the birds had gnarly feet with heavy scaling. We only saw them though at the wakes and funerals. The edge of his property touched the Cain woods, and his birds sang warnings for us to stay clear. I told Momma her want for Jasper’s birds was a want that should be buried as deep as one of our coffins. We contained death on our property and in our woods. Living things struggled when they came near. Better, I told her, that such life stay clear.
But then came the day we placed our hands on a cherry trunk and Momma’s own death sank into our stomachs. She had two days before her heart would give out just like a bird’s clear whistles sometimes end with a soft wheeze.
Momma was right; it wasn’t fair that Jasper Waddell lived with so much life. I’d give Momma some of it before we built her coffin. I’d make sure she went to the next world with a belly of melody instead of rot.
The same week we found out about Momma’s death, we finished the coffin for Daniel Sizemore’s daddy. That prediction came a week before Momma’s. It was unusual for the holler to have two deaths so near together, but, as Momma always said, death’s about as tangled as roots.
Momma didn’t allow her looming end to slow down the coffin-making process. A skilled hunter, Old Sizemore had demanded tiny deer carved into his requested coffin, and, even though I argued she should rest, Momma cut the wood away to form the designs. It wouldn’t make death come any quicker for her, she said. I tried to take the cutting knife from her, but she gently shoved me. Curls of wood dropped to the floor as she continued. It didn’t seem right, her working so while her heart slowly faded to silence.
Every time I thought about that silence, I remembered Jasper’s birds’ harmony. In the evenings, when I dragged a log down our hill to our woodshop, their songs reminded me how loud life could be and how quiet death could be. It’s probably for that reason that Jasper always had them sing at wakes: to point out to the rest of us that life rules out death. I never believed that before. Not until Momma’s death taught me that I needed to be on the side of life.
Jasper and his birds would perform at the Sizemore wake, and it would give me the chance to steal one of his birds for Momma. How could I with so many people there?
We drove our mule Mabel, with the Sizemore coffin in the back of the wagon, down the holler. The ride gave me a chance to think more on how to steal one of his birds without the neighbors seeing. They were grateful for our predictions and our coffins, but they preferred the beauty of Jasper’s birds and wouldn’t take kindly to death taking hold of one. Some of the men in the holler even sprinkled gun powder near our property to keep animals from coming too close. After all, they witnessed what living with us did to Mabel. Our neighbors called our mule Walking Death because no matter how much we fed her, she appeared gaunt, and her muscles and bones were so weak that travelling by her was slow.
When we finally reached the Sizemore place, Jasper and his birds were already waiting by the porch and greeting the neighbors. All the birds swallowed his figure. They nested in his hair, perched on his shoulders, and roosted in the crooks of his arms. Robins, warblers, chickadees, blackbirds, great tits, thrushes, and finches sang fluting phrases, trumpet signals, and mellow glides while the neighbors walked up the steps.
Before the neighbors would cross the threshold, they stayed on the porch for a few seconds, flat footing to the music, as if moving their bodies would put off their own eventual deaths. The birds’ songs pulled at the ligaments and muscles in my legs and arms. I stretched my limbs and then shook them out, trying to defy Jasper’s life magic. I had always thought them silly for dancing at a wake, but with Momma’s death now a day away, I understood. However, if the music soaked through to my bones I might miss my chance to steal one of his birds.
The blue jays screamed harshly as we tied Mabel to the fence. She always gave the birds a start. We lifted the coffin from the wagon and started hauling it up the path. The birds, squawking louder, flocked from Jasper’s body to the porch railings.
They quieted when Jasper said to them, “Death ain’t coming for you like it did that mule.” The wings started flapping though, and they released high pitched whistles as Momma and I carried the coffin up the steps. Jasper started crooning a ballad that hushed the wings. When we passed him, I could smell the poop that stained his clothing, but it wasn’t as strong as the scent of honeysuckle and blackberries that stuck to his skin. His fingers were stained from the berries he fed to the birds. I wanted to reach out and take a hand, take those fingers into my mouth to taste what was left of all that living the birds had taken. The thought of Jasper then made me dizzy. Concentrate, I told myself. If I slipped one hand from the coffin, I could grab one of the birds, except Jasper finished a few lines of the ballad, turned, and moved to the far side of the porch. “Shush now. Death won’t be here long,” he told the birds.
Inside, neighbors rearranged plates of food spread on a large table. Old Sizemore lay on the cooling board in the living room. The kin sat on benches on either side of him. A pot of coffee warmed on the coals at the fireplace. His son, Daniel, stood there, probably waiting for it to warm enough to take another cup. He would need plenty to sit up through the night with the body. He would also need something for the grief; so Drew Stanley, the owner of the general store, poured a bit of whiskey into Daniel’s cup.
Such rituals tie the living to the dead for a while longer. I could list all the little customs we do for death in the hills. More than that, the rituals didn’t make sense without me and Momma. What did that make us? Withdrawn from the habits of daily living? No matter how much they needed us, our neighbors even withdrew from us.
They all bowed their heads when we placed the coffin down on the floor. Too afraid of catching death, they never would catch our eyes. Only if we knocked on their doors to tell them death was at hand would they look into us. At every wake I had attended, I would stare at their shoes instead of their faces, too ashamed of what meaning I held for them.
There was Momma dropping cedar chips around the body to improve the smell while her own death ate away at her. Our neighbors just kept talking about Old Sizemore’s hunting exploits while ignoring the living woman in front of them. I was so angry that I decided I didn’t care if I stole one of Jasper’s birds right in front of the lot of them.
I stomped out of the cabin and to the porch, where I grabbed one of Jasper’s goldfinches from his shoulder. The other birds shrieked and thrashed their wings.
“Let me have that bird back,” Jasper shouted.
I rushed down the steps and to the yard before he had the chance to catch me.
“Dora?” Momma shouted from behind. “Where you going with that bird?”
I untied Mabel, and climbed in the wagon seat. “Come on Momma,” I yelled. I had the bird trapped inside my cupped hand. Only its bill could be seen poking from the space between my index finger and thumb.
Jasper said something to Momma that I couldn’t hear, and then both of them jogged over.
I shook my head. “I’m not giving up this bird.”
“What’s got into you?” Momma held out her hand, gesturing for me to give the bird to her.
“It’s for you,” I said.
The neighbors crowded on the porch.
“A wake is no place to act this way,” she said.
Jasper stayed behind Momma and rubbed the heads of another bird with his fingers. “You don’t want to frighten the birds, do you?” Jasper asked.
“Why don’t you people ever think about how Momma feels?”
The goldfinch squirmed inside my hand; its bill nicked my skin and drew a tiny drop of blood.
“Dora, it needs air,” Momma said.
The birds’ chest pressed against my palm each time it breathed out, and I thought about how Momma’s chest rose and fell as she napped in her chair.
I loosened my grip. The bird’s head pushed out.
Momma crept closer. “Just open your hand.”
I did. The bird flew to Jasper and the other birds; they returned to singing a stanza of “Barbara Allen.”
The next day, Momma sat at the open window with an old quilt wrapped around her.
“If you would’ve let me keep that bird you could have been listening to some singing right now.”
“We don’t know how that bird would have fared here.”
“We could have found out.”
“Those birds don’t deserve to have life squeezed from them.”
“You’ve always wanted to be near them, to have them sing for you.” I pulled her quilt up and tucked it under her chin to make sure she stayed warm.
“Stop fussin’ over me.” She swatted at my hands.
“I’ll fuss all I want.”
She rose from the rocking chair and went to the windowsill, where she leaned out and glanced up at the sky. “Birds never have wanted to be near us. No use trying to change things now.”
She had a few more hours left to live. Even though she thought it was useless, I could tell by the way she searched the sky for signs of wings and song that she still wanted Jasper’s birds. Maybe she wanted them in the way he had them though—a mess of fluttering hearts and wings surrounding her body. If her body happened to give out, at least her flesh could be buried under spirited wings.
One bird would not do. I would bring her a flock to sing her body to the soil.
That night, while Momma slept, I carted the small animal trap I often used to catch rabbits for winter stew up the hill. As the birds squawked and whistled their fear, I placed the trap behind a large oak. I almost fell over Jasper’s stone fountain and into his honeysuckle and blackberry bushes that he used to keep the birds well-fed.
Pieces of black walnut meat shook inside my dress pocket. Weeks ago I had gathered the ripe green hulls from the ground and had placed the nuts inside our shed to dry. We snacked on the nutmeat often, and, as I had cracked open the nuts with a hammer earlier that evening, I had hoped the rich, smoky flavor would attract Jasper’s birds. I scattered some of the walnut meat inside the trap. I unwound the long string attached to the small door. Just a few feet from Jasper’s house I started to whistle “Pretty Saro,” the birds’ favorite ballad.
Before I reached the second stanza, the front door to Jasper’s cabin opened. He stepped out, and the birds flocked to cover him.
“I can only see the shape of you out there, but I know it’s you by the way my birds are acting.”
“I’m not meaning them harm.”
“They smell that stench of death about you.”
“Death isn’t the only thing that sticks to Momma and me. We got life in us, too.” To prove it, I continued on to the second stanza, my whistling growing louder and more confident.
The fee-baby, fee-bay of the chickadees and the chee-cher, chee-cher from the purple martins sounded. Then, louder than the first two species, the chiff, chiff of the flycatchers sounded. Some of the birds flew in front of his face; a few hovered over his shoulders and his head.
Who besides Jasper could take all those birds? All that noise and freedom beating from all those wings? Momma could.
“Death can sound pretty, but it’s uglier than even you suspect.”
“We’ll see about that.” I pitched the nutmeat and kept whistling.
A small flock flew from his porch railing, even a couple from the nest inside his hair. One robin, a flycatcher, and a swallow landed and pecked at the seeds.
Jasper cooed, “Come on back here.”
They wouldn’t return; he started to whistle, but his whistle came out a dry whisper. His nervousness showed again when he caught a crow that had tried to fly away. It screeched from the tightness of Jasper’s grip.
The birds hopped towards the back of the oak to the rest of the nuts.
“What’s back there?” He started towards me, but I quickly pulled the string.
The door slapped shut and I hurried over to lift the trap. “Birds don’t just belong to you. They’re of this land and these hills. They belong to all of us.”
I lit off down the hill. The birds shrieked and their wings beat against the trap. I stumbled a bit. Jasper shouted after me; I only heard the words “birds” and “kill.”
A few minutes later, I placed the trapped birds on the ground near one of our cherry trees, one closest to our fence. I agreed with Momma; it was unclear what our property would do to the birds. Our mule, Mabel, hung her head over the fence next to the barn. She was a good twenty-five feet from the house and she was still Walking Death. I couldn’t think about how near or how far the birds had to be to catch whatever rot death had given all the women of my family. I could only think about how to get the flock of birds to surround Momma’s body.
“Momma,” I called. I imagined opening the trap door and the birds flying right to her arms and perching.
The birds chanted high pitched distress calls.
“Shush, now. You’ll upset Momma.” I whistled again to calm them. They would probably fly away if I opened the trap door. How would I coax them to her? Before I could think of anything, Momma came from the house.
She wore her nightgown and had the quilt around her shoulders. “What are you doing?”
I started to answer, but my voice disappeared under the rush of wings. I turned and glanced up. Jasper was running down the hillside, waving his arms, and yelling. His other birds, so many of them, hurried towards me. What were they doing? Were they just trying to find their fellow birds? Were they going to attack me? I sprinted for the house.
Momma screamed, “No.”
The birds’ chirping and squawking grew louder as they closed in. I stepped on the porch to face them just as they all flew over the fence. Their throats quieted. With each plop of a dead bird on the ground, Momma sobbed. After it was all over, dead birds blanketed the yard, and Jasper stood at the fence wailing like a sick animal.
Momma’s hands covered her eyes. She stumbled across the doorstep, and went back inside.
“I’m sorry,” I said over and over. A few minutes passed before I realized I was only mouthing the words. I couldn’t even move my head to glance over at Jasper; I could only stare at the grave that our yard had become. “I’m sorry,” I finally said. I needed to say it to Momma, too, and so I walked forward, careful to avoid the birds.
“I’m taking these ones back,” he said.
I had forgotten about the ones still trapped. They had grown so quiet inside that I wondered if they had died like the others.
He lifted the trap and opened the door. “Get on out of here,” he said. Their wings beat quickly as they flew up to the sky.
“Won’t they return to you?” I asked.
He put the trap down on the ground and swayed a bit.
“Are you all right?”
“Go see about your momma.” He picked some feathers from his jacket and twirled them between his fingers before walking off.
Momma lay in the bed, no longer breathing. A piece of paper set on the night side next to her Bible. She had written, “No coffin.”
At the end, Momma tried to deny the way death stuck to us like sap to skin, but I needed to rid myself of the rot inside my stomach. If she didn’t want a coffin, I would make something different.
Momma’s body was twisted and small, just like one of the dead birds, with wings spread at odd angles.
I knew then what I should do for her.
I dragged numerous branches and twigs to the house. After I gathered more nest making materials (fine deer hair, spider webs, leaves, and strips of grapevine bark), I went to the yard and picked up feather after feather. I stuffed my apron full. With the materials collected, I worked on a nest, trying to mimic nest songs. I wove the pieces together and finished by gluing it all together with the spider webbing. The nest was as long and as wide as Momma. The perfect resting place. Although my hands enjoyed making the nest, they were used to carving coffins, and I would go on sawing and cutting wood. The birds on the ground taught me death would continue to grow inside me.
While I worked on the nest, Jasper came down the hill.
In the middle of the dead birds, Jasper went to his knees. He plucked and skinned the birds. Clumps of feathers swirled along the yard. Flecks of bird skin stuck to his fingers. Piles of flesh surrounded him.
“What are you doing?” I moved from the nest and tiptoed around the bird corpses. Bodies, even of birds, should be placed deep into the soil. I had planned on burying them after I finished with the nest.
“You took their aliveness from me; I plan on keeping a hold of their death.”
“You can’t hold on to death. It takes hold of you.”
“You made sure of that.”
He was right. I didn’t know what sort of amends I could make, but I could try. “Come see what I’m making for my momma.”
“What do you need me for?”
“You’ll know a thing or two about nests.”
He followed me.
Patting it with his hands, he said, “Seems sturdy. It’ll cradle her nicely in the ground.”
Eventually, Jasper collected all the small bird bones and took them up the hill and into the woods. When I saw him again, he had strung the bones one after another, and, as he walked, the bones trailed a long line behind, clicking and clicking together.
One early morning, days after Momma’s funeral, I woke to the clicking and came outside with a pot of coffee to ask if he’d like to sit a spell, but he had already disappeared. Instead, I found tiny carved birds, at least fifty of them, perched on the fence. He had a good hand for whittling. They were so well done that they seemed almost alive.
Whenever I hear his bits of death now, I remember how I tried to flee death, like unstringing bone after bone. Just as the bones trailed after Jasper, the deaths that I’ll predict stretch out before me. Occasionally a feather or two will swirl through the yard, the possibility of life lifting from the soil. If I listen closely enough, I can hear the carved birds whistling an old ballad, and I whistle along while sanding our holler’s next coffin.
Brigitte N. McCray is a 2014 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and she earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. She also earned her PhD in English from Louisiana State University. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Prick of the Spindle, Mythic Delirium, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth.com, Red Rock Review, and elsewhere. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.