Birds

                summer 1998

      I did some recent musings about John I, the second cousin who knew  (and told)  all the family scandals, so long as his audience was  "family"  and interested in such things.  I thought about what happened at John's funeral.  I'll not attempt explanation of what follows.  I'll just write what I  - - and a number of other people - -  saw and heard and marveled at.

Over the years I went with that old man many times to the cemetery where we buried him, in a plot he picked out decades before.  The Enex Cemetery is an old time traditional graveyard, along a high wooded flint ridge where Rowan and Carter Counties adjoin.  Fired with the proper  "rainbow trajectory"  a twenty two rifle bullet could reach to the site of John's home place from there.  Five generations lie in that forest clearing; John liked to go there at least every other month or so, maybe pack a picnic lunch if the weather was at all encouraging.

We'd sit on tombstones low and wide enough to form convenient seats  - - when it was just John and me, getting comfortable never seemed disrespectful - -  while he recalled the ones he'd known personally, repeated stories about those who died before even he was born.

He'd tell how whiskey killed this one, and that one over there was a serious woman chaser, and the lady laying yonder had a baby without anyone ever knowing who its daddy was.  Sometimes John recalled the death of an older sister in a flu epidemic that carried off whole families, described the hard awful sound of a teenage girl's smothering fight for breath, while in another room a younger brother was thought to be dying as well.

The brother survived though.  When he lost his leg in a car wreck after World War II John and some cousins and nephews brought the limb to the graveyard, encased in a special box.  John could show exactly where they buried it in a corner.

The Enex Cemetery is a lovely place, and holds some fine memories for me.  Cousin Fred and I drink a beer up there sometimes, if Sunday's weather allows, and I wouldn't care a bit if they put me there in another thirty years...

John was a couple years past eighty the April day he took a last long breath and slipped away from us.  After his well-attended funeral, a considerable crowd elected to follow as far as they could with him.  Hard morning rain had transformed what was, under the best circumstances, a primitive and marginally passable road into a muddy mess, and much confusion arose when the hearse bogged down, the last sloppy quarter mile.  John's casket was transferred to the bed of a Civil Defense pickup truck, and everyone else with four wheel drive vehicles used them to carry the old men who were John's friends to the grave site.

A hundred or more intended to gather around it, and it took a while to get all of us in place.  I doubt anyone minded the wait.  An Appalachian spring was all around us.  The air was heavy with the reek of renewed fertility, the woods surrounding us were lively as all Kentucky forests are in April, with much rustling and singing from scores of birds...

Those birds are what no one who stood at John I's grave has ever forgotten.

Perhaps five minutes before the minister started his sermonette, my mother leaned close from behind me.  "Watch in the trees,"  she whispered.

I did, glad to have something to look at other than a gaping raw hole in the ground, and saw flocks of birds coming to roost.  Every tree or bush, every limb large enough to support the negligible weight of sparrows or the more significant presence of jays and cardinals was becoming a perch, some bending into low ground-grazing arches.  Strands of barbed wire fence at the limits of the grave yard sagged as the birds came to land, then sagged lower as more and more arrived.  The quiet country cemetery became a cacophony of sound, so much so any sort of conversation required an ever louder voice.

I do not necessarily believe in ghosts, or hold to superstitions.  I'll not be disappointed if, after death I become only so much mud.  There are worse ways to spend eternity than turning into a piece of Kentucky hill top, and with no strong personal sense of a world other than or beyond this one, I'm suspicious of  "spooky"  tales told by others.

But I offer you this single piece of literal truth:  when Reverend Whomever opened his Bible to read a few final verses over the mortality of my friend and cousin John I, those birds quieted as though an avian choirmaster signaled,  "Enough!"  John's grave side service ended in a profound hush befitting any church.

When the preacher was done, when he closed his Bible to confirm we truly had all gone as far with John I as any mortal could go, when he gently suggested we leave that great and good man, with a great rush of wings and a Babel of chatter and cheep, the birds were gone, all gone, in seconds.

I can't explain, won't offer rationalization for what happened in our family cemetery that April afternoon.  I know John loved that plot of ground, had spent hours there; I still hear, in memory, the rhythm of his voice explaining how all those graves came to be filled.

It would be lovely to believe the birds welcomed him to a peace and rest he assuredly deserved.

Whatever it was, it happened, just as I've told it.
 



 
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