death and dumplins
When I was three I began gathering flowers from the mountainside; placing them into open caskets of distant cousins. I ate chicken and dumplings in parlor rooms beside dead uncles of other uncles at least once a month when I was five. During a wake that same year I hid my cousin, Dewey’s, General Lee Matchbox at the feet of our great grandmother’s sister. She was dead and he never found it.
Death was never new or upsetting. My family was an old one and people had been dying all my life. It was the course of things. People were. Then they were not. Grown ups shied away from children to cry. They hid in bathrooms or basements and came out with hush on their face and said ‘be quiet’ and ‘don’t run’.
Death was never frightening. At its worse, it was only silence and we’ll never see her again – but we never saw her very much anyway.
Grandma said death was angels and lambs and chasing honey and warm biscuits with mason jars full of buttermilk – for those the Lord called home. She didn’t say anything about the ones who died because someone else didn’t want them to live anymore. The women of penny virtue who walked the streets and got spit up by the river. The men who put a gun against their head because life was too hard and they were too weak. Or the boys children sometimes find in the wood because…
Mr Avis, a spirit-whipper-upper at one of the town’s Free Will establishments, said death was the womb, where you’re born all over, onto one side or the other. He and his deacons were black and white with no shades of grey. They preached hallelujah or the fury of God in loud angry voices, like it was their job to scare you to death and make you glad you were a Baptist.
Grandma, I didn’t understand. She was sugar and spice and a little bit of slaw (’cause slaw was good on everything) and that kind of talk just didn’t make any sense to me.
I ignored Mr Avis because my mother always told me to, and because everyone said he sweat too much for an honest man.
I asked Pa. Because he’d know, and he’d know right. He came by all his sense the hard way. Like when someone put a pillow over his sister’s face and smothered the life out of her. Or when his daddy stopped living right in front of him, with a bullet and a bang, because he didn’t have the patience to hate himself in the other room. You think and you know more about things when they happen to you. And just about everything had happened to Pa. But whenever I questioned him he never said much. He’d just give me a dollar and go play Amazing Grace on his organ.
So I never really understood.
All those bodies. In funeral homes and my grandparents’ living room. They were never dead. They were what happened after death had left. When the thing that comes after, had been and gone.
The kid in the crab apple bush wasn’t that way. He wasn’t a body at an all-night wake, or someone to write an obituary about. He was dead. I knew it, even though he didn’t.
I saw death in a child’s face for the first time in my life, and I understood. It hurt me and scared me and followed me around in a dream, where it lay beneath my bed, dressed in red with one torn eye. A young body over an empty grave full of hands and hell and things I couldn’t see, reaching for me, to pull me into something that wasn’t.
I never grew out of it, because it’s not the kind of thing you grow out of. I did grow older, though. I went away from all the things that had tried to swallow me whole, as a child. Death became a stranger to me because those caught up in it were strangers.
Until yesterday. That’s when Belle died.