Thursday, October 31, 2013

Miss Birdie in the Graveyard

Why, Lizzie Beth honey, how proud I am to see you! Come on in and git you a chair. I'm just waiting on that spice cake in the oven to be  done, then I'm aiming to take me a little walk. Maybe you'd like to come along . . . iffen you ain't skittish about visiting the graveyard this evening. 

No, me and Luther never made much of Halloween and they weren't no young uns dressed up and asking for candy like they do now. Some of the older boys from Bear Tree Creek used to take Halloween fer an excuse to go hoorahing around -- knock over an outhouse or set someone's porch furniture in the road. And once those chain saws come in, we learned not to go out driving on the road of a Halloween night for like as not one of them rowdies would take a notion to cut down a tree to where it would lay acrost the road. Pure meaness . . . 

There's that timer a-buzzing. Let me turn that cake out and we'll carry it with us. . . I'm proud you'll go with me.  On Halloween I always like to go up there towards dark. I'll get my stick and a sweater -- it's right mild out but as night comes on, it'll be cool up on the hill.

No, I druther walk. I know you could run me up there in that Jeep of yours in no time but long as I'm able, I'll climb that hill on my own legs.

Hear those leaves rustle underfoot! How good it seems to smell that woods smell again. And look how clear the branch is running, just dashing over the rocks and shining like diamonds in the sun. See that green clump? I believe they's still some branch mint down there. That frost the other night didn't hurt it though it has brought on the red in the maples and sourwoods along with the yallers on the hickories and the gold of the oaks. I looked up this morning and the mountainside looked like it was wearing a crazy quilt. 

Oh, listen to me running on. All these years and I ain't tired of the woods -- nor of life neither.  Dor'thy thinks I'm right quare for wanting to go up to the graveyard so much -- I heared her tell someone at the grocery that she thought I was pining to be with Luther and that I might not be long fer this world.

Well, that ain't so. I always have been a one for visiting the graveyard -- I like to talk to  Luther and Cletus and my angel babies. The older I get, the closer they seem. And you know, on this night, of all the nights in the year, the spirits is closer to us living ones. Hit's like they is a thin curtain of mist hanging betwixt their world and ours and on Halloween, that curtain lifts . . . 

And here we are  Let's us set down and have us some of this cake while it's yet warm. I put a jar of milk in the poke too . . .

Yes, this is a right old burying ground. Not just my family but lots of folks is resting here. I've gotten to know most of them . . .
Get you another piece of that cake. No? Then let's wander about and I'll tell you what I know of some of these folks.

Now that headstone over yon -- the pink one that says Lathern Gentry and Ester, his loving wife. Well, Ester ain't there. Pore ol Lathern set such a store on having a fine fancy stone that he had it carved all but the dates quite a few years afore there was any need for it. He liked it so good he talked of having it brought home and set in the yard but Ester put her foot down. So Lathern worked it out for the stone carver to keep it at his shop till it was needed so as to show folks what fine work he could do -- and it is  fine work -- just look at all them lilies and them pigeons there. 

Lathern was so proud of that stone that every Sunday, he'd say to Ester, 'Well, let's take us a little ride," and every Sunday they'd set out and before they went to wherever it was -- his brother's house or up to visit the grandbabies, he'd have to make a stop at the stone carver's place where that stone  was set out in the yard. Ol Lathern, he'd get out and walk around it, just admiring it, and then he'd take a rag that he'd brought along special and wipe that stone till it shone. Ester, she just stayed in the car. She told me that after the first two or three trips to see the stone, she purely lost interest, and that after a year of such, she plumb hated the thing.

Well, Lathern passed on at last and he's there beneath his stone. But Ester wasn't but in her sixties and afore long, she married a preacher who'd lost his wife and  she lived another thirty years.  Her dates are there on the stone because Lathern had contracted with the carver to add them and though Ester had outlived the carver too, his son came out and did the job.

Where's Ester buried? Over in Buncombe County, in Leicester. I heard that when she was nearing the end and her young uns asked her which husband she wanted to be buried with, she said neither one, that it might be more restful to be on her own. And then when they asked her what kind of stone she wanted, she just said, 'Surprise me.'

That one? Oh, now that's Geneva's. Her folks was awful pore and I reckon that was the best they could do -- just a fieldstone with a cross carved on it. Truth to tell, they never got over the way it was that Geneva died  -- felt like they couldn't hold their heads up in church nor anywhere else. They packed up the family and moved off, leaving Geneva and that sorry little stone behind.

This was the way of it. Geneva was a dancing fool -- and her family was some kind of strict Baptists that held dancing was the devil's work. But Geneva had learned to clog and to buck dance from some of the other young uns and whenever she got word that there was gong to be a play party at someone's house, she would slip out her bedroom window and walk through the night to wherever the dancing was. Oh, she was the prettiest little thing -- long pale gold hair, like the color of the full moon, and great blue-violet eyes that always put me in mind of pansies. All the fellers was wild about her but, so far as I know, she never took up with none of them -- all she wanted to do was to dance till the music stopped and get back home before morning. Her folks never suspicioned a thing for the longest time.
Law, hit makes me sad to think of it. Such a sweet girl... They ain't no harm in dancing and I know how the joy of it can fill your blood . . .  where was I?

Oh, yes -- came a time when an ill-natured somebody -- a girl whose feller had spent too much time looking at Geneva -- took it upon herself to go round to Geneva's family and tell them what their daughter had been up to. Well, her daddy took on something awful. Every night he chained her to her bed like a dog. But what he didn't know was that her hands was so slender that she could be out of that chain everwhen she wanted. And she wanted, oh, how she wanted. But she tried to heed her daddy and she stayed home for several months.

Then come October, Geneva got word of how there was to be a grand play party up on PawPaw on Halloween night. Folks had been talking of it fer the longest time and Geneva purely ached to be there. So on Halloween night, once her folks had gone to bed and the house was quiet, Geneva inched that shackle off her wrist, put on her best dress, and clumb out of the window. She walked quick through the crisp night air, with just the light of the moon to guide her. Afore long she could hear the fiddle singing and the thump of dancing feet and just as she come into sight of the cabin, all ablaze with the light of oil lamps in every window, she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder.

"I'll not be trifled with like this," said her daddy, who'd been following her, creeping along as soundless as a cat. Geneva whirled around and tried to say something, anything, but the coldness of his ice blue eyes froze the tongue in her mouth. 

"We'll go back home now, daughter," said he and off they went with never another word between them. 

As they reached the clearing where their house stood, her father motioned her up onto the big flat rock that her mother used for drying apples.  "Take off yore little shoes," said he and Geneva done what he said.

"Now," says he, "can you swear to me that you won't never go dancing again? I have told you that such is against God's holy word and I'll not stand by and allow sinning from a young un of mine."

Oh my, how Geneva wanted to make that vow. She hated that she was causing her daddy pain but she knowed that the dancing was too deep in her blood -- that sooner or later she'd go back to it, breaking her word and breaking her daddy's heart too. So she hung down her head and didn't say nothing. Her bare feet were cold on that rock and her eyes filled with tears.  

"Well, then, daughter," her daddy said, bending down to pick up something on the ground. "I'll have to help you to stay off of the paths of sin."

And then, through a blur of tears, Geneva saw the moonlight shine on the axe head, heard the ring of the steel on stone, and felt the shock and sharp pain as the blade come down across the long pale toes of her right foot. She saw her toes fall away and felt the warm gush of blood, 

"That'll take care of yore dancing," said her daddy, and he-

Lizzie Beth are you all right? You look like you're getting swimmie headed. Set down here on Wesley's headstone; he won't mind.

The rest of the story -- are you sure? Well, all right then. 

Geneva's daddy stanched the wound and carried her into the house. From all I ever heard, him and her mother done the best they could to care for Geneva but all too soon the wound mortified and sent  poison through her body. Pore little Geneva died within the week. And there she lays.

No, there ain't no dates. But I can tell you what they should be: 1892 to 1908 -- not but sixteen years of age, she was.

You best be getting on, honey. You look pale as if you'd seen a ghost. I'll be fine -- me and the road down is well acquainted. And I got that cell phone Dor'thy give me, should I have any trouble. You get along home. Be sure and tell that handsome feller of yours I said hello.

The sun was sinking as she made her way down the hill but Elizabeth knew better than to argue with Miss Birdie.  Before she rounded the curve that would hide the graveyard from sight, she took one last look back. Birdie was moving among the gravestones, the container of spice cake in one hand. At each gravestone she paused, spoke a few words, and laid down a bit of the cake. At the pink headstone -- Lathern's, was it? -- Birdie took a rag from her apron pocket and wiped the stone top to bottom, talking all the while.

A sudden breeze lifted the dry leaves on the path and above on the hill. As the leaves swirled in the light of the setting sun, it seemed to Elizabeth that shadow shapes clustered around Miss Birdie, like chickens clamoring for grain. Miss Birdie held out her arms and gathered the shadows to her while off to the side, where Geneva's lonely stone lay, amidst the falling leaves a slender form with flowing moon-colored hair danced and danced and danced . . . 
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

If I Were Going and Singing Wheels

This was first posted in March of '09 and over the years I've continued to get comments from folks who remember these books -- especially SINGING WHEELS. So here it is again for those of you who might have missed it -- and who remember these books...

There is a striking omission in my recent post listing 25 books that influenced my life and my writing. How could I have forgotten If I Were Going and Singing Wheels?

If I Were Going was my third grade 'reader' -- a wonderful horizon expander telling of life in Norway, Lapland, Brittany, Spain, North Africa . . . heady stuff for an eight-year old who could only remember traveling to Troy, Alabama.

I had never imagined that there was such variety in the world, in scenery and in people and their various ways of life. And this continues to fascinate me, even though my travel is mainly on the Internet.

The book's visit to England and its descriptions of English villages, thatched roofs, and country lanes is probably the catalyst for my life-long Anglophilia.

Along with the multiplication table, Singing Wheels was the focus of the fourth grade course of study. This textbook told of the pioneer experience in America, with stagecoaches and oxen and bee trees and spinning and all the daily minutiae of frontier life in the early 1800s.

The book is a real treasure trove of how things were made back then (I'm pretty sure I could follow the instructions for candle-making and end up with candles), of wild animals and their tracks, everyday items in common use, types of trees, Indian arrowheads . . . all illustrated in nice little line drawings.

I think I can trace my first interest in the back-to-the-land life style to this book. ( I certainly didn't grow up on a farm or have relatives with farms to spark my interest. My grandfathers had left their farming/dairying days far behind and my parents were happy that it should stay that way.)

And I can thank the chapter about the spelling bee for helping me always to remember that there's a rat in separate.

(I hadn't realized till just now, but a substantial portion of Singing Wheels was taken from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Woods -- books that I never read till I was an adult.)

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I have no idea how long these books remained in the curriculum. Do any of you remember them?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

An Exaltation of Larks

After yesterday's post (a murder of crows,) some one asked me on Facebook about the origin of these collective nouns, and I went and hauled out this delightful book that gives (and illustrates) many such nouns. An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton is still widely available and I recommend it to anyone who loves words 

Many of these words date back to the 14th century and were terms of venery (hunting) as in a  covey of partridges or a husk of hares.. 

The illustrations are gorgeous...

And it's great fun to try to understand the reasoning behind some of the names.

Not all the terms are from hunting -- a sneer of butlers, for example,

Or an odium of politicians -- that one sounds positively contemporary...

Then there's  a worship of writers -- and note that the worship is "probably a reference to the reverence of writers for their patrons and not, alas, vice versa."

As always, these names inspire me to invent new ones -- what about a MacGuffin of mystery writers? (According to Wikipedia, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal or desired object that the protagonist pursues often with little or no explanation as to its importance.)

I found that I had added at the back of the book terms for dog breeds I was familiar with -- a shed of Akitas, a loom of mastiffs, a bounce 0f Australian shepherds . . .

The kittehs were interested to know what their collective noun was and we found a kindle of kittens and a clowder of cats.

They were not impressed.  I think I would suggest a smugness of cats.

What about you?  Any profession (a shush of librarians,)  any trade ( a torque of mechanics,) any condition of life (an ambush of widows) is fair game.  And while this book has covered the ground pretty thoroughly, it was published in 1968 -- surely there are some new categories awaiting names: feng shui consultants, computer programmers, IT technicians, Reiki practitioners, massage therapists, manicurists, aestheticians, pet sitters, recyclers ... what can you think of that needs a name?

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Friday, October 25, 2013

What I Came to Tell You

Last Sunday I went into Asheville to hear Tommy Hays reading from his new book. What I Came to Tell You is billed as a children's book but this adult found it totally charming.
Malaprop's is a great indie bookstore -- the sort that every town needs. They bend over backwards to make authors feel welcome.
Tommy is wonderful at depicting the sorrows and joys of ordinary life.  His previous novel -- for adults -- The Pleasure Was Mine was a beautifully told story of a man caring for his beloved  wife as she sinks into Alzheimer's.  Tommy has a way of finding the gold hidden in the dark times of life and this new book is no exception. 
What I Came to Tell You is the story of twelve year old Grover, as well as that of his father and his little sister, as they try to reshape their family after the sudden death of the mother. Those familiar with Asheville will enjoy the glimpses of the Thomas Wolfe House, Riverside Cemetery, and other familiar icons. But the human emotions -- grief, anger, guilt, rejection, acceptance, forgiveness, and joy -- will be familiar to everyone. 

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