The night my mother was delivered home to us on a donkey cart with four bullets to her chest and one to her head, a dark red coagulated river choking through her curly bright copper hair; I thought I’d learned all a person needed to know about death. I saw my father’s spirit empty out like a trickling mountain spring into a great rushing river headed for the ocean to be lost in an anonymous lunar pull of tides and eddies. I saw him leaning over my mother keening low, crushing tears away from his face with his blocky rough hands which, even now, I remember noticing particularly (the way you notice odd details when the greater details are too huge to swallow) how the curly hairs on his big knuckles were shining like red spun gold in the low light of the cottage, wondering how I had managed not to notice how hairy his hands were until that night. Such are the inane things that go through young heads at the most solemn moments.
When my mother died I learned that watching other people lose their loved ones is much different than losing your own. I learned that up close and personal death is like a strange gruesome dream; the impossible de-animation of a body that used to scream and laugh and dream and fight and sleep and wake again and again and again, grown hollow, pale, and still. I took the sight of her in and inhaled the details with a painful hunger to change them; to fill the small crusted hole in her head with flesh and life and pull her hair back into the chignon she usually wore which was always coming loose. Then, just as I braced myself against a rising tide of hysteria, my father took her away from me.
I was not allowed to sit at my father’s side to do my part preparing mother for burial. He secreted himself in their bedroom to perform these offices alone. I remember feeling like a powder keg of conflicting emotions: relief at not having to see her naked chest, shame that I felt relief, and a strange feeling of isolation from both of my parents. My father kept the door closed until she was ready. He ate nothing. He might have been drinking but though he was ragged when he finally emerged, patting me on the cheek absently as he passed me in the kitchen and told me she was ready, he didn’t smell sour like a man deep in the bottle. He left our cottage in town on his bicycle without another word to me, heading, I knew, for Hill Road which leads out of McMinnville proper and into the surrounding hills. We have property up there, about nine miles from town, and a cob cabin father built himself in the likeness of the old thatch cottages common in Scotland where he grew up. I knew he was going up there to dig mother’s grave.
I think my mother would have preferred to be buried in town, in our own cottage garden, but it was too small to get a permit for human burial there so instead she would be buried in a sunny spot in the half acre clearing around our cabin in the woods. This was vastly preferable to the public burial ground where people could bury their dead in mass graves that were excavated periodically like huge human compost piles, the bones removed and sent to the local dump, then refilled with fresh bodies. This was much cheaper than getting permits for burial on private property. The original old cemetery was still operational but I have never known anyone who could afford to purchase lots there.
After my father left, I went in to see mother laid out. I’m not going to lie and say I fell in a heap of tears. I wish I had because I think that’s what normal daughters do. I was scared when I looked at her, more than anything. It wasn’t the first dead body I’d ever seen. I’d seen plenty laid out through every winter in my memory, taken by influenza and the bone-chilling cold, through accidents, and old age. I was scared because I didn’t feel broken but I could see that father was. It’s not that I didn’t love her but I felt unfinished with her, like we’d been working up to something and never got there. I was always trying to find myself in her or to find something in myself that I could say “That part of me is hers”. I constantly fell short of her in everything, even the apothecary work she trained me in which we did together every day. My mother would say to me “You’re Peter with breasts, my girl!” a comment that made my father laugh loud, the irony being that I didn’t even have much to speak of in the breast department. She wasn’t wrong, of course. The things my father taught me came easily to me, the hunting, the boxing, the butchering and the stalking. My temper was his, as was my innate restlessness. But every time she mentioned how much like my father I was it felt like a dig in my ribs, like a small thorn caught in my clothing, scratching and stabbing me at random moments. Just once I would like her to have noticed something in me of her own, so that I could feel as close to her as I did to father. Seeing her laid out cold and speechless did not make me cry. Instead I felt unfinished and cheated. Then, simply numb.
I learned that death makes people obsequious for no apparent gain. My mother wasn’t a person many people in town loved but she was a person they all needed. I heard the things they said behind her back because I know how to keep my mouth shut and my feet silent. I know what most of them said to each other when they thought none of us were listening; that my parents must have been related, that they must have at least been cousins because there were so few redheads in our county. Ignorant fools! My parents weren’t from this area. In Scotland, where they came from, red hair is so common no one even notices it. I heard them call her a witch. Sometimes I heard these things through other girls and I spent my early years with a string of black eyes, though truth be told I delivered more of them than I received. I knew some thought mother worshiped the devil. She was called “too proud”. I’d be proud too if I was my mother, because no matter how hard she was to impress, she was a person worth emulating, worth loving. In spite of consistently failing to make her proud, my loyalty and love for her were unshakable.
But when they all streamed through our house for the wake, to give their condolences they said “Mairead was such a fine woman!” and “I’ll miss Mairead so much.” And “She was such a good friend.” All of this from people who called her a witch, an incestuous bride, and too proud. They told me how much they would miss her. They wouldn’t miss her at all. They would only miss what she did for them: how she would come to tend their sick children when no doctor would do it because doctors refused to be paid in cheese, or fruit, or carpentry which my mother wasn’t too proud to accept in exchange for the herbal medicines she made. She wasn’t too proud to attend bedside vigils; watching fevers rise, never too tired to send overworked sick parents to bed while she stayed with their children all night instead of her own. Instead of me. They said, as they slaked their thirst on our loss, that my mother was so loved by everyone and was such a good woman she’d surely be accepted into God’s arms in heaven.
It made me want to vomit. That’s not true, I wanted to hit them, to lash out and make them shut up. I held my tongue as long as I could before I had to leave the house. To leave my father with those liars who would none of them lift a finger to help find out who killed this woman they said they loved so much. Lots of quiet mention of the horrible nature of her death, many head-wags and pitying looks, but none of them would lend a hand. They would retreat into their own less tainted lives and feel good about themselves for having said the right thing. I couldn’t stand it anymore and made for the French doors in the kitchen when father grabbed my arm to detain me “Take your gun, lass, I won’t be up to the cabin tonight. You know I’ll stay here with James and Mary, drinking.” He nodded to the door “Go on.” I felt bad to leaving him, but if I had stayed I would have laid someone out under the dining room table. Maybe if James and Mary Martin had brought their children, Tommy and Julie, who were my best friends, they might have tempered my anger and I would have stayed but they had to tend to a farm emergency and couldn’t be spared. Such is life. I left father to play nice at the wake and I rode my bicycle out of town and up the hill to our property in the woods where I could hear the crickets singing in the glorious quiet and my mother whispering over my shoulder that I was being selfish and immature and that father needed me. It’s an uncomfortable fact that if you were never good enough for a person when they were alive you will never be good enough for them after they die because it’s impossible to impress or please the dead.
I learned that you still have to work, no matter how long you’re in black bands. Life keeps moving forward. My mother’s death left a hole in the community that it was my duty to fill as her trained apprentice. She died in the summer, an admittedly slow time for an apothecary as far as dispensing is concerned, but since we also had to grow and forage most of the herbs we used it was a busy time for gathering and processing the herbs and plants I would count on during the winter months when ailments were exaggerated by the damp cold weather and the diminished supply of fresh produce. So I didn’t spend a lot of time drowning in my loss, and though I know father struggled with his black grief every day from the moment he woke until the moment he crashed into bed at night, he worked too. He was an armed guard for various kinds of transport between the surrounding counties so he was gone for periods of time and I believe he found relief in his work on the road. When he was home he worked hard helping me tend the small crops we grew and foraging for medicinal plants coming into season. He helped me prepare harvests for the drying shed he built in the back of the cottage garden. The shed in the town cottage was where we made all of our herbals and stored them as well, because the cabin was too far up in the hills for most sick people to ride or walk to.
We couldn’t take time off from working to grieve because we had hefty death taxes to pay for the privilege of my mother dying. I’ve heard my parents and their friends reminiscing about the days when you were only taxed if you inherited anything substantial from those who died but how the government, losing so much of their previous tax bases, took an opportunity to take a larger chunk from something they could always count on – death. I don’t know exactly what we owed because father brushed off my questions about it telling me not to worry, that he would take care of it. I trusted him, and let it go.
Other people noticed a change in father and hinted darkly that maybe he was never going to recover from my mother’s death. “How’s your father dearie?” they’d ask. “Peter was always devoted to Mairead, I’m sure I haven’t heard him laugh for months. So sad…so sad.” which gave me the feeling that I was somehow outside the sad event, that I was just an interloper in the great life of Peter and Mairead Winters. What right did I have to expect anyone to think my life had changed at all? I was not crying at her grave each day or draping myself across their doorsteps begging for surrogate mothering. I’ll bet they all would have loved that, to see me knocked down with visible pain and suffering. It’s true that father never removed his black bands but it’s not as though he went dragging his heart through the dust behind him every day in a great display of bereavement. Still, he was greatly pitied (and sighed over) by women.
If it hadn’t been for the Martins I suppose I would have felt almost completely alone. Making any trip over the hills to Pacific City where they lived (a small town on the coast about fifty miles of broken road to the west of us) usually required staying the night. In the years since my mother’s death I made that trip a lot more often than my mother would have approved of me doing, what with it taking time away from my work and my responsibilities. But Mary and James were my parents’ oldest friends and they filled some of the silence in my life with their comfortable warm presence. Julie, their daughter, is the best person in the world I know and at the time of my mother’s death she was embroiled in a particularly messy affair with some questionable slightly older man and listening to her tell me all the improbable details that only best friends tell each other kept me tethered to my own life with some enjoyment and when we couldn’t see each other we used our fathers’ pigeon post to send messages to each other which were occasionally intercepted by her older brother Tommy who was running their farm by that time. James relinquished the reins of the family farm to his son to get more work as an armed guard, work he and my father often did together, and which was how they met each other before any of us kids were born.
I have been in love with Tommy Martin since I was nine years old. Tall Tommy with hair illuminated with internal sunshine and his startling dark brown eyes that glint with mischief and undress you while he laughs…that’s what other girls say about him but the sad truth is that Tommy has never undressed me with his eyes.
Anyway, Tommy thought we were degrading the pigeon post’s purpose by sending messages about such unimportant things like the men Julie was dating and the men who weren’t dating me. Before he took over running the Martin farm in James’ stead he was a lot more fun. I guess he had to become dour in order to be taken seriously but nothing is more tiresome than people becoming so stiff with their perceived importance that they don’t see the fun of sending inconsequential but cheerful notes on the leg of a carrier bird. He said we could call each other or use the public internet to gossip with each other. I reminded him that we still hadn’t replaced our phone after it broke years ago because most of the people we would have wanted to call couldn’t afford a phone service anyway and using the public computer was annoying and expensive when we could send Euclid or Troy back and forth for free. The hidden bonus in using the pigeons is that it necessitated more visits with each other in order to trade birds back (pigeons, you know, only fly one direction which is wherever their nest is) and nothing could have pleased us more than extra excuses to visit each other.
It was within the first year of my mother’s death that Tommy began his ridiculously long engagement to Rebecca Foster, a chaste little dab of a girl with the most exquisite skin I’ve ever had the pleasure to wish a pox on, and it was my personal little hell watching him court her with all the princely gestures a gently bred girl could hope for that rougher girls like me would never inspire. I was only ever his devoted wingman and he liked it that way. I don’t think he even saw me as a girl at all. Why should he? I have a lamentably flat bosom which doesn’t tend to heave or swell the way attractive heroine’s bosoms are generally expected to do and I’m more likely to get into a fistfight than a gentle embroilment from which I might be rescued and then be eternally grateful for. Men of Tommy’s cut like a woman with a lot of gratefulness in her, it’s clearly an attractive quality, something I don’t seem to have much of. When he began his engagement to The Orchid it was clear that my girlish dreams were over.
I thought I knew everything about death when we laid my mother in the ground, but the day my father died I discovered I knew next to nothing at all.
When he first started getting sick we tried a number of remedies we found in our natural medicine reference books. Sometimes it seemed we were making progress, that whatever was ailing him was going away, only to be disappointed a month later when his symptoms recurred. Mixing medicine is a precise craft but for a small town apothecary with no fancy equipment, diagnosing is a hit or miss business. You make the most educated guesses you can without cutting someone open or seeing inside of them with x-ray machines or lab chemicals. When the symptoms grew worse he applied for a government issued voucher for diagnostic tests which he was approved for through a lottery system. He made the long tedious trip to Salem General, twenty seven miles away which is a long way by horse cart, but after being diagnosed with stomach cancer he couldn’t get vouchers for treatment. No one was approved for cancer treatments who didn’t have the money to pay all expenses, the irony being that if you had the money to pay for all your expenses you didn’t need to get a voucher to get treatment. I did everything I could for him, everything I thought my mother would have tried to keep him comfortable near the end. I suppose it was the right order of things for a daughter to feed her father at the end of his life just the same as he fed her at the beginning of hers, but the right order of things pissed me off. I knew it must have been hard for him, an ex-boxer always up for a fight to be fed soup in delicate spoonfuls by his scrappy twenty six year old daughter.
From the time he was diagnosed it took him six months to die. As he drew nearer to the end he began to tell me what I would have to do when he died. How to clean him and dress his dead body. How quickly I would need to accomplish this. He told me where to bury him up in the woods near the cabin and what permit requests I would need to fill out. He told me how deep and how wide the grave would legally need to be. He told me what would happen if I didn’t get him dressed before rigor mortis set in. All of this he said quietly and no matter how much I might have wished to have more cheerful conversations as his life drew to a close, I didn’t have the luxury to have gentle chats. I didn’t have the luxury to send him off to a mortuary like I’ve heard people used to do. Everything that needed to be done had to be done by me. I could have asked the Martins to help me, father told me I should ask for their help, but I didn’t want a fuss. Shockey, our nearest neighbor and close family friend who also happened to be the county’s best distiller and possibly the oldest man alive, was the only one I let help and I only let him help because I – wait – I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Take notes, Cricket.” Father said quietly. “This is important. I can trust you to take care of yourself girl. Your mother taught you well and though your temper is deplorable, you’re good at what you do, but burying me is not something you’ve been taught. I ought to have let you help with your mother.” I waited for more in that line, secretly hoping he might explain why he’d performed all the cleaning and dressing offices behind closed doors as though he had something to hide but he gave me nothing more so I prompted him “Why didn’t you let me help?” but he shook his head and said “It’s not important now.”
He told me how I might have to break a bone to get him dressed but as unpleasant as it may sound I had to do it or else my mother would – (would what? Come back from the grave to spank me?) I heard her in my ear “You get him dressed as a sign of respect, child. We have no need of wood coffins or fancy plaques but a man needs to go to ground in his most comfortable clean clothes. It’s about respect, Cricket. You don’t care about it now but you will when it’s your turn.” (Or else mother would admonish me from the grave, apparently.)
He told me what papers I would need to fill out for the county health officer and who I would need to call. He laid out all of my death duties and responsibilities. He told me what alcohol to ask Shockey to bring to his wake. And when I say wake you will think Irish, but we’re not Irish. We’re Scottish, and not Catholic in spite of me having gone to the Catholic school in town (it was the only school left in town) so having a “wake” might seem strange. What can I say? My parents didn’t play by anyone’s rules and though they could have just called it a memorial service, I suppose they didn’t want their own ritual of sending the dead off to be mistaken for the sad, tee-totaling, grim, prayerful, dry affairs that most people favor in our community. My father chose to let people view mother the day before her burial but not during the actual wake. Few people chose to view her but many had chosen to attend the drinking and eating part. For practical reasons my father’s wake wouldn’t include a viewing either because the wake was going to be held at our cottage in town but he died up at our cabin in the woods and I wasn’t going to bring his body to town for people to stare at. Anyone who wanted to view him could, of course, come all the way up to our cabin in the woods, but that was a long trek to see an emaciated dead man.
I took it all, I think, with good grace. My responsibilities might feel solemn and daunting but I understood that it was my honor to do these things for my father. Except for throwing the wake. I hated that I had to repeat that awful experience. The things people said about my mother were no more colorful than the things people said about my father behind his back and I didn’t think I could listen to all the insincere honey they would pour over him in death after calling him a shady bruiser, a smuggler, a foul mouthed son of a bitch, and a lady killer. None of it true, of course. Well, mostly not true anyway.
His last hours were not comfortable or peaceful. As his body shut down, organ after organ, he kept trying to suck up enough oxygen into his lungs, reminding me of a fish pulled out of water and left on the shore; mouth opening and closing in a futile effort to fill it with life – the slow drying up of whatever it is that animates us, makes us who we are. I had always imagined that if one was dying one could simply “give up”, let go, and be dead. Isn’t that what old people do? I always imagined there’s some mysterious switch whose location we discover at exactly the right moment we need it, and then we simply flip the switch when there’s not enough air left to breath.
Other than giving me detailed instructions on how to dig his grave and file paperwork and be a good daughter and invite people over to make me sick to my stomach, he didn’t say a lot. We didn’t have a lot of conversations the way people in books often have long eloquent death-bed soliloquies but we did have two conversations that turned out to be poignant in hindsight. He told me that I was to be careful of Smith and Hesse. No – those weren’t his exact words. It was stranger than that, as though there was a meaning within meaning that came out of nowhere but he said it as though we’d been having a long conversation about it. (Maybe he was having soliloquies in his head without me.) What he actually said a few days before his death was “I know you don’t carry but you need to now. Is your .38 here or at the cottage?” I told him my gun was here in the cabin. “Get it and wear it at all times, loaded. Watch out for Smith and Hesse, they’ll be closer than you think.” I asked him what he was talking about but he would only repeat it and looked so tired I didn’t pester him. Instead I considered his warning, for that’s what it was, silently. Mitch Smith and John Hesse were the two federal officers in charge of my mother’s murder case. They’re the ones who brought her back to us and led the investigation. I remembered Smith and Hesse only vaguely. Mostly I remembered Smith throwing his weight around a lot in postures meant to impress and intimidate but however much others might find him impressive, my father was not one of them.
The second conversation we had just before he died was slightly more cryptic than the first. “Listen to me lass,” I leaned in to listen to his fading voice “Grey is coming. He meant to get here before, he promised me pipes. You’ll let him play.” Grey was a man my father worked with who I’d never met. I knew he was a Scot and not much else. “Of course, father. Of course I’ll let him play.” My father smiled at me with a mischievous wide grin making deep shadows in his gaunt face. “You’ll not punch him, little scrapper?” the look I gave him made him laugh which turned to coughing. I had water ready for him and when the coughing finally eased I brought the cup to his mouth but he pushed it away saying he was done with all that. He looked at me intently, making the hairs on my arms rise; there was something keen in his look, something hard. He pulled me close so I could hear him clearly “Do you trust me, girl?” I said of course I trusted him. “Then you will keep him close. You’ll need him.” I began to object, because getting directives from your father’s deathbed to keep strange men close to you is irritating, but he shushed me and fell asleep.
He died in the early hours of the morning. I didn’t even notice because I’d fallen asleep in the chair next to him when it happened so I can’t say if he called out for me or if he just guttered like a candle with no wick left. Gone and gone. Done and done. I was completely alone.
I did all that my father told me to and the preparations for his burial went more or less exactly as he told me they should. Except for the part where I got myself thrown into jail on the day of his wake.
Note: I am publishing Cricket and Grey in its entirety on my blog so that you can read it for free. I am working on formatting it as an e-book and as a print on demand book that you can purchase if you like it but would like an easier format to read it in. I apologize for the formatting on this blog – I don’t know how to adjust the style sheet to allow me to format it the way it is in Word.
I will publish one chapter every Monday until the whole book is online.
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