Fall 2017 (Volume 21, Issue I)
Childhood walks in a Michigan field introduced me to my first human corpses.
Most days, I whiffled sideways through the dense evergreen border of my family’s lawn. The tatted hands of the arborvitae slapped against my play-clothes, except in winter when the snow-heavy limbs landed more like a sock. But this was summer. I often paused between the tall wavy trees, holding their frond-like needles to my face. They produced seeds on their sunny side and smelled like newly woven baskets. Sometimes I shot between their lacy arms into the tangled field on the other side, catching my pants on briars that left tiny red scratches beneath the fabric.
The border was planted for my family’s privacy but gave me mine as I disappeared, or so I fancied, into scratchy high bush, goldenrod, Indian grass, and a stand here and there of black walnut, maple, chokecherry, hickory, and spruce, little islands of trees surrounded by a messy Michigan wildflower salad that attracted pheasants, quail, goldfinches, meadowlarks, grackles, box turtles, woodchucks, and the black-capped chickadees, the first bird I learned. It remains my idea of simple charm–its black cap and bib, white cheeks and fluffy underbelly, buffy sides with bits of gray, and easy fearlessness.
At the western edge of my field, wetland plants exploded in a small fen. Cattail and milkweed grew in luxurious abundance. My big sister had been in a play in Detroit with the horror film actor Vincent Price. One of his lines about will-o’-the-wisps sailing lazily above a bog, brighter than the moonlight, stuck with me and I half-expected to turn and see flashing sprites dart around my shoulders. In autumn, like any other kid, I chased after floss escaping from milkweed pods but stopped before grabbing it off the breeze. The silky fibers drop seed to take root in new ground. It was hard not to touch something so fragile, so soft. But if I wasn’t greedy, they might shine their ghost lights elsewhere.
As with the chickadees, I have a lasting loyalty to milkweed. Right now I have a bowl of pods on my desk. They have split open and slowly the silk is distributing itself around the room. American colonists once used the silk for pillow stuffing. In the 1940s, it held commercial promise as mattress filling and insulation. Thomas Edison unsuccessfully tried to turn the plant into rubber, as did World War II Scientists. It was used in the war to stuff life preservers. Now it is primarily the focus of conservation efforts for the critical role it plays in the life of the monarch butterfly, which favors the leaf bottoms as a hideaway for its green and gold chrysalis. The pods I have were plucked by a friend from a vacant lot that was tarred over, but the milkweed found a crack, found a way.
My field was busied by history and felt ancient to me. Before European settlers drove the Native Americans west, Potawatomi probably hunted where I played. Quail skimmed by, holding their cinnamon plumes high. Rabbits watched from the understory for a split second then vanished. The ring-necked pheasant I regularly spooked would have made a good chicken-sized meal, but fast, and hard to nail with a bow and arrow. My pheasants seemed to evolve knowing I ate frozen TV dinners with Fanny Mae on Saturday nights, and the aluminum trays didn’t include their iridescent green and white-banded necks. The birds would flap upwards in a squawking panic, only to alight a short distance further and strut ahead, their long coppery tails, with thin, black arrowhead markings, pertly sticking out behind them. The great spirits may have intended the creatures and plants of my field as meals for hunter-gatherers, but me, I just wanted to hug them.
Usually I would explore a section of the field with a beach bucket and scoop, sandwich bags for collecting, and a scratched magnifying glass. Fanny Mae, who looked nearly as old as the Potawatomi, said I spent more time out there than a katydid. Together we tipped my tadpoles specimens into a cleaning pal to grow them up frogs. Within days, we buried them beneath lilac bushes in the garden. A few sprouted nascent legs before dying.
What I failed to realize is that anyone could see me just fine. I wasn’t hidden at all. Our next door neighbors, the Golden’s, had a fence around their pool low enough that anyone standing up could see me rummaging around out back. Fanny often watched me from her room on our second floor. Fanny was different. She loved everything I did. Pussywillows, chipping sparrows, the rabbits. She found a universe in them as I did. She would join me to watch squirrels patching their nests with mouthfuls of leaves, walking sticks carefully twinning a thin bramble, or at a fat worm wriggling into the loam.
Beyond the Golden’s fenced-in pool was a bank of harried-looking shrubs and sticker plants. There the soil turned sandy. The vegetation offered resistance to the wind that sifted through the branches or swept above and over the natural hedgerow. I dug out a huge hole and called it a fort. I rolled a fallen bough in for a seat and made steps and shelves from rocks, storing my collecting things there. A few feet away on the unsheltered side of the fort, the field abutted another fence with a gate, hinged open. One day I squirmed right through and found myself on the long, manicured and ornamental lawn alongside the processional driveway to Ira Kaufman’s Funeral Home. The sprinklers clicked away on the opposite side.
I was trespassing! I was overwhelmed with guilt, thrilled by the danger, but apparently safe. The lawn was empty. I walked around to the side of the building, turning my head like an owl, eyeing the grounds for a fast-approaching, disapproving adult. An unspectacular door was ajar, similar to the door to my school’s small auditorium. I stepped inside. It was dark and cave-like, with light winking through a stained glass window above a dais. My eyes adjusted to empty velvety pews and rays of color fanning out across the room. A white head parted the rainbow, glowing like the moon. It was a person, an old woman sleeping with her hands folded below a long strand of pearls. The pearls formed a U on her chest, the rest covered at the nape by her flossy white hair. She was cradled in satin and gleaming wood. I waited for the being to emerge that was crouched inside her stillness. Dust motes sifted through layers of hue, stippling along the surface of her gown. Her eyes threatened to open and spill skeins of silk all the way to my feet. I watched but her eyelids never once fluttered. The longer I watched, the more they seemed to lay like sheets over a davenport in a home closed up for summer.
I understood then and fled out the door, through newly awakened sprinklers. My wet shoes, socks and clothes gathered bits of bark, burrs, leaf and dirt as I picked up speed, breaking through the arborvitae with my very first serious crime thumping in my blood like The Super Chicken Theme Song.
When you find yourself in danger,
When you’re threatened by a stranger,
When it looks like you will take a lickin’
Just Call for Super Chicken!
Cluck, cluck, cluck!
I had seen a dead person. I went back again as soon as I could.
An old man dressed for the Fisher Theater, but wearing a yarmulke, was laid out. His skin too had sheen, but he seemed deader than the old woman had and I was disappointed that it wasn’t her, as if she and I had shared an intimacy, as if she might have become a great-aunt. Would there always be someone new? Someone who wasn’t all there?
Another man stepped out from behind a long burgundy curtain. He was not shiny like the man lying down but he was hornet-mad. He chased after me scolding, caught me, demanded my name, and told my mother, who rightly wondered aloud why Ira Kaufman left its chapel door open in the first place.
I knew I wasn’t going to be punished. No one wanted to think about what kind of child would visit dead strangers, and as my uncle said, it wasn’t like I’d robbed the place. I’d left the pearl necklace alone, though the milky strand drifted after me through time.
Those bodies, in couture as fancy as Hudson Department Store mannequins, blinked on and off in my head like fireflies for a long time and I can still see them as if I were having tea and they flop in wing chairs on either side of me.
Land developers bought my field eventually and filled in the fen. I went back once in adulthood and the field seemed so small, a postage stamp, now with a few close-together houses and grass rolled out on top of it.
Today, the sky tapped out rain from morning to dusk. Cardinals, doves, and sparrows made a Roman Bath of a puddle in my yard, where a rabbit keeps her den. Squirrels chase in the day and the skunks, with their funny skittering ramble, emerge at night. Chickadees dip by on their small wings I still curb squeals of delight in order not to frighten them away. Living my life I have forgotten and remembered constant death, and forgotten again, even after it thieved loved ones and shorn me to my core.
Somewhere milkweed is pushing up where least expected, and will again.