The Brief Life and Tragic Death of Starling Witt

Monique found a fledgling Sunday, hopping at the bottom of the basement stairs behind her shop.

Monique is the poet, artist, Standing Rock veteran, and all-around bad-ass Latinx dynamo behind The Skullery Maid, a vintage furniture and clothing shop on Troost Avenue south of Rockhurst. My new apartment sits above her store, one of two nestled in the second story of a line of century-old brick storefronts. It’s part of the charm.

“What do you know about birds?” she asked as I returned from Mass by way of the grocers with sacks of essentials in my fists.

She recounted how she and Gazpacho—her rambunctious shepherd-lab mix—arrived earlier, as usual, opening the front door then letting ‘Pacho out the back so he could take care of his business as she puttered inside the store.

It was not long before Pacho’s incessant barking drew her out of the store. Now, Pacho is no Rin Tin Tin. If he were a human child some school psychologist would have long since prescribed Ritalin. But he normally quiets the barking when Monique scolds him. Two or three times.

This morning no scolding was stern enough to quell his bark. Exasperated Monique stepped out back. Pacho stood over the basement alcove, looking down, mounting a valiant final defense. Monique looked among the few dead leaves and discarded tarp littering the concrete landing in front of the basement doors for the source of the dog’s agitation. And there, at the very bottom of the stairs, stood a petrified ball of gray fluff, beak skyward.

It stood like a statue. It was so still she thought it must be surely dead.

It peeped.

Monique descended the steep concrete steps to scoop up a very-much-alive fledgling bird. She brought it up the steps and turned six-years-old, with the baby bird we all rescue when they fall from their nests somewhere civilization has made inhospitable. She fetched an empty box from the store and brought it out back for the bird. She put it on the ground. She put a bit of water in the bottom of a pot for him, too. Maybe she could raise it until it was big enough to fly on its own. People do it all the time. Just look at Buzzfeed.

When I got there I wondered why she hadn’t put a handful of grass in the box. I was nine.

Her description of finding the bird sounded familiar.

Much earlier that morning, Leon and I had taken our walk around the neighborhood. It had been a delightful stroll, with Leon satisfying his curiosity about what other critters—wild or domestic, human or otherwise—had passed that way since our last circuit, and me marveling at the birdsong ringing from the verdant dome spreading over the quiet street one block over.

When we returned home Leon plunged headlong beneath the other tenants’ van, tail wagging like a whirligig. He couldn’t squeeze his rear haunches under, but not for lack of trying.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “There’s nothing under there for a puppy.” He was not dissuaded. I looked to see the object of his obsession. There was something under there to interest a puppy. Silhouetted beneath the undercarriage was a tiny chick, beak pointed upward. It was immobile. I thought it was dead.

“Leave it alone, Leon. Let’s go inside.” He followed, pouting.

I realized the foundling Monique showed me must have been the same bird. He was older than a chick, with immature feathers rather than down, and a garish yellow beak like an Emmet Kelly mouth. When he flapped his wings they seemed just flimsy membranes jutting out of his spine.

Fledglings always look like ‘raptors to me. Velociraptors, not birds of prey. We were pretty sure this one was a starling, which is far from my favorite bird. But this one was a cute little fella and I was willing to do what I could to help.

Doing a quick web search for advice on raising baby birds—there are, after all, a million YouTube videos—persuaded me our best course was facilitating a family reunion. The sources told me parents will be looking for a lost fledgling, that they can hear one crying for food within a two block radius and respond. “They say to put it on a branch and leave the area, that the parents will find it.” Monique seemed disappointed. I admit it would have been more fun to raise him to full starlingdom and have him bouncing around behind us in the yard.

“I’m gonna call him Starling Witt,” I told her. (There is a local artist/musician named Sterling Witt who pops up in the Venn diagram of people Monique and I know.)

“Oh my god, that’s hilarious.”

The Middle: Lost & Found Again

I went to an open mic Sunday night. The Skullery Maid closes at 8. When I got home I had a message from Monique. She had placed Starling on a branch a couple times, but he kept falling off.

I went downstairs and walked around the back hard, neither finding nor hearing him.

I sighed. It had been a long shot. Nature works the way nature works and most of the young of most species die before maturity and that’s why so many are born. Because nature weeds us out. Still, it was disappointing.

Monday Starling made a reappearance. Monique spotted him at the bottom of the stairs. I retrieved him and put him on a low branch. He toppled onto the ground and waddled toward a patch of ivy. It’s hilarious watching flightless birds navigate a suburban back yard. Starling wasn’t laughing.

Once he was alone in the yard a cautious adult starling flapped to a landing with food in its beak. Maybe he would make it after all.

Monday evening he was missing again. Hiding from the humans, probably. Even hippies and Water Protectors are alienated from Nature, despite our best efforts.

Tuesday morning Starling was waddling around the fire pit. One last time I lifted him to a low-hanging branch. He clung tight to it with his little talons. He held on well over an hour. I went back upstairs, to give his folks a chance to take him home, sporadically looking out the back door to monitor his progress. The last I saw he was still clinging to the branch.

That afternoon I asked Monique if she had seen him. “No.”

“Maybe he managed to fly away?”

It was Pacho who discovered Starling’s lifeless body on the grass, insects swarming over it. We exhaled our final sigh of disappointment.

“Should we bury him?” Monique asked. “We named him, we should probably bury him.”

“We could build a pyre.”

“You think?”

That’s what we did: piled dead twigs and branches in the circle of stone that makes a backyard fire pit, placed Starling’s body atop it, and set it aflame. The twigs caught and the fire burned and the last earthly remains of young Starling Witt returned to the cosmos.

Monique started to sing. It was a beautiful rhythmic melody. The words were First Peoples’.

The words’ vibrations permeated our tiny circle.

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

“At Camp. Standing Rock.”

“How does it translate?” knowing that translation is always imperfect and some languages have words impossible to translate.

“It’s an ancient Lakota prayer. Invoking the ways of the Grandfathers. Right Spirit. Right Path. That kind of thing. I don’t really know a funeral prayer.”

It seemed a fitting send-off.

*proofreading edits: ‘Latinx’ spelling corrected, ‘the’ added to 6th paragraph, errant ‘/’ removed after Standing Rock at the end

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Bards & Other Liars

Do characters in literature recognize when their chapter has come to an end? Once upon a time I thought I wanted to tell stories.

This morning I sit looking out my window at rain-slick Troost Avenue cutting northward through the city, slicing like a two-edged sword, severing Kansas City by class and by race and yes that happened a long time ago, but the wounds are bleeding still. It’s springtime, and my apartment sits up above a retail space so the canopy of an ash splay light-green leaves outside my window. The tree is bursting through a patch of ground between the sidewalk and the street where it was long ago planted to shade the walkways now buckling above its roots.

That may be the end of a sentence. That may be the end of a page.

At Langley we learned that all stories had a beginning, and a middle, and an end.

That’s Samuel Pierpont Langley Elementary School. Not Langley, Virginia, of spy thriller fame. I am no more former CIA than Chuck Barris was.

Those early lessons in literary structure might well have been learned at Benjamin Syms Junior High or Poquoson High School, and I am certain literature classes reiterated those lessons at each step along the way: stories need exposition and conflict and resolution. That conflict might be with the environment, other people, or even one’s self, but the whole point of Story was ever and always the protagonist’s triumph over the object of conflict.

Story can be inspiration for mere mortals or cautionary tales for the overly adventurous.

Whether novels, short stories, epic poetry, folk tales, or Mythology, the narrative arc is the normative reality. Stories lend a sense of meaning to a meaningless universe. Stories erect order upon the quicksand of chaos.

We see it through ten thousand years of potshards and tablets and crumbling scrolls. Every encounter we moderns have with preliterate cultures suggests that stories conforming to this pattern are established at the essence of our being.

This is why I sit at my window, ransacking a collection of literary metaphors for the newest twist in this tale told by an idiot. Turning over a new leaf? Writing a new chapter? Turn the page? (Oh, God, no.)

Everything I try to say comes out hackneyed, trite, cliché.

At an age most men are approaching retirement and others are wondering how they will possibly scrape by on the crumbs that fall through the security net, I am taking my very first apartment. After a life living with roommates and spouses and family and friends I have a copy of a lease where the only name is mine. It feels like a big thing. Like the start of an adventure.

It has been my experience it is a mistake to try grafting a narrative arc over one’s own life. Besides, from Beowulf to Willie Loman, guys my age tend to make their literary mark by dying in an unpleasant fashion.

There is a passage in Breakfast of Champions where Vonnegut indicts “old-fashioned storytellers” for “mak(ing) people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.” He diagnoses contemporary angst as stemming from the public’s efforts to live like fictional protagonists.

So maybe it’s not a new chapter, not a new page, not the start of a new adventure. Maybe it’s just a little plot of chaos where I can kick around for a while.

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Nooby Abba Naba

The quiet morning hours are my favorite, before most humans began moving about their bustley days, when the sound of tires whirring against the pavement are sparse and distant, and the palette of stars prepares to yield the field for the sun’s watch.

Leon, faithful canine companion, and I strolled softly through the grass, inhaling the sleepy sights and sounds and smells of the vanishing night.

It was temperate this morning with temperatures in the mid-fifties. The stars lost their luster behind a thin veil of cloud, but a thin lunar crescent clung to the gnarled chiaroscuro branches of a stately trees across the street like the fabled cradle. A handsbreadth north of this rocking watcher, the sun’s prow pushed a pink wake of dawn streaming into the cloudscape.

The earth began to gently quake and beyond neat rows of simple homes a mournful wail wafted toward me with rumbling building a crescendo as the locomotive passed northward.

The trees slowly came alive with strains of morning song from the warblers waking and flitting branch to branch. The notes rang behind us, before us, beside us, surrounding us with myriad avian arias blending together in a glorious salute to the sun.

There was nothing to do but sigh and say, “It’s great to be alive.”

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Treated This A’Way

Saturday was moving day. Saturday it snowed.

Monday night five tornadoes tore through the metro. Wednesday we were outside in shirtsleeves. But it snowed Saturday. Such is March in Missouri.

I had reserved a truck to move my worldlies from the suburban house where I’ve lived the past fifteen years to an apartment over a shop just south of Rockhurst University. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

This move has been a long time coming. Turning the page or turning over a new leaf are clichéd metaphors for a deliberate change of Life’s direction. So is starting a new chapter. I’m closing a book and choosing a new volume.

Before moving to Jackson County I never lived anywhere as long as five years. I’m a Vietnam-era Army brat. The 1960s Pentagon shifted men across the board like some Vegas prestidigitator or back alley purveyor of three-card Monty. Dependents were baggage, packed and toted behind the soldier to his next assignment, stored in post housing until the next move. It never paid to get attached to any community. You would be ripped from them, soon enough. Or they from you.

That’s neither to credit nor blame Army culture for my rootlessness. That is mostly my own doing.

My parents settled in Virginia once the Army assigned my father to Ft. Monroe. That’s on the tip of Point Comfort, overlooking the entrance to Hampton Roads. Up until recently there has been a fortified military base at that position since the early 17th Century. There was when my father joined TRADOC in 1968 after returning from Saigon. There were five of us children at the time and the post had no quarters suitable for a family our size so my parents bought their first home in Hampton. After that though Dad had a number of other assignments—including a second tour in Nam—the rest of the family stayed in place.

In 1972 my parents moved into the Westover Estate, in the small York county town of Poquoson. That’s been the family home since, and I’ve lived there several times after graduating high school, but I was really one of the pioneers of the Yo-yo Generation, moving in and out of the family home with several successive forays into school or marriages. Things don’t always work at like you plan.

I moved to Missouri to personally meet the fiery Brynhildr, whom I had known online in chatrooms and other fledgling tries at internet social media. In the 1990s internet relationships stayed on the QT, because anyone you told was just certain you were going to end up hanging from a meat hook, but by the early 2nd Mil it was a common form of dating. We had known several mutual friends to meet that way. As many are still together as those who’ve met at school or 12-step fellowships.

In a whirlwind we met and fell in love and bought the house in which we lived, planning to grow old together. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

So now I had a deadline to get out of the house.

My life has been a cycle of good news/bad news tales; my search for a new place to pitch my tent proved no exception. Barely had I begun my search than Opportunity picked a lock and threw open a door for me. With lease in hand I started making arrangements to transfer my small cache of worldly possessions into the new place.

Boxes of books and clothes and music, some objets d’art, electronic accoutrements. The plan involved loading boxes into my car at night, swinging by the apartment after work, thus transporting the bulk of my possessions. I also began pricing the cost of hiring a mover for a few pieces of furniture.

Setting plan in operation I delivered three boxes to the apartment on Wednesday. Thursday my car’s timing chain gave up the ghost in a head-in-the-hands, sackcloth & ashes kind of way.

Things don’t always work out like you plan. Go to Plan B.

I priced a truck rental, do-it-yourself moving. It wouldn’t be the first time. I found a place online. It’s great living in the 21st Century. (Except I distinctly remember promises of rocket packs and orbiting space colonies.) The address was on 40 Highway, just down the road from the house about a mile, an easy walk. I could pick up the cargo van Saturday afternoon, drive home, load it, drive to the apartment, take the stuff inside, and still have time to swing by the grocery before returning it.

It snowed Saturday.

It was a light snow and didn’t stick to the streets. I walked an asphalt path up and down the hills between my home and XYZ LLC, who were rental truck agents (among oh-so-many other things, I had dealt with them before, paying a utility bill, they acted as if it had been an imposition) and when I got there they were closed. Locked tighter than a drum. With a different company’s logo and material visible inside through the windows.

Shocked, I walked back home and double-checked the emailed receipt.

In the trades they tell you to measure twice and cut once. That’s always good advice. It turned out what I thought was XYZ LLC was ABC Ltd, which was a mile further up the road. Things don’t always work out like you plan.

I could wallow in it, or I could roll with it.

I walked to ABC to get my truck..

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Smoke & Mirrors

I work construction. I’ve worked construction most of my adult life.

My current job involves putting the finishing touches on the newest Big Box in a nearby Missouri suburb. I’ve been on the job two months. I’m a hired gun. I remember joking with other coworkers—decades ago—while working on a remodel for a different Big Box, “We’re mercenaries in the late 20th Century Store Wars!” and that got a big laugh, mostly for the pun. We were contingent workers, skilled labor working through temp agencies to fill gaps in a contractor’s workforce. I still am. They always complain we’re too expensive. We’re not as expensive as hiring some kid off the street and training him on the job.

The General Contractor just turned over possession of the building to the franchise’s corporate overlords. Their proxies, actually, and the new manager’s team is working fist in glove with district and regional representatives to assemble and stock all the gondolas full of merchandise. We sparkies are still dealing with the piddly-ass stage of the job. Loose ends. As a contingent workers, I am normally not on a job at this point. An electrical contractor typically sends me down the road and uses his own people. Which is fine by me.

Big Box, Incorporated, uses local temp labor to unpack and assemble the shelves and gondolas and display cabinets. They are a symbiotic organism, an ant colony, scurrying backwards and forth to unpack crates containing pieces, assemble them, and place them according to some grid. In the morning they sign in, take a midmorning cigarette break, then sign out at lunch, staying busy in between. They quickly become facile at their tasks. It’s pretty rote.

If anyone would know about myriad reasons for choosing work through temp agencies it would be me. I scan the crew’s gothic Midwestern faces, chiseled like Rushmore from years of wind whipping on the plains and hail hitting on the hills and sun beating down over what Icarus considers fly-over country. I wonder who among the group is a struggling writer or rapper or painter or sculptor or experimental digital artist.

If any. These appear pretty much what you’d expect to find working as day laborers: high school dropouts, felons, single-parents, white-chip collectors. There’s lots of ink and dental problems. Maybe a few young guys are working their first job; maybe they’re making an impression.

I have worked temp labor, unloading boxcars of produce. I still work temp labor, the only difference being they call me skilled and pay me more. It’s a hell of a way to make a living. I thought it was a good idea at the time.

A face among the crew stops me short. Through a glass darkly. It’s like looking at myself in the mirror, not because he bears me any resemblance but he looks like me, demographically. Beaten face. Weary eyes. Middle-aged white guy.

What leaves a man my age schlepping boxes for minimum wage on a catch-as-catch-can basis? That question is one of empathy, not judgment. There are a million paths to that destination. All of them are lined with stories.

I was well along that path, myself, wandering from dead-end, low-wage position to dead-end, low-wage position. But I was blessed. I was privileged. I had a younger brother who had shouldered his grindstone into crew with a Virginia Beach electrical contractor, and Mike was willing to teach me, tolerate me, and mentor me into the trade. It opened a different set of doors.

Seems electricity runs in our blood. I have two brothers who are electricians. Our maternal grandfather was IBEW back in the Depression, working at a hydroelectric plant in southeast Kansas at a job considered so vital to American infrastructure that it kept him out of the draft during WWII.

It’s a skill set which has proved valuable to me over the last quarter century. It kept me working most of the time. And most of those times I focused on the forest and not the trees.

At this point in this job it’s all about trees.

As I hauled a stepladder and my hand tools from one task to the next I noticed someone had purchased a batch of shiny new cordless drills for the installation. As shiny as plastic can be. Battery drills are faster than manual assembly. Labor is always the most expensive part of a job. One battery drill replaces a known quantity of human workers. It’s a trade-off. Sucks to be the worker.

It was a Craftsman™ drill. I’m not endorsing any product, and only mention it because it’s germane to the story. My experience is Craftsman makes an excellent around-the-house product but it doesn’t hold up for commercial use.

My father bought me one for Christmas one year. It was a long time ago. He knew I needed one for work, so he gave me one. My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too stubborn to know it. He had definite ideas about gifts. Once, as I agonized about an appropriate gift for someone—my mother, perhaps, or whichever wife I was married to at the time—Dad told me, “Give her something nice she wants, but wouldn’t buy for herself.” He understood people on a tight budget prioritize their own desires last. The memory trickled to the back of my mind.

There’s a passage in Poe’s Rue Morgue where Dupin divines his companion’s thoughts by following his gaze and deducing the associations flowing through his consciousness. Such is the nature of memory: bubbling up from long buried reservoirs sensory experience. Altering each time we access it. Ricocheting off random bursts of recall. Ripping off scabs. Assuaging pangs of remorse. Summoning some childhood comfort.

So it was memories of my cordless drill soon scraped away the memory of another gift from dad. It was a camera. A Nikon. 35mm. It was not commercial grade, but it was more than a step up from the instamatics that flooded the markets so we could capture instants from our lives in fuzzy, out-of-focus freeze-frames that forever anchored the lability of their essence to the vantage of the family shutterbug.

I had used one of those cheap instamatics one afternoon, wandering in the woods down the street from the family home one snowy afternoon, exploring the chiaroscuro contrasts of virgin snow on the deep earthy hues of fenceposts and fallen trees, carefully composing the shots to highlight strong lines and textures.

I don’t even remember how old I was. Eighteen or nineteen. I was studying Theatre at Christopher Newport. I thought I wanted to make movies. I thought I wanted to be a combat photographer. Those were analog days and the medium was celluloid and the cost of both buying and processing film hamstrung many a hobby photographer.

After I developed the roll of film I showed the photographs to my parents.

In truth, Mom and Dad probably asked me to show them the pictures. As a youth I was unenthusiastic about interacting with my parents, even less so about them knowing anything about my activities. I never talked about what I thought I wanted to do with them. Maybe if I had they could have dissuaded me. Or directed me.

I doubt it. They never wanted to push me into anything.

I promptly put the encounter out of my mind. I know it happened. I can reconstruct a scene based on snippets from other incidents: Mom and Dad complimented me on the shots. I shrugged off the compliments. Compliments make me uncomfortable. It’s a parent’s job to praise their children. With a perfunctory shrug I slipped away and sequestered myself in my room.

Fast forward. Some Christmas morning. My parents’ house. I opened a medium, oblong box with a bit of heft and gift tag printed in my father’s neat, distinctive hand. I was bowled over to find this single-lens reflex Nikon. “When I saw those photographs you took,” Dad told me, “I wanted you to have a decent camera to work with.”

My father used to reach out to me a lot and I was too obtuse to realize it.

I went on to study photography. When I’m puffing I’ll say, “I went to film school.” Actually I went to a private liberal arts college and studied Journalism, Broadcasting and Film. I never made movies. I never became a photojournalist. But over the years I’ve found some level of satisfaction as a hobbyist. I grudgingly made the shift to digital and still enjoy composing shots to accent a line or a texture or a contrast that catches my eye.

I sigh at the realization of his confidence in me.

The thought is bittersweet.

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The Rising Sun

On the northwest corner of Shepherd and Moore sits a barnacled cocoon transforming into some new species of working class home for an up and coming young family with scrimped down-payment and heads full of dreams.

When I arrived in Blue Springs—lo these many moons ago—the house resembled Tom Bombadil’s abode set off from the street atop a rocky crag. The landscape was a cacophonous collection of Found Art, some incoherent combination of the kitschy and surreal with shadows of sundials and chipped plaster gnomes and vintage farm tools all reddened with rust melting over tableau edges of handmade berms and small circles of stones sitting sentry over the field of smaller stones covering the ground from the sidewalks to the property line so no one ever had to mow.

It was either an eyesore or the pinnacle of folk art.

The back yard sat behind a tall privacy fence of pale, weathered planks that failed to conceal a ramshackle garage or carport or shed shambling behind the house, drunkenly clutching it to keep from collapsing. And obviously holding the horded memories of three quarters of a century or more.

The old man who lived in this house had bought it when he returned from the war—the last declared war—the Great War—the one that had heroes who defeated the greatest monster of history. Or that’s how it’s billed.

He came home fresh mustered and battle-hardened to tickertapes and claps on backs and crowds of younger kin—and older, too—who wanted to know what it was like over there when all he wanted to do was forget and find some kind of normal that the brothers blown to bits beside him would never see. And he found a normal job—at a Ford plant that hadn’t even been an option when he was drafted away from the dust bowl farm in the midst of what History knows as the Great Depression though when he was growing up it was the only reality he ever knew. The shooting of rabbits and squirrels for a morsel and breaking up dirt clods with a much-mended hoe and hauling wood and water up from the crick and eking out existence on a piece of dirt that had been in the family since great grampa’s grampa had unhitched the Conestoga from the ox and set up shop.

Somehow Roosevelt and the Great War had shifted everything, had yanked the rural west into the Industrial Age and somersaulted the city/country ratios and lured the bulk of the population if not into the cities than into the suburban hives where millions of worker husbands returned each night to their sundressed wives and 2.3 children. And since eight out of ten people were no longer needed to produce enough food to feed the world we let two do it and used our American Ingenuity to invent a cornucopia of trinkets the modern housewife just couldn’t do without and whispered to husbands that Jones was way down the road ahead of them in displaying the fruits of his earnings. Having bombed the rest of the First World into the late Middle Ages, Americans bought up Park Place & Boardwalk, cornered the markets for a generation, and persuaded ourselves what we called prosperity was because we were Exceptional. It was our birthright.

The man who lived here worked one of those good union plant jobs that let him buy this house and provide for a wife and raise two strapping sons to expect a life better than their parents had known which was better than the life their parents had known and on back to the wagon-training forebear cresting the wave of Manifest Destiny. The man who lived here put forty years in that plant and retired with a pension and a watch just as Ronald Reagan was raising the banner of American Triumphalism again—after the ugly, tumultuous 60s and post-Viet malaise—like Ira Hayes over smoldering Iwo Jima. Between his plant pension and social security the couple enjoyed their retirement in a house where the mortgage was paid and wondered that the boys could never seem to get ahead and that their wives found it necessary to work outside the house which was kind of against God, to hear Preacher tell it. They knew the world had changed yet still could not connect the matrices that skewed the playing field. The oldest boy was at the plant and seemed to do well for himself, he always had late-model trucks, though why his wife still had to work was anybody’s guess. The youngest joined the service and is stationed far away most of the time so they never saw him but didn’t see much more of the elder, who moved to Wyandotte county and rarely comes to the Missouri side except to work.

The sleepy little town had grown into what they called a city, though it was still just a bedroom community for workers in the city and the county. There were lots of retail shops, that come and go.

The neighborhood had changed, too, from when he first bought the house. The gentle wooded slope across the street that led to the railroad cut grew thick with other houses. Most of all the old neighbors had died or moved away. Lots of the homes were now rentals, many of which were revolving doors for the kind of kids who couldn’t pay their bills. The kind who let their houses go to pot.

People in the neighborhood rarely saw the old man who lived here, but puttering about the back or on the porch with back half-hunched and a wary squint from out his leathered hide and they never saw the old woman except as shadowy shape behind the screen door or in the blinded window. Until one day neighbors noticed they had seen no one for a while but unfamiliar cars parked beside the drive on Moore. And then one day the cars no longer came. And the odd pieces of lawn ornamentation disappeared. And a truck came and scraped away the rock. And Tom Bombadil’s abode looked just like every other property on the street.

A new family is coming to make it their own.

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Effie’s Walnuts

The September late afternoon sun streamed through a leafy canopy arching over the cracked and patched asphalt street as through skylights in the nave of a deciduous cathedral. Blue was leaking out of the leaves, infusing the sky, and curling the greens toward yellow, preparing them to someday sooner rather than later carpet the ground.

Down by the Holler I noticed our last big wind had shaken loose some sizeable boughs, depositing one along a faint fence line where two weathered wooden posts are all that remain from a previous owner but I still see serpentine sections of rail running along the hillside, keeping Mr. Mill’s cows out of Mr. Moore’s corn. If the road is a nave then the Holler is the sanctuary.

What kind of tree was this? I wondered before noticing a single green orb—about the size and shade of a tennis ball—clinging to a twig at the tenuous end of one of the offshoots. It was the green husk of a black walnut. Jugians nigra. Smooth and unbroken, probably not even fully ripe when the winds ripped the bough off the trunk of one of the flourishing local walnut trees.

Them are Effie’s walnuts.

A voice from the past.

There is a model of the universe where past, present, and future exist simultaneously. That means it’s possible to glimpse the Past—or the Future, though that’s more difficult since it hasn’t created as deep a rut, yet—where it occupies the same spatial dimensions. The Temporal Veil is downright flimsy, if you’re sensitive to it, and I’m enough Celt it’s sometimes more effort not to see through it. There are thin places all over.

Effie’s walnuts. I knew right away. Rhoda Effaniah Harris owned this land once. Long ago. She and her husband William bought it from the US government. A hundred acres in Sni-A-Bar Township, townships being the government’s way of plotting land and controlling expansion on the western frontier.

In 1830, when Bill & Rhoda loaded a Conestoga with essentials and joined a train headed by Old Man Reuben Harris, Missouri was the western frontier. It was as wild as it came. Reuben, Bill’s father, had some land coming to him in consideration of his infantry service during the War of Independence. The Federal government had been embarrassingly slow fulfilling its obligations to the only group of American veterans who ever actually fought to win American freedom. Even after President Jefferson doubled the country’s size buying what was left of French North America the government kept tight reins on settlement. Washington was obsessed with maintaining equilibrium between states were slavery was allowed and states where it was illegal. When Massachusetts ceded Maine as a Free State, Missouri was admitted allowing slave-holders.

Both banks of the Missouri River, from St. Louis to Kaw Point, flooded with settlers from Southern states, saturating the land to the point it was called Little Dixie. The group of Baptists who left Virginia’s Patrick Henry country in 1830 included several slaves. Patriarch Reuben Harris brought slaves with him. So did his son William and wife Effie.

It’s pointless for me to pass judgement on them. I understand them within the context of their times, a fact which neither condones nor excuses them. Humankind officially considers the idea of owning other humans as despicable. And yet it persists to our time. If you need to pass judgment there’s a pretty big target right there.

Effie were a witchy woman. That’s what some folk said.

Like most of the clan that followed Old Man Harris out of the foothills of Patrick Henry County, Virginia, Rhoda Effaniah Burnett was of Ulsterman stock—that is, Scots-Irish descent. She came from a long line of women who understood which plants did what. Which ones healed. Which ones helped you find thin places.

Effie, like her mother Effie before her, cultivated her herbalist craft and helped her neighbors when fever struck or some other ailment passed the point of prayers and broth. From her first days off the wagon from Virginia she planted a large herb garden, blending potions and elixirs for medicine. Over each vial she chanted “Slan-jah vore akussa yu-lay yanak do” words without meaning to her, except as a prayer for the infirm, words passed down from her mother and her mother before her to the very fringes of antiquity.

Effie had married Billy Harris when she was seventeen and he was twenty. She bore him fifteen babies. The last eight were born in their Sni-A-Bar Township farmhouse. All but one of them grew to adulthood, and that was unusual in an age when one in three babies died in their first years. Effie boasted she was from good stock. She must have been.

She carried scions of walnut and black locust from the Virginia highlands, wrapping them in strips of linen, rooting them, tenderly planting them with help from Jessie, her eldest boy, so many folks eventually called the winding road built alongside their property (the) Walnut Street, a name it bears to this day.

Sometimes I glimpse Effie as a younger woman. She was only 30 when she arrived her and started roaming these hills, these same hills, minus the houses, minus the streets, minus all the steel and plastic and utilities overhead and railroad running to the east and interstate plowing across up north. She and 12-year-old Jessie fashioned mud bricks by hand and dried them in the sun while William broke the soil with a barshear plow. Through 21st Century eyes she looks much older than her thirty years. She had already borne seven children in twelve years and spent long hours toiling under the sun. There was nothing bucolic about pioneer existence and it swallowed as many as survived it.

Other times I see Effie looking like Granny Clampett, standing with an old-style shotgun cocked and loaded, her faded yellow homespun dress flapping in the breeze, facing down some blue-jacketed Union officer who sat on horseback as his corporal read General Order 11 exiling Miss Harris—and all the civilians of Jackson County—for the duration of the war.

Effie always had been a staunch supporter of the Southern cause. It’s how she grew up. It’s all she knew.

When the War broke out Effie was 60. That was old by the standards of the day. Old for hard frontier life. She had already buried a husband and four sons.

Effie knew Billy Quantrill. Sure she did. Capt. Quantrill formed his band of Raiders—some called them Bushwackers—right down the road from the Harris farm. She kept her ears open. She passed along what supplies she could to them. News, once in a while. Couple of her kin rode with him. One of her own boys, Marion Lee, fought for the Rebels under Sterling Price. Company A, 9th Missouri Infantry. So it was no surprise when the Federals forced her and those of her surviving children still in Missouri from their homes.

Effie was not happy when the Yanks made her move. She set her jaw and stared them down. It was a Lost Cause. It was always a lost cause. The Yanks torched her crops and wrecked her buildings and turned her out for the duration of the war. Her Daddy fought against the British with the 10th Virginia. He must have been just spinning in his grave.

I was looking at the walnut husk on the dead branch, protecting the nut within and thinking of the roots that gnarled their way back to the soil of the 19th Century and the woman who walked their progenitors here from the Virginia mountains. And I was remembering those beautiful Blue Ridge slopes—where I had lived before moving here, as if there is some magnet pulling westward over those mountains. They used to call it Manifest Destiny, a Mongrel Horde of vagabonds riding collectively into the sunset.

Them are Effie’s walnuts I heard and looked around for the speaker, wondering if it was inside my head or outside, but I didn’t see him.

What I saw was a withered crone, the Widow Harris, older than I had ever seen her.

I see you, she said, looking straight at me.

I started. No one had ever seen me, before. “I see you, too, Miss Harris.”

She looked taken aback, but only for a second. You have me at a disadvantage, there, sonny she said. But which of us is seein’ inta th’ future? Hmm? she scowled. She gave a wave of her bony fingers, as if fore-casting was not even worth the trouble.

She touched the patch over her eye. She sighed, ancient and full of days.

I knew I was seeing her near the end of her life—though what, really, does that mean when everything is always … somewhere. Some time. I remembered she lost her eye after the War, when she was old even by 21st Century standards. I think it was a riding accident. Thrown as she dashed to an outlying farm to midwife a first-time mother. Or run like Absalom into a thicket which pierced the eye.

She looked agitated.

I remembered something. Something. Seemed she died in the same kind of accident, riding in a storm to deliver her elixirs to a feverish farmer. I could not refrain from thinking it, knowing as the words formed in my mind I was conjuring her doom on some level.

Long fingers once again touched the eyepatch. Begone! she said, made a sign with her hand, spat on the ground. She lifted the patch, opening the gaping socket, like Lazarus’ tomb, a swirling abyss, the Black Hole of Miss Effie Harris spinning pinwheel vortex sucking away all remnants of her and her time from my view.

I looked around. I was far from my usual path. About a half mile west. Northwest. I stood among a sea of gravestones and other monuments townsfolk who lived and died a stone’s throw from here . I drive here from time to time and wonder about the bones that lay beneath the grass, about the living, breathing souls who once wrapped around those bones and had lives and loves and suffering and joy. But I don’t see my car and sure don’t remember walking here.

At my feet lies a weathered, faded piece of carved rock to faded to read but I know from earlier visits this is little Lewis Franklin, Effie’s 3-month-old baby she bore in her forties and buried too soon on a hill on the family farm. It’s the oldest stone in the cemetery. 1843. Beside him lies his daddy, died of the cholera just five years later. And Effie, who lived long enough to become a crone—highly regarded among her people but little understood by the immigrants and easterners who flooded in on the back of the industrial revolution and the Gilded Age and made a whole new America than the one she rolled through the Appalachians and over the Mississippi to create.

Her gravestone said she died September 9th. I shivered.

“Hey, Miss Harris, thanks for the walnuts,” I said. And made my way back home.

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