The ones in the middle
We'd cross the road - my mother, grandmother, great-aunt and us three girls - armed with hoes and rakes, and a thing we called the bush hook, which was like an overgrown machete on a stout stick. The late May sun, beating us like it was already summer, would just about disappear when we entered the path to the graveyard. I liked the coolness washing my skin but the air, still and heavy with the death of last year's leaves, made me long for the safety of the sun. I was the youngest. What could I do in a graveyard with that big bush hook anyway? It was bigger than me.
My mother and great-aunt usually led the queue, weaving among the stout vine-covered poplars and sweet gum trees, and keeping an eye peeled for cottonmouths. My second oldest sister would sometimes hold my hand, something she did for her own benefit, I think.
Before long our quiet march would end and we were there, standing among the moss-covered half-sunken grave markers with names like Bessie and Chester. Ready to commence our assault on the weeds and brambles. Ready to uncover the beds of the dead. As the adult women worked, much more diligently than us girls, I would find a spot that I thought safe from snakes and spiders, and just mess around among the rare grassy patches and the hard red berries - strawberry-like that we called snake berries but never ate. But before long, I would tire of playing and start to walk among my buried family - the Honablews and Blounts. The great great greats and the day-old babies. So many that had died too young and so many that had died very old. But, I would wonder as we retreated from that earthy crypt, what had become of the ones in the middle?
Twenty-one bullets: a tribute to bravery lost
To this day I don't remember the old man's name, though I'm sure he was a distant cousin of some sort. That's the nature of small-town life. Everyone's related. In my little girl's memory, he had lived a rickety life in an old rickety house the color of ashes down the road past Mr. Fred Springs's store where my sisters and I bought penny candy by the ton. The old man meant nothing to me. But to others he had been someone, done something worthy of an honor beyond my childish comprehension. Many had come, like my parents, to huddle under that Rowson Funeral Home canopy and be sad over his passing.
Opposite the old man's house there grew corn, high and green on the day the hearse that carried his body pulled down that dusty road to the little graveyard in the middle of that field. My oldest sister had told me that if I stared at the long black car I would die. I believed her, half expecting to drop dead that very day with all those people dressed in black all around. But I couldn't stop staring.
There were seven men, though, that didn't wear mourner's black. They wore uniforms and carried long guns. Three times they raised their guns with such crisply hypnotic movements and shot high over the old man's house. Three times, seven shots that left a thunder banging in my chest. Three times, seven shots were hurled across the unknown. Faceless, purposed, quickly growing cold. Even today, I marvel at those soldiers, keeping such emotionless faces in the midst of such sorrow and, like a small child scared of a long black car, I think of those twenty-one bullets, detached and duty-bound.
Ghost of my childhood
Most warm evenings in late February and early March our family of five could be found heading for a bridge somewhere in Cherry, my father's hometown. With a large fishing net in the bed of the pickup, we would be going herring fishing. My father's favorite bridge for dipping herring, as it was called, crossed a tributary of the Scuppernong River that ran behind St. Mary's Church, his family church. It was behind that church that the grandfather I never knew lie resting. But I imagine the Leigh ancestors didn't get much rest while the herring ran.
I liked dipping best when we were the only family there. Just me, my two older sisters, mama and daddy. It was more fun that way. When we weren't helping collect freshly caught fish into buckets us girls would play in the bed of the truck or along the bridge twirling our batons or singing about Delta Dawn and that flower she had on. It was fascinating to watch the dark rancid water below and imagine countless herring racing by. Sometimes though daddy would dip with up to three other men alongside him, though I wondered how. The bridge really wasn't that big; it's a miracle their ropes didn't get so tangled that a man would start pulling up some other man's net. But there were so many fish. It seemed that they were so eager to be caught. The flapping of their silver bodies as the men lifted the chicken wire nets sounded like applause. Those fish would lose so many scales in their frenzy that it got hard to walk the planks of the bridge at times.
Decades later, as my father and I strolled through the Leigh cemetery plot, I remember half listening to his explanation of why some headstones read Lee and others Leigh. My mind had traveled back to my pigtail days when the herring ran like crazy under that bridge a stone's throw away. Did the herring run at all anymore? If so, what manner of restless country folk dipped there now? What songs did their little girls sing? Was my twirling baton still down there under the murky water? In my minds eye I could still see the dry fish scales as they lifted in the wake of a passing car like the tail of a sheet. Hanging on the warm spring air, a ghost of my childhood.