Granny and the Black Bird

Granny was sitting at the kitchen table, a favorite gathering place for the adults to share coffee and gossip. It was a lovely spring day and the windows were open. A light breeze lifted and tickled the yellowed lace curtains, and carried the scent of apple blossoms and honeysuckle. There were no screens on the windows and sometimes a bottle fly would buzz around the lace curtains before zipping off on the breeze in search of more rancid fare.

I was lying on the kitchen floor on my stomach coloring pictures of Santa Claus and Rudolph (left over from the previous Christmas) while Granny gossiped with my mother and Uncle Bill about her neighbor’s drinking husband. My mother never drank and Granny like to drink the occasional pint (for her health you understand). Uncle Bill was a bit of a drinker himself, so I thought their condemnation of the fellow was ironic and a bit hypocritical, but I was just a kid. What did I know about such things? Kids are to be seen and not heard. I learned to avoid the switch or the belt by keeping my own counsel.

I concentrated on trying to keep the red color inside the thick, cartoonish lines of Santa’s suit. Soon their chatter became a dull buzz in the background – sort of like the sound of the bottle fly that had visited the lace curtains earlier. I was startled from my concentration by a sharp, short scream from Granny. I sat up quickly and looked at Mother, Granny and Uncle Bill. The three of them were focused on a point near the ceiling, just over the cooking stove. I followed their gaze to a little black bird perched like a high wire performer on a strand of ivy growing from a clay pot. For a few seconds (an eternity in kid time) no one moved; no one seemed to breathe. Their eyes were fixed on that little bird. Then, without so much as a chirp or a peep, it dropped down to the top of the cooking stove, and pranced around. It took three steps and then took flight around the kitchen. After making a few low passes over the heads of my seated family members, it darted out the open window.

A bird in the house is an sign; a bad sign. It means death.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. Folks lived their lives by a mixture of the Bible and old wives tales; a generous helping of doing unto others tempered by Hillbilly justice. Superstitions played an important role in that little microcosm of American society. It kept people from walking under ladders hence avoiding dropped paint buckets. There weren’t a lot of broken mirrors either. Mirrors cost money and few people had extra money to buy a new mirror. I realized the value of some superstitions because they keep people out of trouble and out of harm’s way.

After the bird gracefully exited Granny’s kitchen, she immediately went into what she called a tizzy. She put a fresh pot of coffee on the cooking stove and wrung her hands while she watched it perk.

“You know what that means don’t you, Bill?” she said. It was not really a question, but a statement of fact.

“Sure I do Pearlie,” Uncle Bill replied.

“You know what that means don’t you, Bill?” she said again.

“I sure do Pearlie,” Uncle Bill repeated.

Mother told me to put away the crayons and the coloring book because we had to go home. I fussed a bit, but complied because not to mind my mother carried dire consequences.

Mother said, in a matter of fact tone, “I wonder who it will be?”

“We will know in three days,” Granny replied. “He took three steps and flew over our heads three times, so in three days we’ll be planning a funeral.”

Funeral.

That word brings up all sorts of images in the mind of a kid in Appalachia in the 1960s. Back then, people still laid out the body of their dead family members in the parlor. All the neighbors came and brought food. They would fill up their plates and take a seat in the same room with the body where they ate, gossiped about their neighbors who had not yet arrived to pay their respects, and shared remembrances about the dead person. Some of the men would stand around on the back porch and drink. Funny how everyone shared only fond memories of the dead person. Once my brother, who was listening to Mother go on about what a kind person the dead relative was, reminded her that she had previously referred to the dead relative as “a lying son of a bitch.” My brother never reminded my mother of her past words again.

So there was going to be a funeral. The bird was the sign and it had brought the message. I cringed at the thought of a funeral. For a kid, a funeral was like Church. We had to put on our best clothes and those terrible, hard black leather shoes that bit our toes and pinched our ankles. People would cry, and the preacher would go on for at least two hours about heaven, hell, Jesus, and heavenly streets of gold. Of course, he would tell everyone at the funeral that the dead person was surely with Jesus now and “all his sorrows and pain were no more.” There would be singing and praising, and maybe someone would get saved. After the burial on the hill, they would all go back to the house of the dead person’s family, where they would eat and gossip a bit more. Then life continued and the dead person was spoken of in the future only with kind words.

In the couple days after the omen bird brought news of an impending death in the family, I forgot all about the incident. I climbed trees, rode my pony round the hills, and beat up my little brother, just like any other day. Then, on the third day after the omen bird flew in and then out the window, Granny pulled out the ironing board and laid my Sunday dress out for pressing.

“Go get your good shoes,” she said. “We have to get ready for a funeral.”

Granny and the Black Bird

H Maria Perry

Joined July 2007

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Artist's Description

Childhood memories.

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