THE BIRDS THAT PICK THE BONES CLEAN ARE HOLY
Meghan L. Dowling
The way to Onset is a local route: through outlying towns that have nothing to do with highway, roads that cut through cranberry bogs and curve around tall white clapboard, or bend over farms sliced into lots. Onset happens through an inlet, a salt marsh, over Dummy Bridge. Onset happens where Father pauses the tape in the cassette player to tell them not to forget, not to forget he has fished there as a boy. Onset happens when Father grips the steering wheel and begins to cry.
Father shows her how to catch minnows. You trick them, he says.
At first there is a dinghy. Lovlie stores the boat upside down, in tall grasses at the edge of the Muck Hole. Later, when they move to the city, Father sells it to a man met through the newspaper. It is six feet long, has planks for seats, two oars longer than the boat itself, oarlocks, and a 2.5 horsepower motor that attaches to reinforced wood at the back. She paints "Gemini" on the starboard bow in green and blue acrylics.
Lovlie learns things about the history of Onissett from the small library, from a room in the basement that is only open on Mondays. One smudged glass case along the far end contains a dugout canoe, scraps of cloth, arrowheads. A hurricane hits the village in 1818, and Indian artifacts wash ashore from Wickets Island. Artifact is another word for bone. No one guesses, until then, that the tiny stamp of land is a burial ground.
Father gives them each a handful of coins to buy sandals at the drugstore uptown, but Penelope disappears as soon as they reach the red brick sidewalk; she is no doubt looking for the surly girls smoking under the pier, or a gritty boy to buy her soft-serve from Priest's. Lovlie walks to Devitt & Sons and looks at the rubber shoes alone. The eldest of the Devitt boys has an eye that droops, a small flap of skin that rests on the top of his cheekbone. He follows her movements around the store, waiting for her to slide a finger down the crease of a shiny magazine that promises to reveal ten secrets of a pretty young actress.
Old Aunt has two bedrooms. An upstairs room has a four-poster bed, each poster topped with a carved wooden acorn. The bed is very tall and the mattress lumpy. It is covered with thick brocade bed sheets and smells of must. A tall mahogany wardrobe in the corner of the room is filled with dresses wrapped in linens and pinned shut. The mirrored dressing table has a small drawer entirely for satin gloves, another for handkerchiefs. The silver tray atop a lace runner holds jewels of all shapes, sizes, colors, configurations: earrings, pendants, brooches, hat pins, rings, wrist cuffs, chokers, tennis bracelets, lapel pins, hair combs. Sunlight filters damp through cream curtains, the room hushed and unused.
Lovlie grows filthy because no one tells her to bathe. Penelope disappears behind the bathroom door for longish periods throughout the day, but what happens is never revealed. There is a cast iron bathtub there, a hose and nozzle attached to the faucet. There is a shower stool inside the bathtub for Old Aunt's weekly upstairs pilgrimage. There are threadbare cotton towels in various shades of pastel stacked on a splintered chair. All of these things together certainly add up to something. She had certainly been clean in her previous life. But no one in Onset tells her to bathe, and so Lovlie grows filthy. Father was a Navy man, and believes that saltwater is a cure-all. When she has a sore throat, she gargles it. When she has a toothache, she swishes it. When she has a scrape or slice or bruise, she dips herself in the sea from the ladder on the edge of the pier. Before long, her knees erupt in itchy scales. Her left thigh grows an angry lesion in the shape of a mandolin.
The Spiritualists wanted a camp retreat from nineteenth-century city summers. Their specifications were that it must be accessible by railroad and it must be breezy. Onset was attractive to them for these reasons, and because local lore said that it had been a sacred place to the Wampanoag before the white men came. The Spiritualists built a wooden wigwam with a shingled roof in the center of Crescent Park; they pitched their white canvas tents around it.
Lovlie's dead Grandmother: There is a blurred memory of the gnarled woman with a halo of white fluffy hair tapping the shell of a hard-boiled egg. Grandmother grips the burnished spoon with one hand. The other curls around the rim of a blue and white china eggcup. Another image is of a crooked finger scanning the edge of onionskin paper: trim typist's pages in a sheaf, crowded with dark ink. There is the suggestion of a cotton dress in a shaft of light, purple with small white flowers. There is a smell of boiled peas. A sensation remembered: the snap of thick nude nylon pulled and released off an anklebone, the small cloud of dust. These things happen during the before-time, when Onset is a place for younger relatives to visit, when Old Aunt is kept in check by the sharp corner of Grandmother's eye. Penelope, Mother, and Father attend Grandmother's funeral, but an adolescent cousin looks after young Lovlie for a small sum of money. In the before-time there are stories: Two elderly sisters dressed in finery stepping out to take their evening airs, neighbors whispering. A photograph on the mantel of the slick-haired man and the two sisters, three young bodies lazily arranged around a picnic basket in Crescent Park. The heavy scrapbook kept underneath a damask ottoman, many yellowed advertisements proclaiming
THE BYRD SISTERS OF ONSET GROVE:
In the after-time, Father and Old Aunt do not discuss Grandmother. They do not discuss anyone. Dull cutlery clatters across the bone china in an otherwise silent room.
Father is often gone overnight. There is a discernable pattern to his absence, but his destination remains unknown. On the first day he will rise before the sun does, brew a pot of coffee, and drink cup after cup from the stone bench in the sideyard beneath the scraggly pine. There is a brisk swim across the bay and back as the sun creeps above the cottage roofs. When the sleepy village begins to stir, he goes uptown for bread, lunchmeat, a pickle for Lovlie from the large barrel at Martin's. The afternoon will begin with a book and the screened porch—a room Old Aunt calls the piazza. There is a sound of pages flipping, a rustling. The book hangs, limpid, over the embroidered arm of the chair. By evening he disappears behind the door of his room. On the second day he will rise with the sun, after Lovlie and Old Aunt but before Penelope. A single cup of coffee at the kitchen table, he picks at cotton batting through a hole in the vinyl tablecloth. On the third day he appears briefly in the afternoon. After sundown on this third day, he climbs into the battered green Nova, one taillight winking down West Boulevard.
The dark parlor is empty for a very long time when Old Aunt makes her weekly pilgrimage upstairs. Old Aunt climbs slowly, bathes decorously, and makes a habit of visiting the bedroom to touch all of her things. Lovlie slides the thick book out from under the ottoman and swipes off the layers of dust that accumulate in the days between. In the scrapbook, a newspaper clipping:
The Bogus Materializations of Mrs. Hannah V. Ross
I have been as careful as possible, but writing wholly from memory, in my case, is hard work, I have so many things to think of and attend to. Mr. Charles Ross, who is a tall man with slick, dark hair and a keen eye, as usual, acted as master of ceremonies. The cabinet was examined; Mr. Ross made his little speech. The gentlemen and ladies were seated around the parlor at the manager's discretion. Mrs. Ross, a young woman of no more than sixteen years, appeared in a dress of brocade silk and hummed in the appropriate frequencies. The windows were blackened, the lamps extinguished. The plan was as follows: The Indian would appear from the cabinet, then a succession of female forms draped in white muslin would appear and disappear, as usual, accompanied by a phosphorescent glow. Several forms came out of the cabinet or appeared at the apertures in the curtains and claimed, by nodding assent when questioned, to be the spirits of deceased relatives of persons present. Mr. H.W. Robinson of West Roxbury cried out for his pet niece. Mr. Faulkingham of Hyde Park inquired after three deceased ladies: his first and second wives, and his third intended. Soon the manifestations remained longer, and finally began to move about the room, patting and kissing and whispering names and communications and making lights and purporting to resolve these lights into faces. Mrs. Ross slipped behind the curtain in the darkness and general confusion of the parlor. Then she came out as Florence, the lately deceased daughter of Mr. Newton, and after kissing and embracing him took him through the folding doors to the back room, where they remained for about five minutes. The next materialization was a woman and two children, all in white. A gentleman present was called for, and approached. He kissed them, and the kiss sounded like a real old-fashioned, fleshy smack.
The next manifestation proved the last. A young maid, Lillian, a girl of fourteen, upon appearing from the cabinet and approaching a member of the clandestine group of investigators, was gripped upon the thigh, and revealed to be of plump flesh and blood. He seized her in his arms and carried her across the room. On his signal cry, the parlor was transformed from a darkened abode of the spirits to a scene of wildest confusion. The shutters were thrown open and daylight admitted. Mrs. Ross had secured herself within the cabinet, but the men caused its door to be flung open. Mrs. Ross was scantily clothed, having disrobed to assume the suit of a male spirit, and was apprehended in soiled stockings, drawers, and chemise, the last article was torn or taken off in some way. With the Ross's confederates secured, the men of the investigating party made wild gestures toward the woman. It was then that I intervened, and was given cause to say: "For pity's sake, let me take Mrs. Ross and dress her; she is a woman, no matter what she has done."
Where is your mother, little girl? says the librarian.
Lovlie touches the old stone birdbath in the side yard. Its surface is worn smooth from a hundred years of weather. It is filled by rain and empties only after a long, dry heat, which is to say that it is rarely empty. The stone inside the basin, under the water, is covered with a thick green slime. No birds bathe in the birdbath.
Do birds bathe at all? Lovlie thinks to ask, but does not.
Neither do they drink from it. She lines the edge of the basin with small plastic farm animals, part of a set purchased in some other town's drugstore between Onset and the hospital. Each animal's legs are fused to a green plastic mound of grass with a level bottom. Cow, horse, goat, sheep were the sort of large animals to have their own mound. Smaller ones like chickens or a mother-pig with her piglets had to share, three or four animals to a plastic piece. The animals can be arranged as though in a grassy field just outside the barnyard, when placed on the artificial turf flooring of Old Aunt's piazza. On any other surface, the animals appear to float past one another, clinging to islands that do not extend much further than the limits of their singular or collective bodies.
Statement of the Evening Record
Then follows an account of a domestic row between Charles and Hannah. It is said that she tore his clothes, scratched upon his face, and blackened and closed one of his eyes. After this fight, Mrs. Hannah bundled up some clothes and went off with her milkman. Details of broken china, hot water, etc., followed, but need not be repeated.
Lovlie cuts her hair in front of the bathroom mirror. She and Penelope occupy the large pillowy bed in Grandmother's old room, where the sleep is good despite Penelope's kicking and Lovlie's constant scratching. Under the bed is a box labeled "Lillian's Sewing Notions" in Grandmother's architectural penmanship. Inside the box is a pair of pinking shears, which Lovlie removes and scurries into the bathroom to inspect. The blades are not smooth, but they are sharp. She grabs a hank of hair and pulls it taut. She lines the hair up against the blades and pinches the handles together, but nothing happens. Lovlie wedges the hair firmly into the crux of the scissors and begins to saw against the scalloped blades. The tension of attached hair holds, at first, but soon there is a snap, and Lovlie suddenly grips the loose hank between her thumb and forefinger. With her other hand, she fishes out a long red ribbon, places it on the edge of the sink, and lays the hair flat upon it. She ties it once, and again to make a knot, then loops the ends of the ribbon in order to tie a bow:
The sun begins to sink behind the pitched roof of the house. Father climbs into the battered green Nova, one taillight winking down West Boulevard. Lovlie decorates the edges of the stone birdbath with her farm animals. They watch her with paint eyes and slightly parted mouths. She pulls the lock of hair from her pocket and drops it into the dark pool of water. Lovlie hums in a series of frequencies.
The peninsula begins where Onset Avenue, Center Lane, and West Boulevard come together, all crossed by twelve numbered streets. A traced edge starts with the Muck Hole, then the channel, Back Beach, Independence Point, Front Beach, Kenny's Saltwater Taffy, the pier where The Viking docks, Shell Point, then a short walk uptown through the village shops, and back to the Muck Hole. Many children run away from home. But Lovlie must swim away because water is her idiom and this home is not hers. She fills a black garbage bag with two sandwiches, two red drinks in plastic shaped like grenades, packets of chips; she ties it to her right leg and enters the bay in front of Old Aunt's house. But Lovlie begins to grow tired by the time she reaches the pier. Seawater seeps into the bag. The sky is getting dark.
Many elements of "The Birds That Pick the Bones Clean Are Holy" required real research out in the world (not just in the library or on the Internet) and that was a very exciting thing indeed. It is also a story about a feral child, which required considerably less research. I owe a debt of gratitude to the newspaper accounts of the 19th century Spiritualist movement collected in The Vampires of Onset and to the First Spiritualist Church of Quincy, Massachusetts.