By Peter Wakeman Schranz
Matthew Jolley/ shuttersrtock
The two of us — me and John, my cousin — we didn’t understand, at the time, that foreclosure was specifically bad. I was nine, John six I think. We lived next door on Spottswood Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, until our houses both got foreclosed within a month of each other. This was in the spring of 1930, so I’m sure I don’t need to explain. Our dads had been laid off in the winter. They stayed in Memphis to look for work — my mother tells me they lodged in a crowded boarding house — but me and John and our moms moved away to our grandmother’s house. We called her Grandma Mary to distinguish her from each of our dad’s moms.
Our parents must have just hid their tears or something, because all I remember (and John tells basically the same tale) is waiting around in alarmingly tedious banks while, with the proprietors, our parents went to various efforts as Herculean as they were incomprehensible — this followed by the exciting news that we were all going to stay with Grandma Mary for a while. We were sad in theory that our dads weren’t coming, too, but everyone assured us that they’d visit. Our grandma didn’t live far. She lived in a cabin overlooking the Hatchie River, near a town called Hillville, and that’s where our moms were born and raised, and Grandma Mary, for that matter, and I believe her mom too, but I’ll have to confirm that.
John once (privately) described Grandma Mary (long after she died) as a quiet, sunburned old trout, and by all appearances he meant it endearingly. I can’t disagree so much, not with the sentiment, anyway. She must have been about eighty at the time. Our grandfather had been a bugler for the Confederates, and they only give you a bugle if you’re too young to lift a gun, so if my grandma was much older than eighty when we went to live with her, then she’d married a little boy in the old days. We loved her, me and John and our moms, and clearly she loved us, but her life had been bitter, and pain stalked her closely, whence her ill-temper. Even at her age, she’d go out in the woods and shoot things for supper. That made her happy.
One afternoon pretty early in our stay, John and I heard some sort of bird calling in the attic. It was a three-act song, one I’m finding difficulty deciding how to spell. We were frightened and fled to our moms. We found them, and Grandma Mary, in the room with the fireplace. As it happened I plummeted into the lap of my aunt Pearl, John’s mom, and he into that of my mom, his aunt Hazel, whereupon we exclaimed chaotically, at once, and without coordination, about the inhuman thing which had taken up residence in the attic.
After they slowed us down and received actual information from us, Aunt Pearl said “Let’s go see.”
“Honey,” said my mom, meaning “Honoria,” which is my name, “You’re not playing a trick on your cousin John, are you?”
I swore I wasn’t, though there was precedent, and we made for the attic. John turned. “Aren’t you coming too, Grandma?” he asked. She had not moved from her chair by the fireplace.
“I don’t care to poke around for vermin,” she answered.
The rest of us climbed the stairs to the attic, which, like basically every attic on earth at the time, had never been touched by the rays of a lightbulb. The sun was coming in pretty well through the western window, from over the trees. Beneath the window was a hole in the siding about which I can imagine Grandma Mary knew, but didn’t care. On a huge black chest, studded, more like riveted, with a galaxy of brass trunk-nails, stood our quarry, lit by the sun: a big fat bird, feathers all blotchy with the very same red, black, and white of the woods, looking directly at us, fearlessly chirping its tri-chirp.
As soon as we approached, it turned and fled out the hole in the siding, leaving only the brass nails in the chest to gleam in the sun. “What kind of bird was that?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Honey,” my mom said, though you might know.
“Grandma will know,” her sister added.
“What’s in that chest?” asked John.
“You know, John,” said Aunt Pearl, “I don’t recall ever seeing that chest before.”
I could have guessed a few things: I recall suspecting my grandfather’s war items might be stowed in there, a crusty green copper bugle and some old gray rags. We didn’t wait long enough to open it, but there was something else in the attic that distracted me from the chest, which made me lose track of time. In half-shadow was a portrait of my grandma when she was a kid, and her parents, and her sister, my Great Aunt Ida, in a dress which, despite the monochrome of the image, was clearly of many colors. It was around this time that John described the dress as “spottled,” which I guess isn’t a word, and yet is highly accurate. It was a photograph; much later I learned it was taken at the first photography studio in Memphis, in 1860 or so, which means she was about my age in the picture. Before and since, John and I always thought she would have made a good addition to our little child-team, not considering that she would have been basically our grandmother’s age if she had lived past the age of ten.
That’s why the picture was in the attic. Grandma Mary much preferred to think of her sister in life than to look at her still, unblinking face. They said Great Aunt Ida got sucked down to the bottom of the Hatchie River just before the rebellion, “Which makes her lucky,” said our grandmother seriously.
But in these seconds during which the portrait held me, John opened the chest, and all four of us joined our heads as we gazed down at what little actually lay hidden within.
“It’s gone,” Grandma Mary shouted from below. “Whatever it was. Come on back down.”
A book bound in leather, with sheets of vellum, is all that we beheld. John, ever at the vanguard, reached in and held it aloft. “Be careful, John,” said his mother, taking it from him. “This could be very old and delicate.” She opened it in a way to demonstrate careful book-handling, and we all looked.
“It’s a cookbook,” said my mother. On the page Aunt Pearl had opened at random, written by someone who could not possibly have either heard of or even imagined a typewriter, was the recipe which is here reproduced:
One chuck-will’s widow
Two cups of red wine
Three Little Onions
Four cups of broth
Heat a heavy lidded pot over medium-high. Add the lardoons until brown, then the chuck-will’s-widow. Brown it all over, and then add the garlic, wine, and broth. Lower heat to medium-low. Cover for an hour. Serve.
“This must be Grandmommy’s cookbook,” said an awed Aunt Pearl, by which she meant Grandma Mary’s mother. She turned the page, and looked sort of dismayed. She turned the page again, and a few more times, at which point I glanced down at it again. “It’s all the same,” she said. “Look.”
“On every page, ‘Chuck-Will’s-Widow.'”
“What’s chuck-will’s-widow?” asked John, knowing only that it had to be some sort of food, but food with a strange and inauspicious name. Our moms didn’t pay attention.
“Why would she have done this?” Aunt Pearl asked.
“She was ill after Aunt Ida and Granddaddy,” said my mom, meaning after the two of them died, my Great Aunt Ida in the Hatchie, and my great grandfather in the Second Battle of Memphis. “Maybe one recipe is all she’d the strength for.”
“But why write it on every page?” asked Aunt Pearl.
“Maybe so you don’t miss it,” I said.
“Maybe because it’s really good,” said John. “We should have this for supper,” he suggested.
“We may not have everything at hand,” said my mom. “I think it’s time we go downstairs to check on your grandmother.”
We returned, and before anyone could speak John said, “Grandma, what’s chuck-will’s-widow?”
“We found a cookbook in the attic,” my mom said by way of explanation.
“It’s that bird you went up to see squawking, Honey,” said Grandma Mary irritably.
“Did Grandmommy write this?” asked Aunt Pearl, holding it out to her mother.
“She may have,” Grandma Mary answered. She wouldn’t even touch the book.
“The only recipe in here is for chuck-will’s-widow.”
“She wrote it on every page,” my mom added.
“Why is it called chuck-will’s-widow?” I asked.
“Because that’s what it sings,” answered Grandma Mary.
I thought sure, it sort of sounded like it was saying ‘chuck will’s widow’ but it sounded even more like it was saying ‘w-wee-weooo,’ which is probably closer to what the bird itself was thinking.
“Can we have it for supper?” asked the commendably pragmatic John.
“I don’t like it,” said Grandma. “Only Ida liked it when our mother would cook it.”
“When’s the last time you had it, mother?”
“When Ida was alive.”
“Oh, mother, I think we should have this for supper. I think if you try it you’ll be transported.”
A smile visited Grandma Mary’s face, and she said “After an hour it’s very soft.”
“So you’ve changed your mind?” I asked hopefully.
She seemed to purposefully disappear the smile. “No,” she said. “If you make it, I don’t want any.”
You don’t know our grandma the way we do: we knew that if we made her mother’s ancient childhood recipe that she would eat it and it would damn well be one of the happiest days of her entire senescence. Besides, how easily could she have immediately insisted that the ingredients were simply not available. She didn’t, though, did she?
We all noticed this, silently, so our moms decided it was time to gather everything. We’d been eating lardoons for breakfast and broth with dinner every day since we got to Grandma Mary’s, so obviously she couldn’t say anything about them. “By ‘little onions’ Grandmommy meant bulbs of onion grass, don’t you think, Hazel?” Aunt Pearl asked my mother.
“Could she have been ashamed of using wild onions?” my mom said. “Maybe people were all using those highfalutin onions in Memphis.”
“The floor of the woods is nothing but onion grass,” said Aunt Pearl. “But what about wine?”
“We ain’t got wine,” said Grandma Mary. “It’s illegal.”
The juridical angle of things was true enough, but my mom and Aunt Pearl didn’t appear perfectly convinced about the wine deficit on that account alone. “Perhaps you and father forgot to pour all your hooch into the river when you were instructed to,” my mom suggested. “Why don’t we go on down and check?”
We descended to the root cellar, all of us but Grandma Mary, who for her part had not left her chair since John and I had come to her squealing in fear of the song in the attic. In the cellar, sure enough, we found — that is, John found — a wooden crate stenciled with the words Missouri Wine. I learned eventually that they make a ton of wine in Missouri, and that our grandparents drank it every day until prohibition, perhaps a little afterwards, too. My grandfather, Grandma Mary’s husband, the bugler, died at some point in the twenties, from lack of wine, I suppose.
There were only three bottles left, all from 1918. One had been half-drunk, and had transformed into a foul vinegar. Aunt Pearl removed an unopened bottle and we went back upstairs after John and I were admonished not to point out to our grandmother that she had been wrong.
“All that’s left is the bird, Mama,” said Aunt Pearl. Grandma Mary’s arms were crossed and she was scowling.
“If we don’t find one, we’ll have something else for supper,” my mom said.
“They’re all over,” said Grandma Mary. “There was one in the attic, wasn’t there? It’s always been a big one around here bugging me.”
“One big one?” asked John.
“Always?” I added.
“I mean a lot of big ones. Maybe they’re all kin.”
My mom was the elder, so she offered to operate the gun. She took it from by the coat rack and she and her sister went out onto the porch. John and I followed, and before any of us could even step down the stairs, we saw, there at the foot of a blackgum tree, a giant one, standing still, its feathers all spottled, as John might have said. My mom shrugged at our luck and took aim. John and I covered our ears. We were sure the specimen would try to flee, but it didn’t budge. With our fingers lodged deep in our ear canals, John and I gazed up at my mom, who looked as though she felt this was too much luck, and she held fire. The chuck-will’s-widow at the edge of the woods began to fidget, impatiently almost. Then finally it took off, whereupon my mom discharged the weapon, eliciting little tufts of chaos everywhere the pellets of shot struck.
The bird fell dead from the air, and Aunt Pearl went to retrieve it. She hoisted it up by the legs and heaved it into my arms, saying “Why don’t you pull off the feathers and take out the shot, Honoria? And John can go look for wild onions.”
I was honored to perform this task, which I carried out on the porch, watching Aunt Pearl and John pull up onion grass under the trees. My mom went inside to begin cooking.
After the feathers were gone, I cut off the head, pulled out the guts, and washed the rest in a bucket. I’d done all this plenty of times with chickens in Memphis before.
In this chuck-will’s-widow I didn’t find a single shotgun pellet. Its skin, except where I’d beheaded it and so on, did not appear damaged or penetrated whatsoever. I brought it to my mom in the kitchen, where the lardoons were already browning, and told her I’d found no pellets. She turned it over a few times. “Maybe it died of fright,” she said. “But now if you just weren’t careful, and one of us breaks a tooth, I believe you know what will happen.”
I knew precisely what would happen, but I was sure it wouldn’t come to that, and my mother appeared to agree as she inspected the carcass dangling from her fist.
Soon enough it was time to throw the bird in with the wine and broth, and cover the pot. Grandma Mary wouldn’t come into the kitchen, but John was by the fireplace with her, asking if she could smell how good it smelled.
He managed to pry out a verbal “Yes” from Grandma Mary, which was enough to soften her: childhood gleamed in her eyes. “Come in with us!” he said. It was sad to watch her alone by the fireplace while the rest of us were packed into the kitchen, and I know for a fact her avoiding the kitchen had nothing to do with the amount of space five people would take up in a little room like that.
Miraculously John got her to stand, and they held hands as they walked towards the kitchen. The wood stove was right by the doorway. John entered, then Grandma Mary, and then some things we don’t all agree about happened. My mom and Aunt Pearl say that John, in his five-year-old’s enthusiasm, grabbed the handle of the pot to show Grandma Mary what was cooking. John and I say the contents of the pot, on their own, pushed aside the heavy lid and flew like a geyser onto poor Grandma Mary.
What everyone agrees on, especially her, is that the boiling mixture got all over her, mainly her face. Her scream was the loudest and most pathetic in history. It was a shockingly deep scream. Old woman screams are far deeper than you’d think.
She fled from the kitchen into her bedroom, leaving a trail of our supper on the floor. We all tried to follow at once, even as John and I were blinded with tears, but Grandma Mary shut the door behind her and from behind it, demanded we stay away.
Aunt Pearl placed an entire side of her body against the door, from ankle to cheek. “We need to get you to a doctor, Mama!” She looked like she’d been glued to the door.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Pearl. Go on, leave me. If Honoria wants to come in, she may. No one else.”
My mother, my aunt, and my cousin John all looked at me, personally. Maybe I was the one who had insisted least of us all that we have chuck-will’s-widow for supper that very night. Maybe that’s why I was allowed in.
As I opened the door, my grandmother called from within, rather surprisingly, all things considered, “The rest of you go finish making supper.” They obeyed, forming a pallid, clammy file as they entered the kitchen.
I entered. “Shut the door,” I heard her whisper. She was huddling under the quilt, head and all.
“Grandma Mary,” I stuttered. “Let me see.”
I feared a burned, blackened face. She rose, the quilt with her. When she’d sat all the way up, the quilt fell away.
And this wasn’t Grandma Mary at all. Here was Great Aunt Ida sitting, as youthful as in the photograph in the attic, wearing her familiar spottled dress. Not exactly who I was expecting, and she already had her finger to her lips to preclude any screaming of mine, but you must understand that I wasn’t afraid. John and I knew all about Great Aunt Ida, and we have thought of her fondly for all our days, only ever wishing she were still alive.
“Come with me, Honoria,” she whispered, quietly opening the window above my grandmother’s bed. She climbed through it, and halfway out, she glanced back at me. “Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” I whispered, smiling back. I was telling the truth, and if that’s hard to believe, let me admit at least that it wasn’t long before the fear materialized.
But then, I was a little girl, and she was a little girl too, one I felt like I knew — one I did know — and I came into this world believing in everything. Under the spell of overwhelming exhilaration I climbed out the window too, running as fast as I could after her into the woods. No matter how fast I ran, she ran faster, and time and again I thought I would lose her behind the trees.
Then she stopped so suddenly that I nearly ran into her — or through her. We had come to a spot by the river: the topography is a little complex. There’s an oddly shaped rock half in and half out of the river, which, as I saw when Ida clambered over it, hid a little patch of ground protected from both the water and the land. “Come on, Honoria!” she called.
Adults only ever called me “Honey.” I followed after her, climbing up that rock, and then down, whereupon she pointed at the patch of ground. “There!”
“What’s there?” I asked. It was an unremarkable patch except regarding how well nature had hidden it.
“Dig!” she said.
I glanced at her, and then at the ground.
“Dig,” she repeated, more seriously.
Slowly I kneeled. I plunged my hands into the dry leaves covering the ground. I think here I would have finally been afraid, had I not thought to use the digging to augment my exhilaration, which was an addicting feeling as I’d never before experienced.
Away I flung the leaves, then the black soil, and finally I found the only objects that could possibly have been my quarry: first little hand bones, then arm bones, ribs, and others I couldn’t identify exactly. The larger bones had holes all over them the size, yes indeed, of birdshot pellets.
Here I could no longer pretend that I was still experiencing exhilaration, as akin as it was to the terror which had slowly, and then quickly, become too impossible even for my bold spirit to deny.
Climbing the rock the first time was sort of difficult, even in my excitement. Climbing it the second time was effortless. It felt more like I’d simply hopped over it than climbed, really. I rocketed back to Grandma Mary’s house and charged up the porch steps.
“Girl, where were you?” There sat my grandmother, her face a little red, but unscathed beyond that. John was with her, though he had been scathed in my absence. Limping, he’d been whooped for his carelessness, as I learned.
But she knew damn well where I had been, if not immediately, then after looking into my eyes for just a moment. “Go inside and help your mother and Aunt Pearl, John.” He limped inside with such a volatile mixture of relief and apprehension that it was impossible for me to tell just which of them had whooped him.
“I found bones in the woods, Grandma Mary,” I whispered. “Grandma — there were holes in them –” footsteps from behind the door foretold my mom’s appearance.
The door swung open. “Honoria!” snapped my mother. Sometimes adults did call me Honoria, when I was due to get whooped.
“Go inside, Hazel, dear,” said my very good grandmother. “We’ll be in soon.”
My mother obeyed.
“Let’s go for a walk, Honey.”
Exhilaration and fear were both extinguished. All I did then was listen and follow as my grandmother went to the shed and picked out a couple shovels. Oh yes, she knew exactly where I had been.
We walked into the woods, I holding both shovels over my shoulders. “Your great-grandfather–”
“Yes, as your mother and your Aunt Pearl call him. But your great Aunt Ida–”
“Let me finish, Honey. She had a dress, the dress in the portrait. If you saw it in real life you’d know it was just the color of one of those birds. We were about your age when she died. We were running around in the woods. Granddaddy was hunting. He thought she was one of them.”
“He killed her?”
“By accident. I know what happened, I saw it. I won’t describe it, and I won’t describe him, after he saw what he’d done. The war came around not long after, and he signed up as soon as he could. My mama asked why he volunteered. We didn’t have any damn slaves. I think he meant to die in the war by way of atonement, and that he did.
“Neither of us was fit to give the other courage: we thought to bury her in our secret spot and say she went under the river and didn’t come up. He didn’t have to keep the secret long, he died in ’64. Me on the other hand–”
I was trying to do the math in my head, but I was too exhausted. Nevertheless we came to the rock once again, and my grandmother climbed up and down, I imagine just as she had as a girl. She was eager.
Together we dug all the bones up: the back of the skull and the shoulder blades were veritable sieves of little holes. There was a scrap of the dress left, but decades under the ground and it was certainly not the color of a chuck-will’s-widow.
Silently we carried the remains over the rock again, to the foot of a blackgum tree, where we dug and dug a grave of a far more dignified depth. We dropped the bones in and covered them over. My grandmother withdrew her pocket knife and carved her sister’s initals and a cross into the bark. Silently, we went home. I had questions, of course, but I couldn’t speak.
By the time we returned a little after dusk, Grandma Mary’s face had so improved that you’d never guess it had been injured at all. She told everyone something about how I was to let people know if I am to go on a walk by myself again, and that she shall always be happy to accompany me.
Enough of our supper remained unspilled that we could eat, and I have to say it wasn’t bad. Later my mom and aunt went looking for the cookbook, which had been misplaced in all the commotion. Grandma Mary and I looked as well. Even John looked, if his five-year-old wandering counts as looking. It never turned up, of course.
About the author: Peter Wakeman Schranz’s fiction, essays, and translations have appeared most recently in TEXLANDIA, The Decadent Review, and Metamorphoses. His podcast-style bandcamp page is fiftyfancies.bandcamp.com, and his website is dailydoofus.com. He lives in Philadelphia.
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