By Bob Sloan
The cemetery was unplanned, its existence an accident, a result of events random as a coin toss. If it hadn't been for a killing, the clearing would be a cabin site or cornfield.
Toward the end of the unCivil War two young men were conscripted by one of the guerilla bands that even after Appomattox infested Kentucky's Blue Ridge. Their service to the Confederacy or the Union --no one knows which side claimed the irregulars' allegiance-- was brief, just a short ride deep enough into forested hills their home folks never heard the shots that killed them.
Murdered for their horses and guns, the youngsters lay undiscovered for days. The kin who found them, profoundly disturbed by the work of possums and crows, ants and spiders, lacked heart or stomach to move the bodies, or allow others to see. Known ever after as "the boys," they were buried where they fell.
Someone --no one's sure who-- decided the boys' interment made the clearing a cemetery, and soon the first planned grave was dug. Most likely the excavation was by one of the Enex clan --my great-grandmother's family-- to bury another, but decades of snow and heat,rain and wind have erased any identification hacked into the oldest stones. We've been digging graves there ever since.
All of them are family, and a few of us come together now and then to mow wild grasses seeding in from the woods, to clear dead limbs shed by a towering cedar tree. We patch broken tombstones, do other chores to show we remember people gone so long almost no one's left who heard even one of their voices.
In spite of our maintenance, the cemetery doesn't much resemble family plots closer to highways and roads. It's just a clearing in thick forest, an hour's uphill walk from any house, different from other clearings only in having two dozen tombstones jutting from the earth. Not long ago the county historical society visited, a day or two after one of our clean-ups. The next issue of what passes for a local paper declared the Enex Cemetery "abandoned. It's not, and never has been. Descendants of those buried there still maintain it, and still visit the cemetery, though in fewer numbers than in earlier years.
During the sixties, every Decoration Day branches of our blue collar clan, home from Ohio and Indiana factory towns, trekked en masse from Cousin Milton's to the cemetery, a hard up-hill hike for children and old people. Milton provided an easier way, towing a hay wagon behind a tractor that belched black smoke. The trip seemed to test the machine's limits as severely as it challenged the legs of seventy year old men.
The emergence of mountain children into adulthood is marked in small but significant events, like the presentation to a boy of his first shotgun, or the first meal a girl cooks entirely unaided. Our elderly take similar short steps into their dotage: one spring their vegetable garden is a little smaller, sometime that autumn they begin using a cane. Each year, the fact a certain child didn't ride the wagon, or an old woman climbed onto it after a minute or two of quarrelsome protest, provided tangible, public evidence the wheel of life had turned a few degrees.
Ahead of a dinner on the ground, the elders in the crowd told stories about the kin buried there. They recalled how Eliza Jane, believing a tow-headed grandson to be evidence of a daughter-in-law's adultery, poked at the boy with a cane whenever he came close. "Get away from me, you damned little Underwood," she'd hiss. (The despised Underwoods, on the other side of the ridge, sported loose morals and hair blonde as an Aryan dream.)
And someone described the sad way Thomas ended his term on earth. He was only twenty when he earned his corner grave, crank starting a gas engine attached to a grist mill. He didn't get out of the way fast enough when the handle "kicked" against his belly, and his mortal injury seemed more awful for its invisibility. He was dead in three days, two of them spent in fearful delirium.
Henry and Jim, who carved most of the tombstones, were remembered by those old enough to have ridden in the brothers' mule drawn wagon, to the place where they hacked slabs of workable bluestone out of a hillside. The journey and the work were recalled in detail, the memories savored.
Decades later, my father's cousin John I (the "I" standing for nothing, like the "S" in Harry S Truman), recounted larger versions of those stories, adding information not shared at Decoration Day picnics.
Thomas was blind drunk when that grist mill engine fatally kicked him. Sixty years later, the older brother who warned Tom to leave the cranking to those who were sober still feels miserably responsible for the death.
Jim, the stone-cutter, never saw his fortieth birthday. A quart of poison moonshine killed him, and though the family tried to learn the seller's identity, no name ever came to light.
The grandmother whose cane fended off the attentions of the fair-haired boy who became my father was more than an amusing eccentric. Murderously senile, she tried over and over to kill her despised daughter-in-law, attacking with knives stolen from the kitchen.
John I liked visiting the cemetery at least monthly, and whenever I got the chance I'd go along. I was there when he selected the bit of Enex ground we'd bring him to on an April day five or six years farther 'round the wheel of life. Straddling his burial plot, the old man studied the sky a moment, then declared he'd bet money he could aim a twenty two rifle into a rainbow trajectory, hit the old barn near the "home place."
On sunny days it was a fine thing to sit on a convenient tombstone and listen while John recalled people he'd known personally, or repeated stories about those who died before he was born. When it was just John and me, getting comfortable never seemed disrespectful.
He'd tell how whiskey killed this one, inform me that one over there was a woman chaser, and the lady buried yonder had a baby without ever telling its daddy's name. Now and then John remembered the hard death of a sister in a 1919 flu epidemic that carried off whole families, described the awful sound of a teenaged girl's smothering and futile fight for breath, while in another room a younger brother was thought to be dying as well.
The brother survived. When he lost a leg in a car wreck after World War II John and some cousins and nephews brought the limb to the graveyard, carried in a special box. John could show exactly where they buried it.
The old man's memory never let go of a piece of information, once it got a grip on it. My sister challenged his recall once. He hadn't seen her in well over a decade, and she'd grown from gawky adolescence to become a married woman with three kids. "You don't know who I am, do you John?" she teased at a family reunion.
He looked my sister over and said, "Well, on the fifteenth of April in nineteen and fifty three your mother had a little girl," and went on to tell Sis how much she'd weighed at birth, what time of day she came into the world, other details of her arrival. John finished with "Your mother decided to name her little girl Joy. And here you are."
Birth dates weren't all he remembered, and in time it was those other recollections I most appreciated. In my middle twenties, like many of my cousins, I fought serious, occasionally bloody battles with alcohol and other drugs. My first trip home after finding something in the way of resolution for those miseries was to mark another Decoration Day. A heavy load of guilt and shame rode along when Pop and I carried John to the graves he wanted to visit.
A great high oak rises twenty or so yards from the house where one great uncle lived. Under the tree is not cemetery, but Uncle George asked to be buried there, and he was. Slouched beside that uncommon resting place, John looked me over and confided, "You know, whiskey's taken an awful toll on our family." A dreamy look, the sign John was dredging up distant memories, softened his aging eyes. "Yes sir, it's killed a slew of us."
"Like who?" I wanted to know. Reactions of my folks and others to those of us who'd grown up "bad to drink" suggested my generation was the first in our family's history to explore alcohol and other recreational intoxicants.
Memories settled and sorted at last, John delivered a long accounting of blood kin who lived hard, or even died while figuratively swimming a rolling wild river of whiskey. That was the day I learned alcohol could be blamed for the death of my father's older brother as much as an engine's kick. Uncle George himself, whose grave brought us to the foot of that oak tree, was a moonshiner. He died of injuries incurred while defending his still from larcenous competition. I don't recall how many names were included in John's litany, but they all had intimate relationships with liquor I'd never imagined.
Somewhere in the course of the old man's recitation I glanced at my father, whose eyes were fixed where the toe of one shoe shifted dust around. When Pop looked up, I could see in his face this truth: he would have never delivered this old news. I couldn't help smiling, and turned back to John, who seemed near the end of telling how grievously alcohol beat up our family decades before my cousins and I were born.
John paused, took a long breath. "And on your mother's side..." he began, and then told me about those people.
He let me know my generation wasn't the first to discover illicit sex, any more than we invented an appreciation for beer and bourbon. Even in the old days "love children" were a common consequence of too much moonlight away from prying eyes. They included a wise and wonderful old man whose relationship to our family I never understood, until John I explained how in the years before he met grandma, my grandfather knew a lady up in Cincinnati.
Knew her Biblically...
Then fetched home and raised the son who was a product of that knowledge.
I learned which aunts were pregnant when they married, though they still don't know I know. John gave me the names of the uncles who'd been "bad to fight," told me who among them carried personal awareness of what lay behind the iron doors of the old Rowan County Jail.
John was a wonder, a well of information freely offered, just because we were family. There didn't seem to be anything he wouldn't tell me.
Until I asked about the Driscoll House...
Cousin Fred deals in real estate and called a while back, said he'd been offered a tour of the Driscoll House in advance of its going on the market. When he asked if he might bring along a reasonably well behaved cousin, the lady organizing exposure of the house to real estate agents said that oughtn't be a problem. So one Saturday I walked through rooms I'd heard of all my life, but never expected to see.
The Driscoll House was, in the thirties, the sort of "house" where every bedroom had --still has, for that matter-- a convenient sink not far from the bed. My father talks about being there as a small boy.
After delivering a load of timber, with a few dollars folded into their overall pockets, Pop's older brothers and cousins sometimes stopped at the Driscoll House on their way home. He had no idea what was going on, but the sweet smelling women were more beautiful than anything on Holly Fork. They coaxed him down off a timber wagon with candy, while one-by-one in turn his brothers and cousins disappeared inside for a time.
There's one tale about the house I'll probably never know in its entirety. For decades Pop occasionaly reminisced about "the best looking redheaded woman I ever saw," said she and John I had "a serious thing going" at one time. There was talk they might even get married, until a man running the "house" stabbed her to death. There was speculation she'd been carrying John's baby at the end.
The man who cut her disappeared, and while some said he went back to wherever he was from, others claimed he was dead before he could make the county line. No one was arrested, let alone brought to trial for either killing.
A couple of years before John I died, I asked about the redhead. Suddenly the man happy to tell secrets in which family --including himself-- played embarrassing roles, the man who told me things my aunts and uncles believed were secrets, a man famous for "telling it all" had almost nothing to say about "that redheaded woman." What John did tell, leavened with imagination, became a short story published in a literary quarterly a few years ago.
About once a week Cousin Fred and I drink beer together, most often beside a pickup parked next to John I's grave. Lately we've speculated about John and that (to date) nameless redhead, wondered which kin, reference book, or brittle yellow newspaper pages might yield answers about her.
We're not sure, not yet. Nearly all John's peers are dead, and the one old man who might be able to tell us something is stone deaf. Asking him about anything provokes a long, detailed narration about events and people entirely unrelated to the question.
I don't know where or what the answers to our questions about that woman are, or if Fred and I will find them.
That's why I don't get too cuaht up in genealogy. People on both sides of my family can tell me where and when a certain seventeenth century someone was born, married, and buried. But I can't find a soul to give me the name of a beautiful woman, whose red hair yet shimmers in the memory of those who met her as children, a lady gone far longer than I've been alive, but still talked about.
A lady I think John I may have loved enough to kill for.
John was almost eighty when he took a last long breath and slipped away from us. After his well-attended funeral, a considerable crowd followed his coffin past Campbell Branch and up the hill toward the Enex ground. A hard morning rain turned the primitive road into a muddy mess, and the hearse bogged down in the last sloppy quarter mile. John's casket was transferred to the bed of a four-wheel drive Civil Defense pickup, and everyone with similar vehicles was drafted to transport old men who were John's friends to his grave on Enex ground.
A hundred or more stood there at the end, and it took a while to get all of us in place. Nobody minded the wait. Appalachian spring was all around us, every breath brought the reek of renewed fertility, the surrounding woods were lively with rustling and singing from scores of birds.
The birds are what no one who stood at John I's grave has forgotten.
A few minutes before the minister started a brief final speech, my mother leaned close to whisper, "Watch up in the trees." And I did watch, glad to have something to look at other than a gaping raw hole in the earth.
Entire flocks were coming to roost. Every tree or bush, every limb large enough to support the negligible weight of sparrows, or the significant presence of jays and cardinals became a perch, bending into ground-grazing arches. Strands of barbed wire fence at the limits of Enex ground sagged, then sagged lower as still more birds came to roost. A quiet country cemetery became a cacophony of sound, so much so any sort of conversation required an ever louder voice.
I do not necessarily believe in ghosts, or hold to superstitions. I'll not be disappointed if, after death, I become only so much mud. There are worse ways to spend eternity than slowly evolving into a piece of Kentucky hilltop, and with no personal sense of a world beyond this one, I'm suspicious of "spooky" tales told by others.
But I offer this single piece of truth: when Reverend Whomever opened his Bible to read a final few verses over the mortality of John I, those birds quieted as though an avian choirmaster signaled, "Enough!" John's grave side service ended in a profound hush befitting any church.
When the preacher was done, when he closed his Bible and affirmed we had all gone as far with John I as anyone could go, as he gently suggested we let that great and good man go in peace, with a babel of chatter and cheep, the birds were gone, all gone, in seconds.
I can't explain, won't offer rationalization for what happened that April afternoon. I know John loved that plot of ground. I still hear, in memory, the rhythm of his voice explaining how all those graves came to be filled.
It would be lovely to believe the birds welcomed him to a peace and rest he assuredly deserved.
In life John felt at home on Enex ground, and if there's any consciousness or awareness after death, I'm confident he's still comfortable there. It hasn't changed much: the biggest alteration since Milton's tractor labored up the hill, a few dozen people following, breathing hard at the climb, is John's stark white V.A. tombstone.
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This essay was awarded the Shelby Foote Prize by the William Faulkner Society of New Orleans.
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