Cemetery soup was really just wild onions from the cemetery that we made into soup when we stayed with Dad. He would take us to the cemetery to play tag or zombies, which was really just tag except he acted like a zombie. After, when we were tired of killing Dad, we would pull the dark green tops to release the wild onions from the ground. The first time it just tasted like onion water so Dad added potatoes and milk and it turned out much better. We liked the thought that the onions were growing over graves, that they might have bits or ghosts of dead people in them like a fairy tale. The scary kind.
But that time we couldn’t get the onions to make soup because of the dead grackles. Thousands of them. Their bodies a black carpet pulled over what should have been green grass and the stern gray of grave markers. Their small bodies, their jewelry-like claws and beaks all made for the sky transformed into this gross fabric.
For our games, we preferred the older graves in the back with the ornate stones softened by dark mold and lichen like someone had painted it on. Mainly because very few people ever went back there so we could play tag in the cemetery without getting told to leave, but also for the cool dark quiet of it. Some of these stones marked graves for soldiers who had died in the Civil War and Dad explained about that, about slaves and how wrong the South had been even though our teachers and grandparents and even these stones were telling us something different. The trees were bigger too, older. Stretching above us like they knew things we never would.
Dad told us how the old trees had part of the dead in them because their roots reached down into the coffins. That in some places, couples were buried with two trees planted over the graves because they loved each other so much they wanted their trees to grow together and get tangled up. I thought about Mom and Dad and how they wouldn’t want these tangled-up trees anymore since they were separated and getting a divorce, but I didn’t want to think about that so I imagined the roots of these big trees like worms or fingers creeping through the dark dirt right then even though I knew what roots looked like and how plants moved so slowly we couldn’t see them with our fast thoughts.
Hiding from the zombies behind ancient gravestones, the trees whispered above me, their leaves touching and I wondered if they could remember being people, but how could they when plants don’t have brains like us? My brother had nightmares about it for weeks, but I liked the idea of being part of a tree, a forest. So tall and hard nothing could hurt me. A tree on our old block had been hit by a pickup truck and the truck was destroyed, its driver killed, but the tree lived. He was a student and he was drunk. But he wasn’t one of Dad’s old students so it all seemed very far away like a story in a book even after we made Dad show us the tree and there was only a small spot where the bark had been scraped away.
The tree kind of afterlife sounded a lot better than our neighbors’ strict Christian heaven or Mom’s idea of death which was just nothing after, like the part of sleep you don’t remember that takes up all those hours, because she was a biologist.
But now we didn’t even think about the trees or the gravestones because the grackles were everywhere, their bones starting to shine silverwhite through the black velvet of feathers. The bodies were thick on the ground like some terrible snow. No grass peeked through and I wondered why nobody had cleaned them up when the cemetery was usually so clean like somebody came around every day and picked up the trash and vacuumed the entire place even the grass. The cemetery was always the neatest place we went. No candy wrappers, dog poop, cans, or cigarette butts. But now it was covered in these corpses, which should have been buried with the rest.
That day, instead of onions, we collected as many of their tiny skulls as we could carry. Piles of them in our shirts held out like some people hold babies to them. They were so light it felt like they just had to break apart in your hand, but they survived the trip and we put them on the mantel above Dad’s fireplace that didn’t really have a fire but an old gas heater, to dry. Dad’s girlfriend Mary frowned at them, but she didn’t smile at much of anything we did or said, which just made us try harder. We brought her drawings and candy we’d saved up, stupid toys we thought she’d like. Dad was always nervous when we were all together, so we would tell jokes and crazy stories like the one about the dead pickle we found in the front yard. Dad and Lee and I laughed like crazy, but Mary only smiled a little like she was trying but didn’t get it. Like it was a bad or dirty joke. What I didn’t find out until years later was that Mary was one of Dad’s students before he left the university. So she wasn’t really that old, but she seemed like an adult to us and we couldn’t understand why she didn’t like us when all the other adults did.
My mother decided not to go to medical school and after a lot of substitute teaching and crap jobs that didn’t pay enough, she got a job at the health department as an environmentalist where she was part of the team responsible for the city’s grackle problem. People complained about the grackles because they gathered in large, noisy groups and shit on cars. People complained a lot. My mother fought the poison solution to the grackle problem but thought the alternative — blasting them with a soundtrack of grackle distress calls until they went somewhere else — was useless and just ridiculous. It was more distressing for any human who had to hear it than the grackles. She played it for us once. It sounded like a screaming bird nightmare I was having and not a tape recording.
Mom argued so long with so many important people including the city council that she was moved to restaurant inspection, which she liked much better because she could be out of the office inspecting restaurants most of the time. But they poisoned the grackles before she officially moved so she was forced to be there when they did it even though she refused to participate on principle. She went home and got stoned before the grackles started dying. No one had imagined how many thousands of grackles the poison would kill or that they’d end up in piles all over the city with no one to clean up. No one but my mother who stayed stoned for days after and made my Dad pick us up from school and take us for the weekend even though he wasn’t supposed to get us for another two weeks.
So we didn’t know anything about all of this until years later, but we had those tiny shell-like bones. I got sick when I was out in the country staying with Shelley whose parents had been friends with my parents and were also now divorced. My Dad drove out in the middle of the night to their farm back in the hills and my fever was already 104 and they never figured out why because no one else got sick. I don’t remember much except that my friend said something horrible about me when Dad picked me up in his arms. Shelley was like that. She was the terrible bully friend my parents couldn’t do anything about because she was the daughter of one their best friends and I was desperately in love with her. I remember the look on his face (anger and disgust) and the look on hers (lovesick — my dad was ridiculously handsome) and a blank space where the car ride home and being carried up to Dad’s apartment should be.
I woke up in Dad’s bed under the peach satin comforter my grandmother gave him. It was so peach it made your mouth water, but I was too groggy and sick to do anything but lie there and listen. I could hear Dad joking with Mary in the tiny kitchen, my brother’s heavy-handed slow chopping and laughter, and the blue light of the gas heater. I remember falling in and out of sickly sleep, that feathery haze over the world. It took a while for my eyes to focus well enough to see the cedar Christmas tree covered in tiny lights and white ornaments. I couldn’t believe my father had a tree. All the Christmas stuff was at my Mom’s and she’d thrown out a lot of it when we moved then moved again. The room and the floor were cold and I was so weak I had to hold onto furniture, but I made my way out into the living room to see if there were any presents under the tree. There were, sloppily wrapped with the familiar tags on them (from: Daddy to: Lissa even though no one else but my brother called me that and I called him Dad now). The pearl-white ornaments on the tree were those bird skulls lit by the soft glow of the tiny white lights. Dad found me there and looked proud and nervous even though Mary just rolled her eyes.
“What do you think?”
“It’s awesome,” I said and smiled even though that’s not what I really thought. I had no idea what I really thought. It wasn’t a real Christmas tree like my friends or my grandparents had, which would have normally made me very upset because I desperately wanted normal, but it wasn’t even trying to be. It was a tiny cedar like the kind you see on the side of the road strewn with all those tiny bird skulls, those poisoned beautiful velvet beasts and all that was left of them. It seemed simultaneously insulting and also like the best kind of funeral and grave for all of them. Dad brought me the peach comforter, which Mary’s eyes followed with a pained smile (it was real silk satin, an antique from my grandmother) and carried me to a chair. I sat fading in and out of sleep, trying to figure out what to think about that tree draped in what was left of all those poison birds, all of that sky, and my mother’s anger.
Melissa Moorer was struck by lightning when she was eight. Her work has been published in luminous journals like Tin House, Electric Lit, Hobart, The Offing, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, and The Butter/The Toast. She was assistant editor at The Butter/The Toast where she wrote “This Writer’s On Fire” for Roxane Gay. @knownforms if you twitter.