Excerpt: 'Each Little Bird That Sings'

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Each Little Bird That Sings

by Deborah Wiles

Paperback, 276 pages

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I come from a family with a lot of dead people.

Great-uncle Edisto keeled over with a stroke on a Saturday morning after breakfast last March. Six months later, Great-great-aunt Florentine died—just like that—in the vegetable garden. And, of course, there are all the dead people who rest temporarily downstairs, until they go off to the Snapfinger Cemetery. I'm related to them, too. Uncle Edisto always told me, "Everybody's kin, Comfort."

Downstairs at Snowberger's, my daddy deals with death by misadventure, illness, and natural causes galore. Sometimes I ask him how somebody died. He tells me, then he says, "It's not how you die that makes the important impression, Comfort; it's how you live. Now go live awhile, honey, and let me get back to work." But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. I'll start with Great-uncle Edisto and last March, since that death involves me—I witnessed it.

It was March 27, the first day of Easter vacation. I had just finished deviling eggs in the upstairs kitchen. Uncle Edisto and I were planning the first picnic of spring. My best friend, Declaration Johnson, would be joining us. I was sitting at the kitchen table, scarfing down my Chocolate Buzz Krispies. Uncle Edisto licked the end of his pencil and scribbled onto the crossword puzzle in the Aurora County News. Daddy and Mama were working. Great-great-aunt Florentine had just sneaked her ritual piece of bacon from the paper-toweled rack by the stove.

"I'm off to the garden, darlin's!" she said. "I feel a need to sing to the peas!" She kissed Great-uncle Edisto's head. He looked up from his crossword puzzle and sang—to the tune of "Oh! Susanna"—"Oh, Peas-Anna! Don't you cry for me . . ." I laughed with my mouth full of cereal. Aunt Florentine blew me a kiss, then she drifted out of the room, singing to herself: "For I come from Mississippi with a Moon Pie on my knee!"

"'Moon Pie'!" said Uncle Edisto, poising his pencil over the crossword puzzle. "That's it! Twenty-four across!"

The sky had been clouding up all morning, but I was ignoring all signs of rain. A grumble of thunder brought my dog, Dismay, to the kitchen, where he shoved himself at my feet under the table, pressed his shaggy black body against my legs, and shuddered.

"Oh, now, doggie!" said Great-uncle Edisto, peering under the table at Dismay. "You don't have to worry about no thunder! It's a beautiful day for a pic-a-nic!" Uncle Edisto was always optimistic. "Yessir," he said, smiling at me, "a pic-a-nic at Listening Rock should be just about perfect today!"

Then—Craaaack! went the thunder. Sizzle! went the lightning. And Boom! . . . The sky opened wide and rain sheared down like curtains.

Dismay scrambled for my lap, bobbling the kitchen table on his back.

"Whoa, doggie!" called Great-uncle Edisto. He steadied the table as Dismay yelped and tried to get out from under the table and onto me.

"Down, Dismay!" I shouted. Milk sloshed out of my bowl, and I made a mighty push-back in my chair. Dismay's toenails clawed my legs and his thick coat crammed itself into my nose as my chair tipped sideways with me and Dismay in it. "Umpgh!" The air left my body. My Snowberger's baseball cap popped right off my head. And there I was, lying on the kitchen floor with a sixty-five-pound dog in my face. He stuck his shaggy snout into my neck and shivered. An obituary headline flashed into my mind: Local Girl, 10, Done In by Storm and Petrified Pet!

Into the middle of all this commotion clomped my little sister, Merry, wearing Mama's high heels and a red slip that pooled around her feet. I peeked at her from under my dog blanket. As soon as she saw me, her eyebrows popped high and her mouth rounded into a tiny O of surprise.

"Dead!" she said.

"No," I said. I spit out dog hair. It was fine and silky and tasted like the cow pond.

"You all right, Comfort?" Great-uncle Edisto towered over me. He wore fat blue suspenders, and I could smell his old-person-after-shaving smell.

"I'm okay."

My head hurt. My plans were ruined. My dog was overwrought. But other than that, I was fine.

"Fumfort!" chirped Merry.

"Move, Dismay!" I pushed at him, but Dismay was glued to me like Elmer's. He gave my face three quick licks with his wet tongue, as if to say, Yep, it's thunder! Yep, it's thunder!! Yep, it's thunder!!!

Merry turned herself around and stomped out of the kitchen, singing, to the tune of "Jingle Bells": "Fumfort dead, Fumfort dead, Fumfort dead away!"

Downstairs the front doors slammed, and my older brother, Tidings, who had been painting the fence by the front parking lot, yelled, "Attention, all personnel! Where are the big umbrellas! I need rain cover!"

Dismay immediately detached himself from me and scuttled for the grand front staircase to find Tidings, who was bigger than I was and who offered more protection.

I gazed at the ceiling and took stock of the situation. One: It was raining hard. There went my picnic. Two: Best friend or not, Declaration would not come over in the rain—she didn't like to get wet. There went my plans. Three: I didn't have a three, but if I thought about it long enough, I would.

Great-uncle Edisto extended a knobby hand to me and winced as he pulled me to my feet. He gave me my baseball cap, and I used both hands to pull it back onto my head.

"You're gettin' to be a big girl," he said. He picked up the newspaper, tucked his pencil behind his ear, and looked out at the downpour. His voice took on a thoughtful tone. "The rain serves us."

Great-uncle Edisto always talked like that. Everything, even death, served us, according to him. Everything had a grand purpose, and there was nothing amiss in the universe; it was our job to adjust to whatever came our way. I didn't get it.

"We can have us some deviled eggs and tuner-fish sandwiches right here in the kitchen, Comfort," he went on. "Or, we can try another day for that pic-a-nic."

When I didn't answer, he turned his head to find me. "What's the matter, honey?"

"I'm disappointed." I studied my scratched-up legs.

"So am I!" Great-uncle Edisto took a Snowberger's handkerchief out of his shirt pocket and mopped at his face. "I like to pic-a-nic more than a bee likes to bumble!"

He did.

While we straightened the table and chairs and cleaned up the spilled cereal, Great-uncle Edisto told me about how disappointments can be good things—like the time he thought he'd planted Abraham Lincoln tomato plants in the garden but found out later they were really Sunsweet cherry tomatoes. He'd had his heart set on sinking his teeth into those fat Abe Lincoln tomatoes, but then he discovered that he liked the Sunsweets even better—and besides, he could pop a whole Sunsweet into his mouth at once and save his front teeth some wear and tear. "A distinct advantage at my age," he said.

"That doesn't help my mood," I said. The rain pounded so hard on the tin roof, it made a roaring sound inside the kitchen and we had to shout to be heard.

"Think of disappointment as a happy little surprise, Comfort. For instance . . ." Great-uncle Edisto pushed his glasses up on his nose and smiled like he had just invented a new thought. "I think I'll get me a nap." He was breathing hard. "There's always something good to come out of disappointment, Comfort. You'll see."

I could tell by the rhythm and tone of his voice that he was working up to his grand finale: "Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!"

"I don't like messes," I told him. "I like my plans."

Uncle Edisto patted me on the shoulder and lumbered off to his room. I called Declaration on the kitchen telephone, but her line was busy. I hung up and waited for her to call me, but she didn't, so I tried dialing her six more times. Then I gave up.

Tidings slammed the downstairs doors on his way back outside, and Dismay came to find me. We went to my closet to wait for something good to happen. I do my best thinking in the closet. It's quiet and comfortable and smells like opportunity. I sat with my back against the wall and my knees under my chin. Dismay sat facing me (it's a big closet), with his paws touching my bare toes. He panted nervously and his dog saliva drip-drip-dripped onto my feet.

"Thunder's gone," I said. "You can rest easy, boy."

Dismay wasn't sure, but he smiled at me anyway, with those shiny dog eyes. It made me want to hug him, so I did. His tail thump-thump-thumped the floor.

The next thing I knew, Great-uncle Edisto surprised us all.

Great-great-aunt Florentine whooped for everyone to come. (Her bedroom was next to Great-uncle Edisto's bedroom, and she was standing at her mirror, she said later, soaking wet, untying the ribbon on her sunbonnet, when Great-uncle Edisto took his tumble.)

"It's an apoplexy!" she hollered. "Stroke!"

Everyone came running. We picked up Uncle Edisto from where he had landed, put him into bed, covered him with one of Aunt Florentine's lavender-scented quilts, and called Doc MacRee. Mama sat on one side of Uncle Edisto's bed. She held Merry on her lap and looked exquisitely sad. Daddy kneeled next to Uncle Edisto on the other side of the bed and stroked his pale forehead. Tidings stood at attention next to Daddy, with his hand over his heart and a devastated look on his face.

Great-uncle Edisto gazed at us peacefully. He took us all in, like he was seeing us new, for the first time. His face was soft (turning a little gray), and, with the covers tucked under his chin, he looked for all the world like a small boy.

"Time to go home," he whispered. He blinked a slow blink, and when he opened his eyes, he seemed to be looking beyond us, to a land we couldn't see . . . a new world to explore.

"You are home, Uncle Edisto," I said. My heart pounded against my chest in a Don't go! Don't go! Don't go! beat. I kept one hand on Dismay; my dog stood next to me, calm and silent, keeping watch.

"You go on, Edisto," said Great-great-aunt Florentine, tears streaming down her wrinkled face. "It's your time. Have a wonderful trip, darlin'." She kissed him on the forehead and he closed his eyes. Then he smiled and . . . off he went.

I cried into Aunt Florentine's wet bosom. Everybody cried, because death is hard. Death is sad. But death is part of life. When someone you know dies, it's your job to keep on living.

So . . . we did. We adjusted. We did what we always do when death comes calling:

We gathered together.
We started cooking.
We called the relatives.
We called our friends.
We did not have to call the funeral home.
We are the funeral home.
I wrote the obituary.

Special to
The Aurora County News
(Mr. Johnson, this is for the March 28 twilight edition.)

Unexpected Death
Comes Calling at Snowberger's!
Life Notices by Comfort Snowberger:
Explorer, Recipe Tester, and Funeral Reporter

Imagine the shock and sadness all over Snapfinger, Mississippi, yesterday, when Edisto River Snowberger, patriarch of the Snowberger's Funeral Home Empire, died just before taking a nap after a failed picnic attempt due to a surprise thunderstorm. The entire Snowberger family sprang into action (that is, after we took a little time to sink into despair).

Edisto Snowberger was born in Fort Robinson, Nebraska, a stone's throw from the spot where Crazy Horse surrendered to General George Crook (Discovering Our World Magazine, issue 72). He (Edisto) moved to Snapfinger with his favorite uncle, Allagash, to start a sawmill (Snapfinger being a town filled with piney woods). When the sawmill went kaput due to hard times and poor management, Edisto and Allagash looked around them and saw a town full of old folks sitting on sidewalk benches, swinging on front porches, and sleeping in church pews, and they said to each other, "What this town really needs is a funeral home."

So they started one in the old sawmill boardinghouse, which turned out to be a perfect funeral home house with its six bathrooms and two kitchens—one upstairs (for family meals) and one downstairs (for funeral flowers and funeral food storage). Thousands of dead people have come through Snowberger's and have ended up in either the "Rock of Ages" or the "Everlasting Arms" section of the Snapfinger Cemetery. Edisto Snowberger touched all their lives—and the lives of their families—with the greatest respect. To this very day, people look forward to dying and coming to Snowberger's for their laying out.

Edisto created the Snowberger family motto, "We Live to Serve," and Allagash engraved it on the Snowberger's Funeral Home sign. Edisto's sayings will be chronicled in the forthcoming book A Short History of a Small Place: Snapfinger, Mississippi, written by Comfort Snowberger. But that's another story.

Allagash died eons ago, and Edisto is survived by his uncle's wife, Florentine Snowberger, and the rest of the Snowberger clan, including especially his favorite niece, Comfort Snowberger, who was also his picnic companion.

Viewing will be at Snowberger's at 7pm on Wed. evening, and visitation will be at 2pm before the funeral at 3pm on Thurs. Bring your favorite picnic foods (and recipes), as we will spread blankets and cucumber sandwiches around the newly opened "Bread of Heaven" section of the Snapfinger Cemetery, where Edisto Snowberger will enter into his well-deserved eternal rest.

Text from EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, copyright © 2005 by Deborah Wiles, reprinted/posted by permission of Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved.

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