The summer my Daddy died, I believed in the whippoorwill more than God. I was only eight years old, yet I knew with grown-up certainty that the bird lurked in the dark outside my grandparents’ farmhouse, ready to peck my eyes out and eat them like grapes. This was what happened to girls and boys who weren’t in bed before the bird started its spooky serenade. At least, that’s what Papaw and Grandma always reminded us.
I am thinking about them now, driving toward the tiny Kenosha, Wisconsin cemetery where they lay side by side with Papaw’s somber Scandinavian ancestors. Today I turn 28, Daddy’s age that summer. The air above the tiny blacktop highway dances with heat, and outside my window spring is turning into summer, birch and willows trading light greens for the rich, darker leaves of late June. Cornstalks spray from the black loam like green fountains, knee high now but not for long.
I’ve finally returned to see where Papaw and Grandma are laid to rest. Say my good-byes. Mama was hurt I didn’t come back for the funerals, but I said I just couldn’t miss school. Papaw and Grandma would have understood. Besides, I always told myself it was the whippoorwill that kept me away.
But I knew better.
It was on this same road that Mama drove us toward Papaw, Grandma and the farm twenty years ago. The whippoorwill topic had come up early in our 12-hour trip and after that, I’d sat in the back seat with my six-year-old brother Evan, fretting about getting to the farm before dark.
“I’m thinking of a color,” Mama had said, glancing at me and Evan in the rearview mirror. Neither of us made a peep, even though “colored eggs” was our favorite car game in the whole world.
When Mama first told us we were going to the farm, she’d said it would be fun, like vacation, except without Daddy. And of course, she couldn’t stay long. Evan and I had nodded, although we weren’t convinced. Mama’s non-stop smoking and intermittent crying on the six hundred-mile drive from St. Louis hadn’t been reassuring.
“Well?” Mama’s voice was high-pitched and insistent, like a cat mewing outside the kitchen door.
“Are you blue?” ventured Evan. He hadn’t caught on that Mama would never pick anything so ordinary.
“Nope. Em?” Mama sucked hard on her cigarette, her cheeks drawn in sharp and bony before she released the blue-gray cloud inside our car. She glanced at me distractedly in the mirror as I frowned, trying to conjure her favorites. Cerulean? Burnt umber? Mama wasn’t one to let kids win just because they were kids.
“Chartreuse,” I said matter-of-factly. I didn’t even know what color chartreuse was.
In the mirror, I saw Mama’s uneven eyebrows arch in a spasm of surprise. I was right.
“How’d you know that, Emma?” Mama looked worried. Evan’s chocolate-brown eyes were puzzled, too.
“Did you cheat?” he wanted to know.
“You can’t cheat in colored eggs, stupid.” I turned toward my window and the sign rushing toward us: ‘Welcome to Wisconsin, The Dairy State.’
“I just knew is all.”
After Mama left us at the farm, I kept looking over my shoulder. At the first hint of night, I felt the whippoorwill watching, waiting to swoop down and peck me into permanent darkness. I didn’t like being too far away from my bed.
But Saturday night was bath time on the farm and — as the house had no running water — we found ourselves unwilling prisoners in the little red pumphouse, across the yard and what seemed like miles away from our attic room. Evan and I shivered, naked, dancing from foot to foot on the cold cement floor. Hugging ourselves for warmth, we silently willed Grandma to hurry as she delicately emptied the contents of the kettle as if she were pouring tea. The boiling water made a hollow sound in the metal washtub before deepening to a splashing gurgle.
At the pump, Papaw whistled the Tiger Rag while he pushed up and down on the stiff handle. The ancient pump sang a reluctant song, a deep groaning and humming, until the spigot coughed out the first narrow stream of water like an old man clearing his lungs.
Papaw added the cold water to Grandma’s hot. Testing the mixture with his huge hands, he gave us the long-awaited nod.
“Hop on in, you two.”
Evan jumped in with a shout while I eased one foot over the rim, testing the water. “Ouch! Too hot,” I complained. Evan grabbed my arm and pulled until I fell, sloshing steamy water over the sides of the tub. Evan and I easily fit into what we thought was a strangely wonderful bathtub.
Papaw laughed, a silver tooth gleaming in the light from the pumphouse’s one bare bulb. He slid an arm around Grandma’s slender waist and gave her a little squeeze.
“Oh, Maury,” she said, as though she didn’t like it. But her eyes smiled.
Grandma wiggled free from Papaw’s encircling arm to pick up the cracked yellow bar of lye soap. She knelt down and began rubbing the rough soap all over me so hard it hurt. I pushed her hands away as angry tears bubbled up inside me.
“What’s this?” Grandma came at me again with the scratchy soap and I bit down on the thin, tender skin of her upper arm.
“Aaaaaagh! Maury!” Grandma dropped the bar and clutched her arm, a magenta half moon taking shape on each side. Papaw was over us in a split second, yanking me upright by one slick arm. I felt the sting of his hand on my bottom, but it was Evan who started crying.
“Don’t you ever treat your Grandma that way, Emma.” I had never seen my Papaw mad. “Say you’re sorry right now.”
I hung defiantly by one arm in Papaw’s grip, dizzy with fear yet still drunk on that reckless, white-hot anger. “You can’t make me.” I spit the words out like sour milk. “You’re not my Daddy.”
Papaw loosened his grip and hurt scuttled across his face like a shadow. Instantly, I was ashamed. My rage melted into a flood of hot tears. “I’m s-s-sorry.”
Grandma shot a look at Papaw and shook her head before settling beside the tub again. Evan sniffled under her reassuring hand. “These kids are just out of sorts right now,” she said, dolloping green shampoo on our heads and scrubbing our blond hair stiff with suds. “It’s all right, baby.”
A few dipperfuls of water later, tears forgotten, we dried off with a towel stiff from hard water and repeated dryings in the Wisconsin sunshine. I felt like I’d been sanded, my skin red and warm all over.
“It’s almost nine,” Papaw’s eyebrows arched, his usual good humor restored. “Know what that means?”
“The whippoorwill!” Evan and I shouted, our cry a mixture of terror and
excitement. I had completely forgotten my earlier dread, and it returned to my stomach like a bag of wet sand.
I poked my head through the neck of my cotton nightgown and dashed toward the farmhouse. As I shoved my arms through the wadded-up sleeves, the damp grass and then the creaky planks of the side porch flew beneath my feet. I slammed the screen door, leaving behind Evan’s pleas to wait. With a hop, hop, hop, I was up the stairs and sliding to safety between the cool sheets of my twin bed.
I lay there imagining the whippoorwill big and black, with glowing red eyes and a hooked beak that was extra sharp and pointy. Just right for popping kids’ eyeballs like balloons. I heard my heart pounding in my ears, and then Evan’s small, steady footsteps as he reached his bed on the other side of the room.
“Coulda waited,” he whispered, hurt, but too worried about the whippoorwill’s arrival to talk out loud.
We didn’t have long to wait.
“Whip-Poor-Will, Whip-Poor-Will!” The clear call sounded close, as though the evil bird was sitting in the weeping willow in the front yard. “Whip-Poor-Will, Whip-Poor-Will,” he cried to the cornstalks and scrubby pines surrounding the narrow yellow farmhouse. The glowing green arms of my dresser clock showed exactly nine o’clock. Right on time.
I burrowed deeper under the layers of light cotton blankets, my body tensed for a fight. Suddenly, there was a frantic rustling as an inky black shadow fell across my face, with an insistent pecking sharp on my shoulder.
“Aaaugh!” I was paralyzed with panic, my scream stuck halfway down my throat.
“Can I get in bed with you?” It was Evan. “I’m scared.”
Reluctantly, I scrunched myself onto one half of my tiny bed as Evan snuggled in
beside me. “You could’ve gotten our eyes pecked out,” I said, irritated.
“Make him quit, Emma,” Evan whispered.
“He will,” I said. And, almost as if he heard, the whippoorwill stopped his self-pitying cry.
“How’d you know?” Evan asked, sleep slurring his words. I felt his small body relax, his breath become regular. How could I explain the way I hated and feared this bird, yet knew him so well it was as if he was perched inside me lurking, longing?
In the eerie silence, I recited my prayers in my head, more out of habit than conviction. I thanked God for my Mama and Daddy, Grandma and Papaw. And Evan, too, I added grudgingly, wiggling myself a little more room on the pillow.
But mostly, I thanked the whippoorwill for sparing me one more night.
The light streaming through the gingham curtains had the bright whiteness of early morning. The smell of frying bacon curled up from downstairs, where Papaw was whistling and singing as he shaved:“Pistol-packin’ Mama, lay that pistol down. Oh, pistol-packin’ Mama, won’t you lay that pistol down?”
At breakfast, Papaw spread pin cherry jelly on our toast while Grandma circled the table, ladling oatmeal into the worn, blue bowls.
“Got a letter from your Mama yesterday.” Grandma kept moving, piling dark sugar on the oatmeal where it melted into sweet brown ponds.
I looked up, but it was hard to catch her eye. Papaw was reading the paper, his long legs stuck out from under the table and crossed at the knee. The lower leg bounced like it did when he gave Evan horsey rides. I was too big for that now.
Grandma cleared her throat. “Your Mama says your Daddy’s back home now, out of the hospital.”
“When are they coming to get us?” My unstirred oatmeal was beginning to form a thin, shiny skin. I felt a twinge of anxiousness mingled with guilt for not having thought much about my Mama or Daddy over the past two weeks.
“Well, now, she’s not sure just yet.” Grandma patted me on the hand, sweaty from clenching my spoon too tight. Her mouth was a tired band of red rubber.
“She thinks maybe a couple more weeks or so.” Grandma finally sat down, balling and unballing her apron in her lap.
I asked if we could be excused and she looked glad.
“Where we goin’?” Evan was the ideal companion: big enough to keep up but small enough to boss around. I scratched the angry red mosquito bite in the bend of my arm and surveyed our options. Since Mama had said goodbye, we’d been over all forty acres and never failed to turn up something interesting.
There was the tiny trout stream that burbled under the low water bridge, so clear that the fish could watch you bait your hook. We’d played in the old chicken coop, sneezing from dust and dirty feathers. Evan had followed me up the empty grain silo, too, complaining all the while that Grandma was going to give us a licking if she caught us.
Even going to the bathroom was an adventure in the two-hole outhouse with its magazines and bag of lime. Sometimes we’d visit more often than we needed to, just to scoop lime down the hole after we’d done our business.
“We’re gonna play ‘milk cow,’” I said, heading toward the deserted barn, its gray boards peeking through worn whitewash like missing teeth. I unlatched the crooked door, and it scraped a semicircle in the dirt as it opened. Sharp shafts of sunlight, hazy with the dust of straw and old manure, broke up the darkness inside.
“We can’t go in here,” Evan fidgeted beside me. “Grandma said.”
“She said we couldn’t go in the loft,” I said imperiously, shoving him inside. “C’mon.”
There were a dozen stalls. Each had a head chute, plus a water trough and manger to keep the cow occupied while the milking got done.
Evan looked dubious. “There’s just a lot of old poop in here,” he complained, kicking a crumbling pile with his sneaker.
“Of course, dummy.” I put on my most serious big-sister scowl, as though Evan were missing the obvious point. “Cows have to go too, you know.”
I opened a rusty head chute. “I’m the farmer and you’re the cow. Stick your head in.”
“No,” Evan said grumpily. “I wanna be the farmer.”
“The farmer has to do all the work,” I reasoned. “You get to eat hay and drink lots of water.”
“So?” His interest was fading fast.
“You get to ‘moo,’ too.” I shrugged. “But I guess I’ll do it if you don’t want to.”
“No, me, me!” Evan got down on his hands and knees, crawling on the dirt-encrusted cement. “MOOOOooooooooo!”
“Well, all right,” I said. “But you’ve got to put your head in here.”
Evan shoved his cropped, blond head into the V and I pushed the metal flush with his neck, securing it with the chain. “MOOOoooo!” Evan shook his head gleefully, clanking the chute and snorting.
“I gotta get you some hay.”
A wooden ladder promised the forbidden hayloft, and from the bottom rung I could barely make out the hole through the shocks of yellow straw. The ladder wobbled as I poked my head into the loft. I sneezed, the sound echoing off the high-beamed ceiling like a giggle in church.
“MOOOoooooo!” Evan rattled the chute impatiently.
“Just a minute,” I called down the ladder. Years of cobwebs draped the loft like crepe curtains. In one dark corner, a dusty trunk shedding its leather skin in dry black patches caught my eye. I made my way toward it slowly, feeling for solid wood beneath the straw with every step.
The huge trunk was unlocked. As I pushed the lid open, my nostrils filled with a deep, biting smell that was unfamiliar to me.
“Emmmmmma! Emmmmmma! Let me out!” Evan was shrieking now, and I was too afraid to yell into the yawning black mouth of the steamer trunk. I peered over the edge, holding my breath.
I shuddered, my eyes making out the still shapes of five dead kittens. The bodies were twisted and piled on each other like they had clawed and spit until the very end. The meager fur that was left stretched over tiny bones, and eyeless sockets stared up at me, accusing.
Goosebumps prickled on the back of my neck: the whippoorwill. I knew he had done this. He was even more horrible than I had imagined. The thought froze me where I stood and I lost my grip on the lid, which slammed shut with a dusty thud.
“Emmmmmma!” Evans tearful sobs were punctuated by pitiful clanks.
“I’m coming! Geeze,” I yelled, trying to recapture the big sister bravado I no longer felt. Hurriedly, I hopped off the ladder two rungs from the bottom.
“I’m telling,” said Evan when I released the chain. He looked at me darkly, rubbing the red marks on his neck. “You’re gonna get it.”
“Too bad,” I sniffed as disinterestedly as I could. “I was going to show you what I found in the loft. But if you’re going to tattle like a little baby...”
I could see Evan’s mind carefully turning over the options. It was rare for him to have the upper hand and he wasn’t sure what to do next.
“But Grandma said we’re not supposed to go up there,” Evan said sternly, struggling to keep his curiosity in check. He couldn’t. “What’d you see?”
“Nevermind.” I said. “You’re too little anyway.”
“No, I’m not!” Evan pulled himself up to his full three-and-a-half feet, a miniature soldier. “Please?”
I was back in charge. Roughly, I pulled Evan toward the loft by one thin arm. “Okay, but I go first.” Scampering up the ladder, I pushed my head through the straw surrounding the hole in the loft floor. The hazy, suffocating air hung like a shroud around my shoulders.
Evan’s hand punched at my ankle. “Hurry up!”
Shaking the dust and straw from our hair, Evan and I stood up. Slits of sunlight between the boards shone like tapers, giving the tired black trunk the eerie glow of an abandoned altar.
“Ready?” I whispered, pausing for maximum effect. We waded noisily through the loose straw toward the trunk, kicking up dust from the decaying grass and bird droppings.
“Inside this trunk is something so sick and yucky and horrible, it’ll make you puke.”
Interest piqued, Evan drew close beside me as I put both hands on the trunk lid, preparing for a dramatic opening. “What is it?” he asked, his eyes moving rapidly between my face and hands.
“It’s what happens when the whippoorwill gets hold of you!” I threw open the lid triumphantly, waiting for Evan’s scream when he recognized the ghastly contents. His nose wrinkled slightly as he turned away from the trunk without even a glance at me.
“Just some old dead cats,” he announced. “Whippoorwills don’t peck cats. Just kids.”
I had just opened my mouth to protest when Grandma’s yell cut like a scythe through the scratchy layers of straw. “Emma Lynn? Evan? You get yourselves down here right this minute!”
Reluctantly, I felt my way down the ladder, one tennis-shoed foot at a time, Evan scrambling on top of me like an overanxious puppy.
Grandma’s dark shape waited in the sunlit doorway.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” Grandma demanded. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times not to play up there.”
Grandma shoved us both blinking into the midday sun. “Pick me out a willow switch.”
Evan gave me a righteous “I-told-you-so” look and wasted no time in selecting a slender branch, which he held out to Grandma like an offering. I turned my back on his hollers as the switch crisscrossed his sturdy brown legs. Instead, I slunk toward the weeping willow that held our tire swing, reaching for a low, supple branch. Big ones hurt, but thin ones could really burn. I settled on something in-between, snapped it off and slowly peeled away the thin twigs and light green leaves.
“Quit your dilly-dallying,” Grandma marched over and snatched the switch from my nervous hands. But as the limb stung the backs of my legs, all I could think about was the trunk of eyeless kittens. If the whippoorwill hadn’t killed them, who had? Why? And would he or she do the same to me? Panic gripped my heart like the unexpected cold of a first frost. I put my head down and ran like a rabbit.
“Emma!” Grandma hesitated just a second before coming after me, skirts swishing in the high grass. I could barely see as I swept aside the fragrant stalks. Grandma’s breath came in hard puffs and grunts behind me. The whipping would be worse when she caught me, but I kept going until a loose rock sent me end over elbows into the warm, scratchy fescue.
Grandma stood over me, the switch limp in her hand. I scrambled to get up, my palms pebbled with pockmarks from dirt and rocks. Then her hand clamped clawlike onto my tanned shoulder, collapsing any hope I had for escape.
To my surprise, she held me tight against her pale blue shirtwaist. I smelled the dark scent of her talcum powder mingled with sweat, and the hard metal snaps of her dress made dents in my cheek.
“You gonna whip me now?” My defeated mumble soaked deep into the folds of her dress. She held me away with both hands, kneeling down to meet my gaze. Her amber eyes were a mix of sadness and resignation, and for some reason, I started crying.
Grandma sighed. “Honey, don’t you know the last thing your Grandma wants is to hurt her grandbaby?” She held me again, tightly, rocking to the rhythm of the wind in the tall grass.
A few days later, it was my birthday. All day long I had waited for word from Mama and Daddy, hanging anxiously around the inside of the farmhouse until Grandma shooed me out with a broom like she might a detested dustbunny.
“I know they’re gonna call,” I had told Grandma, carefully dodging her efficient swift, sweeps on the side porch.
“Now, honey, your Mama’s got a lot on her mind,” she started.
“But it’s my birthday,” I reasoned, talking the way grownups always spoke to me: a little bit slower, patience stretched tightly over the words like plastic wrap you could still see through.
“We’ll keep an eye out for the mailman,” was all she said.
Morning had inched its way to afternoon. No birthday cards in the metal mailbox. But I wasn’t disappointed; I’d known all along Mama would call. After dinner, the four of us celebrated with a dish of homemade ice cream and presents: a new nightgown and slippers from Grandma and Papaw and a yellow yo-yo from Evan, which he handed me badly wrapped in newspaper, rubber bands and tape.
Evan and I were catching lightning bugs in the pinky glow before dusk, when Norbert pulled into the front yard in his beat-up truck. It was my phone call. Norbert was Papaw and Grandma’s only neighbor. He lived about two miles away, raising corn and dairy cows on the same land his father had farmed before him. Since Grandma and Papaw were only here in the summer, they did without a phone and Norbert didn’t mind sharing.
His beefy, sun-reddened face leaned out the window, eyes shaded by a John Deere cap. “Maury, Viv. Your daughter just called. Says it’s real important.” The pickup belched an exclamation point.
Grandma was already halfway to the truck when she noticed me at her heels. “Stay here, Emma. Get the kids to bed, Maury,” she tossed out the pickup window, smoothing her dress with one hand and her cotton-white hair with the other. Papaw nodded, his hands loose and fidgety by his sides. I stood stunned in the drive, watching Grandma disappear in the cloud of chalky dust.
“Well,” Papaw scratched his head. “You heard your Grandma. Get your pajamas on.”
Evan clutched a Mason jar full of fireflies in his grubby hands. “Awww, Papaw.” The bugs flashed their cool green light against his palms. “The whippoorwill hasn’t even come yet.”
Papaw cocked his head to one side. “Oh, he’ll probably be here momentarily.” He checked his watch distractedly. “Yep. You don’t want him to find you out of bed, do you?”
We shook our heads. We didn’t want to go to bed, but we didn’t want our eyes pecked out, either. Evan slowly screwed the cap off the jar and the fireflies climbed to freedom, resting on the rim before spreading their wings to catch the cool evening breeze. They flashed once and were gone.
I couldn’t sleep. For a while I tried imitating Evan’s soft, measured breaths but that didn’t help. Grandma was still at Norbert’s and the whippoorwill hadn’t come yet; his absence fueled my anxiety. Even though I hated that bird, I counted on him to show up.
“Whip-Poor-Will, Whip-Poor-Will!” The cry cut through my heart like a hatchet. The thing had to be in the front yard.
I listened a minute more before throwing off my covers. I knew I was risking my eyesight, but I had to see this monster. My heart hammered as I slid my bare feet to the floor. I took the steps one at a time, pausing to listen for Papaw or the sudden flutter of dark wings around my face.
I took a deep breath and poked my head around the door at the bottom of the stairs. No Papaw. Most of the lights were off.
“Whip-Poor-Will, Whip-Poor-Will,” the sound echoed from the front porch, reverberating through my ears all the way to the bottoms of my feet. If I peeked out the dining room window, I felt sure I’d see the whippoorwill.
Slowly, I pulled the tired lace curtain aside and pressed my hot face against the glass. I squinted against the brightness of the porch light.
What I saw made me draw my breath in so sharp it hurt, and I nearly yanked the curtains down as I jumped back from the window.
He was perched on the front porch, whistling shrilly near one of the corner posts. I could see his head tilt at an odd angle as the sound came out, one mournful cry after another.
It was Papaw.
I released my handful of lace curtain slowly and backed away from the window one small step at a time, my feet making a shushing sound on the smooth wood beneath my soles. I crept up the stairs on my nightgown-covered knees, and crawled beneath the cold covers, pulling them to my chin with both hands. My stomach clenched like a fist, and I held my breath until my lungs burned. Then I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing out tears as I let go of the hot, painful air inside me.
I didn’t know who or what to pray to anymore. And in the hard, heavy darkness I knew: Daddy wouldn’t be coming back.
As I turn west onto the rough gravel road that leads to the cemetery, I am reminded that my birthday is always the longest day of the year. It is nearly nine and the sun still lingers above the horizon, a brilliant orange billiard ball. There is nowhere to park in this tiny, well-kept patch of green, so I just pull to the side of the road. It is one of those old-fashioned graveyards where you can have any type of headstone you like and whatever flowers or decorations you wish, no matter how gaudy or difficult to mow around. I like that. And it makes it easy to find Papa and Grandma.
They are in the northwest corner of the lot, under the weeping willow Mama planted when Grandma died. I smile at the thought of all those willow switches going to waste, just out of Grandma’s reach. My grandparents share a headstone, a simple gray granite without flowery words or carvings. Just their names and the dates of their births and deaths.
The headstone behind me reads Hansen, and I doubt they will mind if I sit for a while. The cool of the marble marker seeps through my thin dress, making me shiver slightly in the settling dusk. Crickets in the surrounding pasture begin a chorus of chirping, and the sweetish smell of new-mown hay perfumes the air. The sun has slipped out of sight now, leaving the low, cottony clouds first petal-pink, then purple. In the gathering darkness, I finally understand: there’s no good time or way to introduce someone to death. And that the truth hurts a lot less than the most well-meaning lies.
I squint at the dim white face of my wristwatch. It is well after nine-thirty. I ease myself up from my cold, hard seat and brush off the back of my cotton print dress. I never really believed the whippoorwill would show. Yet today, more than ever, I needed to know that he was gone for good.
A full moon makes it easy to see my way to the car, and the only sounds are the crunching of gravel beneath my feet and my own soft whistling as it fills the Wisconsin night.