Last Rites

by Kim Steutermann Rogers

I wake to fog rolling up the hill like it’s late for something. A whirl of misty clouds rushes through the cracks of the old house and slips down the valley. I see shapes and figures in the mist, their hair long, their arms beckoning. Mother always said I had second sight. “What do you see,” she asked the first time she caught me gazing into the distance. “Bird witches,” I said before I learned to keep such things to myself. “No, honey,” she corrected me. “Those are just crows.”

What I remember is my great-grandmother Ella, her back bent, her teeth gone, and her nose like a beak, shaking her head behind my mother’s straight young back. What I remember is chanting birds waking me and leading me to fresh carcasses of rabbits, squirrels, and deer, for me to scavenge before the meat went bad. Those were the days of the drought, and Mother never turned down my additions to the dinner table. What I remember is great-grandmother Ella putting out scraps on a tree stump before bed and the next morning they’d be gone. What I remember is when I hit puberty, the crows went silent. I’d follow them into the woods, but there were no more discoveries. Soon enough, the crows themselves disappeared.

Now, everyone else is gone, too, and I’m all alone on the hill. I stand on the front porch, its roof canted from the last tornado that blew through on its journey up the Missouri river basin, and I stand holding a creased envelope that arrived in the mail some time ago. I stand long after the sky clears, the sun fires its energy through nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, and the winds go completely still, so still that I can almost hear the leaves of a white oak in the front yard as they pop with photosynthesis. The tree is pushing 100 feet tall, and I’m startled after all these years to see a crow perched on a low limb, eyes glinting in the early morning sun. My great grandfather Rudolph planted the oak 150 years ago when he paid $495 for 330 acres in the rolling hills outside St. Louis. I return the crow’s stare for a good long while—I swear she bears a message on her face—but she’s as silent as the wind.

At the bottom of the hill below the house, two pecan trees stand sentry, one on each side of the gravel path leading to the oldest standing barn in the county. It’s said great grandmother Ella planted pecans after the hard winter Rudolph went missing, and I see two crows silent as statues in each tree. There’s still no breeze but something makes my skin horripilate. It’s the crows, I know, and they’re here for a reason, likely connected to the shapes in the mist. Or maybe something to do with the past-due statement inside the envelope. Maybe the crows will lead me to a solution. What I remember from childhood is crows demand patience. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my long life of raising chickens and growing vegetables and living off the land, it’s patience.

I walk to the back of the house and regard the flowering dogwood Grandma Myrtle positioned outside the kitchen window, adding beauty to the labors of her day. Grandma Myrtle’s favorite bird was the Northern cardinal, and she was as bright as the redbird is red. I know she didn’t hang out with crows as a child, and I think foresight must skip a generation. Maybe even two. I wonder about my own daughter and grab my hoe beside the backdoor, head to the redbud by the creek, a memorial my father Frederick planted for my only child, a stillborn daughter, Anna Lydia. Once, the tree produced a fecundity of fruit, drawing in songbirds and Bobwhite quail for the seeds in spring and browsing Whitetail deer throughout the summer for the leaves. So much life. I used to spend afternoons picking its tiny flowers for salads and its fruit for jam. Spending time under the redbud is time spent with Anna Lydia. But pushing 60 years of age and pushing out fewer fruit each year, the tree’s senescence is a harsh reminder of my own. 

Five generations, counting Anna Lydia, and I’m all that’s left, the land no longer sustaining ways of living and lives. My parents gone. No siblings. No husband. No descendants. Second and third cousins long ago moved to new topographies and careers. I cannot see a future for our family home. Not now with the portents of the envelope and no one willing or able to pay back taxes on the property, certainly not me.

But I know where I belong. I know the way a hoe’s handle, worn from use, feels in my hands, the scent of the decaying plants it unearths, and I know the message from the crows as well as I know my own name. I till a plot beneath the redbud next to my daughter, sink my hands into fresh loam, rub my arms in silt, decomposing leaves, desiccating insects, calcium from decaying mouse bones, and the sweat of my ancestors. I add the shards of the letter and its envelope, and when the light dims and the sun sets, I strip off my jeans and embalm my legs. Then, I lay in the grave and bury myself up to my chin, earth sustaining me, keeping me warm. Venus pops out first, followed by Mars and a festival of stars so magnificent I drift off with a smile, embraced by the place and the people who loved it, a call on the wind beckoning, “Sleep well, my child.”

author Kim Steutermann Rogers
Kim Steutermann Rogers

Kim Steutermann Rogers lives with her husband and 16-year-old dog Lulu in Hawaii. Her essay, “Following the Albatross Home” was recognized as notable in Best American Travel Writing. Her science journalism has published in National Geographic, Audubon, and Smithsonian; and her prose in Fractured Lit, The Citron Review, Milk Candy Review, Gone Lawn, Bending Genres, CHEAP POP, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. Find her on social media @kimsrogers.