The cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird
She warbles as she flies
She never says cuckoo
Till the fourth day of July.
The clock that hung on a nail on the front porch was a pine cottage with gingerbread along the eaves and hands painted green like loblolly needles. Two red doors snapped open to let the bird out. They were reliable, but the bird sometimes caught on a hinge. If no one was around to assist, she cuckooed inside her cave, accompanied by the angry clicks and clatters of her gears. Then the doors snapped shut.
Under the clock is the banjo player. When he sings, the banjo keeps an unsteady rhythm—one and two and; one and two and three; one and two; one and two and—as if his hands made one melody, his voice another, all in a minor key, driving forward and unsettled. “That’s how it goes,” he laughs.
His wife rocks on a stool and keeps unsteady time. She smiles, her few teeth burnished with snuff. Cataracts veil her eyes. She sees in cloud formations. A heavy mist has rolled up from the creek and blanketed the porch, eliminating her disadvantage.
There is a third person. He sits on an overturned bucket. Bareback and bare legged, he is the only one who is dressed for the heat. He has made a table from two other buckets and a plank. He is cleaning suckers, pitching their heads and entrails to a hoard of cats. He favors a quiet, orange one that sits in the corner behind the woman. On a tine of his trident gig, he reaches it a filleted chunk. When the others slink over, he smacks them with the pole.
No one wants to heat the cabin further in the summer swelter, so in the yard a grill is warming, its coals glowing through the fog. A swill of lard in a cast iron pan has just begun to simmer. Nearby in the woods, cuckoos have started calling.
The calls sound nothing like the clock’s cuckoo. Do you remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, the episodes on an ice sheet crowded with elephant seals? Their trumpeting and the bird’s call are in the same section of the orchestra—the reedy tones of an English horn and bassoon. As for the cuckoo’s song, it is neither a warble nor the cheery piping of the clock bird. Think of laser guns in an arcade game of the 1980s. The yellow-billed cuckoo, the species in the pine forest around the cabin, is a space invader.
In sound, that is, because this space belongs to no one, all boundaries and claims and deeds being temporary impositions, the conversion of space to place. The woods are like the ballad, a palimpsest. Long before the cabin, when an earlier variant of “The Cuckoo Bird” was sung in a major key in the English countryside about a bird of another species, this clearing by the creek was Chickasaw, and the yellow-billed cuckoo’s call and song…what might they have been compared to? How might they have been imitated, and what would a fine imitation sound like?
The cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird
She warbles as she flies
She bring us good tidings
She tells us no lies
The banjo player’s wife, Esther, rises and walks slowly, guided by sound, routine, slight variations in temperature—all these as well as broad patches of dark and light. When she comes to the grill, she hovers her hand over the pan as if to conjure, but actually to determine whether the heat is evenly distributed. The lard crackles and hisses at her. Its angry spatter stings her palm, but she does not flinch. She walks over to the fisherman and takes the fillets. She drops the fish in a brown bag of salt, pepper, and cornmeal, and shakes it like a tambourine to the random rhythms of the banjo. The fillets jitter when she drops them in the lard.
“This is the claw hammer style,” the banjo player explains. “That’s what they call it, I reckon on account of your hand’s like a claw hammer, sort of pluck stroke, pluck pluck stroke, and such. I never could like the Earl Scruggs way, that Foggy Mountain. And my fingers are too crooked up with the arthritis for all the diddly-fast-diddling on the strings. No sir, it’s always been the claw hammer has served me just fine, and it’s been good enough to get people up dancing.
“Now that puts me in mind of how Miss Esther, my sweet wife, could one time cut a rug. Music would get up in her, sometimes at church, sometimes when I was playing the square dance, and she started to shaking, trembling like the palsy and look out! She would bust up the floor like nobody’s business.
“That’s what happens when music gets up in you.”
The general consensus was that Miss Esther was a witch. The primary evidence was that her veiled eyes looked in different directions. One always gazed to the left, which is the devil’s side, and the other wandered around, aimlessly it would seem, even when she was hard at a task. Some said there was nothing aimless about it. No, that eye watched the spirits, which were plentiful and not all benevolent.
Miss Esther seldom spoke. Those who had heard her reported whispers, barely audible, and a language with words that no one knew.
The banjo player had brought her home with him years ago from his ramblings. She came from somewhere back in the mountains, people said, from a village that was situated exactly where four states connected, like a crossroads. The banjo player had been smitten, as who wouldn’t be in the atmosphere of spells and unchecked desire of a crossroads village, an every place and no place all at once.
It had been rumored that the banjo player had dealings with the underworld, because he would play any venue no matter how sin-ridden. But most people wouldn’t hold that against him. He was friendly, they loved music, and he would play a wedding or birthday for a plug of tobacco or a hambone. His staunch admirers insisted that Miss Esther wasn’t all bad, either, even if she was a witch.
Miss Esther’s dancing has been mentioned. That did not help her case among the Primitive Baptists. But those people were also skeptics about speaking in tongues and the Holy Spirit’s movements during Pentecostal revivals. One might quibble over the difference between Holy Ghost and demonic possession, but if the same banjo playing engendered both, and each involved ecstatic gyration and unknown languages, only the Lord himself could tell. So let him distinguish. There is plenty to see and feel in this world for anyone who isn’t closed up like the coffin that will one day house him.
Miss Esther had been seen walking across the surface of the river at nights. If she were a witch, why not fly? She liked the feel of the water under her feet. Besides, her movement was less a walk than a glide, like a water strider.
The third one, the fisherman, how did he come here? He drifted up one evening on a raft made of tire tubes. He was an enormous man, larger than anyone in the region. He wore his thick black hair in a braid and had a hoop in his nose. There was room, so the banjo player and Miss Esther welcomed him.
“They gave me a place to lay my head. So I keep us in food—gig suckers, trap rabbit, sometimes shoot a wild hog. Ain’t nothing more to it than that. Ain’t no drama here except in the music. Maybe you shouldn’t make out otherwise when you write about us? Just independence and contentment.”
Some say the fisherman is Miss Esther’s son, a werewolf, from back before the banjo player brought her to the creekbank. Others say he is her lover, and they step out on Saturday nights when the banjo player is off earning onions with his music.
There are even a few who claim it’s both, werewolf son and lover, doing an Oedipal two-step by the light of the moon. The banjo player laughs, “Like he says, only drama around here’s in my music. Ain’t nothing more to it than that. People look for drama when sometimes it’s nothing but happiness. Like what we got here: independence and contentment. That’s all you need to write.”
Derek Furr is the author of two mixed-genre collections–Suite For Three Voices and Semitones–both with Fomite Press, as well as a book of literary criticism, Recorded Poetry and Poetic Reception from Edna Millay to the Circle of Robert Lowell (Palgrave Macmillan 2010). He is a literature professor and Dean of Teacher Education at Bard College in New York.