The summer I turned 11, we buried two wild birds and we did not bury my great-grandmother. We did not bury my great-grandmother because she had donated her body to science. I imagined this meant her brain floating in glowing liquid in a jar on a laboratory shelf. Later I learned that a medical school used her cadaver for teaching. She came from the scientist side of my family — she was a geologist and avid bird-watcher — so this was a fitting end.
Just before her memorial service, I spent a week with the artist side of my family, including a cousin my age, renting a house in the woods of Vermont. To a kid like me from the suburbs, it was an explosion of green. The air smelled like pine needles and springs flowing down from the mountains. I was intoxicated, running to look under every fern and moss-spangled rock, catching fireflies at dusk and letting them go. By morning, the forest echoed with the calls of birds that sang as if their lives depended on it.
The house we rented was on a hillside, and at the bottom of the hill was a tiny pond ringed with water lilies and cattails. It was just big enough for my older sister and me to launch two small kayaks and float. The pond was home to fat green frogs that lazed on the lily pads or hid in the muddy shallows. Their croaks sounded like a plucked banjo string, and I loved them immediately.
My sister and I discovered that if we slid a kayak paddle gently underneath a frog, then lifted the paddle just a few inches, the frog would sit and stare placidly back at us like a creature from a fairy tale. My sister named them all, inspired by her college reading: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus.
But as in all fairy tales, there was death in the woods, too. My cousin and I found it in our walks through the undergrowth. The first body we found was a tiny jeweled thing, a ruby-throated hummingbird that must have crashed into a window and broken her neck. I laid the bird out on a leaf.
Then we found a dead ruffed grouse hidden under a rhododendron bush. It was a bigger, quail-like bird with speckled brown and gray feathers. We laid out the second body solemnly. My biologist father helped us identify both species. I loved learning about science from my father — I still share his desire to understand and name the natural world. But my cousin and I were kids with a slightly dramatic, dreamy side. We needed a ceremony for this sad event, so we agreed we needed to stage a funeral.
My great-grandmother Isabel’s memorial service had been an unreligious one, held on a hillside in Western Massachusetts where her ancestors had lived. My relatives sat in a circle and took turns sharing their memories of her. I was born too late to remember much of her before the nursing home and dementia. I have a memory of playing piano for her in a sunny room with a Persian rug.
Isabel was known as the bird lady in her neighborhood outside Chicago, where she lived with her best friend for several decades after her divorce. The two of them fought over who got to wash the dishes, because the window over the sink had the best view of the bird feeders. Isabel gave impromptu science lessons with the array of specimens she kept in a glass-front curio cabinet: drawers full of taxidermied birds, rocks, fossils and sand glass formed by lightning strikes. She volunteered as an environmental educator in local schools and mentored young naturalists. Kids from the neighborhood brought injured birds to her house for help. She was a rational person, my father tells me. I can’t imagine her crying over dead birds.
My family placed a granite plaque carved with Isabel’s name in the nearby cemetery. Every few years, my relatives visit the marker and scrub lichen from its lettering. Nature is always trying to take over, and given enough time, even stone will wear away.
In the woods of Vermont, my cousin and I gathered scrolls of birch bark that had fallen to the ground. I composed an epitaph for each of the birds and wrote them on the bark. Together, my cousin and I dug two holes in the hillside and lowered the bodies down. The earth was soft and rich from years of leaf litter decomposing into loam. We covered the birds over with soil, tamped it down.
But then we came to a crisis. My cousin and I could not agree on how to mark the graves. I wanted to place the birch bark epitaphs on top of each grave and leave them there. No, he said, we had to attach the scrolls to something, or they would blow away in the wind.
I may have said something about the impermanent nature of all things, but philosophizing didn’t help. We kept arguing. Our voices got louder and louder. I refused to compromise, and so did he. I insisted that making markers for the graves would ruin the spirit of the entire ceremony.
Finally, we were shouting at each other and crying. We wound each other up until I was sobbing so hard that I started to have an asthma attack. I stumbled down the hillside, tears streaming down my face, my breath wheezing in my throat.
My uncle had to come and break it up. He cajoled us to speak one at a time, take deep breaths, and explain from the beginning. He calmed us down until I could breathe normally again and my cousin had stopped crying, too.
We made peace and placed the birch bark scrolls on the graves. Maybe my cousin pinned them down with a small stone. But in a few days or weeks, a thunderstorm was sure to roll through, bringing wind that lashed the branches and rain that soaked the soil. Sooner or later, our carefully written elegies would be gone, just as we would be.
Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom is a writer of nonfiction, fiction and poetry who lives in Vermont and is working on a collection of fabulist short stories.