Singing Grass

by Edith Clark


Wheeling, Illinois
1941

A LONE FIGURE WALKED across the farmyard lawn, the late afternoon sun casting his shadow behind him in sharp, angular detail. He gazed about his property with the appraising eyes of a farmer, though anyone glancing at his smooth, manicured hands would recognize that he certainly was not a farmer.

Charles Metcalf Bishop was a man of no more than medium height and build, but he had a distinguished – some would say imperious – bearing which, combined with his full head of silver hair and his deeply resonating voice, made him stand out in a crowd. His imposing looks served him admirably when it came time to sit at the negotiating table: Mr. Bishop was a big-time Chicago attorney and a man-about-town who purchased jewels and European antiques the way most men bought socks.

Mr. Bishop’s fortune derived from hard-fought battles waged over conference room tables. They had been tough, high stakes battles in which fortunes had been made and lost in the blink of an eye. Bishop had no match when it came to securing easements and right-of-ways for the huge railroads that stitched the nation together with steel tracks. This farm – Bright River Farm – was his hobby. The endless work provided employment for one hired man, and two of Mr. Bishop’s eight sons worked here in the summertime. The three barns, the dovecote and chicken coop – even the toolsheds – were freshly painted and in perfect repair. Everything – every pitchfork, hammer, and wheelbarrow – was where it belonged. There was scarcely a weed to be found on all of Bright River Farm.

This was the work of a man who wanted to teach the world a lesson. This, he thought to himself, this is how it should be done. He shook his head in frustration. Why could others not see the need for perfection? Why could so few people find satisfaction in flawlessness?

His brow furrowed as he walked across the lawn and turned onto a curving footpath in back of the toolshed. He stopped briefly at the edge of the peach orchard and gazed back over his shoulder. His big white house dazzled in the full sun, and his chin lifted with satisfaction as he noted the graceful slope of the newly remodeled roof, and the balanced proportions of the lintels beneath the wide eaves. The ancient Greeks would have approved, Mr. Bishop was sure of it. He wondered whether perhaps they were the last race to fully appreciate the subtleties of balance and proportion. It was an interesting question, and he wondered why he had never pondered it.

He resumed his walk, entering the tangled recess of his shadowy peach orchard. The farm had almost broken even. If only he could say that about the rest of his life, there would still be a chance at resurrection. His life was in a wretched shambles – a secret which he had thus far managed to keep from his family. The burden of truth was too great for him to bear, too enormous to own up to. Every grand gesture, every lavish gift, was a falsehood. Yes, he had made a fortune – but he had spent much more than a fortune, and the monstrous debt he incurred had become a Hydra beyond his control. It was more than he could bear, and there was no salvation in sight.

And that was what he ached for. Salvation. He wanted to be saved from the humility of confessing his excesses, saved from the ignominious plunge into shame and scandal. He, who had stood up to titans in the muscular world of American industry, couldn’t bear to think of the jokes that would be made at his expense.

He wondered when the tipping point had come; when exactly had the bleak reality of truth put a stop to the great pleasure he had once taken from life? His 17-year old daughter – the youngest of his ten children – could still bring a smile to his face, and he still felt an abiding affection toward his wife; intelligent and unquestioning, Eleanor had made him proud at every single turn. What a fabulous sight they had made, the two of them together, Eleanor splendidly decked out in furs and jewels and he in a cashmere coat, diamond cufflinks, and an Italian fedora. They had cruised like royalty through the streets of Chicago in a chauffeured limousine. Those were the days.

And there was Giggie, the housekeeper. The thought of her filled him with warmth and respect. She was ever patient, ever gentle. She had folded herself into their family so gracefully that at some point she had become a part of it without anyone knowing just when it had happened.

He prayed off and on as he walked – Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee – He continued westward, making his way through the orchard to the big swinging livestock gate where the weeping willows trailed their delicately pointed leaves in the slow brook. He crossed the wooden bridge and took the path that defined the northern boundary of his property, stopping occasionally to smell a wildflower, or to listen to the distant screech of a pheasant, or just to inhale the sweet air.

Blessed art thou among women…

The milkweed was in full flower, and the scent was exotic.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

When he came to the hayfield he stood still and watched the tall grass rolling like tawny ocean waves in the soft summer breeze. It was this spot – this very hayfield – that he wanted to see today. And to hear; he loved listening to the sound of the grasses in the late afternoon breeze. It was one of the few things that could comfort him, and he breathed deeply, relishing the grassy fragrance and listening to the millions of blades of timothy and alfalfa as they pattered and tapped against one another. The soft rustling rose and fell with the breeze, it was a song straight from the depths of nature, and it infused him with a deep sense of communion – something far more visceral and ingenuous than the Catholic mass. It was as if the earth were speaking to him, trying to reveal universal secrets – messages so profound and mysterious they defied the written word.

Hail Mary, mother of God…

Perhaps the ancient people could decipher the messages hidden in the singing grass; this had been their home not all that long ago – his son, Jason, still found their arrowheads and spear tips when the plow’s steel blade sliced through the rich earth. But Mr. Bishop couldn’t translate the messages the earth was trying to send him, and today he found no comfort in his hayfield. He felt the closeness of an enormous truth that he had completely missed, something much closer to God than churches and Bibles. He wondered if perhaps this was God – not something created by God, but God himself. It was a blasphemous thought, and he should have cringed at it; instead, he felt nothing but a sad resignation.

Pray for us sinners…

From where he stood, Mr. Bishop could see the distant figure of his son, Jason, standing on the wagon bed behind his team of Percherons. For an instant, the shank of Lad’s metal bit flashed with reflected sunlight. The huge gray horses bent forward in their harness, heads low, their muscular flanks bunching and relaxing with each stride. It was a grand sight.

Jason and the team of horses had put in a long day and now they were headed for the barn. Mr. Bishop felt a twisting pang of guilt at the sight of his son, his feet braced against the lurching of the wagon. It was another measure of misery on an already unbearable load.

Now and in the hour of our death.

 

JASON WENT ABOUT THE business of unharnessing Silver and Lad in their stalls. This was his favorite time of day. He liked the small shudder of pleasure from the horses as he removed their leather traces, liked currying their smoothly curved backs and flanks, and admired the strength of their long, sloping withers. Most of all he loved cupping his hands around their soft noses and feeling the warm air streaming from their nostrils. He stood like this for a brief time every day, his forehead bent to touch each of theirs in turn, his hands around their velvety muzzles. It was a small ritual, but it was important to him, and he found it deeply rewarding that the horses stood quietly for him during this moment of daily communion.

His father wasn’t far behind him. Jason had seen him turn onto the path west of the Bartlett orchard, heading back to the farmhouse. He hoped he wouldn’t stop in the barn to talk. Jason liked being alone with the horses at the end of the day; his solitude was precious to him and he didn’t want it contaminated by outsiders. Besides, he had nothing to say to his father.

 

THREE DAYS LATER, ON a sunny afternoon in early July, Giggie sat alone on the porch trimming green beans. It was an exceedingly hot day, and she worried over Mr. Bishop, who was planting a linden tree in the side yard. It was hard work, too hard for a hot day like this. But he had insisted that they have a linden tree on the farm because it was a symbol of justice and he, after all, was a lawyer. Lawyers should have a linden tree within sight.

Giggie bent over her work, trimming the rough ends off the beans, then cutting them into two-inch sections. It was a job she’d performed so many times that she didn’t need to look at her hands as she went about her business. The Bishops loved vegetables, and Giggie loved the Bishops. As she worked, the trimmings fell rhythmically into a bowl while the beans landed with a splash in a pan of cold water. She was fast and careful, and she never cut herself.

Her thoughts turned toward the Bishops as she worked. There was much about them that concerned her these days. Mr. Bishop was struggling with his demons. Giggie didn’t exactly know the source of those demons, but she had her suspicions. Not that many years ago there had been times when he wandered the halls at night. She had heard him herself, and stood by her door more than once, opening it a crack so she could see into the hallway. His wanderings were bad enough, but Giggie worried even more when she heard doors open and close. Sometimes she heard strange, muffled sounds that frightened her. Not knowing what to do, she did nothing – “doing nothing,” after all, was a solution that often worked for her.

There were times when Mr. Bishop drank too much, even Giggie knew that. He liked fine scotch before dinner, wine with dinner, and sherry after dinner. The drinking had escalated over the last couple of years, coinciding with the selection of a new partner at the law firm – a man who nursed a particular antipathy toward Mr. Bishop.

Things spiraled downward from there, though Mr. Bishop had done his best to disguise his difficulties. The Bishops had always traveled extensively and lavishly, and that came to an end. But he continued to dress in custom-made clothing. Some of the pieces in Eleanor’s dazzling jewelry collection were rumored to have originated with Marie Antoinette herself, and though this was considered by most to be wishful thinking, there was no denying that her jewels were spectacular.

Giggie recalled being terrified by Mr. Bishop’s occasional fits of temper; on these occasions he would storm through the house, kicking and shouting at anything in his path. And there were also those shameful days when, enraged by some infraction, he wouldn’t permit the younger boys to eat. Eleanor was incapable of confronting her husband, and would head for her room with a headache whenever he was in a temper. Giggie was helpless, though she did small, quiet things that were designed to placate Mr. Bishop. He liked to have a cigar and his slippers ready for him in the evening, and he loved listening to Puccini on the phonograph. He liked having the newspaper placed in a very certain way on the needlepoint ottoman in front of the fireplace. He loved leg of lamb infused with garlic.

Giggie occasionally considered taking a position in another home; she had even been approached by people who were looking to hire help. But the Bishops had become her family. She didn’t want to leave them, and she was optimistic that things would work out. After all, who was to say this didn’t happen in all families. No one was perfect. Was Mr. Bishop really that much different from any other man?

 

GIGGIE WAS STARTLED OUT of her reverie by Mr. Bishop’s voice. “Giggie,” he said, his voice soft. “I’m going to take my afternoon walk. Is Eleanor nearby?”

“I believe she’s napping, Mr. Bishop,” replied Giggie. “Look here. I thought you might like some green beans for dinner tonight. Would you like to try one? I know you like them uncooked.”

Raw, you mean,” he responded with a twinkle in his eye. It was a private joke between the two of them: Giggie disliked the word “raw,” and used the word “uncooked” instead.

“Oh, pshaw. You go on, now,” she joked back. “These beans are uncooked.”

Mr. Bishop reached for the bean and crunched on it thoughtfully. Giggie was not an inquisitive person, but she had learned a lot about this family over the years and she knew that Mr. Bishop was feeling particularly low. For one fleeting instant she wondered what nature of misdeeds could weigh so heavily on a man, then the thought passed.

Mr. Bishop walked into the house and through the great room with its lovely arched windows, star-shaped chandeliers, and knotty pine paneling. He continued into the hallway and opened the door to Eleanor’s room. She was propped in bed, reading.

“Feeling okay, dear?” he asked, his voice a whisper.

Eleanor smiled, putting her book down.

“A little tired, perhaps,” she said. “I was up late reading last night.”

Mr. Bishop smiled. “I’m headed out for my walk.”

Eleanor nodded in acknowledgement. “It’s a lovely afternoon, dear. Enjoy yourself.”

Mr. Bishop turned to leave; then, in a rare gesture, he walked back across the floor, chucked his wife under her chin, and kissed her cheek.

“We have a remarkably beautiful family, Eleanor. Thank you for that.”

Before she could reply, he turned and was gone. Eleanor was left wide-eyed with surprise, wondering what she could possibly have done to precipitate this unusually affectionate behavior.

 

IT TOOK TWO DAYS to find Mr. Bishop’s body, this in spite of the search party and the tracking dogs. Eleanor heard the sheriff’s bloodhounds baying off and on throughout the night as she sat in stony silence on the velveteen settee in the front parlor. The sound made her shiver in spite of the summer heat. Her daughter-in-law, Deborah, telephoned friends and relatives thinking perhaps Mr. Bishop had become disoriented and returned to the city. Perhaps he’d suffered a stroke, and was wandering somewhere, helpless? Maybe he had forgotten to tell her of some other plans, something going on in his business that she was unaware of?

It was Eleanor’s two youngest sons, Samuel and Jason, who eventually made the nightmarish discovery. When they let the cows into the barn for the milking, Jason noticed something unusual about three of them. Their backs were splattered with something – it resembled dried mud. Closer inspection revealed a reddish-brown substance that looked like dried blood; in places it was sticky and damp and it gave them both the creeps. They could think of no explanation for it. It wasn’t the sort of thing biting insects could do, and there were no marks to suggest the cows had been attacked or bitten.

When they finished the milking the brothers opened the rolling doors to let the cows out, examining each one in turn. They spotted another cow with the same splatters. The brothers looked at one another strangely, and in those few quiet moments after the cows had been turned out, they heard something peculiar. Something that made their skin crawl.

It was the buzzing of insects. It sounded like a swarm of flies, and it was coming from the hayloft immediately above the cow stanchions. It was a sickening sound, and it filled them with dread, but when they went to investigate they discovered that the ladder to the loft was missing.

“Where’s the ladder?” asked Samuel, a small note of panic in his voice. “Isn’t this where…”

“Yes,” interrupted Jason. “It’s always here. Someone’s moved it.”

Frightened and suspicious, they searched for the missing ladder, only to notice another, even more dreadful sound – it raised the hair on their arms and made the backs of their necks tingle. It was the slow, rhythmic sound of dripping, and it came from the hayloft.

Fetching another ladder from the toolshed the brothers climbed to the loft, knowing what they would probably find. Standing on a rung of the ladder, Jason raised his eyes over the edge of the hayloft, then recoiled instantly.

“Oh my God, Samuel. Oh, sweet Jesus.”

“Is it Father?” asked Samuel.

“Yes. I think so. It’s someone anyway.”

A ray of light streamed through the small round window in the point of the gable overlooking the hay-filled loft. This beam of light swirled with dust motes, cutting through the dark shadows and pointing straight at their father’s grotesquely bloated and discolored body. He was swarming with flies, and lying in a pool of blood. His open eyes – once a clear, icy blue – were crawling with insects. The missing ladder and a shotgun rested in the straw beside him and his chest was an enormous, bloody wound. The body had started to decompose in the intense July heat, and the stench was overwhelming. The brothers gagged.

“Jesus,” said Jason. “He pulled the goddam ladder up after himself. Why would he pull the ladder up? Why would he do that?”

“Because,” replied Samuel, struggling with emotion. “He wanted us to be the ones to find him.”

Jason stared at his brother, the ugly truth settling around his shoulders.

“Yeah? Well why did he shoot himself in the chest? That’s…that’s not what I would’ve expected.”

Samuel spoke quietly. “We’re supposed to cover for him, Jason.”

 

“MY FATHER IS A Catholic,” Samuel’s voice was steady, but he looked searchingly into the coroner’s eyes. “I’m sure the death certificate will reflect that this was due to natural causes.”

The coroner did a double take, then took his time answering the question. “You hafta be kiddin’ me, son. I’m right sorry about this an’ all, but your pa shot hisself in the chest, sure as the damn dickens.” He tried to avoid Samuel’s eyes as he spoke. The boy was young, too young for a conversation like this. He was maybe 18 or so, with sensitive features and wavy, light brown hair that made him look like a schoolboy. He was barely grown.

“It was a very hot day, you know,” replied Samuel, his voice still level. “He was up in the loft, pitching hay down to the cows. He had been planting a tree… it was very hot, and then he went up in the loft. It was very hot up there, too. You know how it is in lofts. And I think he had a heart attack, then maybe shot himself accidentally as he fell. If he’d done…done what you said, he’d have shot himself in the head.” He shuddered involuntarily as he spoke the words.

The coroner stared back at Samuel, his face expressionless.

Samuel was growing more agitated, and he felt tears welling in his eyes. “We told my mother it was a heart attack. It certainly could have been a heart attack. No one…no one was with him when… He overdid it.”

The coroner continued to stare.

Samuel tried to pull himself together. He drew himself up, took a deep breath, and continued. “He has a plot in All Saints Cemetery. It’s a Catholic cemetery. I have a little brother already there – he was only a few hours old when…and if you write that this was…well…then he…we…can’t bury him there. With my little brother. It’s not…allowed. And my mother…”

The coroner interrupted him. “You have a brother already at All Saints?”

“Yes, his name was Lucas. Like I said, he was only a few hours old. And we have three plots there, right together and a…a headstone…”

A tear spilled down Samuel’s face. He brushed it away quickly, embarrassed, then stared at his feet. There were more tears on the way, too many to hold back.

“There must be…” Samuel tried to continue.

“Calm down now, son.” The coroner’s voice was gentle. He placed his hand on Samuel’s shoulder. “Son, was there a note? Did your pa leave any kinda note?”

“No, sir. There wasn’t a note.”

“You’re sure of that? There wasn’t a note anywhere?”

“No, sir. There wasn’t a note anywhere,” and as he spoke the words out loud, Samuel realized exactly why there had been no note.

There was a long pause. The coroner took a deep breath. “What do you want the death certificate to say?”

Sensing a break, Samuel looked again into the man’s eyes and detected something there, something unexpected. Compassion?

“What would you suggest?”

The coroner shrugged, then twisted his face and squinted, as if he was deep in thought. “Well, what with him digging that big hole for the tree like he did? An’ the heat up there in that loft on a hellish hot day? At his age, it coulda been a heart attack. We call it coronary thrombosis, to be proper. That’s not a completely unreasonable theory.” He glanced again at Samuel. “He prob’ly had that shotgun hid up there. Like you said, it coulda gone off by mistake.”

“That sounds right,” Samuel replied. He didn’t want to say anything to change the direction of the conversation.

There was a long pause before the coroner spoke again. “Your pa done me a big favor once, son. I had a bumper crop o’ peaches and no place to sell ‘em. Everybody had a bumper crop that year, and the market…well. The bottom went outta peaches. He bought ‘em off me at a good price an’ I’ll never forget that. He didn’t have any need for peaches, but…well. You get the drift. I don’t even know what he done with ‘em. There was a boxcar full, an’ he bought ‘em all.”

 

THERE WAS A FINE mist falling in the cemetery on the morning of the funeral, but a large crowd had gathered in spite of the weather. Dressed in black and wearing a heavy veil, Eleanor prayed over her rosary as they lowered her husband’s casket into the ground. She wanted to take comfort in the heavenly reception he’d receive, but she knew better.

Hail Mary, full of grace…”

The crowd recited the prayer out loud. Eleanor joined them, tasting her own salty tears as her lips moved in unison with the other mourners.

The Lord is with thee…”

Eleanor had never known what to do about her husband, though she’d always felt she should be doing something. She never made an attempt to control his profligate ways. Now, instead of wondering what she was going to do about him, she wondered how she would manage without him. Things had arrived for him in the mail since the day…since Sammy and Jason had… She knew they were bills. Bills and official documents. Insurance papers, maybe. Charles thought she didn’t know he was in trouble, but she did. She knew.

Blessed art though among women…”

Eleanor didn’t even know how to pay a bill. She’d never once in her entire life written out a check. Her lips continued to move in unison with the crowd.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

She also knew he’d taken his own life, knew he should not be here in this cemetery, which was sacred ground. It had been blessed with holy water. Charles was guilty of the worst kind of despair, and now he was writhing with pain in the bowels of hell as flames leapt up around him, scorching his soul. He would suffer for all eternity, in never-ending agony.

Hail Mary, mother of God…”

 

THE PRIEST WALKED TO Eleanor’s side following the service. He was a tall man, young, with dark brown eyes, a square jaw, and olive skin. Eleanor would have preferred him to be Irish, like the short, red-headed priest just one parish over. But Father Angelo was Italian. He looked straight through her veil and into her eyes as he spoke.

“He’s with God now, Eleanor. I hope you’ll take some comfort in that.”

“Yes. Thank you, Father. I’m sure he is. With God.” For at least the thousandth time, she felt a stab of resentment at the overly familiar way Father Angelo used her first name. At least he didn’t have one of those dreadful Italian accents.

“He was a true believer, and now he’s at peace. Eternal peace.”

“Yes. Thank you Father.”

“He was a most pious man, Eleanor.”

Pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.”

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