Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


 Porch Tale   



A Dove’s Tale

By Randy Sparkman



They are gone now. The breeze can blow a crumpled prayer all the way across the grand piazza without disturbing a single pilgrim.

The images blared like trumpets. A mural of sky and cloth painted with the grace notes of Gabriel. A symphony in the blue and scarlet of Raphael and Titian. Helicopters exposed a grand geometry as countless little dramas played out below. Rembrandt’s light framed the unadorned face of a nun between the shoulders of a dozen clerical peacocks. Machiavelli’s princes elbowed their good sides into view. But, somehow, an intimacy insisted its way out of baroque grandeur. A child’s drawing in a gilded frame.

Perhaps it was the unrelenting close-up. Even in the humanity of suffering, he was power incarnate. Now, a vulnerable old man lay exposed on an open catafalque. Maybe it was the tender and public ministrations of his acolytes. Or a fisherman’s shoes on tiny feet, peeking out from under the robe of a King. Regardless, the vulnerability of these scenes buttressed this Pope’s message of humility. Only those close to the earth and the heavens wash the face of their own dead.

So it was in the American South not so long ago. Before we were rich enough to outsource the care of our children, our sick, our old folks and our dead to people we do not know.

In my grandfather’s time, the dying most often happened at home. Your closest kin watched with you out the window as you waited for death to come up the road. Lace curtains would still be moving when neighbor women showed up. They washed the body. Dressed it. Combed the hair. Put nickels on the eyes. Slipped a keepsake in a pocket for the journey. The undertaker was never far behind. He’d lean down in a black suit with shiny elbows. His sympathies delivered close enough to show you errant whiskers above a yellowed collar. Lamps, folding chairs, hand-held fans and a whiff of embalming fluid left behind. It would be a long night. “Settin up with the dead” they called it. To keep away haints. To make sure the departed had done just that. To eat and remember. As the night got deeper, the foibles of the corpse came easier, the funny ones first, then the mistakes. When plates and glasses had been rubbed beyond explanation, women went to bed. The accountable remained by the open casket, a brother, a father, a son. The sun found them in silence. Thoughts turned inward. Perhaps the universal ritual of death is a trip into our own heart.

The message John Paul carried has always insisted its way out. Even in the funhouse mirror of man’s fumbling institutions. Even when the crow of evil perches on the shoulder of the men who form and serve them.

A simple cypress casket. Undoubtedly put together with well-kept tools and awed hands. Slowly. One piece at a time. Finished in steady circles. Built to last forever. Before anyone else saw it, its maker stepped back for a look. It sang. The way a life should be constructed.

It was made months ago. Perhaps years. Stored in a dry, dark place. Waiting.

Then the dove soared. Uncountable eyes followed it far above the square. But the dove left his tail behind. To join the corners of a box. A message for us. From the hand of The Carpenter.

Randy Sparkman lives in north Alabama, where his folks have been for six generations.

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© 2005, Randy Sparkman, All Rights Reserved