"Into the Air"


This is a creative nonfiction piece that was published in 2014 in C-Ville Weekly, as the winner of the WRITERHOUSE/C-VILLE annual writing contest. Hope you like it!


It is tomorrow’s reading I have on my mind as I fumble with the hasp of the goat yard gate. I’m all packed, just need to crack the ice on the trough and toss more hay into the rack before I head to the station for the 11am to Penn. It had seemed a good idea, those months back, when the journal launch party was announced, but now I’m wondering what possessed me. I loathe standing on a stage, sending my written words from the page where they belong into the air where they don’t. "They’re not birds," I think, pushing the gate closed behind me.


“It’s brave of you, Mom,” Emma had said from her Brooklyn life, where she’s expecting me to arrive in some eight hours. She knows the restaurant in the Village, says it’s nice, she’ll take me there tomorrow, sit up front. I think, though, that she is attaching that “brave of you” to the actual piece of writing, born as it was of that transition out of parenthood, of the move to the Blue Ridge, that starting-anew where the sky is big and raggedy-edged over the mountains. I’d get a puppy, throw bigger and bigger sticks across the field. And tug at the thistle, barbed and pernicious as the memories I try to weed away to give light to the more carefree petals—the wild daisies, the birdfoot violets. Maybe this year the growth will be less thorny, less tall, more manageable. But today, the fields are still brown under my feet, though the spring equinox has come and gone.


I slide the heavy plank of a door along its track and step into the barn. The three goats are in there—the new kid, the one-year-old wether, and the matronly Gretel, the one who takes charge in their curtilage. We share a birthday, the two of us, which is also tomorrow. I am turning 55, and Gretel would be turning eight if she weren’t dead on the barn floor. I am not expecting this, though I’m also not surprised. She has been unsteady; I’ve had the vet out, who points to the brutal winter and nutritional problems. I feel, as I did as a mother, unfit to the task of knowing how to care for these creatures, to keep them healthy and happy. This is the second year I’ve had them, I should be getting it right by now. Her eyes are wide open. No sign of pain on her face, no struggle in her limbs. It seems as if she has just fallen over. I lead the younger goats out and slide the door closed. Then I fill a galvanized bucket with water from the well and pile fresh hay under the eave of the barn, hoping it’ll stay dry. There is a deepening gray mist that has been clinging to the mountaintops in the west.


You were a good goat, Gretel, I think as I make my way back across the fields, because she was and because I’m thinking she’s left me a birthday gift: an excuse to not go up for the reading. But, no, Amtrak tells me there’s a train tomorrow, one that’ll get me to New York in time, and I can’t think of any logical reason that Gretel’s end-of-life rites should take two days, no matter what it is we’re supposed to do. “What are we supposed to do?” my husband, Jon, asks when I tell him what’s happened. Neither of us has ever had a dead goat before, so we don’t know. I call on a neighboring farmer, and she suggests an “air burial.” Which, she tells me, is just what I think it is. “It’s the most natural way,” she says, and I say that to Jon, who is not an easy sell, because he liked Gretel, too, and he doesn’t think it’s respectful to have carrion birds tearing her to pieces. But we come up with a high spot on the property that will distance us from it, that we won’t need to walk by any time soon, and we go out together and move her there in our truck, and leave her just as the storm comes bearing down. A clear day is predicted for tomorrow, so the turkey vultures should be out again, sailing lazily on wind currents over the pastures, looking for the carcasses of no longer livestock. But I will be gone before sunrise.


“Emma,” I say, calling my daughter from the train, “we’re a little delayed, but I’ll be there in time. I’m not going to read at the event, though. I’ve decided I just want to listen to the others. I’ll see you soon.” I get no argument from her because I’m speaking to her voice mail. Decision made, the butterflies in my stomach go leaden and sink—that feeling that comes from being a wimp. But I can nap, in any case, which is a need, given that I was up most of the night with either guilt over Gretel or anxiety over the reading. When I find Emma waiting at the station, she wishes me a happy birthday and tells me she’s sorry about the goat, and there is no mention of my inability to do the thing that I have come all this way to do.


We walk to the restaurant and find the reception is just getting underway, and copies of the journal are everywhere, open on tables and tucked in crooks of arms. It’s the Mom Egg Review, which publishes a lot of poetry and flash pieces about motherhood, mainly written by New Yorkers, judging by the crowd here. I go to tell the editor that I have decided not to read, and she is nice about it, though looks a bit confused, then hands me the program that I am listed in. There are four groups, the way it’s set up, and no real announcements, so I can be slippery about it, just not get up. We squeeze onto a bench right up next to the stage, one of the only places two people might fit together, and we order wine and beet salads, and catch up on life. Emma has been in New York for a few years, trying to be an artist, trying to be happy. The piece I have written for the Mom Egg is mostly about her when it’s not about me, about trying to get teenage girls past depression and anorexia and then running off to the mountains to try to forget. She sits and reads it, though she’s read it before, and then she hugs me so hard I know that I will be getting up to read it for her from the stage, with the others who let their words fly off the pages. And I do, and I live.


It is dark by the time Jon and I return home from the train station the next day, but he pauses, still, at the nearest spot to where we laid out Gretel. “There were four or five of those birds on the fence this afternoon,” he says. He doesn’t call them vultures, but he doesn’t either sound disgusted. The sun is strong the next day, and I find some birdfoot violets when I’m out walking with the dog. She pulls on the leash when we get near Gretel’s hill, so I take her back home and sit on the deck that overlooks the Blue Ridge. And I watch the big birds in the distance, landing out of sight for a time, then one by one heading off into the air.