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Birthday On The Hill

By Donia Carey

Basha lived over her family’s storefront funeral parlor on Main Street. Her father’s business shared the ground-floor space with a saloon where the factory workers drank beer after their shifts. Sometimes she played hopscotch on the sidewalk in front, and if the men were in a good mood they gave her pretzels.

The old woman in the back courtyard kept chickens, chopping their heads off with an axe. Except for the pigeons and sparrows, these were the only birds around.

In Basha’s primer she found stories about other children with names like Sally and Susan and Billy. There were pictures of them playing in sandboxes in gardens with flowers where brightly colored birds flew around or cooled off in birdbaths. Basha thought this must have been In Olden Times, before the land was all paved over with cement and tar.

Besides the hearse, her father had a big black car. Basha longed to go on rides, to see the land beyond the town, but he hated driving and only used the car for business or errands. Her mother didn’t drive. Sometimes Basha got to go along with her father when he drove her mother home from work, and then she saw the sun setting over green hills beyond the factories and the river. They didn’t seem real. How she wished they could drive on and on, way up into those hills.

After church one week she got a surprise. Her mother was in the kitchen preparing Sunday dinner. She was rolling out noodles for the soup, and she said, “Ed, it’s such a nice day—why don’t you take Basha along with you when you drive to the cemetery!”

On Sunday mornings her father drove to the cemetery to look over the graves and check the condition of the temporary markers he put up until the permanent stones were ready. Basha had never been to the cemetery, and she was excited. Also, she loved being alone with her father, even though he didn’t talk much. But he liked to sing in the car, songs like “You Are My Sunshine” or "Shuffle off to Buffalo," and Basha sang along with him.

The river divided the town, and they drove over the bridge and toward the hills. The cemetery was way out, on top of the highest hill. The air began to smell different, sweet and sharp, and it felt cooler. As they approached the gates, Basha saw a flash of wings, and a red bird flew through the trees. She couldn’t believe how beautiful it all was, more beautiful than the pictures in her book.

They drove along the cemetery path. Her father told her the cemetery was new, only a few years old, and that it had been a cow pasture before the church had bought the land. A few gravestones stood along the old stonewall that had kept the animals in. The rest of the graves were scattered along the hillside, low stones mostly, with a few fancier ones mixed in, angels with outspread wings, or marble crosses. Her father parked his car along the far edge of the cemetery, next to a little tin-roofed house.

An old man came out. Basha recognized him. He was the gravedigger, and she’d seen him in church, and at her house after a funeral, when he’d come in for a drink with her father. He wore overalls, had grizzled white hair and a face worn like wind-scoured rock. His voice was loud and hoarse, worn out from shouting over the wind on his hill. Basha wondered if he lived in the little house, and did he sometimes sleep outside? The graves would make cozy beds, and the tombstones fine headboards

His name was Mr. Koval, and today he was holding a bunch of carrots. He handed them to Basha, like a bouquet. He grew vegetables in a small plot in a corner of the cemetery, the biggest vegetables Basha had ever seen. Her father used to bring them home, carrots and beets and parsley. Mr. Koval’s face was ridged with smiles. “Well, Basha! I am so happy you have come to see me! Did you know that today is my birthday?”

Did people that old still have birthdays? And birthday cakes? But she said, “Happy birthday!” and wondered if she should sing.

“Wait!” said Mr. Koval, as if he’d just thought of something, and he clumped over to the little house and went inside. Soon he emerged with a bottle of whiskey, a small bottle of root beer and a package of Drake’s Cake. “Now we celebrate!” he shouted.

He opened the root beer with a jackknife hanging on his belt, gave the bottle to Basha, then passed the whiskey to her father, who bent his head back and took a swallow. In the meantime, Mr. Koval slit open the cellophane and cut the cake into three pieces. They all sat down on the stonewall and Basha sang “Happy Birthday.” It was the best day of her life so far.

 

Donia Carey lives on Cape Cod, where she writes, sings, and eats fish, but does not catch them. She is an editor at the Madhatters' Review.

Photo "Puddles Are For Splashin' " courtesy of Bill Davenport.

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