Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky, in 2008 and 2009, first in jails and then in prison, and is reconstructed from my notes.
This post is from prison.
Names have been changed, except for the teacher’s name and the name Columbus Dorsey in this post. My nickname in prison was Bird Lady.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
PeWee (pronounced Pee Wee) Valley Women’s Penitentiary near Louisville, KY, 5-4-09
Last night, officers woke three Ridgeview inmates at 2 AM, ordered them to pack their belongings, and then shipped them to Otter Creek, the privately owned prison in Appalachia, Pike County, eastern Kentucky. Inmates are loaded and transported like slaughter cows in the middle of the night. This way, families have no advance notice.
Two of the women were enrolled in college courses on scholarship, and were one exam shy of course completion.
Rhonda was my classmate in Horticulture. I had tutored Ashley, who had never completed the tenth grade, through perfect squares and complex polynomials in Algebra.
Fearful that I may be in the next Otter Creek shipment, I decide to walk to school in the morning to see if I am still enrolled.
As I leave the dorm, Rochelle says, “Bird Lady. Your birds is waitin’ on you.”
“I know. Thank you,” I say.
Twenty-five pairs of black liquid eyes watch my every move. They recognize my face, hat or no hat, pony tail or not., and they follow me and only me. Fussing and chirping, they dive-fly in front of me, reading my kindness for the weakness that it always is.
I toss them some bread when the officer is not looking.
This is my little acrobatic sparrow troupe, always performing on the gymnasium of the barbed and razor-wired fence outside the dorm. There are also starlings, cardinals, doves, robins, mockingbirds and crows.
The crows, happy, cunning and aloof, gorge themselves on beached, then baked earthworms that are like bird potato chips. When no one is looking I try to save as many beached earthworms as I can, moving them off of the sidewalk stove and into the grass.
The teacher, Miss Heavren, is not expecting me because I was not planning to be there, but since I am, she asks me to do some work for her. I am seated in her office, gathering things to file, when a practicum student, Melinda, bursts in the office door.
“Miss Heavren. This bird flew in and broke its neck and it’s dead, so what do you want us to do with it?”
I am on my feet. When I get to the bird, I see another practicum student, Justine, beating the bird with a broom.
“Stop it,” I say.
“Then stop beating it.”
As I reach for the small bird, it bursts, quite suddenly, into flight, albeit a short one, and then comes to a stop, panting, under a desk. I pick up the bird and stroke its head. The bird relaxes and seems to doze off. It is a baby dove, barely more than a chick. Having seen the mother dove just outside the building, I put the baby in a safe place outside in the flower bed, where the mother bird can retrieve it.
But it dies there, where I left it.
I secretly bury the bird next to Columbus Dorsey. Well, his grave anyway. PeWee Valley was once a plantation, and there is actually a grave here. The cement gravestone says, “Columbus Dorsey, age 26 years and 10 months. Please remember him in death.”
“Well, Columbus, here is your baby dove to take care of,” I say.
I never tell Justine that the baby dove died, because I do not want to give her the uplift or the satisfaction, or whatever it is.
I want to go home.
I want to go to my childhood home and pick strawberries with my dad. I want to read stories to my mother in the car. I want to sit with her and drink tea, and reminisce about her days as a high school English teacher.
There is an old hymn we used to sing, or the choir used to sing anyway, in the Presbyterian church that I was raised in, during Christmastime. It was a round. For some reason the hymn plays over and over in my head.
Peace, peace. Peace on the earth.