by Jared Carter

Even before the sky turned a shade of puke somewhere between green and yellow and nasty clouds were boiling up above the trees, we had decided to head back from the gravel pit on the far side of the broken-down bridge.

We dumped the cans of bait – night crawlers and a few crickets – and grabbed up our cane poles. I wasn’t sorry to be getting out of there. We hadn’t caught a damn thing all afternoon. Maybe the fish knew something we didn’t, and were lying low.

Along the squall line fat udders of clouds bulged and drooped down. On TV the weathermen called those kinds of clouds “mammatocumulus.” We knew what they meant. “Time to get a move on!” Milo called back. We tossed the buckets and poles and lit out through rain coming down hard now and tree limbs thrashing about.

We squeezed through a hole in the fence and out into in that big stretch of graveyard south of the Nickel Plate tracks. All the headstones were slick with rain and shiny with lightning. Up ahead was the mausoleum, with the office beyond that, and the garage where they kept the mowers. That big overhead door might still be up. We made for it.

Most people never messed with that garage because old Amos, the custodian, kept bees somewhere out back – maybe five or six hives. People said if you didn’t have any business being there, he could sic them on you. I never believed he could order them around like a dog. But I never wanted to find out, either. And now we didn’t have much choice.

All of a sudden the rain stopped and everything got quiet. That was another bad sign. A funnel cloud could touch down out of nowhere and chainsaw straight for the road where we were hurrying along. We still had a couple of hundred yards to go, and we were already soaked through and worn out. We stopped for a second to get our bearings.

Up ahead somebody was standing at the side of the road and waving his arms. It was Amos, with a crazy look in his eyes. He came up and grabbed at us and pointed toward a big box-elder next to the road. High up in that tree was something bright and crinkly, like gold candy-wrapper. One of his hives had swarmed, and he was more concerned about getting it down than about that black cloud drifting over the ridge.

Amos couldn’t talk right, all he could do was make noises. Maybe the bees understood him but we couldn’t. He shuffled around, making those sounds, and I looked back and saw it – the funnel cloud touching down with a big splash maybe half a mile away. If we had stayed by the creek, we could have crawled under the trestle bridge, but it was too late now, and the garage was our only chance.

Amos began pointing at something else. On the other side of the road was a mound of fresh dirt with a spade stuck in it. Milo and I ran that way and sure enough there was a brand-new grave that went down six feet. We jumped inside like it was a foxhole in one of those old World War Two movies.

I thought Amos would pile in after us, but he was back there trying to climb that tree to collect that swarm. If anybody could coax it down in the middle of a tornado, it was Amos. The funnel cloud was almost on top of us now, making a noise like a freight train with three Diesel engines.

They say your entire life passes before you at such moments, but while I hugged a corner of that grave, I kept thinking about Amos, who by this time was probably whirling around somewhere in the upper stratosphere. He was a weird guy. He had been married once to a second cousin of my dad’s, so he was family, sort of, although we didn’t like to think about it. Amos was rumored to be doing some strange things out there in that cemetery.

People said he played checkers with the stones in the old part, the part closest to town, where some of the original settlers had been buried – the pioneers who laid out the streets and sold the lots, but who didn’t have any descendents to look after their plots anymore.

A lot of those old stones were already worn smooth and didn’t have much information on them anyway. Most of the people they belonged to had been underground for at least a hundred and fifty years. It didn’t matter to them what he did, or where he put their markers.

People said Amos moved the stones around in a wheelbarrow, after dark, when nobody could see him. They said he tampered with the plat books, too, to make everything official. That way he could put people he didn’t like over next to the drainage ditch. In that town, if you were concerned about your reputation or your social standing after you were gone, you didn’t want to mess with him.

The mayor and the police chief let him be, as long as he didn’t go out into the new part and start switching things around. There were stories that he did, though nobody ever caught him at it. Besides, nobody else wanted the job he had. He was the only one who would do that kind of work.

He still dug graves by hand, ever since he found out there were families willing to pay extra for the privilege – newcomers, people out in the subdivisions, who thought it was cool to get buried in a hand-dug grave, and then have it filled in again by some old man with a shovel. Sort of like people down in Indianapolis who pay more for brown eggs than for white, and never realize there’s no difference between the two.

But when Amos had a backlog of graves to dig, the trustee made him roll out the backhoe and gouge out two or three holes in a single afternoon. He thought the noise bothered the bees, but he had to do what he was told. All the mowing was done by a couple of college boys, home for the summer, and they worked pretty much on their own.

Most of the time Amos was out there all by himself, and if you wanted to find him, you had to go out beyond the garage to the bottomland, where the weeds were higher than a man’s head, and the ground was marshy, and you walked a path of barn siding he had laid out to keep the water from coming over your shoes.

Eventually you came to a stand of Kentucky coffee trees on a bit of a rise. It was fairly well hidden, like a sugar shack out in the woods. He didn’t want any teen-agers coming out there and tipping over his hives.

There were stories of people who went out there to see him about something, and he would be there with bees covering his arms up to his shoulders, not even wearing a hat with a net, and not working a smoker, either, but simply walking around talking to them, making strange sounds, never once getting stung, and almost seeming to enjoy it.

Nobody ever wanted any of the honey those hives produced. People didn’t like thinking about what all that clover and chicory had originally pushed up from. I don’t know what he did with all that honey. Maybe he gave it to the Salvation Army.

While I was crouched down in that grave, things of that nature ran through my head, and you can look back on a time like that, and think maybe it took forever, but actually that twister passed over us in about ten or fifteen seconds and went right on by.

They say if a tornado passes directly overhead, you can look up through it and see blue sky at twenty or thirty thousand feet. But both of us knew better than to try. A funnel cloud looks dirty because it’s sucked up all kinds of paper and shingles and loose lumber and even glass and barbed wire.

If you’re down in a hole, or a ditch, and you stick your head up for a look around, you’re liable to get it sliced off by a piece of galvanized barn roofing whirling around at ground level. Something like that would be like the blade of a big scythe rotating at three hundred miles an hour.

We waited and we kept absolutely still. Finally everything got quiet. Rain pelted the grass. We peeked out. The funnel was gone, pulled back into the clouds. We helped each other out of the hole and stood up and looked around, and you could see the path it made through the rows.

The trees weren’t stripped all that much. They would come back. The swarm of bees up in the box-elder had disappeared. It was not likely to come back at all A few old Victorian monuments had been knocked over, but most of the plastic bouquets and paper-maché flower-holders had been vacuumed up, and it made the place look a whole lot better.

Amos was nowhere to be seen. Had he been picked up and carried off by the twister? There were plenty of stories about people getting lifted up in their cars and carried for a mile or two and then set down again. Some lost their lives that way, others wouldn’t get a scratch. Most of the survivors converted to gospel religion as soon as possible.

We brushed off the clods and dirt, and went to look for Amos, and we found him, finally, maybe half a mile away, on the steps of the Civil War monument at the main entrance. The soldier with his musket up on top of the column didn’t got a scratch, either. Amos was sitting there talking to himself like always.

I really do think he got picked up and carried for a spell, and then set down again. He wasn’t hurt. Didn’t seem to mind it at all. Maybe he didn’t even notice. We got him on his feet again and walked him along the road all the way back to the office.

The first thing he wanted to do was go check on those hives, to see if they were OK. We let him go, and in a few minutes he came back. The hives were OK. To tell the truth probably nobody else even noticed what happened out in the middle of that cemetery. It only lasted for a few seconds and it really didn’t do much damage.

We took Amos into the office and made him sit down in the trustee’s swivel chair. “You boys gonna be awright,” he seemed to be saying, although it didn’t come out that way. But it was not a question. It was a promise.

I think he meant he’d leave our headstones alone if we ever got buried there. He wouldn’t trade them for some of the town’s more disreputable characters. He kept talking and then he just leaned over face down on the desk and started snoring.

Maybe when he woke up he’d know some way to find that missing swarm. Maybe he knew some old dowser who’d come over, and they’d cut a fresh willow fork, and wander around for a while until they re-located the bees up in the top of some other tree. Maybe he was dreaming about doing that while he was slumped over against the desk.

Milo had boosted me out of that grave, and I had pulled him up, and our clothes were filthy. We went outside and found a hose and washed off as much as possible. The sun had started to come out., and there would probably be a rainbow, if you knew where to look.

From far down the tracks came the steady ding-ding-ding of a switcher pulling a few empty boxcars. It was headed for a siding at the pallet factory on the east side of town. We turned off the hose and ran along the cemetery road to try to catch that last car. We had a good angle on it.

Thank god they don’t put cabooses on trains anymore. We caught up with the last car, swung on, climbed up on top, and rode into town. We decided to get something to eat at the sandwich shop next to the fire barn. We’d go back later and find those poles and bait cans, and then maybe we’d stop and check on Amos, to see if he was back among the living again.

© 2006 by Jared Carter


About the Author

Jared Carter is a Midwesterner from Indiana. His poems and stories appear online at Archipelago, Centrifugal Eye, The New Formalist, Poetry X, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His fourth book of poems, Cross this Bridge at a Walk, was published in 2006 by Wind Publications in Kentucky.


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