Fear and Loathing in LaGrange
by Marian Allen
I sat next to a man on the plane who, after we'd toasted each other with a couple of those short-shot bottles they sell you on the flight, whispered that his brother had scored a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, and would I like to join them. I said I'd bring the grass, if my connection was still at liberty. He was, so none of us slept that night, either, insofar as I can remember.
Then it was Friday, and I drove to LaGrange for my interview with the widow/prisoner. She had refused to talk to reporters after one of them had dubbed her The Bird-Brain Killer, but one of her fellow prisoners knew somebody at the Courier-Journal, who said I would give her a fair hearing without putting my own spin on her story, so she agreed. If I'm proud of anything, I'm proud of that.
*She sat across from me at a metal table, bolted to the smooth cement floor. The benches, also metal, were also bolted down.
"They said you wouldn't make fun of me or laugh at me," she said.
"I never laugh at murder," I said, which was true.
"Most of it," she said, "it's my husband's story. I didn't have no reason to kill him. Well, maybe I did, but I didn't kill him for that. It was partly his fault and partly a accident."
I didn't say anything. She peered at me, maybe trying to read my expression. At that point, I would have been surprised if I had had one, but whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her, so she told her story.
* * *My husband said he was driving the wagon with the three horses, bringing three barrels of wine. He traded the last of my mama's earrings for them. Said he was going to sell the wine a cup at a time and make a big profit and buy me some new earrings. But they wouldn't have been my mama's, would they? Besides, if I know him, he would have drink it all hisself.
Anyway, he said there was a dog asleep in the middle of the road. He never swerved to miss an animal in his life. Give him credit: He never swerved to hit one, either, so.... Anyways, he said a sparrow told him not to run over the dog, that it was the sparrow's brother, but he said he just laughed and drove on. Killed that dog.
He said the sparrow pecked the bungs out of the wine barrels and lost all the wine. If I know him, he drank it hisself before he could even get it home.
He said then the sparrow pecked the eyes out of one of the horses. Said he tried to kill the sparrow with an ax, but the sparrow flew away and he killed the blind horse. He said that happened twice more, so all the horses were blind and dead. They say they found the horses dead in the road with their eyes pecked out, so nobody can say that didn't happen. They said I made it up about the sparrow, but they can't say the horses wasn't dead with their eyes pecked out, and they can't say them barrels wasn't empty.
But the first I knew about all of this was when a sparrow flew in at the window and said, "Your husband done killed my dog brother, and me and my bird brothers is gonna eat you out of house and home." Then all these birds flew into the barn and started eating up all our grain.
When my husband got home, I told him, and he told me what happened on the road. All he would say about it was how "unlucky" he was! Like I hadn't lost three barrels of wine, three horses, all our grain that I helped plant and harvest, and my mama's jewelry she left me besides.
Well, that sparrow come in to gloat, and my husband took that damn ax and chased it around the house, trying to kill it, but just bustin up all the furniture that Daddy made. He finally dropped the ax and caught the sparrow with his hands, which he should have done in the first place. If he'd done that back on the road, I'd still be a free woman. Well, I'd still be married to him, but I wouldn't be in the fix I'm in now.
So he says, he says, "I'm gonna eat this swallow alive!" That's the kind of man he was, if you want him in a nutshell. So he popped that bird in his mouth and swallowed it. Swallowed the swallow!
[She laughed and I laughed. She reached over and patted my hand, the chain on her handcuffs clinking against the metal table between us.]
Oh, that laugh did me good. They told me you was all right, and you are.
Anyway, that bird fought its way back up and poked its head out of his mouth and kept on threatening us! Now, I ask you: What could a dog be to a sparrow, that it would do what it done to us for the sake of a dog that was so stupid it went to sleep in the middle of the road? And why didn't the sparrow just wake the dog up?
[I was seeing sparrows everywhere by that time, so I just sat very still and nodded slightly.]
So he says, "Take the ax and kill this sparrow in my mouth."
Well, of course, when he said that, he opened his mouth, and the sparrow flew out, but the ax was swinging by that time.
And that's how I killed my husband. Now, that's the God's honest truth. The prosecutor said I was just mad because he drank up my mama's earrings and killed the horses and broke up all the furniture. They did give me life instead of the death penalty, because they said I was provoked, which I was. My lawyer says he's going to appeal and see can he get me manslaughter instead of murder. It sounds worse to me, but he says it's better.
***I don't know if all the swallows left with me or if some of them stayed at LaGrange, but I put the hood up on my rental convertible for the drive back to Louisville, hoping my new friend, whose number was still penned on my palm, had some bourbon left in his cabinet.
Marian Allen, Author Lady
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes