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Good Letters

“I’m going to shoot them,” my husband announces.  “I just got pooped on.”

I felt bad for Michael, as he pulled off his shirt, freshly smeared with the stinky mess of vultures, but I wasn’t going to take his side on this. I stood with the vultures. 

“You can’t kill them,” I said. “It’s probably against the law, and, you know, I think they’re here, keeping watch, for a reason.”

I don’t want them to go away, not yet, maybe not ever, not until they’re ready.

Black vultures are nesting in the old barn in our backyard. They perch on the large cedar and the dead tree out front. We moved into this old southern farmhouse just over a year ago and the vultures came with it, free of charge. Like many creatures, they lay their own eggs in the place where they were hatched. Researchers have noted that black vultures will return to the same place for generations. The first time I walked this property, before it was our home, I came upon a baby vulture hopping near the dilapidated barn. Its downy feathers looked more like gray wool, but that would be its only similarity to a lamb. I jumped back in surprise, as if I’d seen a goblin, but I was also weirdly pleased to know that these strange birds would be my neighbors. The screens and deterrents that Michael put around the old barn are no match to these vultures’ genetic predisposition to roost in familiar, desolate, territory.

Vultures are not the kind of bird to grace the front of holiday greeting cards and no one in their right mind sets out feeders to attract them to the yard. They’re carrion eaters with rough bald heads and wings that beat like leather. They do not sing. Instead they make deep and ancient croaks that make them seem like the dinosaurs that they are.

We moved to this house in rural Georgia for many reasons. One of them was because I wanted to write; in particular, I wanted to write the stories of southern, African-American, rural people who came before me. “I feel like there are so many stories buried in this land,” I tell anyone who will listen. I felt a deep homing instinct to be rooted to this place, tapping into the stories beneath my feet. 

The people that sold us the house and four acres allow us access to the forty acres of undeveloped back woods that lead all the way to the river.  The woods are young, less than a hundred years old. Where sweet gum, oak, pine, thick privet and tangles of brambles grow, there once was only cotton, as far as the eye could see. If you squint and look only at the silhouette of the land you can see the terraces, painstakingly sculpted from hand-hauled river rocks, to prevent erosion on the hillside.

When we first saw the tombstone I jumped back as if I’d seen a ghost. Before these were woods, there was an African American cemetery here that was plowed over, erased from the map, in the middle of the twentieth century.  When the friends who sold us this place first bought the land in the 1990s they found this tombstone toppled over in an overgrown field. They set it in the middle of a nice clearing, planted some daffodils and kept the area mowed.  There are two other marble stones with only initials leaning against a tree near our house. Whenever I walk these woods, I scan the ground for rocks that may have been grave markers. The vultures remind me, every day, to keep looking.

I visit Mr. Arnold’s tombstone on a pretty regular basis. It is a four-foot marble monument. At the top is a carved relief of hands clasping, as if in friendship. Lines of swirling script reveal a stanza of a nineteenth century Baptist funeral hymn, “Sister, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”

 Yet again we hope to meet thee,

When the days of life have fled,

Then in heav’n, with joy to greet thee,

Where no farewell tears are shed.

The Arnold name is a familiar one to our region. Our local park is Arnold park. A brief search into the Arnold family cemeteries in my county offers this small morsel of information: “This cemetery was destroyed and only remains of tombstones can be found, one of which was engraved – NEWTON S, ARNOLD, 1842 – 1 Jun 1892; this was a negro, but whites were buried in the cemetery also.” From the dates and the design of the tombstone I can surmise that Mr. Arnold was likely born into slavery and became a prominent and respected member of his community. As of yet, I still know nothing of his life, or what caused him to die at the age of 50. 

Most old southern cemeteries are listed as black or white, rarely both. I don’t know why this cemetery was integrated, nor if there are a handful, dozens, or hundreds of unmarked graves among the ferns and mossy logs.  I rub my fingers over the lichen encrusted stone, pause and talk to Mr. Arnold and the others.  My dogs find a piece of deer skeleton and I jump at the sight of bones.

This cemetery is among thousands of untended African American graveyards in the south. After black communities were decimated by the reign of terror and the strict racial codes that spawned the great migration north, there was the problem of not enough living people, or economic infrastructure left, for communities to care for the places where their dead were buried. The day I see the tombstone, I show photos of it to friends at a party. A woman I have just met tells me that she understands. She is white, born and raised in Georgia: “Oh yes, I heard how my granddaddy did that to a black cemetery in our town. He got on his tractor and plowed it down in the middle of the night, planted soybeans. I hope the haints came up and got him good for that.” It’s not strange around here to stand and talk of ghosts in my friend’s kitchen, as if talking about an unremarkable flock of birds.

On one of my walks to the cemetery I see two vultures in my path.  I recognize the one with the wounded wing. I’m not sure if it was born this way or injured. I’ve watched, over the months, how the other birds bring it food, stay with it and help it to survive. It hops along the ground like an old man. Occasionally it will get the strength to flap up and perch on a low branch, but it will never float on the breezes with the others. As I approach, its companion flies off into the woods, but the wounded one remains on the path, hops along toward Mr. Arnold’s gravestone as if he were expecting me, as if he were my guide.

In May of 1803, dozens of enslaved Igbo men, women and children from Nigeria walked off the ship that had brought them from Savannah to St. Simons Island in Georgia. Instead of walking their bare, shackled feet, onto the sandy shore, they all obeyed the voice of their leader who sang about the sea. They joined the song and walked deeper into the water. This act of resistance, choosing death over enslavement, took on mythic proportions among enslaved Africans who remained on the ground. Legends grew that these Igbo people walked on the water, straight back home to Africa. Other legends say they spread their arms into long black wings and took flight.

Just after reading about the Igbo landing, about people taking flight like buzzards, I walked out my front door and two vultures swooped down from a high perch and landed directly in front of me. I didn’t jump back. I watched them hissing and grunting at one another, wings spread, necks straining, and I waited, listening for what they were trying to say.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Josina Guess

Josina Guess is working on a book on love, family and healing in the rural and urban landscapes of her memory. A grant from the Louisville Institute has given her more time to travel and watch the birds in her yard. She's written for The Christian Century, Sojourners and Crop Stories. Keep up with her meanderings and land tending at Follow her on Twitter @josinaguess.

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