Death in the Neighborhood

Yesterday I found a possum dead right under my front gate. I don’t think it got stuck there for it was smaller than the space underneath the gate. Perhaps one of the neighborhood foxes got to it at that vulnerable moment when the possum was going underneath the gate and had to slow down. In any case, I was already dressed in my Sunday best and ready to go out for brunch, and I’ve already buried I don’t know how many wild beasts in my back yard, including a turkey vulture that must have measured six feet wingtip to wingtip, so I figured one of my neighbors could take over this distasteful chore for once. The carcass was beginning to stink. So, quickly getting a shovel, I tossed the dead animal across the street to a tangle of weed trees and brush in the neglected yard of a recently-sold house, feeling a little guilty, but not that much. Off I went to the Villagio at Dadeland for a wonderful, actually perfect, Caesar salad, no croutons, dressing on the side, with grilled chicken on top. My sister Rossibell had their Chicken Carboni, also good for our diet, with a salad mixed with grilled peppers, which the chef always creates just for her.

I live on a very quiet street, which is not a through-way, since most motorists, if they’re not lost, prefer to take Erwin one block to the east, where the historic Coral Gables Pinewood Cemetery is located. Whenever I give instructions to people coming to my house I always mention the cemetery, since it is such an obvious landmark, but most people have never heard of it. I had always heard of it, taking strolls through it ever since I was a kid, because back then it was abandoned and nature had reclaimed its territory, having sent huge oaks and gumbo limbos and several species of palm trees to form a thick canopy overhead. Of course, I can’t help myself and always tell people that my neighborhood is great, that people are just dying to get in here. Truth be told, though, there is no more room in Pinewood, it is filled to capacity.

Today the cemetery is not as interesting as it used to be, for some charitable society has taken over its care, its trees have been pruned, its brush contained, weed trees deracinated. The winding trails that used to criss-cross the terrain have given way to vistas, and you can now see, in certain places, from one end of the cemetery to the other. It’s huge, for a cemetery ensconced in a residential area. And now with well-manicured grounds, you can see most of the gravestones that had formerly been hidden under bushes and vines. A lady by the name of Harriet Stiger Liles went through the trouble of researching the stories of the residents of the tombs, and came up with a remarkable book about the history of pioneer families, members of whom were laid to rest in the hard oolitic rock that makes up the land beneath our feet. So hard is this rock, that early homesteaders used dynamite to explode enough space to plant their trees. We are no longer allowed to use dynamite, so in order to dig a hole big enough to plant a sapling it takes me about two hours with a long iron spike which we call a Johnson spike, which has nothing to do, I assure you, with Spike Johnson. If the hole I dug is not sufficiently big, the baby tree is forever doomed to grow in a limestone pot in the ground, for it will always look like a bonsai. A friend of mine once opined that a big part of my field in my farm in Princeton looked like a grove of bonsais. So after that, I pretended to have planted my grove of bonsaied avocado, mango and canistel trees on purpose. (Only the sapodilla trees did well and grew to proper dimensions; they originally grew in the tropical jungle of the Yucatán where—lo and behold!—the trees managed to penetrate the same type of limestone.)

It’s true that I have always been partial to cemeteries. Every time I go to Boston and New Orleans I never fail to visit their cemeteries. In Paris I devote a whole afternoon to a picnic at the Cimetière Père Lachaise, surrounded by celebrities, to seek inspiration from some of my favorite writers, poets, artists and musicians, or just people, such as Balzac and Chopin, separated by only one tomb; Molière; Modigliani; Apollinaire; Maria Callas, whose urn is empty after her ashes were stolen; William Temple Franklin, grandson of Benjamin; Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed a humane way to execute criminals; Héloïse and Abelard, the oldest corpses there, from the Middle Ages, famous lovers who had to sacrifice a lot for their love, especially Abelard who was forcibly castrated; René Lalique, who has made my house look so beautiful; Félix Nadar; Edith Piaf; Marcel Proust; many of the Rothschilds (Rothschildren?); Simone Signoret, my favorite actress; Gertrude Stein and her partner-in-life Alice B. Toklas; Oscar Wilde, with his weird monument; my favorite playwright Alfred de Musset; and my compatriot Miguel Ángel Asturias who was laid to rest at the base of a most unusual gravestone, a monolithic Mayan stella, engraved with the mysterious magical designs he so loved. Yes, I know that Jim Morrison is also there, but his tomb is hardly ever alone; there is usually an unruly cacophonous crowd hanging around, and they’re not very nice people because they deface and disrespect the tombs all around, and they’re dirty and lazy, leaving their debris for someone else to pick up. They’re a passel of vultures.

The first time I ever went to Père Lachaise I was young and innocent. After my bread and paté sandwich I hung around the older part of the cemetery, which is my favorite, for there the trees are huge, their branches forming natural vaults suspended by grotesque and gnarled columns. I was looking for Asturias’ tomb, but was having difficulty finding it. As I walked, I saw one, then another, and after that another, a whole series of young men waiting by the entrance to the bigger mausoleums, then, as I approached, they would enter slowly and deliberately, back first, into the penumbra in the depths of the crypts. I thought this peculiar, and it never occurred to me that these were invitations I was observing, invitations meant for me. From the young men’s perspective, apparently, I was clueless. I only found out later that evening, when I told a French friend of my excursion, that the young men would have wanted me to follow them into the sepulchers. A shiver went up my spine when I found this out. I was in awe that those men could have performed their tenebrous diversions under the leer of so many dead people.

When my sister and I drove back from our savory and sensible lunch we found the road blocked. There were two black sentries keeping guard on the street in front of my house like a two-headed Cerberus at the gates of Hell, a couple of Stygian sentinels huddled over and shivering in the breeze. They were turkey vultures, Cathartes aura, also known as buzzards, and they and their brethren had already discovered the discarded carcass of the possum. We could see beyond the two barring our way, off to the side of the road, a writhing of wings and feathered backs, noiseless save for the dry rustling of black plumage, as other vultures grappled with consuming the corpse. I tentatively drove my car closer, but the sentries stood their ground. Perhaps they had already eaten their fill and, feeling heavier, were loath to take flight. It wasn’t until I got out of the car and expanded myself to my full six feet, raising my arms to make myself look taller, that the two guards crouched to the ground, then jumped and unfurled their wings. They didn’t fly very far, landing on a horizontal branch of a live oak, so now they looked like the audience watching the thrashing macabre feast.

Of course I thought of Baudelaire, of his poem «Une charogne» (“A Carcass”; from his collection “Flowers of Evil”), where the poet builds a paean of beauty and grotesque exhilaration based on the putrid remains of a carcass left to rot on a field. The narrator and his girlfriend stand transfixed before their grisly discovery, repulsed by the sight and stench of it, but entranced, nevertheless, by its savage truth: one day, they will also lie down, under the grass and flowers, to molder and decay, and while the girl’s beauty will be devoured by the kisses of vermin, the narrator “will keep the divine essence of his decomposed love.”

Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine

Qui vous mangera de baisers,

Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine

 De mes amours décomposés!

Rossibell and I similarly stood hypnotized by the grand spectacle. After I parked the car in the garage, we walked back out onto the street to continue watching. The possum was unrecognizable, pieces of it lay scattered on the ground and low-lying branches, only to be taken up by a greedy beak, then snatched away by another.

This morning as I write this, I look out from the windows of my second-floor library down to the sunny garden and see shadows moving fleetly across the landscape, several of them at once, crisscrossing the allées and the parterres. They swoop across the lawn and the pool, the shadows momentarily bigger when they glide up to the balcony and almost through the windows. Even though I cannot see them, I can guess that they are the sentries of death overhead, hoping for another morsel, yearning for another object of their affection. The cats are staying indoors today. The chickens will stay inside their coop. Frankly, so will I.


About the author

Roy Luna: Roy Luna is a retired French professor who dabbles in the arts, tinkers with music, reads heavily in fiction and history, but does not neglect biographies or science. His main efforts these days are devoted to writing a trilogy of novels based on events occurring during the years between the death of Voltaire (1778) and the French Revolution (1789-94), years rich in both enlightened human progress and dark, evil terror. Three times a week he volunteers at Dunbar Old Books, making sure orphaned books find their way to other readers. His library at home may have surpassed the 10,000 mark, and he valiantly tries to read them all… The one important thing to retain about Roy is his horror at the sins, the injustice, the atrocities, the crimes against humanity that are perpetrated and justified in the name of religion. Any belief system that condones such savagery has discarded its humanity, abandoned its compassion, and forsaken its principles of empathy, tolerance and love of one’s neighbor.


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