Burning Sassafras, by Cassie E. Brown

My grandpa’s antique shelf clock sits on my mother’s fireplace mantel. It unnerved me as a child—the glass of its face reflects a golden patina of age that’s slightly oily, perhaps from the smoke of a kerosene lamp. Its hands are filigreed, black. They read seven thirty-nine, always, on spindly and severe Roman numerals. Ante meridiem or post meridiem, I will never know.

What I do know is it tells me a time of death.

In the Ozarks of my mother’s people, clocks are stopped and mirrors are covered when the last breath leaves the body. The sound of the clock—the house’s heartbeat—is stilled, and the mirror—a place that the soul could get lost—is hidden away.

We feel our vulnerability deeply in the thin places. The Ozarks are a thin place.

Here sloping hillsides lead down to narrow, green creeks that quicken in spring, slow in summer, flood in fall, and disappear in winter. I have waded these creeks in sweltering summers and breathed in the scent of the moss that grows on the limestone outcroppings. In fall, I have marveled at the bright red of the sugar maples and the deep gold of the sycamores, until all of autumn withers. And I have seen hunters spill blood on the snow.

I have very early memories of dead things. Deer being field dressed and hung skinless in the yard. Squirrels being parted out on our kitchen counter for frying. A recollection so tiny and simple, it might be a confabulation of a few moments after my great-grandpa’s funeral. I was wearing a sky-blue, lace-trimmed dress my grandma sewed for me. We were returning to my grandpa’s farm afterwards.

I would have been three or four, I think, if that, and I knew from that day forth that people died, as surely as deer and squirrels. You cannot really hide death in thin places.

Everything is an augury of death to my people. A sign of our impending mortal end. A sign is always precise. A sign is always off-kilter. A picture falling from the wall. A dog barking four times before a porch. A hen crowing. And, God forbid, a screech owl in the house, a crow in your rafters, or a whip-poor-will alight on your roof.

Birds are especially to be feared.

Whip-poor-wills have the most beautiful song in the Ozarks. Their haunting call is now becoming a rarity due to changes in climate and habitat. It’s perhaps our most beloved sunset sound, amidst the chorus of peepers and cicadas and barred owls and coyotes. Whip-poor-wills are a ground-nesting bird, hideous, brown, and scowling, meant to disappear into fallen timber and cedar scrub. They are not meant for high places.

If one perches on your roof, the world is off plumb. It is tipping away from normal. It portends a threat.

My mother’s people were hillbillies of German descent that fought and farmed in the Ozarks. These were hard-scrabble farmers in south central Missouri. My grandpa’s family had to relocate the family cemetery when Bagnell Dam was built to electrify Missouri by creating the Lake of the Ozarks. It would have put my ancestors’ graves under water.

I imagine my grim, wild, hateful great-grandpa—a man who was unpredictable at best and God-almighty violent at worst—helping to dig up the bones of his family. How old was he when his shovel, well-rusted from use, bit into the rocky soil? Whose bones did he rattle within their handmade coffin first? Someone who lived into old age, perhaps. Maybe someone who died as an infant.

Death came frequently to cribs then. I wonder when society became privileged enough to adopt the adage that a man should not see his children die before him.

It is no wonder that there were so many auguries of death.

Death comes quickly and sometimes inexplicably to people out in the country. There had to be explanations for why our kin were taken from our families, and the best explanations were those that included lessons and warnings.

Don’t look into a mirror in a house where someone has just died. You’ll be next. Never sweep under a sick person’s bed. They’ll be gone within days. Don’t let a clock stop in the house of the bereaved. Another member of the family will surely die. Never leave your house unlocked at night. Don’t burn sassafras wood. Never watch your friends leave sight of your house.

To a modern ear, these are superstitions. To my great-grandma, they were power and protection.

My great-grandma lost her memory before she passed. She was never a talker, as we say. She shared less than what she knew before she died, hair still thick and the dark gray of wet limestone. She buried at least one child who made it to adulthood.

Great-Grandma knew what to carry in her pockets. Even her most devout Christian daughter told stories of her leaving the house and walking the hills to keep death turned from the door. She would return, and her child’s fever would have passed. Or some other mystery had gone. Perhaps it missed the awareness of the children completely. Who notices the sound of burning sassafras wood, after all?

It pops and crackles fiercely in a pot-bellied stove. Makes good charcoal, but you oughtn’t burn it. Brings the devil’s attention.

She knew an unfortunate hillbilly can invite death in a thousand accidental and forgetful ways. We protect ourselves with buckeyes in our pockets. We look for the auguries of good fortune, say rhymes to turn bad luck, spit between our fingers, and we pray. Our prayers are ragged and simple, openhearted and frightened.

In the end, no buckeye keeps the coins from our eyes forever. Though, now the mortician’s glue keeps our eyes closed in eternal sleep rather than the weight of silver dollars.

You see, in times not so far past, people like mine held onto silver dollars through lean times so that they could honor the passing of their kin with dignity, so that their beloved dead need not stare blindly into nothingness.

Now people where I live break themselves, indebt themselves to bury those they love. They purchase fancy funerals with credit and obligation and a deep need to make our lives matter. All of the modern trimmings: flowers and limousine rides, coffins that gleam and glisten in every shade of personality that a funeral director can sell you on. Dignified oak for your uncle who loved woodworking. Barbie pink for that little girl with the cancer, taken too soon; a man should not see his children die before him.

We can’t afford it. But we can’t afford not to.

I go to funerals, and people seem lost. We put trinkets in the coffin, hidden in pockets and slid into stiff, curled hands. The kinds of mementos and things we know they loved—it ain’t strictly Christian, but we are still compelled.

And we stop the clocks. Lest they chime again in the house of mourning and take us next.

Grandpa’s clock sits still on the mantel. I do not know whose death it marks.


Cassie E. Brown (she/her) is a writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. Her work draws inspiration from her childhood in rural Missouri, classic children’s literature, and her experiences as a queer misfit. Cassie’s work explores what is ugly, beautiful, and true about rural places and fairy tales. Apart from writing, she is a clinical social worker and a tea aficionado.

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