My father was a murderer. And a good man. Such a contrasting contradiction will not make much logical sense to most folks. But it’s the solemn truth.
It’s quite a feat to become a legend in these hills, but Paw managed to do just that. The madness took hold of him at the ripe old age of six when he witnessed his youngest brother fall down the hill and drown in the muddy waters of Big Creek. It nearly killed them all. Little Billy rests in the family cemetery, and has since 1946, since he was two, up in Badfork Holler, Kentucky.
Before the madness took over and Paw killed that man, he was a young, bright boy who was off to see and claim the world. He joined the Army and was sent off to Korea, a place where he learned the language and took photographs that I now have in an old cigar box in my cedar chest.
He was not a large man, in the sense of physical proportions. He stood a generous five feet eight, barely a buck twenty-five in all his blond and big-eyed glory. His crime was never a secret to me; he was very absolute about it. After Korea, he felt naked without a gun, he told me.
“I killed somebody before you were born,” he said. “I killed a man. And I can’t take it back. I wish I hadn’t done it. But I did.”
There was more to Paw than the talk of the town folk. Paw was an artist. He could create a true to life portrait from oil paint and a blank canvas. He could pick up a fiddle or a banjo and just play. No lessons. They just fit his hands, as if they’d been made for him. An old friend of his told me several months ago that she once witnessed Paw sit down at piano one New Year’s Eve, after he’d confessed that he’d never seen a real piano before, and then he commenced to play it like he owned it.
Now my father was not a great husband to my mother. But he loved her. Even after she couldn’t take any more of his ways and left him in 1990, he loved her and did until the day he died. He was protective of me, his only daughter, and sheltered me the best he could from the wolves that waited outside our door.
I was there with Paw when he left this place in April of 2012. I was there, and I held his right hand as he took his last breath…and my mother held his left.
Today is Paw’s birthday. He would be 75 if he were here. But he is here, and I know that. His cremains rest on my bookcase. His spirit roams endless and boundless throughout my memory and beyond these hills, to places he always wanted to go and see and claim. He has met Little Billy in the hereafter, wherever that is.
The story goes deeper than I can tell now, but in the end, without all the fancy words and the stories that the others remember, I am the child of a killer. The daughter of a mad and brilliant artist. And that is the truth that I know and remember.
All of us have been touched by that madness, I suppose. It is up to us whether we choose to be victims of it…or collect those ribbons of blood into a paint that caresses our canvas and tells our stories for us.
Happy birthday, Paw. I hope you are still painting somewhere beyond our dreams, and teaching Billy how to play that piano.