Tody’s prompt for the Chatham Writers Group was the above photo, with a caption that read ”I would like to know the back story.” The prompt elicited 9 very different, excellent stories and poems. My fiction tale follows. I provide some additional background after the story.
The Iron Birdcage
“So after we get to England, Smitty and I were walking past this cemetery in Berkshire and we spot..”
“Nobody wants to hear about you and Smitty in a cemetery Tut, not now”, shouted a voice off to the left.
Brushing off the interruption, George Tutwhiler, or “Tut” as he is commonly called, continued, “as I was saying, Smitty and I spot these two graves with steel cages over them. I’ve never seen that before.”
“Me neither,” said Eddie Smith, called Smitty by everyone, “So Tut and I go into the graveyard to get a closer look.”
The voice off to the left screeches, “Nobody wants to listen to you and Smitty talking about a Goddamn graveyard. Not now!”
Tut shrugs and leans a little closer to the guy, last name Farkas, sitting across from him, “So we walk into the graveyard to investigate these cages over the graves. They look like a cast iron bird cage, cut in half. The cage is over the grave, and there appears to be bolts connecting it to the other half of the cage, which I am guessing goes around the coffin underground.”
Smitty leans towards Farkas now too, “Tut and I are befuddled by this cage. It’s freaking heavy! We know because we tried to lift it. Damn thing wouldn’t budge.”
“Smitty and I are gruntin’ and straining’ to lift this big bird cage when some guy starts yellin’ at us.”
“Tut and I jumped a mile! In a graveyard at night, tryin’ to lift this damn thing, and a voice bellows out of the dark – “What in God’s name d’ya think you blokes are up to!” – scared the crap out of us, I tell ya!”
“Maybe you Smitty,” chuckled Tut, “you screamed like a 10 year old. Anyway this guy is a cop, he has one of those “Bobby” helmets on, and starts laying into us about desecrating a grave. We apologize and tell him we’re trying to figure out what this cage thing is.”
Smitty’s head is bobbing in agreement with what Tut had said, “The cop hears our accents, – “are you blokes Yanks? – he asks. We reply in the affirmative. We repeat we were just trying to figure out what the meaning of the cage was.”
“The cop apologizes now for “giving us a fright”,” says Tut, “he then comments on us Yanks being a peculiar bunch, then he tells us what the cage is for.”
Tut and Smitty sit back without saying another word. Farkas’ head is now moving back and forth looking at Tut, then Smitty. He looks like he is watching a ping pong match. “So what did he tell you? What was the cage for?” he asks them.
“Oh, sorry Farkas,” Smitty apologizes, “the cop tells us that the people committed a crime so, so bad, so heinous, that not only were they sentenced to a life behind bars, but when they died, their coffin would be behind bars. It made perfect sense. We thanked him, then he told us to get out of the graveyard.”
The voice from off to the left sounds hysterical now, “Shut the hell up about graveyards! Of all days! I don’t want to hear it! One more word and I will gut you guys with my trench knife!”
“Settle down. Settle down, Mayhew. Nobody is gutting anybody on this plane,” the Lieutenant’s calm voice came from the front of the C-47 transport. Looking to Tut & Smitty seated near the open door of the plane he said, “How about changing the subject, Sgt. Tutwhiler.”
“Yes sir”, saluted Tut, then he turned to glance out the door of the C-47. “How about fireworks Lieutenant? Looks like were heading into the Fourth of July.”
The Lieutenant made his way back to the open door. Leaning out into the prop blast, he could see hundreds of sun bursts and streaks of light as anti-aircraft flak shells and machine gun tracer bullets sought out targets. “I’ll be damned,” he said, “that would be beautiful if it didn’t carry a death notice.”
The words were no sooner out of his mouth when the plane bucked from the concussion of a near miss. More explosions began to buffet the C-47. Looking at Tut, the Lieutenant said, “Mortsafes, Sarge.”
“I’m sorry, sir, what did you say?” Asked Tut.
“That cop was pulling your leg, Sergeant , those cages are called Mortsafes. They were placed over graves to ward off grave robbers.”
Before Tut could reply, a red light over the door blinked on. The Lieutenant directed the paratroopers to stand and attach their jump cords, then for each trooper to perform an equipment check. Equipment check completed, the 10 men on board the C-47 remained with their eyes trained on the lights over the open door, waiting for the green one to illuminate. The plane bucked and lurched from the flak concussions, the troopers fought to maintain their balance.
The green light came on, the Lieutenant shouted, “Go!” And shoved Tut out the door, Smitty went right behind him. Tut looked back at the C-47 then cried out in horror as the cockpit disintegrated in a ball of flame. He could see Smitty just above him. The plane began to roll on its side, Farkas tumbled from the open door back into the plane. The plan continued to roll over, when the door again faced the ground, another trooper tumbled out. No others. Tut gasped and closed his eyes. The zip of tracer bullets shook him from his despair and he looked to the ground to see where his chute was taking him. “Of all the..!” He exclaimed. He landed in a church cemetery. Smitty touched down 5 seconds later.
Struggling out of his harness, Smitty whispered, “At least we’re on the right side of this graveyard, Tut. It looked like Farkas was the only other guy to get out.” Looking around at the graves, he said, “I heard the Lieutenant tell you what those cages were for. From the looks of this place, the French don’t seem to be worried about grave robbers.”
Tut nodded in agreement, “Yeah. Let’s try and find some of our guys. We gotta a war to fight.”
Chatham Writers Group
June 5, 2022
Mortsafes came into vogue in England & Scotland in the early 1800’s. They were created to deter grave robbers from mainly stealing the bodies of the recently deceased for sale to doctors to use for teaching surgeons. There were several different types of mortsafes. In many cases they were removed after the body had reached a level of decomposition to render the unsuitable for medical purposes.
In regards to the setting for my story, I have had a keen interest in the D-Day invasion since forever it seems. To commemorate the anniversary of the ”Longest Day”, I used the setting of the paratrooper assault that occurred in the early hours of June 6, 1944. The 101st Airborne Division, the ”Screaming Eagles”, trained in Berkshire and Wiltshire England. I think this will become an annual event. Last year, to note the D-Day anniversary, I wrote a story about the French Resistance fighters who conducted operations to assist the Allied invasion forces. I hope you enjoyed the story.
4 thoughts on “The Iron Birdcage”
HI Ernie, I like the way you weave fact into your fiction. The photos that accompany your stories are remarkable.
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Thank you very much Nancy!
Love the layers, the dialog, the story line, the tribute. Another minor masterpiece!
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Thank you John!