The Cemetery

 

     One hundred and seven miles as the gander flies, one hundred and twenty-seven in a car, and so far away in time that the name on the gravestone was barely decipherable. Adam sat on the long, flat stone, hidden under the vine-choked branches of a cedar, and wished he were anywhere other than an old cemetery in the middle of this commerce and culture-forsaken Chesapeake town. In death, the family always returned to Cambridge.

     Under the cedar, July’s heat did not penetrate. Adam rested his hand on the cold rock, stone and hand alike spotted with the dappled light filtered through needles and vines. His fingers stretched into the inscription and then pulled back. Worn faint by rain and wind, the words were impossible to read. His fingers moved over the indentations again. They read what his eyes could not see: In memory of Henry Steele, Esq. who departed this life the -- he couldn’t feel the number -- day of February anno domini 1782. And then some Latin. High school Latin was too long ago. Adam had no idea what it said. One final phrase with the first word so worn, his fingers could not decipher it. Erected, maybe? Erected by his Relict Ann Steele.

     Sad, really. One day, this Henry was young and strong, pulling at his mother’s hand, perhaps, running in headlong flight toward youth and manhood. And then it was over, his only remembrance a gravestone hidden from the generations by a drooping cedar. 

     Who was he? Who were those long gone who populated the cemetery near him? His  stone lay next to John Rider, who lay next to Ann Rider. And seven feet away, James Billings and baby John. The stones in between, too cracked, too faded to make any word out, marked forgotten lives, unknown men who once loved, unnamed women loved by others.

     Adam leaned his forehead against his knees. The too-long trip from Philadelphia in the tiny Corolla had tired him. The only relief from the heat had come from air moving past the open windows, and when traffic had stopped even that air, they had melted into the seats like abandoned Easter peeps. Heat could not stop his mother and her cousin from their love of talking, though. They had not included him, but still, their chatter of money hung in the humid air and wrapped damply around him.

     “Who do you think she left her money to?” Mother wiped at the small beads of sweat that appeared on her upper lip.

     Cousin Margaret pulled a paper fan from her handbag and waved it furiously in front of her face. “An animal rescue hospital, I hope. Hubert’s such a pill.” She threw her head back against the seat and opened her mouth to pant. A Prius edged past them on the left. “Sprout eaters,” she said, her red state scorn packed into two mild words. “Just look at that bumper sticker.”

      “She hated animals.”

     Adam glanced at his mother, still wiping her upper lip, then out his window at the bumper sticker. "Illegal aliens have always been a problem. Ask any Native American." He laughed.

     “She never wanted anyone to know how much she had,” Margaret said.

     “Didn’t want to be taken advantage of.” Mother nodded.

     Perhaps they talked about money to avoid talking about death. If Helen, their childhood friend had died, could they be far behind? Could he?

     “We had money once.”

     “What?” Adam stomped on the brake.

     “We used to have money --.”

     In her dreams. Adam’s father had taught high school English. He worked hard for nine and a half months and spent the summer two and a half reading and snoozing in his garden.  

     “We lost it all in the --,” Mother paused as she adjusted the visor to shield her eyes. “In the war,” she finished.

     Adam blinked. The war? She meant the Depression.

     “What war?” he asked.

     “Civil, of course.”

     He wrinkled his brow. Had some ancestor speculated on iron futures or something? Oh. The civil war.     “You’re telling me we had slaves? Our family owned slaves?”

     His mother had shrugged.

     Adam rubbed the sore on his forearm. It looked worse today. But he hadn’t wanted to show it to the doctor. The doctor had thought he was getting better. So nothing mattered in the end, did it? It did not matter where Helen left her money. It did not matter that his ancestors had been slave owners. It did not matter that they had been late to this burial. The one burial they’d never be late for was their own, and that burial was coming faster than ever for every one of them.

     Adam peered out from his hiding place. Between Henry Steele and Helen, lowered into the ground today, were too many others lying beneath the fading grass. He frowned. The leaves, also, looked as if autumn were here too soon. How appropriate. What would it be like not to be? To have no place? Weird. The cold body couldn’t feel, of course, but would he -- would the real Adam -- sense that he was lost? He didn’t worry about the pain. They had drugs for that. He worried about being lost. Silly, of course.

     An old woman picked her way among the graves toward his corner of the cemetery. The service had ended, then. Too bad. He would rather not collect Mother and Cousin Margaret. He would rather not escort them to the reception. He would rather this old lady leave. She headed straight for his cedar tree as if she knew he   were there. Adam held his breath. She wouldn’t see him under the boughs if he made no sound, would she? The old woman stopped ten feet away and stared in his direction.

     “Hello, dear.”

     Adam let out his breath. Well.

     She lifted the cane in her right hand as she walked forward and pushed aside the branches. “You found my favorite spot.” A smile flitted across her face, before fading into concern. “It is hard to be alone when you’re afraid, yes?”

     Did she say that by chance? She must have. Adam stood up, wondering where he could ask her to sit. The old lady waved her left hand and ducked under the bough. She lowered herself carefully to the gravestone, feeling for the seat with her hand. Once seated, she kept her back ramrod straight. Adam sat back down beside her and held out his hand.

     “Adam Morse,” he said.

     She nodded. “I know, dear. Your grandmother was Brice’s granddaughter.”

     She was part of the funeral party, then. She must know his mother and Cousin Margaret. He would ask them --except she hadn’t yet told him her name. He opened his mouth to ask.

     “The hurricanes back in ’88 and ‘89 were so fierce,” she preempted him. “Washed over the family cemetery out there on the Nanticoke.”

     Adam nodded. He didn’t remember the weather in 1988 and 1989. He hadn’t paid any attention to it, probably because he was working year round in that building of glass. When you can’t open the windows, who cared that the smell of cherry blossoms wafted on the breeze or that the rain pelted sideways?

     “The baby’s grave spit up his little bones like the whale spit up Jonah. Set Anne back a spell, I tell you.”

     What was old lady talking about? She rubbed her hand over Henry Steele’s name, now, tracing the letters one by one as if she had written the inscription herself.

     “She hadn’t got over grieving her husband when her little one’s bones were out for all the world to see, not to mention the birds. She -- well, she and her son James, actually -- decided to move the graves. They’d always been members here at Christ Church anyway.”

     “Wait. Hurricanes in 1988?”

     “Oh no, dear,” she said before she laughed. “I’m talking about 1788.”

     Adam stared at her. “How do you know all this?” The hairs on his arm stood up. He shivered in the dark coolness under the cedar.

     “Oh, honey. There’s not much I don’t know. Who can I tell you about?”

     He didn’t answer. She acted in her right mind. She looked nice enough. Her hair, completely white, was piled atop her head in a bun like the one his Great Aunt Kate used to wear. Her hazel eyes, gazing steadily at him, seemed clear. Her skin was wrinkled, of course. Around his mother’s age, he guessed. He doubted she talked about money all the time, though.