Graveyard


I live across the street from a graveyard, which sits on a hillside. My bedroom is on the second story of my little house. When I look out of the window, I am at eye-level with some of the more distant graves. I suppose that, in absolute terms, I am bunkmates with several of the resident deceased, some of whose names I recite when I’m falling asleep. Some mornings, when I look out of my bedroom window, I feel like I’m buried up to my eyes. This may also be because the sun rises behind the hill, which is to say behind the graveyard, so it rises later for me, and for the other houses on my street, than it does for the rest of the town. How can we but blame the dead for this, for the lateness of our sunrise, the diminution of light, as though we were looking up at the sky from the bottom of a grave? But maybe the dead see it differently: we get to spend an extra hour in a peace resembling theirs, before the light clambers through our windows, and the noise of dog collars, and car doors opening and shutting, and garbage cans rolled up or down driveways assails our consciousness. Some mornings, when I look out of my bedroom window, the graveyard seems like another town, one that carries on all the same business as the one where I live, but is dead.

It’s a reasonably well-tended graveyard, the grass is mowed every other week, and at least some of the graves—the stones whose inscriptions are large enough for me to read from my window—bear the marks of frequent patronage. Nor is it a very crowded cemetery, affixed as it is to the church on the corner, the Episcopal church I can see if I lean close enough to my window. Its membership is down, and this being a members-only cemetery, very few new bodies are added each year. Behind the sacristy is a dumpster full of discarded pews. The enormous downed limb of a century-old oak lies beside it, like the arm of the rightful heir to the Castle of Otranto. A few of the taller monuments have been knocked over, or lifted off their pedestals, and there is one that is broken in half across its middle (someone, perhaps the groundskeeper, had propped the top half against the bottom). Vandalism, perhaps. But then these are merely signs of the broader declension of our town. For those of us living across from the graveyard, the chief attractions are the relative quiet of having only half as many living neighbors, the somber aesthetic of the stones, and the music of the church bells, which resonate with particular beauty against the hillside, the stones perhaps acting like the sounding vases in an old amphitheater. It’s said the priest still pulls the rope himself, though I don’t see how this could be true. I’ve seen him any number of times, puttering between the church and his little house across the driveway, its chimney smoking like a crematorium. He is as aged as his congregation; I don’t think all of them together would weigh enough to ring the bells. But perhaps, as with compound bows in archery, one needn’t be a Quasimodo to ring church bells anymore.

Suffice to say it’s a dying church, as much as it is a dying congregation—and a dying graveyard, if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron. And what is true of the church is true of the town, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it at a glance. To the unaccustomed eye, the flush of its cheeks—the bustle and hum of activity, the passing salutes to neighbors, as though pressing business begrudged even a handshake, the money changing hands, and changing back again—might easily be mistaken for health. In truth, it is a lingering fever. All our churches are half-empty, all our cemeteries half-full. Or the other way around, if you like.

At the top of the hill, the top of the graveyard, is a still-wooded knoll, an island of trees, known for a place where the indigent sleep in the summer. This is where he came from, one morning as I was looking out of my bedroom window, an hour earlier than I usually rise, and just before dawn. If you have never seen a man emerge from a cemetery before it has officially opened for the day (ours, like most, is closed from dusk to dawn), and perhaps before you are fully awake, it would be difficult to describe just the way it unsettles you, thrusts you back to the edge of a dream-state. Had I, I wonder, ever created a similar impression in my neighbors, who had not noticed me entering through the mower’s gate, and had not recognized me for a neighbor? I didn’t recognize him for a neighbor. But it would be more proper to say I didn’t recognize him for a man. He appeared, at first, like a disembodied pair of legs: the preliminary remains of a double amputee that had somehow managed to unbury themselves. Perhaps the torso, the head, like the smaller inscriptions on the more distant stones, refused to resolve; or perhaps some trick of the light had thrust his legs much closer to me than the rest of him, and, like a man stretched along the gradient of a strong gravitational field, he had distended to match the contour of the hillside. I understand this is the opposite of what should have happened: even with the sun still buried in the earth, the light should have caught his head first, and thrown that down the hill at me, Sleepy Hollow-like. It was as if he were built upsidedown, head dragging along the earth; or as if he walked on all fours with his waist thrust up in the air, and his feet pointed toward me.

Once I understood that he was a man—once, that is, I was a little more awake, and something I recognized as the upper half of a body had materialized atop the legs—I suspected him of being one of the indigent who slept on the knoll. I suspected he was a drunk, a drug addict, a vandal, or who knew what sort of ghoul. Shrinking a little from my window, I waited for him to callously knock over a stone. This probably sounds uncharitable. I do believe that anyone who sleeps in a graveyard, anyone who takes the dead for his bedfellows, has compromised himself. But it’s also true that I judged him less by the direction from which he came than by his odd manner of locomotion. He would stand for a moment the way swimmers used to take their marks, but pigeon-toed, and wilting slightly before my eyes. Then he would collapse against the nearest stone. After taking a few moments to right himself, he would stand just as he had before—and then he would collapse again, this time against the next nearest stone. In this way, using the stones for anchors, tossed from one to the next on a hillside that seemed to pitch and roll like a heavy sea, he made a zig-zagging course toward the fence.

In the meantime the sun had edged closer to rising, and the hilltop began to glow like the island of trees was on fire. I formulated a new, more charitable fantasy about him: that he was responsible for dragging the sun up over the hill—he, who barely seemed able to drag his own poor self. He moved, I thought now, like the sun was a too-heavy sack of potatoes he carried on his shoulder. I had risen early enough to witness something most ordinary mortals never did: the labor involved in getting the sun up over the horizon, at least our horizon: the stunted horizon of our little street with the dying church on the corner and the graveyard on the hill. Gods, fairies, all sorts of wonders become visible if you just get up early enough, or stay up late enough, past town-imposed curfews and now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep.

The nearer he got to the fence that separated the graveyard from my street—the nearer the sun came to the rim of the hill—the less crooked his path grew, and the fewer stones he required for support. Slowly, he released himself from their gravity, and pitched himself into his own wide orbit. At first he walked with his arms thrown out, like a man on a beam. But soon his arms came down toward his sides, his legs straightened, and his knees and toes pointed forward, though his feet did shuffle like the grass was coated with ice, and he stooped noticeably. All this created yet another impression in me: that he was teaching himself to walk, guided by the dead who, like doting parents, passed him from one stone to another, until he had found his own proper footing. I decided that he must do this every morning, in the time it took him to descend the hillside. As though it took years, instead of minutes, for him to traverse the distance between the knoll and the fence; as though I had been standing at my window for years, watching him, watching this day, come into being.

Perhaps it was the steadily-improving light, or his nearness to my window; but he resolved, just the way the inscriptions on some of the further headstones do in the late afternoon, when the sun has begun to fall behind my house. He wasn’t the ghoul I had initially taken him for, his clothes weren’t the rags I expected. He was perfectly presentable. A jacket, the arms cut a little short, but otherwise neatly trimmed to his thin frame; slacks that appeared to have been recently pressed, and without a trace of dirt on the knees; his shoes shone, though this might have been the dew collected on their toes. Atop his head—a head that had unfolded like the bud of a clean-shaven flower—was a wide-brimmed hat, the sort you might see in photographs of nineteenth-century rustics, or itinerant preachers. He was about my age, I guessed, perhaps a little older—yes, a little older, though just a hair—a year or two, five at most.

I watched him reach over the mower’s gate and lift the latch. The movement was so deliberate, so clearly familiar to him, that I realized it was his gate, as much as the one between my yard and driveway was mine. The hinges squeaked, again when he closed the gate behind him. And just as he crossed the threshold—somehow I predicted this, a moment before it happened—the sun broke like a tide over the trees on the knoll. That squeak, it was no longer the gate; it was the light, it was the sun, rubbing like a balloon across the hide of the earth. I knew the sound, that it was the sound, not the light, that had always woken me, when I would look up from my pillow and see the light beginning its slow, bladelike descent of the wall above my head; the squeak was the sound of the blade overcoming its rusty inertia. Dazzled, I shielded my eyes just in time to catch sight of him, or his shadow, crossing in the direction of the sidewalk, of the houses—of my house—and just before he disappeared under the roof of my porch. For a moment I was certain—I was terrified—that he was coming to my door; and I held my breath, listening for the proverbial loose board (one among many, I’m afraid), the rustle of the Indian corn hanging on the screen, the laying of his knuckles against my door. I had an appointment with him, I had simply forgotten, and after he had retrieved me, I would go back with him the way he had come, trailing slightly behind, until, by the time we had reached the knoll, we were headless, crawling, bony things feeling around for an open grave. By this time the sun would have gone down—it would have gone down the moment he entered the graveyard again, the light just fading from the inscriptions that all faced my way, somehow a whole day would have passed, a whole season, a whole life. I couldn’t turn around, I was so sure I would see him standing in my doorway, bathed in light, looking even more dapper and assured than he had passing the gate, his hat held in his hands. But there was no loose board, no knock, no moldering whiff in my nostrils announcing his presence, and no thin well-dressed man framed in my bedroom doorway, a little pale from walking always with his back to the sun. I turned again to my window in time to see him emerge from under the roof of the porch, heading in the direction of the church, the direction of town. His feet no longer shuffled, not even a little, no, he walked with the exaggerated high-stepping gait of a parade marshal. Chin up, stoop gone, steaming like a well-cover, all God’s light upon him: he was a man now, indeed a man, ready to take his place among the men of the town, ready to make his mark.

As I pressed my face against the glass to watch him, a cloud passed over me: I was suddenly sure I was witnessing the arrival of a plague. I had the absurd idea of running to the church to pull the bell-rope, to alert the town of his coming. But I stayed at my window, watching, until the sun had climbed clear of the ridge, and he had disappeared around the corner. I might have followed him, out of curiosity, if nothing else; except that I was sure I would no longer recognize him—that, by the time he reached the center of town, he would look just like everyone else, lost in the crowd and the bustle of morning.  

Copyright © 1999 – 2019 Juked