An Unmarked Grave by Lonormi Manuel
It’s August and hotter than hell’s hinges, and I’m climbing through the tall grass and blackberry briers up Blalock Knob. Down below my feet, running like a silver thread through an old green quilt, is a creek. The loud, insistent seesawing of the cicadas in the trees echoes off the bowl-shaped valley. Between the creek and the foot of this lonely, scrub-covered hill, there’s a farmhouse that needs a lick of paint, guarded by a couple of half-breed hounds. They’re part beagle. You can always tell a beagle by its bark. At home in Kentucky, there’s two dogs with the same lazy gait and the same white-tipped tails waiting for me on the porch. With luck, I’ll be back there before suppertime.
Ten years have passed since I last crossed into Virginia. Aunts and uncles have died, and I didn’t come. Cousins have married, given birth, sickened and died, and I didn’t come. Thoughts, prayers, cards, letters, and flowers – yes, all those things came here in my name, allowing me to be present without being present. There’s a darkness here that has nothing to do with the sudden rise of the mountains or the plunging gloom of the hollers. I pretend that staying on the western side of the Cumberland Gap keeps the shadow at arm’s length, but the truth is that I carry it inside me like an everlasting salt block: no matter how much I lick it, it never goes away.
A scrub cedar offers me its support while I catch my breath. There’s a road, if two faint tire tracks make a road, but it’s straight uphill and used only when the living come to bury the dead, or to place flowers on the graves on Decoration Day. My eyes find the outline of the abandoned fire tower on Clinch Mountain, a faint violet shadow in the thick air of dog days. I lean on the cedar just long enough to catch my breath. The fear of ticks and copperheads gets me moving again, up the last thirty yards or so to the sagging wire fence and the whitewashed gate. Little yellow-eyed daisies and blue chicory stubbornly hold their ground along the weedy fencerow.
The first time I climbed to a hilltop cemetery was in college. The professor, a New Englander fascinated by the culture and customs of Appalachia, explained that cemeteries were placed on hilltops to keep the dead dry. He described funerals he had attended in the course of research, where teams of mules strained to pull a wagon carrying a coffin up a slope; or where men, red-faced and sweat-soaked, had shouldered the casket and manhandled it up a rock-strewn cow path to the hand-dug grave. In the thirty years between then and now, I’ve followed in the tracks of mules and men: photographing tombstones in the race against nature, noting the names and dates on the stones that can still be read, guessing at the ones obscured by decades of grime and moss. Some of them are granite or marble with crisply chiseled lettering, newer markers gifted to those long gone by a more prosperous younger generation. Most of them are weathered limestone or rough concrete. The unmarked graves are the ones that always bother me – settled patches of sod, conspicuous in their nakedness, mute testaments to an unremembered life. I have walked among them and lingered beside them. I have felt sorrow, not because they have passed from this world, but because no one made the effort to keep their memories alive. I want to know their stories, and am bitter that–in all likelihood–there is no one still living who can tell me what I want to know.
The woman at the house had been wary at first. I couldn’t blame her. The time has gone when you could leave your screen door unlatched in the middle of the day, and this farm has no near neighbors. An unfamiliar car with an out-of-state license plate, a fat, middle-aged stranger asking the way to the cemetery – these aren’t common things here. She stared at me through the screen, neither hostile nor friendly, continuing to wipe the dishtowel around the inside of the damp skillet while she spoke.
“Yes, right up there by the barn, you’ll find the track. It’s pretty growed up right now though, on account of so much rain. Been too wet to mow. You want to borrow a hoe, in case you come upon a copperhead? Well, suit yourself, although to be honest we ain’t seen many this summer. Ticks has been worse. Don’t mind them dogs, they won’t bite. No, we’re not kin to them up there. They belong to the folks we bought this place from. There’s a right-of-way by law, and we keep the path mowed when we can, as a kindness. And who did you say you are, again?”
She was right about the dogs; they didn’t bite, though they barked and whined and growled, and edged nigh enough to smell the scent of my dogs on my clothes. They followed me as far as the barn, where they sat down and watched me head up the hill. I must have been an entertaining sight, grunting and puffing, swearing when my foot became tangled and I lost my balance. Eventually they got bored and went to find something alive to chase, or something rank to roll in, or just a shady place to flop down and sleep. They had no interest in going up Blalock Knob with me. Traveling a steep and overgrown road in the dog days of August to visit the dead is something only humans do.
A collection of over fifty gravestones greets me when I pass through the cockeyed gate. Some are old and unreadable; others are newer, littered with American flags and cheap bouquets from the discount store. A few have showy “saddles” of expensive silk flowers crafted by a florist’s hand. The graves of children are marked by concrete lambs, their features veiled with lichen, eroded by weather and time. They bear a spooky resemblance to the Easter cake pans and chocolate molds you see in flea markets. A pair of gray granite hearts stands above a husband and wife who died when Eisenhower was president. Most of the names here are names that have fallen out of fashion with modern generations: Gertrude, Vivian, Howard, Madge, Worley. The markers are decorated with doves, praying hands, crosses. Some bear inscriptions such as We Will Meet Again In Heaven or Precious Lord Take My Hand. The graves of the remembered are speckled with a variety of decorations. Those who have been forgotten lie beneath a blanket of naked sod.
I find her grandparents first, side-by-side under a double marker (gray granite, praying hands). Her grandmother’s date of death is still blank, although she’s been gone over twenty years. A scattering of faded silk bouquets on green wire stems are stuck in the ground; they stand apart from a brighter and more thoughtful arrangement in a plastic pot made to look like an old iron kettle. Next to their grandmother lies her sister Pam, only fifteen when she left this world. Pam’s single stone (gray granite, carved hands reaching heavenward) is as large as, and more elaborate than, the grandparents’ double marker. Until I began looking for this particular cemetery and one certain grave, I didn’t know there was a Pam. She was never mentioned, in those days so long ago when we all were young.
A few feet past Pam, I find Jenny.
When the email about the class reunion popped up, I deleted it. High school wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t so wonderful that I yearned to relive it. I had absolutely no desire to go back to my hometown just so I could compare my successes (or failures) to everybody else’s. Our seventh grandbaby was due around the same time as the reunion, and I didn’t want to be away from home when she entered this world. So I declined the invitation. But–and I’m still not sure why, to be honest–I joined the social media group that the reunion committee set up. Someone sent out a list of our classmates who had died since graduation. That’s how I found out that Jenny was gone.
A few of the names on that list I’d already heard about. One boy was felled by a brain tumor a few years after school. Another boy drowned while he was in the Navy. The boy who sat in front of me in eighth grade algebra died in a head-on collision in South Carolina. There was a girl I’d fought on the playground in fifth grade, because her cousin said something bad about my cousin. But it was Jenny’s name on that list that bothered me the most. She was only forty-two when she died.
To my shame, my first thought upon seeing her name was lordamercy, I’d forgotten all about her. We were never best friends, Jenny and I, but we were friendly. We had a few classes in common and we ate lunch together sometimes, if the smell of formaldehyde in freshman biology hadn’t put us off our appetites. She didn’t consider herself pretty, but her dark blonde hair was full of natural curls, and her eyes could look green or blue, depending on the color of her shirt. We shared a love of reading. While we cut up worms and frogs and fetal pigs, we talked about books like Audrey Rose and Flowers in the Attic; we loved V. C. Andrews, and couldn’t wait for Petals in the Wind to come out. We wondered if the things written about in The Amityville Horror had actually happened, and debated which of Stephen King’s books was the scariest. She came up to me at graduation and said, “Can you believe we’re actually graduated?” and hugged me. We never saw each other again.
Breaking my resolve to stay out of the online reunion group discussion, I tapped out a quick message: Does anyone know what happened to Jenny? A few responses trickled in, mostly along the lines of Was she in band? or Didn’t she live down Yuma? Nobody offered up a memory of her. Nobody knew how she died, or where she was buried. An hour of searching on the computer brought up her decade-old obituary. Another search brought up a photo of the cemetery and a photo of her grave. There was no headstone. There were no flowers. Just a four-cornered patch of empty grass, like so many I’d seen before, and the worn metal marker left at her feet by the funeral home. I sent another message to the reunion group: If anyone knows where the Lane cemetery is up Blalock Fork, can you go by there and let me know if Jenny’s grave has a marker now?
I waited two weeks for a response. When none came, I sent an email to the funeral home and asked for directions to the cemetery.
There’s a stalk of chicory within arm’s reach that the mower missed. I pluck it and pull the blue petals from the stem one at a time, first the long outer ones and then the short inner ones, until only the naked green center is left. My dad once told me that chicory fights the mower because it has a woody stem. The flowers fall to the blades but the stems remain, sticking up above the newly-shorn grass as if to say
A chicory grew here, and now is gone.
Up here on top of the knob there’s a bit of a breeze. I lower myself to the grass beside the marker at Jenny’s feet, checking first for snakes and grunting as my knees grind and pop on the way down. The copper-colored metal is shabby, nicked by eleven years of careless lawn mower blades. Dead leaves and bits of grass cover her name and the dates of her time in this world. My fingers brush the debris away and trace the letters of her name. I want to cry. Unmarked graves are an unpardonable sin in my culture. There’s an old paper fan at my mother-in-law’s house, the kind they used to hand out years ago at summer funerals; it bears a 1950’s advertisement for a tombstone company, with a banner across the top that says, They’d Do The Same For You! We all laugh at it, because it sounds like a tent-revival preacher trying to convert the sinners; but none of us contradict its truth. It’s a commandment of our unwritten gospel. An unmarked grave declares, for the entire world to see, that the person buried there either wasn’t worth remembering or deserved to be forgotten. We mark the graves of our dead, even if we have to roll up our sleeves and do it with a sack of concrete and a stick.
There’s a stalk of chicory within arm’s reach that the mower missed. I pluck it and pull the blue petals from the stem one at a time, first the long outer ones and then the short inner ones, until only the naked green center is left. My dad once told me that chicory fights the mower because it has a woody stem. The flowers fall to the blades but the stems remain, sticking up above the newly-shorn grass as if to say A chicory grew here, and now is gone. Tossing the stem aside, I rest my forehead on my knees. The funny thing is that sitting here by her grave, I can clearly hear Jenny’s voice in my head–a voice I’d forgotten for thirty-five years–wondering if the people who own the Amityville house would actually let us spend the night there if we offered to pay them. But it isn’t funny, really. It’s not funny at all. In life, I’d consigned her to an unused corner of my memories and forgotten about her. In death, she lies alone and unmarked in this corner of a hilltop graveyard, forgotten by everyone else. I feel the need to apologize to Jenny–for losing touch, for not knowing she was sick, for not knowing until now that she was gone–but my throat is tight and the only thought in my mind is We all deserve to be remembered. So I say nothing at all.
The walk down takes longer; it’s easier on my lungs but harder on my knees. The dogs catch sight of me and start to bay when I’m about halfway down. They run relays, barking every breath, between me and the porch where the woman sits breaking beans. I’m skittish about falling. The last thing I need is to end up with something broken or sprained, stuck here in the suffocating hills of my childhood until someone can come to fetch me home. I wish now that I’d taken the offer of a hoe. At the edge of the barn, where the ground levels out, my knees relax and walking is easier. The woman throws her hand up at me. Good manners require me to respond.
“Did you find what you was looking for?” she asks, as I step up onto the porch.
“I did, and I thank you very much.”
She keeps breaking beans while we talk. “See any snakes?” Snap, snap, snap, snap.
“Not a one,” I answer. Snap, snap, snap. “There’s a girl buried up there that I went to school with.”
Snap, snap, snap. “That Adams girl? She died the year after we bought this place.”
“I was lucky to find her. She doesn’t have a marker.” Despite my best effort to be polite to Jenny’s absent kinfolk, the words are judgmental, issued in the voice of a righteous matron who’s glimpsed a naked heathen. The woman frowns and shakes her head in agreement; we’re both believers in the gospel of marked graves. “I’m going to try to take up a collection among our classmates, and see if we can’t get her one.”
The snapping stops. She rests her hands in the pan, looks me in the eye and says, “I think that’s a right fine idea.”
There’s a ritual to our leave-taking, one I’ve known and practiced all my days. I say I’ve got to be going. She asks me to stay a bit longer, and I say I wish I could. I invite her to come and see us, and she says she just might. Neither of us means any of it; it’s just the right thing to say. The beagles follow me from the porch to the car, tongues lolling in the heat of the lengthening day. As I walk, I glance up the hill, where Jenny sleeps in that unmarked grave. You can’t make amends to the dead. They’re out of this world, beyond caring about what we did or didn’t do or left undone. Even if I could make amends, I wouldn’t know how. I’m ten years too late to say goodbye to Jenny.
Apparently I’m no longer a stranger to the dogs; one stands up and puts her front paws on my leg, tail wagging hard, begging for a pet. I scratch behind her ears and tell her, kindly, to get off and lay down, just as I would tell my own dogs at home. They bark when I start the engine and back the car into the barnyard, the hound dog version of wish you could stay longer, come back when you can. They run alongside the car when I pull out, but only for a little way. Before I reach the one-lane bridge, I see in my rear-view mirror that they’ve dropped back. I catch one final glimpse of them as I cross the bridge; they’re headed toward the house now, feet moving in that loping, cockeyed gait that I know so well. Their white-tipped tails wave like wild daisies in the wind, and they point their noses upward, tracking a promising scent. Something out there has called them away. They’ve already forgotten about me.