The figure greeted him, or rather, made its presence known to him, as he walked slowly up the hill. It was faceless and nameless. It was a part of the land, and a part of the images that coursed through his head as the sounds of the festivities slowly waned behind him. It lived in his mind - neither apparition nor hallucination - just a half remembered and half imagined spectre of people and places long past. It was the spirit of the place, something that lingered through the years. If it were a century earlier, you might have called it the wee folk, or the will 'o the wisp, or the ghosts and spirits of souls who haven't found their rest. He had no such superstitions, walking through the old cemetery, all tumbledown and overgrown, but he felt the spirit just the same.
"I'm sorry," he said to it, "I didn't mean to trespass on your lands. It's just that the hills, they..."
He faltered. It didn't seem right telling a total stranger, even one that wasn't really there, what he was feeling, what it was that had drawn him from the house. As the sun started to sink, he had donned his sweater and left the party, with all of its easy warmth. The campfire, the homey, close smell of people and kids and dogs. The kind gentleness of people he didn't know, but who welcomed him in.
He didn't know who this spirit was, but after a moments pause, he recognized it as a part of himself. He felt it would understand him, and so he went on.
"It was the hills," he said. "They called to me. They called out to me, and I couldn't help myself but heed the call. They just drew me up here, like the geese are drawn to the late summer sky."
It seemed like it could have been most any time - now, yesterday, or fifty, a hundred years ago. The dirt track winding its way up the hillside, meandering through the deep cuts in the slope, branching here and there into an old field, a rundown farmhouse, a grassy path. Were it not for the power lines and TV aerials, some upright and some tilted at crazy angles, you couldn't rightly tell just when "now" was.
The birds sang out in the blue-grey dusk - he felt almost apologetic, felt that he should have known them, recognized their calls. He wasn't exactly a city boy - he knew the smell of hay and horses, the sound of thunder rolling down the hills, and sweat of working a small field - but neither was he a country boy. The bird song was just music, and he felt a little saddened that he didn't recognize the musicians.
The spring peepers, crouched around the ponds and nestled in the muddy ruts still glistening from the morning's rain, chirruped him up the hill. They and the higher pitched crickets strummed out a seemingly never ending chant that carpeted the air as the night dew began to collect on the grass.
The cemetery told of hard times. It was not a tidy place, and that was good. City folk seem to have lost sight of what a cemetery is for, what it should feel like. In the city, life and death aren't quite as real as they are in the country. People speak of the night-life, of the vitality of a city, and they try and forget about death and dying. "It isn't pretty," they say, "and no one likes things that aren't pretty." So they make their graveyards look like their parks, and they make their parks look like their front yards - all neat, and clean, and manicured. And they try and make death look pretty, but all they do is lose sight of a part of life.
Cemeteries are for saying good-bye, for rest and an end to cares, and for going back to the earth. This one had that right feeling about it. It wasn't a cold place, nor was it forbidding. It was warm in the cool evening air, and felt of love and tenderness amidst hard times. And it drew him to it like the hills did - gently, and tenderly, like an old, half forgotten friend.
Hard times - children dying too young, widows left without husbands - and a city person might say that the cemetery itself had fallen on hard times. But they would not have seen what he did that evening. Many of the headstones had fallen, and the earth had sunken over the graves. What was once a gently sloping hill was now pocked with depressions, as if large weights had rested too long on a carpet, leaving indelible marks in the pile. Weeds grew everywhere, and the old daffodils and lillies - their bulbs exhausted, no longer able to flower - stood scattered at the feet of the pocks in the soil. In the center of the cemetery, what once was a small flowering shrub grew wild and out of control, stretching its scraggly arms wide over the graves.
As the wind shuffled through the leaves of the trees ringing the graveyard, he knelt to read the stones there in the gathering darkness. They spoke quietly and eloquently to him, spoke of suffering, and of lives hard fought for and ended. But they also spoke of a contentedness that he too was feeling in this place - a knowledge of belonging, and of being part of the land, for them now in body as it once was in spirit. They had laid their loved ones to rest here - husbands, wives, children, parents - and then had lain down themselves.
A tall stone, rough hewn from a vein of gray granite, and then laboriously shaped and polished 'till it looked like a miniature obelisk, lay fallen on its side on the slope of the graveyard, toppled off of its beveled base by the insistant growth of the shrub's roots. It was far too heavy to lift back up again, so he contented himself with reading the inscriptions on the stone's visible faces.
"Mary E., dau. of E&R Shahan, died Jan 14 1878. Hosea S., son of E&R Shahan, died Sep 6, 1877." Two children from one family died less then four months apart. He wondered what it had been - disease, accident, or simply not enough food to ward off the cold? The valley must not be so different now than it was back then, he thought. Where were the doctors, the ambulances and hospitals? Where were those swift angels of mercy we have grown so accustomed to? The low branches of the trees, blown by the steady, gentle wind there on the hill, creaked and knocked together, as if clucking their tongues in mild reproval. Silly man, he chided himself, to so easily forget the way it was here, not so long ago. "Anna M., dau. of E&R Shahan, died Dec 22, 1882."
Scattered around the fallen stone, as if almost casually dropped there, were the markers for the rest of the family. These were smaller and white, and they shone dimly in the waning twilight. They were marked only with initials - as if the family was too poor to afford anything more. Three of their children had died - he wondered how many others they had had, how many had died before them. Like the dragon's teeth of Greek myth, they had sown these stones in the earth. But these were warriors cut down before their time - they would not rise again.
In the city, they often speak with fancy words to hide unpleasant truths. One never dies, one "passes on". People aren't buried, they are "laid to rest" or worse, "interred." Perhaps the truth is too ugly to face, and that after years of living apart from the land, the thought of returning to it is too terrible, too frightening to bear. Here, though... here, close to the land and close to life and death, things are different. And as he conjured up the images of the people who were buried here, he felt that it was that they had truly come to their rest, and they were content, down there in the ground.
Most of the graves were from the 1870's through the mid 1930's, and then it seemed like most everybody left - folks even stopped dying 'round here. It must have really hit hard, the Great Depression. Dottie Miller died in 1961 after a life 90 years. She was born only one year after her husband-to-be Homer, yet she outlived him by nearly 30 years. Staring down at their graves, the single shared headstone between them, he could almost feel the years of emptyness she felt in this valley without him.
Just slightly upslope from Dottie and Homer was William's final resting place. There was a shiny new grey marble stone at the head of his grave, and the year that was incised there said that William died in 1978. Walking through the cemetery, he almost skipped by that grave. It just wasn't as interesting as the others, which were chiseled out of ghostly white limestone or somber grey granite. It didn't have an eloquent poem, as many of the other stones did, or a heartfelt feeling of remembrance. There was no faded lamb of god, no weathered bible carved in the stone. It had none of William's history, nothing of his deeds or accomplishments (other than the dates of his birth and death), not even who else in the cemetery he was related to. The grave marker was polished stone, and didn't have the comfortable, eroded look of the other stones. It was a grave that had no feeling, and seemed as if William had been buried by strangers.
And then he saw it - that thing that he had missed in his first brief look at William's grave. It was that William was the last, and that he had been buried by strangers. William was born just before the Great Depression - just before everyone else in the valley had left, trying desperately to find a new and better life somewhere else. There was no one left in the valley who really knew William, and so lacking anything else to say, they buried him with only his name.
That was the simple truth that he had missed the first time he had looked at William's grave. Unlike all of the others, for whom being buried in the little cemetery on the hill was as certain as death itself, William had had to ask to be buried here - here on the hill with the rest of his family, here in the land where he had been born. William had come back again, back to the good black earth - his ashes to ashes, and his dust to dust. William had come home.