The smaller the southern town, the bigger the legends. I grew up in such a place, smack in the heart of the Bible Belt. In my little town, there were churches on every corner, more than any other type of building save houses. Always seemingly odd to me though, there was only one small cemetery. And this in a place where there were many old, both living and dead.
Most of my family was now buried in that old cemetery, including my great grandparents on my mother’s side as well as my grandparents on my father’s side. My dad was laid to rest there many years ago, having been killed at a young age in a tragic accident and my mother joined him just a few years back.
I still had my sister and grandmother but my sister and I had, sadly, grown estranged over the years. As kids, she and I attended the church with which the cemetery shared its acreage. I always thought it strange that, on Sundays after service, when the kids would rush outside to play immediately upon the closing prayer, the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles (pretty much everyone a cousin) would warn us not to venture down the hill to the graveyard. There was, after all, plenty of open grass on which to run and roll and it wasn’t like we’d be hopscotching over the tombstones. We were good little Sunday school educated children.
Once a year on “Decoration Sunday” we would visit our deceased relatives with the presently living ones to sweep leaves off of the fake green grass and “decorate” the graves with cheap, silk flower arrangements which, only a week later, would be tossed down the side of a nearby hill now perpetually carpeted in silk perennials. I once asked my great grandma, with whom I was very close, why we couldn’t play there, to which she sweetly but matter-of-factly replied, “It’s best to let the dead alone.” From that day on, even now into adulthood, I’d think that thought whenever I saw or even thought of the old cemetery. It’s best to let the dead alone.
On my most recent visit home, I sat on the front porch with my grandmother, Nanny Faye, and having passed the cemetery on the way in, I was reminded of things that I had long since forgotten and so I asked her, “Nanny, why would they never let us play at the old cemetery when we were kids? I remember Pa taking me with him once when he went to cut the grass and, though I don’t remember doing anything wrong, he never would take me back. I loved helping him.”
She cracked a grin as if one of her fondest of memories had just been called to mind and spoke, “You know, I used to play there as a little girl.”
“Ma and Pa let you go there…play there?”
“Well,” she continued, “I was a quiet child to begin with and if I snuck off no one ever seemed to pay no nevermind, so, I’d find my way there, walking about the graves. I’d pull up weeds that had grown tall enough to cover the names on the tombstones and I’d read them one by one, memorizing them. Got to a point where I felt like I knew them all better than I knew some of the living.”
She paused for a moment, coughing, gathering her wind, and went on, “I liked it better out there than inside that old church anyway. Nobody out there was yelling at me about my sins or trying to scare the bejesus out of me—a little girl! I never bought into the hell and perdition thing anyway, the sleeping ones didn’t judge me. They were quiet. They’d just listen. I didn’t see then what I later came to see as the hypocrisy in the living ones in that old, stuffy church across the way. It was the real crypt, filled with the truly dead souls. There is no hypocrisy among the dead. I found that cemetery a quiet and beautiful place, in its own way. I’d stop there sometimes walking home from school. Mama and Daddy never seemed to mind and I am pretty sure they knew. I still go there on occasion when I take my walks of an evening…or I did when I it was easier to walk anyway.”
“Then why could we never play there?” I asked.
“Oh, some things happened there many years back…some bad things.”
“Like what Nanny?”
“Oh, just things. You know…legends. Can’t believe everything the old timers say. I reckon bad things always happen when someone disturbs something that ought not be disturbed. ‘Let the dead alone’ Mama always would say.”
“Yes, I remember. She told me that too. I had asked her why I couldn’t play there on the way back from church once.”
I wanted to ask just who they were, but I had learned over the years that “they” is just “they” in the South (one never usually gets beyond that upon inquiry for a more concrete source) so I took my grandma at her word. By now, I could tell that she wasn’t going to say much more on the matter in any event, so I resolved to let it rest at that. It was a mere childhood curiosity after all. It would have been just a story in any case, no matter how badly I wanted to hear it. I would have probably been disappointed anyway.
Time to go. I stood, walked over to Nanny, sitting in the same old rocking chair she had rocked me and my sister in as a baby. I hugged her, we said our goodbyes, and I turned to walk out the screen door. Before I had fully exited the porch, she had wrangled herself out of the chair and ambled over behind me to lock up. She said through the screen, “Stop at Ronnie’s and get a dozen red roses, would you? Pull three out, leave two on your mama’s and daddy’s grave and put the rest on my mama’s and daddy’s.”
“Okay Nanny. Love you. See you again before I leave. Oh! And what do you want me to do with the other rose?”
“Lay that one on the plot right beside Mama and Daddy.”
As I drove away, the chore and the cemetery slipped to the back of my mind. I finished the round of requisite visits that one simply must make when back home, then stopping by Greene’s for an early dinner, which happened to be in the same strip mall as Veronica’s (known by everyone in town as “Ronnie”) Flower Shoppe. I never understood why she needed that extra “p” and “e.” I finished dinner, paid my check, and then walked the three doors down to the flower shop. Ronnie and I exchanged pleasantries and, finally, I walked out with a dozen roses. Once in the car, the perfume of the roses hit me hard. I cracked my window slightly and drove back toward the cemetery, now nearing twilight.
Flowers, particularly the scent of flowers, always reminded me of death and funerals. Sure, they are beautiful to look at and I do give them to my wife on occasion as she loves them, but I have never been able to successfully divorce that connection from my mind. Funny how a thing can represent both love and death.
The old church came into view first, jutting up off the rounded hill as the final tinge of sunlight sank behind it. It was dark and the night had come quickly. I drove around to the left side of the building and parked in the gravel lot. I sat there for a moment, before getting out, and realized that I had only been there for decorations, once to help my great grandfather, and for burials. Too many burials, now that I thought about it.
Even though it was now dark, there was nothing scary about the place. I mean, what could the dead do to you anyway? It was dark and quiet…heck, I could probably sleep here. For a moment I thought I understood my grandmother’s fascination with the place. It was just the quiet and just the solitude—she was one of five children after all and the youngest. She had herself always been a quiet one.
I walked down the sloping way, illumined gently by distant streetlamps and, thankfully, the indirect beams from the church flood lights, equal in lumens, no doubt, to the bright lights accompanying Christ himself at the Second Coming. I came first to the graves of my parents. They were buried side by side though they didn’t live that way as my father was taken a long time ago and mother only recently. I took two of the roses and carefully laid them at the bottom of the tombstone, their names and short years etched into stone much like some posthumously awarded plaque. A few memories raced through my mind and I allowed myself to miss them.
Behind them, rested my great grandparents. After my dad, who I barely had the time to get to know, they were the next to leave me. They were more like grandparents to me and good ones at that. I never doubted for a moment that they loved me. I stood over their graves and carefully placed the remaining roses at the foot of their tombstone save for the last one. I stood there for a while and then, realizing that I had been standing for what seemed like forever, now darker and the wind howling, bringing with it a coldness that I wasn’t prepared for this time of year, I sat down on the cool, slightly wet grass for a moment and I thought about these people, Ma and Pa, once full of life and now gone, their physical remains having long since returned to the earth, the very earth and even cemetery which they tended with love and care for years themselves.
Just then I remembered a story about my Pa and this old graveyard. Once, while caring for the place, Pa, one of the most decent and honest people (and non-drinking I might add) I have ever known swore that he saw my dad float over him as he tended Daddy’s grave site. He came home as white as a ghost himself they said, shared what had happened with Ma, Nanny, and Mama then never spoke of it again.
A quick chill shook me awake from the dreamy land of memory. I stood, reminded of my grandmother’s request to leave one rose on the grave beside her parents. It dawned upon me, rather slowly, that this grave was for my grandmother, Nanny Faye herself. Like the other stones, there was a date of birth, but the date of death had yet to be etched. I always thought this a morbid practice. She was alive still, thankfully, and hopefully would remain so for a very long time. I thought of her now and I smiled. You can imagine just what kind of person one is if the mere thought of them can bring a smile to your face, especially in a place such as this.
I carefully placed the rose down upon the empty gravesite and I breathed in the suddenly cold, dark, damp air. And then another chill—a chill so cold that it raised the hair on the back of my neck and arms and then shot down my spine as though I had been struck by lightning. I now stood immovable, frozen in place, transfixed as I stared down at the rose. That same flower that I had just placed upon my grandmother’s plot. No longer was it the bright, vibrant red rose in full bloom as it was but moments ago, but now, now—in what could have only been a matter of seconds, it had turned black--the blackest of blacks—and was withered. It could have lain there for one hundred years.
I won’t say that I did so bravely, but I did manage to pick up the rose so as to inspect it as, truly, I imagined the darkness and the setting had conspired, playing a trick upon my eyes and mind but, as I grabbed the stem, the rose disintegrated into ashes and fell back to the earth.
At that very moment, pulled from the terror of the experience, I realized that my phone had been ringing but I was so far from that reality, truly in another world, maybe the world bordering this one and that one, and it seemed as though I came back to my senses in stages. I answered the phone. It was my sister.
Through heavy, wet sobs, “Nanny just died…”
I vaguely remember this much before sinking into sadness of the thickest and darkest kind. We may or may not have finished the conversation.
The next thing that I do remember is lying on the cold, damp ground wiping the tears from my eyes, the pinholes of light penetrating the black veil of sky distorted by saline mist. But somehow, through the heartbreak, heavy and unexpected, I managed a slight laugh, if such was possible. Perhaps it only seemed to me a laugh. It dawned on me that I had never told my grandmother that I was coming to the cemetery and, in fact, I wasn’t sure I would have had she not mentioned the roses for the graves.
I realized that she had told me first, in her own way. I didn’t need the phone call. She herself had been that solitary, vibrant, red rose in bloom. But as always, the rose withers. She had told me—she had shown me—in that rose, the rose which smelled of love and death…the rose which had turned black before my eyes…the rose that fell to pieces in my hand. And she made this place, which had been a mystery to me, a little less mysterious. She had always found peace here. And now she would have it forever. So I left, leaving the dead alone.
*First published in the October 2021 edition of Raven Cage Zine.