Like to Skeletons
By: Irene L. Pynn
There is a tombstone at the far end of the cemetery that never collects moss. Its face never dulls with neglect. Its pebbles never shift in the wind and rain.
You could walk across the dry and tangled lawn – “manicured” by the blind caretaker who lives on site – and stumble over a hundred forgotten stones – tended by Victorian ghosts alone – but never see a single bit of color. Not a vase, not a rose bud, not a potted offering. You wouldn’t even spy a wildflower among the withered loneliness of the graveyard. Nothing grows. All is death and loss.
Except for the tombstone at the far end.
Keep walking, though the obscurity of death will threaten to overpower you, whispering that, yes, someone will mourn you when you die, but only briefly. Very soon after, you will dissolve into nothing, both in form and thought. In time no one will be able to decipher the name on your stone, and then your existence will truly end.
And then your afterlife must begin.
But keep walking. There is a light at the end of this graveyard. Propped against the ancient, cracked wall stands the marker for the only remembered bones we know. It practically glows with the affection it receives, standing out like the comfort of a lighthouse amid the dark confusion of restless waters. There is a keen jealousy that engulfs the forgotten dead when they lie near someone who is still loved by the living. They would drown in their envy if they could die.
The simple stone at the far end reads Heath Alan, loving fiancé. I will see you again in Heaven. Its plot features a flattened patch of grass next to a regularly-renewed supply of the only flowers to be seen on the grounds. We watch each night for the trodden patch to level out. We look each dawn for the flowers to stop coming. We wait. Because the time for all that will come, and when it does, Heath Alan will rise to join us, and he will know what it is to be forgotten.
My people are often angry and afraid – a dangerous combination of emotions, especially in ones who have no need to fear violence. We lose our identities during our underground sleep, and when we finally wake, our headstones are faded, and we can’t remember our own names. Or who buried us. Or when we died.
How we came dead we can often deduce. Our bodies, though they have rotted away to skeletons with scraps of flesh, usually tell the tale. A younger person will almost always display some kind of grievous injury, leaving no need to wonder what happened. An elderly frame is generally assumed to have passed in his sleep. Some in our community debate whether that should be considered a badge of honor or the easy way out. Occasionally one or two bodies arise who were in their prime at death, and they show no signs of physical distress at all. It is as if they died of nothing. Then the whispers begin – was it poison? A cough? Did she drown?
Such morbid questions fill our hours while we wander the cemetery, mysteriously confined to this yard with no guard or explanation. We cannot leave, but we are free to walk the perimeter night and day, as long as we are no longer missed. It is the grief from the world of the living that kept us in restful slumber. Without that we never know rest again.
There may be husbands and wives here together, but they do not know each other or remember the bond. One will rise, and then another, but they look upon each other’s bones with blank, eyeless expressions, and they carry on, seeing, smelling, and thinking only through the magic—or perhaps the curse – that compels us to stand above our own graves.
And yet we can feel love. When I awoke from the earth, I clawed my way to the air and felt in my rotted heart the dull pain of something I had lost. There was a loneliness I could not understand because it had vanished from my mind – but not my soul.
Some things I could sense about myself right away: I was a man. I was probably in my 30s. I was tall and nicely shaped. But my name… my life and death… they were gone.
I clung to my dim echo of loss like a lifeboat. The more I cared about my past the less deceased I truly was. Someone had loved me once, and out of respect for that person, I would not ignore the aching in my soul that told me we had been torn apart too soon.
It was a bullet, I think. The great hole in my skull told me enough about that. But who shot me and why is long lost to time. I inherited an eternity of regret and sorrow with no name.
The living woman comes every morning early with fresh flowers, a cup of coffee, and a book. After taking a steadying breath of the lonely air, she strolls stiffly across the graveyard to the far end, her long, yellow hair blowing in the chill breeze, and we hide, watching. Some of us choose to stay underground during her visits. It’s easier to ignore the pain of our obscurity if we cannot see her face.
Her lovely face. She has the soft features of youth mingled with the sophistication of early adulthood. Her light brown eyes look with sympathy upon all the gravestones she passes. Her blush lips are full and slightly curved upward, like a smiling blossom of love upon her mouth. The cold air pinkens her cheeks, and she brushes a golden lock from her face as she reaches her destination and kneels in the patch of grass, pressing the blades flat. Today the dead man has received a pot of daffodils, tall and yellow and vibrant. They seem to light up the cemetery. The overcast sky parts to let in a little sun.
I wait for her here. I’m always here, hiding just behind the dead tree that hangs its skeleton over her lover’s grave and casts a shadow like spider’s legs across the ground. For several minutes, she sits in silence, and I smell her perfume through the curse that preserved my senses while destroying my body. The scent is sweet and light. It matches her slender shape and creamy skin. I absorb her fragrance until she begins to speak with a voice that is soft and kind.
“Today I think we’ll read poetry, if that’s okay with you?”
I nod, unseen.
“Let’s see…” She sips her coffee and flips through the pages of her book. “Wordsworth?”
Yes, Wordsworth, I whisper, and I listen to her read. It is not to me. She recites a poem of daffodils and loneliness, and I revel in her tone that reflects my own broken heart: she is full of love and gentleness, but there is something damaged in her voice. There is a past full of pain that she cannot forget, just as I live with pain I cannot recall.
I long to move from my hiding place and gather her in my arms. To tell her we all can love again, even those who have lost someone, like her, or have been lost ourselves, like me. I want to pluck a daffodil from her vase and put it at her waist and taste the honey of her lips and build new memories with her.
But I must not. I am not the man I must have been once upon a time. To stagger out at her, all bones and rotting flesh and broken skull, would be to blaspheme the blessing she has brought to the graveyard. My ghastly body would frighten her off, and she would never return.
Her voice is an instrument; the poem is her song. I stand, enraptured, as she performs it tenderly with all the love in her broken heart. Did anyone do this for me in the days following my death? Did I leave behind a suffering maiden who came to my side every day? Did she talk of beauty and sadness and her undying love? If so, I never heard her words. She is lost to me forever – if she existed at all.
A fresh aching swells in my soul. How pitiful that this soft creature has come to share her music with the one person in the cemetery who can’t hear her. He will never hear her again.
I wonder at the power of memory. Her emotion touches not only her lover, who rests peacefully because of her fidelity, but it touches the entire lawn. All around us I see others peering from behind their own headstones, expressions of longing on their wasted, forgotten faces. The sun has broken through and warms our bones as it spotlights on the vase of golden flowers at Heath Alan’s plot.
She takes the poem slowly, carefully, letting us dwell in the rhythmic tune of her voice as if we were adrift in a canoe, gazing lazily up at a clear sky filled with possibilities. She brings us this gift without realizing it. And even the cruelest among us are thankful.
And then, all of a sudden, she is done. She closes her book and wipes away a tear. I start forward instinctively, wanting to catch that tear for her and kiss it from her cheek. She gasps. I freeze, half hidden by the shadow of the spider tree.
She is looking right at me. I have made the most terrible mistake, and I remain motionless, racked with fear that at any second she will stand, screaming, and tear out of this place forever, leaving us all to suffer alone until our bones finally turn to dust.
“Who…” she says, her voice a strangled sound nothing like the tune she shared before.
“Don’t be afraid,” I beg. I stay where I am, praying the shadow conceals my horror.
She stares, uneasy and perplexed. I consider running away, but I can’t leave her.
“Let me see you.”
“I can’t,” I say.
“Please. I didn’t mean to surprise you.”
Again she scrutinizes the shadows with her light brown eyes, and I watch as her expression turns from worried, to curious, to amazed, to terrified.
She can see me.
She stands, shaking.
“Please,” I say again. “Please don’t.”
I know she will scream. I would scream if I saw a corpse in a graveyard, standing over me like Death himself. I wait for it to happen.
“You –” Her voice is quiet. She hasn’t screamed. This frightened angel has looked at me and has not run away.
“I came to hear your poem,” I say, though I know I have no right to speak to such a beautiful creature. “It was so pretty… I swear I will not bother you. Please forgive me.”
For a few more seconds we look at each other, and then the pain is too great for me to take, and I back away, deeper into the shadow, out of her sight.
“Wait,” she calls, and I stop. I am her servant, though I do not want her to see me again.
She approaches, and I think of the hole in my skull and the little flesh that remains on my bones. I think of my torn clothes nearly decomposed to nothing and stained with the yesterdays that are long absent from my mind. I look at her. Whole, beautiful, alive. Full of happy tomorrows. She wants something from me. I would give her anything in the world.
Her eyes are wide as she accepts the reality of me, and I see that she is not only kind, but brave.
“You live here…” she says, not asking. I wait.
What could she want? For a moment I allow hope to flood my senses, and I wonder whether she has seen in me what I see in her. I want to take her hand in mine, but I resist. I will let her tell me what she wants, and then, if it is as I dream, I will hold her close, and we’ll never be alone again.
Her eyes search my face as if she understands me, as if we are two souls locked in sadness together, and only together can we finally escape. I hold on to these precious seconds as I wait for her words.
And then she speaks. “Do you know Heath?”
Of course. I was a fool. I fall back a step and lower my gaze.
“No.” I imagine the last of my dried blood running fresh and spilling from my heart onto the grass below. “He cannot wake while he is remembered.”
She hesitates and then looks back at his grave.
“Oh,” is her only reply, but it is filled with meaning. That one word brings me to the epicenter of sadness and loss and that breathless moment just after crying has stopped and is about to begin again.
I could run from her now, but I won’t. She is the only source of sunshine in a dark place, and she should learn what her lover will never know.
“You keep him safe,” I explain, and her red eyes fill with hope. She is listening. I go on. “While the living cling to him, he rests in peace. It is only when you forget that he –” I look down at my own yellowed, bony hands, wringing each other in nervousness. “That we…”
She takes a ragged breath. “I see.”
We are silent for a moment, and finally she adds, “I’m sorry.”
I nod as if to say it’s nothing, but it isn’t. It is everything.
Before she leaves, my love bends down to collect her coffee and her book, and she plucks a daffodil from the vase on Heath’s grave. She hands it to me.
The stem rests in my bony palm, and the golden petals cast a soft glow onto my fingers. I look back at her. She smiles weakly, and then she leaves.
“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”