Her grandparent’s home was located on a quiet street directly across from an old cemetery. At night, when the house was silent and everyone was asleep, she would climb out of bed, sit by the window, and watch the evening mist blanket the gravestones one by one. One might think the proximity of the cemetery, especially at night, would be unsettling for the girl, but it wasn’t. She drew comfort from it, though she didn’t know why.
During the long summer days, she walked the grounds inspecting the headstones. Many were old with sepia tintypes set in the stone above the resident’s name. She would study the image and wonder if the person buried below had any idea, when the photograph was taken, that one day it would adorn their final resting place. She wondered what image would mark her headstone. She liked to think it would be the one of her wearing her pink, one-piece bathing suit, a turquoise swimming pool in the background. She realized, that much like the inhabitants of the cemetery, her Kodak image would have had no idea what was to come—the subject still alive when posing for the camera, still breathing, still thinking, still wanting, now forever frozen in the past. Life would be over, just a memory—a memory for those who were left.
One night she got out of bed, and instead of sitting by the window, she swung her legs over the sill and lowered herself into the garden. She stopped for a moment to gaze up at the corner streetlamp buzzing with insect life. She listened to the crickets tuning their wings and imagined them calling a warning or a greeting or even a fuck you across the yard, across the cemetery, across the tiny town. The idea of crickets chanting four letter words made her smile. She had recently discovered the word fuck, and it gave her a lot of pleasure. She would never say it out loud of course, but she thought it quite a lot.
She walked past the stone pillars that marked the entrance to the cemetery grounds. Rows of headstones, statues of angels, and small mausoleums with rusted iron gates fanned out before her. In the distance, tall pines marked the boundary where the original cemetery ended and the newer section with acres of lawn began. She much preferred the old section with its crumbling monuments and narrow pathways.
She walked up and down the rows, pausing to touch the top of a headstone, run her hand across the wing of an angel, touch the cheek of a Virgin Mary—savoring the coolness of the stone in the heavy, misty air. She was alone, and she fantasized she could do anything—fly if she wanted to. It was an amazing sensation, to feel so free, so unrestricted, so safe. How odd to feel safe in a graveyard. She didn’t feel safe as a rule. The world was an unpredictable place, dangerous even. But here, alone and barefoot, wearing her pajamas, she was content and completely at ease.
She was turning a slow circle, her arms outstretched when she saw the boy sitting on the shoulder of an angel.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What are you doing?” she replied mid-spin, her arms still outstretched.
“Thinking,” he said.
“Spinning,” she said.
“I dunno. I just felt like it. What are you thinking about?’
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Who are you?” he replied.
“I asked you first.”
“I asked you second.”
“I’m visiting my grandparents, they live across the street,” she said, pointing in the direction of the house.
“Oh, I’m visiting too.”
“I’ve never seen you before,” she said coming a little closer.
“I haven’t been here very long.”
“It’s my birthday in three days,” she said. “I’m gonna be twelve.”
“I’m thirteen,” the boy said, jumping down from the angel’s shoulder.
They stood face to face, sizing each other up. The boy was taller than she and his hair was much darker. He was wearing jeans and sneakers and a loose tee shirt.
They studied each other for a moment and then walked the paths together like old friends. They commented on the headstones and the carvings and the general uselessness of adults. They didn’t notice the angel on a child’s tombstone turn its head as they passed by. The Virgin Mary, near the chapel entrance, inhaled and exhaled, and the eyes of a cherub followed their movements as they walked up and down the rows. It was as if the cemetery breathed and flexed and stretched in their wake.
The boy picked up a pinecone and threw it in the direction of the newer section with the expanse of grass. She liked the way he threw, like it was a baseball.
The sky was turning light and the girl realized she had been out almost all night.
“I have to go,” she said. “It’s late, or early, or something. It will be morning soon.”
“Yeah, I have to go too.”
“I wish we didn’t,” she said.
“Me too,” the boy replied, throwing another pinecone.
All that day she thought about the boy in the cemetery. She wondered if he was real or a dream. She made herself a tomato sandwich and took it with her across the street. She sat in the shade of a weeping willow and closed her eyes. She dreamt about the boy and the crickets and the marble headstones. She woke to find a small, perfectly shaped pinecone in her hand.
That night she lay in bed waiting for the house to settle. When she was certain all was quiet, she took the pinecone and slipped out the window. Once again, crickets tuned their wings and sang a concert of fuck you-s into the night air.
She entered the cemetery looking for the boy. She found him balancing on the peak of a small mausoleum.
“Hey,” she called up to him.
“Hey,” he said concentrating on his balancing act.
“I have something for you.”
She watched as the boy scaled the side of the structure and dropped to the ground. She pulled the pinecone from her pocket and held it out to him.
“You can have it,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, taking it from her outstretched hand.
They walked the rows of headstones, this time studying the ancient tintype photographs. As they walked, they didn’t notice the images come alive. A sepia-toned woman in a corseted dress turned her head to follow them as they passed by, a man in a World War I uniform shifted his weight from one leg to the other, a dog seated next to a child, swiveled his ears in the direction of their footsteps, the child tightened his hold on the hound. Once again, the cemetery breathed and flexed and stretched as they walked. It held them and moved with them, inhaled and exhaled with them—its heart beating in sync with theirs. They were protected, safe, embraced.
The girl looked up at the sky, and though it was still dark, she knew it was going to be morning soon.
“I have to go,” she said.
“Me too,” the boy said.
“I wish we didn’t,” she said. “I wish it would never be morning, and we would never have to leave.”
“Me too,” the boy said again.
The stone angels sighed, the Virgin Mary turned her head, the marble cherubs blinked and looked away, the black and white image of the child tightened its hold on the black and white hound. The cemetery inhaled and exhaled and flexed and stretched. It sighed with the stone angels, and the Virgin Mary, and the cherubs. It gently held the boy, and gently held the girl, and mustering all its strength and determination forever held the moon in the indigo sky. And by doing so, eternally kept the night from giving in and giving way to the light of day so that the boy and the girl never had to leave, never had to be afraid, and never had to be alone.
Wood Reede was a featured author in Quiet Lightning‘s annual Poetry in the Parks 2020 and was a semifinalist for the Allegra Johnson Prize in Novel Writing. A graphic designer by profession, Wood is also an avid backpacker and a vintage clothing junkie. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son, their opinionated, one-eyed rescue cat, and Watson, their Miniature Schnaupin.