I was a question, and I arrived at the graveyard with the sun. A gatehouse glowed 6AM orange, and a graveman weighted his forearms on the iron gate, a mug steaming on a post beside him. Mounds and stones marked the landscape, and a breeze tuned the leaves on their boughs.
The graveman eyed me. “Mornin’.’”
“Off to find your grave?”
“Yes sir.” He pulled the gate open with his forearms, and I stepped in. “What should I expect?”
“Nothing you can give me?”
Silhouettes cast their shadows at us, stitching the earth to the sky, and holed hills lay before me like Jack’s giant under a quilt. “How long does it take?”
“Depends.” He sipped his coffee. “One fella’ took twenty minutes. Plenty take years.” He took another sip, and the mug wrapped steam around his head like a turban. Then he looked me over. “If you have one at all.”
I nodded goodbye and entered the lane. He clanged the gate behind me.
I walked the rows like a fox in an empty henhouse, passing marble angels, cement slabs, copper name-plates, flowers, grass mow-shavings, a few mourners, and a fellow seeker who laid down, no doubt, for the last time. A hand stuck from one mound. I’m pretty sure it tried to grab me.
I came upon another question, a woman who kneeled in a sun dress near the base of a Crepe Myrtle. She plucked to her nose the remains of a dandelion seed-pod. I crooked an eye at her.
She returned my crook. “Care to join me?”
I stopped in the lane. “Doing what?”
“Smellin’.” She offered the dandelion’s pulp toward my nose. Her fingers wore its green blood.
I blocked her with a hand. “I’m looking for my grave.”
She gave a grave expression. “Ready to die?”
She took another swig of the dandelion. “Any hole’s your grave.”
“If you let it. Whatta you call a three-footed grave?”
“Um.” I looked up toward the green and silver leaves of the Crepe Myrtle. “A grave yard, I supp—.”
“No. Your grave, if you let it.” She smiled on one side, like a slide, and pointed toward the nearest grave. “There you go.”
“I’m looking for my own.”
“You so lucky?”
A scowl balanced itself on me. “How so?”
“To own a grave.”
“Surely you own—”
“If you’re lookin’, you’ll find more than just the one and be in a real pickle.” She curled her bare toes in the dirt. “Settle for what you get.” And she went back to her pulp.
And I searched on. The sun rolled down the sky toward the earth, and the thirsty breeze still ambled along the grass.
Open graves cut into the painted hills like windows. I passed many that were too small, too dry, too not-mine. Around one, six trench-coats with shovels and cement-spackled wheel-barrows buried someone. I kept them out of earshot. I passed one grave of beach sand. I stopped at one with cocoa-colored dirt, but roots pried into its coolness like bark-skinned snakes. I walked all the way to the field’s knee-high wall, and I followed it for a while. And from every grave I found, a dozen more sprung. Graves gave way to graves.
I came upon yet another question, a professor, bent-backed in a grave. A trowel lay on the ground next to him, and a fanny pack hung at his hip. When I scuffed near, he looked up.
“Good morning.” He extended his hand from the hole.
I braced my legs and pulled him up. His hand rubbed mine with soil and callouses.
He held on and stomped dirt from his feet and picked up his trowel. “Where you headed?”
“Looking for my grave.”
His eyes widened like a boy with a slingshot. “May I show you something?”
We walked without talking. After a few minutes, he stepped from the lane at a fenced plot of a hundred graves. A classroom-sized pile of dirt lay behind the site. Grass seeped up its edges, reclaiming its lost home. “Aren’t they stupendous?”
“My graves. Though I must give credit where it’s due. Many were collaborative.” He took another step toward the fence and placed his hand on it.
“The weedy woman was right then. Graves beget graves.”
“Quite so. One runs out of life before one runs out of graves.” He winked and pointed toward a bald hill. “I have that space reserved.”
A breeze slid down the hill and stirred my hair. “There’s no end?”
“For some. You’ll find many happy mounds. And I pick one or other to nap in from time to—”
“In the graves?”
“Of course. Don’t want a sunburn. But as I was saying, I nap from time to time, but I can’t stop until I’m done.” He rubbed his hand across his cheek stubble.
“Couldn’t you have been done at the first one?”
“No. Wouldn’t have fit me. Was just a hole.”
“Well they’re all just holes until you stay put.”
“True. But some just stay holes.”
A trail of limp grass interwove itself among the professor’s plot, and I followed it with my eyes. “Are they still yours then? Since you didn’t stay?”
He scrunched his lips. “In a way. Like a story. But even those with graves can lose them.”
“You can dig them up.” The professor raised his arms like Frankenstein and stiffed a step. “Then they wander off to find new ones.”
The breeze passed, and a zephyr curled dust away from the lane ahead of us. “I’d rather be a happy mound.”
“Me too.” He patted me on the shoulder and hobbled away with the trowel in his fanny pack.
And I searched on. The sun hit the cloudline as I reached another wall and sat. After resting a few minutes, I stood and headed back toward the entrance.
At the trenchcoats’ burial scene, a peculiar question, a boy of perhaps ten, sat on the trampled grass. He clawed concrete slop from his hair and clothes and flung it into the boy-sized hole in front of him. The bone-grey mess reminded me of the Stuff-on-a-Shingle—Beef Stroganoff on toast—that my dad used to force-feed me. Not wanting to draw the ire of any lurking buriers, I kept my distance.
When he finished, the boy slid his hands into his trouser pockets and walked to the lane ahead. I followed him. As we walked, he whistled, kicked rocks, and plucked leaves from low-hanging branches.
The sun cradled itself between two hills as we reached the gatehouse, and the boy greeted the graveman and walked out the gate.
I followed as far as the graveman, who stopped me. “Find it?”
“Then where you headed?”
I pointed up the lane. “Who’s that boy?”
I cupped my hand by my mouth and threw my voice. “Hey!”
The boy looked back. His hands still hid in his pockets.
“Where are you going?”
“You don’t have a grave?”
“No sir.” And he waved and walked on.
The sun dropped below the hills, beginning its nightly sojourn through the darkness and into an orange return. I looked forward to its faithful warmth.
“Many of us without graves?”
“Few.” The graveman looked me over. “You aren’t one of ‘em.”
The wind picked up again, as it does. It dried my eyes in its search for water, like the rasp of some great dust-giant, in and out.
“I know.” And as the stars blinked open, I returned under torchlight to the rows.