Seventy-seven weathered, moss streaked steps to the cemetery. Ivy wraps the wrought iron railing and the hum of bees is a far-off, languid sound - mosquito whine is closer, intimate as the tiny mole beneath your lover’s left earlobe.
The kids run ahead, shouting, peony blossoms clutched in sweaty fists; the petals leave a trail not unlike a bride’s path. fragrant and pink and utterly vulnerable to the whims of the breeze. The women follow slowly, iris bouquets cradled to their chests.
“Do you remember Daddy and that old riding lawn mower?” Their voices are a continuous rill, energetic as bird song.
Shriek of laughter; a soft hand slaps a lady bug from a crimsoned cheek. “Didn’t he just love it?”
“Aunt Millie put sugar in the gas tank, I swear she did.”
“She was a mean old thing.”
“But” – and here is the satisfying conclusion – “She had a good heart.”
The voices overlap, memories caught in the reaching arms of the elms where they remain, nestled like robin eggs in the silvery wind-tossed leaves.
The kids have reached the summit, have abandoned their flowers and are playing tag amongst the tombstones, their laughter pin-wheeling against a heavy sky, a sky that is just beginning to forgive. The women don’t offer correction because the cemetery above the village has been a playing place for generations; here, in fact, the dead are more alive than anywhere else.
And comfortably so.
Here beneath the live oaks with the dandelions rioting and the prairie breeze pushing in the homey stink of cows. Here where grass is a thousand jeweled shades of emerald and nobody notices if you slip out of your shoes. Here, where everybody from down-the-hill comes home at last.
“Do you remember Junie?” One of the women kneels, lays her bouquet beside a listing gravestone. “The first time she came up here – and she was just a little thing, couldn’t read – she ran right up to Grandma’s stone and said how pretty it was.”
They’re off again, magpies chattering while the sky at last splits to reveal a hands-span of azure so bright it hurts the eyes.
“ . . . and he had the bluest eyes, didn’t he? Well the whole family did.”
“ . . . didn’t think Eddy could go on after . . . “
“ . . . used to bring the cows down from our hill, remember?”
Remember, remember. And the dead - while they are in a place where time matters not at all - are here as well. In words, in thoughts, in little girl’s smiles. As real as your child’s shadow darting quick as Peter Pan on the cobblestone path or the squirrel tossing acorns from the tree limb. Here, Memorial Day is not so much an honoring as a simple acknowledgement, Scout greeting Miss Maudie on the screen porch step.
That’s how close your loved ones are.
The women at last finish their task and gather at the spigot by the gate, where they cup cold water to their faces like the children they were the-day-before-yesterday, drinking and scrubbing the sweat at the back of their necks. They gather up discarded shoes and the sourball wrappers that seem to follow children everywhere and shoo their offspring towards the steps.
Early evening already, the limpid light sweet as lilacs.
Seventy-seven steps down, home on either end.
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