The cemetery was across town. It was a quiet place to walk and think. Many people avoided it because of superstition about ghosts and the undead. It also held sadness for many people because they missed their loved ones.
My father was not here. He had been cremated and his ashes had been scattered at sea the way his father’s were. They were both naval dreamers. Neither one had served aboard any ship, both had taken vacations on the water and both claimed some sort of heritage on the sea, but neither had left this land-locked part of the country for good. They had said when they retire they would move to the coast, but neither lived that long. Mining was a tough profession.
I had started walking in cemetery after my Father’s death to piece together my feelings of grief. There was not a headstone to claim as my resting spot, so I had wandered, reading the names and wondering about the families left behind. I realized that it was a long shot to find any O’Neale’s buried here, but I needed the exercise.
My favorite headstones had angels or other statuary on them. The richest family even had a mausoleum under some neglect due to the fact that they had followed their money to the city. Stone benches placed along the path or under the only tree with dedications to loved ones found more bird droppings than bottoms on them. They added a comforting air though. I usually ended up sitting on the grass in the corner in the lee of the only hill. If anyone walked in the cemetery today, I’d be hidden from most angles. With many people moving away, I doubted anyone would share the space with me today.
I casually headed toward my spot, but read all the familiar and yet strange names as I strolled. The image of the man burned in the back of my mind. It was like I took him with me. I wanted him to point out something important, as if his image placed over a scene in the cemetery would unlock a secret message.
The oldest graves were in the back corner opposite my hiding spot. They were so weathered, dates and names were worn off. His could have been any of these. Or it could have never been here. I paused at the fork in the path before the mausoleum. If I went left, I’d stroll past the oldest graves where no one ever ventures and where I’d just be disappointed to not find his name, I was sure. If I went right, I’d end up at my secret spot, sitting and pondering and getting nowhere. At least if I went left, I could say for sure that my efforts had turned up nothing. I took the left path.
1879, too young; 1840-something, too old; died in 1913, possible, but no name. I walked until I was sure that the graves were too young and then backtracked. There were 3 or 4 that were illegible, and 3 that I knew weren’t him, including one baby. None of them had names, and nothing triggered the image in my head to point out any amazing discoveries. I sighed. At least I tried. I knew the likelihood he was from my town was a long shot. If only I knew where Vivian had gotten that book. If it had come from some estate sale when the rich people left for the city, it was still possible he had lived here and been buried somewhere else.
I didn’t feel like staying here anymore. I needed to find out what Vivian knew about the journal. In twenty minutes, I was at her shop door. A sign on it said ‘closed’. That was odd. She never closed, and she hadn’t mentioned that yesterday was her last day. I hoped she wasn’t sick. Perhaps she went to the bank to ask for another extension.
Unsure where to go from here, I sat on the store’s stoop.
Loud laughter made me glance down the street. A small group of teenagers were prowling the streets, teasing each other the way only high school friends can. From my days before the school closing I knew them as my ex-best friend Amelia, the class clown Todd, my crush to end all crushes Bryan, and a couple extra girls they were obviously trying to impress with our small town’s quaintness. My being homeschooled immediately categorized me as an outcast. Sitting in front of a closed and dusty old book store did not help that image, but it was too late to do anything about it. Besides, Bryan still made my knees weak and my tongue tied.
“Who’s she?” A girl snapped her gum and gestured at me. I wanted Bryan to stand up for me, proudly proclaiming “That’s Callie. She’s homeschooled, but really smart. It’s cool.” Instead my ex-best friend Amelia answered.
“She’s just a homeschooled freak! Come on Bryan, let’s show our guests the old well.” The group giggled in a chorus and frolicked off in that boisterous way a herd of teenagers does.
A freak. Amelia was the one with the multi-colored hair and torn jeans. Compared to her, I was plain. I was more hurt that my fantasy-Bryan hadn’t lived up to my false expectations. He hadn’t even looked back. I did realize that Amelia remembered my crush if not my name because she deliberately told Bryan to come on, not the group. Perhaps she felt threatened. Maybe she knew something I didn’t, that he liked me back. I felt slightly empowered.
What shall I do with my new power? I could follow them around, happen to show up all over town to make it seem they are following me. The old well was behind the site where the one-room schoolhouse had been. It was near Mill Creek that only ran deep when Mill Dam Lake overflowed in a good rain. On the way back, they would have to pass by the general store. I could be there, having an ice cream. If they stopped, I could leave, then head to the library and read a book on the stairs where they would pass again on their way out of town. Or perhaps buy a stamp at the post office to cross their path again. This could be fun.
A blast of too hot air warmed my face as I entered the general store. They still had a glass counter with ice cream behind it and barstools bolted to the floor. Mr. Samuels’ family had run the shop for 4 generations. They made the news a while back and the framed article hung behind the bar.
“What’ll it be?”
I chose a flavor that was unique but also had no dark coloring that would make embarrassing stains on my clothes. “Pecan Pie.”
“One scoop or two?’
“One is plenty, Mr. Samuels.”
“Watching your girly figure, eh Calla Lily?” It was a nickname he’d given me as a small child. Mr. Samuels had to be about 80 years old. You can’t tell an old wrinkly face like that that you are too old to be called Calla Lily anymore. I smiled sweetly and took the offered spoon. I ate the ice cream slowly, wondering when I might see the crew. This was a great place to take a date, if you didn’t mind the prying eyes of the wizened old storekeeper.
They didn’t come in, but to my surprise, Vivian did.
“And how may I help the lovely Vivian today?” So, Mr. Samuels was a charmer!
“I’m afraid I’m cancelling my order.” Vivian’s eyes were downcast.
“Times are tough, sunshine.” Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad about him calling me Calla Lily.
“You wouldn’t happen to have anything ready to turn, would you?”
Was I hearing her right? Mr. Samuels went to check and she finally spotted me. “Callie!” She turned bright red as if she were caught with her hand in the cookie jar. I had my spoon in my mouth, so I simply used that to keep my mouth shut. I think she appreciated it.
“Here’s some bread, only 5 days old. And take these beans for a nice soup. Neighbor’s gotta help neighbor in these times!” Mr. Samuels winked at me.
“You are too kind!” Vivian took the scraps and bowed out, completely humiliated. Mr. Samuels gave me a very knowing stare. I slid off my stool and followed her.
Jogging to catch up, scarf pulled over her head, I called, “Vivian!” She did not turn. I was right beside her now. “Let me carry that for you.”
“No, I‘m fine!” Her voice cracked a little.
“I insist.” She obstinately kept trudging so I tried a different approach. “Mr. Samuels is a nice man.” She stopped in her tracks. Tears had begun to well up in the corners of her eyes.
“Yes, he is.” She let out a huge sigh. I took the food from her. We walked in peace slowly down the street. I didn’t care who could see me now or what they would think.
Vivian lived in a clapboard house in the middle of a butterfly garden. I mean, she did not own a lawn mower and hadn’t had any repairs in the past 20 years. The land owners were rich folk who went under and foreclosed. This was not the mansion of a place out front with boarded up windows. This was the gardener’s cottage out back. I think she was a squatter.
“They called this a ‘mother-in-law’s house’.” Vivian explained. “But rich folk who put their aging mothers in nursing homes used it as a party house, or rental cottage, or perhaps a live-in tutor’s quarters.”
It smelled mildew-y and I’m sure I could see daylight through the ceiling near the chimney. “Or maybe the pool boy or mistress,” I supplied. Vivian snorted. The kitchenette was tiny, with a minifridge, but without electricity, it served only as a storage place to keep mice out of the bread.
“Thank you for carrying the bread. Would you like some tea? I make it over the fire in the fireplace just like the pioneers!” She made squatting sound like one of my Mother’s adventures. In fact, I bet my Mother would call her squatting ‘quaint’.
“No, I’m sure I should be getting home, but I do have a question to ask you.”
“Well, I owe you an answer!”
“Have you ever had a strong connection with a book?”
“Oh heaven’s yes! There have been many books I have fallen into and couldn’t put down!”
“No, let me rephrase. Have you ever had a book call out to you? Like it wanted you to read it? Not because it had a pretty cover, or was by an author you already knew, but because it just.. was meant to be?”
Vivian sat down on a chair at the table, her expression faded from joy at the prospect of answering an easy question, to consternation at having to solve one of life’s puzzles. “What do you mean?”
“Have you ever heard of Psychometry?”
Her brows knitted, “Enlighten me.”
“This book, a journal really, I found in your store the other day. When I touched it, it was like I knew the writer. Not just his words, but his experiences, even what he looked like. Even before I read the date on the pages, I saw him in his pioneer clothes.”
“Like a ghost, he materialized, like a projection, a waking dream, but also like a memory. His memory.”
“We all see things when we read books..”
“No, not like the image appears in your head. I know you aren’t going to believe me, but he appears in front of me, like a ghost. That’s why I did some searching and found out about psychometry. It’s the ability to see an object’s memories.”
Vivian was silent. I let her drink this all in. I sat quietly, fingering the hem of my sleeve. I don’t’ know why I was telling her this. I was only going to ask her where she picked it up. She must have thought me very strange. I avoided eye contact and waited to see if she would throw me out or if her creative soul would ponder this and make something great out of it. I needed someone to believe me, an ally, more than I realized.
“My grandmother used to say that all things leave an impression upon the world.”
I raised my eyes to read her face. She was still contemplating and digesting the information.
“I know that when I pick up certain mementos I remember things about them and my past. Is this what you mean?”
“Yes, but they are not MY memories.”
“Are you sure you cannot be inferring details?”
“Positive. This young man is not like anyone I know. And I’ve only read three pages of his poetry.”
“Ah, it’s a young man that has your heart troubled.” She sat back in her chair relieved.
“But he’s dead. Long dead.”
“Many of my favorite authors are too, but their words can still touch me and leave an impression. It’s their legacy.”
“But they don’t join you in your little house for tea. I’m afraid I’m not being clear. I’m SEEING his memories. Maybe we do have a connection, maybe we do relate to one another, but he’s a ghost and I am very much alive.”
“So what exactly is the dilemma? You are young, experiencing things for the first time. I say live out your fantasies!”
“This is not a fantasy! It’s very much real. Each time I touch a new page, I see a new memory. And I can’t go back. I can’t make him reappear the same way I saw him on the first page, or the third. The memory is gone, transferred to me. I can’t relive the same moment, despite how much I want to. So no, I can’t live out my fantasies.”
She took a deep breath as if to say something, but held her tongue and thought some more.
“Who is this young man?”
“Someone with the last name O’Neale.” I spelled it for her. “I was hoping you’d know. Or could tell me where you got the journal.”
“Do you have it with you?”
I carefully pulled it out of my tote. Of course I had it, I would not let it out of my sight! She took it as if it were made of delicately spun sugar instead of yellowed paper. She examined the pages, the cover, the spine. She read a few lines at the beginning. “You only touched the first 3 pages?”
“What if I touched the fourth? Would the memory be lost to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you like to try?”
Vivian read the next poem to herself, and my anxiety and desire grew. I was jealous of her eyes being able to read those words before I could, but I was also worried that she was stealing the memory first.
Gingerly I took the book, opened to the fourth page, and set it on the table before me. My eyes scanned slowly to the words.
There is only one way
to catch the wind:
stand still and stay there,
wait for her to come
for she surely will,
though she is a temperamental lover
all bluster and fluster one minute
turn to whisper-soft breeze the next.
She is worth the wait
she is worth the storm
she is worth the pain
because when she hurts you,
it is never intentional,
she just doesn’t know
her own strength.
He was laying on a grassy hill beneath a tree, a piece of long grass in his mouth, hands behind his head. Softly, the tall grasses waved in the wind. He turned his head to look at me and he smiled. His eyes danced, even in the black and white of this memory. I focused on his dark eyes. For a split second they were brown and forgiving instead of charcoal. My head began to spin, reeling from the effort it took to see this memory in color. I felt my hand resting on the pages, heard a voice call to me, “What do you see?” and then he faded. Vivian’s face had gone pale.
I told her what I saw.
“Any landmarks, something that would let us know where in the world he was?”
“Just grass and a tree.”
“I wonder why you cannot see the girl he loves?”
“If I were writing a love poem, I would be thinking about the one I love. Wouldn’t my memories soak into the words?”
“I don’t think I’m seeing his memories, I think I’m seeing where he was when he finished writing the words.”
Vivian sat back and became lost in thought, chewing her lip. “That journal must have come into the shop a long time ago. I’ll have to go back over my records, if I have any on it. Sometimes I brought things in from yard sales and never documented them. Only when people sold things to me, did I keep a receipt.”
“I always wondered how you came upon so many books!”
“They just came to me!” Vivian giggled at her joke. I decided that was my cue to leave.
“I should be getting back home. Take care, Vivian.” I adopted a formal air when I visited elder people. It amused me. I pondered this as I made a beeline toward my home.