Stones By Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

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Carl figured there just weren’t enough adjoining plots in Our Lady of Sacred Light’s cemetery to accommodate the family in full—the dead and the would-be dead.  So, they were split up—father and mother in one space, plots for Carl and Nate in another.  Carl’s father was the first to go, and he was gone for more than 20 years, when Nate was only three years old and too young to remember.  Farming accident.  Tractor.  Femoral artery.  Dropped and bled into the soggy slope of the west edge of the field.  They lifted him from the alfalfa and, two days later, dropped him back into the dirt at Wayman’s Hill.  Carl wept that day, a good son, he imagined, still carrying the sentimentality of a boy, but then he stopped weeping, partly to steel himself for the sake of his mother and for the sake of the farm, and partly to resist the shadows of separation and death he couldn’t seem to shake.

“It’s Easter,” Nate said as he lowered two slices of bread into the toaster.

“Is it?” Carl asked, not having thought about it.  Nearly three years had passed since their mother’s death—and a year since they had last visited her grave.

“Must be close to it,” Nate said.  “At least Palm Sunday.”

Carl slid a tub of white butter next to the plate of eggs and ham chunks.

“I think we should go, being nearly Easter,” Nate said as he dropped toast on his brother’s plate.

“We could,” Carl said, though he wasn’t sure what Easter had to do with it.

While he was willing to give in to Nate, he doubted the re-visitation of old wounds was worth the trouble.  Nate didn’t remember his father’s passing, but it had taken him nearly a year to snap out of his grief over their mother’s death, and dwelling on resurrection was never a good thing.  Then, Carl knew Nate was bound to revisit old ground either way.

“I don’t know why she’s up there,” Nate mumbled as he raked his fork through a pool of thickening yolk.

Their mother’s final resting place was more a matter of convenience than reason, more convenience than spirituality, being less than two miles from their fence line.  One of her cousins from Indiana, cousin Iris, had taken the call for convenience even further, suggesting ashes as the

way to go, but it was too much for Nate.

“Burn her up?” Nate had shouted at Iris, then wept even more.  “Like she doesn’t exist?  Where’ll the flowers go?  Where’ll we go, next year and the year after?”

Carl stayed out of the argument, believing deep down that scattered ashes wasn’t a half bad notion.  His mother would have agreed, he figured, but she was dead.

“Where is there to go in this world, after all?” she might have said.  Where was there to visit?  The ground?  The deep black soil?  Hadn’t she had her fill of that?  Might as well be carried off by the wind.

Truth be told, Nate was all for keeping her just where she was when she was living on the farm, among the cluster of maples past the creek, which was little more than a gurgle in the dry months, especially since the new housing development had begun sprouting up at the far edge of the property line.

“What’s more convenient?” he’d argued.

“Who’s gonna cross over to visit?” Carl asked.

Nate swore he would, but he was still young, and Carl knew sorrow and loss eventually

ended, even for Nate, even with the best of intentions to hang onto them.  It might not have been easy to hear, but it was the truth.  Carl had come to know dying in his forty odd years—sickly calves and aging farm hands and scored fields, and he stayed strong through it all.  But dying—Nate was new to it and hadn’t yet come to an understanding of grief.

“I don’t know where your father is,” Carl’s mother had confessed the day before his burial.  She was running her finger down the lines of a ledger sheet, the scrawls of farm figures, gains and losses, and she spoke about her husband between calculations.  “Heaven or hell, God knows.  I know where he’d be if he was still alive,” she said, but her focus drifted through the house—to the griddle on the stove top, to the window above the chipped porcelain sink, to the shelf of coffee cups and saucers along the papered wall—like she had no idea where he’d be, alive or dead.

Nate had a tight grip on the flowers he had gathered after breakfast, nearly squeezing the life out of them as they drooped against his shirt.  Black eyed Susans—the only flowers that kept returning after their mother’s death.  He had wrapped them in a scrap of damp news print, and gray water dripped along the back of his hand.

Neither of them remembered the exact location of their mother’s grave.  Carl pulled the faded blue Chevy over to the outer circle of the cemetery, two wheels resting on sod and two on asphalt.  They took to the footpaths that intersected the markers and flags and rows of granite slabs.

“Shade,” Nate said as he followed the path toward a cluster of maples.  “I know there was shade,” he said, and Carl trailed closely behind him as he veered toward the darker stretch of the path, even though he suspected his brother’s memory of shade and light was wishful thinking.

“Over here maybe,” Nate said.

“We don’t need to go by memory, you know,” Carl called out to him as he followed his brother along the outer path, and he pulled out the map of sections and stones from his back pocket.  “There’s this,” he said, waving the crinkled map at Nate.  “They plan these things out, you know.”

“Not too much ahead of time, I hope,” Nate said, and Carl chuckled at his brother’s unexpected joke, humor he hadn’t heard in some time.

“I hope it’s all planned out after the fact,” Carl said and laughed.

Nate’s lips tightened, like he had suddenly remembered the solemnity of their surroundings, and Carl regretted laughing out loud—and in a cemetery.  Lately, it seemed there was always something for Nate to be mourning—the butchering of a cow, the death of a foal, and Carl wondered if his brother was cut out for farming at all, where birth and death were constant events, sometimes split by only a minute or two.  But where in the world wasn’t this true?  This was life, Carl thought.  Sure, there were people in the ground beneath their feet right then who thought they’d be carried away someplace more beautiful, more peaceful, paradise maybe, heaven maybe.  As far as Carl knew, you were born and you die—some people sooner than others.

A wrought iron fence was driven into the soil at the edge of the cemetery lending a finite quality to the space.  Beyond the fence was undeveloped land—stuck in limbo—torn and gouged and swept with ragweed.  Plenty of farmland was sold and fallow.  Carl wondered why this should be any different.  Rumor had it that even old man Turner was considering cashing in for an easier life.

“Nothing looks familiar here,” Nate said as he scanned the markers.

Carl traced the map as best he could.  The grove of trees lay in the crease of the second fold.  He turned east and noted the distance in the field and the distance on paper.

“Hard to say for sure,” he said, “but this isn’t the spot.  This way,” and he held up the map and squinted toward the church where a man stood hunched over a shovel.  “Bet he knows,” Carl said, and he took off toward the church with Nate tagging closely behind.

“Pardon, Sir,” Carl called out.

He stepped over the bronze grave markers dotting the grass—Haven, Thompson, Peltier, Snow.  The man tapped the back of the shovel against his high-top boots and planted the tip into a mound of fresh dirt.

“Here’s what I’m looking for and what I can’t seem to find,” Carl puffed out, then held the map toward him.

The man rubbed his dusty palm along the front of his leg and snatched the map from Carl.  Nate, who had finally caught up with his brother, looked over Carl’s shoulder, but the man with the shovel was already running his finger across the paper.

“What’s the name?” the man asked.

“Name?” Carl replied.

“The deceased,” he said.

“Bare,” Carl said.

The man’s jeans were caked with layers of dry and cracked dirt.  The chest of his shirt was darkened with the sweat seeping from beneath his arms.  A pencil and note pad jutted from one shirt pocket.  The other pocket was buttoned and creased, with an embroidered name patch sewn above it.  Nigel, it read.

“Sometimes these can be more treasure map than road atlas.  A little finesse, a little trial and error is what’s called for every now and then,” Nigel explained as he squinted into the paper.

“This is what they showed us when I handed over the check.  They sure knew where the plot was then,” Carl said.

“Don’t worry.  We’ll find it.  We’ll find…”and he raised his eyes up to Nate.

“Gertrude,” Nate muttered.  “Gertrude Bare, I mean,” he said.

“Gertrude Bare—17B.  Follow me.”

The path wound in a half-circle beyond the church and the rectory.  At the crown of the curve, Nigel stopped and swept his arm out toward a group of granite markers.

“17,” he announced, then squinted into the map again.

“This isn’t it,” Nate said with more force than Carl had heard him speak in some time.  Nigel glanced at Nate and then returned to the map.

“17. That’s what it says.  You doubt it?”

“There was shade,” Nate insisted.  “My mother asked for shade and we laid her in shade.”

Nigel looked skyward.  Streaks of white stretched across the blue of late morning.  Toward the west, the green mountains rose against the blue and the white.  Along one ridge, a trail wound past a wood structure of some kind—a hunting cabin maybe.  His gaze drifted toward the blue heavens.

“I’m good at my job, but controlling the sun?  That’s another pay grade,” Nigel said.  “If you believe in such things.  God and the like.  Heaven and the like.”

“You don’t?” Nate asked.

“I don’t think about it, is all,” he said.  He looked over the markers of 17B.  “Come 3:00, every soul in this section will be in shadow, and nothing in heaven will change that.”

“She was in shade, not a passing shadow,” Nate insisted.

“Far be it from me to contradict you,” Nigel said.  “I can’t claim to know the difference between the two.”

“I know the difference between where you’re saying she is and where she should be.”

“Just following the map,” he said.

“Let’s at least take a look since we’re here,” Carl said, and nudged Nate toward the

granite markers.  Nigel followed.

Four graves stood side by side.  Habecker.  Stretching clear back to 1917.  Eighty-year-old man.  Veteran.  Eighteen-year-old boy.  Veteran.  Fifty-year-old mother.  Three-year-old child.  Man and boy were memorialized with the word “bravery,” and the woman “beloved.”  The child’s read “rest in heaven.”

“This family’s intact,” Nate said as he studied the stones.

Carl guessed that was always Nate’s hope.  A family intact.  Togetherness in the afterlife, though not even the afterlife, since only the child would “rest in heaven.”  They were together in the earth—one collection of bones fitting snugly against another.

“Isn’t this 17B?  Where’s Gertrude Bare?”  Carl asked.

Nigel squinted into the map.  He hummed a tune as he followed the markers on the page.  Something familiar.  An old hymn.  We Gather Together, maybe.  Or maybe some old fiddle tune.

“Could just be a clerical error,” Nigel told him.  “Seventeen could be nineteen.  Or nineteen could be fourteen.”  He gazed across the cemetery.  “Let’s try fourteen first.  Follow me.”

He trailed past the first row of graves, and Carl and Nate searched the row behind.  Carl tried to remember what was etched on his mother’s stone, but he couldn’t.  What about his father?  Beloved husband?  Beloved father?  Beloved something or other.  His memory didn’t naturally go there.  He had never imagined his mother’s death at all, never dreamed of her death, as if she would escape it, but she didn’t, and there was more searching to be done.

“This way,” Nigel called, and he turned and led Carl toward the smaller circle, the fourth row.  Along a slim stretch of grass browned by the sun stood four stones.  Barns.  Carpenter.  Two Bares.

“Gertrude Bare,” Nigel said, but his discovery lacked energy or accomplishment, as if he had expected it all along.  “Clerical error after all,” he said, and he flipped the map open once more.

Nate rushed to the spot before the stones.

“Gertrude Bare,” he said, and his voice trailed off, underwhelmed by his own declaration.

He lifted his face to the sky, perhaps staring beyond the summit of the green mountains, perhaps even beyond the white clouds and into the diminishing blue of the sky, the halos of the sun, heaven itself.   Carl looked down at the markers.  Barns, Carpenter, Robert Bare, Gertrude Bare.  They baked like clay beneath the noon sun.  Beyond the stones of 14 were three stumps, clean from their recent cutting, maples as far as Carl could tell.  He stepped behind the stones and kneeled in the blonde wood dust.  He drew the flat of his palm across the plane of one stump.  The newness of the surface seemed nearly fragile, its rings pale, smooth, and level, as if, for it, time had stopped, or was never marked.  He looked up at his brother, but Nate had turned away with a sudden disinterest in the Bares or the trees or the unmarked time of either.  Coldly, he stared into the distance.

“They’ve been cleared for one reason or another,” Nigel said.  “To make way for the expansion is my guess.  To make room for more dearly departed.”

“Or houses,” Carl said.

“Could be.  But it’s making room for people either way.”

The roots of the cut maples ran deep; Carl imagined they drove into the earth and stretched and intertwined beneath the graves—fathers and mothers and sons—the length and width of the field, the breadth of humanity.  Then, cutting them down could only be the first step, and he envisioned the stumps and the roots and the tendrils being yanked from the ground like useless fence posts by Our Lady of Sacred Light or by the real estate developers, and the face of the earth torn and displaced, leaving ragged lines through what remained.  Haven, Thompson, Peltier, Snow, Bare.  The coffins.  The bones.  The families intact.

“Does it matter, in the long run?” Nigel asked.  “Shade or no shade?”

Carl doubted it mattered, although he didn’t say so.  It seemed to him people got to make few enough choices in their lives that stick.  The shade from a maple didn’t seem too much to ask for.  He wouldn’t want to confess this to Nate, though, not as his brother stared at the stone face of their mother’s marker and read the engraving.  Carl could scarcely hear his brother’s voice as he read “Love Loss Sorrow Rest.”

On the drive home, Nate was mostly quiet but for his thumbnail scratching the seam of his trouser leg.  He rolled the window down partway, and a warm wind blew into the car.

As they reached the road’s curve, a dog struggled as it lay at the shoulder of the road.  He thought it might have been their dog at first, Kipper, but then he recognized it as one of old man Turner’s.  He pulled the Chevy to the shoulder.  They got out, and Nate squatted beside the dog, its eyes nearly closed and its chest heaving.  One leg lay twisted back and blood caked the hair on a patch of its haunches.

“Looks like just one leg.  Can’t be sure though,” Carl said, and he carefully lifted its head.  “Should have brought the truck,” he said.

He walked back to the car and pulled an old wool blanket from the trunk.  He shook it and spread it out next to the dog.  The two of them lifted and placed the dog on the blanket and carried it to the back seat of the car.

Carl headed along the road to Turner’s farmhouse.  In the backseat, the dog whistled through its panting.  Carl pulled up to the equipment shed.  The doors were swung open.  Old man Turner looked out to the drive, to Carl and Nate, and his bright white hair stood out from the darkness of the shed.  Carl wiped his face with one hand.  It felt strange worrying about the fate of one dog, but he imagined there was more too.  There was the driver that ran it down and the newly built house he was in such a hurry to get to.  There was the rich black earth, torn up from his new yard and carted away to a landscaper somewhere, where it would be bagged and sold back to the same man who, on a peaceful Sunday morning, ran down old man Turner’s dog.  He knew it was useless to shed tears over one old farm dog, but he wept anyway.

Old man Turner walked from the shed into the sunlight.

“Can’t figure who’d leave a dog like that, myself,” Nate said as he clasped his brother’s shoulder.  He turned to the dog stretched across the back seat.  “I think he’ll be alright though,” he said, and nodded.

The world changed quickly, Carl thought, even more so now that he was older.  How could Nate know for sure what was ahead?  In the end, Carl chose to defer to his younger brother’s judgment.  Nate opened the door and stepped out into the sun to tell old man Turner about the cemetery and the maple roots and the new construction and the shoulder of the road and the stranger in a hurry to get to his family’s home.  The dog panted in the quiet afternoon.

Two months later, Kipper died, although under less traumatic circumstances.  Died in the field.  Old age was Carl’s guess.  Carl wept the day he found the dog, though he didn’t know why.  He tried to explain it to Nate that day, and months after, but he couldn’t figure it out himself.

“It’s okay,” Nate told him that afternoon, and each time he brought it up, kindly, like it was the first time he’d heard it, but Carl couldn’t help but bring it up, again and again.  And each time Nate touched him and said, “It’s okay.”

When Carl and Nate buried the dog on the other side of the brook, Nate was clear eyed, but he crossed over to the spot often.  Carl was sure he would raise the subject of the family

graves, sure he had been thinking about it, and how they might raise and relocate their mother and father to the same spot, alongside Kipper, before the church or the developers yanked them out of the ground, maple roots and all, but it didn’t seem to matter.  Nate didn’t mention it in the ensuing planting and growing and harvesting seasons, or at Sunday breakfasts of eggs and ham, among unused coffee cups and chipped porcelain, and neither did Carl.

###

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Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt lives, writes, and teaches in Lancaster, PA.  His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Ascent, Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Cumberland River Review, The Louisville Review, and Quiddity. Jeffrey is a two-time finalist for the Fulton Prize in Short Fiction and has been nominated for Best of the Net. A featured writer at the Lancaster Book Festival, the Wildwood Writer’s Festival, and the Greater Reading Literary Festival, he has been a writer-in-residence at Ledig House International Writer’s Colony and The Artists’ Enclave at I-Park, among others.  He holds an MFA from Goddard College.

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Jeffrey-Ihlenfeldt-238702249513109

Short Stories online:

“Reciting the Histories” Cumberland River Review. http://crr.trevecca.edu/article/reciting-the-histories

“The Red Hills” Solstice Literary Magazine. https://solsticelitmag.org/content/the-red-hills/

“Admire It While You Can” Ascent. https://readthebestwriting.com/admire-it-while-you-can-jeffrey-ihlenfeldt/

“In the Country of the Blind” Adirondack Review. http://adirondackreview.homestead.com/jeffreyihlenfeldt2.html

Image by Albrecht Fietz on Pixabay

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