Eason Riley pulled off his heavy work gloves and used the back of his hand to wipe away the rills of sweat dripping from his brow. It was barely June, but already the two o’clock sun bore down relentlessly, conspiring with the red chips of the worn clay path to parent waves of sweltering heat from both above and below. Shirtless, Eason paused to absorb the warmth on his drenched skin, feeling much like the soiled leather gloves he held – still young and new, yet already dirty, stained and crusted.The kitchen job would still be worse
, he reminded himself. Either a line cook or a labourer – the previous month’s classifieds had ceded few viable options for a 20-year-old with nothing to offer except a strong back and one failed semester of college. All things considered, Eason was thankful to have landed the latter, a landscaping gig, even if it was bound to leave him unemployed again by autumn. To him, the sprightly smell of freshly cut grass measured a fair sight better than the enduring stench of greasy French fries.
Eason’s new boss had proven palatable enough. A stout, short man in his early fifties, Leo and his pear-shaped physique appeared to Eason more suited for life as an accountant or a desk-bound bureaucrat, rather than helming a 20-man landscaping company. He had hired Eason on the spot, asking only a half dozen perfunctory questions before sealing the deal with a solid handshake. He had then tersely outlined his expectations.
“I’m not paying you to think. I’ll tell you what to do; I’ll tell you when to do it. Be on time, don’t lose my tools, don’t break my equipment, and we’ll get along great.”
Eason followed Leo’s instructions as a corporal would a general. A dozen shifts later, Leo assigned Eason to handle “the garden,” a routine maintenance contract Leo had for a small, century-old cemetery about 25 miles north of the city. Twice a week Eason would drive alone in one of Leo’s doddering white pickups along a winding rural road to the site -- one visit Eason would push a mower; the alternate visit he’d weed between the narrow clay paths and rickety wooden fences, the job he was doing today. The work was drudging and monotonous, but Eason didn’t mind. He could toil at a moderate pace and take breaks when he felt like it. Plus he didn’t have anyone peering over his shoulder as he worked.
Eason swallowed a drink of cool water from his canteen and surveyed the grounds. The gothic iron letters arching over the gate formed the words “Whitewood Memorial Interment Garden.” Call it whatever kind of garden you want
, he thought, taking another gulp of water. It’s still a fucking graveyard.
The graveyard was about forty yards wide by a hundred deep, a tidy rectangle enclosed by a dilapidated wooden fence and sloping gently upward at the back toward the forested hills beyond. Without the growl of his mower and only the sound of his work boots making crunching noises in the gravelly clay, Eason marveled at the heavy silence blanketing the place, which even the breeze flowing through the leaves of the surrounding trees respected.
Eason estimated the cemetery had about a thousand graves, the oldest ones dating back to the early 1800s; so far as he could tell, no one new had been buried here for over a quarter of a century. Most of the headboards were pine, though some of the newer graves had actual headstones. As he worked his way around the graves, adjusting rocks and tidily removing various weeds, Eason sometimes found himself studying the names on the markers of the various men and women interred below, wondering what kind of people they had been, what kind of lives they had lead.
Some were obviously landowners or other important citizens, as Eason recognized many of the family names from the myriad streets and avenues that served as arteries coursing with cars through the body of the nearby city. These names were etched in the largest of the headstones, the ones nearest to the road by the cemetery’s gate.
However, the majority of the graves, especially the older ones marked only by headboards, offered few clues about their occupants. Some of the boards had been cut into the traditional, flat simulacrums of crosses and hourglasses, but many were simply squared, not even rounded at the top. Most had names and dates carved into the wood, or sometimes awkwardly lettered in a scarcely distinguishable charcoal or ink, though some had merely initials. Indeed, some had no writing at all. Of all the graves, these were the ones that most fascinated Eason. They rested at the very back of the graveyard, in the oldest part. Over the decades, many of them had become oddly tilted and precariously angled, and some had sunken into the earth almost entirely.
Eason glanced at his watch and walked down the hill toward the cemetery gate where he’d parked the truck around seven o’clock that morning. He had accomplished plenty today; plus Leo certainly wouldn’t complain if Eason knocked off and got his butt back to town to punch out before adding any accidental overtime to his shift. But as he dropped his tools and bags of weeds into the bed of the pickup, a flicker of movement caught his eye.
At first, Eason seemed to sense her rather than see her, as the woman walked slowly among the headboards near the top of the graveyard. He blinked hard, drops of sweat stinging his eyes as he tried to focus. Over the past weeks he had worked dozens of hours alone among the graves, but this was the first time he had ever seen anyone visit.
From her movements, Eason judged the woman to be young. In her twenties, perhaps? Surely no older than her thirties, he guessed. She was slender and fair-skinned, wearing a white sleeveless blouse and light blue skirt that flowed gently to the rhythm of her strides. Locks of chestnut hair fell to the middle of her back from beneath a black-ribboned Newport straw hat.
Eason watched from beside the truck as the woman stepped gingerly along one of the oldest rows of the cemetery, studying each weathered headboard in turn, before finally pausing. She stood motionless for a moment, and then bent down, as if to tie her shoe. A moment later she rose, stared one final time at the marker, and then retraced her footsteps along the row, hastening her strides as she walked toward the cemetery’s broken rear fence.
Then, as quickly as she had appeared, the woman was gone.TWO
Did I just see what I think I saw?
Eason slid behind the steering wheel of the truck and cranked the ignition, coaxing the reluctant engine to life. He let the truck idle, allowing the uneven clatter of the decrepit motor to chase away the silence of the spell cast only moments before. Then he turned the engine off again.
He had to take a look.
He lifted a rake from the back of the truck and started up the earthen path through cemetery gates. He walked casually, taking his time. If the woman should suddenly emerge again from the trees, Eason was ready to appear as if he were merely a worker lost in his landscaping duties. As he neared the top of the hill, he paused. The woman was nowhere to be seen. The graveyard had once again surrendered to the weight of the deafening sepulchral silence.
Eason followed the clay to the end of the cemetery, then turned to the right, walking along the wooden fence. Eason had never noticed a rear gate, but that fact hardly mattered. Over the years enough planks had fallen away from the rotting balustrades that a grown man could easily step through the fence in numerous places, which is what Eason now presumed the woman had done.
Beyond the fence, the trees began only a few feet away. Eason slowed as he neared the place where he had last seen the woman. Sure enough, on the other side of the fence, a narrow path led into the forest. Eason easily understood why he hadn’t noticed the path before. Aside from the broad, sweeping passes he made with the mower, Eason had rarely spent much time back here. Furthermore, the tree branches served as expert camouflage – the leaves allowed him to see only a few feet down the path before it was absorbed by the forest. Still, Eason could tell from the worn ground that the path had been around for a long time.
Eason returned to the cemetery’s clay walkway and walked along the corridor of leaning headboards, spotting immediately the marker at which the woman had stopped. The graves along this row were so old, so drawn into the earth, that without the boards one could hardly tell they were there. The woman had paused at one of the smallest of the graves. Compared to the others, this one appeared in miniature, hardly two feet in length from the headboard to the small wooden stob marking the bottom. The headboard was blank except for a solitary date carved carefully into the wood: 1901
And on the grave lay a single, long-stemmed white rose.