by June Saraceno
The Sample family graveyard was a favorite haunt. From the woods behind their barn, if I followed the field drainage ditch that Dare and me called the creek up to the blacktop, it was just across the road. Because of the trees, I could walk right over to the graveyard without being seen from any house nearby, even when I was crossing the road. There were three magnolias inside the wrought iron fence, one as tall as a skyscraper, with limbs low enough that it was easy to climb. Together, the three trees kept the little patch of graves shaded and cool. Some graves were sunken in a little, some markers just simple wooden crosses so deteriorated that I didn’t dare sneeze near them. I was careful to walk around the graves, not over them, but it was so unkempt it was hard to tell sometimes whether a patch was a grave or not.
There was one grave that I went to more than the others, even more than the mother and baby ones that always drew me. It was the Beloved Angel tombstone of Beverly Ann Sample who had died in the 1800s. On top it said “Beloved Angel on the Wings of Time” written in fancy cursive. Below that was “Beverly Ann Sample 1880-1890”and under that was “Our beloved angel, carried on the swift wings of time, home to God’s arms.” It was practically a book compared to most headstones.
It struck me on one particular day that Beverly and I were the same age – ten years old. It started me wondering what would it be like to be ten in 1890. And then to die. I pictured her with pigtails, an old timey dress like the drawings in Little Women in the bookcase at home. Under the dappled light of that big magnolia I sat there and pondered her life. Were there tractors or would she have been in the field with her whole family plowing and reaping? I wished I knew the details of her story. What could kill a ten year old? As full of words as the tombstone was there was no clue to how she died. Some of the markers told a plain story. The baby graves, usually just a small stone lying flat in the ground giving the dates, mostly in months, were clear. They died getting born or soon after. One was a mother and baby side by side. The baby, not even with a name or life span dates, just “and daughter,” told a clear tale. The mother died having that baby and nobody even bothered to give her a name, and no graveyard sweetness either, no “beloved” or anything. Seemed liked the dad was mad at the baby when he buried them.
Babies were one thing, but a ten-year-old girl was entirely different. Somebody that old could pretty much take care of herself. So what had happened? Had she got one of them diseases that kids now get vaccinated for? Had she got mangled up in some farm machinery? Awful things like that happened to farm kids a lot. I didn’t know a single farmer that didn’t have something missing, if only a half of a finger. There was that farmer at church who had a leg missing below the knee and I’d heard he had two fake legs, one for everyday use and the other the “dress up” leg that he wore to church. I’d stared at the real shoe on his wooden foot in church more than once.
“Beverly Ann Sample,” I gave myself goose bumps addressing the dead girl. “What happened to you?”
It felt funny to be talking out loud in the graveyard. I felt sorry for Beverly Ann who had been dead for about 100 years. Then the ground tilted a little. Not quite 100 years. I never did like arithmetic. I tried to do it in my head but couldn’t. I scratched some figures above my ashy kneecap. She died in 1890, and it was 1965 now. Minus the 1890 from 1965. That wasn’t 100; it was 75 years ago. I did it twice to make sure I had carried the numbers right. She would have been 85 if she had lived. I know for a fact that some of the ladies in my church are that old. I felt a funny spinning feeling. I had come here and looked at this grave so many times and thought about the dead girl from another century. She might have made it from that century to this one if only she hadn’t died at ten. It was unsettling how the distance between us seemed to shrink uncomfortably. The girl in pigtails that I sort of knew could be a white haired old woman in a patterned dress with pictures of grandbabies in her pocketbook. I had read the tombstones with the 1800 dates as if they were part of the long ago, the unknowable world. That far away time just became unexpectedly connected to the now because there were still people who had been in both.
Then another crazy thought struck me. If I don’t die, if I live to be 85 years old, I might be part of a different world. I used my leg again to add 1965 + 75 but it wasn’t coming out right. 2040 wasn’t a real year. I did it over and over and it kept coming out 2040. It would be a year. The thought of a year starting with 20 instead of 19 seemed crazy, like The Jetson’s or Lost in Space, maybe fun but definitely not real. But then every single day of my life up until today Beverly Ann Sample was someone who could have never have existed in my world because she was from another century. It was hard to get a handle on it. Beverly could be some old woman in church. I might live into a time past the 1900s, another century, as foreign and strange as a past century has always been.
My temple was throbbing a little with an idea that couldn’t quite take shape. It was about time. It was the way that Beverly had connected the far away to the now and the way the now was going to move forward, carrying me with it whether I wanted it to go or not, closer to some hazy place that I couldn’t even picture. Just like I didn’t know whether Beverly took baths in a real bathtub or in some wash tub with hot water poured in from off the kitchen stove, I couldn’t see what was ahead of me and for the first time ever I fretted about that. Time was like the Holy Spirit. You couldn’t see it but it moved in and around, invisible as air but still operating on things. I had only thought about it in practical ways before: time for dinner, close to Christmas, time for school to let out. But there was this whole other feature that couldn’t be seen and yet it was the real truth of time. It was connecting things like links in a chain and it went backwards and forwards as far as the mind could see. It stretched at some point into eternity where people were in heaven or hell.
That made me think of Beverly again. She was out of this time that had numbers marking centuries and into eternity. She was either in heaven or hell. I could feel the dread welling in me. If she had lived long enough she would undoubtedly be saved. Old people are always saved. But she was ten. I knew I wasn’t a good Christian and I wasn’t really sure of my spot in heaven but I always figured on having some time before that was critical. Now, I hoped fiercely that Beverly had been saved before she died. I prayed before I thought about it “God, please let Beverly have been saved.” But could it even work like that? Could God change something if it had already happened? She’d been dead a long time.
Then I was conscious of God looking at me and that made me feel a little cautious. Like maybe I should get out of the graveyard and go home. It didn’t seem wrong to keep figuring out how time worked, though, and that occupied my thoughts back across the road and through the woods on the way home. It was invisible but real, like the Holy Ghost it made things happen. Somehow the 1800s weren’t over because people who lived then lived now. And even though the 2000s seemed unbelievable, I could live in such a future time, unless the Rapture happened first, and that seemed a lot more likely.
I took a long looping path back towards the house. I could see Mother in the kitchen and me coming in to make a baloney sandwich. I could see that time had already changed me even though I looked like the same Willa Mae that left the house only a few hours ago. Mother wouldn’t notice, her shoulders curved over the sink in one of the endless kitchen chores. I could see this as if it were happening. And just barely, I could see a completely different me, a stranger, in a far off time. I knew that this would be how it was, the invisible world always working on the visible one. Inside we would be made up of different times but still every second moved us closer to the mystery ahead.
June Sylvester Saraceno is the author of two poetry collections, Of Dirt and Tar, and Altars of Ordinary Light, as well as a chapbook of prose poems, Mean Girl Trips. Her work has appeared in various journals including Poetry Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature, and Tar River Poetry. She is English program chair at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe, as well as MFA faculty and founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. For more information visit www.junesaraceno.com
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Books by the Editors
Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.