The smell of blood hung in the air, coppery and invasive, seeping out of the graves and into the air and into my consciousness, knocking me into the present. It was mid-October, a lush Autumn day hovered high above, and the tiny, fractured Clark family was gathered at the burial site within St. Mary’s Cemetery, the few of us unwillingly prepared for that final goodbye, that closure we neither wanted nor asked for. Bright yellow sunshine blazed down on this scene through a cerulean sky and onto the verdant lawn—the heightened, vibrant palate providing a picture-perfect morning, one Roberta Harrison Clark would have reveled in. Friends called her Bobbi. I called her Mom.
I couldn’t focus on the oddly perfect weather or on the members of my family, not right now. I was staring down at the casket carefully positioned over its final resting place. Squinting as the sun caught the gleaming gold varnish, or maybe just forcing back the tears that welled up, I finally let my mind wrap around exactly what it was we were doing today. The body might have been locked inside the coffin, sealed against the world today and for forever, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that, even as we celebrated a life, death somehow held a more powerful grip on us. Maybe that’s what I smelled, not just blood, but death, everywhere. Could it be suffocating me because of our locale, a cemetery, or something far more insidious, to be found beyond these ivy-covered walls? A visceral response to being back in this village I’d once called home.
Death, I recalled, was a too common occurrence in Eckert’s Landing, a tiny village whose residents seemed to age faster than the revolutions of time might require. For many, today’s funeral meant just another loss in a long line of passages. Bobbi Clark’s loss was made unavoidable by nature’s cunning whim, but then again, just whose death wasn’t? In this case, a virulent strain of cancer had reared its ruinous self just over a year ago, and while there ensued a battle that would have made Patton proud, in the end, perhaps it was Custer’s legacy that won out. My mother was gone from my life; she was only sixty-seven.
Despite being surrounded by my relatives, I felt woefully, miserably alone. Conventional wisdom holds that distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I guess hopeless romantics hold that adage true and close to their hearts. My experiences have taught me altogether different lessons, that distance builds a disorienting sense of isolation, as though lives once lived in harmony now sang in separate choirs. I’d left town five years ago to pursue something others called happiness, and my visits back had been increasingly infrequent. So that’s why I felt like a virtual stranger amidst my family, a guest even among people linked by blood.
My eyes strayed from the casket to the small gathering of mourners. Dad, today showing every wrinkle of his sixty-nine years, his face written with new worry, and his paunch not so hidden by a buttoned suit jacket. Dad wore a solemn, almost unreadable expression, with the only hint of life coming from reddish, wind-blown cheeks. His hands were clasped together, all the body language I needed in order to interpret his feelings. Simple, undeniable devastation. Who would blame him? His life partner and wife of forty-two years gone. Reduced to a lifetime of memories, no doubt playing through his mind like some old newsreel.
Beside him stood Connie Clark, who was my ex-wife, and with her was our ten-year-old daughter, Kim, a blond-haired moppet with the talent to charm anyone who crossed her path. On Connie’s left was town local Alan Gray, the current man in her life, who somehow had finagled a spot for our private service. The fact that he’d been the current man for more than a year didn’t, in my mind, give credence to their long-term prospects. Or maybe that was just petty jealousy. A trait I was good at.
It was next to Kim where I stood, sadness living inside me at the occasion that brought us all together, but happy if only for the warmth of my daughter’s hand in mind. If anyone had the talent to bridge this gap of isolation I felt, it was she. The sole gift in my life, she was honest, forgiving, trusting, and I owed her a great deal, more so than I could possibly repay. Perhaps in time, after the healing. First, though, we had to help each other through this final ritual.
Monsignor Edward Dolan, the local priest, defined by his round glasses and balding head, gathered us closer, asked that we hold hands. With wet, suspect eyes, I watched as Dad’s ham-sized hand closed over Connie’s. She offered up a reassuring smile, and I felt a second ridiculous rush of jealousy wash over me. I was his blood; she was his ex-daughter-in-law, so why had the years I’d been away only solidified the bond between them? Never more clearly than now, Dad and I were separated by far more than the expanse of the burial plot. All that was for another time. Bitterness never left unfinished. For now, the short ceremony where we would commit the casket to the ground began. Monsignor Dolan withdrew a book covered in red fabric, the words “Order of Christian Funerals” stenciled in gold lettering on the front, and as he began to speak in a voice both heartfelt and gentle, we bowed our heads.
“Oh, God, by whose mercy the faithful departed find rest, bless this grave, and send your angel to watch over it. As we bury here the mortal remains of Roberta Harrison Clark, welcome her soul into your mighty presence, so that she may rejoice in you with your saints forever. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
“Amen,” we joined in.
Soon, too soon, the burial was over, and the time to leave the cemetery ... leave behind the woman who kept peace within, was upon us. Individually, we said our silent goodbyes, and with tears as unstoppable as they were inevitable, one by one we made our way down the sloping, grassy hill. First went Kim, her face a mixture of emotions, accompanied by her mother and the ever-dutiful Alan Gray. That left me alone with Dad.
I didn’t know what to say, or if I should speak at all. Finally, I just said, “Dad.”
He wouldn’t look up, not at this moment and not at me. This was his time, and he needed the moment to be as quiet, solemn—private, in other words—as could be. I put my hand on his shoulder, squeezed it in a gesture of support and received back a reassuring pat. A connection was made, albeit tenuous and temporary. I left him and headed down the hill myself, careful not to step on other graves, as I rejoined the family at the high, wrought-iron gates that demarked the cemetery’s entrance.
This dreaded process, with its endless formalities and necessities, was nearly over. The wake, the well-populated, beautifully sung, and surprisingly joyous funeral mass, the private burial, all of these were established steps you needed to embrace before being alone with your own grief, your singular memories. Hard to fathom that I was here, considering that just three days ago my life—not to mention my mother’s and father’s and those of everyone else that was affected—had been normal enough, just a series of endless days on their regular schedule of life.
And then death had come calling, it and its strange, mystifying customs and unanswered questions about the afterlife. And with the news had come my unexpected return to the village I’d known as a child, a place in which I’d once been happily married and subsequently miserably divorced, a tiny forgotten town I ultimately left in search of supposedly greater things. I was back home, its tender embrace and confining clutches a juxtaposed mess. Deep emotions fueled stalled memories, of blissful youth and troubled teens and conflicted adulthood, one reassuring voice its constant. All of them now were on a collision course with ... what? An uncertain next couple of days ahead of me, for sure, beyond that, I didn’t know. The future came with no guarantees.
A few moments later, everyone was ready to depart the cemetery, all but Dad. He just stood like one of the hundreds of granite stones neatly spaced on the well kept grounds, unable to move, and I wished there was more I could do to ease his pain. Connie’s soft touch fell on my shoulder, and stupid me, I flinched for no other reason except that it was habit. She dropped her hand away and shook her head.
“We’ll see you back at the house, Matt.”
“Okay. Sorry, I’m just ...”
“No explanations needed, Matt. Remember, I know you.”
Coming from her, that wasn’t a compliment.
So they all left to return to Sam and Bobbi Clark’s home, for a reception in which friends and neighbors and townsfolk could make kind comments over sandwich platters and cheap wine. One last ritual where we would eat and drink with our friends and loved ones and remember the guiding force that was Roberta Clark. I could already see myself, nodding, smiling, offering up head-bobbing thank yous to the endless string of well-meaning, hollow-sounding remarks.
As the cars pulled away, I heard Monsignor Dolan approach me from behind.
“Go on ahead, Matt,” Monsignor Dolan urged me. “Sam needs his time.”
I shook my head. “No, I’ll wait for Dad. For however long it takes.”
“Not too long,” he said advisingly, and I understood.
“Thank you, again, Monsignor—for your kind words.”
“Your family is important to me, Matt—family is important, blood or not.”
Monsignor Dolan smiled and then took off, saying he’d see us all later. As he drifted out of sight, I focused back on Dad, his expression hidden between hunched shoulders. I considered going up to retrieve him and decided a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. So I remained a respectful distance from him, averting my eyes as a courtesy. Turns out, I wasn’t the only person hovering. Ghoulish at it might seem, off in the distance were two gravediggers with shovels at the ready, no doubt eager to finish their job. As though the dead couldn’t wait for burial.
But it was the presence of someone else within the walls of the cemetery that caught my wandering attention. At first I saw just a shadow, stagnant, but then I zeroed in on where the person was cowering. She was located at the far edge of the graves, but still very much on the grounds, clearly disrupting this sacred moment. Stupid kid, didn’t you have anything better to do? Anger hitting me, I started over to ask her to clear off. But I couldn’t voice the harsh words simmering inside me in fear of the echo my voice would create in the silence. Besides, she was just sitting on the ground, staring at Dad without even a murmur escaping her lips. When she saw me approach she crouched lower, hiding behind one of the gravestones.
“Hey,” I called out, annoyed. “This is a private service.”
She gazed up at me with glassy eyes, and I realized this was no truant. She must have been around my age, mid-thirties, maybe a couple years older. Yet she seemed so childlike in the way she huddled in the long grass. As though she knew she’d been bad, but couldn’t quite figure out why. All at once I remembered who this person was, this gentle soul, this sad young woman. I felt guilty for my verbal attack.
“Hey, Dani. Dani, that’s you, right?”
She nodded her head meekly. Yes, this was Dani Larabee, a girl I’d known from my own school days, long ago. She’d had problems back then, got mixed up with a bad crowd—or maybe they with her. Emotional difficulties stunted her development, and then tragedy had struck her family, back when she was a rebellious teen. An accident had left her incapacitated, with only a hint of communication skills. Many thought she’d spend the rest of her days institutionalized, but her devoted mother would have nothing of it, and to this day Dani has remained within the house she, at least in theory, grew up in.
Dani, her dark hair a stringy mess, her eyes ringed with equally dark circles, tapped the head of the gravestone she clung to. Through slurred speech, she managed to speak a few words. Far as I could make out, she said, “She’s dead, my friend, gone.” Not quite speaking the full words, her voice trailed off after the first syllable, as her tongue flopped out from between cracked lips.
“Yes, I know,” I said, “She was everyone’s friend, sure. But she was my mother, and we need some time to ourselves. You should be getting home now, OK?”
“De, de, dead,” Dani said, managing finally on that last try to get out the entire word. But her tone grew agitated, as though she was frustrated over something. She started to furiously pound on the top of the gravestone she’d tried to hide behind.
I was confused. Or more likely, poor Dani Larabee was. She seemed to be referring, not to my mother, but to the person buried beneath this old grave. Poor girl, of course the person was dead, this was a cemetery, after all. What made me look at the name on the grave, though, I couldn’t be certain. But look at it I did, and as I read the spare inscription I felt my heart freeze.
Nothing else was engraved on the marble stone, no epitaph, no inspiring words to remember a life, just a name and those dates. As though those two items could sum up a person’s entire existence. As though all other details, all thoughts and remembrances of her life, were best left forgotten to the hazy reaches of the past.
Dani was right, though, because Natalie Darling was certainly dead, and the images, both terribly haunting and violent, came flooding back to me like a dam burst. Of a dark night years ago, with friends at my side and a horrible scene unfolding before our very eyes while we watched on in secret. It was the very same night Dani’s life was shattered forever. A night no one from Eckert’s Landing would ever forget.
Dani spoke again, softly. “She’s dead now. No more ... “ Her meek voice drifted off into the barest hint of a whisper.
The sun had warmed me. Yet still chills ripped through me. I had to leave this cemetery, and I had to leave now. Dani’s words penetrated deep within me, to regions of my soul still unexplored. My mother’s funeral had been enough to deal with, but the last thing I wanted, the very last thing I needed, was to reminisce—if one dare call it that—about the darkest period in the history of a village called Eckert’s Landing. A time that changed each and every one of us in different ways: Dani, her put-upon mother, so many other families, too. It had changed me as well, altered my perceptions of a town so isolated from the outside world that it seemed lost to the records of history. A history no one ever dared want repeated.
Destiny, as always, had other things in mind.