Beautiful Darkness

Page 2


I can't do this. I'm not going.
I gave up on my tie and sat back down on my bed, the ancient mattress springs crying out beneath me.
You have to go. You won't forgive yourself if you don't.
For a second, she didn't respond.
You don't know how it feels.
I do.
I remembered when I was the one sitting on my bed afraid to get up, afraid to put on my suit and join the prayer circle and sing Abide With Me and ride in the grim parade of headlights through town to the cemetery to bury my mother. I was afraid it would make it real. I couldn't stand to think about it, but I opened my mind and showed Lena....
You can't go, but you don't have a choice, because Amma puts her hand on your arm and leads you into the car, into the pew, into the pity parade. Even though it hurts to move, like your whole body aches from some kind of fever.
Your eyes stop on the mumbling faces in front of you, but you can't actually hear what anyone is saying. Not over the screaming in your head. So you let them put their hand on your arm, you get in the car, and it happens. Because you can make it through this if someone says you can.
I put my head in my hands.
Ethan --
I'm saying you can, L.
I shoved my fists into my eyes, and they were wet. I flipped on my light and stared at the bare bulb, refusing to blink until I seared away the tears.
Ethan, I'm scared.
I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere.
There weren't any more words as I went back to fumbling with my tie, but I could feel Lena there, as if she was sitting in the corner of my room. The house seemed empty with my father gone, and I heard Amma in the hal . A second later, she was standing quietly in the doorway clutching her good purse. Her dark eyes searched mine, and her tiny frame seemed tal , though she didn't even reach my shoulder. She was the grandmother I never had, and the only mother I had left now.
I stared at the empty chair next to my window, where she had laid out my good suit a little less than a year ago, then back into the bare lightbulb of my bedside lamp.
Amma held out her hand, and I handed her my tie. Sometimes it felt like Lena wasn't the only one who could read my mind.
I offered Amma my arm as we made our way up the muddy hil to His Garden of Perpetual Peace. The sky was dark, and the rain started before we reached the top of the rise. Amma was in her most respectable funeral dress, with a wide hat that shielded most of her face from the rain, except for the bit of white lace col ar escaping beneath the brim. It was fastened at the neck with her best cameo, a sign of respect. I had seen it al last April, just as I had felt her good gloves on my arm, supporting me up this hil once before. This time I couldn't tel which one of us was doing the supporting.
I stil wasn't sure why Macon wanted to be buried in the Gatlin cemetery, considering the way folks in this town felt about him. But according to Gramma, Lena's grandmother, Macon left strict instructions specifical y requesting to be buried here. He purchased the plot himself, years ago. Lena's family hadn't seemed happy about it, but Gramma had put her foot down. They were going to respect his wishes, like any good Southern family.
Lena? I'm here.
I know.
I could feel my voice calming her, as if I had wrapped my arms around her. I looked up the hil , where the awning for the graveside service would be. It would look the same as any other Gatlin funeral, which was ironic, considering it was Macon's.
It wasn't yet daylight, and I could barely make out a few shapes in the distance. They were al crooked, al different. The ancient, uneven rows of tiny headstones standing at the graves of children, the overgrown family crypts, the crumbling white obelisks honoring fal en Confederate soldiers, marked with smal brass crosses. Even General Jubal A. Early, whose statue watched over the General's Green in the center of town, was buried here. We made our way around the family plot of a few lesser-known Moultries, which had been there for so long the smooth magnolia trunk at the edge of the plot had grown into the side of the tal est stone marker, making them indistinguishable.
And sacred. They were al sacred, which meant we had reached the oldest part of the graveyard. I knew from my mother, the first word carved into any old headstone in Gatlin was Sacred. But as we got closer and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I knew where the muddy gravel path was leading. I remembered where it passed the stone memorial bench at the grassy slope, dotted with magnolias. I remembered my father sitting on that bench, unable to speak or move.
My feet wouldn't go any farther, because they had figured out the same thing I had. Macon's Garden of Perpetual Peace was only a magnolia away from my mother's.
The twisting roads run straight between us.
It was a sappy line from an even sappier poem I had written Lena for Valentine's Day. But here in the graveyard, it was true. Who would have thought our parents, or the closest thing Lena had to one, would be neighbors in the grave?
Amma took my hand, leading me to Macon's massive plot. "Steady now."
We stepped inside the waist-high black railing around his gravesite, which in Gatlin was reserved for the perimeters of only the best plots, like a white picket fence for the dead. Sometimes it actual y was a white picket fence. This one was wrought iron, the crooked door shoved open into the overgrown grass. Macon's plot seemed to carry with it an atmosphere of its own, like Macon himself.
Inside the railing stood Lena's family: Gramma, Aunt Del, Uncle Barclay, Reece, Ryan, and Macon's mother, Arelia, under the black canopy on one side of the carved black casket. On the other side, a group of men and a woman in a long black coat kept their distance from both the casket and the canopy, standing shoulder to shoulder in the rain. They were al bone-dry. It was like a church wedding split by an aisle down the middle, where the relatives of the bride line up opposite the relatives of the groom like two warring clans. There was an old man at one end of the casket, standing next to Lena. Amma and I stood at the other end, just inside the canopy.