She was staring. At me. Hands clasped tightly together, head tilted to one side, forehead carved with the slight hint of a frown. Her face, thin and pale with cold, her eyes, wide and circular. I tried to keep my mind on what I was doing, why I was there, but it was almost as though, with my gaze cast at the flowers and stone and the tangled grass that sprung from damp earth, I could feel the tug of some invisible force wrench at me, until my eyes were lifting, raising my head, finding her again. Then I would experience a sharp pain in my gut, nerves or something similar, and I would grow hot, embarrassed, like a child caught in the act of performing some wrong. My head would fall, my gaze return to the trinity of objects beneath my feet, knowing she had seen me noticing her.
I knelt in the grass, hoping that would obscure me from her vision. Or her from mine. The knees of my pale blue jeans became saturated with fallen rain, but I didn’t care. I bent my head and began to pray, murmuring beneath my breath, closing my eyes and picturing my mother, wherever she may have been. Time passed. I opened my eyes, face-to-face with the inscription etched into black and grey speckled stone: In Loving Memory of Altina Solomon: Mother, Sister and most of all, friend – 1952-2004. There was more to say about my mother, had my family or I possessed the money to say it. Funerals were costly things these days, headstones and inscriptions even more so. A broken pillar or down turned torch, like some of the older gravestones, might have symbolised what she had meant with greater clarity, yet that single sentence epitaph was all we could afford.
I got to my feet, wiping stray grass from my knees, and there she was. Fingers overlapping, dark eyes unblinking, staring at my face. A shard of my former tension ran through me, and then I felt outrage, anger for having been disturbed. I took raging steps towards the woman, trampling the long grass flat beneath my heavy boots. I felt my hands form fists by my thighs.
Her fingers unravelled, leapt towards her face. Covered her mouth in shock. She stepped backwards, away from me. A small noise escaped her lips, a sharp, high-pitched note that floated across the space between us. I heard the sound in my mind, rather than my ears. The woman’s eyes grew larger, darker as I watched her, stunned and unable to fathom what was happening. They stopped me in my tracks, while everything around me – the grass, the gravestones, looming trunks of trees overhead – seemed to fall away into nothing.
The dark shadows cast by the leaves above us were gone. White light reflected from cloud-filled skies bathed us in sunshine. Behind the women, a group of men wearing flat caps, shirts and britches were standing beside a deep pit that looked like a mass grave, leaning on spades, talking. Beside the pit were a number of plain wood coffins, stacked on top of one another like logs for the fire. Thrown by what I was seeing, I looked around myself, breaking my stare from the blackened expanse of the woman’s eyes. In the distance, though I wasn’t quite sure at the time, I swore I could see the faint outline of a horse and carriage.
Then we were back beneath the shadow of leafy trees, my head reeling and the thump of a migraine beating at my temples. I slipped on wet grass, almost falling onto the stone, and when I looked up she was still watching, her dark eyes slightly less fearful. I was on my knees again, my hands buried in long grass, propping myself up, breathing heavy. I heard the rustle of her approach, and for a long while I could not bear to look up again. It was only when I noticed the damp hem of her dress, the frayed tan material and tightly stitched lighter patches that I realised how out of place her clothing was. Mouth open, I looked the woman up and down, partly hoping she was an illusion conjured by my own isolated, crazed mind.
It was a simple dress, a one-piece garment that fell past her ankles, although I could see a white petticoat beneath. The sleeves reached as far as far her elbows and the neckline was low, slightly exposing a full cleavage. The front of her dress was criss-crossed with black ribbon. She wore what looked like white piece of cloth to cover her head, with another black ribbon wrapped around it, keeping the cloth in place. I’d seen enough history books to recognise that her clothing, and this woman, was not of our time. I remembered the men’s flat caps and britches, the rhythmic sound of horse hooves. A shiver exploded throughout my entire body.
The strangely dressed woman was standing over me. Her curious frown returned. She peered at my trembling body as though I’d asked a question in a foreign language. I tried to breathe more fluidly, and when my heart had stopped racing, I stumbled to my feet, the world tumbling and turning around me. I felt queasy, though I wasn’t sure why. Once I was on my feet and looking into her face, I found myself drawn in by those amazing eyes, so black they seemed like large pupils. I could see my own face reflected back at me. Once those eyes locked onto mine, I couldn’t move.
A hand caressed my cheek. Her fingers were as cold as the gravestones that sprouted from the earth, but I didn’t have the power to flinch, even if I wanted to.
She had spoken, but once again the sound avoided my ears. The strange, although familiar word occurred in my head like a thought I had formed myself. Still, the voice was not mine.
This time I was surer that she was speaking to me, and the question in her eyes was obvious. I shook my head, looking away at a dusty cemetery worker strolling along the pathway where moments ago, I had seen the illusion of a horse and carriage. The worker ignored us both, whistling as he walked by. She turned my head with a cold, gentle finger, until I was looking into her eyes again.
Yes. You are John. You recognise me no longer?
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I could only stare into that reflective darkness, my mind reverberating No, No, No, until I realised my answer was not sufficient. I steeled my thoughts and forced myself to focus on each individual word.
I am not John. My name is Joshua.
She smiled suddenly, her severe expression breaking like an explosion of birds taking flight and she looked young, and beautiful and her dark eyes sparkled.
It has been too long. You have forgotten. I forgive you.
Then she was tugging at my hand with her frozen fingers, leading me away from my mother’s gravestone, across the grass and onto the rain-soaked path with no idea where I was being taken, only that I should follow without protest. Something in her eyes, her manner, her being told me I could trust her. It sounds ludicrous, but I can’t say any more than that.
We walked hand-in-hand amongst the forest of stone, the overhanging branches of ancient trees and the heavy silence of the cemetery without another word, spoken or otherwise. Past lofty mausoleums tinted green with moss and crawling weeds. Between all manner of grieving angels, their wings spread ready to take flight, or folded neatly behind them with a finger pointed upwards, indicating where the escaped spirit might have fled. I gripped the cold fingers and let myself be led. I saw a handful of people on that short walk; none recognised the woman, or even noticed she was there.
We reached a lonely place that seemed quieter than my mother’s burial site, which was not far from the Garden of Remembrance on the cemetery’s west side. Here, there were leaning headstones, grass and weeds as high as the average man’s waist, a crumbling Colonnade. It was a large, dilapidated building that stood on a slight incline, thick stone columns erected every five feet. I imagined it might have been grand and spectacular decades ago, but those glory days had long faded. Beyond the cemetery walls, the rear windows of a huge building I happened to know was a youth hostel overlooked the grounds. Not far from where we were walking, the Colonnades’ only keeper, a rusty black and orange cat, sat curled on a gravestone. It squinted at my companion and yawned.
We trampled through tall grass, over the tombs of the dead until we had climbed onto the raised concrete of the Colonnade. Here, the woman left me to bend before a trio of flagstones, looking as though she might attempt to shift them with her bare hands. I approached to help, only for her to wave me away, shaking her head. I stood to one side instead, reading inscriptions on the weathered memorial tablets, listening to the drip of water on stone. When I looked down again, she’d lifted every one of the flagstones herself. Beneath her feet, there was a dark window of nothingness that almost seemed solid. The woman grabbed my hand, tugged me towards the window. I pulled back, my hypnotic spell broken, suddenly realising what she wanted me to do. When I shook my head as violently as she had moments before, she smiled again, took my face in both hands, pushed hers close until I could feel her light breath against my nose and lips. It was as cold as the touch of her fingers, and smelt like a cool breeze. It was soothing. I closed my eyes.
Home, I heard inside my head, as she turned to look at the black window, indicating the rusting spiral stairs that led below our feet. This time, when she tugged at my hand, I offered no resistance.