Before me pavement leads to winter-bleached grass and a dirt ball field, so dull I long for some greenery. I lead my dog, Sadey, toward the creek trail, where ferns pretty the water’s edge and deer sometimes graze. Halfway across the parking lot, I notice, for the first time, a path etched in the incline behind the baseball diamond. Curiosity awakened, the thrill of discovery propels me across the ball field. Past the baseball diamond we clamber up the hill, Sadey pulling me. She likes a new trail just as much as I do. As we forge our way up the steep pitch of the forested hillside, understory thorns snag my pants and sleeves.
Like pressing on a bruise, I’ve been replaying my latest skirmish with my fourteen-year-old daughter, Camille. This morning she flew into a rage after I suggested she wear a long-sleeve shirt given the chilly forecast. Just leave me alone, Mother, she yelled, slamming her door. Don’t slam the door on me, Little Miss! I retort. These daily skirmishes make my head spin – why does she always go nuclear? I try to rein in my emotions but sometimes anger spills out, like today. How have we gotten to this place?
At the top of the hill, Sadey and I exit the tree canopy. In the clearing, along a ridge high above the surrounding countryside, lies a small graveyard, the sun glinting off the mica in the granite stones and leaving a golden brushstroke on the dry grass. A sign reads, “Smithville Methodist Church Cemetery, circa 1865.” The graveyard levitates as if perched atop a small-scale Southwestern butte. The two dozen or so grave markers reach to the heavens. A sweet scent reaches me, promising Spring. Even the scene at the foot of the hill opposite – a jumble of metal sheds, farm equipment, and a forlorn miniature pony standing in a muddy paddock – doesn’t mar the beauty. Immersed in stillness, my worry begins to lift.
As we follow the paved path, I study the names of the departed. On the left lies Trott, Nutwell, Southington, their backdrop the woods where we emerged. To the right rests Devries, Whittington, Hall. Plastic flowers and wilted arrangements tied with fabric ribbon decorate the headstones. The path ends at a pair of cedars at the hill’s knob.
The dog and I linger at the marble bench between the cedars. Through a break in the evergreens, I see hills undulating into the distance, a tobacco barn on a prominent hump. The town is named Dunkirk, but back when this was Smithville and no trees blocked the view, one could have seen for miles: gentle slopes dotted with barns and crops, a ribbon of dirt road snaking between. Distance mutes the sound of cars and commercial activity below, adding to the feeling of having stepped back in time.
We retrace our steps, the dog pausing to sniff every few feet. The sun slips behind clouds, plunging the cemetery into shadow. A large headstone engraved with demure rosettes in the upper corners catches my eye:
No endearments such as “Sweet Lamb” or “Dear Angel,” mark the stone, common for children’s graves of that era. The stark face speaks volumes about the Irelands’ loss. I imagine the Irelands standing beside me, studying the inscription, willing the mass of stone to absorb their grief. I sense their daughter at twelve, vital, full of wonder. At that age Camille was lighthearted and happy, still innocent but hinting at the adult she’d become. She still hugged me then, let me kiss her before bed. The Irelands’ Grace was forever enshrined in their memories at twelve; they never journeyed the teenage years, never saw her step into adulthood. I’m reminded of what endures-- my love for my daughter, no matter how buried it sometimes feels. Camille is navigating the seemingly unending labyrinth of teenage angst, roiling with hormones and emotions. She’s learning boundaries and making decisions, like what to wear to school. I need to remain calm and nonjudgmental, holding her life raft during her storm. I vow to do better.
As the dog and I move to return to the district park, the sun reappears. All is awash in light so brilliant the air is electric. At the top of the path that descends to the park, I unclip Sadey. She races down, tail aloft, a streak of joy. Allowing momentum to carry me, I run so fast no thorns catch me as I fly by
Amanda A. Gibson lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in several journals, including Five Minute Lit, The Pine Cone Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. She’s working on her second novel. She spends as much time as possible outdoors, always choosing the sunny spot.