A Graveyard of Lost Selves
THE other day, in walking along a very public road in Ohio, I came upon the most obtrusive cemetery it has ever been my luck to see. I say cemetery advisedly. For the word has something urban and artificial about it; and this half acre of monuments suggested these qualities and another uglier yet. There was no fence between it and the highway. The names were carved on the roadside of the shining granite shafts, ready to strike the eyes of every passing teamster.
As I looked and wondered at the advertisement of death, there arose in my mind — by the law of contraries — the picture of a little graveyard which fascinated many of the days of my childhood. The countryside was rather ashamed of its unkemptness. When we drove by, my family observed it deprecatingly. But to my awakening imagination it suggested unutterable peace, because it testified of oblivion. Is it not one of the bitternesses of death that we leave our little fame for even the smallest locality to disport itself with recklessly ? Surely we are not quite dead until the memory of us is dead too. And very early I achieved a perception that it might some time be blissful to be quite dead. The lonely little graveyard held not a mark to identify the resting place of anybody who lay there. Not a name defiled its vagueness. The old Quakers, in their horror of ostentation, had rejected tombstones, and the grassy mounds in disorderly array seemed all alike. It was a place of lost selves.
An old meetinghouse which dated from colonial days stood near among the trees. Otherwise there was no sign of life but the sandy, winding road. Up this road I have wandered in all seasons and weathers. In rain-drenched November there was a gruesome charm in the complete desolation. The mounds lay brown and sodden. Or a mist rose up from the soaked earth to make them dim, while dead briers flapped eerily against the fence for only the dead to hear. On summer afternoons it was beguiling to sit in a corner of the little inclosure, watching the shadows play over the warm grass, as the wind swept softly about in the surrounding trees. The fence, gray and lichen - covered, held its boards lengthwise and close together. Here and there one had fallen off, and tall briers pushed themselves through the opening. Ripening blackberries often nodded sagaciously at me over the top. . . . It was a wonderful place in which to dream dreams, that tiny corner of the world, saturated with inarticulate stories. There were a few legends hanging about it, consisting of isolated incidents rather than of connected tales. With a bone or two, as it were, a characteristic here, an occurrence there, I played at resurrection ; reveling in the extent of my possibilities.
There had been one young woman whom tradition held to have died of candles. Her hard old father interpreted existence in terms of work. She was kept at ugly farmhouse toil until the extra burden of candle-moulding laid her low. I always saw her as if in the light of a tallow dip in a dim kitchen, wearing a dun gown which her religion forbade to fit, — grace being counted among the sins, — and with an expression of agonized weariness on her face as she measured and moulded, measured and moulded eternally. She was too tired to love the dawn, too tired to care when the twilight fell gently down again over the wide fields. One day she was too tired to live, and they put her here beneath the sod. Is she rested yet, I wonder ?
A very lovable old worthy used sometimes to come out of his grave at my call. He was rotund and imperturbable. He pursued principles and encountered catastrophes. But what were accidents in the face of a theory to be worked out, a matter to be investigated ? The meetinghouse still bore the marks of his most incongruous adventure. It happened when the Friends were all assembled. Tall beavers and long gray bonnets had settled into lines of immobility, and that almost corporeal stillness which is the Quaker ritual held possession of the room, when suddenly there came a crash, flying plaster, and my patriarch, from the ceiling, full upon the astonished company. He had been rationalizing the region under the roof. He had not been careful of his steps. Doubtless he was picked up with reproaches. But I am sure that he felt aggrieved rather than guilty.
Of all the forgotten people, however, I loved one quite the best. She was a young girl, very long ago. She delighted in color. She could sing like a bird. Sometimes she would be seen in the old orchard, decked out in brilliant chintzes, acting a little play to herself. It must have been a pretty sight, under the trees. Occasionally she disappeared at the hour of starting for week-day meeting. Once, horror of horrors ! she was discovered reading a story when she should have been dusting a room. Clever little maiden ! The great world would have made much of her. In Quakerdom her values were no values at all. Sarah, strong and docile ; Ann, an able housewife at eighteen ; Susan, who could make one dollar do the work of two ; these were the admired ones. Fragile, imaginative Rachel seemed a mischance to her practical family. And she was a mischance ; for she craved an enfolding love, she craved beauty. Where was she to find them ? Quakerism, with all its prating about the life of the spirit, is wonderfully careful to eschew the things on which the spirit feeds. Without them Rachel starved. One winter consumption attacked her, they said. She faded all through the spring. In June, the month that she particularly loved, she died. When the neighbors came to look at her body, they were astonished to find her arms full of pink roses. There was much shaking of heads, much objecting in subdued tones to this breach of Friendly simplicity. Her sisters explained that Rachel had wished it so, and their mother could not refuse her. She was buried holding the gorgeous blossoms against her heart. In the dimness of the twilight, was I sometimes sure that my gaze could penetrate time and the sod and reach to the form of the little maid as she lay still palely clasping her roses ?
I do not know whether the graveyard of lost selves is yet undisturbed. But it was a comfortable place to be dead in. Insignificance did not receive there the last insult of commemoration, nor did importance flaunt itself. If I were not vowed to the clean flame, I should look to lie in its embrace.