August Evening

IT was late August then, and sunset. A cold autumnal light across the broken marble.

‘Flora G., wife of Jesse Grindstaff,’ and a hand pointing upward where Flora had gone home. In 1885 that was, at the age of thirty years, nine months, and seven days. The urn was broken off and leaning sunkenwise in the grass. It weighed like dolomite in his hands, and Morley dropped it thudding to the earth. They wandered back and forth between the gravestones, shading the red light and peering down to read the shallow letters. The Humes died most, and there were uncounted children. ‘Little Pearlie Tipton, age two months and a day. Gone to Heaven,’ and a lamb like a white fox chiseled on her stone. There was one with stone curtains parted and a rising sun beyond, with white rays piercing out. ‘Luke Bedford. Born 1835. Died 1893. Susan B. Born 1836’ — but no dying date. They thought of this Susan and looked at each other, adding up her age and years endured since his stone was driven in.

‘Not endured,’ she said. ‘You feed wood stoves every hour and the beets grow in long armies, and the young mules lame each other, autumn breaks down the apple branches, and Luke is only for the moment between a wick turned down and the blessed commandment of sleep. . . . She may not have loved him, anyway, only become used to him and his being there in all their years.’

He straightened one of the urns on its pedestal and there was the awful sound of moving stone — loud, because not even the wind walked in the cedar branches.

‘He steps on the graves so callously,’ she thought, and, looking down about her, saw that all the ground was graves — small and unmarked and not oppressed by stones. But it did not matter much. Only a feeling thrust upon her and not born. She wondered if she was colder than all others, or if sympathy with them was also an unnatural growth, a thing worn and not of the flesh.

He knelt by a stone almost eroded into blankness, and she watched him peering at the letters. ‘Martin Boggs. Died 1829.’ Over a hundred years . . . and so Martin escaped the Black Hawk War and the Great Holocaust and all that followed after. ‘I wish I could see Martin — as he was then — and know what he thought; it comes over me horribly, the flood of lives that never touch our own. It diminishes us so!’ He thudded his hand on a marble book overshadowing the grave of Martin Boggs.

She did not answer, only rested her arm across a stony shawl and watched his face. She wanted to say aloud and irrelevantly that she was glad they did not love each other. If they loved each other, he would have found it hard to say the things he thought, and their minds would have been confused in the endless consciousness of each other. But now he looked at her and his mind pursued its own course, walking beyond the perpetual house of tissue. In the exigency of love they themselves would have become enormous, overtowering the churchyard and the great vulgar tombstones; even the sun near at hand and tremendous would have become a small and wrinkled orange, momentarily impaled above the hill trees. Love was a loss of the mind’s clarity and a walking in confusion. They had no desire to change the virginal seeing of these hills and rock ledges and the thin ugliness of the church boards, the seeing of light across grass, malachite and borne down of its own weight — the seeing of these things for the sight’s pleasure and not as a blurred background for each other’s faces.

‘If I loved her,’ he thought, ‘she would be a fog between me and the myriad forms, the intricate and more than beautiful facets of life’; and he forgot about her in watching the sheep break past in a woolly surf, crying stupidly in their own dust. ‘They may have eaten the molecules of Martin,’ he reflected idly, ‘and Martin is going past me divided in their wool’ — only it was not likely that the grass had waited a hundred years to find him. He named the last sheep Martin and christened it in his mind with the bloody juice of pokeberries. Remembering Mary, he saw her peering into the church windows, stretched high with her chin against the window ledge, the hands shutting out the sunlight. He stepped across the fallen stones and looked into the prim dusk. They could see the shut-off pews, boarded along the outside like box stalls, before the drab white pulpit, and the central aisle, dividing but not used, only there to make a greater distance for carnal thoughts to cross.

‘If we were lying now with all the Humes, and not walking here above their graves,’ she said, ‘we should have come here on each Sunday and walked in separate doors and sat as far apart as possible so that all the watching wives would have had nothing to talk about.’

‘You would have worn a bonnet and sat in front where all the congregation could see you,’ he answered, ‘and I should have chosen the cornermost back seat to watch them looking at you and consider the shallowness of mankind as a whole.’

‘You would have seen it also,’ she said. ‘You would have seen each separate petal and stamen of its flowers, and how the light faded gradually in going round, and was reflected back against the wall, and you would have wondered how it would look a little forward or a little back, and considered yourself unique in having speculated on such futilities.’

He only laughed at her and pushed her aside to see the pulpit in all its homely white. If he had loved her he would have twisted her about by the shoulders and pretended how the bonnet might be fastened, and they would have laughed a good deal, nervously, until they kissed and could think of nothing but themselves. Considering these things, she was stone-quiet, wondering how long she would escape. ‘If I keep remembering his indifference, and his foolish way of accent when he uses unknown words, and the purple scars across his hands — if I can keep reminding myself of these things I might be saved,’ she thought, and tried to withdraw again into the blessed and chilly corridors of self-completion.

‘Look at the message here,’ he said. ‘Consider Clive Sutton’s eighty years and his grisly sense of humor.’ At the sound of his voice the aridity of her fear was plain before her, and she could retreat again — not unchanged, but as one who feels the giving way of earth in darkness and is forewarned. He read aloud to her Clive’s verse, the last uncomfortable jest which had pleased the old drunk’s fancy: —

‘Think, dear friend, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I;
As I am now, so you will be;
Prepare for death and follow me.

‘He had five children and two were deaf and one a dwarf, and the fourth had club feet and nine children himself. And the last one has a mortgage on five farms which he hopes to foreclose in the beginning of winter so that his debtors will have a century of bittercold roads to pass over coming in, and a few of the children might be frozen to the dying point. ... I’ve seen him once — a grand old man without even the customary husk of decency.’ He sat down on Clive’s headstone and beat a martial church hymn with his heels against the stone. ‘He was ashamed of old Sutton — the fifth one was, I mean — perhaps because Clive got soused on whiskey and he got drunk on French wine like a gentleman — and asks particularly to be buried at the other end of the churchyard.’

‘ And his monument — a rising sun or a lamb?’ She made a crown of dried burrs and put it over the ears of Pearlie’s crouching beast.

‘ His monument he wants white marble — not original, perhaps, but more symbolic; and, like the Reverend Niccols here, a celestial city rising up beyond the drapes — only bigger, of course, in proportion to his mortgages. We will come back in a year or two and see how it feels to sit on a rich man’s stone.’

All of the graves seemed double ones. Some waiting still, but not discouraged. The shadow from the dreadful twin monument of the Tipton parents lay across their feet and stretched out to the fence over the dust of uncounted Humes. Two panels of red light came falling through the double arches, and one lay across her burr-filled lap. He reflected awhile on the color of her face in the shadow of the monument and the curious darkness of her hair in the exhausted sunlight. She rarely saw him watching, and yet he knew her face by heart — the skin’s uncertain coloring and the thin stony line of her mouth, even the shadow of her cheek — and could not decide whether she was beautiful or not, but thought most likely not.

His silence made her uncomfortable, and she threw out words aimlessly into the quiet. ‘Was he ever married, this fifth Sutton? Or are there no more of him to pray before this monstrous stone?’

‘ He’s never had any children — at least not any called Sutton. He said marriage was too carnal, and preferred the spiritual eminence of celibacy made endurable with wine. Besides, I doubt he could have found any woman equally free of a vulgar conscience. . . .’

‘We are like ghouls,’ she said, ' mouthing over the dead lives of people, sucking longest on the rotten parts, and too young to eat the strong bones underneath. Most people love and have travail and sacrifice to each other and have pain, but it is more significant that the uncle was a little mad, and the third daughter was pock-marked and read Whittier while the worms tunneled her bean vines into death.’

She ground the burrs into dust needles, but he did not answer. Morley felt curiously tired and empty of all thoughts, as though his mind were a shallow stream unfed by any reality and soon dried up.

There was no sun now, and the grass was very cold. They felt that somewhere near was the coming of autumn, and the creeper leaves were veined with red. By the far gate a man came in carrying a spade, and behind him a little boy with a lantern. He put it down carefully between the graves and stared at Morley. The man looked at them and then shoved his spade into the grass. The afterlight made him a part of the dark-turning churchyard and yet more distinct than in full sun. His face was trenched and gullied like poor soil, and the color of iron earth.

‘It’s the sexton,’ Morley said. ‘I wonder if Susan Bedford has died at last, — or another Hume, — or it might be old Sutton himself come down. It’ll be hard to dig a grave for the mammoth size of him, and the roots mat like steel fibre underneath this earth.’

‘He looks tired,’ said Mary.

A chunk of turf thudded from his spade, and already they could see the brown wound growing. The little boy sat uneasily between the graves and brushed the fresh dirt from his face. ‘He is the sexton’s seventh child,’ Morley said, ‘and his last, I hope.’ The child got up and wandered toward them, threading in and out between the stones and running his hand over the cold marbles. He stopped a yard away, staring gravely, his fingers tight around the lantern. ‘Who’s your father digging for over there, Cyne?’

‘Mom,’ the little boy answered, and stared at them.

The late insects made a loud monotonous song as though to cover up the ending of summer and the bloody red of ivy leaves. The sexton wrenched up a great square of turf and let his spade drop in the grass. He sat down with his feet in the low grave and covered his face. A line of cranes flew southward, their gray wings laboring downward to the river; their honking came back loudly on the windless air, but the sexton did not move his hands. They could hear him crying. A terrible, exhausted sound.

Morley got up. He felt suddenly inadequate and young. They looked at each other, their lives seeming to diminish and appear callow, to shrink before the stature of some reality into things of no importance. They went out and shut the gate without saying anything. All their unspoken words seemed to ring with thin cold sound, to be without substance or meaning any longer.