by Joy Weitzel
I look over the ridge and see green. I tell my husband to stop the car so I can take a picture; I want to remember what it looks like from up here. From this view, I see a few vultures floating on wind currents, looking more majestic than they should. I see tree tops and ridges that fall into valleys where patches of light green signal a farm or pasture. I can’t see within the green tree mass that guards the rhododendrons and their tangling pink flowers, the mossy stones that peer out of fallen leaves on the forest floor, or the little stream that trickles over stones but cuts a deep path, every drop running over sandstone to find the Tygart Valley.
I wait for a vision, a time machine to fall from the blue sky with its date set to 1847. If time machines were real and fell from the sky, I would hop in, and, as the lights and whistles spun around me, the mountains would reverse the seasons several times over. The trees would shrink back into the earth, leaving the ridge bare. Loggers would replace the timber with their axes, putting the poplars and birches back in place. Fields would open and close like fish rising, their lips breaking the surface to create ripples. When it all stopped, I would look out from the bald ridge I stand on, and I would search for a sign, something that says “I am here; this is my home. Come see me, and I’ll show you my life.” It would be above a cleared field that you might be plowing at this very moment, pushing the metal and the wood through the dirt. I would walk beside you, while you told me of the journey, the bear you killed last fall, how you know the earth—the technique for sowing and harvesting. You would teach me how to push the plow behind the mule, though I would slip in the dirt as the iron hit stone.
A little hill rises on our left, where two deer graze in a green cemetery. They flee when they see us, lifting white tails. As I climb the little hill, I find names—Boehm, Mitchell, Hathaway, Weaver, Proudfoot. The wind and rain have worn the gray markers so some names cannot be read; they stand, lie, or lean bare and blank. By the number of stones with our name, I can tell you have frequented the familiar trail to this place. There is your thirteen-year old son, who died while older sons went to war. There is the daughter who never married. There is your wife of nearly forty years. There is your son who fought in the Civil War, came home, married twice, and died in December.
You are nearby, lying flat beneath the shade of surrounding trees. I brush away wet grass that has settled in your name as if I were brushing away hair from your face. I want to clean you up, remove the dirt that hugs a hand holding a Bible. Though it is just a stone, I sense an odd connection to the damp dirt in which you lie. Your presence dwells in the dates, in the carved hand, in the imprint of your name, in this gray stone lying on its back. The dirt is what I’m supposed talk to because this is what remains: bony fingers, hollow eye sockets, your best Sunday suit. You are earth now, dead and decomposed. But I don’t think about that.
I think about what to say.
I don’t go to cemeteries often. I’ve escorted grandparents, lying in coffins, to their earthly rest, but I never stayed long enough to know their stones. I rarely return. Now I come looking for history.
My fingers touch your marker, deciphering its Scripture. I came here to see you. To see how fast you ran, how you looked at creeks and saw fish hiding in shadowy depths, how you looked at your wife when she was young and when she was old, how your son, Ephraim, climbed up your lap and asked about the bear, how you read the Holy Bible or depended on the farm, on nature and wind.
You chose this place beside the Tygart Valley River for a reason. You looked up and saw timber spread over a half-million mountainous acres. You shook ancestral seeds and scattered them: corn, wheat, oats, barley, soybeans. You might have cleared a few acres for crops, a few for future pasture. Your axe swung to heave your home in place; muscles ripped as the impact of metal reverberated through handle, through narrow wrists and elbows, through a strained bicep and shoulder, through an aching neck that lately had been giving you trouble, and through the skull holding the brain that told you, “good will come.” Your patch of light-green broke the surface, rippled the dark and tangled, and finally grasped the mayfly.
We can’t go back in time to meet with a handshake or a hug. I can’t make your stone speak any more than I can the trees or the ground. All is silent. As my knees become wet with dew and earth, I wonder if I’ve matched you with who I think you are or if you are still a stranger. Then, a woodpecker taps the telephone poles and a grouse beats its wings like a motor. We both know these sounds.
This is what I say: I am your fourth great granddaughter. I have a heart for Great Lakes, and I’m good in a kayak and on skis. When I go, I like to go farther, to the very end, so I can see mountaintops colored with fall and winter’s blanket backed by Lake Superior. I’ve been taught these things like you’ve been taught by your father, and now I’ve completed the circle to see that part of me is here—in this cemetery called Taylor’s Drain.
Joy Weitzel teaches composition in Cadillac, Michigan. She received her MA in English from Northern Michigan University in 2014 and completed a creative non-fiction thesis that explored the history of her family. A wanna-be genealogist, Joy is currently working on finding her roots and expressing them lyrically. Her work has been previously published in the Rappahannock Review.