by Kirk Wareham
The old cemetery lay peacefully in the afternoon sun. From the brow of the hill, it overlooked the west branch of the winding Delaware River, and beyond that, the railroad that ran north to the tiny logging village of Deposit and south to the bluestone quarries and hardwood mills of Hancock.
Headstones marked the places where seven souls had been laid to rest many years ago. The inscriptions were unreadable now, vague lines etched into the surface and all but worn away by time and wind and the snows of many winters. The crispness of once-sharp corners was gone, and the old stone markers leaned wearily as if exhausted from too many years of constant duty. The little girl poked a tender finger into a blurred letter on one of the stones, and felt it, rough as sandpaper.
It was a beautiful and quiet place. When had it last been tended or cared for? The thought occurred to her to tidy up around the stones, to clear away the sticks and leaves. Collecting the remnants of an old split-rail fence that had once bounded the cemetery, she stacked the splintered pieces on one side. Here and there, pushing up through the matted leaves, white snowdrops sprouted, dainty harbingers of a new spring. Surely, she thought, Mother would like to come and see, for it was like a garden of sorts.
Fallen beside one of the headstones, she found a small cross, fashioned of dark bluestone and meticulously chiseled. Struggling, she tried to stand it up, but it was heavy, far too heavy. She sighed, then lay down to rest, hands clasped behind her head on the soft earth. A red-tailed hawk sailed by just above her, soon followed, much higher up, by the black V-shape of a turkey vulture.
The bluestone cross got her to thinking about Easter. Easter, she knew, was not just the joyful Palm Sunday story that she had heard in church earlier that morning. Certainly, the jubilation of the crowd that shouted Hosanna and waved palm branches was part of the story. But the cross, and with it, the awful crucifixion on Golgatha just a few days later, wasn’t that also part of Easter? And then again, the dazzling angel that rolled the stone from the tomb on Sunday morning, and Jesus walking and talking with His disciples once again, that too was Easter. Mother had said that the resurrection was what made it possible to bear the grief of Good Friday. Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and the resurrection: three mysteries bound inseparably into one.
The long slow blast of a train came funneling up to her, and her eyes were drawn to the railroad track below.
Someone was coming.
Off to the north came a man at a slow pace. His figure looked tired and old, and he walked along the edge of the tracks as if he had walked around the entire earth. On his back, he carried a knapsack. His pace suggested that he was either very old or his pack was very heavy. She watched as he shuffled along, coming slowly closer and closer. When he was just about opposite her, he looked up the hill and saw her.
Her heart went out to him at once.
“Hello,” she called. “Come rest awhile.”
His worn face softened for a moment, and he turned and came wearily up the grassy rise. His knapsack seemed larger and even heavier than it had at a distance.
“Thank you, little one. I’d mighty appreciate a rest, you know.” His voice was gruff. He reached up and swung the pack heavily to the ground, sighing deeply. She could see that he looked better immediately.
On his shoulder perched a small gray cat with white paws. It jumped lightly to the ground and came to investigate her.
“Buttons and I are partners, the two of us. A good little companion on the road, he is.”
The man came and sat beside her, removing his gray fedora and setting it carefully next to him on the grass. Though somewhat aged, it looked equal to the important task of protecting against the blistering sun of hot summer days and the soggy damp of evening mists. Whiskers enveloped the man’s chin and cheeks, sprouting with reckless abandon. His coat was well-traveled yet tidy, and only the collar sagged a little. Handy pockets were visible beneath every brown fold in the coat. His leather shoes, dusty and worn, appeared to be of good stock and comfortable for the trail, whether that be twisted railroad ties, the concrete sidewalk of a town, or a leafy mountain trail that shadowed the railroad and the river.
He looked down at her inquisitively. “Now what is yourself doing way up here in a lonely place like this? Surely you’re not a wanderer like myself?”
Then she remembered the yellow balloon that had escaped her grip and drifted across the meadow, over the barn and up onto the high ridge, over the dark green hemlocks, and how she had run after it, and about stumbling, surprised, on this forgotten cemetery. She told him everything, and about tidying it up for Mother to see.
At that moment, a train hooted again. They sat without speaking for several minutes as the train approached, then roared past.
He smiled at the train, then at the little girl by his side.
“A train always ‘minds me of ‘rithmetic class, when I was a boy. We had nothin’ but a one-room schoolhouse. Old Mr. Selby used to take us out to sit close by the railroad that swung ‘round the field back of the school. Oh, how we loved to watch them trains rumble by! First come the locomotive with blue and white smoke pourin’ out the stack, the engineer leanin’ out the window and wavin’ fit to beat the band. Then the boxcars, tankers, coal cars, flatbeds, and last of all of ‘em the caboose. Why sometimes we’d even see a hobo or two, sittin’ there easy-like or stretched out full length on top of them bumpin’ railcars. They’d always wave and raise a cautious finger to their lips, as if ‘don’t tell that ol’ conductor now, you hear?’
“Old Mr. Selby, he’d divide us into two teams, three or four kids per team. One team would add up the numbers on the license plate of each railcar as it came by. The other team would add that number to the total. “Platers” and “totalers” he called us. The faster the train went by, the faster we had to add up them numbers. Ever’ so often we’d switch the teams around so everyone had a chance, and we got pretty good at it, I can tell you. Course it was only later we discovered we were doing ‘rithmetic. I guess that’s the way Old Selby wanted it.”
It was a good memory, and good to have someone to share it with. Buttons the cat bounced around, full of the exuberance of life, exploring the deep tufts of brown grass and cuffing the leaves that rustled invitingly.
The little girl sighed. She could not help asking. “Your pack, it looks terribly heavy. What do you have in it, potatoes?”
He smiled at the thought. No, not potatoes.
“Gold maybe?” Her eyes gleamed with eagerness.
Another smile. No, not gold, and thank goodness for that.
But she was an irrepressible one and determined to know the truth.
Almost bricks, but not quite.
He looked fondly at this little girl, who asked so many questions. “Stones.”
“Stones? But why are you carrying stones?”
He smiled. “It’s a logical question of course, but I ‘spose I was rather hopin’ you wouldn’t ask. It’s a rather long story.”
She waited quietly, patiently.
“Oh, all right,” he said at last. “There’s really no secret about it, is there Buttons?” The cat meowed as if in agreement, and pounced on an imaginary mole.
“It’s my pack of iniquities. Each stone represents one of my iniquities.”
She looked blankly back at him. “Your what?”
“My iniquities. You don’t know that word, do you, little one? Well, an iniquity is somethin’ that a person does that is wrong. I’m sorry to tell you that in my life I did some things I should not have done, even things I perhaps did not realize at the time were iniquities. Iniquities are a heavy burden to bear. But now I’m sorry for them, I truly am. As penance, I carry the stones in my knapsack. I walk the land lookin’ for forgiveness. God grant that one day I may find it. Here, look.”
He opened the pack, reached in, and pulled out a rock. He handed it to her; she needed both hands to hold it. She turned it round and round, felt its awful weight, felt the rough surface, just like the faded letters on the weary headstone.
He reached in and retrieved another. It, too, was hard and heavy.
“Can I see in the whole pack?”
“I guess so.” He opened the flap and turned it back. There were many of them, heavy and rough. “You see, I did lots of wrong things. But enough of such things. Show me this little cemetery that you worked so hard to make tidy.”
He put the stones back into the pack and stood up.
She took him by the hand; it was rough and hard, very like the stones had been, yet with an underlying gentleness. Buttons the cat frisked around them as they wandered the cemetery together. She showed him everything, the worn stones, the courageous snowdrops, and last of all the bluestone cross.
“I was just trying to stand it up when I saw you coming. But I couldn’t manage it myself; it was too heavy. Maybe you could help me.”
Suddenly she had an inspiration. “Could we use a few of your iniq… iniquities to prop it up?”
He looked a little startled and scratched his beard. His wrinkled face was torn with doubt, with confusion. But she pleaded.
“Just a few, please.”
Her innocence won the day. He nodded.
Happily, she picked through the pack and found several of the largest ones. He lifted the cross upright and steadied it while she propped the stones at the base.
“What sins are these for?”
“No, little one, that is not for you to ask. But look! The cross almost stands by itself now, but leans a little to the south; perhaps one or two more will do the job.”
They did not.
But perhaps a couple more?
The old man handed them to her, one by one, and she positioned them with infinite care. Stone after stone passed from the large worn hands to the small innocent ones, stone after stone, until each one lay at the foot of the cross.
“Oh,” she said at length, “here is the last. We may as well use it too. No more iniquities.” And she beamed at him.
No more iniquities.
A passage of Scripture, long buried since childhood, came to him.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The man stood up and stretched his aching back and shoulders. A deep peace filled his soul. He looked across the wide valley below and lifted his arms high above his head. Through his hair, the refreshing spring wind blew, and high above the song sparrows whistled and called, rejoicing in the beauty of the day. The morning sun blazed with warmth and radiance on its journey above the earth, and white puffs of clouds hurried by, casting shadows like sheep scattered across the meadow, the whole valley spread out below, and the brook sparkling.
And the man stood holding the hand of the child and wept for joy.
Kirk Wareham is a father of six, grandfather of four, and a lover of nature. His passion for reading led him, inevitably, to a love of writing. His short stories and personal essays have been published by Potato Soup Journal, Like The Wind, Woods Reader, Passager Journal, and Plough Publishing House.