Subcutaneous Magazine Fall 2016 - Page 76

We didn’t charge for this as there was no one to bill. Charles’ father, a quarrier and mason, left him a wealth of marble and granite slabs. Our work went unnoticed because those dead a hundred years ago rarely have a living next of kin to notice. Charles could etch cherubim with a slight chisel, or set deep and imposing the gates of heaven. He made pillars and Masonic signs, sun bursts and, more appropriately, sunsets. Over the years, we took hammer and chisel in hand many times, upgrading the oldest headstones. Last year, we picked seven very faded markers for husbands and wives and loving daughters and sons. I did the lettering, as Charles had outwitted public schooling, but he was a bona fide artist and I knew to let him do the fancy work. I chiseled name and date, marking the stone with a grease pencil to keep the lettering centered and complete, while he wandered the hill looking for inspiration. Some he produced in a few days, some seemed elusive and took him weeks. We set the new stones in place just before Memorial Day and the Scouts put a flag on Lt. Everett’s and we more wide. The chiseled dates were faded, one had to touch the stone to be sure where the chisel had cut. I wandered by it after the paper printed the picture of the new stone. Charles came up behind me – he spooked me for a laugh – and we both looked long at the small, anonymous marker. He studied it a moment and announced, “I think it is time to fix you.” I knelt to explore it by hand. “They picked a stone you’d use for an infant,” I noted. “So, is this a child? Maybe a stillborn, without a name?” I tore away grass and scraped away soil at the base but found no more details. Charles pulled off his ragged knit hat to scratch his mop of dark hair (what a crop of dandruff!), sat on his heels and looked puzzled. “Yeah, you said it.” I joked, but he didn’t get it. “Let me try to find out some more about who lies here.” In my little office, besides the filing cabinet and my desk, one fifteen foot wall is a big bookcase, floor to ceiling, each shelf sagging under the weight of dozens of slim black leather bound ledgers packed tight, some old ones bound with string to capture loose pages, docu- got a picture of it in the paper. I cut it out and gave it to him and got a full smile out of him. “It looks as sharp as if it was in Arlington. You did good work.” A little recognition made him stand taller that day. I’ll tell you something it took me years to learn: I think headstones have a power, something beyond what you can see. I think a hundred years ago and more, people knew or sensed it. The stone marks a final resting place, and the address should be accurate, both in time, date and character. And how I came to that learning brings me to today’s business. Midway up the hill, in the Civil War section, off to one side and at right angles to the row, stands a headstone that a tree has encroached on, lifting one side. My parents warned me to avoid it as did every parent to their child; it was the resting place of someone who lived from 1742 to 1793, but the stone had no name on it. Rumor had it that an old pirate or witch or, my favorite, a Confederate soldier, lay there. It was eroded sandstone and stood just a foot tall and a little menting burials from 1790 up to 1989, after which they went electronic. Most of those moldy volumes were writ small in fountain pen, so I was dependant on the penmanship and the varietal spelling of past clerks. I untied and carefully opened the 1793 ledger, the binding cracked, pages shifting loose, moldy smell tickling my nose, and sat down by a window and puzzled out names. I had to go through that book twice to find that plot. Where other graves bore a name for the deceased in eccentric cursive writing, that line was an ancient ‘X’, crossed with a bit of a tremble. “Well, hell.” *** “Can I help you?” asked Shirley Cannon, West Pilsbury Town Clerk. Shirley was in her forties, I think, with a bouffant hairdo I associate with my parents’ time, and she’d preserved her maiden name, one that is even more common in the cemetery than was mine. I had seen her wandering in the colonial section. “Bill Davis,” I introduced myself, and felt self-conscious. My jeans were dirty and my blue work shirt was stained,