Sonoma Mountain Cemetery
C. A. Collier
The children awaken me. They look strange, decorated with tattoos and small metal rings. Entering this place of final rest with whoops and hollers, they disregard those who lie beneath the marble stones. In a way I look forward to their visits and rotate between amusement and concern. After decades when I think I have seen it all, something new comes up the hill to the cemetery. Eternity is a long time.
These kids baffle me. The boys wear their hats turned backwards, and pants droop off their hips, the crotch hanging somewhere near the knees. The girls wear short blouses that bare their midriffs, even though it’s cool up here at night.
I was laid to rest in the thirties beside my wife, who had passed the year before. Back then the kids came with bottles of whisky stolen from their parents’ cupboards, and most of the girls still wore skirts. Times have changed.
They speak of things they share in common—teachers, marijuana, cafeteria food, and cars they’re too young to drive. Tonight one perches on a mossy tombstone, spreads his legs, and opens a can of beer. Later he’ll aim the empty can at another grave marker and cheer when he hits it. Eventually, someone will come to clean up their mess.
The boy sitting on the stone speaks. “Hey, dude, where’s that flashlight? I gotta take a leak.”
Someone hands him the light, and he wanders away from the group, leaving them in the darkness. He stumbles his way over the rough terrain, and the light bounces off broken pieces of marble and rocky debris.
“Don’t fall into a grave, Jack,” one boy yells. “No more beer for you if you can’t hold it.” The light bounces on the trail ahead of Jack as he meanders up the hillside, much farther than he needs to go for privacy. Perhaps he plans to circle around and come up behind his friends to frighten them. I’ve seen that joke played before.
The conversation turns to school. A few topics always interest them. Music. Drugs. Mean teachers. Some things have changed, but some remain the same as when I was their age.
“Miz Roberts gave me a “D” minus today. She said my paper didn’t make any sense, but so what? “D” is still passing. I can’t wait till this year’s over. School sucks.”
Mumbles of agreement follow this pronouncement. The kids bide their time, waiting to graduate. If they only knew what awaits them as grownups. For me, it was an awful year of explosions, bloody limbs, and death as we lay in a muddy foxhole.
“It’s really cold up here,” a girl says. “My fingers are getting numb.”
“Yeah, it’s the fog. It’s always cold on this hill after the sun goes down, even in the summer. Cold and damp. You want a jacket? I’m okay.”
I’m guessing he’s interested in the chilly young woman as he hands her his coat.
Now wisps of vapor trail through the headstones.
“It’s creepy here,” one boy announces, breaking the silence and triggering laughs from the others.
“Creepy? A cemetery? No way! Come on back with the flashlight, Jack. Mario’s afraid of the dark.”
“Did you fall in a grave, Jack?” A can crunches in someone’s hand followed by a metallic clunk as it hits a headstone.
“Only two beers left. Wish we had more.”
“We were lucky to score as much as we did. We asked five people to buy for us before that old dude showed up.” Metal strikes stone again.
“Score. Even in the dark, I got a good arm.”
“How could you miss when there’s so many of ‘em?”
A low rumble sounds from the hillside above. It was inevitable that she would show up. I would have warned them, but the dead can only wait and watch.
A scream breaks through the still night.
“Holy crap. What was that?”
“Just Jack playing games.”
One of the girls calls out in an anxious voice. “Jack, are you trying to scare us? Come on back with the flashlight. It’s really dark down here.”
“Come on, let’s get out of here. Jack, we’re leaving. Come on, man.”
Jack finds his way down the dark hillside, terror on his face. He catches up with his friends who ignore him. They don’t see Jack, even when he stands directly in front of them. He’s confused, now, but he’ll understand after a while. When he reaches out to touch one boy, his hand passes through.
“Jim? Laura?” Jack’s voice grows desperate, but now only the dead can hear. From nearby I hear a few soft grumbles. “Can’t rest in peace. What’s happening?”
The kids can’t see in this darkness, but we can. Not far up the hillside the cougar gnaws her kill, blood dripping from her muzzle. She stops for a few seconds to listen then drags the carcass into some coyote brush.
There will be repercussions. I hope the cougar and her young survive the hunt that will begin when the remains are discovered. The police will be here, and the beer drinking in the cemetery will stop for a year or two.
I will miss these young visitors. As I said before, eternity is a long time.
C. A. Collier is the author of several novels: An Appalachian Summer, River Dreams, Someone is Watching, and Bokor. “Sonoma Mountain Cemetery” is from her first collection of short stories set in Sonoma County. Sonoma, Tales of a Twisted Vine, is due to be published in December.