Saturday, October 27, 2007

All Hallow Even

Starr Ann was the one who found the tombstone.

She had eased Oatmeal off the trail and over to a big hickory tree that must have just fallen in last week's storms. She said she wanted to harvest some of the bark for cooking out next summer.

From the trail, Jodie and I saw Starr Ann pull up short and dismount before she ever got to the hickory. She knelt down to examine something. It turned out to be a stone tablet, somebody's gravestone. It was so old and the carving so worn, we couldn't read the dates, or read the name properly. What we could make out was the first three letters of the name. They were F A N.

Wish you could have seen the expression on Starr Ann's face, because then I wouldn't be pressed to describe it in words. Only way to say it is she looked like her soul was holding its breath. She bent down and skimmed the flat of her hand across the stone once, then looked around at the forest floor.

Starr Ann said, "This hasn't been laying here long, or else it would be covered with leaves."

Jodie and I agreed.

Then Starr Ann removed Oatmeal's saddle and pad. She put the saddle back and used his saddle pad to insulate the headstone as she lifted it with utmost care and cradled it in her arms. She handed the stone to Jodie and mounted Oatmeal then reached out for the tablet again. We brought it to our house.

Being a history professor and all, Jodie had no trouble finding out that there's an old cemetery near where we found the tombstone. It's on the wildlife sanctuary. We knew about the wildlife preserve, but never heard about the cemetery. Jodie worked some magic and got us permission to go onto the property. The man who looks after things over there told her vandals hit the place every year around Halloween, and there's no money available to pay for security. Hard enough to keep the poachers out.

The cemetery was a holy mess! A four-foot-tall rock wall enclosed a squarish area about as big as a tennis court. But it was empty. No stones in there. Just ground cover and a single tree. All the graves were outside the rock fence. They were arranged, real haphazard, in an ill-defined area about fifty yards from the enclosure.

Again, Jodie's professional knowledge cleared things up. She found a few markers that had been protected from the elements, in one way or another, enough that you could still read the names and dates. They ranged from the early to the late 1800s. Jodie checked around some more and said, "During the Civil War, when the Yankees were on their way, a lot of families moved their cemeteries, or at least the markers, to prevent desecration of the actual graves. Looks like maybe this family only had time to move the stones, but not enough to dismantle the cemetary boundary wall."

When Jodie said that, Starr Ann, who had been standing there with us, but being real quiet, tightened her embrace of the stone she was still carrying. She said, "I need to know who this one belongs to. We need to figure out where the vandals stole it from and put it back."

Well, finding the spot wasn't difficult. This was one of the larger tablets and we soon discovered a base, firmly secured in the ground, that exactly matched up with the broken bottom part of the stone. It was a perfect fit.

So lovingly, Starr Ann laid the stone next to its broken base and began to clear away the few leaves around it. She said, "I need to know what her name is."

Jodie said, "How do you know it's a woman's."

Starr Ann never shrugs. She shrugged then, though, and said, "It just is."

Jodie put her arm around Starr Ann's shoulder and said, "One technique is to place fine paper over the stone and rub gently with a soft, fat charcoal pencil. Sometimes, you can lift the figures by doing that."

The sun was getting low, and the shadows were getting long in the woods. Starr Ann picked up the marker and stood it upright, supporting it carefully. She angled it so that the setting sun hit it edgewise, causing the shadows across the face of the stone to deepen dramatically. We saw the whole thing. Here's what was on the stone.

Her name was Fannie. I won't say the last name, because family descendents still live around here. Fannie was born in 1852. She died in 1873. She was 21 when she died, and still bore the surname she was born to. She was 21, and not married, in a time and place where females nearly always married in their mid to late teens. The other tombstones, the ones we could read, bore this out. Jodie agreed it was rare to reach Fannie's age and not be a mother yet. In fact, the other stones we found for women Fannie's age gave testament that they'd died giving birth.

Fannie's stone had something unique carved into it. At least, unique among all the markers we could find in this graveyard. Someone had quite artfully engraved a single perfect rosebud, snapped and broken in the middle of the stem, on Fannie's gravestone. Someone loved her. Someone felt her loss sharply. Someone felt that her death was the loss of something perfect and beautiful in this world.

Starr Ann stared at that image for the longest time. Finally, she said, "Neither of you would ever think I'm crazy, so I'm going to just tell you. This is no coincidence. Fannie and I, maybe Fannie and all of us, are connected. We've been connected for the longest, longest time. We have loved each other in lots of ways. And I have the strongest feeling Fannie was lesbian." Starr Ann took her eyes off the broken rose for the first time and looked up at us. "I want to put this graveyard back together and come here to protect it at night until Halloween is over."

Fannie's stone rests just beside the broken base now. We have no way of knowing whether that's the actual site above her remains. But it is all we have. And we intend to protect and honor that spot from now on.