Sunday, October 10
Sweeney St. George had just found another example of a gravestone by the elusive round-skull carver when the late-afternoon peace of the cemetery was broken by the sound of gunfire.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Without looking to see where it was coming from, she hit the ground, her arms covering her head, her heart slamming against her rib cage, all of her nerves going nuts as she heard another series of shots come quick and fast.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
“Don’t worry. It’s just pretend,” said a voice behind her, and Sweeney got to her feet and turned to find herself looking down at someone who at first appeared to be a short man with a high, girlish voice. His bald head glinted in the sun and he looked up at her with huge eyes in a pale face.
But he wasn’t a man. He was a boy, a completely bald boy of about eleven or twelve and as Sweeney looked into his intense brown eyes, which gave him the look of a young Ben Kingsley, the boy flushed and looked away. He reached down quickly for a baseball hat lying on the ground and put it on his head. “It’s a demonstration. Up at the Old North Bridge.”
“You mean, like Civil War reenactors and all that?”
“Yeah. Except it’s not the Civil War. It’s the Revolutionary War.” She almost expected him to finish up with a “duh.”
“Oh yeah, we’re in Concord, aren’t we?”
She had come out to Concord in order to find some more examples of the work of the eighteenth-century stonecutter Sweeney had come to think of as the round-skull carver. Sweeney, who studied gravestones and other funerary art, had been after the round-skull carver for months now, ever since she’d seen one of his stones in a Lexington cemetery and been intrigued by his unusual border designs and his oddly shaped death’s-heads. They were very human death’s-heads, she thought. That was the best way to describe them, with their round skulls and almost cheery expressions. She had found five stones she was positive had been made by the same carver and, after a doing a bit of asking around, discovered that no one knew who he was. So she had done what she normally did when looking for a carver’s identity and checked the Middlesex County probate records for the names of the people buried beneath the round-skull carver’s stones. The records often stipulated payment to this or that gravestone carver for the deceased’s stone and it was one of the only ways of finding a particularly elusive carver. She hadn’t had any luck yet, but now that she had found one of the stones in Concord, she could try again. And Edward Martin’s stone boded well because it was a large one, with elaborate carving on the side borders. It had cost a nice sum when it had been made in 1740, and since Edward Martin seemed to be a man of means, there was a good likelihood that he would have a probate record stipulating where his worldly possessions would go after death.
And here, in the South Burying Ground in Concord, it hadn’t taken her long to find another one. It was all there, the distinctive shape of the skull, the delicate wings at its side, the odd, unnaturally twining plants in the border design, the cramped lettering the carver had used to write, “Here Lyes the Body of Edward Martin.”
The boy looked down at her notes. “What are you doing?”
“I’m taking notes on this gravestone. I’m trying to figure out who made it.”
The boy sat down next to her and looked at the stone. “You don’t know who made it?”
“No, it’s not signed, but I’ve found a whole bunch of stones around here that I’m almost positive he made, and now that I have Edward Martin’s name, I can see if his estate paid the person who made his stone. It’s kind of like being a detective.” Another shot sounded and Sweeney started. “That didn’t sound pretend,” she said.
“Well, they don’t put any bullets in the guns,” the boy said. “They’re not allowed to. And the ones up at the Old North Bridge, they’re not even allowed to point the guns at each other. So it’s kind of stupid. They just, like, shoot them up in the air. My grandfather has reenactments up in his field, though, and up there they can pretend they’re really fighting because it’s not National Park property. They did Battle Road at the last one, which is also stupid because it’s not even the right time of year.”
Sweeney didn’t say anything, but clearly more explanation was needed and he went on.
“Well, you know, the Old North Bridge and the shot heard round the world, that whole thing, that was in April.” He looked around at the orange, red, and yellow trees and, as though he were breaking something to her, said gently, “This is October.”
“That was when we finally shot back at the British, right? I kind of forget my Revolutionary War history.”
He looked up at her, his face swollen and puffy, then said condescendingly, “The British regulars were on their way out to Concord because they were going to take all the guns and stuff from the provincials. So the Minutemen and everybody stood on the green in Lexington and the British shot at them and killed a bunch of them. No one thought they would actually do it. Then they came to Concord and we thought they were burning houses down. So the provincials decided they’d had enough and they went up to the North Bridge. No one really knows who fired the first shot, but we got a bunch of them. The Redcoats had to run away back to Charlestown, and the Minutemen hid in the fields and behind walls. They never knew what hit ’em. That was called Battle Road.”
Sweeney remembered a bit of Longfellow, something her father used to recite. She quoted, “ ‘You know the rest. In the books you have read, / How the British Regulars fired and fled . . .’ Do you know that one?”
The boy picked it up. “ ‘How the farmers gave them ball for ball, / From behind each fence and farm-yard wall, / Chasing the red-coats down the lane, / Then crossing the field to emerge again.’ ” Here Sweeney remembered the rest and she joined in again. “ ‘Under the trees at the turn of the road, / And only pausing to fire and load.’ ”
He smiled up at her. “Of course, Longfellow kind of added stuff. You know, like, to make it sound better. But that’s how we won the war,” the boy said in an authoritative way. “The British liked to fight in the open field and we knew how to fight guerrilla-style.”
“So, what, did you write a book or something?” Sweeney sat down on the ground and leaned her back against the gravestone, wrapping her arms around her knees. The boy had been right. It was October, and though they’d had a few nice days the week before, there was no denying it was getting cold.
“No. I just read a lot. My mom is director of the Minuteman Museum, so she knows about all this stuff. And my dad knows about it too.”
“Yeah? What does he do?”
“Oh,” he said uninterestedly, reaching up to scratch his scalp under the baseball hat. “He makes gravestones.”
Sweeney studied him for a moment. The puffiness of his face made him seem younger than he must be. Studying his eyes, she decided he was closer to twelve than ten.
“That’s a coincidence,” she said. “I study gravestones.”
“I figured that,” he said.
“Yeah. I’m an art historian. Do you know what that is?” A nod. “So, I study gravestone carving over time, the different art that was used. That’s why I’m out here, actually. I’m working on a paper about eighteenth-century gravestones.”
“You mean like for school?”
“Kind of. I don’t have to hand it in to a teacher, though. It’s going to be published in a journal.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment and she was anticipating the usual bewildered response to her odd livelihood when he stood up and, gesturing her to follow, led her over to a stone near the back of the cemetery. “That was made by one of our ancestors,” he said.
She studied the stone. It was a tall slate headstone with elaborately carved shoulders and a rounded tympanum, giving the stone the “bedboard” shape that had become common among early New England stonecutters.
The strange death’s-head at the top of the stone was about the size of an actual human face. The skull was shaped like a lightbulb, with wide-set, rounded eyes, complete with pinpoint pupils. The mouth was a crude box, filled with lines that approximated skeletal teeth. But what its creator had carved above the figure’s head was the remarkable thing. The skull had a Medusa-like head of hair, thick tendrils that rose above it in an electrified halo. In contrast to its hair, the skeletal face stared out blandly from the stone, seemingly unperturbed. She read the name on the stone, Abner Fall, and the dates of his life and death, 1721 to 1760. In the thin light, it was impossible to make out the very faint epitaph at the bottom.
“So, what was this ancestor’s name?” Sweeney had seen some similar stones near Plymouth, but the Medusa heads were unusual for the Concord area. She was intrigued.
“Josiah Whiting. He was, like, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather or something. A lot of greats.”
“How much do you know about him?”
“Well, he made gravestones. And he fought in the war.” He clarified. “The Revolution. He was some kind of hero or something. My grandpa’s always talking about it. He’s a member of the Concord Minutemen. Josiah was a member of them too.”
“Is your dad a reenactor too?”
“No. He was in Vietnam and he says that he doesn’t like war, even pretend ones. He won’t even go to them. But I like the ones where you can see people die, or pretend to die. It’s interesting. It’s like a play, kind of; it’s like you can see what it might be like.”
“You said your dad makes gravestones. Does he own a monument company?”
“Yeah. Well, I guess the family really owns it. My grandfather.”
“What’s it called?”
It was one of the big ones in the Boston area. “I’m Sweeney St. George, by the way.” She offered her hand.
“Pres Whiting.” He shook her hand seriously, looking up at her for a minute with those huge dark eyes and then looking away. “I never heard of anybody studying gravestones before.”
“Well, I spend a lot of time in cemeteries, taking pictures, tracing the work of different stonecarvers and sculptors. I usually teach too, so, you know, I spend a lot of time with my students, helping them and stuff, though I’m not teaching right now.” She hoped she didn’t sound bitter about it. A lowly assistant professor, Sweeney hadn’t been assigned any classes for the fall, so she was using the time to work on some of her own research.
Pres reached up to scratch his head again, then gave up and took off the hat. Through the thin skin stretched over his skull, Sweeney could see snaking blue veins, a few burst blood vessels. She saw a vein twitch on his temple, and he seemed a shade or two paler. But maybe it was just the light.
“Yeah, I like cemeteries too. I like to sit in them and read the stones. A lot of the kids at school think I’m weird because of it. But then, they pretty much just think I’m weird. Even before this.” He pointed to his head. “Now it’s even worse. It’s because of chemotherapy,” he explained suddenly, as though he was afraid she would think it was something else.
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t ask why he had to have chemotherapy, even though she wanted to know.
He looked sad for a minute. “Did people ever, like, think you were weird because you liked to go to cemeteries?”
She smiled. “Oh, yeah. I was so weird when I was a kid. Weirder than you, probably. How old are you?” Sweeney asked him. What she really wanted to ask was how sick he was and if he was going to be okay.
“Twelve.” He pulled a fleece jacket out of his backpack and put it on, zipping it up to his chin. “How old are you?” But she could see he was just asking to be polite. Anyone over twenty probably seemed ancient to him.
“I just turned twenty-nine, last week.”
“Oh. What did you get?”
“Nothing much. It’s different when you get older. Too bad, really.”
“Yeah.” He looked off into the distance, then closed his eyes for a moment, and Sweeney felt a flash of concern. He was pale. She could see it now. He looked the way people looked before they threw up. When he took a deep breath, she could hear the air in his lungs.
“Are you okay?” she asked him.
“Yeah. I’m just tired. I’m going to walk home.”
“Can I give you a ride?”
He looked horrified. “I’m not supposed to get in cars with strangers.” He stood up and waited for a minute before hoisting his backpack onto his shoulder.
“How far do you have to go?”
“Just up to my grandparents’ house. They live up by the North Bridge.” Sweeney had walked past the Old North Bridge the day before. It was a good three quarters of a mile up Monument Street.
“Do you want me to walk with you?”
She hesitated, not sure what to do. “Okay, well, it was nice to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
He studied her for a minute. “Yeah, I like to go to cemeteries.”
“Okay, then. Bye.” She watched him walk off, making his way slowly along Main Street. He walked like an old man, his steps slow and cautious as though each one hurt him. Sweeney gathered up her notes and slung her bag over her shoulder. And before she knew what she was doing, she was walking along, keeping the top of his head in view. She could follow him for a little bit, just to make sure that he got there okay. She’d be able to stay out of sight and that way, if something happened, if he collapsed or got sick, she could call and get him some help. If he caught her, she could just say she was walking up to the Old North Bridge.
Up ahead of her, Pres Whiting walked slowly along Main Street, then turned left and walked across Monument Square. She thought about how there were certain people people you met in life, people who stuck with you, whom you were willing to take care of, and how once you had taken responsibility for them, it was hard to give it up. It was dangerous to take that responsibility at all. You never knew where it was going to lead. I’m just making sure he gets home okay, she told herself. That’s all. And Sweeney, who did not pray, found herself saying a prayer for him, a prayer that he would be okay.
Copyright © 2005 by Sarah Stewart Taylor. All rights reserved.