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“It’s nice to see some live children around here.”
The voice came from behind Joanna—unnerving in itself—but as the ghoulish implication settled in, she shivered.
The figure seemed to have appeared out of nowhere—The Old Woman in the Wood in a frayed straw hat. There was a trace of dirt on her cheek, and when she smiled, one front tooth pushed just slightly forward, giving her a charming, imperfect appeal. “Welcome to my garden of eternal repose.”
Joanna couldn’t control it—her eyes ran up and down the woman in a conspicuous once-over. Thick-soled shoes layered with soil, baggy men’s dungarees, a canvas apron anchored by four large pockets—all topped by a lined face with crinkled spaniel eyes. A cottony bun peeked out from under the hat. This was a grandmotherly face—not ghoulish, not unearthly. Thoroughly earthly, in fact.
Cautiously, Joanna returned the smile. “I hope it’s all right. I thought we’d just stroll through, but when they saw the swing…”
Suspended on thick ropes from an enormous oak tree was a grayed slat of wood, where now perched a young girl, propelled by her brother’s indulgent heave-ho.
“It certainly is.” Placing her small spade and bucket of weeds on the grass, the woman lowered herself onto the bench. She smiled again at Joanna, patting the seat next to her. “Lovely to have you here. I’ve been waiting to meet you.”
The woman laughed, clapping both hands on her knees. “Sounded like the grim reaper, did I?” She slipped off a work glove and held her hand out. “Doe Janssen. Proprietress. And you’re Joanna Collier.”
Clasping the proffered hand somewhat tentatively, Joanna sat down. If she wasn’t outright rattled, she was getting there. “How did you know?”
“Wouldn’t take a soothsayer to figure it out. One look at that little boy and you know he’s a Collier. But I’ve seen you before—at your father-in-law’s funeral last year. And I knew that Frank had moved his family into Brynmor.”
Joanna looked over at Charlie, surprised. She hadn’t thought he took after her husband whatsoever. “You know the family?”
“Oh yes. Hedy’s a dear friend. We go back decades.”
Joanna was beginning to wonder if she was hallucinating. Sitting in the middle of a graveyard with this rustic stranger—a little old lady in trousers who seemed to know a lot about her life—was peculiar enough. But even more bizarre was the idea that her husband’s stately, refined grandmother could have somehow befriended a cemetery custodian.
“Do you live in the house?” Joanna nodded toward a hulking brick manor of indeterminate style that sat within the tall iron gates, surrounded by headstones large and small.
“Oh yes … it goes with the territory. In Grange House, we have dwelt—nigh fifty-seven years.” She recited the line like poetry. “My husband moved me in as a bride, and we’ve never left.” Pausing, she gazed around. “It may seem strange, given the circumstances, but it’s turned out to be a lovely life. We’ve known most everyone in Bethlehem, and those who have moved in here are quite good company.”
Curious about the earth-streaked little woman in the tattered hat, Charlie and Daisy had quit the swing and were now hovering at their mother’s elbow. Charlie—shy at six but naturally inquisitive—ventured a question: “How many people live here?” He was looking toward the house.
Doe chuckled and gave him a weighty look. “Well … there are just three of us actually living here … but we’re surrounded by very interesting neighbors, if you get my meaning.”
Increasingly uncomfortable with the slant of the conversation, Joanna tilted it in a more corporeal direction, drawing a handkerchief from her pocketbook to scour at a scuff of dirt on Daisy’s knee. “Charlie, Daisy, please say hello to Mrs. Janssen. This is her yard, and she has been nice enough to let you play on her swing.”
One voice was muted and one rang out: “Hello, Mrs. Janssen.”
“Hello, little monkeys. You can call me Doe. Everyone does.”
“Do you have any children?”
Daisy (she of the bold approach) was hoping to find a friend, Joanna knew. The move to Bethlehem had been exciting at first, but school didn’t start for another month, and the kids were getting tired of each other. Their only other playmate over the past weeks had been Harriet, the maid. Dear old Harriet. If she was tired of pretending to look high and low for them as she dusted and polished, she hadn’t let on.
“Our little girl is all grown-up and moved away.” As Doe gazed at the swing, a shadow drifted across her face. “Her daddy rigged that up, oh … I guess it must have been about fifty years ago. But our grandson Daniel replaced the ropes this year.” Her expression brightened. “I think that old swing is happy to feel the weight of some real children for a change, and not just that sweet little redheaded fellow who is nothing but air.”
Charlie and Daisy were speechless, staring at the woman with expressions that swung from suspicion to wonder.
A little warning signal flashed in the back of Joanna’s mind: Bats in the belfry. “I’m sure Mrs. Janssen—Doe—is joking,” she said evenly, hoping the woman would take the hint and stop sowing nightmares.
But Doe continued with breezy aplomb. “Oh, but I’m not. We have all sorts of souls wandering around here. There is a band of Union soldiers, for instance. And I do mean band. Drum … bugle … banjo. They can make quite a racket.” She paused for a beat, looking over at a section across the way. “It’s lovely, though, when the young fellow from Easton plays his harmonica. ‘Oh Shenandoah … I long to hear you.…’” Her voice piped out in warbling vibrato.
Now Daisy was rapt, begging for more. “Who else do you see? Are there any more children?” The macabre implications didn’t even register, so giddy was she at the prospect of meeting some new friends. Charlie, however, couldn’t hide the cloud of anxiety that drifted across his face. He made a sudden scan of the surrounding headstones, and his hand snaked into his mother’s as he pressed against her hip.
“What’s this over here?” Joanna was on her feet in a preemptive strike, taking the children in hand to a neighboring headstone, where a small ceramic dachshund stood sentry. As distractions went it was somewhat uninspiring, but at this point Joanna was doing what she could—and was beginning to regret her earlier impulse.
St. Gregory’s Cemetery sat high above the Lehigh River, overlooking the voluptuous river valley and beyond to the broad heft of South Mountain. Joanna had been there before, but only under sad circumstances and in a large procession of people. Since moving to Bethlehem, however, she had a new appreciation for its verdant beauty. Each time she walked to town, she passed the gates: despite the irony, there was a quality about the graveyard that was somehow inviting. She couldn’t help being drawn to the serenity of what her aunt Martha always referred to as the “marble orchard.” And so today, as she and the children were returning from a trip to the five-and-dime, she had decided it couldn’t hurt to go in and let them roam. Now she wasn’t so sure.
“We do find the occasional memento.” Doe had followed them, shifting to a less spectral subject. “There are the usual love letters, rabbit’s feet, lockets, and such. A pocket watch here and there. One time there was a plastic snowman, and once, an old musket. Not loaded.” She was squinting to remember. “And there was a stethoscope. That was from poor old Doc Maxwell. He couldn’t be convinced his wife had died. He’d walk around town looking high and low, until he remembered she was here. Then he’d lie on the grass and listen through his stethoscope for signs of life through the dirt.” She shook her head. “His daughter didn’t know what to do about it. It was a blessing when he joined Millie here.” Remembering Joanna’s question, she considered the dachshund for a moment. “This one’s new, dear. We’ll leave it for now. Every dog has his day, as they say. Which reminds me…” Leaning forward, she inveigled the children with a dramatic stage whisper: “If you want to really see something, come with me.”
As they wound through canopies of elm and oak, sycamore and dogwood, Joanna trailed behind, taking it all in. The natural beauty was idyllic, and yet somehow the smooth stone of the carved monuments managed to improve upon it—no small feat. Even the plain zinc markers lent an austere, elemental grace. Many dated from before the Civil War, their inscriptions barely legible. Each one seemed to call to Joanna, a faint petition: Recognize me once more—that I should exist again. But Doe forged ahead in front of her—inured, probably, to the brief, beckoning narratives—so Joanna passed them by, apologetic at heart.
At a large trapezoidal slab, Doe stopped. On inspection, it would have been easy to pick out the carved image of a noble-looking canine just below the dated inscription. This detail, however, was overwhelmed by the blindsiding distraction of an actual dog, lying motionless across the mounded grass—a German shepherd with glassy eyes and a tattered, mangy coat.
Charlie’s face was a study in shock. His eyes opened nearly as wide as his mouth, and he reflexively grabbed at his mother’s skirt as he failed to suppress a strangled cry.
Doe was contrite through her laughter. “I guess I should have warned you,” she cackled. “This poor soul, Macpherson, loved that dog so much, he hired a taxidermist when he died. His daughter brought Shep over the other day—she was finally cleaning out the shed and found her dad’s old companion. She couldn’t bear to just throw him away. I didn’t have the heart to turn her down. But when Daniel mows this section, old Shep’s days are numbered.”
Daisy was on the ground, gently stroking the mottled fur, not bothered in the least by the animal’s lifelessness. At the mention of Doe’s grandson, she turned to ask, “Could Daniel come out and play with us?” Her little face was so beseeching—brows knit and eyes hoping—that Joanna reflexively took a mental snapshot, depositing the small, insignificant moment into her memory bank of images. Oh, how she loved five. Five was wondrous. Five was artless, unaware, wide-open, and heartbreakingly sweet. Five hadn’t started school yet, hadn’t begun the steady, inevitable journey toward self-consciousness, contrivance, comparison, and all the other encumbrances of growing up. Charlie was only six, yet already she could tell a difference.
Copyright © 2019 by Karen Kelly