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“Stop,” I begged. “Please.”
Her trancelike gaze swiveled my way, curly tendrils of graying brown hair sticking to her damp forehead. My eyes darted from her round, blotchy face to the mound of white powder she held in her gloved hand.
“No,” she said. Despite the cool day, sweat trickled down her temple, mingling with a smudge of mascara and blue eyeliner. “It’s what I have to do.”
She drew her arm up, her thick wrist flexing backward. She was going to use the entire handful. Oh, the damage it could cause.
I reached out, latching on to her wrist. With a yelp, her fingers opened and the powder fell in a fluffy white shower onto the grass.
She whirled on me. “Hey! What was that for?”
Palms outstretched, I said, “I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t let you do that.”
She looked down at her glove, which was coated in powder. It also dusted most of her purple stretchy knit pants and the hem of her multihued striped cardigan.
“For heaven’s sake, why not? It’s just all-purpose flour.”
Pulling off her gloves, she began brushing the flour from her knit pants with angry strokes. “All I’m trying to do is get a clear look at that unreadable gravestone”—she jutted her chin in the direction of what would have been the target of her flour bomb—“which I’m pretty sure shows the resting place of my great-great-grandma.”
The name and date were indeed hard to read, as the stone had been worn with time, dirt, and lichen. “I saw online that if you rub flour onto it and then brush some of it off, the words will show up nice and clear.”
“Well, technically that’s right,” I told her, holding out a clean washcloth I’d pulled from the tote bag that had somehow stayed on my shoulder. She snatched it from me. Her eyes were a clear gray, and they were shooting me icy daggers of annoyance.
“See? Then why did you grab me and knock the flour out of my hand?”
“Because of what happens when flour gets wet,” I said.
She went silent, giving her pants two more rough strokes with the washcloth, then finally grunted, “It gets gummy.” Her voice went defiant again. “I was going to brush it all off, you know.”
“I don’t doubt it for a second.” Nodding toward her still floury legs, I said, “But as you’re reminded, it’s hard to get all the flour off, and any residue that’s left behind can trap moisture and speed up the deterioration of the gravestones.”
She gestured toward her intended target. “Then how am I supposed to read it? My mama’s not well enough to come out here and see the grave herself, and it’s taken me almost a year to find where my great-great-grandma was in the first place. I’d planned to do one of those rubbings you hear about.” She pulled a thick crayon from her pocket and indicated her own tote bag. Inside, along with an open bag of flour, I glimpsed a piece of rolled-up butcher paper.
I tilted my head toward the entrance of Comal Cemetery. Located forty-five minutes outside of Austin in the town of New Braunfels, it was the final resting place of a good two dozen ancestors of my latest client, hotel heiress Pippa Sutton. “Some cemeteries allow rubbings and some don’t. This one doesn’t. Usually you have to call ahead or check the website, but this one also has a ‘no gravestone rubbings’ sign on the gate you entered through.”
Her shoulders drooped. “So what am I supposed to do?”
“I’ll show you.” Rummaging in my bag, I pulled out a soft-bristled brush and a plastic bottle filled with liquid. “This is a biological solution for cleaning gravestones. You can buy it off the internet or at certain stores. First, we need to wet the stone with water. Then we’ll spray on the solution and suds it up, and the white lather will settle into the etchings and make them readable, just like the flour would have. From there, you can take lots of photographs with your phone.”
Dousing the stone with water from a nearby spigot, I then sprayed on the biological solution. “Afterward, we’ll rinse it off again, but the agents in this stuff won’t harm the stone or the surrounding grass.” I grinned. “It’ll give it a nice cleaning to boot.”
The would-be flour attacker looked dubious, but didn’t stop me as I went to work. Once the stone was all lathered up, I smoothed off the excess and the words became clear. I turned around to find her grinning ear to ear, a mist of tears filling her eyes as she saw the name on the stone.
“I found her,” she whispered. “We were thinking she’d been lost forever.” She leaned over, touching the stone with reverence and giving me a clear view of the cemetery entrance, where an old man stood, leaning heavily on a cane, as a car approached.
A breeze lifted what patchy wisps of hair were left on the top of his head. His gray suit hung limply from his frame, and it took him two tries to open the car door before he began lowering himself into the back seat with effort. I wondered whose grave he’d been visiting. That of a loved one? A friend? A newfound ancestor like my flour-happy companion?
As if he felt my gaze, he paused and looked straight at me. I had a fleeting impression of something I couldn’t place before interference in the form of a colorful striped cardigan broke our connection.
“Now what do we do?”
My new friend looked hopefully at me, shifting just enough so I could see the car carrying the old man disappearing down the side road. I smiled and focused. “Now we take some photos for you and your mother before we rinse off the solution.” I showed her how to work the filters and extra editing features on her phone’s camera to make the words even clearer.
“My goodness,” she said, her cheeks now pink with happy surprise.
I said, “For gravestones that aren’t as badly worn as your ancestor’s, sometimes you can just take a photo and use filters to make the words stand out.”
The woman gave a hefty sniffle, wiping her nose with the washcloth I’d given her. “How do you know all of this?”
I held out my hand to her. “It’s part of my job. My name is Lucy Lancaster, and I’m a genealogist.”
Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie C. Perkins. All rights reserved