Day After Memorial Day
A short story set in the Berkshires
Two brown and black blurs bounded from the woods. Newfoundlands, maybe? Old Franz Eisitch couldn’t tell for sure. With his declining eyesight, his world had grown fuzzy around the edges. The furry pair of pups romped through Rockdale Cemetery, sniffing their way to the bowl of cherries by little Ashton Spencer’s headstone.
“Peace, good reader,
do not weep.
Peace, the dear child
May 30, 1868-May 29, 1871
For as long as Franz could recall, the anonymous bowl had graced Ashton’s grave on Memorial Day. Who had put it there? Eisitch wondered. Ashton’s mother? Of course not. That was impossible, he realized, but the thought comforted him.
Except for that unnamed, coffin-sized swath of darkened green grass next to little Ashton and the pre-Revolutionary slates rendered indecipherable by time, Franz had memorized everyone’s name and quaint epitaph. Spencers. Comstocks. Pixleys. Uprights. By now they were like family. He talked to them once in a while. Keeping each other company.
The day being unseasonably hot, Franz idled his age-rusted Husqvarna riding mower in the shade of the oak, older even than the graveyard itself. The massive tree had been a natural sundial, casting a circulating shadow over the silent community. Then the ’78 tornado barreled through and uprooted headstones, which Franz subsequently reset with care, but the oak was lightning-split down the middle. Its shadow no longer kept decent time. One half clung tenaciously to life; the other, charred and skeletal, mockingly taunted death. In winter, dead and alive were identical twins; but now, in spring, the living half provided the graveyard’s only shade. Errant rays of late-afternoon light snuck through its pale green foliage, dappling Franz’s furrowed brow. He wiped off sweat with his sleeve, but the shadows proved indelible. Leaving the mower’s raspy engine running, Franz abandoned his protective shade for a closer gander at the pups.
When Franz Eisitch was 14, the town gave him a push mower and paid him a dollar to tend the Rockdale graveyard. Even then, Rockdale itself had long faded into the encroaching forest after the train stopped coming through in the ’30s. Only the graveyard and memories remained. Soon those, too, would be gone.
The town eventually rewarded Franz, quiet and conscientious, with the Husqvarna. After the tornado, they stopped burying people in the cemetery and the powers-that-be cut the maintenance budget, but Franz continued of his own accord, believing that the deceased deserve due respect.
Franz always tidied up the cemetery just before Memorial Day. It was the one day when more than curiosity-seeking headstone-rubbers paid a visit. Descendants, friends, and those who simply cared left tokens of remembrance: flowers, little American flags, pinwheels, balloons.
Franz usually waited one week after Memorial Day before disposing of the wilted bouquets and decaying tributes. This year was different. His nephew had made him an appointment on Wednesday for tests with an eye specialist in Pittsfield, and he’d have to stay away from light for a few days after, so he was at the graveyard the next day. The change in his routine made Franz uneasy, but he had at least solved who had stolen the cherries, if not who had put them there.
Franz approached the contentedly feeding pups and knelt down in the dark-green grass next to Ashton. Gorging on their treat, the pups paid Franz no heed. Just a little closer and he might even give them a scratch behind the ears.
They’re not Newfies at all, he realized.
Suddenly shrouded by an unlikely shadow, Franz looked over his shoulder. A painful glow from the setting sun, stinging his failing eyes, formed a pulsating, red halo around a black bear on hind legs.
What was it they say you’re supposed to do if you meet up with a bear? Play dead? Shout? Stand your ground? Run like hell? One rule Franz was sure of. Never get between a mother bear and her cubs.
Franz had left the mower running. If he could make it that far, he’d be free and clear. They say bears have poor eyesight. Maybe the bear should go with him to the specialist in Pittsfield. Funny, Franz thought.
The bear, exuding a stench of carrion, hovered over him. The cubs, distracted from their repast, approached Franz warily. Deciding he was a new adventure, they pounced on his stiffening legs and tore at the cuffs of his overalls. Franz remained motionless, eyes fixed on the mother, willing it to understand. Black-bear sightings were on the rise, but they said no one had ever been attacked.
The oak leaves began to rustle, little flags stirred, and pinwheels spun.
Then, with an unexpected gentleness that surprised Franz, the bear spoke:
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.
[“Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.]
What did it mean? It sounded like an epitaph.
“I mean you and your pups no harm,” Franz replied. “You hear? This ain’t my time!”
Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!*
[Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms!”]
Soon, the only sound in the Rockdale graveyard was the Husqvarna engine. When its fuel was spent, that, too, sputtered and fell silent, and grass grew over the gravestones.
*From Death and the Maiden, Matthias Claudius