_____________ by Anthony Breznican _________________
The road turns sharply around a stand of pine trees and jutting shale stone, and for a moment we catch a glimpse of our destination: Saint Clement's graveyard, clinging to a blue hillside in the distance. Then it's gone.
Lightning explodes somewhere behind us in a mass of black clouds that is slowly smearing across the evening sky, racing the sun for the horizon.
The road turns again, retracing its path beside an ancient, bubbling stream, my father's car carrying us uphill, the water rushing back down, under half-a-dozen rusting, gray bridges to the town of Tarentum, Pennsylvania, and from there to the Allegheny.
Beside me is a girl I think I love, her legs curled under her against the plush red seat covers that smell vaguely of coffee and cologne, a notebook of names in her lap. Her pencil traces and retraces the letters. The shakily drawn lines connect the names to each other, and eventually lead to her own, scratched at the bottom like an afterthought.
It's a rough family tree with all the names but few dates. Those lines wind like the tributary roads that crisscross our route, a forgotten network of trailways carved in the hillside long before automobiles were even an idea.
Saint Clement's, we think, can give us the dates of the lives of these unknown ancestors.
The road angles again and the graveyard is back, looming on the hillside like a mural on some giant wall that's about to tumble over the road onto the small river town below. St. Clement's is as dead as its oldest parishioners, an empty building robbed of its religion and left with blank stained-glass windows that now only glow from the outside in. But its history is buried before us, a plot of land sloping toward the crest of the hill, but stopping midway, ironically, in the shape of a tombstone.
An unpaved arc of road spreads from the entrance gate like a giant rocky tongue. Just big enough for a small car, the arching road cuts the grounds in half and yawns back to the road a hundred yards ahead, hard and cracked, split with years of run-off that course downhill, scratching away the lawn and mud only to pool it at the bottom in a small ravine that glows green with grass never meant to grow there. Those dead brown cuts snake out as though burned by electricity, like giant collapsed varicose veins that time has bled empty.
Mounting the hill, our tires spin on the rocks and fire them out in wild mud-sprays as the car climbs the road. One clacks off some tombstones leaning like crooked teeth near the wheels.
"There are pictures," she says, pointing, but I don't look. The left tires slip off the hard curb, and we ride crooked to the top of the hill. Through the trees rests a small pre-fabricated fiberglass shack, burning an angry blood-red. It looks out of place around such antiquity.
So do we.
Shovels and other tools lean against sapling branches surrounding the shack. The grass is freshly cut twenty feet from the edge of the graveyard there, and then stops with a brittle and wispy wave of aging chopped grass. Thunder growls behind us. The rest of the grounds have continued to grow to seed.
Tips of the crabgrass dance against our legs when we step from the car. Before I close my door, my friend is gone, I see her walking ghost-like between the tombstone rows, taking barely a moment with each one before dancing on to another.
"It's getting pretty dark," I say watching her instead of the sky. Her footsteps lead her toward a sycamore tree that is just begging to be stripped of its leaves and bark for the fall. It's black against the fading sun, like the skeleton of some giant hand that clawed its way to the surface of the graveyard and then died there, straining skyward.
A single drop of rain explodes on the hood of our car. The smoky clouds have capped the rim of trees around us. Another raindrop explodes, this time on my shoulder. Then another.
I look back to the tree, but she's gone.
"Jill!" I call to her, stepping around the car. I have to wade through tangles of grass that twitch in the rain before I can climb back to the road. Jill waves her notebook to me from atop the hill. She's found something, most likely the name of an ancestor whose birth and death day she's come to record. I wave back, mounting the hill myself on a set of ancient concrete stairs so weathered only a cascade of broken rock remains. But I stop when I see a pair of eyes glaring just over my shoulder.
GORALKA, the stone says: 1899-1930. Beloved Father and Husband.
His picture is sealed in an oval shell, as smooth as his black, glistening eyes peering at me through generations. The smell of sweet rotting leaves rolls down hill with the rain making its way past the roots of grass into the carved dirt rivulets and finally to the base of the hill. There it pools with a sound like tears dropping on tinfoil.
A blast of wind is followed by an explosion of lighting, and the arms of the giant naked sycamore fly back as though in surprise.
The entire row stares now, awakened by an intruder. Women, children, and old, old men press against their oval cells and watch an unknown world go by, buried more by time than the six feet of rocky earth above them.
PRAZENICA, PIONTEK, KOPECKY . . . the names say, and they grab me. They're names I know, names of friends, distant relatives, neighbors, carved in stone and planted on a forgotten grave. The pictures are strangers with familiar faces, and their dour mouths and unsmiling eyes reveal a boredom with death that was probably once fear.
Another name that catches my eye is simply: SLOVAK. That one beloved brother's name sums up the sole identity of this entire dead world.
The sky grows blacker, the rain falls harder.
This place is full of grandfathers, old aunts, great, great uncles. Each with the same names tiptoeing through generations that continue in the same towns, on the same streets, in the same houses as their forefathers and mothers. The thought drifts off, the eyes turn blank again. Jill is coming back down the hill.
"Find anything?" I ask, leaning against a pale limestone cross as I take high steps through the grass. The name is worn away on these older ones, and I imagine the memories are, too.
"There are so many names . . ." Jill says.
A stone wall stands between us, separating the next terrace of graves. I plant a foot on one of the ragged stones that once held the Earth back but has since become a part of it. Green spurts of grass blast out between the cracks, and I grab one of these for balance, pulling myself up, shielding my eyes against the rain as a wide black stone rises from behind a pair of yew bushes.
I catch the name on the stone in an afterthought of lightning, then it's gone. The inside of my chest feels cold, and another explosion of light careens across the sky.
Carved into the shimmering stone is my name: BREZNICAN, six inches high, the corners caked with tiny, empty nests of mud bees, each the size of a pencil eraser.
BREZNICAN. It was suddenly a stranger's name. A foreigner's name. A woman's name on the left, a man's on the right. Both were born before the century and dead before it was half-over.
I don't know what else to do, so I just look at it. There are no pictures on the stone. but I can imagine the faces clearly enough. They're not much different than my father's, not much different than mine.
I feel an arm around my waist, and a sweet, warm kiss against the redness of my cheek. She doesn't say anything. She doesn't have to. Her face is so sweet, and warm, and alive.
We walk a little farther. The rain is terrible, but we find what she is looking for: a set of graves that may have been her great-grandparents. "I don't know if their first names are right, but the last name is." The answer seems stuck in the lips of the two resentful faces glaring at us from the tombstone.
Looking at Jill, kneeling prayer-like beside those faces, it's hard to believe people ever existed like us, with our same names in the same town. But it seems impossible to imagine that youth fading, growing old, and then washing away on a poorly made limestone cross.
She stands and smiles at me. "You're drenched!" she says taking one of my hands. She smiles for what seems like a long time, and then closes her eyes and kisses me. I can taste the rain on her lips. She pulls away and leads me as we half-walk and half-slide down the rocky slope to our car, with her yellow note book soggy and dripping water around her shoes.
The path down the hills is a steep and narrow one. Scores of worn tombstones and dead faces watch us, like silent ancient angels. Jill and I leave the graveyard to live the lives they lived one-hundred years before us, holding each other's cold hand for warmth as the headlights on my father's car jump in the darkness.
Dovidena', I think as the waves of graves roll backward into the rain. I'll see you soon.
As the light washes away the last stone, the face under the name catches my eye. S'bom, his mournful eyes seem to whisper: Go with God.