CW: talk of death/dying, emotional abuse.
In Graves Where We Can’t Bear to Look |Nonfiction|
My heart is lame with running after yours so fast
Such a long way,
Shall we walk slowly home, looking at all the things we passed
Home down the quiet evening roads under the quiet skies,
Not saying much,
You for a moment giving me your eyes
When you could bear my touch.
– Charlotte Mew, “My Heart is Lame”
After a four hour drive from Durham to M’s parents’ house in Western North Carolina, we sit cross-legged on the bed in their childhood bedroom, in the home of their Southern Baptist preacher father, where their mother is storing wreaths that she’s made for a church event, each one adorned with brightly-colored fake flowers and large fabric bows. I wonder if their parents know about us sharing this bed, but although we’ve only been dating a few months, I’m already familiar with the way M’s well-defined jaw stiffens, the way their eyes go blank and distant when I ask a lot of questions. My voice, always tending a raw wound.
Before I can decide to speak, I’m interrupted by M’s grin as they spread a glossy map on the bed between us, creased where it’s been folded in their pocket: Cemeteries of Western North Carolina. My eyes light up, and the question drifts away. “You decide which ones,” they say.
As a teenager, I could sometimes be found in the Calvary Cemetery, a small hillside graveyard in a coastal hamlet of Northern California. I’d lay among the graves in the drying grass, itching, watching the eucalyptus and coastal oaks sway precariously in the cool gusts of wind blowing over the hill from the shore, gusts that mysteriously subsided beyond the rickety wooden entrance gate.
When I was older, after Dad got sober, after we went to live with his friend Fred, after Fred’s long illness and death, it felt right to scatter Fred’s ashes at nearby Goat Rock, attended by the tide. But Grandma was always sorry that we’d scattered my aunt’s ashes from the top of Mt. Tamalpais and among islands in the Pacific—that there was no place to visit—so when Grandad died, we—Grandma, Dad, and I—visited cemetery after cemetery, looking for a place return in our grief. My favorites were the dampest ones, where mossy rocks lined the paths and trees older than the oldest graves hung close to the ground under the weight of their own foliage, looming protectively.
Later, after Dad died, too—his ashes now in a painted box on my fireplace—Grandma invited me on after-dinner walks in nearby cemeteries where no one we knew was buried. We wandered apart from each other at dusk, circling the graves until the sun went down, silently holding space for death and our respective anxieties about the future, too big to name. There was comfort in our silent, mutual wandering.
During a long and dusty, not particularly beautiful walk in Monterey, where trail signs warned of coyotes, Grandma shushed me while I plead to turn around, and as our miserable path broke into the clearing of a seaside cemetery, she threw up her arms and shouted “Surprise!” Standing among the graves under an azure blue sky with the view and audible rush of the ocean, I laughed because my grandmother had just surprised me with a cemetery—of all things—and it was perfect. “I knew you’d love it,” she said, beaming. “It’s always been one of my favorites,” she added, before wandering off in her own direction.
M knows these stories.
I chart our route through small mountain towns along the French Broad River, cross-checking the list on the back of the map with information I find on the internet, identifying the oldest cemeteries and circling their numbered locations on the front, drawing a line from nearest to farthest.
I say that I love the way cemeteries register histories more felt than seen, yet deeply grounded in cycles of life and love, violence and trauma that make a place a place, marking a past that continues to resonate in the present in ways we can’t always name. M admires the masonry, the custom etchings worn with time, the way that despite even the occasionally atrocious landscaping, the natural world springs up around the graves unbidden.
I watch and re-watch online videos of people traipsing through the forest, offering vague guidance to the hardest-to-find ones—gesturing with their hands to a walk “ten minutes that way”—where the etching on the headstones has been smoothed away by time and misguided restorationists have scrubbed the soft soapstone clean, where leaves and overgrowth have obscured the path.
In one video, a group of middle-aged tourists stands in what appears to be a cul-de-sac. A mist of snow flurries falls around them as an older woman in a thick burgundy coat and heavy glasses recounts the path of the French Broad Baptist Church as it was relocated multiple times over the course of the 19th century, eventually leaving its original graveyard behind in a forest adjacent to what is now a suburban property development. The group wanders into the forest, headed roughly northeast, where almost a mile in, there’s a small collection of mostly unmarked headstones covered in lichen, the oldest dating to 1788. Where the headstones are marked, they’re etched with ornate oak trees, sand dollars, angels, and the all-seeing eye, carved for the wealthy King family, who helped to settle and build Henderson County, North Carolina. I watch and commit vague landmarks to memory, confident in my sense of direction and ability to lead us to there–
As if our encounters with the past can never be so predictably plotted or picturesque without obscuring real violence and injustice. As if the dead aren’t both always with us, yet never as articulate as we wish.
M drives fast along rural highways, my heart heaving around each turn. The trees and shrubs native to this part of North Carolina are in full bloom and M knows all their names—Dogwood, Redbud, Magnolia, Rhododendron, Southern Pine—and yet, the particular green roll of the hills outside the passenger window reminds me of where I’m from. We talk about place and roots, what Western North Carolina’s landscape means to M, what the Northern California Coast means to me. The way these places draw us back despite ourselves, what lives there for us that we struggle to name.
“Can you slow down a little?” I ask, my heart swaying. M scoffs. I draw my breath and press my lips into a tight white line, turning to the window. “I need you to slow down,” I say after a moment, not looking at them. “Yeah, fine,” M says, slowing the car, angry and sullen. I want to say more and can’t, holding back tears. M turns up the radio.
By the time we get there, they’re contrite and I’ve willed myself to forget. We each take a swig from the bourbon bottle nestled in the console between our seats. I get out of the car and walk confidently into the woods. M follows, unhesitating, just as I would follow them that summer past a no-trespassing sign onto a private beach in the Outer Banks; up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, racing ahead of them in the steepest spots; along a rocky section of the Maine Coast requiring surer footing than I was sure I had; into an abandoned barn on the verge of collapse; across streams and into ravines in the Berkshires, where M tells me to remember where we are and how to get back, and I do; into a tree in Cambridge a hundred feet in the air on ropes M expertly rigs; onto a roof where we watch the fireworks over the Charles River. We wander. We nap in the sun among tombstones.
“Kiki says I’m a death walker,” I tell them, as we pad on the leafy carpet of decomposing leaves. I say it expecting them to scoff again—to at least smirk—but they respond calmly, evenly, hearing me now. They ask how I feel about that. I say, unfeeling, that the death walker is someone able to usher on those beyond life, but not yet in death—a kind of midwife to death for those who can’t let go. Kiki says that often, fear prevents people from developing their gifts. “That makes a lot of sense,” says M.
Later, in another cemetery, I sit leaning against a magnolia tree among the plastic lawn decorations and fake flowers left on graves, watching M. Their impossibly soft sandy blonde head is bent, weaving a chain of dandelions so intently, it’s as if they’ve forgotten I’m there. In my mind, I’m already adding it to the artifacts of our journey, laying it on the dashboard of my car next to the empty shells of hermit crabs; pine cones; sea pickles; blooms M plucked fresh from a tree, now dried; every piece of purple shell they could find in Nags Head, collected in a mason jar and tied with a ribbon for my birthday. An archive.
That summer comes to an end in the Mount Auburn Cemetery—an active arboretum in Cambridge, Massachusetts—when M suddenly pulls their hand from mine, asking why I always have to be such a fucking bitch.
When we meet again two years later, after Grandma’s passing, M says that this is the difference between us: they who walk away, leaving the past behind without looking back and me who revisits the past, again and again, each time from a different place, but always returning. They admire that about me, they say. I wonder what I’m looking for.
We’re sitting in front of a wood-burning stove in a house on the coast of Maine. M thanks me. They say that this is an opportunity for redemption, and tears stream down their face. “I don’t deserve it,” they say and I fly from my chair to kneeling before them, the heat of the stove on my back, holding their head in my hands. You do, I say. It’s okay. I’m okay. We are okay.
That same summer, the second summer, after that night; after the next night, when we sit on the roof under a full moon, watching the ocean; after traipsing through an uncleared section of Maine forest in a downpour, the brush reaching our waists; after rowing on the Kennebec; after fucking everywhere between Boston and Maine; wandering unceasingly, now avoiding every cemetery, we’re in a fairytale one-room cabin in rural Vermont, not speaking. I don’t remember why except that M brought a deck of cards and I don’t want to play. M says to quit fucking crying.
I leave—the wood-framed screen door slamming as it springs shut behind me—because they ball their hands into fists, holding them tightly behind their head, and says one of us has to, and I’m not ready to let them. I drive, not knowing where I’m going and without meaning to, find myself in a cemetery alone. There, I’m astonished by the number of open graves, headstones laying on their sides in the mid-summer sun, deep holes in the ground exposed to the light with no witnesses except me. And I can’t look.
The next morning, I wake to M’s body curled against my back, slowly running their hand down my arm to the top of my thigh, twining and untwining their fingers in mine in tentative apology. I am still for a long time, holding my breath, listening to M’s body try to tell me what they’re not saying, unable to will my own body to respond. Eventually, they pull away, asking, “Before we go, will you show me where you went yesterday?” I exhale, easing some. Yes, I say, not mentioning the cemetery or the open graves.
Instead, I take them to Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, a working dairy farm and museum surrounded by a forest of 400-year old hemlocks, where before long, M pulls away, angry again; when I ask why, they insist they’re not, striding ahead of me and slamming the car door as they get in.
I am tired.
In the restaurant where we stop for lunch, we sit side-by-side at the bar. M reads the paper, refusing to speak or look at me or finish their beer, until I finally say, “I want to go home.” They don’t respond, so I say again, more firmly this time, “I want to go home now.” “I have to go to the bathroom,” they say, so I say that I’ll wait for them by the door and I do. I wait for a long time, moving uneasily in the doorway, first inside and then outside the restaurant. A waitress eventually approaches, looking concerned: “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to listen. But. I thought you’d want to know: There’s another exit.” M’s cell phone goes straight to voicemail, and still, I wait. I check both the bathrooms, unsurprised that they’re not there. I wait, pacing the sidewalk next to the car, knowing they’re not coming back. I take a deep breath and think–almost relieved– that now, now I will finally have to let them go. And it’s then that they appear again by my side.
We walk uphill, pushing aside thick forest brush made heavy by the rain; climb trees and mountains; trudge through the snow; balance on rooftops, along miles of rocky coastline. You walk ahead, pausing to turn and offer your hand where the path is deep and treacherous, but it’s me that knows the way. We rarely break stride in our treks; I am so tired, and I think you must be, too, but we don’t stop. We silently trade swigs from a bottle; wander in cemeteries; collect old rusty tools from your grandmother’s barn, the discarded shells of sea creatures. As we move, we excavate, opening grave after grave, wanting—through each other—to render it, to render everything—undone, to tend the wounds, to say what lives there still, though neither of us can bear to look. We want to both forgive and be redeemed. But instead, we find the holes where we’ve buried our griefs more unfathomably deep than we imagined, and we turn away.
Jennifer Ansley (they/ them) is faculty in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. Their creative non-fiction and scholarly work has appeared in Scalawag Magazine and New England Quarterly. This piece, like much of their work, is interested in the ways we inadvertently turn from our grief, even as it lives in our bodies and shapes our relationships to people and places.