RATTLES AND THIN AIR by Shawna Flavell

Follow Rt 16 clear out of town then turn left at that gravel road that leads out to the ole Miller farm. There’ll be a row of tree stumps right ‘fore ya turn. Up til a few years ago, those were big magnolias. If ya could bottle the smell of magnolias in the summer, you’d be a rich sonofabitch, I tell ya what. That smell is more intoxicating than that fancy Chanel No. 5. Women pay good money for that stuff. Those new people though, they come along and just hit those trees with a chainsaw. Said they was cutting into their cropland. Now, instead of magnolias all you smell is the pig shit from Crawford’s place.

Ya keep a-heading down that gravel road bout five miles and on your left you’ll see some thick as sin thorn bushes. They block most of ole St. Augie’s cemetery from the road, but mark my word it’s back there. Don’t know if the place ever had a groundskeeper, if it did was before my time, and I couldn’t tell ya the last time someone was buried out that way. Don’t be surprised if all ya find is a bunch of weatherworn tombstones and some overgrown clovers and dandelions.

That there cemetery used to just be a small plot. Belonged to a family by the name of Waters, I do believe. They were wealthy, one of the wealthiest families in the tri-county area. Only ones round here who could afford slaves. Even then had maybe twenty at most. When the Union come marching through, that Waters house was one of the first burned to the ground. They must of had an inkling of what was coming down the pike. They weren’t nowhere to be found when the torches touched the front steps and no one saw hide nor hair of them after.

Slaves up and left too, all cept two black men. Rest might of gone with the Waters or might of set their sights for freedom up north. That’s as much a mystery as why those two men chose to stay. Not clear if they were father and son or brothers or of no relation atall. The only thing anyone knew for sure was that they were slaves and, regardless of kinship, they were close. There was a number of shacks on the property that the Waters used as slave quarters. Most were close behind the main house. Them two men though shared the pump house beside the Waters’ family cemetery plots. Was space enough inside for a single hay mattress, a small table, and two chairs. Wasn’t even a stove for winter, but that’s how they chose to live.

Not one person knows what happen to them neither. They were there for decades, lived in that pump house and tended to the tombs. After the house was gone and no one came back to claim the land, someone just decided to turn that whole piece of property into a big ole cemetery. Still, the men stayed, basically working as groundskeepers free of charge. Never tried to leave and, far as I know, no one asked em to go neither. According to the tale, just one day they up and disappeared. Both gone at the same time. Didn’t take nothing, poof, just rattles and thin air.

Ain’t never seen it myself. When we was kids used to be tales told of how the statues in that place would wake just after sunset on the night of the new moon. Anyone caught wandering the grounds got turned to stone. I was the biggest fraidy cat you ever seen when I was younger. By the time I got old enough to realize it was just a hoax, I was too caught up in girls and work to go pokin around in cemeteries. Might want to check out this year’s Farmers’ Almanac just as a precaution though. Don’t want to be a-reading about the disappearance of an out-of-towner in this week’s paper.

It isn’t that Greg didn’t want to listen to the old man talk. It is that he didn’t ask the old man for anything more than directions, forgetting that people from the south tell tales longer than they are tall.  

“So, I’ll take Rt. 16 out of town, head down the road to the Miller place and I’ll run into the cemetery?”

The old man squinted from the shadow of his old Pioneer Grain hat, his whole face constricting like a car caught in the steel teeth of a compactor. Greg was already one leg back in his car by the time the old man started to nod. It didn’t matter one bit that he had no idea which gravel road led to the Miller place. As luck would have it, it was easy for him for figure out once the promised ripe smell of acres of pig shit came wafting through his unrolled windows. Sensory details like that are the ones that stick with a person.

The bramble and vines were thicker than thieves down most of the spur road, conspiring together to keep the wandering eyes of passersby wandering anywhere else but here. The needle on the speedometer dropped to 15 as Greg strained to catch a glimpse of granite or marble rising from the concealed acres.

He had a debt to settle. Sometimes what defines a good man is the work he puts into righting his family’s wrongs, and Greg had a lot of repenting to do for his family’s sins. This trip though; if you’re a bible-fearing man than this trip was the equivalent of washing himself in the waters of Jordan. Once he was done here, he could go back home and rest for a spell.

Greg had heard the stories about the Saint Augustine Cemetery and he dug to fill in the craters that others left gaping open. The two men who worked the cemetery grounds and were now characters in local folklore had indeed been slaves that belonged to the Waters family. What no one else knew, or what no one else cared to sort out, is that the men had names and they had stories and those things didn’t disappear when the two of them vanished.

Joe Buxley had been with the Waters since he was old enough to split wood. His shoulders were broad as an ax and he could carry more weight on his back than a mule. He’d have been a force to be reckoned had it not been for the fact that any sort of rebellion or fight he might have been born with had been whipped, humiliated, and burned out of him long before the Civil War came to its end. He was a model slave; kept his eyes cast on his work and never did anything without proper permission. His responses were all “Yes, Mam,”s and “No, Sir”s and he’d never once tried to run.

Wesley Norris had grey at his temples and a hunch to his shoulders. Across his back was a net of scars woven together piece-by-piece each time he tried to run or a master made an example out of him. The moment he belonged to the Waters they too made him an example. They knew his history and within an hour of his arrival they had their blacksmith sear off both of his big toes with a freshly forged blade still orange from the forge. It made him too slow for outdoors work, but since they didn’t need to worry about him taking off with any belongings they put him up in the house to shine boots and scrub floors.

There wasn’t much Wesley and Joe had in common: not their age, not their origins, not their jobs. They did share a weakness though. And that weakness put them in the places they are now.

There wasn’t much in the way of good that any black man, woman, or child could say about the Waters. They did not hesitate to lash, maim, confine, or persecute anyone of color the instant they could. As was the case across the south, this tyranny impacted any romantic relations their slaves might build. The Waters did nothing to stop relationships among those in their possession. The opposite was true; they encouraged them. Couples on their property were given small privileges that others were not afforded. Things like rags they could use for curtains and a few extra ounces of meat in their monthly rations. It was no secret that their motive was not kindness but money—they hoped for babies they could sell and never hesitated to auction off one half of a couple to someone out of state if it benefited them.

Every slave couple in every state knew that forming a bond with someone was setting yourself up for heartbreak, but the allure of human connection in inhumane circumstances was impossible for most to pass up. So was the case with Joe and Wesley. Each man took a wife and, as luck would have it, both were due children as the Union Army reclaimed the south.

With no other slave villages for miles, it took longer for the freedom proclamation to travel to the Waters’ place than it did plantations and farms that sat in clusters. The moment word hit though those who could run ran and those the Waters could shoot were shot. Wesley tried talking his wife into running, “Now your chance. Go on, get on up n outa here,” but she knew she wouldn’t make it against the team of hounds she heard baying from the west every night since they learned of their impending freedom. Joe, ever obedient, waited with his wife for permission to leave.

The Waters caught rumor of Union Soldiers still taking prisoners, even though the war was over, as they marched through and freed slaves. When they could see the smoke of burning houses rising along the horizon, they hitched up their mules to two wagons. While one was for the family to ride in, the other was loaded with essentials, valuables, Mrs. Buxley, and Mrs. Norris.

Four Waters’ generations were buried in their family plot. While not particularly religious, the Waters were not about to let their family name be reclaimed by Mother Nature if they never found their way back home. And so they tied up the women in the wagon and drove the men to the pump house at gun point. Along the route, promises were made. The men were told the Waters were leaving for just a short while, that there would be a chance they could return before either baby was born, that once they returned the men would be reunited with their wives. They were told that all they had to do was live in the pump house and make sure the cemetery remained untouched by anyone but them. The two men, possibly because they believed the Waters, more likely because they were terrified for their wives’ lives, didn’t put up a fight. They stood next to the wooden, windowless building they would soon call home and watched their women and unborn children bounce along on the floor of a wagon while the nice silver and the potato crate sat on the wooden bench seat.

It is after the Waters left that Greg’s version of the story, while the most complete, is a little fuzzy around the edges. Joe and Wesley kept their forced end of the deal, tended the family’s gravestones, but for just how long is unknown. The Waters never returned, that’s for certain. When the land was bought from the county Joe and Wesley were still living on site, but that’s the last moment anyone can recall with any sort of reliability that the men were there.

There are a handful of tales floating around about what happened to the men after the cemetery was bought, but the story Greg believed to be true, the reason he parked his car along some ditch beside a gravel road in West Virigina was this:

The two men watched with some satisfaction as the flames crept up the sides of the Waters house. Even from as far back as the cemetery, when the entire house was ablaze they could hear the crackling and the heat could be felt across their faces. One fire will steal energy from another until the smaller is consumed however. As they watched the first floor of the house slowly devour the second and as the fire’s fuel started to wane so did their hopes of being reunited with their families. The men knew it was easier to start over than it was to try and rebuild, that without a house to come home to the Waters really had no reason to return. But the embers of hope remained stoked for several years; they didn’t feel they had another choice. The men feared the punishment that would fall on their wives if the family returned and they were gone. They didn’t know where to start looking for their families other than to turn left at the end of the drive. They agreed that their best option was to wait, to tend to the cemetery as they had been told, and to pray.

As the years compounded, Wesley started to get sick.  It was a slow illness, the kind that gradually eats away at something on your insides, something you don’t know you have until it starts to hurt and deteriorate. On his good days he had his morning cup of coffee and went along with his day; but he had bad days too, days where he laid in bed covered in sweat and retching bile into a bucket. It was when the bad days started to outnumber the good that the men decided their prayers were being heard by the wrong God. A malicious God. A God who would never bring their babies back to them.

Together they decided to turn to different Gods. Gods who asked more from them than just prayers. Gods who required rituals and sacrifices and late night communications. Gods who demanded that you work for your reward. No strangers to work, Joe and Wesley committed their time to appeasing these Gods, to figuring a way to meet their children.  

What they settled on was a way where nothing, not even death, could move them from their post. Their wives knew where they were, surely their children had been told too. If they wandered, there was a chance their paths would never cross theirs. It wasn’t the waiting that bothered them, it was the thought that they wasted time waiting. The only way to keep from feeling like they should have done something else was to keep doing the thing they had always been doing.

And so, the men set to seal their fates. On the night of the new moon, they stood on either side of the cemetery gate. The moon was a shard amongst the stars and darkness circled them, creeping in closer as they got deeper into the night. In one hand, each man held a rabbit by its hind legs, the animal thrusting its body in an attempt to escape as it dangled upside down. In the other, each man held a sharpened stone. They had practiced the ritual nightly for a month. They had been unable to find anything that would allow a person to bind himself to a place. The only way they were going to make this happen was if each man bound the other. This meant that each man was working to seal the others fate and that timing had to be perfect. A second’s mistake would leave one of them eternally on the lookout until his family released him while the other had to deal with mortality.

Shrieks,
Smooth slices across rabbits’ flesh
Blood pooling at each man’s feet.
Chanting: rhythm and repetition.
Staring, waiting, hoping.
Fear echoing louder than any other night air noise.Silence.
***

Greg closed the trunk of his car, looked both ways, and then crossed the road. He could tell it had been some time since anyone tried walking into the cemetery from the path that lead up to it. Brambles hadn’t had time to take over yet, but the vines were overgrown and require some light tugging to move through. About an 8th of a mile in front of him were the gates to the cemetery, put in some time after it became more than just a family plot, and two stone statues.

Behind the gates, moss coated tombstones rose out of the ground, many of them looking like they were struggling to stay upright. Greg was never able to find anything that substantiated the rumors that Joe and Wesley turned cemetery trespassers to stone. There wasn’t a single spell or hex he ran across in his research that turned your victim into stone while also giving them the ability to turn others on the one night a month they were allowed to wake. Here now, he could see where that belief originated. Statues seemed to walk among the dead here, their placement not following the row by row pattern deemed suitable for burials. No two were alike, at least not that he could see. Each possessed a different expression, many of them easily interpreted at terror, and a unique stature. There was a girl stooped over, as if picking something up, only her hands were atop her head. Another was a girl caught in the middle of looking over her shoulder, her eyes wide and wild. The thought that Joe and Wesley could have spent over a hundred years turning children to stone because they were reaching out to see if any of them were their own was enough to give Greg pause. He reached into his pocket and stroked a swath of fabric before continuing forward.

There was no knowing for sure if the statues at the gate were Joe and Wesley, but it was undeniable that they were made in the image of men with African heritage. The cheek bones were bold; the noses, despite the one on the left having a chip, were broad; the hair was taut curls; and both bore a look of determination that only comes from years of someone or something trying to destroy you. They were also dressed peculiarly for cemetery guardians. The clothes they were carved were bedraggled scraps of fabric, Greg could see the patchwork along the pants and the crude stitches that held the sleeves on the shirts.

Those details were all Greg needed.

He had no way to know with certainty which statue was which man, but the one on the left side had sallow eyes and its face drooped, either from age or illness. From his pocket he pulled that swatch of fabric, a blue gingham print square that had been faded by the sun. He’d found it in a chest in a New York City attic. It was the only item that Greg had been able to trace back to Evelyn Norris. Evelyn had worn that scrape of fabric on her head as an infant. After she lost a battle with the chicken pox when she was two, that fabric square was the one thing her ma kept because it smelled like her baby’s scalp. Greg placed the fabric square across the outstretched fingers of the statue he guessed to be Wesley and then walked to the statue on the right.

From his back pocket, Greg pulled an envelope debossed in gold with the words Vital Records. That envelope held two death certificates that bore the same date, one for an Antony Buxley and a fetal death certificate issued to a Jane Doe. Greg looked at the envelope briefly, tapped its edge against his palm twice, and then knelt down to place it at the feet of the statue he believed to be Joe Buxley.

He made the symbol of the holy trinity as he stood. The sun was making its way over the western tree line and soon the new moon would be a quick cut in the night sky. The temptation to witness folklore come to life, if indeed it was factual, wasn’t enough to keep Greg around longer. His work there was done and he turned to start his journey home.  

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