A Silence of Angels
“Within its gates I heard the sound
Of winds in cypress caverns caught
Of huddling tress that moaned, and sought
To whisper what their roots had found.
(“A Dream of Fear”)”
― George Sterling, The Thirst of Satan: Poems of Fantasy and Terror
There is something about a graveyard, something which repels or attracts. Some people love them, some people cannot stay away. They wander (for I have observed them from near the entrance), in a state of near-euphoria, stopping here, scuttling there, plucking at the dry threads of memory woven into the dusty silence within the walls of the cemetery. Some come to reminisce and recollect at the faded shrines of ancestors or friends.
The rest of us stay away wherever and whenever possible, and only come when there is a reason. It is probably because graveyards remind us of the shortening length of our own mortal coil, which is burning ever closer to its nub. The journey outwards is the journey inwards. I don’t really want to go there, but go there I must and go there I will.
My sister came to visit me. She hadn’t been here for many years, really not since we had left the district as young children, so we went for a drive. I was keen to show her the secret corners and the places we both knew as children. We visited the hospital where we were both born and made a selfie to mark the occasion, and my phone stayed smart for the moment. We visited the mud-brick home where we had begun our life journey. Its new owner was happy to show us around and point out the alterations which had been made, to talk of how warm it was in winter-as long as the fire was never allowed to go out, of how, when it was left for a week in winter, it reverted to being an icebox. Then we wandered around and down the valley, as I pointed out the old gold workings and water races built by hand to feed the sluices.
We slid down the yellow dust of Ridge Road, with the sentient bulk of the Kakanuis keeping pace and slid by Waipiata to the south and tiptoed up onto the front face of the Rock and Pillar Range. Why not complete the circle, I thought, so I took us up through and past the old sanatorium, established in the late 1800’s to do good, but which had become a boys’ home and done bad. Now it lay there, dusty and furtive, with dark, ugly secrets oozing from every pore, while a Christian community slid along its slick rejecting surface, seemingly oblivious to the darkness which dwelt there. O we have cleared it, they happily told me. All the evil has gone. You reckon, I thought to myself, as I watched things flickering on the edge of my consciousness.
Now stopped in the middle of the road, I sensed that the ugliness might have pulled back into the shadows, but it was still there, brooding, watching. I suddenly saw Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, trapped in the haunted Overlook Hotel for the winter with his family, as he descends into madness. I shuddered and drove on.
Do you do graveyards? I asked, hoping she would say no.
Yes, I like looking around them.
I winced inwardly and turned off the road onto the grass track which led down to the cemetery. Hamilton’s Cemetery, the sign said. I explained how the town was once busy and thriving on the southern edge of the gold belt which crossed the island, of how this place had long been the graveyard for the people who lived close by, in a time when people spent their whole lives in one place and intermarried with people from other villages in the valley, when “a trip to town” meant going into Ranfurly a few miles away and how the phrase now means Dunedin, a drive of an hour–and-a-half.
This was a Pakeha cemetery. An ūrupa (Māori cemetery) would have had some water at the gate to enable the tapu to be washed away.
The drystone walling around the graveyard spoke of history past and passed. The wrought-iron gates stood black and silent. Above me the wide–open stare of the Maniototo sky had taken on the milky opacity of cataracts, and the clouds were clumping into mobs of sky sheep.
I looked for my angel.
There she was with her back to me. It had been at least 5 years since we had last confronted each other, since she had whispered of the invisible thread which joins past, present and future as she hovered over the grave of an early settler. She had watched people come and go, the sky turn and swirl, and observed the seasons cycle from one to the other. And all the time the memory she guarded had continued to fade.
I approached and went around to the front of the grave. She was there, as immobile and alabaster as ever. Perhaps a little more lichen was forming on her. Other than that, nothing much had changed.
The grave she guarded, however, was much the worse for time. The concrete slab had erupted, blown up and sideways as if the inhabitant had made a break from his rest, as if some…thing had tried to escape. The concrete surround was fractured and damaged. I glanced back at the angel, but she was giving nothing away. She was condemned to a role which would only cease when she too was carried away by Time.
I went back to the truck for my camera.
It seemed somehow sacrilegious to photograph the grave, so I carefully kept my camera up above the horizon. I knelt on the straw-coloured grass, which had no give in it at all, was as rough as five-day stubble, and did its best to puncture my kneecaps. My angel maintained her wearied leaning against the cross. She had done enough and was ready to go home. Above her the sky swirled and turned in the dry afternoon light. That is where I want to be, she seemed to say. Job done. Can I go home now, she seemed to be saying to the Man Upstairs. She turned her back on me. I am weary. Do you really have to? Well, just be quick.
Then it was time to go, to wander away across the drought-seared land into the afternoon and roam under the brassy light.
Behind me, in the dessicated silence, the angel waited patiently for her time to return home.