Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie. . .
It was late afternoon when I walked through the gates of the cemetery: the autumn leaves were in full color, bloody splashes of red, brilliant orange, and warm rust tones against a sky so blue it burned my eyes.
I knew which grave I sought, but the young boy who was standin’ in the midst of all those graves didn’t seem to. He was a redhead–like me–and husky–like me. When I had gone away he was just a baby.
He was turnin’ around in circles, and I noticed on one pass that he had a bouquet of flowers in his hands. Chrysanthemums, they were, their colors as vivid as the leaves and with bright spots of purple and yellow among the reds and rusts. Fresh-cut, too; they were in a fancy cut-glass vase, half-full of clear water.
I didn’t mean to speak to him, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I called to him, “What you lookin’ for, son?”
He looked up, startled. “Where’d you–” He stopped, afraid he sounded rude. “My mom was aimin’ to come over here and put these on my uncle’s grave today, but she’s sick and couldn’t get here. So she sent me, but I cain’t find the name she said, and I’ve looked all over this place!”
I smiled; couldn’t help it. “What was your uncle’s name, son?”
“Robert,” he said. “Robert Smith. He was her younger brother.”
“Your mama cain’t be too old,” I said. “He must have died awful young.”
“Yeah,” he said, frowning a little. “He went away to the war when I was just barely a month old. He was a sailor, they say, and his ship went down somewhere in the Pacific with all hands. They put up a tombstone fer ‘im somewhere in this graveyard, but danged if I can find it.”
“So he’s not really buried here?”
“Naw. Never got his body back.”
“Did you look over there by the fence? That looks an awful lot like a fam’ly plot, and I b’lieve one of them tall stones says ‘Smith’ on it.”
He looked in the direction I was pointin’. “Well, I’ll be dadblamed, it does, don’t it?”
He walked toward the Smith plot, and sure enough, right there closest to the fence, there was a marble stone with a simple inscription:
Robert Ezra Smith
Born June 19th, 1925
Lost at sea July 1945
“That’s it,” the boy said with satisfaction. He sat the vase down into a little hole, like, right against the stone. “That’s it.”
“Sad, to be lost at sea,” I said.
“Yeah. It still bothers Mama and Mamaw somethin’ awful, that they ain’t got noplace to remember him–not a right grave to visit him at.” He looked up at me, and I marveled at the blue of his eyes, blue as the sky, like mine. “Did you know Uncle Bobby?”
“Yeah. I did.” I smiled at him. “You look an awful lot like him.”
“That’s what Mamaw always says,” he grumbled. “I never seen no pitchers of him, but she says I do.”
“Aw, she’s got pitchers,” I said. “When you go home, tell her to get them out and show you. You’ll see. It’ll be like lookin’ in a mirror.”
“Huh,” he said, as if he wasn’t sure what half of what I was sayin’ to believe. “I believe I’ll do that. What’s your name, mister, so I can tell Mamaw?”
“Aw, she won’t remember,” I said. “But son–”
“Tell her one thing for me.”
“All right, mister.”
“It’s a line from a poem,” I said. “And tell your mama, too.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Tell ’em home is the sailor.”
“Home is the sailor,” he repeated. “And they’ll know what I’m talkin’ about?”
I nodded. “They’ll know.”
I watched him go back toward the church, and on past it toward the road and the houses beyond.
I knew that soon, his mama and his grandmother would be coming to this grave.
I was home.
Home is the sailor, home from sea. . .
This story is inspired by–of course–Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Requiem”, by a story about a ghostly sailor from James V. Burchill, Linda J. Crider and Peggy Kendrick’s 1997 book The Cold, Cold Hand, and by a tombstone in a graveyard that marks no grave, not two miles from where I sit typing; the young man it memorializes was lost with USS Indianapolis in 1945, at the end of World War II.
Today we have buried one of our own in Knobite Corner, one who has come home: Marine Lance Corporal Franklin N. Watson, killed on September 24, 2011 in Afghanistan.
Remember him and his family and friends in your prayers today.
And remember those, too, who never came home–save, perhaps, in spirit.
Copyright 2011 by Faire Lewis