The May sunshine did little to alleviate the chill breeze rising from the coulee below the abandoned cemetery. The burial ground nestled into a bowl carved from the side of the ridge by a prehistoric landslide. Vibrant green shoots of wild grape and hops vines softened the foundation of the church that had burned down a century ago.
Clara leaned on her cane. She was alone. Plenty of social distance. Her GPS had given her fits while trying to navigate the sparsely signposted back roads. The last time Clara had stood here was nearly 50 years ago when her great-aunt Clara, after whom she had been named, brought her. Gray-green lichen all but obscured the words on the worn headstone beneath her feet, but Clara had come prepared. With a bottle of bleach and a pocket knife, she scoured the stone clean.
Age 3 years, 7 months
Her grandmother’s little brother.
Joints protesting, Clara struggled to her feet. “I shouldn’t be here,” she thought . “I shouldn’t be alive.” She fingered the small scar on her throat. It was almost a match to the one her grandmother Mary had worn almost her whole life. Unbidden, the story rose — a story told so many times it had almost become her own memory. And here, in this empty cemetery, it became more than a memory. It became a vision.
“Clara! Stop hitting me!” The words rose up in seven-year-old Mary’s thoughts but couldn’t make it through a clogged throat and parched lips. The rhythmic pounding between her shoulder blades continued. A warm, wet cloth encompassed her face and finally Mary could open her eyes. But where was she? Not in her own bed. The room was small, white, and strangely foggy. Slowly Mary realized the white ceiling and walls were a bedsheet draped over her parents’ double bed. The fog rose from a tub of steaming water. Mary twisted to look at the source of the pounding and saw her mother, face obscured by a red bandanna. Suddenly, Mary’s body shook as a fit of coughing brought up a disgusting gob of something streaked with blood.
“There now. There now,” Mama crooned. “That’s better.”
Mary coughed again and again, and then, exhausted, sank back into sleep. When Mary next woke, it was to a strange, wheezing, whistling sound. She was no longer alone in the bed. Her brother Joseph lay a few inches away and the sounds were coming from him. But they were also coming from her. Darkness claimed her once more. Over the next two days, awareness returned for only moments at a time — but that was a blessing.
When Mary next woke, the white tent was gone. Gray light seeped the through the thin bedroom curtains. She tried to call for her mother, but could not. Mary touched her neck and found a bandage wrapped around it. She raised herself on one elbow. Across from the bed on a pair of sawhorses was an oblong pine box. Frightened, Mary reached out. Her arm caught the pitcher on the nightstand and swept it to the floor. The crash brought her mother running.
“You’re awake!” Mama felt the girl’s forehead. ” And the fever is gone! Praise God! Well, you can’t stay in here, now. ” Mama gathered her up and as they left the room, Mary could see Joseph sleeping the sleep that has no end in a pine box just large enough for two.
With increasing clarity, Mary thought, “I’m alive!” And then, ” I will live! “
Clara felt chill. Clouds had moved in unnoticed. She shook herself. Now her own memories assailed her. She recalled the days of quarantine, of precautions, of isolation. She was one of the vulnerable ones — over 65, diabetic, auto-immune disease. She had been so cautious yet the virus had found her. She did not recall her nephew discovering her, carrying her to the tiny rural clinic. She did not remember the tracheotomy done in the ambulance because there was no respirator.
But she did remember waking to gray light seeping in through a gap in the hospital room curtains. She remembered the nurse’s startled exclamation, “You’re awake! Praise God!” And the slow days regaining her strength.
“No,” she said to the wind. ” I should be here. I’m alive! I will live! ” Clara laid the bouquet on the small gravestone turned, and made her solitary way to her car.