The gate hung open, its two large sides slanted at an odd angle to the ground. Alice ran her fingers across the rusty iron, peering through the slats.
"Wow," she sighed, taking in the debris that littered the grass of the vast cemetery, beneath the giant oak trees and Spanish moss.
There was a sadness about her today, completely justified, but still difficult for me to watch. I hated to see my love in pain. She needed time to process all of the missing pieces to the puzzle of her past. God knows she gave me the space I needed to slay my army of demons. I could give her a little time deal with hers. She stared, unfocused into the enclosure before us.
The gate couldn't close anymore. One of its hinges had completely broken away from the stone it had been attached to. That side nearly rest on the ground now, tangled in a pile of fallen branches, and tall grass. I gently pushed the other side, and it creaked loudly, rattling in my hands. Alice jumped slightly at the screech, and I laid my hand on her shoulder. I took care with the rusty gate: I could have easily pushed it open, but it felt wrong to use such force in a graveyard, even one as run down as this.
There was now a two-foot passage through. Alice leaned her head against the cool metal. I grasped her hand.
She looked up at me, nodding faintly.
I squeezed her hand, and stepped into the cemetery, looking around. "I wonder where…" It was a very large cemetery, on hilly, uneven ground, so this could be a long search.
"It's by a cluster of four oak trees," Alice told me. She stared absently to the south, towards the water. The stormy grey of the sky cast a pallor on the churning dark blue of the sound. It wasn't raining now, but had been all day. This was a small storm that paled in comparison to what this ravaged area had seen. I wondered whether we would find what we were looking for intact, when so much around us lay in fragments.
I scanned the horizon, lighting upon four oaks towering over a lower portion of the cemetery, some quarter mile away. I pang of trepidation escaped Alice as I took a step in the direction of the soaring trees, and she saw what I was looking at. She laced her fingers through mine, and squeezed tightly. We made our way along the path, stepping over branches and moss. There were some beautiful monuments, isolated from the rest by small square fences of iron. Even these memorials of wealth were in poor shape, brutalized by category 5 winds. Some of the older stones tilted off at peculiar angles, in some cases completely snapped in half.
I paused when we reached the first tree, and looked down at my wife. Alice looked warily at the cluster of markers before us. We were in a fairly old part of the cemetery, not the oldest, but still old enough to be extremely fragile. Fragments of gravestones lay strewn amidst their bases, many of the names no longer legible.
"It's in the third row on the right. Five in from the tree," Alice said softly, letting go of my hand.
We both looked at the lines of stones before us, counting in our heads until our eyes landed on the same askew marker. It stood like a jagged spike, a large portion of its right side broken away. I hoped for Alice's sake that the rest of the stone was on the grass beside it. Her anxiety spiked, and I couldn't help wrapping my arm around her again. She let her cheek fall on my chest.
"You don't have to, you know," I offered, giving her an out.
She was silent for a moment, contemplating. "No, I want to…" she decided, finally.
I nodded, pulling her close, and kissing the top of her head. After a moment, she unwounded herself from my embrace, and clasped my hand. She led me down the row to the weathered stone. The left side bore some resemblance to the pretty arch it once was, while the right side was a jagged diagonal. On the grass at the base, were four large hunks of the same thin granite.
I knelt to examine them. It was a fairly new break. "I think it was intact till the hurricane. This is all recent." Despite the slightly worn edges, they fit together nicely to completely the stone jigsaw puzzle.
Alice stood behind me, wrapping her arms around my neck, and resting her chin on the top of my head. "It's so worn."
I carefully lifted the pieces one by one, and lay them on the main stone. It was precarious, but they stayed. I kissed her forearm. Even with the wear and tear from the elements, the inscription was faintly legible.
Mary Alice Brandon
Alice gasped, clenching my shoulder as soon as she read it. The pain she felt was surging. I growled at the adjective in the epitaph. Beloved. What kind of parents hid their beloved fifteen year-old daughter in an asylum and claimed she'd died? We already knew that the date on her admission form matched the listed date of her death in the local paper, copies of all of that were in a folder in the bag slung from my shoulder. It was one thing to see it in print, quite another to see it memorialized in stone.
Alice released my shoulders, and knelt at my side, her tiny thigh pressed against mine on the sodden grass. She ran her fingers lightly over the inscription, anger surging as she reached the word beloved. I wanted to calm her. I wanted to take her in my arms, and numb the pain away. But I knew she wasn't ready for that, so I clenched my jaw and closed my eyes, taking a deep breath of the humid air to calm myself so that I would be steady when she needed me.
After a moment, I felt her cool hand on my cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "This must be awful for you, feeling all this."
"It's not about me," I told her, opening my eyes and looking in to hers.
"Thank you," she murmured, turning back to the headstone. "For letting me feel this. I know it's hard for you to let me hurt…I needed this."
"I know." My hand found the small of her back and she leaned slightly into my touch.
We knelt there in silence for a long time, me studying Alice studying the stone that stood as a remembrance of her former life. A fifteen year-old girl that was left alone in an asylum, while her parents declared her dead. It disgusted me.
The sky began to spit at us, and it pulled Alice out of her trance. "Do you have the…?" she asked.
I nodded, pulling from my bag a pad of paper and box of crayons that we'd picked up from the drugstore. I torn the wrapper off the purple one, her favorite, and handed it to her. "I'll hold it up from the other side."
Carefully, she ran the side of the crayon along the paper over the stone, as I braced it from behind.
Holding up her rubbing, Alice nodded. "That's as good as its going to get with all the cracks."
I took the paper from her, and put it in the folder with all of our other findings from Biloxi. She took my hand, and led me back toward the tree. Alice tensed for a moment, lost in a vision, as we reached the path, then quickly stepped back to pick a few of the wildflowers from under the giant oak.
"There's one more thing I want to do," she told me, taking my hand again, and leading me down a different path, to a newer section of the cemetery. These stones were thicker, sturdier, with dates of death in the 1940's. Alice was sure of her path, and even before she stopped at the stone, I knew what it would read. Brandon. Below that were the names of her mother and father, with their dates of birth and death, and a passage from the bible.
Alice looked intently at the stone, then cleared away some of the Spanish moss that had fallen on it. She repeated the process with the crayon, and lay the small bouquet of wildflowers on the base, giving it one last look, before turning her gaze up to me.
"I've made my peace," she declared, tucking the new rubbing into my bag.
And she had. For the first time all day there was a tranquility about her, a calm that was all her own. Her eyes had some of their usual sparkle back. I smiled as she wrapped her arms around my waist, cheek to my chest, and led me out of the cemetery. She was so strong, so brave to come here and seek out all the answers to her unknown past, when what little she knew of it was full of pain.
I kissed the top of her head. "You're amazing," I whispered.
A sigh escaped her lips now, as she buried her head further into my chest. "I couldn't have done this without you."
We stood there, just outside the gate, wrapped in each other's arms, alone in the rain, until it began to get dark.