Why, yes, I'd be glad of a ride up to the graveyard this year. I druther walk like I usually do but seems like I can't hardly go today. The wet weather we had back of this has brung on my arthuritis like one thing.
Do I have some more stories for you about the folks buried up there? Oh, honey, that place is plumb full of stories and we ain't to the end of them by a far piece. Just let me get my coat on . . .
I'll begin with Cletus and Luther and my angels whilst you walk about -- I know how you like to make pictures and that cold snap has purely turned the maple into a blaze of glory, now ain't it? Puttin' on that last bit of fancy dress afore the bare bones of winter.
Have you a good look around and see if any of these graves sets you to wondering. Like I said, they's stories to tell for every one of them . . .
At one recent marker though, Birdie simply shook her head, chuckled, and moved on, leaving no cake.
There's a story there, I bet. I'll ask her.
The shadows were lengthening as Miss Birdie neared the upper edge of the old graveyard where the markers were older and mostly untended: some evidently homemade, some no more that a large rock in the tall grass.
Well now, did you get you some pictures? I'm ready to set a spell. This bench the church folks put up last year is right welcome. Let's have us some of this good cake while I catch my breath.
How come I not to leave cake at that new headstone down there? Honey, they ain't no one buried there. Oh, there's a name and dates all right but . . . well this was the story I heard.
It happened back a few months. Rawly Snelson and a bunch of his buddies was hoorahing around. They had told their wives that they was fox hunting and they had brought along some dogs to let loose -- this ridge the graveyard's on is a fine place to hear the hounds chase a fox. That sweet music echoes all around up here.
Nah, they don't kill the varmint. The fox always gets away when he's had enough of the chase. The men do it purely for the sound of the dogs baying and they kin tell one from another by their sound. But the reason Rawly and his buddies loved to fox hunt so good was that they could build a fire and set around it and drink beer and cuss and pass around a jar of white liquor. Every one of them has a wife who is dead set against drinking and cussing and Rawly's wife hadn't spoke to him in days on account of she wanted to go visit her family in Mills River and Rawly kept putting her off.
So, honey, this was the boys' night out and they was making the most of it, down there on that little flat spot outside the graveyard -- right near where you parked your vehicle.
The way I heard it was that they was all of them right far gone when they took to daring one another to go and walk amongst the gravestones without no flashlight. Grown men, would you credit it! So after a lot of elbowin' and bold talk, Rawly ups and says 'I'll do 'er. Ain't no ghost gone mess with me.'
And off he goes without a flashlight nor even a match for they made him turn out his pockets and leave his lighter and matches behind too.
It was black dark for the moon had already set and Rawly had to most feel his way up the path to the graveyard. But time he topped the rise, he could just make out the gravestones, kindly glowing pale against the dark, and he set in to make his way through them like he had vowed to do.
He was past the first few rows where all them Cantrells is buried but all of a sudden something come swooping down just brushing by his head and not making the least sound.
'Ooooh!' cries Rawly, who is having second thoughts now. He turns to go back to the campfire, figgering he'll get to the edge of the grave yard and stay out of sight of the others till enough time has passed that he can claim to have got to the far side and back.
And then he sees something. He can just barely make it out, dark as the night is, but it is white, near bout man-size and fluttering in the wind just a few feet off the ground. It ain't got nare head but one arm lifts and waves, like it was calling to him.
"Oh, Lord!" cries Rawly and commences to run.
But now he is bumfuzzled and in a hurry and he trips over a quartz rock -- that one yonder for the Bedford baby, its poor folks both passed away from the Spanish Influenza not long after it died and no one ever thought to give the baby a better stone.
Where was I? Oh, yes, he trips over the stone and takes a tumble right into Miz Clara Clemmons new dug grave -- she was to be buried the day after next and the fellers digging it hadn't finished the tidying up.
Between the fright and the white liquor, Rawly passes out there at the bottom of that six foot hole and it ain't till nigh daybreak that he come to.
Why didn't his friends come looking for him? Well, I never could get the truth of that. Either they was too drunk themselves or too skeered or, and this is how they told it, they thought he'd played a trick on them and walked home. so when their dogs begun to straggle back and the jar of white was empty, they all began to think that home and bed was where they'd like to be too. And off they went.
So just at first light, Rawly begins to stir. The hard clay he's laying on is none too pleasing and his head is aching and his mouth feels like something crawled in it and died. And he lays there and it comes to him that maybe it's him has died. He is afraid to open his eyes but he reaches out and feels the cold, slick clay walls to either side of him.
"Oh, Lord!" cries Rawly. "I'm too young to die in such a foolish way. Lord, save a sinner! I swear, if you'll but give me another chance, I'll be a better man. I'll cut out the drinkin' and cussin', Lord. I'll go to church with Nelly every Sunday and Wednesday too, Lord! Yes, and revivals -- whatever that good woman asks of me, I'll do 'er."
Rawly still has his eyes squinched shut, kindly waiting to get some answer from the Lord but nothing is happening. Finally he says, "And, Lord, I'll even move to Mills River like Nelly wants and go to work for her daddy like she's been after me to do ever since we was wed. (Even though that old man is mean as a snake,)" he says quiet-like so the Lord won't hear. "I promise, Lord, I'll be a new man."
All of a sudden he feels cold water pouring over his face and the shock of it makes him open his eyes. He looks up to see blue sky and what he takes for an angel, dazzling in the light of the rising sun, standing there on the edge of the grave with a watering can in its hand.
"Get up out of there, Rawly Snelson," the angel says.
And praising the Lord, Rawly clambers out of the grave and goes to fall on his knees before the angel till he see it ain't no angel but one of the Dotson girls standing there.
"I reckon it's a good thing I decided to come along early to water the azaleas on Mommy's grave," said she. "No telling how long you'd have laid there making all kinds of promises."
Rawly is blinking in the sunlight and wondering if those promises count since it's only Ceely Dotson and not an angel after all. He rubs his chin with one hand and looks around, trying to understand what has happened. Next to the hole he spent the night in is a pile of dirt with a long handled shovel stuck in it. A dirty white shirt droops from the handle.
Ceely Dotson looks him up and down. "Rawly Snelson, you got that second chance you asked for. I'm happy for you and I can't wait to tell Nellie and all the folks at church that you are a new man. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, ain't that the truth!"
And, honey, Rawly is. Least far as I know. Him and Nellie up sticks and moved not a week later. But she paid for that marker to be set up near the grave where Rawly's old life ended. Hand me my stick and you can read for yourself what it says as we pass by.
As they made their way through the shadows back to the waiting jeep, they paused at the marker. The polished black headstone bore a simple inscription :
Rawly Snelson - 1991 - 2017 - ?
Born Again and Gone to Mills River.