ONE NIGHT IN HIGHLAND CEMETERY
“So where,” asked Sophie, meeting Logan at the school gates after a late evening class came to a close, “did you say we’re going?”
“You’ll see,” said Logan, swinging his backpack and leading the way.
“It’s a secret?”
“I hear that secrecy gains the applause of females.”
“Nothing, nothing. We’re going, I thought I told you, to Highland Cemetery.”
“Wait until you hear what’s happening. It’s the feast day or festival of a nameless local ghost, though the tradition, if it can be called that, has been maintained for many years. I don’t know how long and I haven’t met anyone who identified the origin. I only heard of it myself around this time last year. What happens is people gather around a chestnut tree in Highland Cemetery where, so the story goes, a man hanged himself from the chestnut that stands in one corner. It’s said to be haunted, and that if people gather and chant certain words his disturbed spirit is summoned to life again. Some have claimed to have witnessed his ghost moving among the gravestones.”
“So it’s like a cult?”
“More of a following fellowship.”
“But that’s what a cult is, isn’t it?”
They passed in that crepuscular hour the moored barges along the canal embossed with the names of Minnow, Woodstock, Mercury, Kingfisher, Ratty and Buttermere Rose, from which communal songs came and to which split logs were trussed: one even fixed with a hencoop on its roof. An almost imperceptible shower had awoken fresh fragrances from the trees and Sophie felt free in the suffused scent of hawthorn and wild garlic that sprouted tall from the unkempt grasses along the water’s edge.
“Oh I love my life!” – her voice almost the melody of song.
“Me too. Mine, I mean.” He smiled.
Azure damsel flies zigzagged between the soft glow of kingcup and yellow iris before these natural lamps dimmed in the mellowing light of day.
“Do you know then, Logan, which is a chestnut tree?”
“I know this particular tree, it’s huge with big roots, but yes, I do know chestnut trees because the fruits give them away.”
“Conkers! You must have played at conkers, Sophie?”
“Oh of course! Silly me. I remember my Dad telling me about trees when I was quite young. I wish I could remember all their names and features.”
“My parents knew your Dad and spoke fondly of him. Do you miss him?”
Sophie nodded. “You remind me a little of him in some ways, though I couldn’t say how. An air of reserve, perhaps.”
“An air of reserve!” Logan laughed, “I like that.”
Logan spoke slowly, and when Sophie responded he had a manner of watching her lips, which at first gave her the impression he anticipated kissing her, though at other times she thought he watched her lips to concentrate his attention on what she was saying. Sophie hummed a lullaby while they walked, and Logan, a singer himself in a band at school, listened intently and quietly.
“I always like walking along this canal, especially at night,” said Logan. “There’s a Latin phrase I learnt, solvitur ambulando. It means the solution is in the walking.”
“You shouldn’t walk by the water at night, it’s dangerous,” said Sophie.
“I’ve done it many times. It’s probably no more dangerous than the streets. I admit it’s not wise for girls to walk alone at night generally. It’s a shame for you really, it’s one of my favourite things to do; it’s so peaceful.”
After a while they turned off at a stile down a narrow passage and came to the graveyard gates.
“Here we are,” he opened the gate for her to walk through. She curtsied in affected courtesy.
“Thank you, my lord.”
He admired her impulsive playfulness; she was at times like a kitten with a clump of wool and was complimented by his relative composure. He privately wrote poems that commemorated her berry-red lips, her buttercup-bright hair, but was too shy to show them to her or indeed anyone else.
The sky had grown dark now. With the rusty iron creak of the gate Sophie sensed she was entering a mysterious place, hallowed, reverential, and a change occurred inside her. Spiky teasels and thistles tufted about her amid the thriving masses of coiling weeds. Crooked and amorphous trees loomed, changing shape in the slow breeze. A pallid moth flittered among the stones. Even in darkness Sophie could tell the cemetery was vast and labyrinthine, populated with the named and forgotten, the endless dead. Dark sharp leaves hung like broken bottle glass about her. Some grave slabs were anonymous, erased and eroded by centuries of rain and creeping lichens. Some were small, beneath the height of Sophie’s knee, lopsided and cracked, which she guessed marked the graves of infants. The names Matilda Ann, Charlotte Carson and Harriet Moss were once names in a school register, like hers. Within the clutch and spidery latticing of creeper the dead were conjoined, uniform, their common semblance sharing the dichotomy of static stone and vital organic vegetation in the mute and mottled tombstone isles. A lifeless brash of crepitant whips crumpled underfoot as they walked.
“And this,” Logan said, “is the tree.”
Sophie looked up. She didn’t know the trees by name, and Logan had waited until they were within its compass to introduce her to it, for although it was night the leafy torso of the tree radiated its own peculiar darkness which was like a black hole in the dimly starred cosmos, in which even the eerie moon was barren of all but its own luminosity. The quiet was trespassed upon only by the secret foraging of tiny hidden shrews.
“We have to hold hands and say a spell while circling the tree three times.”
Sophie gave a comic grimace, not quite knowing what to expect or quite how to behave, but just then, in the far perimeter of the graveyard, she noticed a coasting torchlight in the opposite corner of the graveyard.
Logan grabbed her by her wrist and pulled her behind a large nameless tombstone. They could hear voices approaching and they crouched, frozen still as the gravestones themselves. When the rim of the torchlight slid over and across the gravestone they hid behind, Logan dared to peep from behind the stone. But he was seen.
“Hey!” called a man’s voice.
Logan wanted to run but his limbs were suddenly rigid and he couldn’t risk Sophie not escaping with him, so he simply stood and faced the three figures in silhouette.
“What do we have here then?” said the first man.
A second turned the torchlight to search Logan’s and Sophie’s faces. “A boy and girl, it seems. And what do you think you’re up to, out here in a dark graveyard? Do you know where it is you stand? Do you know what happens here?”
“Yes sir. Well, I’ve heard some things at least,” hesitated Logan.
“Wait a minute,” spoke a third. “The girl. I know that face. That’s the professor’s daughter.”
“So it is!” exclaimed the man in glasses.
Sophie, visibly nervous, turned and looked behind her for escape routes.
“Don’t be scared. I knew your father. He was a good man.” The three men gathered and crouched around the chestnut tree, now at ease themselves, which in turn reassured Sophie and Logan.
“You’ve sure picked a spooky place for romance,” winked the third man. “This is where the nameless dead walk again,” and he grimaced and held the torch beneath his chin.
“What do you know about my father?”
“I don’t know where he went or how he is now, but when he lived in these parts he made fine company. It was wrong what your mother done to him.”
“What do you mean? Tell me about it.” Sophie leaned forward.
“Easy now. It’s not your place to say,” said the second man.
“But it’s his daughter. She has a right to know.”
“T’isn’t right to be taking sides, to speak of that which you can’t be certain.”
“I can be certain of my impressions, can’t I?”
“Perhaps, though even that’s questionable,” said the first man, “but what I meant was, the rest is hearsay, and Sophie here’s young. She may be susceptible.”
The third man turned to Sophie and shrugged.
“But she’s a right to know,” said Logan.
“To know what exactly? Some things we can’t be sure of,” said the second man.
“Oh I don’t know,” sighed Sophie. “Of course I’ve heard things, rumours, versions. I just thought that if you knew him personally…”
“It was claimed he was practising black magic, which is nonsense, though he did love botany and have an interest in shamanism, which makes anyone weird if you ask me, especially if the plants he specialized in had mind-altering properties, which is what I heard;” he gave a narrow smile. “No, he was fine and honest,” said the first man.
“Men such as are rare,” the third man said, taking a swig from a hipflask and wincing ambiguously. “It was, he’s right, wrong what your mother did. I wouldn’t speak to her now.”
“But she raised me. She’s taught me most of what I know.”
“And what do you know?” the third man was growing impatient. “Your father was one half of your soul, your origins.”
“You say you don’t know where he is, what happened to him,” said Sophie as Logan lit a cigarette, “but do you at least know if he’s alive?”
The three men fell silent.
“A man like him wears a cloak of rumours,” spoke the third theatrically, “and when he swirls the cloak rumours fly out, like moths.”
“What he means, I think,” said the second man, snatching the hipflask, “is that we don’t know anything for certain. One story was that he got married, another that he lived somewhere in a woodland retreat doing something or other to help the animals, which I could imagine because he didn’t like people much except when he went to the pub, and another, sad to say, is indeed that he passed away. But there’s no proof. He disappeared at least, soon after your mother left him and snatched you away to another country, an exotic tax haven. Where was it again? No matter. Perhaps even your mother, to cast no aspersions on her, invented his death; possibly to quell your curiosity, your inevitable questions. You were both unfairly deprived of each other. A girl deserves to know her dad.”
Sophie choked slightly, became visibly upset, and Logan put his arm around her, placing his hand on her shoulder as she leaned into him for comfort; and while the three men argued over the hipflask, lighting candles and making strange incantations, Logan wondered how he might console her.
“There goes the ghost!” shouted the third man as he shone the torch across a stretch of darkness, laughing at his own drunken melodrama.
“We can show you how this ceremony is performed,” the first man assured them. “We’re going to try and communicate with the dead.” He widened his eyes at both teenagers before turning back to his preoccupied, muttering cohorts.
“You know, you might try your hand at this thing of theirs,” said Logan. “If your father is dead you could even try to contact him. He might respond, you never know.”
But Sophie pulled away from him, a look of pained consternation on her face.
“What? Not you as well!” Sophie felt there was now no one to trust.
“Well, what if there’s something in their practice? Like I told you, it can’t be just these people, it’s a tradition to come here and do this, and you know what they say: nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
For a second Sophie was tempted and intrigued by the macabre ambience of the situation, then the next second she imagined her mother’s disapproval. She peered into the darkness of twigs and grasses as into a dark flame, trying to remember her father, his face, his voice, but even the emotive memories were a mist; it had been so long; yet, admire and respect her mother as she did, she felt she was composed of something other, something more, something she had no words for but had glimpsed in dreams. The thought of dreams and sleep reminded her she should be heading home; she was beginning to feel discomfort about this whole strange situation.
“It might even be ancient local practice,” Logan continued, “I don’t know, it must have its roots in something true,” but Sophie was barely listening now. She felt a hint, perhaps misguided, of betrayal, or at least a question of trust, of complicity and mutual understanding. The squabbling drinkers seemed to be involved in something diabolical. Had her loving mother, her bedrock in life, betrayed her? For whose sake? She imagined she saw her father’s face in the darkness, but it was surely a mental projection from one or two surviving photographs. Could she remember his voice? What would she feel if she heard it again – the first voice in her life, the deep bass echoing in the caverns of her mother’s body where she once curled like a leaf inside a bud, in a life before birth, a life sealed off from memory?
“Why not try it?” persisted Logan. “At least it might dispel your own doubts and fears.”
Sophie looked at him in disbelief.
“It might prove your Dad’s not dead,” continued Logan, getting ahead of himself, “or, if he is, he might respond to the experiment. We might make contact.”
“Go away! Leave me alone!” Sophie exclaimed, and lifting herself to her feet she started to hasten away.
“Wait!” yelled Logan, rising to his feet and following her into the darkness, leaving the three men in the shadows behind him. “Sophie, I’m sorry!” But she neither stopped nor turned.
Concerned for her safety and concerned he had upset her, Logan ran after her out of the cemetery, eventually catching up with her on a high swollen hillside overlooking the valley where they both lived.
“Go home, Logan,” sighed Sophie.
“But you were spooked by what happened back there. I feel in some way responsible. Can’t I walk you home?”
“No, it’s all right. You said earlier that girls don’t get to experience night outdoors. I just want to experience the silence, the solitude. I just want to have a moment to myself. Home isn’t far, I’ll be fine from here.”
“I’ll see you soon?”
Sophie looked into his eyes with sincerity. She nodded. They touched hands momentarily, then he was gone, a bounding faun dissolving into the hillside shadows.
Sophie gazed into the glossy deep distances of night. Away from the sodium glow of the streetlights the domed sky spangled like a starling’s wing. Standing on top of the hill she could see across the stretches of the valley, to the bric-a-brac lamp-lit households that lay beyond her like the cooling embers of some vast fire, as if by breathing on it a brightness would catch, a tinder township ignite and glow. It was like the stars of heaven had visited earth, or that she stood above them in space, herself a point of light, and trod upon a carpet of stars. A lock of loose hair flapped across her eyes. She moved it aside, turning her gaze across another endless aspect of the valley, as if something within it had called her name.
Just then the wind, which had been intermittent, picked up and seemed to wrap the smouldering hillside in its hands. One by one the trees began to dance in celebration of some spirit that Sophie could not see. She gasped. The expectant glee that animated her eyes, even though no one was there to see it, was such that had not visited her since girlhood.
Out below in the pooling darkness the ponds and small lakes ruffled and veined into ripples. Dustbin lids clattered and tin cans rolled and the birds huddled deeper into their webbed and feathery nests. Fizmers blew through the thrush-haunted foliage of the hawthorns, through the glistening, the dark to pale flickering, of the maple and the sycamore; the weeping beeches and willows, indolent and coquettish, hitching and twirling their skirts. The ash, the birch and the alder became oscillating oceans of leaves, the keys and catkins scattering to air and earth.
Dark though it was, Sophie could see the leaf flecks speckling and flicking, the rigging of the tall trees responding to the wind; their limitless heart-shaped leaves pulsing like arteries; the upward brush of twigs sweeping the clouds away and scratching the sky with scrawny fingers. Profound subterranean roots felt the glory along their wiry lines, flexing in the rich mire of soils like a hidden complex of guts and entrails. Even the colossal trees, bulky with leaves, began to stir: goliath oaks, herculean chestnut trees, rousing their arms and tossing their crowns. Brittle and cumbrous, the glassy evergreen ivy released its tension. All became partners in the dance. Sophie wiped away tears, not knowing herself whether it was the wind in her eyes or if something in her own foundations had been shaken. Something in the air sang of root and seed, of growth and origin, some ancient secret of creation. Lifting her arms like branches, Sophie twirled around and began to laugh with exhilarating joy.
It was as if all the leaves of all the trees in their splints and slivers of silvery green were blinks and glimpses of a remote and strange order, and she felt a closer kinship in that moment than to any living person. The wind spirit danced through everything in the valley, and Sophie smiled a peaceful smile, for she realized that that spirit had a name.