As most of my friends know, since the age of fourteen, I’ve loved exploring cemeteries. It started when a friend and I tried to take a shortcut home from the grocery store and soon found ourselves lost in the middle of a sea of headstones. Instead of being scared, as most straight-laced teen girls would be, I was struck by how peaceful the late September night was. The shiny grey slabs of stone gleamed under the moonlight. The dewy grass trembled with every breath of wind. The crickets sang.
From then on out, I found a kind of solace in cemeteries. They are quiet. Peaceful. Some of the best places to put pen to paper and write. In the last 7 years, I’ve explored both of the cemeteries in the town where I grew up, the one I got lost in, the one my fiance’s family is buried in, and the historical one blocks away from the college where I earned my associate’s degree. None of these graveyards, though, hold a candle to the quiet little plot of land half a mile from the farmhouse I lived in during my first year of college.
When we moved to the rural fringes of the city two months before I graduated high school, I was faced with a dilemma. I am the dog-mom to an energetic little ball of white fur named Pippin. He was used to running laps at the dog park, going for long walks in downtown, and chasing after balls my friends would throw for him. When we moved, though, we left all of that behind. Sure, he had half an acre to run in, but it was no replacement for walks. The streets where we found ourselves were narrow, winding, without sidewalks or reasonable speed limits. I needed to find a place to take him, and quickly.
The local cemetery was my solution.
After coming home from school, it became commonplace for me to set down my backpack, change out of ballet flats and into a pair of paint-splattered Converse, and turn to my bouncing terrier. He would throw his front paws up in the air when he heard the jingling of his braided-leather leash. And then we’d walk. We’d pass the dairy farmer and his herd of cattle. We’d skip the only bus stop in a 2 mile radius. We’d trot through the mini-mart parking lot. Eventually, the last stop on our journey was always a narrow gap in the fence, buried by blackberry brambles, but just wide enough for us to squeeze through without being scratched.
The gap in the fence put us right up to the graves of a family who had lived and died a century ago. Over the year I lived there, I learned the names and ages of every one of them. Eventually, I started talking to them when we passed through. Sometimes a greeting. Sometimes a mention of how studying for finals was making my head ache. Sometimes a warning that it was going to snow soon.
Pippin had a favorite grave, too. It was a smaller headstone, one that had only been in the ground for about three years. It had a pinwheel. He loved to watch it turn in the wind. Sometimes, on a day he was feeling particularly mischievous, he’d lick it.
Pip would chase grasshoppers there while I worked on my homework. He’d help me collect garbage other visitors would throw about the grass. I edited my first manuscript there (it wasn’t any good, but it definitely gave me a chance to learn). My poor puppy learned what a bee was ten feet from my favorite tree. It may seem a strange place for an 18-year-old to go and hang out, but it was quiet. It was peaceful. What matters is that Pippin and I enjoyed our time there.
Until, suddenly, it wasn’t so peaceful.
It was a morning in late February. We’d had a week straight of heavy snow. I was relieved it had finally melted and I could make it to the bus stop in a pair of ballet flats instead of heavy boots. That particular morning, I hadn’t been able to sleep well, so I decided to stop by the cemetery before class to photograph the graves in the thin layer of frost. I remember excitement bubbling in my chest. During most of the winter, I had to be out of the house before the sun had even begun to peek over the horizon. I used to jump at the soft moos of the cattle before daylight. The days were starting to get longer, though. If I timed it just right, I’d be able to capture the kaleidoscope of color from the early, orange sunlight shattering the beads of ice before I caught the 7am bus to the transit center. There had been so much snow. It was going to be pretty!
I didn’t take a single photograph that day.
The second I made it to the gap in the fence, my stomach dropped down to my toes. The berry brambles were wrong. They were cut back, but not neatly. They were strewn through the walkway, pulled through the fence, trampled. I picked my way through the vines, cursing myself the whole while for choosing shoes that left the tops of my feet with no defense to the berries’ talons. Thorns caught my socks and left runs in them, but thankfully didn’t draw much blood.
My eyes roved up and down the line of graves I’d grown familiar with, horror building. I knew water could gather in cracks, breaks could spread when the water froze, but this? Rows of headstones were decimated. Names were barely legible. Markers that once stood proudly had tipped over backward, layers of snow obscuring the words. My stomach clenched painfully. I tried to tell myself this was nature. Weather is brutal, it can do some serious damage. But the trash strewn about the snow dashed any chances I had to fool myself. Snow doesn’t shower the earth in gum wrappers and other debris. It doesn’t leave behind obvious signs of human trespassing.
I was so angry. These weren’t just stone slabs that had been damaged. These were markers that represented people who had lived. They had experienced pain, and joy, and fear, and love. They had been here before us. And this was how they were to be treated? To be remembered?
I turned around and left.
On the bus that morning, I flipped through some old character designs. I’d toyed with early designs and storylines for Zoey and Samuel before, but it wasn’t until then that I knew what their story was going to become. Nightfall was born out of the quiet cemetery in southern Washington where my dog and I had played. It came from the sorrow I felt at seeing graves broken into bits.
Remembrance is something society as a whole needs to think about a little bit more. Our history informs our present. Our history affects our future. If we can’t respect where we’ve been, how will we ever be able to guide where we are going?