Sky and Stone

story and photo by Bethany Snyder

Saturday afternoon stretches out, heavy with the potential of unwritten stories, baseboards waiting on the swipe of a cloth soaked in Murphy’s Oil Soap, closets bursting with clothes begging to be donated so someone will wear them.

I go for a walk. It feels good to move, to feel the pressure of my feet against the pavement. There’s a tight spot in my back, just to the left of my spine, drawing my focus. It takes my mind off the weakness of my calf — the muscle still reknitting, rebuilding after surgery — the way it softens after a long descent and I have to wait for it to catch up with the rest of me, to turn firm again.

There are people out, cars pass, a woman piles leaves and sticks at the curb. But it’s too quiet for a Saturday afternoon in the spring, even a dismal one where the sky seems to promise rain that doesn’t come. Houses are closed tight, shades pulled. It’s easier to not look out the window.

About a mile into my walk I realize I’m going to the cemetery. It’s just up the hill. The gate is open. The road is muddy, scattered with leaves. My shoes, orange and pink, blaze against the black and gray headstones, the faded flags, the brown fingers of fallen branches.

A few cars crawl along the curved paths, but no one gets out. Soon it’s just me and a squirrel eyeing me from the top of a tipped tombstone, acorns clutched in its tiny hands. I walk the route my dad drives when we come as a family to visit on Sunday afternoons — Mom with a bag to collect the dead ends of wilted flowers she pinches from the urns, Dad carrying a jug of water that he splashes over the bright red geranium blossoms and trailing vinca vines.

Here’s the uncle I don’t remember — but I remember my grandma crying on the porch when he died, how small she seemed, how impossible it was to see a grown-up crack open and show what’s inside their broken heart. Here’s my dad’s other brother, and the places my mom and dad and sister have reserved for themselves. Here are my great-great grandparents, whose names I might have borrowed for my own children, if I’d ever had them. Here is the baby no one knew — the daughter, sister, aunt that never was — and my cousin, and my grandparents whose names carved in granite make my throat squeeze tight. Here are my friends, stolen away by tumors and brain bleeds and unfathomable accidents.

Here are people I don’t know but whose names feel familiar in my mouth, whose grandchildren sat at desks beside me at school and raced me to the monkey bars and sat with their backs against the wooden bleachers hoping someone would ask them to dance while the DJ played “Stairway to Heaven.” Here are people whose names are as strange to me as a language without vowels. Here are people who died so long ago, their names have been swallowed by stone. Do they have family that comes to remember them on a hot summer evening, the air thick with mosquitos? Does someone still love them enough to place a wreath of pine and holly berries here when the snow falls? Who’s going to come visit my family when I’m gone? Who’s going to come visit me?

I can’t stand not being around other people. I miss their noise and scent, their irrational inconsistencies and their maddening reliability. I miss the warmth of skin and the rush of breath from a laugh, a gasp, a sigh. I see my friends through screens, electronic flashes of color and light. When I see a favorite face in the grocery store, we keep our carts between us and resist the bone-deep urge to hug.

I keep myself occupied with work and worry and wandering. And on this Saturday afternoon I wander here, to this place of thirteen thousand people — laid out in tombs and graves on silent sloping hills of greening grass — of whom just a handful belong to me.

The sky is blue behind the clouds, it winks and hides again. Across the road the lake waits, silver and flat. Far down the east branch I see my cousin and her son, matching blond heads close over the pages of a well-worn book. High up over rolling hills I see another cousin and her daughters swaddled in their pink jackets as they play under the pine trees.

I see the places I used to visit, the homes that belong to other families now, who don’t know about the beloved little dog who ran around this living room, about the cement-lined swimming pool that lies under the grass in this backyard. They don’t know that my friends lived here, and here, and here. They don’t know about the late-night confessions we whispered over humming telephone lines. They don’t know about the blanket fort we built when we were teenagers, or the doll that got caught high in the branches of the tree that isn’t in the back yard anymore.

I see the houses where the boys lived, boys whose names still thrill me, boys who didn’t know better and didn’t love me back, a boy buried in a different cemetery from this one. I remember the inside of their houses like scenes in a movie, I move through the living room, the kitchen. The empty staircases leading up to bedrooms filled with shadows and secrets I never learned. A cup of steaming tea, a letter in black ink on folded pink stationery, a baseball cap forgotten in the backseat of my car.

I walk home, crossing empty streets against the lights, and realize the abnormal feels okay now. Not right, but okay. Not talking to another person face to face for hours or days at time? At least we live in a world where I can see faces and hear voices on the screen I carry in my pocket. My friend and I marvel: Why haven’t we done video chats before this? Her daughter and I show each other our carrots and laugh.

The future spools out in front of me like a twisting sidewalk. I can’t see the end; it turns sharply up ahead, obscured by overgrown bushes that crowd my path and force me into the road. As I walk, I check the signs, scotch taped to storefront windows, to gauge who’s hopeful (“See you soon!”) and who’s not (“Closed indefinitely”). The pizza shop on the corner has a steady stream of cars for curbside pickup. Our collective worry hasn’t deadened our appetite for a delicious greasy pie.

My house is up ahead, my sanctuary. I take my time getting back, cut over one street and up another, wandering, taking deep breaths of cold air, thankful for the pain in my back and the staccato of my pulse, the tiny buds everywhere, closed fists waiting to burst open.

The sky hangs low, but I think of other skies, ocean skies so blue they made my eyes water, western skies that stretched out forever, sunset skies that no camera could capture. I think of skies I haven’t seen yet, the people I want to stand under them with. What if I don’t get to see them? What if the world never starts up again, and I’ll never know if people are smiling or sad behind their masks? What if everything stays stopped, and there aren’t any beaches in my future, no fierce hugs from friends, no sticky-fingered children slipping their hands in mine?

My phone buzzes in my pocket, a prayer and a promise, and I raise it in thanks.

Bethany Snyder is an award-winning fiction writer who has been voted Rochester's Best Local Author for the past three years. She is the co-founder of Keuka Writes and co-editor of the Finger Lakes literary magazine Bluff & Vine.

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