“The story you were telling.”
“Oh, the voice below? Well, I knew all the stones. Standing there, I guessed that voice out of the ground was Henrietta Fremwell, fine girl, twenty-four years, played piano at the Elite Theatre. Tall, graceful, blond. How did I know her voice? I stood where there was only men’s graves. Hers was the only woman’s. I ran to put my ear on her stone. Yes! Her voice, way down, screaming!
“’Miss Fremwell!’ I shouted.
“’Miss Fremwell,’ I yelled again.
“Deep down I heard her, only weeping now. Maybe she heard me, maybe not. She just cried. I ran downhill so fast I tripped and split my head on a stone, got up, screamed myself! Got to the tool shed, all blood, dragged out the tools, and just stood there in the moonlight with one shovel. The ground was ice solid, solid. I fell back against a tree. It would take three minutes to get back to her grave, and eight hours of cold night to dig to her box. The ground was like glass. A coffin is a coffin; only so much space for air. Henrietta Fremwell had been buried two days before the freeze, been asleep all that time, using up air, and it rained just before the cold spell and the earth over her, soaked with rainwater now, froze. I’d have to dig maybe eight hours. And the way she cried, there wasn’t another hour of air left.”
The old man’s pipe had gone out. He rocked in his chair, back and forth, back and forth, silently.
“But,” said the young man, “what did you do?”
“Nothing,” said the old man.
“Nothing I could do. That ground was solid. Six men couldn’t have dug that grave. No hot water near. And she might’ve been screaming hours before I heard, so . .
“Something Put the shovel and pick back in the tool shed, locked it and went back to the house and built a fire and drank some hot chocolate, shivering and shivering. Would you have done different?”
“Would you have dug for eight hours in hard ice rock so’s to reach her when she was truly dead of exhaustion, cold, smothered, and have to bury her all over again? Then call her folks and tell them?”
The young man was silent. On the porch, the mosquitoes hummed about the naked light bulb.
“I see,” said the young man.
The old man sucked his pipe. “I think I cried all night because there was nothing I could do.” He opened his eyes and stared about, surprised, as if he had been listening to someone else.
“That’s quite a story,” said the young man.
“No,” said the old man, “God’s truth. Want to hear more? See that big stone with the ugly angel? That was Adam Crispin’s. Relatives fought, got a writ from a judge, dug him up hoping for poison. Found nothing. Put him back, but by that time the dirt from his grave mixed with other dirts. We shoveled in stuff from all around. Next plot, the angel with broken wings? Mary-Lou Phipps. Dug her up to lug her off to Elgin, Illinois. More relatives. Where she’d been, the pit stayed open, oh, three weeks. No funerals. Meanwhile, her dirt got cross-shoveled with others. Six stones over, one stone north, that was Henry Douglas Jones. Became famous sixty years after no one paid attention. Now he’s planted under the Civil War monument. His grave lay wide two months, nobody wanted to utilize the hole of a Southerner, all of us leaning North with Grant. So his dirt got scattered. That give you some notion of what that FREE DIRT sign means?”
The young man eyed the cemetery landscape. “Well,” he said, “where is that dirt you’re handing out?”
The old man pointed with his pipe and the stranger looked and indeed, by a nearby wall was a sizable hillock some ten feet long by about three feet high, loam and grass tufts of many shades of tan, brown, and burnt umber.
“Go look,” said the old man.
The young man walked slowly over to stand by the mound.