by Danielle Jenkins
He woke up in the field behind the marble orchard, where ladybugs and tiny ants marched hungrily through the jungles of his arm hair. He breathed in deeply, causing him to sit up as he coughed away the dusting of summer’s pollen. Peace. Serenity. He could go back to sleep, right there in the soft field he had made his bed, right there with the bugs and the pollen and the sweet grass singing him an early morning breezed lullaby. He ran his dry, crackled hands over his overalls, smoothing out the tiny pearls of morning dew, giving him some moisture to rub across his stubbled face. He sat for a moment, eyes closed, letting the dew cool his face to dry in the budding sun. He opened his eyes as he heard cars approaching. He stood up, brushed himself off, and walked to work.
They stood against the supply barn, a good hundred yards from the mourners that made a half circle around a hole in babyland. The men stood there stoically, holding their teddy hats in their hands, their moustaches quivering. The women were being nurtured by comforting arms of solace on their fur-coated shawls, handkerchiefs dotting their delicate eyes before their sadness could run through their cheeks, creating pale lines through their powder and blush. Marshall packed his breakfast in his pipe – a moist, fruity, vinegary blend from the Acadians. Perique was his favorite. The kid couldn’t handle it straight like Marshall could, the “truffle of tobaccos”, as Marshall would call it, is an acquired taste, like a perfect glass of hickory kissed whiskey. He savored the sweetness filling his lungs as he thought about different blends, indifferent to the church choir singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” before him. They always sang that song. He had heard it so many times, he was sure there could be no other way to sleep forever. He glanced over at Mr. Post, who didn’t have a hair out of place on his well-kept Dapper Dan ‘do.
“They said she was five. Only five years old.”
Mr. Post shoved his hands in his pockets and fiddled with invisible nothings.
“Can you imagine bein’ her folks? I sure can’t. Five years old,” he repeated. Marshall couldn’t imagine, so he didn’t respond. He tapped his pipe against the barn, emptying out his ashen meal from the bowl. He looked toward the mourners as they began to thin out. The women held each other, walking back to their Model T’s, while the men threw handfuls of moist earth in the hole.
“That’s our cue, pal.” Mr. Post began walking toward the five year old. One man lingered, his broken eyes fixated on the child he knew. His mouth was curved downwards in a sort of sad contempt. Marshall figured him to be a brother or uncle. The man turned and walked away with his head turned, still watching. Still saying goodbye. He stopped when his body hit a rusty coupe that held a breathless woman cradling her cold, bony face in salt dampened hands. The man stood a moment more before entering the driver seat, driving into the cloud of dust the others have paved for him.
Soon the hole was filled. As Marshall scooped soft earth on top of her, he began to think about the man.
“He must’ve been her daddy,” he told Mr. Post.
Mr. Post only went by that. Marshall hadn’t a clue what his first name was, only that he showed up one day asking for work, calling himself Mr. Post from Yellville. Marshall always thought it was strange that he wore a fancy suit, as fancy as a young man could wear from a small mining town. He had asked him before about that, only to have Mr. Post smile and say, “You never know when you’re gonna die. Might’s well die lookin’ sharp.” Marshall didn’t see the point. “When you’re dead, you ain’t gonna care about hair pomade and a necktie, son. You’re gone. You dress nice for your family.” Marshall didn’t know of any family, either. All he knew was a kid needed a job, and he was a damn good digger. The company was nice, too. When they finished filling the hole, they planted her glossy headrest: a glistening, well-etched silver marble half-moon with a beautiful cherub sitting on top, her hair in tendrils, her angel body wrapped in filigree. The sun began to hide behind fast moving clouds of dusk. Marshall wondered how it had gotten so late, as he just woke up what seemed like minutes ago.
“Same time tomorrow,” Mr. Post saluted. Marshall nodded and watched him as he walked down the road, vanishing into the accumulating night time. It was time for work.
At night, the chorus began. The euphony of cicadas, crickets, and bullfrogs courting for summer lovers melted in the sultry August night. With the exception of the few road boozers burning past like bats out of hell, it was harmonious and peaceful. No tears were shed, no echoing cries of mothers and brothers clutching their chests in lament. The deep six customers were many, three hundred and nine of them adorned with floral tributes and grassy patches of moist overgrowth. Marshall knew everyone there and why they were there, not one of them unaccounted for. Some of them hadn’t been visited in years, completely forgotten about by everyone they might have known once. Marshall felt they deserved to be remembered, even if they weren’t good alive, he wanted to comfort them dead. He kept regalia and faux flowers in the supply barn for ones like those. He left babyland for last, saving the best care for the children who had left too soon. Most of them were a century old, but a few joined in occasionally. Then there was the five year old. Marshall knelt down beside her.
OPHELIA JUNE BLAKE
MARCH 21, 1921 – AUGUST 7, 1926
MAY THIS ANGEL GUIDE THE LOST
Marshall shifted from kneeling to sitting next to Ophelia, readying his Virginia blend dinner. He never knew what any of the customers looked like; he only imagined what they could be. Maybe she had golden blonde hair like her lingering daddy, or maybe she looked like the inquisitive cherub watching him smoke his meal. She probably had a favorite toy she was always lugging around, or she might’ve enjoyed getting candies from the five and dime. Marshall had never talked to one of the sleeping souls, but that night, with the harmonious chorus vibrating through the air, he did.
“I’m sorry, little girl.” He smiled warmly as he traced the outline of her name with his dirt and tobacco stained fingertips. Marshall felt strange that midnight hour, sitting beside the slightly sinking moistness of her permanent slumber. He had only hoped that she passed on peacefully, her long eyelashes falling heavy in a comforting sleep.
The next few days, Marshall took extra care of Ophelia. He picked some daisies from the creek banks behind the marble orchard, dressing the bottom corners of her silvered headboard. He began talking to her every night, about how he preferred swamp tobacco over homeland burley, how he prefers sleeping in meadows than a bed, and how Mr. Post reminded him of a young Douglas Fairbanks. Ophelia’s grave became the nicest in babyland as Marshall spruced the flora around it. The final piece was a box of maple candies Marshall found in his bureau. He thought if Ophelia could see it, she’d be pleased. This gave Marshall a feeling need, a sense of comfort to little girl.
One day, the lingering father came. Marshall watched from a distance, pretending to weed around Mr. Marsden, a rich old man who lived to be eighty-eight. The sky taunted similar cloudiness the day Ophelia arrived, hiding the setting sun behind the Ozark foothills. Marshall looked up as he heard a panicked gasp to see the man on his knees, head to the ground, clenching his fists into the still fresh earth mound covering his daughter. Marshall thought he should offer his condolences to him, but was unsure if he should. There wasn’t a soul in the cemetery but the two of them, and Marshall knew the man thought he was alone. After allowing him an appropriate time to mourn, Marshall slowly dawdled over to him, his hands in his overall pockets, looking down at his rugged leather boots. The man’s face shined with the moist patches of sadness glossed over his angered, sad cheeks. He couldn’t have been a day over thirty, but his eyes were cradled by darkened wartime bags, eyes too old for a man this young, eyes that have seen many things, eyes that were hurt most while looking at his little girl.
“I’m sorry for your loss. I’m Marshall.”
Something inside him wanted to say more, wanted to tell the man it was okay, Ophelia was taken care of. Marshall felt a strange sense of familiarity around the father, for he was comfortable around very few anymore. The man ignored his greet, edging closer to the box of maple candies sitting next to the cherub. An intrigued look came across the man’s face as he opened the box, allowing a slight smile to escape from his sadness.
“You used to love these, pa. I wish you were here.”
The man exhaled and gathered himself, shaking his hands through his wild golden curls that were in need of a good haircut. Marshall wanted to say something else, he even grabbed for the man’s military trench as he briskly walked away. The man hopped in the rusty coupe and looked back toward Ophelia, hands clenching the steering wheel. Marshall waved goodbye, and the man left. He looked toward Ophelia and smiled.
“You were loved, darlin’. I’m sorry this happened to you.”
“No stiffs today, no siree.” Mr. Post pointed his chin up and took a deep breath in, humming “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as he exhaled, his eyelids becoming freckled by the shining sunlit sky.
“Looks like you’ve been quite the host ‘round here, mmmhm.” The kid pointed with his soggy, chewed toothpick towards Ophelia.
Marshall took the pipe out of his mouth and licked his lips.
“Her daddy, you know anything about him? He came by the other day. He acted funny.”
“Well, his little girl did just die of pneumonia. You’d act funny too. But Nathan, yeah, he was in Germany for a bit, was gone the whole time she was coughin’ her sweet little lungs to death.”
Marshall didn’t appreciate the way Mr. Post was joking about the dead child. He hadn’t ever done that before, joke about the deceased. It rubbed him the wrong way. “How do you know all this?”
“I know everything, old man. I know you was in the war, too. Me, I never made it. Now I’m stuck in this suit forever. Guess I look better than you do, always in them dirty overalls.” Mr. Post brushed debris off his lapels and raised an eyebrow toward Marshall, who was giving him a confused look.
“I wasn’t in no war, kid. The hell are you talkin’ ‘bout now, anyway?”
“Sure you were, Marshall! Come on now, don’t tell me you don’t know.”
“Know what? Boy, what are you goin’ on about?”
“All this time I thought you knew!” Mr. Post spat his soggy toothpick into the grass and pulled out a piece of sepia stained paper from the inside of his jacket. He handed it to Marshall, who unfolded it. It was a newspaper clipping, dated April 18, 1923. It was the obituaries. His read through a description:
“UNKNOWN ALIAS. FOUND DEAD. 5’10, 20-25 YEARS OLD, WEARING SUIT AND TIE.” Marshall went cold. He looked up at Mr. Post, the unknown alias.
“I was 21.” Mr. Post rounded the corner of the barn and walked off into the field, and Marshall followed. The field soon turned into a rocky path that he had never seen before, even though he knew every inch of land behind the barn and cemetery. Marshall tripped and fell over loose rocks and face planted into the gravel, tasting chalkiness and accumulating blood dripping from his bottom lip. He looked up, still on the ground, and Mr. Post was gone. ‘What is going on?’ Marshall thought. He stood up and continued on the path that soon dissipated into a lush, green forest. Confused, he scanned around the area. How had he never seen this place before? Where was Mr. Post going?
Then, Marshall was suddenly brought to his knees by a painful jolt to the chest. He let out a cry, tears forming in the corners of his scrunched eyes. He covered the pain with his hand, unsure if he had been hit or bitten. He looked down as he began to feel burgeoning warmth soak through his shirt and overalls, a crimson hue growing slowly. Marshall mustered every ounce of his strength to look up, expecting to see Mr. Post, someone, something, standing before him with a weapon. Instead, Marshall found himself in the middle of an overgrown, spherical lay of weathered rock formations in shapes he instantly recognized. The pain suddenly vanished, and the crimson life seeped back into Marshall’s invisible wound.
“What the … ”
He rubbed his clammy, sweaty fingers where the pain had subsided and found there was nothing but a tiny knot, a knot that was never there in the forty-two years he’d been alive. Stunned but still coherent, Marshall crawled on all fours to the rock formations. The sublime summer weeds hid them well. One had a box of toothpicks on top of it. “Mr. Post. This must be him,” Marshall though. He began to pull the weeds furiously until the slab could be read. Marshall gasped and recoiled. His fingers traced the indentions carved on the rock:
MARSHALL NATHAN BLAKE
FEBRUARY 9, 1876 – AUGUST 26, 1918
HERO TO OUR COUNTRY; YOU WILL BE MISSED
The footsteps approaching didn’t faze him; Closer and closer, the rhythmic patter of someone or something coming up behind him was silenced by the name he read over and over, his name. The footsteps stopped.
A small but powerful voice awakened his stun. Marshall slowly raised his fallen head to see who was standing behind him and his rocky tribute. Surrounded by an incandescent semblance of unrecognizable light stood a girl, no more than five years old, smiling toothlessly with dimples that looked like half-moons. Her perfect cornflower blue dress adorned with filigree patterns ruffled delicately with a sudden breeze of warmth. Her golden blonde curls gleamed bright in the radiant glow emanating from her.
Marshall knew right away it was her. The thousands of questions circling his head dissipated to calm as he realized his son had lost his only daughter, his granddaughter, Ophelia. A granddaughter he never had the privilege of holding. A granddaughter who took after the Blake’s with her dark eyes and wild, golden hair. A granddaughter he would’ve known of, if he hadn’t been shot in that war the day before departing back home to Arkansas, leaving his only son Nathan to be a man before he was meant to. Marshall could not break his stare as a single tear fell, hugging his rugged cheek.
“It’s okay, grandpa. Daddy will be alright. I’m here to take us home.”
Ophelia extended a tiny pale hand to Marshall, waving her fingers in for him to take it. Marshall did, and time froze while every memory of Ophelia’s short but happy life was shared between them. A smile formed across both their faces, and Marshall repeated her name once more.
“Come on, grandpa. Gramma’s waiting for us.” Another tear fell as Marshall then remembered his wife Grace, a person he always knew but never remembered.
Marshall stood and scanned his surroundings – a spherical marble orchard for veterans long forgotten encompassed them. With his free hand, he reached into the pocket of his overalls and pulled out his pipe, then placed it on top of his marker, leaving it behind. Grandfather and granddaughter walked hand in hand, further into the woods, the melody of nature gracing their descent into the imminent, pink August sky.
Danielle Jenkins is a sophomore English and History major at the University of Arkansas. A native Arkansan, her primary work involves Southern themes and culture. Upon graduation, Danielle plans to pursue her Master’s degree in English to become a professor of English and Literature.