The Ghost in Marcelina Cemetery
A memory of something that happened in the late 1980's.
She stopped so abruptly that her brother nearly bumped into her from behind. Her heart pounded and her breath caught in her throat. It was impossible. She turned and looked up helplessly at her brother, then collapsed against him and began sobbing. Her brother looked around in confusion, wondering what could have affected her in such a way, and he looked right at the young man. He went a shade paler as his arms instinctively went around his sister, holding her as he tried to comfort her and understand at the same time. The young man saw that his sister was weeping and looked away, studiously turning to read the names on a nearby tombstone. The young man went past them, looking at the stones all the while, and after a few minutes his sister began dabbing her face with a handkerchief and after asking if she would be all right, he released her and walked resolutely toward the young man.
The area where I live, east of San Antonio, Texas, is dotted with the remnants of small communities that were once thriving, though tiny, towns. Decades ago, before the advent of the automobile turned a trip of hours or days into only a matter of minutes, people by necessity clustered into many smaller towns, rather than the fewer larger ones we have today. Most of these towns had their own school and church congregation, sometimes both using the same building. Now the schools are all closed, some in use as private houses, but many of the church buildings still remain and are used by small country congregations. One of these small country communities, maybe ten minutes by farm road and state highway from my house, is Marcelina. It now consists only of a small church building used by a congregation of country Baptists, and a cemetery that sprawls up the hillside beside the church. A quiet place, in the heart of the sandhills between Floresville and Stockdale, surrounded by peanut and watermelon fields, and accessible only by an unpaved, roughly graveled dirt road. Over the entrance to the cemetery a massive, hoary live oak tree stands guard. On this spring afternoon a soft breeze stirred its branches, and it seemed almost intelligent as it ushered me past the gates.
I had arrived early for my uncle's graveside service. I knew that I had several relatives and ancestors buried in this cemetery, so I thought I would pass the time by finding their graves until it was time for the service to begin. About halfway up the hill I could see the green canvas awning covering the open grave where my uncle would be buried, and next to it a few rows of brown metal chairs, neatly arranged. Farther up the hill I saw an elderly couple walking slowly between tombstones. I did the same, walking leisurely from stone to stone, enjoying the quiet and the mild weather of early spring. Around me were a few patches of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes, rippling softly in the breeze. As I came closer to the couple I noticed that the lady had suddenly begun crying--not a sort of wistful quiet crying for an old friend or love who had died in years past, but actually weeping as she huddled against the man and he held his arms around her. I turned away, embarrassed, and began to slowly move farther away from them as I pretended to be engrossed in reading tombstones. A few minutes later the man left his sister and walked directly toward me. I could see that he intended to speak with me so I turned toward him and smiled faintly as he approaced, the look on his face friendly but a little grim, maybe a little haunted.
He introduced himself and added that he was the preacher here at the Marcelina Baptist Church. We shook hands and I told him my name.
"So you must be related to Edith?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered, "she's my grandmother."
"Well," he said hesitantly, "you may have noticed that my sister," and he gestured toward the lady, "my sister was crying just now. It's just because..." he paused and looked down, apparently trying to think of something to say, then looked back up at me, "you are the exact image of my brother Bill. He was our younger brother, and he died in the war. The way you look, even the way you walk. You could be Bill reincarnated."
From the age of these two people I knew there was only one war he could be referring to, and I was born nearly twenty years after it had ended. I could think of absolutely nothing to say. He probably noticed the stunned expression on my face.
"Are you here for Thurman's service?" he asked, probably just as much at a loss for words as I was. I told him yes. "Well," he went on, "we're having a dinner afterwards, so don't run off. My sister will probably want to talk with you...later." I told him I would stay, and he went back to his sister. He put his arm around her and they walked down the hill, back to the church building.
Later, after the service, his sister came up to me and introduced herself. I shook her hand and told her my name. As I released her hand her fingers fluttered timidly against the front of my shirt, as if still trying to affirm to herself that I was real.
"Bill was my baby brother," she told me. "He died in 1942 when his troop transport airplane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean. Nobody survived, of course, and his body was never found. He was 20 years old when he died." I was in my late 20's at the time, but looked several years younger. She repeated much of what her brother had said about me looking like Bill, adding that the only difference was that Bill's hair had been much shorter, "him being in the military."
I could still think of nothing worthwhile to say. I know I said something but I can't remember what. Finally she smiled gently and patted my arm. "Well, you take care," she said and then walked away.
I have never believed in reincarnation. But as I stood there in the middle of that old cemetery, amid the graves of ancestors who had died so long ago I never knew them, with the bluebonnets rippling around me like small flowery ponds and the big old live oak tree still nodding knowingly at the bottom of the hill, I wondered what strange quirk of genetics had created me to look so much like her long-dead brother. What chain of circumstances had led me to walk through the cemetery at the same time that she would be there. On a day when she had expected nothing more than a quiet memorial service for a man she had only vaguely known, here I had come, like the living ghost of her baby brother who had been lost somewhere out across a vast ocean, who she had kissed goodbye when he went away to war, and never seen again.
As I slowly began walking down the hill toward the little church building, I wondered which one of us felt more haunted by what had happened, she or I?