Everyone born, he thought, but none has died. The stones are blank, waiting for someone to date their ghosts bound for Eternity.
‘Yes?’ someone said. But her lips had not moved.
And you followed me, he thought, to stop me from reading the gravestones and asking questions. And what about the absent children, never coming home?
And as if they glided on ice, on a vast sea of moonlight, they arrived where a crowd of sunflowers hardly stirred as they passed and their feet were soundless, moving up the path to the porch and across the porch, and up the stairs, one, two, three floors until they reached a tower room where the door stood wide to reveal a bed as bright as a glacier, its covers thrown back, all snow on a hot summer night.
Yes, she said.
He sleepwalked the rest of the way. Behind him, he saw his clothes, like the discards of a careless child, strewn on the parquetry. He stood by the snowbank bed and thought, One last question. The graveyard. Are there bodies beneath the stones? Is anyone there?
But it was too late. Even as he opened his mouth to question, he tumbled into the snow.
And he was drowning in whiteness, crying out as he inhaled the light and then out of the rushing storm, a warmness came; he was touched and held, but could not see what or who held him, and he relaxed, drowned.
When next he woke, he was not swimming but floating. Somehow he had leaped from a cliff, and someone with him, unseen, as he soared up until lightning struck, tore at him in half terror, half joy, to fall and strike the bed with his entire body and his soul.
When he awoke again, the storm over, and the flying gone, he found a small hand in his, and without opening his eyes he knew that she lay beside him, her breath keeping time with his. It was not yet dawn.
‘Was there something you wanted to ask?’
‘Tomorrow,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll ask you then.’
‘Yes,’ she said quietly. ‘Then.’
Then, for the first time, it seemed, her mouth touched his.
He awoke to the sun pouring in through the high attic window. Questions gathered behind his tongue.
Beside him, the bed was empty.
Afraid of the truth? he wondered.
No, he thought, she will have left a note on the icebox door. Somehow he knew. Go look.
The note was there.
Many tourists arriving. I must welcome them.
Questions at breakfast.
Far off, wasn’t there the merest wail of a locomotive whistle, the softest churn of some great engine?
On the front porch, Cardiff listened, and again the faint locomotive cry stirred beyond the horizon.
He glanced up at the top floor. Had she fled toward that sound? Had the boarders heard, too?
He ran down to the rail station and stood in the middle of the blazing hot iron tracks, daring the whistle to sound again. But this time, silence.
Separate trains bringing what? he wondered.
I arrived first, he thought, the one who tries to be good.
And what comes next?
He waited, but the air remained silent and the horizon line serene, so he walked back to the Egyptian View Arms.
There were boarders in every window, waiting. ‘It’s all right,’ he called. ‘It was nothing.’
Someone called down from above, quietly, ‘Are you sure?’
Nef was not at breakfast, or lunch, or dinner.
He went to bed hungry.
At midnight the wind blew softly in the window, whispering the curtains, shadowing the moonlight.
There, far across town, lay the cemetery, immense white teeth scattered on a meadow of fresh moon-silvered grass.
Four dozen stones dead, but not dead.
All lies, he thought.
And found himself halfway down the boarding house stairs, surrounded by the exhalations of sleeping-people. There was no sound save the drip of the ice pan under the icebox in the moonlit kitchen. The house brimmed with lemon and lilac illumination from the candied windows over the front entrance.
He found himself on the dusty road, alone with his shadow.
He found himself at the cemetery gate.
In the middle of the graveyard, he found a shovel in his hands.
He dug until …
There was a hollow thud under the dust.