‘You implying I’m a mile off from the truth?’
‘I’m only implying,’ Cardiff said, ‘that we are at a taffy pull. I’m waiting to see how far you pull it.’
‘The children aren’t coming home. They have chosen summer school in Amherst, Providence, and Sag Harbor. One is even in Mystic Seaport. Ain’t that a fine sound? Mystic. I sat there once in a thunderstorm reading every other chapter of Moby-Dick.’
‘The children are not coming home,’ said Cardiff. ‘Can I guess why?’
The older man nodded, pipe in mouth, unlit.
Cardiff took out his notepad and stared at it.
‘The children of this town,’ he said at last, ‘won’t come home. Not one. None. Never.’
He closed the notepad and continued: ‘The reason why the children are never coming home is,’ he swallowed hard, ‘there are no children. Something happened a long time ago, God knows what, but it happened. And this town is a town of no family homecomings. The last child left long ago, or the last child finally grew up. And you’re one of them.’
‘Is that a question?’
‘No,’ said Cardiff. ‘An answer.’
Culpepper leaned back in his chair and shut his eyes. ‘You,’ he said, the smoke long gone from his pipe, ‘are an A-1 Four Star Headline News Reporter.’
‘I …,’ said Cardiff.
‘Enough,’ Culpepper interrupted. ‘For tonight.’
He held out another glass of bright amber wine. Cardiff drank. When he looked up, the front screen door of the Egyptian View Arms tapped shut. Someone went upstairs. His ambiance stayed.
Cardiff refilled his glass.
‘Never coming home. Never ever,’ he whispered.
And went up to bed.
Sleep well, someone said somewhere in the house. But he could not sleep. He lay, fully dressed, doing philosophical sums on the ceiling, erasing, adding, erasing again until he sat up abruptly and looked out across the meadow town of thousands of flowers in the midst of which houses rose and sank only to rise again, ships on a summer sea.
I will arise and go now, thought Cardiff, but not to a bee-loud glade. Rather, to a place of earthen silence and the sounds of death’s-head moths on powdery wings.
He slipped down the front hall stairs barefoot and once outside, let the screen door tap shut silently and, sitting on the lawn, put on his shoes as the moon rose.
Good, he thought, I won’t need a flashlight.
In the middle of the street he looked back. Was there someone at the screen door, a shadow, watching? He walked and then began to jog.
Imagine that you are Claude, he thought, his breath coming in quick pants. Turn here, now there, now another right and—
All that cold marble crushed his heart and stopped his breathing. There was no iron fence around the burial park.
He entered silently and bent to touch the first gravestone. His fingers brushed the name: BIANCA SHERMAN BATES
And the date: BORN, JULY 3, 1882
And below that: R.I.P.
But no date of death.
The clouds covered the moon. He moved on to the next stone.
WILLIAM HENRY CLAY
And again, no mortal date.
He brushed a third gravestone and found:
August 13, 1881
Gone to God
But, Cardiff knew, she had not as yet gone to God.
The moon darkened and then took strength from itself. It shone upon a small Grecian tomb not fifty feet away, a lodge of exquisite architecture, a miniature Acropolis upheld by four vestal virgins, or goddesses, beautiful maidens, wondrous women. His heart pulsed. All four marble women seemed suddenly alive, as if the pale light had awakened them, and they might step forth, unclad, into the tableau of named and dateless stones.
He sucked in his breath. His heart pulsed again.
For as he watched, one of the goddesses, one of the forever-beautiful maidens, trembled with the night chill and shifted out into the moonlight.
He could not tell if he was terrified or delighted. After all, it was late at night in this yard of the dead. But she? She was naked to the weather, or almost; a mist of silk covered her breasts and plumed around her waist as she drifted away from the other pale statues.
She moved among the stones, silent as the marble she had been but now was not, until she stood before him with her dark hair tousled about her small ears and her great eyes the color of lilacs. She raised her hand tenderly and smiled.
‘You,’ he whispered. ‘What are you doing here?’
She replied quietly, ‘Where else should I be?’
She held out her hand and led him in silence out of the graveyard.
Looking back he saw the abandoned puzzle of names and enigma of dates.