by Cheryl Russell
The mound of dirt blankets the pine box that’s planted deep in the Kansas prairie, and the smell of still-damp earth carries past me on the wind. The townsfolk are gone now, leaving me alone with rows of tombstones. I leave the solitary spot where I’d watched the living give up the dead to the earth.
As I walk, I feel like I’m back in the river bottom with mud sucking at my boots. But it isn’t mire that pulls at me, threatening to halt my steps, but the loss of something I’ll never have again. I turn up my coat collar against the bitter November wind, but it doesn’t do any good. The wind cuts through me and binds with the coldness that has entombed my heart. Not even a coat made out of the thickest buffalo hide will thaw the ice buried deep within a man.
Shadows stretch across the graves as the sun slips away; telling me the train arrives soon. Not much time for me to do what I’d come to do. The wind bites harder as I make my way through the small graveyard. Shadows obscure the markers, making it harder to read what’s carved into the stone.
Weather has yet to erase the names and dates, making those buried here no more than a memory. Her father and brother were up all night, to get her marker ready for today. Their work stands all over this small patch of ground, touchstones for those left behind.
I feel the slab’s coldness through my thick gloves. I pull them off and trace the dates on the headstone, numbers so new that dust from the carving still rests in the curves. They say a lot, those dates, but they also don’t say enough. For anyone taking the time to stop, they’ll know she was born May 23, 1900, in the season before the heat of the Kansas sun baked the prairie brown; when wildflowers were still new; while the calves still frolicked in the fields. They’ll also know she was only eighteen when she died here, in November, when the dead grass rasps in the wind, wildflowers long gone, and cattle slaughtered for winter supplies. But they won’t know the laughter and the life behind the name chiseled in the slab Elizabeth Grace Murphy. But I remember the laughter that chased away my gloom, the life that gave mine meaning when others proclaimed I had none.
My earliest memory is Lizzie chasing me after I’d swiped her doll. It wasn’t nothing more than a corn cob, wearing a scrap for clothing, but I’d sorely underestimated Lizzie’s attachment to that dried piece of vegetation, a mistake I was wise enough not to repeat. But it was the start of a good friendship.
Both Lizzie and I are…were…misfits in our small town, she for missing an arm and me for being mixed blood. But I took no notice of her stump and she never put me down for my dark eyes and dark skin in a town full of blue-eyed blondes. School was only bearable because she was there, my friend, us against the schoolyard world. Summers, when we were done with our farm chores, we’d go swimming in the creek or fishing in the pond. Berry-picking when the berries were ripe. I’d help her with her buckets when they were full, which was often. Lizzie could pick berries with one hand faster than most people worked with both. We spent winters skating at the frozen-over swimming hole, building snowmen under her direction, defending her against the Bloughers boys’ snowballs. Younger than me by three years, Lizzie taught me how to live. But not anymore. The influenza claimed my Lizzie one day ago, just liked it claimed the Shultz’s new baby, Ivan Durr’s wife, and left the seven Sleutz children without their mama. I’m here to tell my Lizzie goodbye. I can’t live here without her, facing the scorn of those who refuse to accept me as I am.
The shadows are deeper now, the farthest stones hard to see. The train will be here soon, and I need to be on it when it goes. I don’t know where I’m heading, because I’m lost without her, the one who’ll hold my heart until I see her again on the other side.
I pull a small cloth from a pocket inside my coat, a place of safekeeping for a moment that will never come, for her or another. The wrapping falls away, and in the fading light I trace the gold band.
The train’s faint whistle as it approaches town says it’s time to re-wrap the ring. Unfastening my coat and squatting down, I thrust my hand deep into the soft earth that surrounds the headstone. It’s hard to dig a hole with fingers stiffened by the cold, but I do and place the ring inside. No need to take it with me, for Lizzie’s it was and will always be. Death snatched away the chance to ask her and those precious words will never be spoken to another. I tamp the earth back into place. Before I stand, I touch
the spot above her heart, my fingerprints in the dust my final goodbye.
The train squeals to a stop at the station. I stand and turn away, not caring that my coat is open to the wind, my hands numb with the cold. Nothing matters, as I leave in the dead earth the only reason I ever had to live.