“Mama, which of these graves are for kids?” My son is staring out into the cemetery where we walk.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Which are the kids that died?”
“Oh, I don’t know. They’re all mixed together I guess, the kids and adults.” I don’t want to look at the small graves, but my son already knows. He is counting them now.
Once we stood in this same place and watched thousands of baby moths flutter inches above the grass. He wanted to jump from gravestone to gravestone as if this were a game of hopscotch. Now he is three. He knows better.
“When did he learn that kids die?” I would ask the moths but they have moved on. “I wish he didn’t know. I wish I didn’t know. Did somebody tell him that kids can die?”
A woman’s voice comes to me from somewhere far below. I strain to hear her words. They become entangled with the chimes of the bell tower. “He heard your heart quiver as you passed the small grave, the one next to the path.”
“Please state your name and dates, so I can find you,” I say.
“Emma Meriwether, 1894-1940.” I find her stone and sit beside it while my son runs circles in the path.
“He hears everything,” she says. “But you know that, being his mother. He heard your heart quiver and now he’s curious, he wants to know more. It’s perfectly natural.”
“Maybe he looks west to the clouds forming over the bay and he feels the impermanence of it all,” I say.
“No, no,” says Emma. There’s a chuckle in her tone now and by the shaking of the earth beneath me, I suppose she is laughing at me. “He looks west to the clouds forming over the bay and he feels nothing.”
“Nothing?” I ask.
“Yes, nothing. But also your hand in his, the start of a story he might like to tell you, and a slight gnawing that will soon turn to hunger.”
“I see. Thank you, Mrs. Meriwether,” I say, as I stand to join my son on the path.
The Evening Primrose are dropping their seeds. I snap off a few dry pods and place them in my pocket. My son will be wanting his dinner soon. I go to him.
“That’s my friend Moppy’s grave,” my son tells me, pointing to a small grave we’ve passed.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, hon. Moppy died?”
“Yes, when he was three he died, I think. He was out walking with his wife and he died.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say.
“It’s okay, Mama. Don’t worry. He’ll grow back. Maybe this summer or maybe at Christmas time.”
“Like a Sunflower?” I ask.
“Yes. He’ll grow back, and then he’ll have to die again.”
“I see,” I say.
“If I may, Timothy Meriwether speaking, 1892-1959.” This must be Emma’s husband. I turn back to find his stone beside hers. “He has a morbid imagination, your boy.”
“Oh hush,” Emma admonishes. “What do you know about it?”
A new voice, low and gruff, interjects. “Timothy's right. It’s not normal for a young boy to be so concerned with death.”
“Who says? State your name and dates,” I insist.
“Larson. Jody Larson. 1904-1979,” he says, and I find his grave nearby. The stone is taller than the rest, made of granite with gold lettering. “He’s a nervous boy,” he continues. “That’s the mother’s doing. You fawn over him. You coddle him. It’s made him meek and melancholic.”
Timothy interjects, seemingly excited by his own keen thinking, “You’ve forgotten his infancy, Larson! She let him cry. She didn’t attend to him when he most needed her. That is in fact the problem. Now he has developed a neurosis.”
“The point is, he’s a nervous boy, and that is the mother’s doing.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Larson. I couldn’t agree more.”
I am walking away now, my son's soft hand in mine. “Don’t listen to a word of it!” Emma calls. “They don’t know a thing about it,” she says. “It’s perfectly natural. He wants to know why your heart quivers, he wants to know why? He’s a curious boy.”
“Maybe he’s an existentialist, like his grandfather,” I say to her.
“No, no. He’s simply alive,” she says. “And if he’s alive he must ask how and why a person might not be.”
“He’s a nervous boy.” I hear someone mutter in the distance.
“I didn’t come here for this!” I shout back.
“Then why did you come?” They are speaking in chorus now.
“I came to see the red apples hanging from bare branches, to let them remind me of ornaments on a Christmas tree. And I came to see the sun set.”
“If I may,” says Timothy, “We are the red apples and the barren branches. Most of all, we are the sun in its decline.”
“Well then hush,” I say. “And let your beauty speak for itself.”
A bit of wind, a deep sigh from the earth, and then quietude.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Mama, what will we do when we get home?” my son asks.
“I don’t know, hon. Maybe we’ll play.”
“What will we play?”
“Maybe your firetruck.”
“There are no fires today,” he tells me.
“Oh, good. Maybe dinner then,” I say.
“Do you have an apple in your pocket, Mama, a very little apple?”
“No,” I say.
“Why not?” he asks.
“I didn’t think to put one there,” I say.
“Let’s go home,” he tells me.
Alison Jean Kinney is a writer based in Arcata, CA. Her stories have appeared in fine art books in galleries such as the San Francisco Center for the Book and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. She has a MA in Folklore from the University of North Carolina.