With the moss scraped away, the dates on the gravestone showed clearly: Born July 1, 1877, Died May 17, 1881. Lucy Winifred Townsend had failed to reach the tender age of four.
Micola sprayed the mottled surface with a cocktail of vaporous cleansers and began to gently brush the carved granite. This would be her eleventh today.
The cemetery’s manager had stood listening to her pitch, his fingers sliding the brass clips on his suspenders up and down. He’d managed the Boone, North Carolina City Cemetery since his daddy died twenty-two years ago; run over by a tractor—the funeral had been closed casket.
When Micola described her process and then proceeded to show him photos of her work at other cemeteries, he had to ask, “You film you-self scrubbin’ these here stones, which you do for free. And that’s all you do? No job or nothin’?”
Micola had smiled apologetically. Time and time again folks balked at her request. “Clean old gravestones without pay? How’s a girl to survive?” She’d attempt to explain the vicarious nature of viewing methodical labor, how it soothed the minds of folks trapped behind computer screens all day. Only a few locals she spoke to understood the concept. The fact remained, the location of the most historic graves were in the small forgotten towns whose heyday had passed a century ago. Towns where high-tech had yet to encroach. Towns like Boone, mired in their history.
As she scraped and scrubbed at Lucy’s stone, she uncovered an epitaph, no doubt written by the child’s mother:
Our cheer awaits us
where little Lucy
sits and laughs with God.
Micola stood back and sprayed the gravestone, rinsing away the green muck the brushing had released. “Nearly one hundred and fifty years ago this child skipped to church, ate corn cake and peaches. And unfortunately…” She tapered off. Of all the plots to pick, this one had had quite the story. Ol’ Suspenders had known it well.
“Rumor has it,” he’d begun, “Lucy, she was only three n’ change when she died, liked to dance at twilight on the porch of the Townsend’s cabin. Now,” the manager pulled hard at his elastic bands, “they say twilight was when the Townsends would line up their candles outside on a little table and light each one. The smoke and bother would drift away on the wind, don’t cha know.”
The man bent down to try and brush away the lichen that had attached itself to the top of Lucy’s gravestone. Micola had yet to start on its rejuvenation.
“Well,” he continued, “little Lucy had a nightgown that her grandmother had ordered from New York City. A silly, frilly thing.” Suspenders grinned at this alliteration. “While the other children had run inside to fetch the parents for to bring in the light, Lucy danced right into the table after all the candles had been lit.”
Micola’s fist had risen unconsciously to her lip.
“Her gown caught fire and, we’re told, rather than roll on the ground like any sensible adult would do. Once, even I had to put myself out…” He cleared his throat, catching his sidetrack. Micola might have frowned at the diversion.
“Where was I? Ah, yes. Little Lucy ran screaming into the night, the poor child. By the time they found her, which wasn’t long after, she’d inhaled the flames, burn her lungs and suffocated.” The manager seemed to consider this detail for a moment. He breathed deeply, stretching further his burgundy straps. “That’s what they say, I’m told. These ol’ stones, they got some stories, I tell you. And we won’t ever know the truth. That’s what I say.”
Micola stowed her tools including the industrial bottle of cleanser and surveyed her work. In the noonday sun the stone would dry quickly, but its light grey facade would not show until the residual bleach had a chance to work its magic. Lucy’s gravestone showed dark now but was clear of blight, its chiseled letters and dates easily read.
At its base, Micola had discovered the visage of an angel performing a pirouette, tiny wings aloft, and the flare of a dress at her ankles.
She shifted her work to the next grave site, a man who’d died eighty years ago. As she worked at his stone she found herself returning to gaze at little Lucy’s plot and the thought of so much cheer being so violently erased from the world.