The field with its unmarked graveyard hides in the woods behind the old state hospital. In the summer it’s covered in tall grasses. In winter when the snow is high, the footprints of deer and smaller creatures press down below the surface. Children ride their sleds from one end to the other while men in orange vests pause for a moment before disappearing into the trees.
Still, Grandpa and I always knew it wasn’t a place for sleds or laughter.
Five-hundred-and-eighty-four small stones.
Five-hundred-and-eighty-four hospital inmates almost entirely forgotten.
The state hospital closed decades ago. It used to warehouse Downs Syndrome and Fragile X babies alongside schizophrenics and psychotic breaks. Like the hospital’s residents, my Grandpa Einar spent most of his adult life behind its high walls, though for him it was the job of maintenance worker that held him inside. By the time Grandpa started bringing me on his Sunday walks, those empty buildings, the nearby field, and the 584 graves were all that remained.
“Hello, friend.” Grandpa knelt and placed his freckled hand on a flat oval of stone. We’d reached the northeast corner of the field. “Gordie and his Flamenco dancers and the Running of the Bulls. Course, he never went further than Hospital Hill.” Grandpa looked up at me. “You’re a good boy, Hinrik. Promise me you’ll travel somewhere beyond this town.”
I gave the right answer, “I promise,” and then quickly moved on. “Why doesn’t anyone else know Gordie’s here?”
“Hinrick, carrying the shovel was part of my job.”
“Min krútt, most people try to ignore the hard things. They don’t even notice the dead.”
“Oh.” I nodded my head as though his answer made sense. St. Brigid’s Cemetery was full of dead people. When Grandma Amma died, everyone had watched as the dirt fell into the rectangular hole. They’d even watched Grandpa cry.
It’s strange what stays with you. I can’t remember the day my father left. And my Grandma Amma’s funeral, with its organ music and funeral wreaths, is now just a hazy memory. Gretchen Dudek however — Doesn’t matter what promises I made, I remember everything about the Sunday morning Gretchen Dudek’s rock disappeared.
“You’re looking downright sparkly, Francine. Winter really suits you.” Grandpa bent to touch a rectangular stone not more than three inches across. It was early March, the tail end of winter, and both the field and Francine’s stone were covered in a light dusting of snow.
“Hubert, my friend.” Grandpa nodded toward a jagged rock just a few feet beyond Francine. His words no different from last Sunday and all the other Sundays before that.
I knew the drill. Gretchen’s stone and her special words came next. “Gretchen, dear, you look as lovely as ever. Just like an angel.” Grandpa always smiled when he spoke to Gretchen’s stone. For that one moment it felt almost as though Grandma Amma was still alive.
This time I listened to the whoosh of a car traveling up Hill Road and Grandpa’s silence as he scanned the empty ground. In all our visits, Gretchen’s stone had never moved.
Grandpa turned slowly in place as a breeze stirred his wisps of white hair. “Gretchen? Gretchen, where are you? I never wanted you to be alone.”
The pines that edged the field creaked in the winter cold. Einar. I imagined along with the blood pounding in my ears. Einar. A woman’s voice.
Grandpa spun slowly in place. A breeze stirred his wisps of white hair. “Gretchen? Please. I never wanted you to be alone.”
Einar. The voice was fainter than before. Einar. Now closer to a sigh, and then nothing.
I tried not to notice the expression on Grandpa’s face. Crying, Grandpa had explained many times, was for funerals and final goodbyes. For two hours we criss-crossed that field, poking with sticks, examining each unearthed stone. Toward the end, I started to wish someone else would whisper Grandpa’s name.
Gretchen was the first to go missing, but she wasn’t the last.
Mr. Greenbaum’s stone sat in a bad location, right next to the worn dirt path that led into the woods. We’d put Mr. Greenbaum back half-a-dozen times before, tracking his stone a kick’s distance from its original spot. Grandpa and I searched. Of course we searched. After all, Mr. Greenbaum had two rose tattoos, one on either arm. He loved wintergreen lifesavers and Red Sox baseball.
None of that stopped his stone from disappearing.
Einar. This voice sounded deeper than the last. Einar. And then the same cold silence as before.
Baby Marcum’s stone disappeared from what Grandpa called the field’s “safest spot”, inside a mass of prickers.
Eee Eee. Sounds, not words, this time. Eee. And then nothing.
Afterward, Grandpa’s hands shook so badly I had to unlock the car doors. For long minutes the two of us sat inside the rusting Ford, surrounded by the barren field and the empty sky.
“That field, it was very bad idea” Grandpa muttered when he finally started the car. “Mortar, Hinrick. That’s what is needed.”
“No amount of silence can disappear mortared stone.”
That very day, we began to build the wall in Grandpa’s back garden. We took our time. Some days we moved a stone dozens of times before Grandpa was satisfied we’d found the right spot for that particular friend.
Of course, 581 rocks isn’t enough for even the smallest of walls. But we used thick layers of mortar, tracked down river stones and weather-worn shards of colored glass. And almost from the very beginning there were all those new rocks and small forgotten stones, the ones I found walking the too-quiet places near town.
Turns out a wall made of hidden stones is never complete.
All those hard memories — they hold me to this place. Angela Walczak, Herbert, the twins: Most nights as I drift to sleep, they whisper my name. Hinrick. Hinrick, don’t leave. We need this home.
Julie C. Day has published over thirty stories in magazines such as the Cincinnati Review, Split Lip Magazine, the Cream City Review, and Interzone. Her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles was released by PS Publishing in 2018. Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts. You can find her at @thisjulieday or on her blog stillwingingit.com. Café writing and long baths with paper books are also a thing.
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