The tinkling of children’s laughter floated through golden springtime air as students filed into Lake Hills Elementary School. It was Friday, April the ninth. A normal day by all accounts.
A small, timid boy fidgeted in his seat as the morning announcements crawled to a finish. His tiny fingers picked at an eraser as he gazed nonchalantly about the room, and his eyes rolled over someone he’d never seen before. She had hair so blonde it looked silver and it fell in her face as she folded a simple flower out of a sheet of notebook paper. She looked a few years older than the boy and he wondered why she would be in his class. Somewhere in the background, Ms. Kinney began to take attendance. The boy peered curiously across the desks as the new girl positioned her creation with great care along the top edge of her desk.
“Here,” the boy quietly replied. At this, the girl looked up and caught Ian’s eye, but only for an instant.
At recess, as everyone else ran and climbed and yelled the silver-haired girl laid in the dirt counting ants. Ian glanced at her every so often from the monkey bars, wishing he knew her name so maybe he could ask if she wanted to do something more fun than playing with bugs, but he couldn’t remember the teacher ever calling it.
Ian was in fourth grade now, and that meant he could walk home by himself. In a small town like this, he thought, he should have been allowed from the day he could remember the way. But on the other hand, the world might stop spinning if mothers stopped worrying. He ran a stick along a metal fence and he half-walked, half-skipped down a nearly forgotten dirt road. Soon he was passing the graveyard.
It was a sprawling plot of land shaded by pine and sycamore. Headstones poked through the soft, dark earth like crooked teeth, and they seemed to go on forever. As the October sun began to fall, shallow shadows spilled onto the grass behind each grave. Ian wasn’t afraid of graveyards. He found them more a source of sadness than one of fear. He’d learned this last summer during a game of Truth or Dare when he was dared to walk to the rearmost gravestone and come back with the engraved name. Once he’d actually started out down the packed earth of the cemetery path, his anxiety dissolved into the melancholic atmosphere, replaced by pure empathy.
Now, some days he would come here just to leave a dandelion on the graves that looked loneliest. While the full idea of death was still a fair amount beyond his mind’s reach, Ian understood that each stone slab represented an entire lifetime. Something that strong, he thought, couldn’t just disappear. As he walked he imagined the silver drip of life leaching into the ground or evaporating into the sky, but his attention was soon diverted.
Someone was in the graveyard and it didn’t take a second look to determine who is was. With green eyes and pale skin, the girl sat in front of a dirty, broken headstone on the far side of the cemetery. Even in the twilight shade, her hair shone bright. Ian slowed to a stop as he watched her draw deliberate lines in a spiral-bound sketchbook. It would have been easy to walk away without her noticing but something inside Ian twisted and he knew he had to talk to her.
“Hey!” His voice bounced off the solid tree trunks that surrounded him. When he called, she made one final stroke of her pencil across the pad and then looked up, grinning.
“Hello there.” Her voice was thin and watery. “Come over, if you would.“ Ian hadn’t expected this reaction. He’d expected silence or a “leave me alone”, but not friendliness. He pushed open the cemetery’s heavy iron gate and picked his way through the maze of headstones, apologizing every time he thought he may have “stepped on” someone.
“Why are you apologizing to them? They can’t hear you.” The girl gave a bemused smile.
“Well I don’t know. Maybe they can.” He pushed a small stone with the toe of his sneaker. “If you stepped on someone alive, you would apologize.”
She initially shrugged at this explanation but then nodded and said, “Well, I suppose you’re right. My name is Violet.”
“I’m Ian,” he said, looking below the hem of her white cotton dress at her socks. They were mismatched and uncovered by shoes.
“I know,” she chirped.
“Oh right,” he smiled. “You heard that this morning.”
“No, I just know.” She leaned back against the gravestone.
The small boy’s brow furrowed, his brain trying to sort out details that had not been presented. “How?”
“The same way I knew you’d find me here.” For the first time, his eyes dropped to the sketchbook in Violet’s lap. Veins of graphite streaked across the page to show a childish drawing of the cemetery, with a girl sitting at the edge and a boy just beyond the gate. “Now come on.” She slid her pencil through the pad’s metal binding and then tossed it on the soil beside her. As she stood up, her long, straight hair flowed over her shoulders. “There’s something I want you to see.”
Ian couldn’t have guessed where she was leading him, or what might be waiting when they arrived, but he followed her. They walked along a winding path that lead to the back of the cemetery, where the iron fence faded out of existence and the soft grass turned to dead leaves and twigs. The air smelled green as they approached a small stone mausoleum. Violet lifted a metal latch and the oaken door swung open as she stepped inside.
“Come on, you’re letting all the warm air out,” she insisted. When Ian walked in he couldn’t help but feel like it was even colder inside than out. Dozens of white candles flickered against the walls of the room, making the air itself seem alive. In the furthest corner sat an antiquated porcelain vase overflowing with lilies, roses, daisies, and the occasional spot of yellow, which Ian immediately recognized as dandelions.
“What is this place?”
“Well it’s not so much the place that matters. It’s these.” She gestured towards the flowers and walked with tiny steps to where they stood. Her little socked feet made no sound on the cracked marble floor. “Let me explain. See, when people die, they leave their whole lives behind. Their memories, fears, hopes. Things they spent their whole life attached to aren’t inside them anymore.” Violet ran her finger along the stem of an orange lily, trailing off. After a brief pause she seemed to remember where she was and what she was doing here. Her forest leaf eyes moved to meet Ian’s.
“Some people think a spirit is a whispery white form that walks the earth. But it’s not. That’s a ghost. Their spirit though, that’s the essence of their being. What makes them who they are. So… their memories, thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears…” Ian held his hands behind his back as he listened to this stream of unfamiliar and unexpected information. Nothing was making any sense.
“No one wants to leave themselves behind. And all they can do is wander about, tethered to the earth. Worried for their spirit. Angry they cannot move on.” As if she sensed Ian’s discomfort, Violet pressed on. “So anyway, when people die the ones who care for them come and visit their graves. And sometimes, they even leave flowers. The basic idea is that cut flowers–well, they just make a perfect vessel. They’re alive, but they won’t be for long. Nearly vacant, but still sustaining. And there they are, right on top of the grave. So the abandoned spirits soak into them.” As she finished speaking, Ian stood there dumbfounded. He waited for her to keep going because he wasn’t sure he could even reply. When she didn’t, however, he offered the only thing he could think to ask.
“How do you know all this?”
“It’s my job to collect the flowers left in this cemetery and bring them here.” She tapped the intricate white vase. “And this is where they stay. In this vase, this room, the flowers never die. And neither do the legacies. As the flowers are preserved in here, a person’s spirit won’t be forgotten. People will remember those who were lost, and they will celebrate their lives. Their spirit will live on in this world, while their energy moves on to the next to become something new.”
“Where do they go?” Ian’s mouth grew dry and his heartbeat quickened at the thought of learning the secrets of the universe.
“I wouldn’t know. I‘ve never been.” Her voice fell shy and soft against the stone walls and marble floor. “I’m just a girl. Besides, I‘ve got work to do here.” She reached out and took Ian’s hand. “But you, you’re free and young. Yet many times I’ve seen you come to leave flowers for those you never knew. Why is that?”
Ian was taken aback by this question. He’d never really thought about it. It had always just seemed like the right thing to do. Puzzled, he searched for the right words. Finally, his eyes rose from the floor and he spoke.
“I would want someone to come visit me.”
Violet’s smile was genuine as she pushed her hair behind her ear. “It means more than you know. Because of you, spirits are saved. Souls are at peace.” She slipped her hand from his and turned back to the bouquet. “I just wanted to show you the beauty you’ve helped create. Thank you.”
Still a bit stunned, Ian mumbled out a quiet “you’re welcome”. Ian opened his mouth to say more but before he knew it Violet was rushing ahead to hug him.
“Thank you for caring.” She spoke softly into his shoulder and did not let go for a long time. “Now you should get home. Come on, I’ll walk you.”
They walked together in silence to the old wrought iron gate. It was just starting to get dark when they said their goodbyes.
“It was wonderful to meet you,” she said with a smile. It was contagious, her smile, and Ian had to return it.
“You too, Violet. I hope we can be really good friends. See you tomorrow.” She smiled, but did not reply. And with that, he turned to walk away. As his he set off toward home the inevitable rush of questions flooded his mind, but one stood out in particular.
Ian did not see Violet for the next two weeks. Not in school, not around town, not at the graveyard, and not at the mausoleum. It became impossible to deny it any longer. He slowly realized the situation he had stumbled into and he simply did not want to believe it. He wanted so badly for her to be happy, but he also knew she had a responsibility.
Then, just as darkness turns curiously to day, he made the decision.
That night, he picked a dandelion from his front yard and carried–with painstaking gentleness–to the cemetery. He did not find Violet, but he didn’t need to. His footsteps were muffled on the dewed grass as he weaved through the gravestones. When he made it to the far side, beneath a large sycamore where he’d met the silver-haired girl, he dropped to his knees.
In front of him stood the grave of Violet C. Edwards, who died at just twelve years of age in 1968. Ian brushed some moss off the corner of the grave with the sleeve of his shirt. The air was crisp and silent as he carefully placed the dandelion against the gravestone. He sat there a while more, the stillness of the night laying upon him like an icy blanket. Only when his fingers grew numb did he stand back up.
Tomorrow was Friday, April the twenty-third. Tomorrow he would pick the prettiest dandelions to lay out, and the next day he would bring them all back to the mausoleum. And he would never see Violet again.