A Traveller's Ghost
In the aftermath of church hymns, under the fog of honeyed evening light, the dull-grey gate of a graveyard is unhinged. The Auvillar sky, after rainfall, took a pause. A pallid white glow spills from behind clouds. I enter the gate and move between worlds of the living and the dead. Grey, pastel blue and bronze gravel crumble under my feet.
Gravestones overlook hills and sloping French roofs; a layer of mist obscures sky over land. “Regrette” – cursive and embossed – is the only voice in the silence. A bird scurries into her nest and hides her face. A thin layer of moss crawls over stone, breathing. Heart-shaped leaves grow at the foot of gravestones, almost wild. Tombs are imprinted with the declaration: “Famille” – intimations that families are buried in the same spaces between rock and earth.
I turn to the vocabulary of flowers. In this graveyard, there are too many flowers to name. Each flower says what language cannot. A rose the color of ballet slippers rests, a dedication; a dolphin sits beside a snow globe, an ode; a watering can leans against a tombstone, a sustenance. Every flower softens the hardness of grey stone. Every tomb bears the same image: Christ on a cross. Every turn is a reminder of his greater death.
Why did I travel half the world to look at gravestones? What do these names mean to me? Is it acceptable to look at plaques of the anonymous dead and think: there is so much beauty in passing away? Deaths, noble and plebian, lead to this moment. Is it appropriate that I am looking at a dead French man’s gravestone and all I can think of is the last person I kissed? A real man is dead here, and instead, in place of mourning, I’m wondering what you are doing now - lying in bed thinking of astronomy, or dancing with someone new to jazz in your mother’s home, or looking out of your living room window and crying. There is nothing more perverse yet inevitable: I cannot think of death without thinking of you, and you are still alive.
Distance is a chasm of dark and then blue at the other end. Blue for sadness, or a gaze, or a sky – I can’t tell. Perhaps, blue for blue and not for anything else. My heart floats, suspended, across a gulf where airplane tails leave trails of smog that bridge the near and far. I cannot make many conclusions about this distance except that I am near and you are far. I remember a February evening, us holding hands in a warm dorm room, finding something more than friendship. As snow fell outside my window, you breathed beside me and I felt your warmth. When the snow melted and the sun came out, something was lost. I looked into your eyes and found distance.
You don’t know a last kiss until it happens. Little deaths happen in life too – to the ones we leave, or to ourselves, when we are left. What’s changing between us? I asked, hurt but determined to hide it. I have some things to figure out on my own. I felt distance in your voice, and gave you space. Distance compounds distance. The person you fall asleep next to becomes a passer-by on the street.
It is so easy to move from place to place, pretending that people are provisional rest stops, like a pleasant gas station on a road trip. You stop for an instant’s stay, refuge from the evolving scenery outside car windows, and bide your moment. And finally, when your time comes, you blow out a candle, fill your tank with petrol, press your lips against theirs, and drive away, leaving nothing but a tombstone in your wake. There are a thousand graveyards in me and every gravestone is yours; I am standing in front of you, kissing cold concrete, clutching a rose the color of grape juice, thinking of the empty tomb below the soles of my feet. The rose’s thorn pricks me, and I let it.
Which is better – for a person you love to be dead and here, or alive and gone? I’d choose the former. At least I can mourn you beneath the earth. At least I can turn up with a flower and wish you well. At least I can be with your mirage. At least I can make my love ageless. At least this way, no one else can have you.
We travel for a semblance of agency. So we can time our trips. So we can decide when to arrive and when to depart. Our passing through towns is power. We are travelers, and no traveler lives in grease-coated gas stations or dimly lit motel rooms with peeling cherry-paint forever. I will leave, but at least this way, I can choose when.
In this graveyard, a bird sings in universal language; her feathers are wet. I imagine two ghosts open their tomb, and climb out onto gravel. In a wedding gown and tuxedo, they slow-dance in French rain, to a song I do not know. Beside the larger tombstones of family burials, there are smaller individual ones, lone ghosts who skirt the land and belong only to themselves. Without roots, they float out of their grey homes and into the lives of others, but they are always only passing through.
I am a good traveler, they say. Sweetheart, I learnt it from the best.