“Songs of Earth”

A Short Story by D.G. Wallace

For Jenny, the graves were her friends. She would skip among them after school, calling them out by name and playing pretend with faces and voices she imagined for them. Then she would pluck the petals from the roses that grew about the unkempt edges of the nearby stone chapel, which drooped with age, and run along the decaying pews before leaving for home. Her friends would follow her home, smiling and laughing, and she would welcome them into her home and dreams. Some kids at school would laugh, others would stare with concern, but all regarded her as the odd one out, the black sheep, the pariah. Jenny didn’t mind. She had her own friends, and she would see them at the end of the day when the rest had left her behind.

“She’s so strange,” whispered Jeremy to Angelica, discreetly watching Jenny as she stared out the window. Together, they scoped out the knots she tied in her hair, her torn jeans, and almost imagined the smell of fresh dirt on her. As boring as history was, at least Angelica had some entertainment.

“What do you think she’s singing this time?” giggled Jeremy quietly. Angelica shoved his shoulder playfully, trying to focus back on the lesson.

“I don’t know,” she whispered back. “Something weird about broken circles. Focus, Jeremy, I have to pass this class.” Jeremy pushed her back. Angelica stifled a laugh. The steady drone of the history teacher was perturbed momentarily, and for a moment the two of them waited in silence for his reprimand. But then the drone commenced anew, and they fell back at their desks in relief.

“We can talk later, Jeremy.”

“Tonight at my place?”

“Yeah,” Angelica giggled. “See you there.”

***

Angelica stuffed some textbooks in her locker overflowing with papers, and grabbed the two she needed to study tonight. Not that she would get much work done with Jeremy around, she reflected. He didn’t have enough self-control for “group study” when it was just the two of them. She zipped up her backpack and walked through the crowd of high-schoolers like a minnow wriggling upstream. Angelica tried to talk about important stuff with him, future plans, things she dreamed of. Mostly Jeremy didn’t listen, but at least he seemed to care about her. Lately, though, she had been feeling a disconnect with Jeremy. Angelica wasn’t sure if it was her, or Jeremy, or maybe something that had gotten between them. She felt a tap on her right shoulder. She turned, finding no one there, then spun around and found Jeremy in front of her, grinning.

“Are we still on for tonight?” he said, walking backwards. It was hard to be serious with Jeremy, and Angelica found herself smiling in spite of herself.

“Yeah.” She said. Then remembering that nagging thought, she took a chance. “Jeremy?” He slowed, a comical look still on his features.

“Jeremy, can we actually study tonight? I mean, I know we usually goof around, but doing well in my classes is really important to me. I really want to go to UCLA, like we talked about, and I have to do well this year to boost my GPA.”

“Angelica Sheal, you worry too much. You’re the smartest girl I know! You’ll do fine.”

“I know, but, Jeremy, this is really important to me.

Jeremy diffused that look of quiet misunderstanding she had so often seen on his face. Her heart fell a little. If he couldn’t take that, even after all they talked about, then how could he take the rest of it?

“Yeah, Angelica, sure.” He said, turning to walk with her toward the big double doors at the entrance of the school. “I guess I just don’t understand what the big deal is.”

“Success is important to me. If I want to be a good political analyst, I have to get in to a good school.”

“But, like, I won’t be going to UCLA. And I’ll, like, never see you again after this.” She heard the pain in his voice, and her heart tightened. But her path was set; she knew where she was going, and how she would get there. If Jeremy didn’t support her in that, then maybe they needed to reconsider their relationship.

And that was the hard part, because that was the rest she couldn’t seem to get through to him. Of all her dreams, for some reason, one of her biggest was to raise a baby girl. She imagined a baby in her arms, growing up into a strong, independent, healthy girl, doing all the things she never did and living like she never could. Even as she thought of it, walking out of high school, so distant from the possibility of its reality, that euphoria of anticipation flooded her mind. Jeremy noticed; he knew her looks almost better than she did.

“Is that the other thing we talked about that I forgot?” said Jeremy, a little uncomfortable. Angelica shook off the look, adjusting her backpack and checking her phone for notifications.

“Hm? Oh, no, I was thinking about… something else.” She turned from Jeremy’s probing eyes, and suddenly spotted Jenny skipping out of the parking lot. Jenny came up to the paved path straddling the school’s parking lot and the road just beyond, then happily skipped off to the left of her view, ignoring all the cars and the people passing her by. There was something about that girl Angelica couldn’t quite put her finger on.

“Ange?” Jeremy questioned.

“Hm, huh?”

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine, Jeremy.” She gave him a long hug. Jeremy hugged her with a concerned look on his face.

“My place tonight, still?”

“I’ll be there.” Angelica looked up at him, smiled, and turned toward the paved path. When she got there, she looked to her left and watched a distant figure skipping away. A moment’s indecision, then she walked the other way, towards the neighborhoods and nearer the center of town.

***

“Bye, Jeremy! I’ll see you in two hours!” Angelica waved to Jeremy as she left the school. Jeremy ran up behind her, picked her up and planted a kiss on her cheek.

“Same time, same place?” He said mischievously.

“Same time, same place, you big jerk.” She shoved him away playfully. He kissed her again and ran back inside the school. They had talked a lot last night. Where she wanted to go, what she wanted to do with her life. She talked about that baby girl, but a little cautiously. She didn’t know how Jeremy would take something like that. It was hard for him to hear – which was surprising, since she thought they had talked a lot about it – but he took it well. She even got some studying in, which was a pleasant surprise considering Jeremy’s past behavior during their study sessions. Her life seemed to be ‘simply right’ again, a phrase Angelica’s mom would use when everything was going smoothly.

She turned around just in time to spot Jenny disappear around the corner of the building, skipping away. Where did that strange girl go to every day? Angelica followed her to the path, looked right indecisively, and then turned left. The path was small and narrow, lying between road and school, then road and office buildings, then road and cornfields. She walked and walked, her legs growing more and more tired as she went. Jenny was still going, way out in front, almost beyond her sight. Angelica had never been this far out before. She looked behind her. The road behind gently sloped upward and hid anything familiar in the short horizon. She didn’t see anything before her but a cluster of trees on her left. Jenny had disappeared.

Suddenly, Angelica came past the trees, and there on her left were the blackened spars and ashen ruins of a house. A dirt path led up the hill to the deserted home, winding between an ill-kept, weed-infested lawn. She noted there was no driveway or garage of any kind. The only living thing was a wild rabbit chewing on a dandelion near the house’s front steps. Angelica slowly, uncertainly, walked the little path to the house. The wild rabbit bolted when she got to the front steps, and Angelica climbed up and stepped through the threshold. Timbers and ashes lay everywhere. The remains of a living room made a ghostly square to her right, a rug burned to cinders, a table smashed by a collapsed bit of ceiling, and pieces of chairs lying about. The back of the house, where the kitchen must have been, was invaded by someone’s bedroom just above. It had collapsed at an angle, higher at the outer corner of the house and angling downward towards the living room. She stepped onto the mostly intact wooden floor, being mindful of the heavy creaks at each step, praying it wouldn’t suddenly give way beneath her. At the far, tilted wall, a square picture frame still hung from a nail, angled to fall plumb with the ground. Balancing on a sturdier wooden plank, Angelica deftly took the frame off its hook. In the frame was a picture of a family, and in that family was a girl whose well-brushed hair and clean, pretty dress were inconsistent with a face that Angelica recognized, had thought before so strange, and even today had been following.

***

Class was over. Angelica walked to her locker, putting in textbooks and pulling out homework due next period. But her mind didn’t follow her back last night; it was still rifling through the debris of a broken home. Where had she seen that house before? Something last year she couldn’t remember… A vague feeling, a flip of the channel, another distraction. She shook her head, trying to bring herself back to the present. That happened a long time ago, she told herself.

When she closed her locker door, Jeremy was right behind it. Startled, she dropped her homework all over the floor. Jeremy bent to help her pick it up. He wasn’t smiling.

“Where were you last night? I waited and waited.” His voice lacked its usual carefree tone.

“I-I’m sorry, Jeremy, I forgot. I got really busy, and I forgot.”

“It’s just that we agreed, and you weren’t there, and I felt really stupid afterwards.”

“Well, I said I’m sorry.” Angelica stuffed the papers at all angles into her folder and stood up. Jeremy put his arm around her, relaxing a little.

“I’m worried about you, Ange. You’ve been acting strange, lately. I just want to make sure you’re ok.”

She leaned against his chest and heard his steady heartbeat. She felt safe and less uncertain in his arms.

“I’m sorry, Jeremy. I’ve just been feeling weird lately. A lot has been happening. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I think I’ll be fine in a day or two.” She felt his arms squeeze her slightly, and then release.

“It’s fine, Ange. I just want you to feel better. Do you still want to do something tonight?” His eyes betrayed a desire to be together, but he restrained it from his voice.

“I’d love to. See you after school.” They hugged. Then Jeremy dissolved into a sea of faces.

Angelica closed her locker, and for the second time that week a thought nagged at the back of her mind. Only this time it wasn’t about her. A kind of sadness went with it, and then she realized what it was about. As she put her things in order for class, she thought about Jeremy, and about the plans she had, and maybe about that baby girl one day. There was too much to do, and so much to live for. Things like that happen to other people every day, and it was kind of sad it happened so close. But she couldn’t do anything about it now, and time kept on moving, so she would too.

***

She stood once more on the paved path between the road before her and the high school behind her. Cars whizzed by, carrying their passengers in anonymity to meet deadlines set about their intangible schedules. This time, she had left school before Jenny. Then, like clockwork, Jenny appeared a little ways down the path and started merrily skipping away. Angelica was determined to find out where this strange, reticent girl went to. Angelica followed her at a close distance as she skipped down the sidewalk. She always had a faraway look in her eyes, and never really talked to anyone. Did anyone really notice when she was sort of shunned during social activities? And besides, Jenny seemed to like being alone. They passed houses and cornfields, and the ruins of the house. Jenny kept on going, unflinching, her hair twirling about her in the subtle autumn breeze. She had an unhealthy gauntness to her and didn’t dress to be successful. Her torn backpack suddenly spilled broken pencils on the sidewalk, and neither girl stopped to pick them up. Was it a surprise when Jenny scored with the worst of her class, while Angelica scored with the best? She came up on a long line of planted maple trees, stretching far to the left of her vision. Angelica watched as Jenny unlatched a narrow gate, nearly invisible from Angelica’s distant perspective, and entered the town’s cemetery. Jenny’s clothes always smelled like fresh dirt, her hair was ratty, and she hardly ate. And yet, perhaps her most infuriating attribute, she had a joy about her that was unquenchable. Maybe it was her way of dealing with the harshness of reality.

Angelica came up on the gate Jenny had opened. She rattled the gate quietly, trying not to make too much noise, but discovered it was locked. Confused, she tried to reach around and undo the lock, but it was rusted shut. At this revelation, Angelica was just a little creeped out. Suddenly, a crow landed on the gate and cawed at her. Angelica jumped backward, the crow’s dull black eyes following her. So she left the gate and followed the rusty iron fence lining the cemetery until she came upon another entrance not far away. This entrance had no gate, and was much wider, so she entered and followed the broad path among the gravestones until she heard what sounded like someone singing.

A large willow gave a commanding view of a pleasant, sun-dappled clearing, and Angelica came up behind it to observe the alien place. Old tree stumps made a circle around a pile of newly placed roses and twigs, and the circle was surrounded by broken and newer grave markers. On one of the stumps, plucking out the petals of a rose, sat Jenny singing a tune to herself. Angelica could just catch the words.

Will the circle be unbroken? By and by, lord, by and by…

Angelica had never visited the cemetery. It was a quiet place, and she could almost begin to understand why the skipping and dancing Jenny would come here every day after school. Almost.

There’s a better home a-waitin’ in the sky, lord, in the sky.

A crow cawed raucously in the willow tree above, startling Angelica. At that moment, Jenny looked over and waved. Angelica had been caught – she didn’t have much choice but to wave back and walk towards her. Jenny skipped over.

“Hi!” said Jenny.

“Hey, Jenny. I know we’ve never talked much, but –“

“Don’t worry about it, Angelica!” Jenny finished. Angelica gulped. I’m sorry I was spying on you was caught somewhere in her throat.

“I was wondering when you’d come out from behind that tree.” Jenny said and smiled. Angelica stood there awkwardly, waiting, but it seemed Jenny was waiting for Angelica to reply.

“Um, so you knew, that I was, like, hiding…” Jenny just smiled. “Anyway, what do you do here? Do you know anybody in the – I mean, do you have friends here – oh, dear.”

Jenny laughed like music tingling through the wind.

“No fear, Angelica. My family’s here. Want to meet them?” Without waiting for a reply, Jenny twirled and hopped over to four newer grave markers. Angelica followed without a word. She pointed to the names with the rose in her hand.

“Mom, Dad, Ben, and Emily. When the fire happened last year, they moved into a better home. I visit them from time to time, but they have other friends to keep them company.” Angelica stooped down and looked at the names, the dates: Richard and Jennifer Nawal, 19- to 20-. She imagined what that horrible day must have been like: the family’s screams from within, Jenny’s horror when she came home from school, a hellish glare of flames, all of it gone forever. Benjamin Nawal, 19- to 20-. Angelica vaguely remembered the news that midsummer night, and the story of a housefire, and a last name she didn’t recognize. Emily Nawal, 20- to 20-. It was just news to her, though, some terrible thing that had happened to someone else. She got up and looked at Jenny. Jenny wasn’t someone else, though. She was standing in front of her, smiling with a sparkle in her eyes, eyes that seemed to understand Angelica with an uncomfortable honesty.

“Jenny, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know…” said Angelica, searching for the words. They seemed misplaced. It had happened so long ago, and she didn’t really, well, care at the time. Was it guilt? Why didn’t she care when could have – when she had the chance? But now that she saw the names in the stone, imagined the bodies in the graves, it became uncomfortably real. Angelica began to cry slow, wet tears. Jenny stopped smiling. She touched Angelica’s arm.

“One of my friends knows you. You should meet her before you go.” Angelica looked up, confused. Jenny’s face was written with pain, but there was a peace to it. She dropped the rose, stepping on it on the path, and took Angelica’s hand. Then they stepped out on the uneven path as she led Angelica through her cemetery of friends. Over broken cobblestones and through swaying grasses they walked, as a crow cawed within the forgotten chapel bell tower. They approached the corner of the cemetery, and one small, white cross stuck up from the freshly mounded earth. Angelica stared at the cross, stood in front of it, sat down beside it. There was something about it that was unnerving, strange, unreal.

“She has a name. A voice of her own. You will never know her, but she is as close to you as any child can be.” Angelica ran her finger along the middle beam of the little cross, feeling the tiny letters painted over with white, then recoiled in horror. Her finger was covered in blood, and it painted the letters red against the white cross. Sheal. Images flashed in her mind: the thorny rose from Jenny’s hand, a rose fallen and trampled into path behind them, a hand that had led her down the path. Angelica’s vision clouded. Her chest heaved uncontrollably. Her heart pounded a rhythm of despair that could not be silenced, and coldness seeped in from the earth covering her child. For an eternity of torment and blackness, Angelica was ripped out of herself, spiraling in desperate loneliness, the pieces of her being scattered across the refuse of humanity. Then Jenny touched her arm. A dull light creeped around the edge of the blackness. Angelica slowly opened her eyes. She could see Jenny crouched over her, and once again the plaintive peacefulness of the sun-dappled cemetery. Jenny, too, was crying, but not for the child.

“Name her, Angelica. Name her so we can play.”

Angelica looked into Jenny’s eyes. She was beginning to understand the strangeness – the affection – she saw there. For her, for all these forgotten names, for all these little lost ones. Angelica turned her red-rimmed eyes to the cross and thought for a moment, letting gentle winds toss her hair. The sun hid behind a wisp of cloud, and they sat in shadowed silence for another moment that seemed to defy the bounds of time.

“Mary,” said Angelica. “I’m going to name her Mary.”

Jenny stood up. She smiled wide and laughed, wiping the tears from her eyes. The sun reappeared in the blue sky.

“Hello, Mary, my name is Jenny. Would you like to play?”

Angelica got up and turned to Jenny. But she had already run away, dancing and skipping and singing an old forgotten song around the graveyard. Angelica wiped her eyes on her sleeve, looked her last on the little grave, and walked away.