When I was thirteen, I bought my sister’s 10-speed bike for $15, and when the weather was nice, I rode down to the curve on Belmont Road to the place we called the “pull-off,” a gravel lot across from the old cemetery. The pull-off was big enough to accommodate a car or two, presumably for visitors, though I’d never seen any.
The cemetery spread across a hilltop, the knob rising like a wave from a field eternally yellow with timothy to a dark crest, dense with brambles and jagged pines. I didn’t dare cross the ditch and scale the hill, but loitered on the cemetery’s boundaries, eyeing the wall of earth from the road and worrying about the angry souls there who might defy the euphemism “Rest in Peace.” I couldn’t blame them. I’d be an angry ghost, I decided, and then something would brush against my leg -- a blade of grass, a cloud of dandelion pollen. Or a branch would snap under the weight of a squirrel, or a bird would flutter from its nest high on the hill. And I would run, certain that death was at my heels, foam-mouthed hounds determined to drag me into the depths of hell.
The locals sometimes showed up at the pull-off. Carloads of boys leaned out windows to offer me cigarettes, distracting me, at least momentarily, from abstract thoughts of mortality. They were real, alive, sweaty and shirtless, their bare backs sticking to vinyl seats. We sat on their car hoods and talked about nothing -- Roger and Greg and Willie and Terry. They were desperate for something -- attention, sex -- and I eventually recognized that desperation in me.
It was the yearning to outlast a suntan and a dead-end road, the house that was supposed to be my home, that I believed could never contain me. It was the longing to find a stomping ground where there would always be a new best friend or an old graveyard, excitement and dread willing me to survive.
That summer I made my first foray up to the cemetery with two neighbor boys and Nancy, my adventurous eighth-grade girlfriend. Our excuse to go there was the need for privacy -- to smoke marijuana rolled in thin red paper that smelled like strawberry incense when it burned.
We pedaled there on bikes, with me trailing the pack, squinting at the sun and praying under my breath that daylight would keep the dead in their graves. Even with my eyes closed, I knew by scent when we arrived at the curve in Belmont Road -- that sweet, almost sickly smell of honeysuckle, so strong I imagined it coming from the corpses themselves.
We plowed through the weeds at the bottom of the hill and set our bikes down on a patch of wilted clover. They started up the slope ahead of me, the boys howling, Nancy’s arms pumping as she struggled to keep up. I stared at the canopy of trees, the knobby branches that dangled down like giant cat claws. It was dark up there in spite of the sun.
My heart raced as we scrambled through the tangle of honeysuckle vines up the hill. Death was this sweet, overwhelming stench. Death was flowers. The vines became the tresses of long forgotten dead girls, and I tripped over them, crazy with fear.
There were babies here, too -- sweet-smelling babies; and young Civil War soldiers whose collapsed lungs had filled with honey; grandpas and grandmas who smelled of warm, rotting fruit. I knelt and touched their tombstones, pretending to be brave, trembling inside. I imagined the dead coming out when we left them to suck sweet drops of nectar from the white and yellow flowers.
Nancy handed me the joint. She mimed taking a drag to show me how it was done. I took a long draw, inhaling through slightly parted lips. The strawberry paper glowed bright and a few tiny ashes drifted in the air. The marijuana smoke curled under my nose, but all I could smell was honeysuckle, the ceaseless blooming of the summers ahead, the pungent odor of death.
Bobbi Buchanan is editor-publisher of the online journal New Southerner (newsoutherner.com), which encourages self-sufficiency, environmental stewardship and support for local economies. Her essay "A Life Away" won the 2007 Emerging Writers Contest sponsored by the Southern Women Writers Conference. Her work has been published in The New York Times, GreenPrints, Arable, Kentuckiana Parent, The Louisville Review and on LiteraryMama.com.