It’s right rare that someone asks me to take them down a road I don’t know – been traveling the backroads of Teyach going on twenty years, and the only ones I don’t know are those little sandy, marshy stretches in the inside. Figures that’s where the lady wanted me to take her. She wasn’t much of a talker, wouldn’t even give me her name. She just sat there in the passenger seat with her eyes fixed on the horizon, those dried up flowers crinkling in her grip. Not that I didn’t try to make conversation – drive mile after mile through silt that’s aching to swallow your tires whole, and you just have to say something, even if it ends up being to yourself.
I say, “Little late for me to say this, ma’am, but I reckon fresh flowers are traditional. I’m thinking yours are dead.”
The lady snaps her eyes from the road for the first time in a good half-hour. “Never you mind, you…Caxey, you said your name was?”
I say, “That’s right, ma’am.”
The lady says, “You’re acting all polite now, but you’re being real familiar, Caxey. Now, I’m paying you, and I’m paying you to drive this wicked truck of yours to a certain place, and you’re gonna do it, hear?”
I say, “Yes ma’am, just being friendly. Won’t bother you if you don’t want.”
“Well, I don’t.” The lady tightens her weathered fist just a little tighter around the flowers. “But since you’re being so curious, I’ll have you know that dried flowers are a traditional Shuvedeve offering for the soul of a dead stranger.”
I say, “You’re from Shuvedeve?”
The lady says, “Now what did I just now say about being familiar? You better watch that behavior of yours. Fella like you’s likely to end up with no one to remember him, or see to his grave. There’s dried flowers in your future, that much I know.”
So I don’t say anything else to the lady, and fortunately it turns out we’re real close to her destination. It’s nothing to look at from down the road – a patch of grit where the sun and wind have sucked all the water out of the old marsh – but there are people there, and enough you can pick them out from a distance. Most of them look like the lady I’m driving, which is to say worn to a plain soul by the world, and they’re all toting gifts for the dead.
The lady hops out of my truck almost before I’ve got it stopped, and I’m right after her – don’t really have to follow her, I’ve done what she paid me to do, but I really am the curious type. She’s drawn right to a certain patch of ground, and at a quick glance it’s just dirt, but then you notice that it bulges up just a little, and there’s this little twig jammed into the ground next to it. There are a lot of things sticking out of the ground, the makeshift markers in a vagabond’s graveyard.
The flowers float out of the lady’s hands on what a rational man would say was a gust of wind, but I can’t be sure that there wasn’t an invisible hand claiming them. She gets so somber that it’s like she’s not even part of the world anymore, and then speaks something in a real plain voice: “A poor soul returned to peace here. I know not his name. I know not the date of his birth. But he deserved a better place to die.”
I don’t say anything for a while after that, and I don’t take a step just in case it’s going to disturb her. Eventually, she opens her eyes and glances a little bit in my direction, but not quite. I say, “You needing another minute, ma’am, or are you ready to go?”
The lady says, “I’m ready. We’re gonna head back, and no talking on the way this time, all right?”
I say, “Yes ma’am, but…well, I am curious. I ain’t never heard a prayer like that before. And how’d you even know about this place?”
The lady says, “That head’s just for decoration, ain’t it?” Then she climbs back into the truck. “Get to it. You get the rest of the money when we’re back.”
I never forgot that little prayer – it touched me in a way I can’t place. One day I ought to go back to that graveyard and bring flowers myself. It couldn’t hurt to make some friends for the next life.