At first, long before he became aware of whispers, the stones in the cemetery trembled at his touch; not all of the stones, but only those on graves belonging to people he had known in life: comrades, teammates, family members, girlfriends, lovers – or the stones memorializing those who hurt him in life or those he had hurt. Once in a while he never knew what the difference was.
But one night, vaguely warm in a mild mid-May, cloudy, the smell of rain in the air, all earth asleep around him, a night of drinking with his buddies taking its late toll, Jabber Quillen fell down drunk at the cemetery where he had walked to get fresh air and heard, mysteriously, ghost-like, whispers coming from the clutch of new grass at his ear, May’s new grass. Straight up in place he sat, but did not reach the immediate power of sobriety.
The next day he did not believe, upon waking, what he thought he had heard.
But they hung with him, those whispers, all the words of them, as if he had memorized the lot, now and then clear as possible, now and then a jumble of a message. He went back to the cemetery one night a week or so later, drunk again, after another night at his favorite pub, afraid to hear what he might have heard … and heard again the whispers. He came away, went sober for a week, a week full of turmoil and torment and unrest, and on a visit in darkness heard the whispers again, listened to them and, finally, believed what he was hearing. His head was clear, free of clutter, old thoughts, old whispers he might have reinvented.
There arose one fact he determined as valid, the voices were different. Some of the voices he recognized, some he didn’t, a readily known lilt in his mother’s voice, the often harsh and guttural shouting from his father, teammate Harry McCormick’s silly lisp in which he maligned the language with esses that made you want to squeeze good English right out of him, and once a judge without a name who had spoken through his teeth during a trial where he’d been on the jury, distaste alive in him. Some of the late speakers from the grass spoke in a language he did not understand, or came only as jibberish of the worst sort.
Some words, as I’ve said or alluded to in my own misunderstanding of these events, came indistinct, caught up in phonetics, and which drifted off from Jabber Quillen as if he rode about in a scooter chair, the electric kind that spin immobile people into new downtown freedoms as though that’s the place they really want to go, the words jumping about, squirming around, looking for the way out. Apparently a choice suffered its due when it came to homonyms: “Hear (here) what I say is not (knot) to be ignored. Attend it or I (eye) attend it from this side.” And there came puzzles in the messages: “There is too much little and little too much about you. Bring your best when you come here, lest you be faulted.”
The stones shivered and trembled and shook again at particular moments or thoughts. He heard tinny words, words brought back in static, caught in the updraft of an old wind, a page turning with the whispers of old tomes: ” Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation —.” “… a date which will live in infamy—.” “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
Quillen broke out in laughter at the last one mentioned here, though he was in the cemetery, no laughing spot on its own merits … not usually, but you never know.
All the old goodies came back from their hiding out, sort of teasing him and his awareness, his memory, and then the first voice he ever heard in the whispers from the grass said, more solemn, dripping with veiled threats, as if from a robed justice sitting on high from down low, “Do you know what preparation is?”
Was that a final warning? Oh, he’d never drink again. Never part the doors of his favorite pub. Never see the faces of his best friends, just as now he could not see a single face that had faded behind and below any of these stones. Never recall the taste of the first beer after a hard day of work, and of course, those that followed never mattered in any discussion.
He was sure it served as his doomsday message; his time was here. The severest shakes he had ever known in his wildest days of drinking swooped him up off the grass. Upright he stood, frozen in place, away from the threats, the dreadful voice with the dreadful question, his mind saying if he didn’t hear those words, if he forgot them in a hurry, they would not have been said. He tried to remember what that old image or saying had meant, once seeing it written … If there was no one about in the Sonora Desert and a cactus fell thumping onto the ground, would there be sound?
It brought up the whole question of sound and friendship and sharing and the bare use of language from the very beginning. Did we, as listeners, create sound? Ask for sound? Demand sound so that we would not be alone? Were people that lonely? Was he that lonely?
It was not supposed to be like this. The shakes continued. He tried to remember them being like this in the past when the binge took hold of him for days at a time, the way his bones promised to crack, to fold in on themselves, to allow his body, the sack of him, to fall to the ground just like an empty laundry bag.
He fell down from the power of his thoughts … and fell asleep.
He woke up to eternal silence, as if he had gone to his death and was in a new place. The silence was deafening, as though his head was in a vacuum. Loss pounded at him, irretrievable loss of life. The shakes continued, and the silence.
Then, in a brief but beautiful moment, he heard a bird call out from a far place, and overhead, in the mass of new leaves of a maple tree standing beside him, an answer came to that call.
It was a signal of on-going life, and his throat was dry.
“Oh, my God,” he said, “wait’ll I tell the boys at Clougherty’s about this one. They won’t believe it.”
Image – Wikicommons