With the Halloween season upon us, I thought I’d share an older story I wrote with you. This was partly inspired after a re-reading of Interview with the Vampire many years ago. Anne Rice had inspired me a lot when I was younger and the original three books in the Vampire Chronicles were partly why I decided to write beyond just poetry.
The following is Part One of a story called The Seated Woman. I’ve always loved cemetery statues and sculptures and this story deals with the themes of love and loss within that setting. I hope you enjoy it.
The Seated Woman – Part One
Kayla squeezed through the old iron gates of the cemetery. One gate stood ajar, hanging from the hinges like a tired soldier at a long and wearisome guard duty. She paused inside, breathless from running, her face streaked with wind-dried tears. She hated, hated her house. Hated her stepmother. Every fairy tale has its wicked stepmother but what do you do with a nice stepmother, she wondered. Not likely you can throw her in a cauldron of boiling oil.
Picking her way through the knee-high grass, she mused on devious ways to rid herself of this most vexing problem. The crackling, snapping of the weeds that whipped around her legs like sprung traps resounded in the dead quiet surroundings. Not only was she the only living human creature in the old, abandoned cemetery but she felt like she was the only creature in the world. The cemetery was silent, mournful yet peaceful. Its very antiquity soothed her. The autumn trees spread their slowly changing leaves like canopies, their roots upending some of the oldest tombstones. Mausoleums like miniature houses and large, elaborate tombstones dotted the area in decadent disarray and crumbling splendor, earth and granite melding as if nature would soon take back to her rich bosom the bones of stone and iron.
She found the perfect spot in front of a richly carved tombstone, its barely-legible inscription dating back to the eighteenth century. She pulled out her sketchbook, glad to have some quiet away from her stepsisters and stepmother. Such little things always set her off, made her resentful of the intrusion of a second family. Made her miss her mother who had died so many years ago. This time it was the Harvest Dance. The twins, Katie and Amber, freshmen at the same school Kayla was a sophomore, had dates and supreme joy reigned in the house as they talked about dresses and shoes. Finally, Kayla needed to get away and this was the only place where she felt safe.
The day faded fast as she sketched. Last night’s dreams came alive before her. She had dreamed of flying. The sensation of the wind brushing against her face, the stars with their remembered kisses, the love and understanding of her companions, who did not want her to be anything than who she was, were all still with her now.
The sun was casting warm glows against the tombstones and the moon rising in the east, just above the treetops when she looked up again. She stooped over, gathering her things, hoping she would make it back in time for dinner, when something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. She straightened and looked around. Nothing. She waited for several minutes but still nothing stirred except the occasional branch or leaf ruffled by the wind. Undaunted, she walked toward a dark copse of trees where the shadows grew dense and thick and the ground even more tangled with weeds and fallen, crumbling graves. She hadn’t explored this area yet and she had trouble making her way through the growth. She stopped, suddenly aware of someone there. The setting sun blinded her and Kayla was curious. Since she had started coming to the graveyard, she had seen no one. The graves were so old in this section that there was no family alive to visit and the dead were left to themselves.
The stranger was in white and for a second Kayla thought maybe it was a ghost.
“Hello?” she called, her voice barely carrying, the word caught in her throat.
The figure did not stir. Kayla moved closer until she was in the total darkness of the low-hanging branches herself, the glare of the sinking sun no longer distorting what she saw. It was then she realized what she was seeing: a statue.
Feeling foolish, she walked over. It was a woman reaching out, her torso leaning forward as if she were trying to embrace someone. Long tendrils of hair, carved into the hard stone, fanned back from her face, blown by a gentle wind of the sculptor’s imagination. Her lips were parted as if in a final cry as she was wrenched away from those she loved.
But it was her eyes that riveted Kayla. The eyes seemed to follow her. Etched in agony, the inhuman gaze held her. Kayla could only tear her own stare away reluctantly when she realized that the sun had nearly sunk below the horizon and the smoky purples of dusk were fading to black.
Back home in bed that night, the eyes of the woman still watched her and her dreams were filled with staring creatures. Leathery winged demons, invisible but still present, brooded in the dark corners. Grinning gargoyles rose from their stone perches, chanting in heavy grainy growls. Bright-eyed children with smiles of sunshine danced in rings of fire. These were her dreams that stayed with her, the dreams that came alive on the page for her. She had the uncanny ability not only to remember her dreams but to be able to draw them, interpreting them without losing their bizarre qualities. Sometimes she woke in the night, afraid to open her eyes, turn on a light, in case some fundamental truth about the world had changed or disappeared. Her sad, dark paintings won awards but they meant nothing because in her heart she knew that the world she drew was as real as the one everyone else saw everyday. Who knows? Maybe everyone had their own private real world that existed in their dreams.
The next day Kayla could barely pay attention in class. Her mind kept straying to the statue. For some reason, she reminded Kayla of her own mother who had died in a car accident when Kayla was five. She could barely remember her mother’s face, faded by veils of time, but she did remember how her mother would comb Kayla’s hair before school, gently working through the tangles. She remembered sweet perfume when they would finger-paint together and hot oatmeal on winter mornings. Little fragments of memory she didn’t know she held until they flashed by.
She wondered who made that statue, whether that person had also lost someone dear. What a beautiful memorial, yet so haunting. Her mother had been cremated and the ashes scattered over the ocean. In some ways she had never forgiven her father for doing that, taking away her chance to go and mourn at a grave. He said that every time she visited the ocean she would be with her mother but Kayla knew it was not the same.
She supposed her father thought he was doing the right thing just as had when he married Robyn three years ago. She guessed Robyn was all right. She treated Kayla like one of her own daughters and didn’t play favorites too much yet Kayla couldn’t help feeling cheated. Her dad and Robyn tried to get her to be outgoing like Katie and Amber, who had tons of friends and went to parties. Kayla had one good friend, Edward, and even then spent most of her time alone, painting, sketching, walking around. Brooding, she heard Robyn say to her father. He only said Kayla had a vivid imagination but Kayla noticed him watching her every once in while, his brows furrowed as he studied her.
There were times when she didn’t feel so lonely. When she sketched, she felt the world around her melt away and she was alone. She was on an island without need, without trouble. The truth was, those were the times she didn’t need anybody and she didn’t feel lonely. Her friend Edward sometimes said that he wasn’t sure if she was even part of this world the way she ghosted around the hallways in school.
Autumn faded as the brilliant trees lost their finery and December came knocking with its winter chill. Almost every day she went to the cemetery to visit the statue. Maybe it was a little absurd but she felt comforted leaning up against the base while the woman (Kayla decided to name her Marguerite – it was a suitable, old-fashioned name) watched and kept her company. That morning Robyn had tried to talk to her about the New Year’s party she would be throwing but Kayla dodged her attempts and headed to school secure in the knowledge that she wouldn’t have to endure dress fittings or shoe shopping. At least not yet. The threat wouldn’t go away so easily.
The dismissal bell rang. Within seconds hundreds of teenagers began spilling into the hallways, heading to their cars and the buses in the parking lot. Kayla let herself be swept along, like kelp in the ocean’s tide.
She felt a hand on her arm and Edward was beside her.
“Hey you. Long time no see. Where you been hiding? I came over after school yesterday but you were gone.”
“Yeah, been working on some new stuff. Just busy I guess.”
“Okay sure, too busy for your closest friend. I get it.”
Kayla rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Edward grinned. “So, what say you and me get something to eat at the coffeehouse?”
Kayla hesitated before answering. The crowd surged around them on the sidewalk. She licked her lips trying to think of how to decline. She looked over at Edward, waiting for her to join him. Too many times over the past few weeks she had deliberately avoided him after classes and had stopped going to their favorite spot near the lake behind Kinney’s Woods. How could she explain to him the allure of going to cemetery and sitting at the base of the statue, dreaming? But maybe she wouldn’t have to explain…
“I have a better idea. Come meet me after dinner at King’s Road next to the old ironworks. I have something I want to show you.”
“Is this for real?” he said, slapping the back of his hand against his forehead in mock exaggeration. “Is she really going to spend some time with her oldest, truest friend?”
Kayla punched him on the arm. “Dork.”
“Geek,” he said and turned to get on his bus.
“Be there around seven,” she called after him and he waved as the doors closed after him.
She walked home. Was taking him to her a good idea? He might think she was crazy. Maybe she could just explain it as an artistic obsession. Edward’s writing would make him famous someday but she had been subject to his moodiness when he struggled to get something just right.
When she finally arrived home, Katie and Amber were blasting music in the family room. She went up to her room and put some of her own music on to drown out the dreadful pop songs from below and flipped through the canvases stacked against the far wall. Not satisfied with any of her past work, Kayla went over to her easel and uncovered it then sat down on the stool. In front of her was a half-finished portrait. Only the center was completed. There stood a woman, made flesh at least in paint and her imagination, holding aloft the moon on a hilltop. The bones of buildings surrounded her in the near distance, fires peeking from various windows and only shades of other figures floating among oddly curved streets.
Kayla sighed. Marguerite haunted her dreams and now her art. After studying the statue for so many nights, she had gotten the curves and angles of the face just right. The expression in her painting was one less wrenching, more serene than the one in stone, as if whatever Marguerite longed for, she attained.
Brushes in hand, Kayla worked on the woman’s dress, adding depth with shadow and shading. She had decided against the late eighteenth century period clothing that the sculptor had given the woman in favor of a more classical look, a hybrid between a classical Greek draping and a long, empire-waisted dress in a dark burgundy. Kayla favored simple, elegant dresses although she mostly wore baggy jeans and cargo pants, t-shirts and combat boots. There wasn’t much point in dressing for school. If she didn’t always blend in, then at least she never stuck out. Usually.
She finished the dress. Was it worth it to finish the buildings or just leave the edges and the background blurred? The figures seemed to float on a mist that covered the ground like fine-spun wool. The semi-transparent texture gave them an almost hesitant look, as if they couldn’t decide if they should be there or not.
Her stomach rumbled. Great, she had missed dinner. Sometime during the past hour, she had heard her name being calling but she had pressed on, relegating the voice to the back of her mind. She pulled on her heavy army jacket, picked up her messenger bag and ran down the stairs. Katie and Amber were back in the family room, still playing CDs and each on a phone. She hoped her dad and Robyn were in the front living room, so she could just grab something in the kitchen and head out the back door.
Luck was with her. She found some granola bars and an apple and left.
Edward waited for her outside the gate of the abandoned ironworks building. The town, like many semi-rural towns, used to be a thriving industrial center in the last century and had been a goods hub between Philadelphia and New York. Now, the good times were over and what was left could somehow be summed up in the skeleton of brick and steel that remained as example. Against the star-spiked sky, it seemed to have breathed its last breath decades ago.
“Glad to see you remembered,” he said, pushing his dark eyes out of his eyes. No matter how many times he got it cut, it was always shaggy.
Kayla tossed him a granola bar. “Come on, I’m not that bad. Let’s go. We have a bit of a walk.”
“Where we going?”
“You’ll see.” Kayla smiled but underneath her stomach roiled. Not from hunger but from anticipation mixed with anxiety. Out of everyone she knew, she hoped she could count on Edward to understand.
The cemetery was two miles down the road. They walked without speaking, while gravel crunched underfoot. This was one of the things she liked about Edward; they didn’t need to talk. The silence between them did not hang heavy. Instead it wrapped them up and protected them.
They reached the cemetery and Edward turned on his flashlight to avoid the fallen markers and other detriment as nature reclaimed its own.
“The cemetery?” he asked. “Why not meet me here?”
Kayla rolled her eyes. “Yeah, like you would wait here for me.” She hurried to reach the statue. For some reason she wanted to tell Edward, to show him. He was like a brother. They could all be family together. Edward, Marguerite, and her.
Kayla shook her head. What had she been thinking?
They stopped a few feet away from the gathering of trees where the statue stood. Kayla put on hand on Edward’s arm and gave it a little squeeze.
“This is why I’ve been out all the time. You’ll see.”
She pulled him forward, wondering if he would see what she saw.
Edward stood for many minutes studying the statue, shining his flashlight over it. The beam lingered on the face the longest. Kayla noticed the frown on his face.
“It’s a well-made statue,” he finally said. “Pretty old.”
“Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Well, whoever made this did a wonderful job. She’s solid.”
Edward backed away and turned, shining his flashlight all around at the other statues and markers.
“I wonder if anyone still comes here. It’s been a long time since they buried anyone here I guess,” he said.
“I haven’t seen anyone,” she said, not really caring to make conversation. It was obvious now that he didn’t see what she saw. She moved closer to Marguerite, hoping she wouldn’t feel betrayed. Her hand reached out to touch the stony coldness of Marguerite’s outstretched fingers.
“Kayla, come away from there.”
“Why?” She didn’t move.
“Let’s go. Somewhere. Anywhere. I don’t like it here.”
She turned on him, speaking more harshly than she had intended. “What’s your problem? I’m sharing this with you. See, how she seems to be looking at me. I bet she’s lonely.”
Edward, she noticed, was looking not at the statue, but at her. His head was tilted to one side and his brows drawn down just a shade. A small gesture but she had known him long enough to recognize disapproval.
“Kayla, you’re going to think I’m crazy but I don’t like it here. Not at all.” He glanced from left to right as if looking for someone hiding.
“We’ve gone to some spooky places and you’ve never freaked out on me before.” Kayla gazed up at Marguerite, hoping she wasn’t angry.
“I don’t know. I’m really spooked here and I especially don’t like her,” he said, pointing with his flashlight. The beam bounced off the statue’s bleached face for a second. Edward jumped and shone the light back to the statue.
“What?” Kayla asked.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.” He licked his lips and Kayla didn’t believe for a second that he was just jumpy because they were in a cemetery. The wind gusted, swaying the branches of the trees overhead while the bleached moonlight shone down on the sharp planes of the Marguerite’s face, the slightly parted lips, and the eyes, always the eyes. Kayla stood, transfixed, until Edward wrapped his arm around her waist and moved her away.
-End of Part One-