Doran found the little cemetery by accident. He had missed the switchback loop of the Pinhoti trail and had turned West well past where he had intended. He soon found himself on a small flat saddle between two unfamiliar ridges. He stopped and surveyed his surroundings so as to gain his bearings. In doing so, he realized his mistake. He mentally cursed himself for missing such a familiar path. He also cursed the agency workers who should have marked the trail more clearly. He wasn’t worried. He could see the stream bed in the valley below and hear its waters rushing over the stones. He knew it was the only flowing water for miles. He knew he could follow it back North to where the trail was clearer. Doran wasn’t shaken in the least, just slightly perturbed that he had wasted so much time. He had so little time these days.
Just as he started to descend the hillside, Doran noticed a large flat-surfaced stone about five feet tall and eighteen inches wide protruding from the earth. The top was rounded, not as if by geological forces, but by intent. It looked like a rustic tombstone. Doran knelt before it, brushed the surface with his hand, and realized there were shallow and worn letters chiseled into its surface. It looked like a rustic tombstone because it was.
Doran wet the surface with water from his hydration bladder and rubbed it in earnest with his red bandana so as to discern the letters. The letters were so worn and shallow he could only identify one or two with any certainty, not nearly enough to identify a name or even a date. He brushed away the leaves in front of the stone and realized there was a clear indention in the soil’s surface, as if a large section of ground had collapsed. Doran had seen this phenomenon before when a casket deteriorates and the weight of the soil sags into the opening. His ancestral Appalachian highlanders could scarcely afford a vault that would have permanently precluded such a collapse.
Doran walked in expanding concentric circles around the large stone, searching for other graves. He soon identified five more burials by locating similar but smaller stones barely protruding from beneath the decaying leaf litter. None of the smaller stones showed markings of any kind and none of the other graves shared a collapse or sagging of the soil.
Doran returned to the original grave and, using his fingers as a rake, began removing every bit of decaying material until he reached the black loam beneath. When he had finished, he could discern the entire plot and even the rectangular arrangement of smaller stones which formed the plot’s border. Doran was pleased with his work but wasn’t quite sure why he had gone to the trouble.
As he made his way back North toward the trailhead, Doran couldn’t stop imagining what life might have been like for the man in the grave, and make no mistake, only a man, and probably only a partiach, could have warranted such a large marked stone.
Doran fancied and envied what must have been a simple and peaceful existence. As he drove back to his apartment in town, he imagined himself walking those ridges, shotgun in hand, searching for a wild game supper. He reasoned that the entombed man might have farmed some small valley plot of corn to make clear liquor to sell for his family. He thought of a stone fireplace as he watched the orange glow of his electric space heater. He could almost smell cornbread and hardwood smoke as he drifted off to sleep.
All of the next week, as he wrote emails and tallied sums on digital spreadsheets, Doran found he could think of little else but the mountain patriarch.
On Saturday morning, just before daybreak, Doran prepared his pack and drove to the trailhead. He laughed aloud when he hiked past the switchback he had missed last Saturday. It seemed well marked, and he couldn’t understand how he missed it. He was glad now that he had. Maybe, he thought, it was destiny that he should find the grave.
Doran ascended the hill and found the saddle and the stone quickly. He sat down in the center of the now-exposed grave. Doran decided he had never seen a more beautiful and peaceful spot. Doran then reclined on the grave and surveyed the canopy just beginning to sprout its early green and the wispy cirrus clouds that sailed through the early April sky.
Doran soon drifted off to sleep and began dreaming of cabins, and cornbread, and cool summer swimming holes. When he awoke, he felt an odd impulse. Capitulating to that impulse, he began digging deeper into the soil of the grave. He dug till his forearms ached and blood seeped from his fingertips. Soon, Doran unearthed what looked like decaying and sagging slats of wood held together by a web of fine rhizomes. Doran removed one of the nearby border stones and began hammering at the boards till they gave way.
At this point, Doran rested. His hands ached and bled, and lactic acid filled his arm and shoulder muscles. Dora looked into the now-open casket and could identify a human form, not one constituted of flesh and blood but of roots, large and small, woven so tightly and perfectly that all but the finest features were discernible. Doran removed the wooden cadaver from its resting place and lay it on the adjacent leaves. Doran then looked again at the stone. The letters were now clear and formed a familiar name and he knew what he must do.
Doran slid through the broken opening and into his final resting place. He soon began to feel the root tendrils growing around his legs and feet. He then detected the scent of woodsmoke and cornbread and could hear the clear stream rushing over the stones in the valley below.
Alan Caldwell has been teaching in Georgia since 1994 but only began submitting writing in May 2022. He has since been published in Southern Gothic Creations, Level: Deepsouth, oc87 Recovery Diaries, Black Poppy Review, The Backwoodsman, You Might Need To Hear This, The Chamber, Biostories, Heartwood Literary Journal, American Diversity Report, and Rural Fiction Magazine.
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