There's a small cemetery where my father grew up. I knew the village well, nestled in the low Alps, where everything was overgrown and looked older than time. But I never ventured far into the graveyard. Even now, it lays far away from homes, terribly maintained and half forgotten behind the jagged mountains.
The village was built in layers, in such a way that if you were to look at the small huddle of houses from the bottom of the hill, they look like stacked primary school children grinning for picture day. The stone clock tower still had its large brass bells, and the church still stood with its yellow and blue tiled roof. Religiously, both towers rang at seven every evening, until everyone could hear the disharmonious ring of the clock and the church. Even near the arched entrance, right next to local honey maker and the field where an old couple owned a mule. Everything, from the obsolete wells and quaint streets, was made of stone, held up by spindly wooden beams that cracked during the winter. The cemetery itself could only be reached by a small dirt path, past the last house with green shutters owned by a cranky grandmother everyone calls Mamie Perru.
In my youth, I traced every alley of the village, memorized every heavy door, turned over every pebble until my sandals understood the streets. But I’ve only been to the graveyard a handful of times. Even once at night. And that was only because it was a dare from a couple of the local older kids who had all started drinking and smoking with the rise of their parents’ whispers. All I remembered were their laughs as I tiptoed past tomb after gravestone, stone crosses after flowers. I did everything in my power to not look scared, but I gave my feelings away when I ran back towards the gate and their teasing. Mamie Perru saw us walking back and prattled away until the eldest boy said something I can’t even repeat. She let us go after that, her wrinkles flushed and red.
I haven’t been to the graveyard, or that village, for a long time. Until recently. I had left my American friends’ excited blabbering about my acceptance into L’École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. My father and I had taken this as a chance to revisit family in France. As I had settled down to begin my first semester of college, my father had visited cousins and half-brothers in Lille and Amiens, even some who had moved to Ireland. School was grueling, moving easels around and clutching paintbrushes until I sprouted callouses in every cranny of my hands.
But now that my first year was over, and I finally could leave the capital, I came back to this small untainted place of my childhood. My father was still busy with family, marriages and funerals and baby showers, so I rode the TGV by myself, the green chairs of the high speed train icky with nostalgia. My heart turned over heavily as a drove past the arched entrance.
Some buildings were gone and the others had turned dark with vines and mold. The mule had died. The honeymakers had retired and one of the teenagers had committed suicide. I couldn’t find Mamie Perru and when I asked the bartenders, they just shook their heads.
But the wispy clouds, the pale stones had remained. The enthusiastic hellos and my gambling uncle have yet to run out of steam. The little kids were now a head taller than me, their gangly arms outstretched in polite handshakes and awkward small talk.
Time could kill, but it could not kill everything.
The air was still the same, crisp and secluded. The mornings rose the same. Yet the houses were more stout and overworked. So much had evolved and devolved and died, but it somehow has always been this way.