Meisie can recall all the names of the dead in the Levell Graveyard. She could list them off on her chubby fingers, starting with the ones placed near the entrance gate. The names were carved and darkened by time and shadows to the point of blurriness. Perhaps that’s why she memorized them. One, two, three, four. Five, six, seven, eight.
You knew she was an odd child, but when she told Pa there were 109 in all, he threw his head back and laughed. It was an uncommon noise in a graveyard, almost to the point of extinction.
Pa led her through the blackberry bushes surrounding the property. He settled into the frail grass and cracked a joke about health insurance. One only Meisie understood and it made her wonder why he was in such a good mood.
“So who lies here?” He gestured loosely to a headstone near them.
It was square and held itself proudly. Chunks of stone had been chipped off the corners.
Meisie exhaled and you didn’t know what she was going to say. “Hawthorne Grundle. Died August 5th, 2000 from a heart attack.” Her eyes screamed that she knew this man, but her mouth stayed in a straight little line.
Pa fell silent. He twisted his wrists and looked at the soles of his shoes. “Are there any funny stories about how they died?”
Meisie dug her hands into the ground before standing up. She helped Pa up and smoothed out the creases in her dress.
Pa followed her wordlessly, weaving around the tall Juniper trees that hugged them away from the moon. Meisie took his leather hands that you had sewed from love and lemon seeds and sat him down under a Juniper tree. Here, they could see most of the graveyard without needing to turn their heads or strain Pa’s back to the point of disability.
Meisie pointed with her thumb at a group of headstones nearby. “Those are all from the Hendersons. They all die in unintelligent ways.” Pa’s eyes sparkled. Meisie pointed to the grave on the far left, “That’s Mrs. Henderson. She died from cooking fish for her family. Apparently, the fish was still alive and she ignorantly chased it off a cliff.”
Pa chuckled. You knew Meisie’s stories weren’t true, but it was just a silly tale in an attempt to make Pa forget his pain.
“And there”—Meisie moved down the line with her thumb nail—“is Henry Henderson, Jr. Apparently the Hendersons had a very high toilet and so when he was only three years old, he fell from it and died.”
Pa raised his eyebrows. They were hairy and black but took the attention away from his smirk. “Toilets are very dangerous, Meisie, remember that.”
She smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“This one is not a Henderson.” She pointed her chin in the direction of a headstone that stood apart from the other Hendersons. “That was Willa Jacksmith. She was going to marry into the Henderson family but the night before her wedding, she was trying on her too-tight wedding dress. It was beautiful with white lilies and lace. She couldn’t get it off and it suffocated her.”
Pa choked on his own laughter and thought about how he wished he could laugh about the deaths of his own family. Just thinking about it made skin crawl.
Meisie frowned. You knew what she was thinking, right then.
“Where is Oupa buried?” When she asked this, she hid behind her hair a little and pressed her back to the tree.
Pa frowned with the tips of his mustache and realized he couldn’t lie anymore. Meisie had a sharper mind than him. “Oupa died in the war with Iraq. They could not find his body. He is forgotten.”
Meisie tugged at some bark on the tree. Dirt was stuck underneath her fingernails and was woven under her skin like veins of brown but she didn’t care. “He will not be forgotten,” is what she said.
You knew she was a smart child, but still an innocent one. Her arms were a beautiful brown and scarless and her mind had yet to be clouded with judgement.
Pa nodded absentmindedly.
“Pa, tell me a story.” Meisie’s voice was small.
He looked at her, concerned. “You don’t like when I tell stories. They are all false with unrealistic characters.” Her lips moved but she didn’t say anything. Pa took this as a sign that she would only listen if he told a story. “Once upon a time, there was a girl who was pretty and clever. She had a grandfather who traveled far to fight for her country. He did not return. She was sad and it forced her to see life through a new lense. The children at her school were mean and bullied her because of the color of her skin. She was confused because they were so unpleasant to her even though her grandfather had just sacrificed his life for their country. The end.”
Meisie had let her head rest on Pa’s arm. It was growing bitter and the wind was biting. She could hear the rats mumbling and the coyotes howling in the distance. Pa’s story brought up black and white images of truths she didn’t want to face.
“That was not a good story,” she stated plainly. Lies were unnecessary and would waste time. Pa smiled and understood but it was dark and she couldn’t see it. Meisie shuffled away from him and stood, stumbling. “Pa, I can hear the animals of the night. We have to go home.”
Pa exhaled loudly. “No, we cannot. I will not make it back because I am weary. Let us sleep against this tree.” His words were flattening out and you knew that was the last thing Meisie wanted.
“Pa, no. The coyotes are coming and they are fierce.” Meisie blinked in frustration and her eyes trailed up the Juniper tree. It was big and strong with thick branches blanketed in leaves. You worried that they would be cold, but that wasn’t an issue at the moment. “Let us climb this tree. There are plenty of places for you to rest up in it. Please.”
Pa reached out and caught her hand. It was icy and shaking. “Okay, lift me and I shall try to climb on my own.”
Meisie pulled at Pa’s arm and he used the tree as support. Once he was up on his faulty legs, he took hold of a lower branch. There were indents in the tree as if someone had already slept there, years ago. Meisie’s feet fit right into them. She pushed at his back, even when he started to moan, and helped him find the grips.
“Here, on this branch, Pa.” She recognized it from a life before.
Pa got on his knees and crawled into the tiny tent of leaves surrounding them. It was a sturdy limb, this one. It also had slightly softer bark. He laid down, resting his hands behind his head. Meisie curled into him like the child she was. The leaves kissed her cheeks.
“Meisie?” Pa called after a minute.
He could feel her breaths dissolve into a straightforward rhythm against his chest. He smiled and let his eyelids droop. “Good night.”
* * *
When Pa awoke, he threw his wrinkled hand onto the space in front of him. Meisie wasn’t there. His eyes jerked open and he sat up with a jolt of pain streaking through his lower back. The tree shook and the leaves whistled. Although his eyes were watering, he could see her.
Meisie was lying below the tree, her mouth still open with shock. Pa waited for a second to see if she’d get up. It was foolish because then he leaned over and saw her body. Her limbs were twisted at odd angles and blood was seeping from her shirt.
There was a single tear before Pa realized something.
Meisie wouldn’t be remembered.