This story first appeared in Apalachee Review Volume 56, 2006, 43-50
Marta takes up iron mallets and bush hammers, rasps and rifflers in loving hands. Pneumatic hammers and chisels, grinders and buffers, she wields with a light touch. She is a great artist, but her modesty matches her talent. When people ask, “What do you do?” she glances aside and says, “I make mortuary art.” She does not tell them that her angels guarding the dead, doves of souls ascending to heaven, ferns and willows of grief and sorrow are the finest to be had. But somehow people know. Even in her small city, with only two cemeteries, she sculpts three or four tombstones a week.
The waiting list is always long, but Marta will not carve cookie cutter grave markers. When patrons want a standard symbol-crossed swords, inverted for someone killed in battle, for example-no two sets of crossed swords are exactly alike. Not that the dead can care. But tombstones are for the living. And for the artist who makes them. So Marta talks with each family about their dearly departed and into the design she weaves plants, animals, and signs of her own choosing to complement the nature of the person memorialized. On every tombstone, somewhere, is her signature “M.”
Marta pulls down her protective mask and pushes up her goggles, wipes sweat from her brow with her shirt-sleeve. A square of white near the door catches her eye. Marta unfolds it, a long sheet of newsprint. It takes awhile to recognize the sepia chalk rubbing as coming from one of her tombstones, erected the previous week. The family had wanted a draped urn of the sort commonly used in the late nineteenth century. Because they described the young woman who died as eager to please, Marta surrounded the urn with jonquils, symbolizing a wish for affection returned. The newsprint had been moved across the tombstone in such a way that in the rubbing, the drape of death is slipping from the vessel of life, which is filled with the jonquils-an altogether different work of art. In the upper left comer, instead of a salutation, she sees a rubbing of an iris, meaning “a message to you.” Marta frowns, wondering who could have sent this message to her, wishing for affection returned. Who but she knows the language of flowers?
Marta pulls the goggles down and adjusts her dust mask. Protecting her lungs from granite particles is especially important. Although she’s working with marble today, filing and sanding, coughing up marble powder is no treat, either, so she wears the mask. She runs hard fingers lightly over the stone. Marta loves the beauty of intricately figured marble, loves the endless variety of rich colors and textures, veins and stripes. Sometimes the veins are harder than the stone itself, the areas around them soft and crumbly, so she feels and works carefully. This seven-foot slab of Tennessee marble is harder and more difficult to carve and polish than other marbles-almost like granite in that regard. Today’s composition employs traditional motifs of willow, lamb, kneeling mourner, and crosses. Marta steps back, weighing the balance of the elements, looking for grace. She turns, glances at the wall of plate glass that is the front of her Main Street studio. Three people stand like statues. Only their eyes move, tracking the movements of Marta’s hands. There’s almost always a gallery at Marta’s window. The intense, wordless scrutiny used to make her nervous but now she takes it for granted. She does not mind if they see the work. The goggles and mask keep them from seeing her. Marta picks up her frosting tools, the toothed chisels that will give texture to the wool of the lamb. Thoughts of the chalk rubbing recede, coming to the fore again only as she is about to go home for the day.
The first rubbing arrived on the vernal equinox. Others follow, all pushed under her door, all taken from gravestones Marta has carved. She finds them when she opens the studio in the morning. Or in the middle of the day, when she’s been concentrating so hard on her work that her field of vision is no bigger than the tip of her chisel, she surfaces to see a white square of newsprint on the floor. A coral rose she’d carved for a concert pianist now speaks of admiration for Marta’s accomplishments and talents. Branches of currants taken from the grave marker of a high school homecoming queen tell Marta that she pleases everyone. Hawthorn and flowering almond tell of hope.
Thoughts of her secret correspondent become constant companions, edging to the fore whenever she lowers the barrier of concentration on her carving. Sitting over her morning mug of mocha java, soaking at night in a bubble bath scented with chamomile or cedar, taking a midday break to stretch and ease the muscles in her lower back, she wonders. She searches among her spectators, looking for a face that appears more often than others, for a sign of more than usual interest. She walks through both cemeteries in a peppering shower, examining every one of her tombstones, looking for clues to the person making the rubbings. Marta rests on a bench beside a tomb of pre-cast concrete. The walls are covered with low relief patterns, a style she’d once seen described as a concrete version of gingerbread gothic. She’s found all of the tombstones used in the rubbings but there are no clues to the identity of the artist-no pattern in the location of the tombstones, the dates of their placement, or the people memorialized, no personal property left behind. Rising to leave, Marta notices that the rain has left verter-water in the hollows of the tombstones and wonders absently who might need a charm for warts.
Two weeks pass. Branches of holly arrive asking, “Am I forgotten?”
Marta feels compelled to answer, but too shy to speak in any but the language of flowers. She is carving a tombstone for the former chief of police, a man who took up gardening in his retirement. The central element is his police badge crest. She chooses a flower border for the gardener he became, but also for her correspondent: Canterbury bell, acknowledgment of the messages, and monthly honeysuckle to say, “I will not answer hastily.” The day after that stone is set, another square of newsprint appears under her door. Marta’s habit is to work with her back to the window, the southern light falling on the face of her work. She wonders whether her message was read in her studio or in the cemetery. Is her correspondent perhaps a gravedigger? A cemetery caretaker? She unfolds a rubbing of chickweed. He is seeking a rendezvous.
Marta never consciously decided it was so, but she feels her correspondent is a man. The thought of meeting a man makes her heart pound. Even in her youth, she was too awkward and tongue-tied to be popular. She knows she is not pretty-nearly six feet tall and top-heavy. The weight of the granite-carving tools has produced prodigious muscles. Marta’s hard, callused hands tremble as she takes up her hammer and strikes. The carbide tip of her chisel bites into the granite. Eupatorium emerges from the stone: delay. The next rubbing is of celandine, promising joys to come, and balsam done in yellow chalk, speaking his impatience. Marta lies wakeful in her bed, nightfoundered, and arises to add white poplar to a landscaper’s gravestone, again seeking time. Her lover-she thinks of him as her lover now-sends a rubbing of red balsam, still impatient but resolved to win her love. Marta smiles behind her mask. She thinks perhaps this romantic artist is different from the men she has known. But she cautiously taps out a Carolina rose in reply: love is dangerous.
That evening, Marta finds her cache of rubbings on the kitchen table. Her brother Jim has been painting her bedroom. “When did you do these?” he asks.
“I didn’t. A-a friend gave them to me.” Her four other brothers gather round, pushing, elbowing each other aside, snatching sheets of newsprint in ways that make Marta cringe.
Joe says, “What? You got a boyfriend?”
Jack waves the rubbing of celandine and yellow balsam. “What kind of man would do pansy shit like this?”
“What’s his name?” demands John.
Marta looks down, her straight dark hair a slice of midnight across her pink cheek. “I don’t know. I haven’t actually met him.”
Joe says, “Whaddya mean, you haven’t met him?”
Marta’s blush deepens. “He’s-like a secret admirer, I guess.”
“Get real.” Jason looks sideways at Marta. “We love you, Mart. But we’re family. You’re thirty-seven, you’re built like a trucker, and your hair’s going grey. Somebody’s pullin’ your chain!”
John’s tone is soothing. “Maybe it’s an honest mistake. Maybe he’s just mistaken Mart for somebody else.”
Jack says, “So? What do you think he’ll do when he finds out?”
Marta lies awake long into the night, Jack’s question filling the spaces where sleep should be.
Marta’s lover sends a rubbing of pansies, “Thinking good thoughts of you.”
Marta carves lavender, “Distrust.”
Her lover says, “Please relieve my anxiety” with hellebore niger, the Christmas rose.
Marta vacillates over possible answers. She is carving a tombstone for a beloved minister, an elaborate pattern of crosses. She knows over 400 forms of the cross, though Christian symbolism uses only 50. Suddenly she sees that the cross is the answer for her lover: faith. She encloses the crosses in a border of dock, seeking his patience.
Ten days later she receives a rubbing of everlasting pea, again asking for a meeting. Marta spends nearly an entire week carving an angel holding olive wreaths of peace above the heads of two kneeling figures, one with a roll of the honored dead and the other with the upright torch of eternal life, its flame appearing to be blown by the wind. Marta labors long over the flame. But her border of straight lines says nothing of a meeting.
She carves a relief of fire engines for a woman firefighter who died of smoke inhalation trying to save an infant from a burning apartment. She carves standard mortuary symbols-doves, ferns, daisies for innocence, lilies of the valley for purity and humility, broken flowers for life terminated-with borders of Greek key, lines, and braids. She is careful to include nothing that could be inadvertently interpreted as an answer, no gates opening, clasped hands, or pansies for remembrance.
Every night she sleeps fitfully and wakes often. Sometimes she imagines enchanted meetings, perfect understanding, marriage and happily ever after. More often she has nightmares of pain, rejection and abandonment. Eventually, under Marta’s sure hands, the refusal of striped carnations emerges from the stone, mixed with auricula, “Importune me not.”
Her lover says, “I am your captive” with peach blossom, then sends myrtle for love. Marta’s hammer and chisel remain silent. There is a time with no rubbings and then her suitor sends carnations rubbed in red chalk, “Alas, my poor heart.” The next rubbings are marigold for grief, despair, and-finally-laurestina, “I die if neglected.” The last rubbing arrives on the autumnal equinox.
Weeks pass. Winter brings less light for work, more dark for loneliness, familiar as an old friend who’s returned after her recent absence. Surrounded by her brothers, Marta feels as though she’s been alone forever. Their parents died in a car crash when Marta was 22, only ten days out of college, her B.F.A. still warm in her hand-the only one of the six siblings old enough to be a legal guardian for the others. Their father had been a stonemason. Marta took over, made many mistakes and worked long hours to compensate for them. She brought each brother into the business as he grew. As they took over more of the construction work, to bring in extra cash Marta started carving tombstones in a tiny comer of one of the warehouses. The work gave voice to her soul and light to her days, shaped her life and the woman she became. Eventually she escaped the business-sold her share to her brothers for the capital to start her storefront studio-but she’s never escaped the house they share.
Marta wakes in the night, needing the lover she almost had, and goes early to her studio. Two weeks before, a winter storm forced a white-burying. This bitter cold morning is right for carving that stone. She holds her chisel firmly but not too tightly, angled 60 degrees, about midway down the shank, and swings the hammer freely with her other hand. She carves zinnias, thoughts of an absent friend.
As the snow melts, she carves a double stone for a couple killed in an automobile accident. She chooses baby’s breath for everlasting love and adds petunias, “Do not despair.” The second part of the message speaks as much to her own heart as to her silent lover. These days Marta’s eyes look bruised and the face in her mirror is pale. Her clothes fit more loosely than they used to:
A ten-year-old girl is dying of leukemia. During her final illness, she summons Marta to her bedside. The big brown eyes and solemn mouth are familiar to Marta. In the fall she had come often to watch the carving, sometimes standing at the window for an hour or more, her nose pressed to the glass. “I want a special tombstone,” she says. “I’ve tried to talk to my parents about it, but Mom just cries and leaves the room and Dad says, ‘Well, Elsa, we’ll see. I rather favor lambs and flowers myself.’ If you don’t help me, that’s what I’m going to get-lambs and flowers. I just know it.” Tears stand in her eyes.
“And what sort of tombstone would you like to have?” Marta asks.
“I want monsters. One of my doctors said the leukemia is a monster, eating my white blood cells.” Her pointy chin juts pugnaciously. “I want that monster trapped in my gravestone. He’s been with me all this time, I don’t want him leaving me just because I’m dead.”
Marta says, “I’ll see what I can do.” She speaks to Elsa’s parents.
Elsa’s mother weeps. Her father shrugs helplessly. “Anything that will make her feel better. The end is near.”
Marta sets other work aside, hoping Elsa will be able to see her tombstone. She leafs through old books and finds reference to a yirdswine, a mysterious, dreaded sort of animal believed to live in graveyards, burrowing among the dead bodies. She carves a fantastical animal, with huge eyes, an ugly snout, clawed feet, and scales. She intermingles smooth surfaces with others left rough-just as they are finished by pointing tools, bush hammers, and chisels-playing one surface against another. Around the beast she carves straw for her lover, a message of agreement. Elsa’s father carries her in his arms to see the stone in Marta’s studio. The child’s gratitude nearly breaks Marta’s heart. Elsa dies and her caged monster is set atop her grave in the snowbroth.
As the year’s greening starts, Marta searches among her blanks. The first two stones she taps with a steel hammer give off a dull thud. They are dead, not suitable for carving. It’s a bad omen. Marta’s never had trouble with stone from this supplier before. The third stone she strikes rings clear. Marta starts carving immediately. She carves a plum tree, “Keep your promises.” But there are no more rubbings.
It’s Friday night. Marta and her brothers sit around the kitchen table. The middle of the green and white checked tablecloth is hidden under a heaping platter of spaghetti, a teak salad bowl, and a basket of garlic bread. Marta is nibbling the heel of the bread, sipping red wine, toying with her salad. The brothers are drinking Budweiser and wolfing the spaghetti. Jim says, “You’re looking a little peaked, Marta. You lost your appetite?”
Joe glances up. “Mart? Are you sick?”
Jack waves his fork, sprinkling spaghetti sauce around his plate. “Nah. Mart’s never sick. Unless maybe it’s love-sick.” He guffaws.
John waggles his eyebrows at Marta. “What’s up with your lover-boy, Mart? The guy with the posy pictures?”
Marta looks at her plate and shrugs. “Nothing.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jack demands.
Jason drains his bottle of Bud. “It means he dumped her.”
Joe says, “Mart?”
Marta looks at them with stony eyes. “He’s dead.”
For a few seconds no one says anything. They sit motionless, forks and bottles suspended in midair. Then Jim says, “Oh. Geez. Well, never mind, Mart. We have each other.” As if on cue, the men noisily attack their food, nobody meeting Marta’s gaze.
She looks at her brothers, all of them bigger than most, most of them more good-looking than not. Jason seems to be getting serious about the petite blonde he’s been dating, the one with the burbling laugh. Joe has started dating, too, a librarian as quiet as he is. But Jim-only in his early thirties but already an old man, set in his ways, pulling the circle of his world closer. Yes, she and Jim would always have each other.
The vernal equinox finds Marta at her grindstone. She uses no oil because oil discolors the stone. She works the edges of her tools until they are as sharp as they can be and then she chooses the most colorfully variegated Carrara marble from her new shipment. She begins carving a cenotaph. She has carved hundreds of tombstones, but hardly ever a memorial to someone whose body is elsewhere. When the carving is done, the stone is set on her cemetery plot overlooking the river. On the north side is saffron, “My best days are past,” black mulberry, “I will not survive you,” and clasped hands to signify both farewell and a meeting in eternity. On the east face are yellow acacia for a secret love, camellias for steadfast love, and roses for unity. On the south side a broken column for the broken support of life, twined with ivy for immortality. And on the west, sweet scabious for widowhood and the first words ever written to her lover: “Fearing life, she welcomes death.”