“Hush, Joseph. Someone’s coming up the hill.”
“Another dead one, I’ll warrant. The pace picks up every year.”
“What’s his business up here? Admiring the view? I swear to God folks are so much more sentimental than they used to be. Why, when I was among the living—”
“Hush, Joseph!” said everyone.
It was Farmer Brown. He was carrying a bouquet of flowers in his hands, just like last week. This time, he chose to lay them on the gravestone of Julia Brown.
“Well, one thing’s certain, he likes you the most,” said the grave of Joseph. “He’s given you more flowers than anyone else. Are you sure you don’t know who he is?”
“I know I’ve seen him before, I just know it,” said Julia Brown helplessly, as she watched Farmer Brown weep silently at her feet. “But it was all so long ago. You know when you’ve been dead for so long, all the faces of the living begin to look the same. You ought to know best, Joseph.”
“Yes, they all look the same. Ignorant and miserable.”
“Look here,” said one of the cleverer gravestones, who had been an attorney in his waking life. “There’s something fishy about this whole business. This chap has been coming up here for God-knows-how-long. And every time, he chooses the same four gravestones: Edith Brown, Robert Brown, Susanna Harrington, and Julia Brown. Notice anything peculiar?”
“I don’t see much of a point,” said Joseph blankly.
“Isn’t it obvious?” expostulated the attorney. “Three of you have the same last name.”
“Why, he’s right,” said Julia suddenly. “Now that sure sends a chill up the spine. We could have been—we could have been—”
“So you all have the same last name,” grunted Joseph. “Lots of people have the name Brown. My mother’s maiden name was Brown. Besides, what about this Susanna Harrington? It’s all a coincidence, I tell you.”
“All the same, he still puts flowers on my grave,” said Susanna, a little defensively.
“Stratford has a point, Joseph,” said Robert Brown. “Look at us. We’ve all been placed right next to each other. I think the case could be made that we were all related in our waking life. What do you think, Edith?”
“Yes, it’s all very peculiar,” agreed Edith. “But if it’s true, why can’t we remember him? Surely we should remember him if he were family. If we were family.”
“Like I said, they all look the same,” said Joseph bitterly.
“The question is, who was he?” asked Edith, ignoring Joseph. “Father, brother, cousin?” she hesitated. “Husband?”
“I should have remembered him for sure if he were my husband,” said Susanna, almost dreamily. “He can’t have been that. At least, not my husband.”
“Well, there’s one thing we could do,” said Robert, who was always the reasonable type. “We could read our gravestones.”
“What a swell idea, Robert!” Edith beamed. “I’m proud of you. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“I’ve been meaning to do it for years,” said Robert humbly. “But you know how things are up on this hill. Things like that sort of slip from your mind.”
“Well then, let’s start with yours,” said Edith. “Hm. Here Lies Robert Brown: 1956-1989. Brilliant businessman and talented organist. May God grant rest to his restless soul. Why, you were only thirty-three years old. Still, it doesn’t tell us much about this fellow here,” she glanced again pitifully at Farmer Brown, who was still on his knees before Julia’s grave. It had begun to drizzle, but Farmer Brown did not seem to notice.
“Read mine, read mine,” said Julia eagerly.
“Now, now, dearie, one at a time,” said Edith. “What does mine say, Robert?”
“Edith Brown: 1932-1982. Wife, mother, and friend. Organist for Southern Orthodox Presbyterian Church, before Our Lord took her home. We will miss you, Edith.” Robert whistled. “So then, you were married.”
“I was a wife,” said Edith, in wonder. “And a mother. I wonder how I died?”
Stratford grew ecstatic. “See, see, it’s all coming together!” he exclaimed. “Could it possibly be a coincidence that two people, both with the name Brown, should both be organists? There’s no other explanation!” He sighed in contentment. “No other explanation” had been one of his favorite phrases in the glory days.
Joseph made a loud scoffing noise, but nobody marked him.
“Let’s recap,” said Robert. “You were a wife, mother, and organist. I was an organist and businessman. Could it be—could we have been…”
“There’s no way she could have been your wife,” Susanna interrupted, with a tinge of haughtiness. “First of all, no one would marry you. Secondly, look at your birthday. 1956. She would have been your elder by twenty-four years. Imagine a marriage like that! She’s old enough to be your mother…”
She trailed off. They all fell into silence as Susanna’s words sunk in. It had stopped drizzling. Joseph coughed.
“That has to be it!” Robert burst out. “You—you were my mother! Well, I’ll be. All these years on this hill and I never knew I was standing right next to my own mother. Funny what a little conversation can do, eh?”
“You still can’t know that,” Joseph mumbled, although he knew he has lost the argument.
“What about you, Susanna?” said Stratford. “Let’s hear it.”
“I’m always the last one,” complained Julia. “And Joseph said that the man liked me best.”
“You’ll get your turn, Julia. We’ve got plenty of time,” said Robert. “You’re not getting any older,” he added with the ghost of a smile. “Now, let’s take a gander. Here lies Susanna Harrington: 1959-1987. Loving mother of two boys. And then it has a Bible verse at the bottom. Well, that doesn’t tell us much.”
“28 years old,” remarked Susanna. “None of us lived very long.”
“None of us live very long,” growled Joseph.
Robert, losing his patience, turned upon Joseph. “You know, you’ve been griping and grumbling this whole time. It made me realize that we haven’t read your gravestone.”
“Hey now! That’s my affair!” Joseph started, speaking much louder than he intended.
“Robert’s right,” said Edith. “We’ve all been reading our gravestones, Joseph. It’s your turn now.”
“You’ve no right. No right I tell you. That’s private!”
“No one has rights after their dead,” said Robert wisely, “Come on, why get all defensive all of a sudden? There’s nothing to hide up here. Not on this hill.”
“Besides, don’t you want to know what’s written there?” asked Edith. “It seems we’ve all forgotten who we were since we came here.”
Joseph said nothing. He did not want to tell them that he already knew. Robert began.
“Here lies Joseph—” He stopped.
“What’s wrong, Robert?” said Julia, after a silence. Joseph expelled a tragic sigh. He looked as if he were attending his own funeral.
“…Joseph Harrington,” continued Robert. “1977-1996. Who loved his mother and brother more than anything else in the world. Joseph, we wish you were still with us.”
A deep silence fell over the hill as the sun, made bittersweet by haphazard drizzles, disappeared with disquieting finality behind the western mountains. Farmer Brown had fallen asleep at Julia’s feet.
Edith spoke first.
“Joseph,” she began, more tenderly than before, “why did you never tell us?”
Joseph began to weep sad, ghostly tears. “I just wanted to forget,” he moaned. “That’s all I wanted. Oh God, that’s all I ever wanted. Was that too much to ask? It’s not fair. Why did everyone else forget? I’m the one who wanted to. It’s not fair.”
“Joseph,” Julia whispered breathlessly. “You remember? You remember what was like to be alive?”
“Every damn moment.”
No one said anything. No one knew what to say.
“It was my own fault,” said Joseph miserably. “I was ten years old when my mother died--when you died, Susanna Harrington. You needed surgery, and the procedure went wrong. The doctors overdosed the painkiller and…” he trailed off. The faces of the dead were all looking at him, open-mouthed, mystified by his words.
“You,” continued Joseph, addressing Edith, “You died of breast cancer. Died in the hands of deceiving doctors and deceived loved ones, just like my mother was. You, Robert, you fought the hardest. But you loved the wine-jar too much. Died of alcohol poisoning. Of all the people I knew in my waking life, you were the only one I remember who died with a smile on his face.” He paused. “I couldn’t stand that.”
“How do you remember all this, Joseph?” asked Edith in amazement. Joseph only shook his head mournfully. And then Julia, sounding reluctant, spoke so quietly it sounded like the rustling of the grass:
“Joseph, how did you die?”
The silence that followed Julia’s words lasted for hours. But no one spoke, and no one thought of changing the subject. It was as if the very air refused to receive words, and would continue to refuse them, until the question had been resolved. By the time Joseph spoke, the moon had taken her post and the sky was throbbing with stars.
“My father told me I needed to be strong,” he began at last. “He said my brother was counting on me. He looked up to me. It’s what Mom would have wanted. If it looked like I was losing hope, he would lose hope too. And I tried. God knows I tried.” He directed this last comment heavenward, with an unmistakable note of accusation in his voice. “But if you don’t have hope, what’s the point in pretending to have it? Even for someone else? You can lie to them, you can lie to yourself, you can dull the truth with painkillers and soften the sting with laughter, but we all know who gets the last laugh: Death.”
At this word, every clock in town—in homes, in churches, in stores, over all the unsuspecting heads of the living—struck midnight. At that same moment, a chilling wind swept over the hill, passing through Farmer Brown. His body quivered for a moment, then was still: as cold as ice. The Moon, in the height of her glory, cast a single beam of cold melancholy on the hill, and at last the invisible was made visible. Each face in the Brown family, including Stratford, began to form—first hesitantly, then boldly, for they had always been there. Robert, Edith, Susanna, Julia, and Stratford, all glistening in the wispy blue moonlight like snowdrops, possessed a certain holy beauty that inspired awful reverence. They were like the saints of old, and Farmer Brown—if he had been awake—would have fallen on his knees at the sight of them. But Joseph, hunched in the shadows of the forest, only half-touched by the moon’s light, was barely recognizable. His shape, indistinct and beast-like, thrashed violently in the breeze and looked as if it bore some horrific scowl.
Robert spoke. “Joseph,” he said in gentle rebuke, “You know very well Death need not have the last laugh. You said yourself that I died with a smile on my face.”
Joseph did not regard this, but continued with his story. “I grew tired of pretending,” he said. “I loved a girl in high-school, but it didn’t last long. She said I took everything too seriously. That’s what everyone says, but that’s because they don’t know. They don’t know the truth about life. I know what’s beneath it all. One night, I was alone in my apartment. My room-mates were out for the weekend enjoying themselves—weed, orgies, nightclubs—the usual stuff. I locked the door, swallowed enough painkillers to kill ten men, curled up on the couch, and died.”
“Oh, Joseph!” cried Susanna, with real anguish in her voice, “if only you had waited! If only you had waited for Death to take you in his own time!”
“Did Death wait for you?” retorted Joseph, as he writhed in the darkness. “You were twenty-eight! Twenty-eight! And you, Robert, well, you practically killed yourself. What’s the difference between you and me, really?”
“Joseph,” said Edith, with sudden tenseness, “be careful what you say.”
“I knew I was going to die,” Joseph went on hysterically. “I watched every single one of you drop off like flies. For the love of Christ, Julia was only eight! I knew, I just knew down in my gut, that I was next. And I wasn’t going to let it get to me. I thought that if I approached Death first, I would at least have the better of him. I would seize his throat before he seized mine. And then, best of all, I would forget it ever happened.” And then, with a red-hot rage that had been burning in the bottom of his heart, he threw up his face and wailed to the stars in unholy wrath. “But still, after all I went through, the joke was always on me! I thought that it was the only way. I thought I could blot out every single moment and memory of my life. I never knew—no one ever told me—that when a man takes his own life, he remembers it forever. They make you remember it. They grind it into your head so deep that you have to watch it happen—over and over again—for the rest of your God-damned existence. Why did no one ever tell me? Did they hate me so much as to wish this upon me?”
His words seemed to be swallowed up by the blackness, and no one—not even an animal in the forest—rose up in answer.
Stratford spoke up, awkwardly. “You know, it just occurred to me: we never got to reading Julia’s gravestone. She’s waited long enough, hasn’t she?”
“Oh. Of course,” said Robert, a little surprised. “Julia, would you like…”
“No,” answered Julia, not unkindly, but with a mysterious firmness. “I mean, it would be nice to know,” she admitted, somewhat doubtfully. Then suddenly, her face grew beautiful beyond description, and she said, “But it just occurred to me that it doesn’t matter.”
As she was speaking, the early birds of morning let out their first warble. It was almost as if the very sound of her voice had commanded them.
Dawn was coming. Joseph, still muttering and groaning to himself, grew more and more indistinguishable under the budding light until his shape disappeared altogether. But the five other ghosts did not fade. On the contrary, they seemed to be becoming more and more solid and wholesome by the moment. Slowly, knowingly, they turned their faces to the East, where a gush of orange warmth was growing on the horizon so rapidly that they both yearned and dreaded its’ arrival…
And Farmer Brown opened his eyes to the brightest sunrise he had ever seen.