A Journal of the Plague

The 1918 Influenza

Francis Russell
An old photograph of a churchyard cemetery. Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
View of a Church from a Graveyard, ca. 1860s–1880s. Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Though it now seems merely an episode in the last year of the First World War, the influenza of the autumn of 1918 was one of the three greatest outbreaks of disease in history. Only the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death can compare with it. A quarter of the world’s population was affected. All in all it killed 22,000,000 people, almost twice as many as the war itself. More were dead in India in a few months than in twenty years of cholera. In the United States half a million died.

Unlike the Black Death, which killed nine out of ten, and cholera, which took four out of five, the 1918 influenza was fatal to only about three or four percent of those who came down with it. It was the tremendous sweep of the disease that made the death totals so large. By the end of October it had spread all over Europe and North America and many parts of South America. India, China, Persia, and South Africa were infected earlier. In two months it covered the globe.

Through centuries the course of epidemics has run from east to west. The 1918 influenza followed this pattern, reaching America last. Traditionally Asia has been the matrix of disease, as if there were a permanent focus of infection that existed in the vastness of Mongolia from where it would erupt periodically into the rest of the world. Some doctors maintained that the influenza was introduced into Europe by Chinese labor battalions that landed on the coast of France. Some attributed it to Russian soldiers arriving from Vladivostok. Others thought it might have developed among the troops from an earlier bronchitis so prevalent in Spain in the spring that it gave the name Spanish to the autumn influenza. There was even one tenuous theory that the disease sprang into being in an isolated Georgia training camp during the winter of 1917 and that from there it migrated westward until it had circumnavigated the earth.

Influenza is still a mysterious disease. No one yet knows whether it is one virus or several, why it occurs in cycles, or how and where it stays dormant between epidemics. There are theories of weather, theories of the wearing off of group immunity, even a theory of determination by economic circumstances. However, the most generally held explanation today is that a pandemic like that of 1918 is brought about when a new and explosive strain of virus develops through a spontaneous process of mutation or renewal.

Seeing the lights, thinking of the afternoon, in that bare instant I became aware of time. And I knew then that life was not a perpetual present.

In its milder forms influenza has sometimes been known the three-day fever, accompanied by headache, congestion soreness of the joints, and languor. Although it is transmitted contact, its incubation period is less than two days. Few other diseases are able to spread so far in so short a time. Yet it is brief as it is sudden. (The word influenza comes from a misunderstanding of the Italian phrase influenza di freddo—influence of cold. English writers of the eighteenth century took influenza to be the name of a disease.)

Influenza pandemics have recurred with each generation in modern times. Similar waves developed in 1857, 1874, 1890, 1936, and, as everyone knows, in 1957. What distinguished the 1918 outbreak was its lethal undercurrent. Influenza had been equally widespread and equally swift before, infecting millions but killing few. The Spanish influenza was different. In addition to the usual transitory symptoms it had the ominous tendency of developing into pneumonia. When the lungs were affected a quick deterioration set in. This is what gave this influenza its unique character, for over a third of those who came down with the pneumonia died.

As the influenza swept over the cities of the world it did not create the panics of earlier plagues. For one thing disease was no longer a portentous and inscrutable affliction. Now it was publicized in advance. One could trace its westward course in the daily papers, and the death percentages were insufficient to disrupt contemporary city organisms. Then again, in four years much of the world had become used to sudden death, and influenza as compared to the war was a silent and unspectacular killer.

Yet there were overtones of the Black Death and the Sweating Sickness that persisted even into the machine age. Many who could left the cities. Numbers of those who stayed, especially in the poorer sections, died alone. Movements of conscripts to the training camps had to be halted. In many places undertakers and coffin makers could not keep up. Through the slum streets where the disease struck heaviest, mothers and infants were found sharing rooms with corpses. In one city a furniture van that had been commandeered to transport influenza dead overturned, spilling the uncoffined bodies over the street. Nothing like this had been seen before in modern Western cities.

That autumn I was seven years old and in the third grade of the Martha Baker School in Dorchester, an outpost of greater Boston. From the summit of Dorchester Hill where I lived, the city’s serrated outline loomed up forebodingly five miles away. Under the grey sky, it seemed both threatening and threatened, the obelisk point of the Custom House itself a kind of mausoleum. Bulfinch’s gilt State House dome dimmed to dirty yellow in the line storms, and the ships heading down the harbor for Europe, their hulls zigzagged with zebra-striped camouflage, were a visible part of the uneasy years.

As I try to recall those autumn months they are fragmented in my mind. I find myself with impressions of events as sharp and vivid as if they happened last week, yet lacking a cohesive pattern—unless the heterogeneous memories cohere within the war itself. That was the stupendous and embracing fact, even to us in Miss Sykes’s third-grade room, the war to end wars, to make the world safe for democracy. It was the struggle of good against evil, light against darkness, symbolized indeed by the visions in the sky (so we had been told) at the Battle of the Marne. Never a doubt as to who would triumph, especially now that our boys were there. Like the wicked stepmother or the witch of the fairy tales, the Germans, the Huns, with their lustful Kaiser Bill and the ridiculous Clown Prince would meet the fate of all dark spirits, witches, and wicked stepmothers.

For this, for the victory of our boys, we ate peaches and baked the stones dry to be used for gas masks. On Boston Common there were peach-stone collection barrels. How they were used we didn’t know, but the newspapers showed a boy in Roxbury who had saved 2,000. We joined the Junior Red Cross and wore the rectangular celluloid pins in our buttonholes. Then there were the Thrift Stamps at twenty-five cents each for us to buy from Mr. Gibney the postman. Mr. Gibney gave us a little book to paste the stamps in. Each space to be filled had a motto like “A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned” or “Great Oaks from Little Acorns Grow.” When we had twenty stamps we exchanged them with Mr. Gibney for a War-Savings Certificate. Instead of sugar we used Karo Corn Syrup. The red Karo cans had yellow syrup and the blue ones white. Neither tasted very good, and there was no frosting any more even for birthday cakes, because the sugar had to go to the starving Belgians.

“Beat the Hun!” Those barbarians we were fighting had started it all by attacking brave little Belgium and torturing women and children there—the poor suffering Belgians, most crucified of people. “Beat the Hun!” The Third Liberty Loan poster showed a porcine German with heavy carnal moustache and spiked helmet silhouetted against the background of a flaming town as he dragged a trembling long-haired girl with him toward the shadows. What was going to happen to her, we knew, shouldn’t even happen to Jeanette Galvin the dirtiest girl in the class, who never cared if she gave a free show of her drawers, swinging on the railing at recess.

The next spring my cousin Ernest came over from England still wearing his Royal Flying Corps tunic, and I was astonished to discover how much he disliked Belgians. When I asked about them expectantly he said they were twisters, liars, half of them spies, always stealing petrol and he wished he could have shot one or two. Next to Belgians he most disliked the French. The Huns he didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t call them Huns or Boches though but Jerry. When I asked him about the miracle of the Marne he merely laughed.

Though the city on the horizon sickened as September passed, our segment of Dorchester was scarcely affected. No one on the Hill died of influenza, none of us in the third grade so much as caught it. To our confident immortality it seemed no threat at all, rather one more incident in the excitement of the war’s climax. At recess time the girls jumped rope on their side of the yard and sang:

I had a little bird and his name was Enza,

I opened the window and


Gradually we became aware of the epidemic as the Boston death rate rose at the end of the month. Our one-storied stucco school building verged on Walk Hill Street, which half a mile farther on branched off to Mount Hope and New Calvary cemeteries. Before this we had scarcely paid any attention to the funeral processions that passed at the rate of one or two a day, as we dawdled along the footway going to and from school or played in the yard at recess. But with the spread of the influenza the processions became almost continuous, and we began to notice. Most of the carriages were still horse-drawn, the familiar black hacks with black horses and solemn silk-hatted coachmen. But now more and more high-topped limousines were appearing with their long shiny hoods and polished lamps.

In the line-storm days as we sat at attention with folded hands while Miss Sykes read the Bible lesson under the fly-spotted silk flag, or as we followed through the morning routine of reading, multiplication tables and the push-pull penmanship of the Palmer Method, we could hear the carriages passing outside, the clop of horses’ hooves in the wet leaves or the swish of vacuum-cup tires above the rain trickling in the gutters. The odor of that room on a wet day was an unforgettable compound of damp leather, damp woolens, chalk dust, floor oil, paste, buckram, and a faint but pervading essence of coal dust and ammonia that seeped up from the basement. I can see Miss Sykes glowering at her desk, beside her the brass bell which she used to ring to call us in from recess. Behind her is the blackboard and above it a steel engraving of Longfellow. The wainscotting is covered with a coarse brown buckram, the woodwork painted mud-color. Over the door is W. Strutt’s picture, “And a Little Child· Shall Lead Them,” reproduced in sepia and hung in a golden oak frame. The mild-eyed child with the palm—so different from the Mulvey Street gang—is leading a lion. Next to the lion is a lamb and beyond the lamb an amiable wolf. In the foreground a leopard lies asleep, and there are also a camel and a calf.

The Miss Sykes of my recollection is a dun crone with loose underlip and mean voice who had outlived time. Old Lady Sykes, we called her—Jeanette Galvin and the Mulvey Streeters called her Sykesy Spikesy. It never occurred to any of us that she could have feelings. Her hair had begun to turn. I suppose she was really in her middle thirties. Twenty-five years later when I went back to pay her a visit I found a kindly white-haired woman, vastly younger in appearance than when I was in her third grade.

Yet I think my recollection is not wholly at fault, for in those weeks the plague had stretched out its fingertips toward Miss Sykes and she could feel that substanceless touch each day. Trying as best she could to conceal it from us, she became sharp and tense-voiced. The rattle of the hacks and the hiss of vacuum-cup tires had broken her nerve. In the afternoon the sun’s rays would strike against the glass of a passing carriage and reflect waveringly across the ceiling of our room, and we, distracted by light and sound, would crane toward the row of windows. “Eyes front!” she would shriek at us. “Edmund MacDonald, if you look out the window once more I shall send you to the dressing room.” Her last resort when she had trouble controlling her voice was to set us to writing Palmer Method exercises. First we had to make a row of interlacing circles across the top of a page, then a similar row of parallel lines about an inch high. All the motion—according to the Method—should come from the elbow, and neither wrist nor fingers were allowed to move. “Push-pull, push-pull,” Miss Sykes would call out, walking up and down the aisles with her oak ferule in her hand. We made infinities of circles and grubby parallel lines. “Don’t move your wrist. Don’t! Don’t!” And the ferule would flick out at some guilty moving knuckle. For the fear was on her.

Overseas the great attack on the Hindenburg Line had begun. Our own Yankee Division was at St. Mihiel. Eliot Dodds came to school with a pin that said “To H-LL with the KAISER,” but Miss Sykes made him take it off. The Lynch boys’ father, who was in the Navy, was torpedoed and rescued, a fact that impressed even the Mulvey Streeters. Always when the time came for singing Miss Sykes would step forward on the platform and sound the pitch on harmonica before she waved her arm for us to begin. But now instead of The Harp that Once” and “Loch Lomond” we sang “Pack up your Troubles” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and “Over There.” One afternoon we had a Liberty Pageant at the Tileston School a mile away, and Mr. Beveridge, the headmaster, told us of the song “The Long, Long Trail” and how an English soldier sang it one night in the trenches and it was so beautiful that even the Huns stopped firing to listen. Then some one played the melody on the hall piano, and after that we all sang it together.

October came, and still the black carriages joggled on over the ruts of Walk Hill Street under the leafless elm vista. There were not enough gravediggers, and coffins were beginning to pile up in the yard behind the disintegrating mansard-roofed house that served as a chapel. Finally Pig-eye John Mulvey, who owned the land, set up a secondhand circus tent next to the chapel, and the coffins were stacked inside. After the gravediggers had put up the tent most of them got drunk for several days, and still more coffins accumulated. The tent lay there white and billowing, like some grotesque autumn carnival among the withered leaves, with the sombre line of vehicles trailing through New Calvary gate. Even the undertakers fell behind. Sometimes we would see a touring car with the top down headed for New Calvary, an unboxed coffin stacked on the rear seat.

Then the weather cleared at last, but in spite of predictions the bright Indian summer had no effect on the course of the disease. At the end of the first week in October all the Boston schools closed.

As I look back the 1918 influenza becomes a minor interlude in that climactic year, a ghostly aside, to be almost forgotten in the war’s ending in November. Nearly forty years later, trying to bring some coherence to those third-grade memories, I began going through the newspaper files of the Boston Public Library. Formerly one had to turn over the stacks of brittle yellowed newsprint that seemed as dusty as age itself. Now those old papers have been microfilmed, and one can look at them through table projectors set up in the Records and Patents Room. The room, dark and slightly rancid, is beyond the court next to the men’s lavatory. Behind the attendant’s desk the film reels are stacked in small boxes taking up only a few shelves. The rest of the shelves are filled with city directories from all over the United States, telephone books, and business encyclopedias. What the room has to do with patents I have never been able to discover.

Through several winter days I sat in the corner turning the projector dials, watching the procession of filmed pages. At the end of each three-week cycle I would have to get the attendant to change the reel. When my eyes could stand the pull no longer I would go out to the corner cafeteria for a cup of coffee. I soon felt myself one of the anonymous crew that hangs out in the Records and Patents Room—middle-aged unemployables thumbing endlessly through city directories, indeterminately seedy men copying lists of addresses out of telephone books, crackpots of local history or genealogy peering at the pages of the “Transcript” on the screens, adolescents on some high school assignment, a lawyer checking death notices, an old man asleep.

It was strange to find the past embalmed in the pages of the “Globe” and the “Herald,” the printed record that was once as alive and pulsating as the immediate bustle of Copley Square outside. The papers seemed naive and stilted. It wasn’t because the autumn moment of 1918 was any less vital than the moment that encompassed me. But the idiom had changed. Reading the files it was hard to realize how intense life had been then, perhaps even at its maximum intensity for us in the third grade when the past and the future were irrelevant. The First World War ensigns and lieutenants whose engagements were being announced in the society columns were on the retired list now. And the girls of the rotogravure with the arch smiles and hair in side buns known as “cootie garages”—it didn’t seem comical then when they did their bit by dressing up in Red Cross or Salvation Army outfits and handing out doughnuts to the men in uniform.

Time past with all its irrelevancies was controlled by my finger on a dial. On September 1, 1918, some one had raised a three-pound cucumber in Maine. Tilden was beaten in tennis by R. Lindley Murray. Debs had just received a ten-year sentence. One Beatrice Creek aged twenty-one appeared in court for trigamy, having at various times married three sailors. Mutt and Jeff were in uniform peeling spuds at Camp Yaphank. Thousands of G.A.R. veterans, undeterred—or perhaps stimulated—by the war, held their annual encampment at Portland, Oregon. Automobiles of vanished names were pictured in the advertisements—Locomobile, Marmon, Haynes, Kisselkar, Metz Master Six, Paige-Detroit. At Tremont Temple the film version of Ambassador Gerard’s “My Four Years in Germany” was being shown. “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin” held over at the Bowdoin Square. To relax from war tension one could see William S. Hart at the Bijou in “Staking His Life.”

Early in September the influenza first crept into Boston through the waterfront when several hundred sailors docked at Commonwealth Pier. On September 10 a few paragraphs on the inside page of the “Herald” announced that thirty sailors suffering from so-called Spanish influenza had been taken off their training ships and placed in hospital tents on Corey Hill. There were seven deaths. On September 13 the “Globe” reported briefly that physicians had the Spanish influenza pretty well in hand. That afternoon the Navy announced 163 new cases.

On September 14 Rear Admiral Wood of the First Naval District declared that the Spanish influenza was simply grippe, and there was no reason for the public to be alarmed. On Sunday, September 15, twenty people died and the next day the number rose to thirty-five. News of the influenza, slowly advancing through advertising and feature articles and comics and sports, finally reached the front pages on September 16.

the headlines announced on Tuesday. But on Wednesday the influenza was off page one, dwarfed by the cracking of the Hindenburg Line. Proper precautions would soon stamp out the ‘flu, the “Herald” predicted, and the Homely Physician listed six rules for avoiding it.

1. Spray nose and throat with dichlorium.

2. Get plenty of rest in bed.

3. Keep windows wide open.

4. Eat meals regularly.

5. Beware of persons shaking hands.

6. Don’t use common towels, cups and other articles.

From Boston the disease had moved inland forty miles now to the troops at Camp Devens.

On September 22 the influenza again became front page news. There were fifty-seven deaths in Boston and twenty at Camp Devens. On Monday the 22nd there were sixty-three deaths, though physicians felt the worst was over. Next day eighty-seven died in the city. That same day Congress passed the War Prohibition Bill. The British trapped a Turkish army, capturing 18,202 prisoners. HUNS LIVE IN TERROR OF YANKEE DIVISION, said the “Globe.” But the influenza was elbowing the war news from the front page.

INFLUENZA ADDS 109 TO DEATH LIST IN DAY was the eight-column headline on September 25. There were 10,000 cases at Camp Devens now and soldiers were dying off at the rate of seventy a day. Next day 157 more Bostonians died, and Governor McCall issued a proclamation closing theatres and churches. Salicon Tablets were recommended for the ‘flu—the “Spanish” had been forgotten.

By the month’s end a period of clear weather inspired the hopeful belief that the influenza might be dispelled like so much low-hanging fog. IMPROVED WEATHER RESPONSIBLE FOR OPTIMISM said the “Herald.” The “Post” reported, FINE WEATHER CHECKS GRIP. But on October 1 the epidemic reached its height in the city with 202 deaths. Reluctantly, Acting-Governor Calvin Coolidge appealed for help to Democratic Washington.

After October 1, barely perceptibly, the influenza tide turned. The ripple passed on, spreading westward, reaching now into forty-three states. A week later the Boston death roll had fallen to a daily 150. But on Corey Hill where there had earlier been over 200 tents of sick sailors there were now only ten.

On October 11, 124 died in Boston, the lowest figure since September 25. By now the influenza had expanded to all forty-eight states. On October 13 for the first time that month an influenza story no longer appeared on the “Herald’s” front page. The main interest became again France, where American troops were smashing through, putting the Hun on the run. By November the influenza had passed, and in the turbulence of the war’s ending it tended to be forgotten quickly. So many had died since 1914; but it was over now, all the killing and the dying, and better to start again and put death out of mind. For all its deaths the influenza did not last long enough to stamp itself permanently on the popular imagination. And in any case, like the war, it was part of the past. The present was what mattered.

Blue high-winded days followed the line storms after the schools closed. By now the autumn colors had faded and from the top of the Hill we looked out over Canterbury Hollow to Great Blue Hill over a tawny landscape. Down in the Hollow itself the tent in New Calvary stood out lividly against the russet leaves, and the slanting light as it flashed from the windows of the carriages at the cemetery gate winked like a heliograph. On the opposite horizon the Custom House was dolphin-gray against the sky and the State House dome glittered again. Far to the right beyond the yellow brick bulk of the Dorchester High School lay the harbor islands outlined two-dimensionally against the limpid background of the Atlantic. For us it was pure joy in that abounding weather to be free of the third grade and Palmer Method and the multiplication tables and Miss Sykes and her harmonica and ferule. The early mornings turned frosty, blackening the marigolds, but the afternoons were warm and sun-drenched and golden, heavy with cricket sounds, light as milkweed down. By Collins’s Pond the witchhazel was in bloom, the lemon-yellow filaments crisscrossed against the bare branches. On the Hill, on such bright days, we lost ourselves in the immediacy of the timeless present, as free to wander as any coma of milkweed.

Every afternoon of those weeks Everett Nudd would sidle down the back road to the Hollow that ended at the monument shop on the corner and disappear in the dip by New Calvary gate. Everett never played with the rest of us. He always wore short trousers of tweed with buttons on the sides and grey woolen socks instead of the corduroy knickerbockers and black cotton stockings that we wore to school. We used to call him Short-pants and Sissy, and he would skulk in the corner of the yard at recess until at some final taunt he would flail out with his thin arms, kick with his copper-toed storm boots, and even bite. Then Miss Sykes would have to drag him away.

Eliot Dodds noticed him first. Eliot and I had been sitting in the grass by the old oak waiting for the others to come out so that we could get up a game of relievo.

“That sissy Everett Nudd,” he said as Everett cut across the field in his gray vizored cap and Norfolk jacket and short trousers. “I see him always going down the Hollow.” Deliberately he stood up and walked over to the road. I followed along behind. Everett, crossing over, pretended not to see us.

“Hey, Ev, where you going?” Eliot called out with false geniality.

“Nowheres,” he muttered.

“You going down the Hollow?”

“I guess I can if I want to.”

We fell in with him and the three of us walked along in silence, our feet plodding in the scrabbled clay, until we had almost reached the monument shop.

“I know you. You’re in with Eddie MacDonald.” We sensed, gloatingly, that he was afraid of us, but Everett’s voice still had challenge in it.

“No I’m not” Eliot protested with the same false note. “He thinks he’s too wise.”

“Where you going then?”

“Just down the Li’l.” Eliot turned to me. “Aren’t we?” Li’l was short for Little Store. “Where are you?”

With a quick change of mood Everett became confidential. “Eddie MacDonald and his gang don’t know what I do, they don’t know anyways. I go down to Calvary to watch.”

“To funerals?” Eliot asked him in an altered tone.

“Sure,” said Everett, his voice now tinged with boastfulness. “I watch them. You want to come?”

I felt the sudden coldness of the air on my face. Never in my life had I been to a funeral. I did not want to go now, and yet at the same time I knew I could not turn back.

When we came to the monument shop we could see the rows of granite stones lined up precisely in the yard, polished to mirror smoothness, the blank surfaces waiting only for names. and dates. From the door of the shed came the sound of the stone-cutter’s drill, an iterant buzzing like that of a locust. There was a funeral procession at the New Calvary Gate where a line of shiny limousines had stopped at the chapel. Through the plate glass and stylized black draperies of the front coach I could see a coffin banked with sprays of flowers. Following it was a touring car also heaped with flowers, then several limousines with their curtains drawn.

We edged through the gate, skirting the carriages and the clapboard-sprung chapel. The yard in front, dotted with plantains, had been tramped to a mire that was beginning to solidify. Just beyond lay the tent, its poles out of line, the guy ropes straining and cracking with each breath of air. The canvas fly had been looped back, and as we came nearer I caught the sick-sweet rotting scent of flowers.

“It’s full of caskets,” Everett said.

Eliot peered inside. I could see the gap in the canvas, but I did not dare look through the open triangle, and though my legs continued to move I felt a kind of paralysis creep through the rest of my body. Something in me nevertheless wanted to see, dared me to see what was separated from me by that patch of cloth.

“They got a lot of new ones, twice as many as last week,” Everett’s voice went on.

With a final wrench of will I looked in.

It was nothing. Only piled up boxes stacked like drawers, with here and there a wreath. Nothing at all. I could feel the warm blood pushing back into my veins again. Only an old tent full of old boxes with handles on them.

“Did you see them?” he asked me.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

We wandered down the main path past the brown and gray stone monuments, past carved crosses and sacred hearts and triumphant stone angels with impassive granite wings. Then the path ended at a dump, and Everett turned right through a thicket of ground oak and speckled alder, holding up his hand in warning. We followed him, inching our way slowly through the matted vegetation to the edge of a bowl-like declivity littered with shale and lumps of puddingstone. Beyond lay another wing of the cemetery, a poorer section with the headstones small and closer together, stretching away over undulations of ground until the stones coalesced in a neutral mass against the background shadow of Blue Hill.

A funeral was going on directly below us. Around the raw earth of an open grave a group of mourners were huddled together like a flock of bedraggled starlings. The fumed oak coffin had been set beside the grave, and a priest in a biretta stood at its head, even as we looked down making the sign of the cross over it. Then the others began to file past and some of them stopped to pick up a bit of earth which they scattered on the coffin. Just behind them two workmen appeared with ropes fastened in a sling. A heavy-built man with white hair and florid features stopped at the grave’s edge, shook the damp clay from his fingers, then glanced up to see us peering through the alder bushes.

“Get out of here, you!” he shouted, his face turning scarlet. “Get out!” And he started up the slope after us. The priest had taken off his biretta and replaced it with a felt hat. Neither he nor the others paid any attention.

As the man started toward us we ran. Even so we could hear his heavy footsteps on the yielding earth. We bolted through the close underbrush, oak roots and brambles tripping us, the speckled alder branches slashing across our faces, our boots stumbling over the shale and broken puddingstone.

Finally when we could run no more we threw ourselves down on the ground in the hollow by Collins’s Pond, sucking in the cool air with great relieving gasps. There was no more sound of following footsteps. A light wind fluttered the water and hissed among the cattail stalks. Juncoes were darting and swooping, their high-pitched trill audible even after they had settled in the marsh grass.

We lay there on our backs watching the color drain from the sky. Then deliberately but without speaking we stood up. Everett pulled his cap vizor over his eyes, we looked about and started back. Keeping to the line of the alder thicket we worked our way along still hesitantly until we came to the gravel walk. The three of us must have seemed lost under the enormous sky. We had not recovered our breath fully, and our cheeks were still flushed, but we were safe again. Everett began to swagger and kicked the pebbles as he walked.

“Lookit,” he said pointing to a towering granite shaft by the stone wall. “That’s were John L. Sullivan is buried, right over there. Oney they never buried him deep enough.”

“Why?” Eliot asked. I had the sick sense that I already knew the answer.

“Sometimes they don’t bury them deep. There’s others under them, that’s why. Last spring you could see John L. Sullivan’s casket coming up through the ground again. I seen it. They take off all the plates too and sell them. I know.” His voice dropped lower. “In that tent they use the caskets over again. They take dead people out and bury them just in their clothes. when no one’s looking, and then they send the caskets back and use them over.”

“You don’t know,” I said, aware numbly of the late afternoon chill.

“Yes I do too,” he said triumphantly. “I guess I know what they do. I know everything in this cemetery.” We had come to a stained marble monument with a broken urn lying at its base. “You see that,” he told us. “I knocked that off. I pushed over the little ones over there too, and that one with the sheep on the top. When I come round here I push them over. That’s what I do. You see that angel without the arm. I did that! I’m not ascared of anybody.”

At the crossing we passed an open grave. A gravedigger had just climbed out and stood with his shovel beside him, lighting his pipe. He was an old Italian with a drooping moustache, wearing a shapeless felt hat with a turned-down brim. His gnarled monkey face illuminated briefly as he held the match above the rim of his pipe and sucked on the stem. Then he snubbed out the match and spat into the earth. I think it was seeing the man standing there so casual and familiar that overwhelmed Eliot and me. Now we knew how Everett Nudd spent his afternoons, sneaking down the back road, peering through the bushes at funerals or into the dimness of the chapel tent, racing by himself along the gravel walks and shouting and tipping over monuments, his face shining. With one quick motion Eliot pinioned Everett’s arms to his sides.

“Here he is, mister, ” he gasped at the gravedigger. “You want him? He’s the kid that tips over all the stones. He broke the monument over there. He comes here all the time!”

Everett made no attempt to struggle. “No I never,” he said in a queer pleading voice. “Honest I didn’t, mister.”

The gravedigger stared at us with shrewd uncomprehending eyes, then took his pipe out of his mouth and spat again. “Ah, you boys-a go-onna home,” he said thickly. “You no playa here. Go-onna home.”

Uncertain, Eliot relaxed his grip, and with a bound Everett was away, his thin figure with the skinny legs receding, bobbing up among the lines of headstones, smaller at each turn. Only once did he look back. “You wait! I’ll get you!” he shouted.

Eliot and I trudged along the gravel, scuffing the chestnut burrs. The sky had turned to slate, and in the west a planet glowed above Canterbury Hollow. At the corner the arc lamp shone down on the monument shop, the light snaking thinly along the stone surfaces. There wasn’t a sound in the twilight. Even the wind had died down. But as we crossed Walk Hill Street a stone flicked through the air some ten feet to our left, and then another struck against the curb—and we knew that Everett Nudd was there somewhere in the shadows. Suddenly a kind of fury seized us both and we dropped to the gutter, snatching up stones with both hands, hurling them without aim into the dark, pelting the bushes again and again until weariness brought us a kind of relief.

Still breathing hard we stuffed our pockets with stones and started up the back road. I left Eliot by the footway. The windows of the houses on the Hill were square patches of friendly brightness. I could see the lights in the Dodges’ house, in Mrs. Clarke’s and the Sands’, and in the kitchen of the lower floor where my mother was getting the evening meal ready.

Seeing the lights, thinking of the afternoon, in that bare instant I became aware of time. And I knew then that life was not a perpetual present, and that even tomorrow would be part of the past and that for all my days and years to come I too must one day die. I pushed the relentless thought aside, knowing even as I did so that I should never again be wholly free of it. As I climbed the slope toward the warm intimacy of those windows, each step seemed a comforting barrier between me and what I had left. But even as my tired legs carried me along I could hear behind me a jeering cry, trailing far off into that vague darkness below the monument shop.

Francis Russell was an American author and historian.
Originally published:
December 1, 1958


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