When I can’t sleep I take long, late-night walks, mostly in the winter when I’ve got the place to myself. On quiet nights I usually head down Broadway past all the unlighted sleeping houses of people I know now and those I used to know, to the pier where the boats are sleeping, too. I stand perfectly still, listening to the sound of the faint gentle kiss of piling and rail, the strain of the stretching line, the barely audible lullaby of breeze through rigging. I inhale the delicate smells of the sea, usually masked by the daytime diversion of the senses. If the wind is from the north, I swing around to the south side, the lee side, and linger in the cemetery for a while. Sometimes I’ll play the game of imagining the lives of the people who are buried there. In the old cemetery it’s fairly easy, most of those buried there are victims of shipwrecks, some local and some from all over the world. In this section the men are brave and righteous sea captains and fishermen. They lived by the bible and raised their families to gratefully respect the natural mysteries and bounty of the sea. They took only what they needed and took pride in their reverence for and protection of the mother stock and the seed that would feed their children and their children’s children. The women were hard-working, large-breasted pillows of comfort and strength. They accepted the fate of their men as “God’s will” and waited for them in silence, sometimes to the end of their lives.
As I move down into the more recent section of the cemetery, our section, I begin to see the graves of the people who have lived around me and the images begin to change. They become haunted and unfulfilled, weary casualties of life banished to this place. They are bent and twisted and carry more demons than they can be expected to bear. Driven by fear, lost trust and abuse, they came here looking for refuge. From here they can see all the edges of their world, the limits of the threat, the controllable life. Sherwood Anderson’s grotesques are no longer welcome in Winesburg, Ohio; they are all here.
The graveyard sits on a side hill overlooking Vineyard Sound and the cliffs of Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard nine miles away. On clear nights, the brilliance of the Gay Head light warns and illuminates the graveyard. The three white flashes send a pattern of straight black shadows out from the base of the gravestones to the white picket fence on the west side, where they quickly and nervously shoot upward and back into the night. The one red flash brings eeriness and just enough light to dress the whole cemetery in red without shadows, bringing with it a sense of where I am. I fear the coming of the red light like a child fears the opening of the door to the terrible place in the middle of the night or the fear of some men when they come to the realization that they do not understand anything at all. I am sure that on some night, in the glow of the red light, these dead will show themselves to me. They are not at peace.
History and witness of the power and fury of a northeast storm puts the fear of drowning in every islander, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken some comfort in the thought that my body would be given to the sea. I trust the honesty of the sea and it has almost become the preferred exit, slowly dissolving in a world that has been Mother to me. It’s the most sense I can make out of dying. Not in a hole bound by the pressures of the earth or in a box held separate from living things, but in the sea where I can stretch the arms of all my little pieces and return to the essence of life.
My walk will eventually take me to the west end where the deer yard in winter, and as light cracks dawn I can watch as they wake and set about trampling snow and brush, making a place for fawn to come in the spring. With the light come the birds in migration which they have done since the beginning of time. For them also, this is a predictable place, a safe place, a place that has been the same for their entire genetic memory. How many places are there left like this for them? How many changes have they seen over the last 300 years? More than anyone on this island wants to know.
Sometimes bodies are kept in the cement block shed in the southwest corner of the cemetery waiting for the ground to thaw. They don’t lock the door. I wish they did, but I don’t know why.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.