Writers are, or should be, eminently curious, even when it gets us into trouble. The reason is that this curiosity leads us to discover things that may be more interesting than what we were looking for in the first place.
I’m currently reworking a novel, so I decided to take a writing vacation this summer and go to the village where part of the novel is set. Google Earth is a wonderful tool for giving the general gist of a locale, but it’s no substitute for visiting the scene of your scenes: walking the streets, talking to the people, getting into the essence that
is unique to every place.
Warning: I’m going to be circumspect about this place because while writers shouldn’t mind getting in trouble in pursuit of their craft or their work, we shouldn’t get others in trouble, unless we’re writing an exposé. I’m not, so I’ll explain more fully below.
After trespassing on private property, for which I was promptly thrown out, and after bugging several people who were both kind and accommodating, and after eating more of the local cuisine than my wallet and waistline could afford, I went to the local cemetery to check out the history. If the library isn’t open, a cemetery is the next best historical archive you can find. All the town’s past secrets are revealed there: Immigration patterns, who was held in esteem and who wasn’t, what bloodlines continue and which died off, what the people value and how those values changed over the years. It’s the water-cooler of the dead.
This cemetery featured 19th century gravestones that grudgingly slid over just a bit to allow the 20th century dead to lie down. The etched names were WASP-y. No one called O’Leary or Fantelli, Schwartz or Santiago, Khoury or Chen rested here. I followed the arc of the town through the headstones, snapping pictures from every angle (you never know what details will be of service). I noted the ostentatious as well as the genteel and the unusual. Very few markers fit the latter category; this was a proper resting place.
But one drew my eye. It was shaped like a U and hollow in the center with the name written up and around the arcing top. I hadn’t seen this kind of a headstone before, so I bent for a closer look. The U-shaped stone was held to the ground by slabs of stone that looked like slate. One slab came out of the ground very close to the back corner of the U and I went down on my knees to inspect it.
And that’s when I saw them: two small pieces of metal.
They looked like toy figurines a child might drop. I reached in to pick them up and couldn’t. They were either welded or soldered to the stone. My curiosity now at full bore, I got down on my belly and put my head inside the hollow center to inspect the figures. And who was staring back at me? The elephant face of Ganesh and the multi-armed figure of Siva.
What the hell were two Hindu statues doing welded to a 20th century grave in a cemetery full of exclusively and uniformly Anglo-American names?
Clearly these figures were meant to be inconspicuous but also permanent (which is the reason for my circumspection), so whoever put them here clearly intended them to make a point. But what was that point?
My rational brain immediately got interrupted by my Muse so she could, well, muse for a moment. What as yet untold set of circumstances brought these two worlds together? Could the resident of the grave have been an Englishman who served in India before emigrating to the US… Could he have converted to Hinduism, or decided to follow its way of life, but kept that a secret from the entire town, save one person only, his lover … Could the deceased have collected ancient statuary and a relative who inherited the collection sold it, then felt guilty, and bought back these two pieces so the dead man wouldn’t seek revenge … Maybe the dead man had been a fire-breathing, Christian minister who drove one congregant so batty that the member decided to get even by
saddling the dead preacher with Hindu idols for all eternity.
The possibilities are endless, and the story could begin or end here – or both.
And that’s what I love about chance finds. They remind us that stories are everywhere. Life is an endless round of stories that are meeting and separating, merging and passing like cars whizzing by on the highway. Occasionally, we writers grab one, or more often, the story grabs us, and we write it. At that moment, we give a voice to the voiceless. Whether famous or not, whether we’re read by 10 people or 10,000, we are keeping alive the past and cultivating the future each time we sit down behind the computer or pick up the pen.
“And everything else,” my father used to say, “is gravy.”
शांति-- Shanti -- The peace that passes all understanding.