The setup: Troubled by the complete memories of two past lives [Vasili and Bobby], Evan (relating the events in first person) has been shot in the foot as he fled the scene of his latest arson-for-hire job. He hides behind a church in an industrial neighborhood in Los Angeles, where he is rescued by the church’s lone occupant, an enigmatic woman [Poppy]. Poppy has expertly addressed the young man’s injuries and now suspects Evan might be more than he seems. She has given him an expensive, antique walking cane to help him to her favorite picnic spot, where she plans to share her secret in an attempt to discover his.
Antonio drove slowly through residential areas and stayed off of major thoroughfares except to connect to the next neighborhood. Poppy looked straight ahead and spoke to him only once more. I looked straight ahead too, sneaking glances at her when I could. Her right hand was placed on top of her left and showed the tattoo I had seen earlier. It was flat black and stood out dramatically on her fair skin.
We drove alongside the short fence that bordered the large Evergreen cemetery. Three small, monument covered hills rose above one another beyond the green. Antonio slowed almost to a stop as he turned right into the cemetery.
I turned back to Poppy and opened my mouth partially, but found she was already looking at me. I wanted to say something but stopped. One corner of her mouth curled into a smile as she spoke. “We’re almost there. I hope you’re hungry.”
“Yes, I am,” I said, regaining my presence of mind. I looked out the window and continued waiting. A picnic in a cemetery, different, I thought.
Antonio drove at a respectful ten miles per hour.
The headstones got older the farther back into the cemetery we went. Two groundskeepers on large, three-bladed riding lawnmowers drove next to us and kept up for a second before peeling off together like formation fighter planes weaving quickly in and out of a long row of granite monuments. The first section of the cemetery we drove through was dotted with the light brown rectangles of fresh graves along with fresh flowers and mourners, but on this back part, on the third hill, everything was green. Old gray soldier’s crosses, headstones, and large vaults stood lonely and vacant like the remnants of a lost city. There were no flowers or visitors in this oldest section, only groundskeepers, birds, and squirrels to keep the dead company. Looking around this deserted area with all its green grass and trees, the idea of a picnic seemed less strange. This was probably the most peaceful and secluded spot in the city.
We drove out of sight of the mowers into a section of large tombstones and vaults with dates from the late nineteenth century. Antonio eased the Cadillac down a narrow lane between the plots, and then stopped in the middle of several medium-sized family vaults.
“We’re here,” Poppy said, crushing out her cigarette.
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Antonio got out and opened the door for her, then for me. “This is a beautiful spot, Poppy. I wouldn’t have thought of this,” I said, adjusting the cane underneath me. The sounds of the faraway city were barely audible.
“Follow me,” she said to me as she took the basket from Antonio. “It’s over here.” She said something to Antonio in Spanish as she looked over at his watch. I followed Poppy into the cemetery as he drove off.
She walked briskly out in front of me. The soft ground under the grass made it difficult for me to walk with the cane, and I felt like shouting to her to set the basket down so we could eat here and I wouldn’t have to walk any farther. She walked toward one of the larger vaults, a weathered and rain-streaked gray one. Two thick columns stood vigil on either side of the wrought iron double doors. Two squirrels scampered off as she approached. The vault was the size of a small carriage house. As I got closer, I could make out more detail. The same symbol Poppy had tattooed on the back of her hand was carved into the marble above the arched doors where the family name should have been. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that we might be going to a specific place in here.
I continued my slow, steady pace as she sat the basket down in front of the doors and turned to look at me. Fresh purple flowers sprouted from two metal vases in front of the columns. The surrounding tombstones were large and ornate. I glanced at them as I passed; Phillip Clairmonte 1820–1892 was carved into the base of an eight-foot-tall obelisk, Regina Duncan 1888–1889 lay underneath a weathered and worn, life-sized, kneeling baby lamb.
“This is a very special place for me,” she said when I was about twenty steps away.
“Why is this place so special?”
“It is the resting place of my benefactors.”
The outfit she wore made sense to me now, and I felt awkward at being dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. At least they were black. The purple orchids in front of this vault were the only flowers in sight. “Do you visit here often?”
“I come here when I want to think,” she said, removing a black skeleton key from her purse. She unlocked the doors and opened them one at a time.
The room inside was lit, to my surprise, by two small skylights. One shaft of light slanted down onto the center of the floor and the other landed on the left-hand wall. Polished brass plaques lined the left and right walls above two simple stone benches, one on each side.
She grabbed the basket and walked inside. I took a step behind her but stopped in the open doorway. She placed the basket on the bench and sat down beside it as she lifted the veil and removed her sunglasses. “Aren’t you going to come in?”
Now was my chance to press the issue. “You were going to tell me about this,” I said, tapping the brass end cap of the cane on the stone floor.
“Why don’t you ask them?” she said, pointing to the plaques on the opposite wall.
Them? I thought as I stepped inside. The air inside was cool. Them. I turned my back to her and looked at the plaques. The second square of sunlight perfectly framed and highlighted one of the brass markers, making the others hard to see. The plaque was two feet wide and a foot and half tall. The only thing on it was a name and year of birth and death, Graciela L. Cruz 1889–1977.
“Graciela Cruz, was she your—, is she the one you spoke about?” I asked, turning to look at Poppy.
Poppy had already placed two wine glasses on the bench next to the basket. “Yes, she bought the church. What do want to start with, red or white?
“White it is. I thought we’d start with caviar and cream cheese.”
“Hmm,” I murmured. “Was this cane hers?”
“No, it belonged to Louis.”
“Louis, on this side,” she said, pointing to the darker wall behind her.
It took several seconds for my eyes to adjust from the shiny sunlit brass of the other side. Six plaques were set in two rows of three. Names and dates showed on all the plaques. The one she pointed to was in the middle of the bottom row, Louis Lucas de Nehon 1657–1723.
I looked at it for several seconds, reading the date over and over. I gripped the cane next to my right leg and did the math, over two hundred fifty years old. I thought the cane was old, but I wouldn’t have guessed it was that old. The dragon head seemed to get hotter in my hand as I thought about the significance of such a gift, and I was more determined than ever to find out what was going on.
My eyes wandered to the neighboring plaques as I formulated my next question for Poppy. The one to the left of Louis’s read Marco Parcalus 1630–1657, the one to the right on the bottom row read Colleen Korin McGregor 1723–1761. I started to see the pattern in the dates and stood straight up to look at the ones above. Nez-Lah 1506–1524, Bando 1524–1540, and Bahram Al-Malick 1540–1630 looked back at me from left to right. The cane clicked on the stone floor as I turned to look the plaques on the other wall. Diana Marie Duggan 1761–1824 was on the top row on the left and Dr. Hans M. Roder 1824–1889 was in the middle. Graciela still shined in the sunlight on the right. The three plaques below were all blank.
My eyes defocused as I thought about my own timeline, three lives, uninterrupted from 1892 till now. It all began to make sense: the enamel basin, the crude crutch, the McTaggart, and the cane. I ran my hand over the warm brass of Graciela’s monument as fragmented thoughts coalesced in my mind. She would have been three years older than Vasili. I turned and looked at Poppy. She was staring at me again, but I had expected it this time. “I think I understand,” I said, my voice almost cracking.
“I think you understand too,” she said. Her facial expression warmed as she continued. “You’re like me, aren’t you?”
I nodded after several unblinking moments. I was too stunned to speak. You’re like me, aren’t you? The words echoed in my head, echoed in the vacuum where my reality had been seconds before. You’re like me. I never thought I’d be like anybody, I mean, I never thought there would be anyone like me.
Poppy uncorked the bottle and filled the glasses. “Here,” she said, patting her hand on the bench, “sit down and have some wine.”
Sitting down, I held the wine glass with two hands to keep it from shaking. I drank half the glass, but it was little help for my dry mouth. “I don’t know what to say,” I said placing the glass down on the bench, again using both hands.
“It’s all right, Evan, I understand what you’re feeling. I’ve been in your position before. Take your time, we have plenty of supplies,” she said, opening the basket.
I remained motionless and must have seemed catatonic on the outside. But inside, I was a turmoil of activity. I felt nervous about confiding in anyone after all these years and yet joyful about the possibility that this could be true. I was anxious to find out more and I felt uneasy about a new reality in which I would no longer be unique. You’re like me. In the past three years, I’d often fantasized about finding someone else like me, someone else who remembered.
I stirred back to life after several minutes. “Do you remember all these people?” I asked, looking at the nine plaques around me.
“Yes, sort of, I don’t tend to look at it as remembering them. I was them, each of them. They continue to live in me. One person, the same person in new bodies, including this one,” she said, admiring her thin outstretched arms. “This body will go right there.” She pointed to the blank plaque on the lower left side.
I reached down and grabbed the forward edge of the stone bench in a vain attempt to keep my world from spinning off its axis. If she was like me, I began to question who or what I was. This all started when I began to remember Vasili and Bobby. I had always thought of them as precursors to me, it had never occurred to me that I could be a continuation of them.
“Evan?” she said, lightly touching my right arm. “Are you all right?”
I looked at the blank brass plaques on the bottom row which would serve as future memorials. “I ah, never thought of it that way, the way you put it. It changes everything when you put it like that.”
“What do you mean?”
I turned around and looked at the oldest plaque, 1506–1524. That would mean she remembered back almost five hundred years, she was five hundred years old. “I don’t know what I mean yet. This is all so … This, ah, wasn’t what I was expecting today, Poppy,” I laughed nervously.
She lightly stroked my arm as she refilled my glass. “I’m obligated to tell you this,” she said, motioning around the vault with the mouth of the wine bottle. “I wanted to tell you as soon as I was sure about you. Evan, I know what it’s like being in the dark.”
D. Eric Maikranz has had a multitude of lives in this lifetime. He attended the University of Colorado to study Russian literature, was a foreign correspondent in Rome, translated for relief doctors in Nicaragua during a cholera epidemic and was once forcibly expelled from Laos. He has worked as a tour guide, radio host, bouncer and Silicon Valley software executive. He lives in Denver.