Silence has always intrigued me – especially in the intimacy of home. Like the day Mum said incompletely, "When Julia was born..." and stopped purposefully when she noticed me enter the room, never to speak about it again.
Around the time I was born in 1992, my parents left their country home to live in the city. They had been living in a cottage at the foot of the Southern Alps, glacial and covered in snow. Snow that may have buried tragedies or memories they never spoke of, but that entwined them in a mysterious bond they brushed off as marital bliss. I decided I had to go there and see for myself what I would discover. I knew I had been there before.
It was the 15th day of November, my birthday. I had been traveling for hours from the top of the South Island, southwest to the Southern Alps, New Zealand. I drove alone, savoring the solitude. The aim was to reach the Grey River, and the river would guide me homeward.
My GPS didn't work in these parts. I followed the paper map as best I could, archaic as it felt. Hours passed. The streets were lined with native forest trees, growing skyward and dense as I approached. The drive was spectacular and melancholic at the same time. I was alone with my thoughts. Continuing along, I tried to drown those thoughts with the excitement of my pursuit. In the distance, I could hear a gushing river. I was finally in the vicinity of what was once my home. Across the horizon I could see dark storm clouds looming. Growing closer was an old chapel at the foot of the Southern Alps. It was here that I sought refuge.
The exterior was wooden, featuring heavy doors and a modest heavenward spire. I entered. It looked historic and unused, like the map I had earlier tried desperately to decode. Natural light poured in, through intricate stained-glass panels that extended downward from the ceiling almost to the floor. The entire structure was held together by several Gothic-styled arches and supporting buttresses. I walked toward the altar and saw a door, from beyond which a vicar emerged. He had light, frail eyes and scanty hair, but a calm and reassuring smile.
"Welcome to St Peters," he said enthusiastically.
"Hello, I'm Jill. My parents used to live around here." I said. My voice echoed through the nave. "This is a beautiful place, and strangely reminiscent."
"What's your family name, dear?" he inquired.
"Fernandes," I said, examining the exquisite internal architecture of the chapel.
"Yes, I knew them once.” He paused for a moment, looking at me as if he knew me.
"They lived at the far end of the woods. Come this way," he said, and walked off.
I followed him into the gardens, leading to the chapel cemetery. He narrated the history of the chapel when it was in use, and the stories of the people who now lay here to rest. Never before had I taken such an interest in the stories graves tell. Stories of the lives of entire families now gone, but that were once lived in the very place I was now so bewildered by.
Engraved on one of the stones was the following:
In loving memory of
Marcus Anderson 1887-1962
Grace Anderson 1892-1921
Junior Carl Anderson 1918-1919
& Darling Marie Anderson 1919-1920
Reading it, I realized this man had lost his entire family in the span of three years. He never remarried. Loss and heartbreak must have plagued him his entire life. Yet here he lay with the family he once had. My eyes teared up. The chapel, the historic graveyard, the majesty of the overshadowing Southern Alps – it was all so surreal. I had a moment of déjà vu. It was all coming back to me like memories, but ones that I had never had.
The clouds darkened, while a thunderstorm brewed overhead. We walked along to where the graves ended, and the mountains began. The vicar pointed to an exquisitely handmade cross. The cross read:
15th November 1992
Angel on Earth for a day, summoned to heaven the next
A drop trickled down the cross. It wasn't the rain.
This story was a winning entry in the 2019 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.
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