THE LITTLE GIRL FROM NEXT DOOR slips through the fence and knocks at my parents’ sliding door. She sits herself down at the kitchen table and asks for a biscuit. We’re not really used to having neighbours, but we’re getting better.
“Voilà,” my mother says, handing her a chocolate digestive, and Manon begins to nibble it.
Her mouth grows slick with saliva, and every now and then she delicately turns the biscuit this way and that, unsure of her line of attack.
“How did you learn to speak English?” she asks finally, unable to conceive a world beyond this little town in Brittany. Unable to conceive a non-France.
“The same way you learned French,” I say. “When you were a baby, it was the language you learned from your parents. I learned English from Rosie and Jay and they learned from their parents.”
“Oh. Like when you were in the tummy?”
“Where are your parents, Rosie?”
My mother puts on her matter-of-fact-face and says, “Ils sont morts.”
“Oh,” says Manon and continues to eat her biscuit.
“Are they in the cemetery here?”
“No, they’re buried in the mountains of Zimbabwe,” says Ma, deciding it’s easier to say buried than sprinkled, because then we’d have to explain cremation.
“I kind of know what buried means, but could you tell me again?”
“Well,” I say glancing over at Ma, “when you die you get put into a big box called a coffin and they dig a really deep hole and then they put the coffin in the hole and cover it over with earth.”
“And they throw beautiful flowers in too,” says Ma with a big smile. “White ones and pink ones and yellow ones.”
“Ah bon,” says Manon, her eyes magnified by her tiny pair of pink glasses, crumbs all around her mouth, “And red ones too?”
Suddenly she pops the rest of the biscuit into her mouth, jumps off her chair, zips into the office, and comes back with a piece of paper and a pencil. Her mouth is still bulging with soggy digestive as she sketches a smiling person in a long box surrounded by flowers.
“Like this?” she asks and turns the page around to show us.
She turns the page back, her pencil poised.
“Should I cover it over with dirt now?” she asks, starting to scribble over the picture.
“Non, non!” I say, “It’s perfect just like that.”
“Do you know who it is?” she asks.
“Qui?” asks Ma.
“MANON!” she says with a grin and pens her name onto the paper with the cursive letters they teach French kids.
My mother, my sister, and I are sitting on her couch. We’ve just eaten four crêpes each: two buckwheat crêpes with egg, emmental, and creamy onions, and two sweet crêpes with salted caramel and apple purée. I feel a little sick.
“So this was in the Connemara,” says Agnès pointing at the slideshow she’s set up on their enormous flatscreen television. It clashes with the dark, heavy furniture of French peasantry. The slideshow is the whole reason we were invited to dinner. Agnès and her husband Raymond recently went to Ireland, and she wanted to share their photographs.
“The cemeteries are just magnificent there,” she says and pauses on a photograph of a granite Celtic cross overlooking a cove of white surf. Her eyes shine with the admiration that all Bretons seem to have for Ireland.
“Photographers must have a field day in the cemeteries!” she says. “We spent ages in them, hein Raymond? Reading the tombstones and taking pictures…”
Raymond coughs out a cloud of cigarette smoke and clears his phlegmy throat.
“We found a tomb that had a little figurine of an accordion player on it…must have been an accordion player.”
Huddled in the dark we watch photograph after photograph of lopsided headstones, mossy inscriptions, Celtic infinity knots, and bright green Irish grass.
“Magnifique…” says Agnès, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t mind being buried there…”
I look at the heavy stone and the weighty symbols. I see the graves packed together in small churchyards, and I imagine my bones being whipped for eternity by the Atlantic.
I look back at Agnès, and I know in that moment that we are different. She has French taste in cemeteries. French graveyards aren’t exactly like Irish ones, but they’re equally dense with northern Catholicism. French cemeteries are all about the marble: black marble, grey marble, and pink marble — all with gold print. Family vaults, Mother Marys, electric candles, and plastic flowers that have faded in the sun. There’s always gravel.
My aunt Anne is bretonne, and she took me around the cemetery of her village, Plourac’h, on her 40th birthday.
“There used to be a barn just there, on the other side of the wall. Every time there was a burial I’d climb up into the hay bales with a friend and we’d watch from there.”
Anne and I wound between the headstones, and the gravel crunched under our feet.
“There was always some drama. Once this woman fainted at her daughter-in-law’s funeral, but everyone knew she’d been waiting for the girl to die since the day she married into the family.” Clouds scudded by overhead, dipping us in and out of sunlight.
“You wouldn’t believe the stories…take my great grandfather,” she said, indicating his headstone. “His wife died before him, and there was a place reserved for him next to her in the tomb. But on his deathbed he begged not to be buried with her. He said, “She was a pain in the ass my whole life. At least give me some peace in death!’”
I laughed and asked if he got what he wanted.
“Oui, tout à fait! His wife is on the other side of the cemetery over there,” said Anne.
We kept walking. The vases on all the graves were full of old rainwater and wilted flowers.
“And these sisters! They were born exactly one year apart. They shared everything. They even got married on the same day. But just look at this…this one married four times and buried each husband, and this one asked for a divider in the mausoleum between her and her only husband.”
Finally we sat down on the low stonewall of the churchyard.
“Whenever there was a burial in summer, all the kids would wait until the sun went down, and then we’d gather on this wall. If we were lucky we’d see the orange lights. It only worked when the moon was overcast. There would be this orange, glowing mist above the fresh tombs.”
“It was probably just methane or something, but we thought it was the spirits of the dead rising up to heaven, and we’d run home screaming.”
Anne went quiet.
“It feels good to know I’ll be buried here.”
I looked up at the black and grey and pink, and realised I couldn’t think of anywhere worse.
My father and the men chipped away at the red earth on the mountainside like a chain gang. Six feet is a long way down. The grave took a day to dig.
The hearse brought my cousin Sarah all the way from Harare. She had died aged 16. The suited undertakers were told to drive to my grandparents’ bridge over the Nyabya River, where the soil is canyon pink, and where the water lilies are shaped like almonds.
Johnny Sauriri was on duty. He was a legend in the valley; a veteran of the Second World War and a survivor of a shootout with the Rhodesian Army during the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe’s war of independence. He lived and worked alongside my grandparents for ten years.
The hearse’s tires crunched, its brakes whined, and it came to a halt on the bridge.
“Leave the coffin here,” said Johnny
The undertakers’ faces went blank.
“Here? In the middle of nowhere?”
“Yes. Leave the coffin here.”
They looked at Johnny and looked at the mountainside, and they knew what we were going to do, but they also knew better than to interfere with a burial.
The black hearse rolled away into the shadows of the Erin Forest, leaving the coffin by the roadside. Johnny lifted two fingers to his mouth and whistled for the men to come down. My father, an uncle, Johnny, and the other workers shouldered the coffin and sweated up the steep climb. They zigzagged across streams and over patches of scorched earth until they reached the burial site. The fire of 1986, six years earlier, had exposed the landscape and left its curve and structure clear to see.
When everything was ready, family and friends gathered around the grave. The men lashed ropes around the polished wood and lowered it into the hole, tendons straining. They staggered forward and the coffin slipped and tipped and bumped against the red walls of the grave. My father’s voice called out like a shepherd herding cattle. Muscles bulged and bare feet skidded forward for the final inches.
We gathered around the red sore in the ground. I held my mother’s hand and threw a bouquet of yellow everlasting flowers onto the coffin.
Handful by handful, spadeful by spadeful, she had to be tucked away.