First interstate, then blacktop, then gravel. The road passes through prairie grass and wildflowers and along fields where the first faint green streaks thrust up through the soil’s black surface, still moist.
To the south, bluish rimrocks and pine cling to the horizon. Winding around a high ridge clad with sparse grass and thick creeping cedar, then down, then up again to a windswept fork in the road – the small white church stands. There is a small gate in the long white fence.
One steps through, stones of granite silently greet – patient, enduring all. All small, modest. Many are flat and sunken -- hidden in the short prairie grasses, one almost walks past. Their number is few, pilgrims rare. One is compelled to visit each one. First father’s father, father’s mother. Then the others.
At the sight of a carved name, a face, a voice, appears. At another, a question. When an old one stands there too, the question is given voice, and the old one’s stories are spoken softly. Of those who are no longer here, of those whose seed is no longer here.
In a far corner lies a man who never wed. There is no-one to carry his name. One speaks the name out loud for him. The wind carries it away as it races to the east. The sky’s vaulted immensity looms like death -- the patch of granite and grass shrinks. The sun presses down, the wind is cold.
Today, there are no old ones to ask. Today there are only the wondering children asking the one who is their own old one. Speaking the stories softly, forgotten doors click open quietly. More stories, and tears.
Near the eastern fence, a small metal marker. A flag in relief, a date, a war, a ship, a name. Who he was, even the old ones do not remember. His kin vanished to the east, their hearts raw. One speaks the name out loud for him. The ground heaves like the deck of a ship, the prairie is a sea of grass, the wind’s bite is salty as it carries the name eastward.
Death in battle. True, all die in battle – we are gentle with the living, because all are fighting a great battle, unseen.
But for a land, some gave all – gratitude rises. For the dead, but also that one’s own ship of the air returned one winter night, that no battle was seen. Warm embraces, tears, small arms wrapped around each leg. The helmet bag sits on the tarmac forgotten as love curls around us like a growing vine. At home, a flag sits on the hearth’s mantle. “From a grateful nation,” it says. Thanks are given as we break bread – there is no second flag.
Looking up from the metal flag in the grass, rushing back from past to present – unnoticed, the young ones have left the old, have left the dead, have left the granite and the names. They have walked west, found flowers tucked in the prairie grass. Curious lambs are peering through the fence. Mothers call, and the names are carried in the wind.