Mrs. Miller asks me what I believe in. Just like that. No warning. Out of the blue, the slim woman with dark coffee-colored skin tosses the subject of spiritual beliefs between us, tosses it between the cemetery where she stands and the edge of the woods near me. I’ve been searching in the wooded area for a lost grave. Ending the hunt, I’ve staggered from a canopy of trees to scan the cemetery one last time before leaving. Born in 1923, Mrs. Miller lives down the road and watches over the graves. We’ve met before. Today is my third time visiting her and the cemetery. She calls to me from several yards away. “What do you believe in?”
My muscles ache. The sun is fire on my fair-skinned face, scalding my nose and cheeks, baking tiny scars from skin cancer, the heat irritating and tickling my throat. After hiking through the woods, I thirst for water, and I’m ready to go home.
Heading in my direction, using a tobacco stick for support, Mrs. Miller asks again, “What do you believe in?” When she is close enough for me to notice, I see her eyes hammering mine. She means business.
“What do you mean?” My voice, drying out, cracks, but my tone is respectful.
“When you’re dying you got a lot of time to think. What do you think life taught you? You come out here looking for the graves of folks who’ve been dead longer than you’ve been alive. You look for slave graves and you’ve never met a slave in your life. You’re too young to know any slaves. I knew one when I was a youngun’. You tell me you look for your ancestors in other places. In the white graveyards. You tell me you’ve found your people and their stories all over the South. What are you really looking for? What makes you snoop around the lives of dead people?”
Her questions startle me. I’ve never thought for long about why I do what I do. I write, and because I write, I listen to people. I plunder through old records and uncover the work, the births, the sorrow, the indiscretions, the loves of those who lived before me. I’ve never dissected my heart; I’m too busy autopsying the lives of the dead.
Looking into her eyes, dark, swimming in aged jelly, I chuckle. “I don’t know what I believe. I’ve never thought about it.”
She clucks, a sound unlike anything I’ve heard before from a human, a noise made with the tongue and the vocal chords and the lips. I think she was trying to click her tongue against the roof of her mouth when a cough got caught up in the noise. “Well, I’ll tell you what I believe in,” she tells me. “No need for you to go looking for my beliefs after I’m dead.”
I smile, wipe sweat from my eyes, take a few steps back to hide from the sun, moving toward the shade created by the edge of the woods. She follows me, stands nearby, her arms wrapped around the tobacco stick. “I believe you’re a strange white girl. You’re different. But I like you well enough.” She pushes her face closer to mine. “I believe I’ll be with my Lord when I leave this world and I hope some of the people I’ve known who claimed to be Christians before they died don’t make it to heaven cause I don’t want nothin’ to do with ‘em. There’s some mean people walking around with a Bible in their hands. I hope God’s been keepin’ an eye on ‘em and their evil ways. When I pray I tell him about those people. I make sure God knows about ‘em. He already knows all about the real Christians, so I make sure he knows about the bad folks. Some of them’s hiding in the church.” She coughs then speaks again, her voice cracking, a cough forming and rattling around in her lungs. “I’ve got a list of people who don’t need to go to Heaven. They got no business up there.”
I laugh, a belly laugh. I can’t help it. She’s providing me some good writing material. With a stern gaze she flattens my laughter and the joyful sound trails away. I slide a serious expression over my face. A mosquito buzzes around my head.
“I believe some folks was meant to travel this earth and do great things but I’m not one of ‘em. My place is here. Right here. And it’s not a bad place to be. Some folks think the sunset is prettier over the ocean or over the mountains but it is the same sun everywhere you go. It’s the same sky. The same moon. But the land is different. The trees are different. The flowers are different. The woods are different. This is my land and this is where I was meant to be.”
Mrs. Miller goes silent, and I think for a moment that she’s said all she plans to say. But I’m wrong. Turning her head one notch at a time, taking in the graves around us, she continues. “I believe God didn’t want me to have any children and He didn’t trust me not to have any. That’s why He made it where I couldn’t have babies. I believe I did most of what God wanted me to do on this earth. I believe some folks think I’m crazy. I’m not crazy. I’m old and I think different from young folks. I’m getting ready to die and I’m looking around me and I’m thinking. People don’t like it when you think too much. They say you’re crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
“Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t.” Moving the tobacco stick to the right, her body following it, she adjusts her stance. I wave my hand around my face, shooing mosquitoes. She leans into me and gives me a fierce expression, the face of a warrior. Unsmiling. Unblinking. Eyes drilling into mine. Perhaps I’m wrong about her expression. Perhaps it is simply an intense gaze meant to color the seriousness of her words. “Let me tell you something, child. I believe you’re too busy hunting graves and writing whatever it is that you write to listen to God. He’s talking to you, but you won’t listen. Maybe you’re doing what God wants you to do and maybe you’re not. You probably are. He lets you hunt ghosts and you seem happy doing it, but you’re the only one who knows if you’re listening to God. I don’t know about you. You’re always chasing ghosts. You better watch out. Not all ghosts are good.”
I swat a mosquito on my arm and it splatters, leaving a spot of blood the size of a freckle on my flesh. Is the blood mine or the mosquitoes? I don’t know. Mrs. Miller says, “I believe everybody needs a place to be buried.”
Breaking a lingering silence, I ask Mrs. Miller, keeper of graves, what else she believes. “I believe in a lot of things but I’m tired right now. You’ll have to come back another day.”
When I went back, Mrs. Miller’s house was closed up and falling apart, her lawn overgrown, and she was gone.