Claren Ruth’s feet knew the right way to go even if she couldn’t remember just by looking. On the way, she passed her parents’ graves, the ground lumpy where their coffins were interred. All the older sites were perfect rectangles of sunk earth, the clay too hard to dig in when dry and too wet and malleable to hold up come a rain. The cemetery held graves of family members dating back one hundred and fifty years; as a result, the timeline of it grew from the inside out. In the center were older, rain-washed tombstones with lettering eroded enough that only memory could guess who laid where, and a central plot for a smattering of children’s graves when yellow fever hit a century earlier. On the outskirts were larger, more modern stones fit with enough space for a husband and wife to lie together. A few years back, the congregation calculated that there was not enough empty ground left to hold all of them if they died tomorrow. So the north end fence was knocked out and set back, encroaching on a stand of old oaks and moving further away from the church than any of them liked. Many chose that day to buy their plots in advance, and woe to those who didn’t as they would be relegated to idiot’s island, as they took to calling it.
Claren Ruth kept moving along therows until she arrived at her husband Edwin’s grave, dead nearly ten years earlier. The long, rectangular tombstone spanned across two plots of earth, one for him and one for her as Claren Ruth always prided herself on planning ahead. Edwin’s side had already started to sink. Claren Ruth’s side was clean and undisturbed, the stone reading her name and birthday and a blank where the second date would go. Indian grass was already coming up around the sides. Claren Ruth knelt and began to pull at the weeds, her heart pounding and part of her hoping that she could just go right now and be done with it, just like Edwin did.
Edwin died the way they all wanted to die—his body just gave it up, wore out from the work he spent his whole life doing. A peanut farmer, he shot his knees and back all to hell and coughed up red dirt even to his last day. He worked the fields until he fell over one evening under the pecan tree. Claren Ruth found him later, like he was waiting for her. She wasn’t even upset; jealousy clouded her mind as she imagined her own demise coming along in some nameless old folk’s home.
A feeling like the pressure of a hand came over Claren Ruth, and she stopped her work just to breathe for a moment. She bent and felt the earth firm under her hand. Not too far away lay her sister and all five of her brothers and their wives. Edwin’s kin to the right. A norther wind picked up and carried with it the early sound of crickets.
“Y’all just having a time of it out here,” she said. Claren Ruth lay down over her plot, put her hands on her chest and kept her eyes open to the oppressive sky. She reached a hand over out of habit, feeling for Edwin’s back. She hadn’t particularly enjoyed being married, but laying here was a familiar comfort. She could abide.
The problem, according to Claren Ruth, was that nothing could be counted on anymore. The fate of the church notwithstanding, the land long ago turned against them in more ways than one. Winters had gone unseasonably light and cheerful, the spring gone unseasonably dry resulting in weird and wretchedly hot summers that made it impossible for a person to even sit out and look at the world. There had been drought before; Claren Ruth could remember her father once describing a seven-year drought that ended the year before her birth—how the fields burned up and the trees went brown and river shrunk to the size of a muddy creek. People huddled up, sold off their cattle, and prayed to God. The difference here was that drought at the time resulted in a doubling of the church’s congregation, and as soon as it doubled, the flood gates opened and it rained a kind of forgiveness for whatever they had all done. This drought had chased everyone away, and now instead of selling cattle, they were selling their souls. But no, even Claren Ruth couldn’t give the drought that much credit—people had been leaving the area in droves far before this drought was born.
The way Claren Ruth saw it, these were end times. Of course, her mother said they were in end times during the Depression and again during the war. But Claren Ruth could feel it in her bones to know everything had to be tying up soon. The signs were simply all too clear, and none of these other old bats were opening their eyes to them.
Last Wednesday at the weekly Bible class, Claren Ruth decided to press the subject and suggested an unfavorable passage to study. It told of pestilence, odd weather patterns, and a lack of love that would unsettle the whole world. She watched Pastor form the words around his lips with no care, no worry at all, not a hint that the words seemed more familiar than they should for anyone’s comfort.
“Pastor.” Claren Ruth raised her hand. “How will we know the end when it comes?”
Pastor smiled and shrugged. “Bible says there will be trumpets, horsemen, the dead rising.” He chuckled and tittered with the other ladies. “I figure it’ll be pretty clear.”
“Yes,” Claren Ruth said. She gripped her Bible not lightly under the table. “But before all that. How will we know it’s coming before it gets here?”
“Oh, Ruth,” Pastor said. “That’s not a thing to worry about. It comes when it comes. Maintain your righteousness, and there’s nothing to fear.”
Claren Ruth stared at him a little longer until he squirmed in his place, the movement imperceptible to all but her. She sat back.
“Thank you, Pastor.”