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by Kyla Lee Ward

composed in respect of the 150th anniversary

 

Rookwood necropolis. The city of the dead. It has been here for a mere 150 years, but all 150 of those years exist; you can see the numbers carved in stone. Testament to testaments, sanctuary for native birds and imported mammals, nursery of heritage roses, gallery of anonymous sculptors, a place where the dead are remembered so they may be forgotten elsewhere.

 


The Tamil memorial is new, brand new; the black granite gleams like a mirror. Its installation was controversial: doubtless, so was that of the Chinese pavilion and the Holocaust memorial in their day. But this is Rookwood's mandate and its secret power, to absorb every kind of dead. There is an Old Jewish section and a stretch where only gypsies rest. There are divisions for Catholics, Anglicans, Non-Conformists and Lutherans, memorialising a time when Christian sects diverged like races. But Saint Michael no longer raises a sword over the chapel that bears his name: the previous two statues were struck by lightning and the sculptor of the third was prudent. He found his model in a Russian icon. Whole continents away, yet still within the cemetery grounds, a blue and gold dome guards Russian Orthdoxy. A green-tiled dome protects the new Muslim section, a sunken garden of palms. A concrete dinosaur wards the graves of children, standing amongst a hundred metallic windwills. A thousand spikes of crimson, mauve, pink and white dot the stone fields; roses, wysteria and oleander brought here as offerings, now seeding and blooming wild.

 

A yellowed stretch of native grass and shrub shimmers under the bruised sky. It wasn't planned this way, but now, it too is a memorial. Its clayey soil can never be dug. Blue smoke rises from crisping gum leaves, there were once people here who did not weigh their dead with stones. It took decades for the invading culture to catch them up. The crematorium has chimneys in the Mission style. It caught fire in 2008 and the corpses had to be evacuated.

 

Who would make an angel out of stone? Such things should surely be fashioned of glass, or gauze and feathers. Nonetheless, these earthbound beauties stand upon rank after rank of slabs and plinths, exhorting those beneath to rise again. And so they may. On warm mornings, a black oil smears the lawns: the layman might think it the trail of a broken mower or even vandalism, but such is not the case. No casket retards the phenomenon, no embalming is proof, and today is very, very warm.

 

Nonetheless, we are determined. Sweating in shirt sleeves, we follow the roads winding round and round, until we find Hawthorne Avenue, where the ceremony is about to commence. As the smoke wisps upwards, people stand under an awning and speak of community. They remark upon the first internment, a pauper named John Whalan. The last took place yesterday, for today there are tours running in the crematorium and the chapels are all filled with historical displays. The parade comes next: standing next to the food booth run by the Greek Orthodox trust, we watch the tableaux. The first is a woman dressed in black from head to toe, bonnet, jewellery and hoop skirt hovering above the tarmac. How can she bear it, in this heat? Her outline shimmers like a mirage. Behind her come the carriages, as dark and shining as obsidian. Do they make ground shake beneath our feet, or is it the black and oily presence of the dead, compressing under feathered hooves and clattering wheels? The wheels roll, and now they are of black rubber and the curving doors are metal. The hearses pour onwards as the pipe band wails and thrums.

 

But what if we should turn away? A crypt door bears the sign of the ouroboros. George and Eva Pitt Wood were not husband and wife, but widowed brother and unmarried sister. Passing down the slope, past a hundred such stories, we see the glint of the Serpentine at the bottom of its restored channel. It too winds, past palm trees and stolen urns, returned a generation later after the thief was dead. Perhaps it will be enough to save his soul, perhaps not. Here stones tilt and tiles buckle around exploring roots. Here bushes burst from the graves that once held them and threaten passers-by with thorns. Here, bugle lillies grow as large as trumpets and bright as the hope of paradise. Here the reeds and grasses rise to the waist and the path of the mowers is as clear as sky-writing. Here the Rookwood goat and the Rookwood cows roam the maze of legendry, along with cohorts of perverts and Satanists. Once, the caretakers found the remains of a dog, a cat, a fish and a bird, describing what could have been a pentacle. There may have been Satanists, but there was definitely once a fox.

 

But now, there is not even the slightest sound from the fete we left behind. The crest of the hill can no longer be seen, in any direction. We are in the maze now. At the gravelled crossroads, a white bird awaits. It is a guardian, and if we fail to solves its riddle, we shall be lost amongst graves whose date can no longer be read. The black birds sit on twisted boughs and the collapsing roof of a rest house reserved for ladies before spiders. We have glimpsed these birds before, by the side of the road, but there are more of them now. They were here long before the black cars and black carriages: perhaps longer even than the people who burned the leaves. They have always been here. Why else was this site chosen?

 

Proportions begin to shift, space expanding and contracting before our cloud-dazzled eyes. A discarded apple is revealed as gigantic, a globe with golden skin peeling away from the rot beneath. Human bodies are shrunken to dolls and given daisies for eyes. Plastic reduces a stately tomb to a take-away container, rib cages levitate and snatches of text emerge from every surface: beloved father, mother, husband, daughter, son and wife... Greater love hath none... Not death but love... the bird blocking our way now is gigantic, black plumage iridescent with green and purple, a heart caught in its talons. It shrieks triumphantly, but all at once, the answer to the riddle is clear.

 

We break out onto tarmac once again, our feet stained by a peculiar pallor of dust. The atmosphere is as hot and dense as the inside of a kiln, and the hour is late, oh so much later than we thought. The information stand is deserted now, as much of a relic as the Pitt Wood crypt. The slope where we left the car is sliding now, piling up against the fence, the green-grey turf rucking up like carpet. Our wheels spin in the rising tide of oil, spraying black droplets, and then we are moving. We slide out the gate with seconds to spare.

 

This is a place where the dead are remembered with love. It is the living who must be forgotten, with all their feuds, their ambition, passion and hurt. At four o'clock the gates must close, even on a day like this. Then will great flocks of rooks rise from the maze like black whirlwinds, to erase all trace of life for another night. We might have lasted a while, forced our way into a chapel or mausoleum, but sooner or later, they would have found us: they, or the other guardians. All that would have been left are a few nondescript remnants, that might after all have been bleached sticks or water-rounded pebbles.


Neither this nor the photo above are open license. If you want to reproduce the text then please ask me. Permission for use of the photo must be sought from the media department of the Rookwood Cemetery Trust.

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Blessed solstice! I am in an especially celebratory mood, because my poem "Vanth - A Myth Derived" is in the new edition of *Eternal Haunted Summer*, an online magazine of pagan songs and tales. Accepting the piece, the editor said that they didn't get much in the way of Etruscan mythology. The poem itself explains why.

This piece came out the research I conducted for a short story as yet unpublished, that brought home to me just how shaky is the base for all our ideas about Ancient Rome, let alone less such cultures that were less self-aggrandising. Our entire knowledge of the death goddess Libitina, for instance, rests upon maybe four passing references in Horace, Festus and Juvenal, a longer entry in Plutarch and the miraculously surviving regulations for the conduct of undertakers in the city of Puteoli. Scholars have long thought her an adaptation of an Etruscan death deity, which led me to Vanth. About whom even less is known, but at least we have some tomb paintings and this exquisite bronze.


Vanth
is a name carved in an Etruscan tomb,
a bronze woman whose arms are wreathed in snakes,
the beating of rainbow-shaded wings,
the stranger at the banquet,
a torch-bearer in dark places,
who comes to announce the end.

That’s what we know, from statue, vase and wall.
The Etruscans did not write her story down
in any way that we may read today...


So yes, I write free verse every now and then.

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