Jennifer first discovered the glade during a walk in the early spring. She did not know what lead her to turn from her familiar path along the brook. Perhaps it was the faint traces of a diverging path that she had never noticed before, or maybe it was the especially sweet song of the bird she had heard off in the woods to her left. In any case, the faint trace of a path soon widened to a narrow but well defined woods road that twisted back and forth up away from the river toward the top of a narrow side valley. The glade was an opening at the head of the valley, where the hills rose up on all sides except for a narrow entrance.
In the glade, the headstones stood in concentric circles. Around the edges, where the floor of the glade met the steep, surrounding hillside were the entrances to tombs, which had been cut into the sides of the slope. In the center of the glade, stone benches formed an amphitheater before an altar carved from a single massive slab of polished black stone. Behind the altar stood a cross carved from the same black stone as the altar. The most recent dates on the graves were nearly 100 years ago.
Jennifer had looked into the town histories and archives and found no record of the place. Even the oldest maps listed the location merely as a portion of the town common land that surrounded the village. So much the better, she thought. It will be my secret. Yet she wondered, with no one to maintain it, why had the place not fallen into disrepair, or been reclaimed by the forest.
All of the abandoned cemeteries she knew were overgrown with weeds and brush. The stones were broken and stood at odd angles. Many of these were less than half of the apparent age of this forgotten place. Yet here, the stones stood straight and unblemished by time. A low thick carpet of wild flowers filled the glade. Though the glade was surrounded by thick forest, the trees stopped abruptly just behind the tomb entrances and not so much as a sapling grew further toward the center. It was as if the place was so sacred, the trees themselves stood back in respect and did not even let their children venture in.
Jennifer had come here often since she had first discovered the glade. She seemed drawn to the place as if by some unknown force. Often she would set off for a walk, intending some completely other course and would end up here just the same. She also found herself staying longer each visit, to the point where she had wear a watch and mind the time so that she would not be missed. The last thing she wanted was for others to grow suspicious and follow her here.
She was not sure what it was about the place, but here she always felt at peace. Whatever troubles or fears her life in the village had burdened her with seemed to melt away the moment she entered the glade. She would stroll quietly among the stones, reading the names of people whose remains had surely long since turned to dust. Yet, as she read the names, calculated their ages and read the epitaphs, she began to imagine their lives and personal stories and they seemed alive in this place.
Here was a man who died at 96, (perhaps an old farmer who suffered a heart attack while haying). There was his wife who died 4 months later (It is said that old married couples have lives so entwined that when one dies the other often follows soon after). Here was a whole family who died on the same day ( a catastrophic illness or other disaster, or was it more purposeful than that). One stone in particular repeatedly drew her attention. It marked the grave of a young woman named Katherine Winston, who had died in the spring of her twenty first year. She was the same age as Jennifer was now. Her epitaph read "A bride of Christ; at peace in heaven."
Here, at least, was one link to some history she knew. A hundred years ago, everyone accepted heaven as a much better place than earthly life. Death was not treated as a loss, but rather as a passage to an infinitely more wonderful life. Funerals were not a time for grief, but a celebration of the fact that the deceased had ascended to glory in heaven. Death was not a tragedy to be avoided but a blessed release to be accepted as a gift.
Among certain religious orders of the time, suicide was a common, accepted practice. It was even in some cases ritualized. Young women who chose to die sometimes celebrated the event as a wedding. They were proclaimed "Brides of Christ". The ceremony would be planned with all the care that weddings are given today. The woman would dress in her wedding gown and process down the aisle attended by bridesmaids who would also be her pallbearers. The ceremony would include a communion service during which the bride would drink wine which contained a lethal poison. She would then lie in her coffin and, within a few minutes, she would drift quietly into a deepening sleep that ended in death. She would be carried from the church in a hearse decorated as a wedding coach to the cemetery for burial.
Jennifer stood at the foot of the grave and imagined the young woman lying at her feet. Dressed in her bridal gown, she lay peacefully, hands folded at her waist, holding a bouquet of spring flowers. Her long golden hair lay neatly over her shoulders (Jennifer knew her hair was golden, like her own). On her face was a faint smile of perfect contentment.
The image in her mind filled Jennifer with envy. She wished she to lived in a time as accepting of death, when she could, if she chose, walk to her death as joyously as a bride to her wedding altar. Sometimes she would lie on the stone altar gazing up at the blue sky, watching the clouds float over, listening to the breeze in the trees around the glade. She would hold a bouquet of wild flowers, imagining herself to be a "Bride of Christ" listening to her funeral mass, waiting only for the final release of death. The first time she had done this, she had been amazed at how natural it felt. She had been raised with the idea that death was an ugly horrid thing to be avoided at all cost. But this seemed perfectly natural and beautiful beyond belief.
It was while she was lying thus, that she first heard the voices. They were just a whisper, almost as if the wind and leaves had organized to form words instead of their usual random rustling. She sat up and looked around, but saw no one. Had she really heard something? Or was it her imagination? She lay down again and listened. At first there was just the wind in the trees. But as before the sound organized to words that slowly became clearer in her mind. It was as if a crowd was gathered all around.
The words repeated over and over, changing only in sequence. "Jennifer Jennifer, blessed, rest, rest, peace, Jennifer" they whispered.
She found herself drifting away, being lulled to sleep by the whispered voices. It was as if she were starting to float held up by something as in substantial as air, soft as a cloud, yet as irresistible as a great torrent. It was only with great difficulty that she roused herself back to the here and now of the glade. It was as if some small voice called out: "Yes! I will come, but not yet, not now."
At first she had found the experience frightening, but gradually, as it was repeated, she began to feel a great sense of peace each time she let herself drift away. For a few minutes, all her cares would simply melt away. She had the feeling that she was being watched by a thousand eyes. They saw all she was, within and without, and gave back complete and unconditional acceptance and love. She awoke more refreshed and feeling more alive then any she ever had after a full nights sleep at home.
Gradually, the trances deepened and she found herself drifting further and further away, floating through the warm and formless mist, lead on by the welcoming voices. Always she felt like she was drifting toward a goal that she never quite reached. Always she longed to stay, to drift on to what ever goal awaited. Yet always she was forced back.
Throughout the summer she visited the glade as often as the weather and her duties as daughter of the governor allowed. She spent many hours walking among the graves and studying the stones. She would collect flowers from the woods and lay them on the graves. She always felt a special need to tend Katherine's grave. From whatever she managed to bring, she saved the best and made sure that beautiful flowers always adorned her headstone. "I hope that someone will do the same for me" she said to herself.
The weather turned cool as summer turned to fall. Her trips to the glade became less frequent. It was a cool yet beautifully sunny day in late October when she made what she somehow knew would be her last trip to the glade until spring. The brilliantly colored leaves danced at the edges of her vision as she lay on the great stone, warmed by the brilliant sun. The swirling colors blurred to a rainbow of light and merged with the formless mist as she drifted away on the now familiar voices. Further and longer she floated, then she ever had before.
Suddenly images began to take shape from the mist. She was standing on the edge of the glade. There in the center was the stone slab table, but all of the grave stones were gone. People in dressed in their Sunday best strolled in the bright sun, or sat in small groups amidst the flowers and grass.
She saw a young woman, about her own age, standing where Katherine's grave should have been. She was dressed in a long white satin dress, long blonde hair fell in loose curls about her shoulders like a golden cloud. She held a bouquet of flowers that Jennifer recognized as the bouquet she had placed on Katherine's grave that morning. The woman lifted the flowers to her face and drank in the sweet fragrance. She raised her eyes and, as her gaze met Jennifer's, a warm, welcoming smile lit up her face. She raised her hand and beckoned Jennifer to come. The others too turned toward her, smiling. It was as if they were greeting an expected friend.
Jennifer longed to step forward into the sunshine. She knew she would be welcomed by all. She felt their voices calling: "Come Jennifer come, Come and be a peace"
She tried to step forward, but felt like her feet were frozen to the ground. She looked down, and there at her feet was a rectangular pit. At the far end was a white marble stone inscribed with her own name.
Jennifer tried again to move her feet, but she stumbled forward into the yawning grave. She was surrounded by blackness as she fell. All around her was the musty sweet smell of newly turned earth
She awoke in the glade and everything was as it had been. She was alone in the glade. The graves stood in their familiar neat circles. The multi-colored autumn leaves danced overhead.
Jennifer slowly rose from the stone table and looked toward Katherine's grave where she had seen the woman standing. The white marble seemed to glow in the bright sun. Then she noticed the flowers. She had lain the fresh bouquet on the ground several feet in front of the stone. Now the flowers stood propped against the white marble stone.
Suddenly Jennifer understood that they were all real, all of those whose names were memorialized in the stones. She felt like she belonged here, with them. She knew also that the only way to come and stay was to die, but that death could be as easy as drifting away into a cloud of warm welcoming mist.
Jennifer walked to the far side of the glade. She walked past the tomb entrances circling back toward the entrance to the glade. Each bore a family name carved into a stone block over the entrance. Beside the door, on a bronze plaque were the names of those entombed within. All this Jennifer knew from her previous explorations. She also knew that all of the doors were firmly locked. Yet, on today she noticed that one door stood slightly ajar. She read the name over the door: " STEWART " was carved in bold letters into the granite block.
She thought it strange that she had never noticed the one tomb that bore her family name. But perhaps it was because the block was partially hidden by a branch, the leaves of which had already fallen, revealing the name inscribed.
She read down the long list on the bronze plague to the right of the entrance. The first names where of people who had died about 200 years ago. The most recent death dates were about a hundred years ago. She assumed they were relatives, yet none of the names were familiar. How could it be that some branch of the family had buried their dead here for a hundred years and yet there was no record of the place in the family histories? Suddenly her eye fixed upon one name in the list: "Jennifer Stewart" Her own! The date of birth "1964" The year of her birth! It was a hundred years more recent than any other on the list. Yet it was as worn and stained with age as all the others. The date of death? There was no date of death. Just a vacant space.
She pushed on the door and found that it yielded easily to her touch. Silently, reverently, she stepped into the shadowed vault. The entrance room was only dimly illuminated by the light which penetrated from the outside. The sun was high overhead and could not penetrate directly into this recess. Straight ahead, an archway marked the entrance to a tunnel which sloped downward into the hill an disappeared in the darkness... Above the arch were carved the words: "Peace to all who enter here". To the left, statues of several saints stood in niches on the wall. To the right, a small altar of white marble stood before a golden cross. Into the wall above the cross were carved the words "To conquer death, you only have to die".
Without a light Jennifer could explore no further. She stood for a long time, gazing at the altar, reading and re-reading the words inscribed above. At last she turned and stepped back into the sun-light, drawing the heavy door closed behind her.
Shortly after this visit the weather turned bad and Jennifer was unable to visit the site. Then, shortly before Christmas, her parents announced that they had arranged her marriage to the son of the regional Governor. He was known to be the heir to a vast fortune, but also to be arrogant, violent, and verbally abusive. Jennifer knew that she could no more marry such a man than she could sprout wings and fly. Yet she also knew she was not to be given any say in the matter. Reluctantly she agreed to her parents wishes, but secretly she began to make plans for her escape to the glade.
As soon as the snow melted, she resumed her visits to the Glade. This time it was with a renewed sense of purpose. While in the village, she pretended to be happily preparing for her wedding. To be sure, Jennifer seemed to all outward appearances, to be a radiantly happy bride to be. People marveled at her, wondering how she could be so happy while preparing to be married to such a known beast. In fact, the idea that she was going to the Glade to stay filled her with such joy, that she was happy, more happy than she could ever remember.
On her first spring visit, she brought a lantern and explored what she had come to think of as her family vault. She found that the tunnel descended into the hill side and connected a series of chambers aligned like beads on a string. In the first chamber, a casket lay on a stone bier in the middle of the room. Withered stems of flowers lay about the casket and on the floor surrounding the bier. Four tall stands, one at each corner of the bier, still held the melted stubs of candles. Similar candle stands stood around the perimeter of the chamber. Smaller holders were placed in niches in the walls. Each was tied with satin ribbons which were now yellowed with age.
Further down the walls of the chambers were lined with alcoves each of which held a single casket. By brushing the dust from the brass plaques on several caskets, Jennifer learned that the earliest burials were in the upper chambers, and the dates became progressively more recent in the further chambers. The last chamber contained a number of empty alcoves. Here too, several empty caskets lay on the floor, in preparation for the next to come.
On returning to the first chamber, Jennifer brushed the dust from the casket in the middle of the room. The name was that of a woman. A quick calculation revealed that she had been 35 years old when she died. The date of death was the most recent Jennifer had noticed. Apparently, this special bier was reserved for the last to die. Jennifer surmised that the body would be moved to one of the alcoves when the next family member died.
Jennifer stood for a long time beside the casket. Something inside told her that it was wrong to disturb the dead, but other voices called too: "Come, look and see what death can be". Finally she gave in to her curiosity. She released the latches and lifted the lid.
What she saw filled her with awe! She had expected to see nothing but bones, but due to the dryness of the vault or some remarkable mortuary skill or some special magic of the place, the body was almost perfectly preserved. As the name plate indicated she was somewhat older than Jennifer, but still very lovely. Brilliant red hair spread over the satin pillow and draped about her shoulders, framing the face of one who seemed peacefully asleep. She wore a long ivory satin dress, only slightly yellowed with age. Her hands, folded neatly at her waist, held a single white rose. It was hard for Jennifer to believe that the woman before her had died almost a hundred years ago and not yesterday.
As she stood, gazing at the open casket and the woman lying so peacefully within, Jennifer began to imagine herself lying there, surrounded by bouquets of flowers, the room illuminated by dancing candlelight. The image in her mind filled her with pleasure, and she knew that this is where she would come when she at last came to stay. "Soon, very soon" she smiled to herself as she slowly closed the casket.
The following weeks were a blur of activity. In the town, she busily played the roll of the bride-to-be, making plans for the wedding she knew would not happen. In reality, it was only choosing her gown that brought her much pleasure. She finally found an old fashioned style gown of ivory satin, rather like the gown worn by the woman in the casket. Her mother approved saying "You will look lovely walking down the aisle dressed in that" Jennifer placed her hands at her waist and gazed into the mirror. "Yes, I will be beautiful" she said, but instead of walking down the aisle, she was imagining herself lying in her casket.
In the glade she was making her real preparations. With great effort, she removed the casket from the bier and dragged it down the corridor to the final chamber and placed it in one of the empty alcoves. "Rest in peace, forever" she whispered to the woman when she had at last pushed the casket into place.
She ***********ed one of the empty caskets from last chamber and dragged it back to the what Jennifer now thought of as the funeral chapel. She cleared away the old flowers and swept away the dust and cobwebs. She brought new candles for all the holders and replaced the satin bows. She spread a satin cloth over the bier, then lifted the casket, her casket, into place.
She borrowed a diamond stylus from a jeweler in the town, and Inscribed the brass plate on the Casket:
Jennifer Katherine Stewart
April 25, 1964 - June 12, 1985
June 12: The date of her wedding, and, if her dream became reality, the day she would die.
Below this she scribed the words from Katherine's gravestone:
" At peace forever - A bride of Christ "
She completed these preparations a week before the wedding date. Now there was nothing to do but wait. The week seemed to last forever. It seemed every night was another reception in honor of her and her "fiancee". At last it was the day before the wedding. There was the rehearsal, followed by another big party. She managed to leave the party early, saying she needed rest before the big day. In truth she slept not at all that night.
Jennifer rose an hour before dawn. She quietly folded the gown and veil that had been delivered the day before and placed them in a large cloth bag. She added her satin slippers and her silk undergarments. Lastly she took the small vial from the stand beside her bed and added it to the items in her bag. Then she slipped quietly out into the still dark and silent streets.
The sun was just appearing over the eastern hills as she left the town and entered the woods. The morning was alive with bird song. The air was heavy with the scent of wild flowers. Jennifer remembered it was just like this that morning over a year ago when she had first found the Glade. Every blade of grass and bright flower seemed clear and distinct, as if, though she passed a hundred thousand, she would remember each individually. She wondered if it was always true that one seemed more aware of the world close to the time to leave it.
With deliberate steps she followed the path along the stream and took the still hidden but now familiar fork to the right. She paused only when she reached the entrance to the Glade. Far below she heard the bells of the church. Soon they would come looking, to help her prepare for the wedding. The cry would pass through the town and the search would be on. But she doubted they would ever find her. Even if they did it would be much too late.
She turned and strolled through the narrow entrance into the glade. She took her bundle to the vault and placed it inside the door, then stepped back outside. She had one last preparation to make. On this early summer morning, flowers grew in abundance, especially at the edge of the woods around the perimeter of the glade. She found a stand of white lilies and gathered a bouquet which she placed on Katherine's grave. She collected two more bouquets of lilies, daisies and assorted other flowers which she placed on the large stone table. She then gathered all the flowers she could hold and carried them to the vault.
With her lantern, she descended to the chapel. The first thing she did was light all the candles. Soon the room was glowing with candlelight. Jennifer then brought the flowers she had gathered and placed them around the casket on the bier. She placed more flowers on the floor around the bier and in the niches on the walls. The room soon filled with their sweet fragrance.
Jennifer stood back to admire her preparations. The candles filled the room with a soft radiance. Reflecting their light, the satin lining of the casket seemed to glow with its own luminescence. The flowers filled the room with soft color and sweet fragrance. "Yes" she smiled "It is just right". Then she walked back up the passage to where she had left her bundle.
She removed her clothes and stepped naked out of the vault and tossed them into the weeds at the edge of the Glade. It seemed wrong to leave these old things here. Then she returned to the vault and began to dress. She unfolded the bundle and slipped on the smooth silk undergarments and white bridal stockings. She placed the satin slippers on her feet. Then she lifted the satin gown, slipped it over her head and arms, and let it fall like water, flowing down over her body. She brushed and arranged her long golden hair, and lastly, she fitted her veil into place. She was ready.
"So this is it" she said to herself. She stood in quietly for a moment, listening to the silence of the vault. Out of the silence she again began to hear the whispered voices: "Come ... Peace... Jennifer Come... Welcome"
From the flowers she had reserved one perfect white rose. This she now took in her hands along with the small vial. She tried to think of some appropriate music for a processional, but all she cold think of was the traditional wedding march. She began to hum this to herself as she walked slowly down the passage. She walked with the measured step together step, in time to the processional march, just as she had practiced at the wedding reception. She imagined she was walking down the aisle of the church, following six bridesmaids in their black satin dresses. Her imaginary bridesmaids turned to the side, each in their turn and took their positions at each end of the open casket. Jennifer imagined the priest starting the service:
"Dearly beloved we are gathered here in the site of God, to bring our beloved sister, Jennifer, to the perfect peace known only to those whom God brings home..."
She approached the bier at the center of the chapel. She stepped up on the small stool she had brought and into the casket. Then she sat down arranging her satin gown neatly about her legs. Then with only a brief pause, she took the small vial, removed the lid, and drank the dark, bitter liquid within. She set the vial on the bier, lowered her veil over her face and lay down, holding the rose in her hands.
The poison took only a few minutes to work. Jennifer began to feel dizzy. All the while she heard the voices, swirling around. She felt herself drifting away as if floating on a feathery cloud. Then suddenly there was a sharp pain in her chest, then nothing. Someone watching would have seem her face contort with a brief spasm of pain, then relax to an expression of perfect serenity, as her last breath escaped slowly from her lips.
Jennifer looked up. Two women were standing over her. One was the woman she had seen lying on the casket on this very bier. The other was the young woman with the blonde hair she had seen in her vision, standing by Katherine's grave. They extended their hands, helping her to rise. As she sat up Jennifer could see that they were arrayed in white gowns much like her own.
"I am Elizabeth" said the older woman "And this is Katherine" They both smiled warmly.
"You did that very well" said Katherine "But come now. Everyone is eager to meet you"
With their help, Jennifer climbed out of the casket. "What has happened?" Jennifer asked "Am I" She paused struggling with the word "dead?"
"Well, that is for you to decide" responded Elizabeth "You have certainly changed." She nodded toward the casket.
Jennifer followed her gaze and stood, looking as in a mirror, at her own body, adorned as a beautiful bride, lying serenely in her casket.
"But, it's for you to decide if you are dead" remarked Katherine "I think you'll find that in many ways you are more alive than ever."
Then she added: "Thank you, by the way, for the flowers. They are lovely"
Jennifer turned to Elizabeth "I hope it was okay that I moved your casket"
"Yes" Elizabeth responded "I knew that it was time. In time, another will come and move your body as well. It is the way here"
Jennifer smiled at her new friends, turned from the bier, and followed them out into the sunshine.