2/9 Still Life: Arlington National Cemetery

Is that the bugle?

I sit up and listen. Sure enough! I throw off the blankets and leap off the couch, running to the balcony to hear it.

What a view! There’s the Washington Monument on the misty rose horizon.
My local host, also my old college friend, appears from his bedroom and heads for the kitchen.
“‘Reveille’!” I sing out. “Like the trumpeter on F Troop!”
“Who, Dobbs?” He shakes his head and laughs. “Nah. This one’s a recording.”
“Oh.” Even recorded, it’s a trailing plaintive sound. On this vacation it’s also a daily reminder that Fort Myer and the Cemetery are practically at the doorstep waiting to be explored. “I’d like to hike around there today.”
“Ok.” He pours the coffee and loads some files in his briefcase. “Take along that green moss you grew in my refrigerator.”
“My mung sprouts! Yes, I’ll bring those along for lunch. May I take a couple of your leftover baked yams too?”
“Knock yourself out. Call the office if you need anything.” He grabs his car keys and heads for the elevator.

Water jar. Yams, sprouts, bananas, almonds, Whole Foods rye bread. Out the door.
Here’s the clean orderly Metro with the waffley acoustic ceiling to cut down noise, and the flashing sign telling us how many seconds left until the train is due.
On the Blue Line train outbound, lots of commuters are in military uniform.
One commuter isn’t, but acts as if he were; he’s my seat neighbor, a craggy fit-looking man with a silver crewcut and upright posture and stern face. He snaps an order at me. “Young woman! I want to know the exact meaning of that symbol you are wearing!”
“Here you are, Sir.” I give him a smile and hand him my necklace. “This is called a Tree of Life. It’s the symbol for The Living Bank, the national organ donor registry. Any medical rescue professional seeing this will know I’m a registered donor, and they can turn the medal over to call the toll-free number on the back and tell them there are organs on the way.”
The man stares at the medal, both sides. His eyes fill with tears. “Thank you, Young Lady. I believe you: you LOOK like an organ donor.”

Here’s the stop.
The boulevard leading in is so grand and clean, you’d think it led to the Kingdom in the Book of Revelations. Over 20 burials a day, says the sign; 290,000 graves. [Note: It’s 400,000 now, on 624 acres.]
Early Monday morning, not a tourist or car in sight. At the Visitor Center I view some photographs and pick up a map, and set out for the morning’s walk.

The winter day is beautiful, dry and clear. It’s so calm, not a leaf rustles on the great oak trees. There’s not a soul around, no sound of humans but a distant jet. Not even a bird or a squirrel.

A little flame is burning for the Kennedys and two children, Patrick and Daughter.
A little holly bush marks a memorial for Major Glenn Miller, missing in action since he led his band for the troops in 1944.

After three hours I take off my sweatshirt for a cushion, and settle down for a tasty lunch.
That concludes our adventure; it’s time to go back to the house. The map here points to lots of prominent landmarks; but where are they around me? I walk a long way, checking the map every hundred paces or so, but nothing matches up. So I strike out crosswise for another quarter hour, still checking the map, but the signs in view aren’t written down on the paper. Then I curve around and try a new direction. Still no go.

An hour’s gone by. Huh. Where were the Kennedys again?
That monument all the way over there looks important. It must be on the map. So I head that way on a little path across a long valley of white headstones.
Left, right, left, right.
The sun is getting hot and makes my eyes ache.
White marble. Black wrought iron. Fawn oaks. Blue blue sky.
The valley is longer than it looked. That monument isn’t getting any closer, but these identical grave markers are marching in neat rows, converging toward me.

Now there are horse hooves echoing in the sky. Hooves! Not cowboy movie hooves gallumping in threes, but trimmed hooves clicking along in step.
Horses are interesting animals, but hooves by themselves are a little eerie when nothing is moving for as far as eye can see.
Then all the hooves stop at once.
Silence, stillness.
Where am I?
White, black, fawn, blue.
White, black, fawn, blue.
White, black, fawn, blue.
290,000 people. What if life turned out the other way; what if the wars ended and they all came home, and could be here today with me? Young guys joking and throwing acorns, old ones hanging out in sunshine telling brave stories?
(Note: Arlington National Cemetery is for all kinds of military personnel including retired ones, and their families too. Plenty of people here really have enjoyed long peaceful lives. But that occurred to me only later, safely back in bed on my host’s couch.) Off the trail with the sun beating directly on my head, surrounded by all these headstones in their sheer numbers and marbleness, weighed down undersky, I feel small and soft and light-headed. I put down my sweatshirt and sit on the ground.

A blue jay lands beside me.
He wears all four colors of this landscape on his back. It does me good to see a moving creature here. Jays are wary birds, but this one isn’t scared of me at all. We sit a while, a Still Life with bird and organ donor.
Opening my pack I show him some mung sprouts and leave them on the grass for him to eat.

That cheers me up enough to get me moving.
I strike out for a little grove of trees to rest my eyes in coolness, blunder on in among the evergreens, and freeze.
Seven white horses with carriage are standing at attention, bright beings in dark shade.
Twenty steps away there are several young men in uniform, conferring very quietly.
I keep my distance, looking on; they must be on parade display so often, it would be wrong to interrupt their rest.
Then all at once in a flash they’re on the move to a funeral. The men mount up. One hums a little rhyme to the horses so they’ll strike out in step.
On the Cemetery’s website you can find their picture, the Caisson Platoon. But the photos don’t tell you their names, or what they like to eat, or what breed of horse they are, or how the men tell them apart. Pictures don’t show you how perfect white horses coming from dark trees look like a dream, flowing overground, manes and tails in shades of cream and pearl, to guide another soul along the road to Revelation Kingdom.
They disappear. World and map click back together. I’m found again.

11:00 p.m. My host calls from the bedroom: “Taps!”
So I leap off the couch to the balcony and city lights.
“Day is done,” the Cemetery bugle says. “Gone the sun. From the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.” Playing tranquility to 290,000 and one.

About maryangelis

Hello Readers! (= Здравствуйте, Читатели!) The writer lives in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths and the English and Russian languages, working in an archive by day and writing at night. Her walk in the world is normally one human being and one small detail after another. Then she goes home and types about it all until the soup is done.
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