There’s an old, neglected smallpox cemetery in the national park in my town that you have to know someone who knows someone who knows where it is, and one winter when I didn’t realize how much I needed to take long walks in the woods I decided to try to find it.
I’d heard it was somewhere between Duck Pond and Bennett Pond, which already sounds like I know something about the natural world around me. Before this, though, I didn’t know the ponds existed, much less their names. I live in Massachusetts. I’ve lived in my town for more than a decade, and I have a job as a newspaper reporter. It’s my business to know what’s going on. Still, I didn’t know that the burn dump, which is capped over now, sloped down in a charred mess to the water’s edge. I didn’t know that all sorts of makeshift homes – rusted furniture arranged in a circle, a tarp strung in the trees, one homemade shack – were less than a mile from my house.
I started looking for the cemetery one day at the edge of the landfill. I went up and over the ridge of a sand dune, past scrubby pines and along the side of Bennett Pond, which was socked in with ice, all before I became convinced that a particularly vicious form of a mean man would come out of the woods and attack me. I can only go so far in the woods before I have to turn around and retrace my steps. On that first day I came back on the same trail, past the pond and the foundation of an old building, which might have been the old ice house. Back in the 1800s, there was a Mr. Bennett who cut blocks of ice out of the pond and sold them in town. I didn’t make any progress on the cemetery that day. Two park rangers I’d asked a few days earlier didn’t know where it was, and neither did my surefire source in town. She knew someone to call but couldn’t figure out the phone number.
I’m a coward in the woods. I already said that, I think. I forge along a new path, head up, alive to the scent of pine, the frozen silence, thorns scraping against my jacket, ice patches jumped over, scrambling upward and suddenly – it’s too quiet – I come to the end of my confidence. I turn and hurry back, overcome, slightly panicky and half-trotting, avoiding eye contact with trees, far too deep into unknown territory. The good thing is that the footpaths in these woods intersect with bike trails and fire roads, which at least gives the illusion that you’re near civilization: pavement, civilization, trail signs, civilization, the landfill, more civilization, and when all else fails there’s the sewage treatment plant plunked on top of the burn dump like an international space station.
The first time I came across the homemade shack it was yards ahead of me on a path along the top of the dune. I stopped. I yelled out. Someone had lashed together window screens and wrought iron fencing to make four walls. The roof was covered with fake grass, and the whole thing was about the size of a double outhouse. There was no movement inside, and it would have been awfully breezy if someone were in there. I didn’t have the courage to walk past, though.
On my walks over the next several weeks, out of nowhere I would come across a frying pan in a tree or a black snake asleep on a path. No, that wasn’t a black snake. It was a deflated bicycle tube. I took comfort in finding horseshit to avoid (more signs of civilization) or even a tossed-off plastic cup. It was the old cellar holes that were the creepiest, though, a clearing among the trees, a deep depression covered in pine needles, unsettling and vacated a long time ago. I would push through briar-crossed paths that were barely visible, up and over hills, past other cellar holes, more branches, more moss and the beckoning of fainter paths. I was going through a break-up that had been coming on for a year, one that I’d felt but not named. I’d been caught unaware, flummoxed, a pairing, a trio really, three friends, turned on its head. Now I was on the outside. My boots cracked the ice on lowland paths that would be too wet to walk in the summer. I tipped my head back and took photographs of branches against the sky. Birds fluttered away in the brush.
Near the smallpox cemetery, from what I’d read, was the cellar hole of the hospital, called the pest house back then, where people with smallpox were sent to get better – or not. My town wasn’t at the forefront of smallpox vaccinations, and I hesitate to use the word ‘hospital.’ In town records the pest house was described as the poorest and most disgraceful of all the places in town where people with smallpox were sent. Two dozen people were infected in 1872, despite a vaccination discovered by an English doctor 75 years earlier. The doctor had heard that dairymaids who were infected with cowpox never died of smallpox. As a test, he infected a young boy with cowpox and then exposed the boy to smallpox to see if it could be prevented.
My mother tells me that when she was growing up in West Virginia – she was born in 1927 – everyone was vaccinated against smallpox, but to ward off polio they all wore a sack of herbs around their necks. By the time I came along in 1958 it had been nine years since the last smallpox case in the United States. It was declared eradicated across the world in 1980.
* * *
One of the few photos I’d seen of the smallpox cemetery showed a single pale headstone, a square post about knee-high, numbered, nameless and half-submerged in what could only be pond water or wetlands. Based on that, one day, I came off the ridge of the dune, and pushed down the slope through brush and thorns to the edge of Duck Pond. Among the reeds the ice looked like smashed eyeglasses and the backwaters had soaked the ground and left tree roots exposed. I came across a low post, concrete and covered with a layer of moss that I scraped off with my heel. But there were no markings on it and no other posts around. It didn’t seem like the cemetery. It did look like it was a dump from a long time ago. I imagined people from town carting their junk along the path – bedsprings, metal boxes, engines, signs, cans and barrels. They were breathing heavily from the strain, and they heaved their junk into the woods or over the side of the dune, glad to get rid of it, wiping their hands on their pants, and in the tumble down the hill the junk was caught, snared – out of sight, out of mind – and now wedged forever at the base of the hardiest trees.
The smallpox hospital was a dumping ground too, from what I read. I imagine the sick being carried into the woods, much like an engine block or metal cabinet, out along the path, hastily dropped off at the hospital, the pest house. It was probably men who had to do the job, wiping their hands on their pants, trotting, rushing back to their houses, fearful, hungry, maybe tossing away handkerchiefs they’d tied over their mouths and burning their clothes in their yards.
A few weeks passed on my walks and then I was near the homemade shack again. This time I got closer, still hesitant. Obviously here was the home of all the mean men who could possibly grab me. I called out. No one answered. I walked up and looked inside. It was dark, dank and spacious with a lawn chair and overturned white plastic buckets for seating. In the summer homeless men lie on the beach in town. This could be their evening quarters. I was high up on the path. I could see the water towers and the convenience store, and the chapel of a cemetery that belongs to one of the churches. Down the hill, though, close to me, between the branches on the west side of Duck Pond, I could see a glen, an inviting glen, leafy and quiet and in a stand of white-skinned trees, sheltered almost, and like a cathedral. There was a path straight down the hill that I could have taken but I didn’t. It was late and getting dark, and I avoided the obvious, that this could be the smallpox cemetery, down there, down that path.
Maybe I wanted to keep my tiny adventure going. Maybe I wanted to prolong my ruminations. I’d let myself get boxed in, I realized, with someone else’s likes and dislikes, who to gossip about, who to ignore, smiling when I didn’t feel like it.
I headed home.
A few months earlier my Uncle Steve had died. He was overweight and on oxygen a long time because of his smoking. He’d been in the hospital for two weeks and was moved in the last days to a nursing home. His wife, my Aunt Doris, two of my cousins and another aunt and uncle were all there, by chance, to see him take a last breath. This was not far from where he and my mother grew up. Uncle Steve was buried in our family’s section of a large mountainside cemetery that’s mowed and tidy and trim, and taken care of by perpetual care. My mother always orders flat gravestones so they’ll survive even if the cemetery goes to pot, which isn’t supposed to happen but you never know, she says.
* * *
A few days later, I returned to the top of the glen. I stepped down the path and down more, grabbing the tops of stunted trees, slipping on leaves and digging my heels in. Leaning back, and then leaning forward, I finally released the brakes and jogged to the bottom. I still didn’t see any headstones. The colors were from the previous autumn, yellows and reds, scented with a chilling rot. Twigs snapped. The wind was high, rushing through the tops of the pines, amplified, pausing, blowing out again, almost theatrical, as though a storm was breaking. I saw headstone number 10 and nine and then number six. Number five was hidden in the weeds. Each one was a narrow column, a nameless post of sandstone or marble. Three other stones were broken off with blunted edges. They were in a semi-circle. I rummaged in the bushes but didn’t find any more. There were supposed to be 14 graves. The cellar hole was 30 paces away.
I didn’t tell anyone about this, not for a few days. I waited. I didn’t want anyone out there with me who might tromp around and make too much noise, have too many things on their mind, a cell phone ringing, making disagreeable remarks. It was like holding a bird’s nest in my palm, or a photograph so freshly taken and unbearable that I put it away for a year, or a story idea too frightening – too grand, too doable – to say out loud. I’d found the cemetery, a burial ground remote and still beautiful more than 100 years later, on my instincts, on trails I barely knew existed. So I waited.
On that day, standing there, I looked overhead and listened. I stepped along the watery edges. It seemed that the graves had been placed on a knoll with some care for the future. I stayed longer and then took a different path back to the car, pushing through brush and brambles that were discouraging in their entanglements. I tripped and then sidestepped a wide puddle. I ducked under limbs and shielded my eyes with my sleeve. I wrestled with a vine. Finally the trail, what must have been the old trail, the way-back-then trail from town, came out near the road, at a point that I’d passed by many times before.
* * *
It occurred to me on a walk many days later that pushing my way along a little-used path in the woods wasn’t very original as a metaphor for a personal struggle in life. My toes were cold on this walk. I was irritable for no good reason. I was on a trail around Clapps Pond with its inlets and wetlands and large stands of those white-barked trees whose trunks are like old men’s calves: thick, hairless and mottled. The trail was wide enough for a car, a fire road for the rangers, sandy, dry and rolling from its past as a motorbike trail. Tire tracks and grooves from spinouts remained. A hunter’s stand was half-cocked in a tree. Warmer temperatures had unlocked the surface of the pond, still silent but now a glassy navy blue. Thirty minutes went by and I realized I was as far from home as I’d ever been on these trails. Across the pond I didn’t see any man-made structures or anything else I recognized. I checked my phone for service – barely there, and I practiced what I’d say to a police dispatcher, to describe where I was. On a side trail that I thought would return me home quicker I found a piece of folded paper with a shopping list: noodles, wet wipes, tuna and chicken. I saw a snake on the path. No, it was a very lifelike stick. I kept walking and finally saw the top of the space station in the distance. I thought of a short story I’d read. In the story a woman goes for a walk in the woods near her house and is stripped naked by hoodlums. She creeps home trying to escape notice and ends up at the edge of her own yard, still naked, watching her family through a window. I looked ahead. Two men came toward me. They weren’t holding hands but they were gay, no doubt. They had wool scarves around their necks. They wore loafers. Their dogs sniffed the air as I passed them. We said ‘Hello’ and walked on.
Where Uncle Steve is buried the cost of perpetual care is paid upfront. Ten percent of the plot price is put in a trust and the interest from that is what pays for maintenance year after year. In 1874 $150 was spent to fix up the smallpox cemetery, according to the town records. The brush was cleared. Fresh dirt was put on the graves, and the headstones were added. By the early 1900s, though, the cemetery had been forgotten. It became the property of the national park in 1961, and the lack of money and the lack of time is why the park hasn’t taken better care of it. This is what the park historian said when I asked.
I eventually did take a few people out to the cemetery. My horizon had changed, though: what I cared to talk about, who to be around and who to please. I was deep in the woods, on one of my last walks before spring broke that year. A crow called out, and butterflies the color of periwinkles flitted across the path. I was near a miniature pond, one I didn’t know, a baby pond all thawed out and shimmering, of hidden depths, rippling and awaiting the arrival of something new.