In Highland, the wind does not whistle, but bellows. Whistling implies a light quality, a gentleness that the gales simply do not possess in the middle of the plains. Out here, there is nothing but the rolling expanse of crops before me—shorn fields and grass in a patchwork tapestry spread out for miles in differing shades of beige. My gaze is not broken by any towering mountain or hill, any rising of the land. It is simply allowed to continue along its course until the gentle curve of the horizon far beyond blocks any other view. There are few breaks in the seemingly endless expanse before me, only a couple sporadic colored dots in the distance. Perhaps the dots are farmhouses or barns where there is the habitual clash and clang and warmth of life, but not here. Here, I’m alone. And here, where I’m standing looking out at the nothingness, the wind's greedy, invisible fingers are given full reign, pillaging and plundering anything without protection.
The flat, desolate scene before me is a relatively common one in the area of Northwest Iowa I’ve called home for the past four years, though the open terrain was one of the most jarring changes from my home in the mountainous Pacific Northwest of Washington State. When my cousin, Tyler, picked me up from the Sioux Falls airport for the first time and began driving to Sioux Center, I remember being shocked that fields upon flat fields were the only scenery gracing the outside of my passenger window. The endless expanse of flat, brown, windy, nothing before me, then, shouldn’t be surprising, and certainly not arresting. And it wouldn’t be, if not for the small safe haven that sits just behind me which acts as the only shelter from the relentless raging of the wind.
It doesn’t look like much—a small rectangle formed by some lackluster pine trees, their branches brittle, and some of them yet another shade of beige despite their ‘evergreen’ name. To me, though, the trees stand as tall as sentinels, their noble efforts shielding myself and the other inhabitants of Highland from the worst of the wind’s whims. I am the only live one, of course. But I’m sure the dead appreciate their watchful guard.
About thirty dilapidated headstones have taken up residence in this small windbreak. They sit upon sparse tufts of grass stoically, but the etchings engraved upon them have begun to succumb to the passage of time. As such, some of the names they bear are unintelligible, though a few have managed to retain the title of the soul who was laid to rest here long ago. The bodies over which I tread lightly now.
The nondescript cemetery is the only remnant of a little town called Highland, as shown by a wooden sign that stands just outside of the pines. The sign shows a picture of what used to lie on two crossroads: a small town consisting of eight buildings. Three churches, a blacksmith shop, a country store, a pump and windmill shop. And the cemetery: the only thing left of human settlement in a land so clearly subject to nature. People lived here—real, warm, living, breathing, people, with the clash and clang and warmth of life.
And all that is left is a graveyard. A graveyard, and a sign—a headstone itself: Highland; year of birth, 1889. Year of death, 1935.
There is a word that I learned the definition my freshman year of college; it encapsulates the shocking realization that everyone lives inside their own mind and experiences their own life. The word is sonder. According to the Wiktionary, sonder means, “the profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, have a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.” Usually, I think that this applies to the people that we see everyday: the girl that is crying in the bathroom or the boy that I find annoying in class. Sometimes, though, I am brought to the eerie realization that this is true of the dead as well as the living.
I stand in the graveyard of an abandoned town, as much a ghost as those who once lived within it. Highland, as far as I can tell, did not have a very large population, but they still had human experiences as real and worth thinking of as my own. Each name on each grave had their own life, their own routine and reality. Someone they loved, and someone who loved them. They were mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. They had children, they farmed, they worshiped the Lord as I do now and made their home in what seems to be desolate, bare, nothingness. When I tried to do research on those that lived here, only a few records listing Highland as a ghost town appeared. It is the only mark Highland has left on the new digital world.
And now, the people here are gone, lying about six feet beneath me. Billions of people on the earth, the shells of them, lying to rest where we can’t see them. Decaying bones under layers of dirt or in depths of ocean, littering the mountains in the form of ash or sitting vacantly in tombs from long ago. Their experiences and stories and emotions and memories, all decaying along with them. Billions below the ground, and billions above, hearts beating, bursting with oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus, the chemicals and compounds that allow us to regain consciousness every morning and slip out of it every night. Then, eventually and inevitably, depending on whether you view death as something to dread or a natural process bound to occur, we all shut down.
It seems strange that humanity is so finite, and yet the concept of death is only ever in the periphery until we draw closer to it ourselves. In the summer of 2020, I was hired to be a CNA in the Alzheimer’s and Dementia unit of an assisted living facility. It was a job that was usually uneventful, keeping a two hour toileting schedule and getting residents up in the morning and down at night. The first death on my shift, that of one of my favorite residents, occurred about three months later.
The resident (whose name I cannot mention due to HIPPA violation) eventually lost the motivation to get out of bed. She slept more and talked less, and her forehead began to burn to the touch. I wiped her brow, combed her hair, changed her briefs, gave her bed baths, as she became less and less responsive. One night, I was reading Esther to her from a marked page in her worn King James bible, and afterwards I felt her feet. They were cold, and when I lifted the blanket, I saw that they were beginning to turn slightly blue. The RN on staff told me that this meant she was bound to pass away quickly.
Within a day, the resident went comatose, a development which always came with my least favorite part of the process: she stopped eating, so we stopped feeding. She developed a strange smell, one that can’t be described unless you’ve been at the side of someone whose body is failing them. Her lungs would rattle upon each intake of breath; one of the other caregivers told me that it was the ‘death rattle,’ the sound of fluid build up in the lungs. We called her daughters, one of whom worked at the facility, and they surrounded her bed as their mother’s heart slowed, and the oxygen intake to her brain and internal organs decreased. Quietly, so quietly, she slipped out of this world.
Her daughter came to the nurses’ office, tears streaming down her face, to say that her mother had passed. It was my job to clean her up before the coroner came—to make sure she went with the dignity, cleanliness, and care she deserved. It was a job I hadn’t done before, but I’d seen cadavers before: “How bad can it be,” I thought.
I entered her room, and touched my fingers to her brow to see if she was truly gone. My hand was met with a vacant coolness, when just hours before she had been burning to the touch. Her eyes were still open, but devoid of any emotion. She looked like a doll whose realistic-ness is almost frightening; all the features and characteristics of what makes a person a ‘person’ were present in the figure before me, but inanimate all the same. It is hard to explain the overwhelming emptiness that occurs when someone dies. Difficult to describe how everything that makes a soul is suddenly, inexorably, gone. And she was gone: the woman who clapped her hands whenever I came to say hello, the woman who would stroke my hair and give me the sweetest smile, even when she was struggling with the hell of incontinence, the woman who loved her string of pearls and tapioca pudding.
She was gone, and I was cleaning her frigid skin. My tears slipped into the top of my mask while I worked. When the coroner picked her up, she was wearing her favorite blouse and wedding ring, taken with her to the grave as requested by her family. Her funeral was set to take place a few days later.
From dust you came, and to dust you shall return: a statement that I’ve heard many times as I’ve walked up to an elder at church on Ash Wednesday. My head slightly tilted upward, they spread ashes across my face. When I was little, I used to think it was dramatic, a way to make people question their own mortality and draw them to a savior I wasn’t sure I believed in. Now I see it is simply a statement of fact. We will, all of us, return to dust. One day someone will walk over our bones, and the cyclical occurrences of conception, birth, life, and death will continue over and over and over until the end of time, billions forgotten and billions doomed to be forgotten.
I cannot believe life as such a pointless and circular experience as that, though. As Newton discovered, energy cannot be created nor destroyed. And even when my earthly body lies deep below the clash and clang and warmth of life, even when my bones erode and I am slowly leached from peoples' memories until no living person remembers that the name of my first love is Jake, or that I read in the shower when I’m stressed out, or that my favorite flower is a pink peony from the bush in my front yard, or that I have three younger brothers and a birthmark under my left elbow, or that I braid my hair when I’m nervous—even then I will be comforted. Because I know one thing for certain: all those moments— people, habits, memories—that have imprinted themselves upon my soul to form it cannot simply go into the nowhere of nothing. Unlike the Law of Conservation of Energy, I do believe my soul was created—and like it, I don’t believe it can be destroyed. In the nothing of Highland, I see God.
The wind has mercifully calmed down a little, and the strands of hair it pulled loose from my bun are now dancing gently in the crisp autumn air. The sky above me is the color of a robin’s egg, and when I lift my head and close my eyes to the sun, I can feel its warmth dance across my cheeks, eyelids a rusty orange with light. It is a sensation I wasn’t able to notice before, the wind raging as it was.
My back has started to cramp from sitting, as it always does if I stay hunched in a certain posture for too long. I stand from the brittle grass, brushing off the pieces that cling to my jeans.
There is a grave to my right, and for some reason I’m curious as to who lies beneath it. Knowing the names on the headstones didn’t seem important when I first came into the clearing. I was probably too focused on the wind.
Walking a little closer and bending down, I read what it says on the small grave.
Two names lie upon the stone, and further inspection reveals that both sons whose names are represented passed away after one and two years of life—within two years of each other—respectively. My eyes well with tears for the family that lived 100 years before me and suffered such loss. I continue to walk among the graves, inspecting the names as I go.
Hemingson. Hoezmueller. Johnson. Two or three more Opdahl. Knule. Gunderson.
Father. Wife. Husband. Son. Brother. Sister. Angel.
I walk from one end of the cemetery to the other, struck by some morbid curiosity to know just a fraction of the names whose lives were lost in this place that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone.
I have almost reached the other side when I see a grave whose letters are too faded and worn to be able to read. I stoop closer, hoping that proximity will allow me to read the name. It is covered in dirt and grime—even the epitaph, which should’ve served as the dead’s last words to the living, is unreadable. I want to use water and a cloth to reverse some of the damage, so the name of the person who was laid to rest here can touch my mind. I want to remember them, but I can’t.
I walk away, heading for the break in the pine trees ahead of me. The grave remains unreadable as it probably has for a while, and probably will for a long time after I leave Highland. But whoever lies below it, isn’t gone. They can’t be. I suppose that’s why I have to believe in some greater power, some divine plan. Something that accepts our souls when our bodies are too old to host them any longer, something that makes the statement, ‘from dust you came, and to dust you shall return,’ a little less scary, and a lot less final.
As I look at the sign, read the town’s dates of birth and death, I think that maybe the town itself is the only thing truly gone.
Its inhabitants can’t be.