Sunday, November 14, 2010

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Loon Lake Cemetery: Part Two

Loon Lake Cemetery is the venue for late night games of Truth or Dare, drunken Halloween parties, and so on. Many of the remaining gravestones are vandalized. As we walk up the cemetery hill, I am shocked by how many markers rest on the ground. Most of the stones that remain standing are near the entrance. They are tall, slender pillars, and if I lean my weight into them, they wobble. A few markers bear the image of a ripped curtain. Seth thinks they are the temple curtains that tore after Christ’s death.

We are searching for Mary Jane’s grave, but we don’t expect to see her name. Mary Jane’s headstone was stolen from the cemetery and returned several times. Jane Hastings, a former graduate student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, recorded this quote from The Jackson County Deputy Sheriff, It’s been picked up from Iowa and all over Southern Minnesota. Once, it was thrown into a creek at the location where two people had drowned.

The Jackson County Historical Society in Lakefield houses the headstone. A photo of it is posted on the Find A Grave website. Like many of the stones that once surrounded it, Mary Jane’s marker is a tall, slender pillar, with a crack down the middle. A star is carved at the top with an inscription below reading, "My friends beware as you pass by/ As you are now, so once was I /As I am now, so you must be /Prepare yourself to follow me." Now, all that marks Mary Jane’s resting place is a flat slab of rock that the pillar once rested on. This lack of a definitive marker, combined with the curse, makes Mary Jane’s grave something akin to a land mine. It could be anywhere.

We circle through the small graveyard, and as we venture to the back, it becomes wicked, wrenched, and overwrought. Seth’s hair fills with tree cotton as we duck and weave through bushes to find headstones buried beneath shoulder hight grass and pricker bushes.

Loon Lake is 30 feet to the east. It’s shore has expanded since 1876 when the cemetery was established. Some of the graves are reportedly submerged. A white wooden cross sits broken across one of the headstones. Attached are yellow vinyl flowers with a sun-faded bow. This is the only decorated grave. There is something organic in the way Loon Lake Cemetery has been abandoned by man and swallowed up by earth and water. The sunlight breaks through the black maples in broad circles and slender lines. Auburn leaves clutter the ground like flakes of dead skin ready to be peeled. I stand for a moment and look, wondering if something will move.

We search headstones, leaning in close to make out inscriptions. Dates and names alternate in their legibility, and few headstones still contain both. We found the last name Terwillegar. Mary’s father’s grave. John Terwillegar died in 1905 at the age of 101, some 24 years after his daughter. Seeing the last name caused us to wonder how close we were to the accursed grave. Had we stumbled into a family plot and stand only a few feet away? I lift my feet and search the ground for the blank stone that once supported Mary Jane’s pillar.

To the right of my foot is a gravestone, but it is slender, upright, and still holds an inscription. It is covered in long grass, so I push it to the side. "Infant son of Beutel." There are four Infant sons and daughters of different last names all within three feet of each other. The spacing between the stones is less than a foot. Small bodies, small graves.

After finding several flat stones that could have been Mary Jane’s grave, we walk back to the truck to check the printed sources we brought with us. As we walk, Seth tells me he does not believe in life after death and I wonder if that is the reason he feels Mary Jane’s curse is a joke. I thought you were a religious man. I say. Seth nods. It’s complicated.

We search through newspaper articles and website printouts. A comment under one of the web photos reads, "Your photo of the grave of Mary Jane at Loon Lake Cemetery is the incorrect grave… Mary Jane's grave is in a big circle of pricker bushes near the back in the center."

In a circle of pricker bushes, near the back center, we find two flat unmarked stones, one beneath a bush and buried in slender rocks, the other in a small open area surrounded by a patch of short grass.

Seth and I discuss the logistics of the curse. We ask questions: Do we need to be directly over Mary Jane’s body? Or just near it? Maybe we sealed our fate by entering the cemetery, Seth says. We walk back and forth between the two graves, but cannot decide on which one.

I feel confident that the grave in the open grass is Mary Jane’s. The trembling leaves do not whisper it, nor does the soft cool breeze. It is just something that I know, something that I cannot explain. Jumping over a grave three times is silly, but gazing at that nameless marker feels like the moment before a blind plunge.

Seth’s gaze is fixed on the same flat stone as mine. Is he going to jump? Or is he hesitating, worried that his actions may jeopardize our burgeoning friendship? The longer he waits, the more I wonder if he is asking himself the same questions. What if it is true? What if some great hand really is lurking somewhere, waiting to sweep us from this earth?

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