82: The Flickering Headlight

82: The Flickering Headlight

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel

The Flickering Headlight

He spake well who said that graves are the footprints of angels.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I lived on the Greek island of Corfu one summer at the height of tourist season. I enjoyed the diverse, international crowd, but I occasionally felt the need to seek solitude. I would usually rent a motorcycle and head into the interior of the island in search of isolated trails and sleepy villages. One such day, I rode for hours along dirt roads flanked by bright yellow wildflowers, winding through steep and rugged hills. I had to keep a close watch on the gas gauge as the only gas station was in the town where I had rented the motorcycle. At half a tank, I had no choice but to return home.

As I turned around, I saw an abandoned cemetery so small and overgrown with weeds it was almost unnoticeable. I decided to stretch my legs before beginning the long ride home. I rode to the entrance and cut the engine. As I passed through the creaky wrought iron gate, I noticed how silent the place was. I whistled to reassure myself that I hadn’t gone deaf. There was only an hour or two of daylight left. A strong wind blew, stirring the overgrown grass that obscured the scattered tombstones.

In Greece, people aren’t usually buried below ground. Instead, bodies of the deceased are laid to rest in aboveground tombs with easily removable lids. Several times I walked by tombs with visible skeletal remains. I found this very disturbing. Where I come from — Los Angeles, California — death is sanitized and brushed away quickly so as not to make anyone uncomfortable.

The head of the tombs have small cabinets that contain a photograph of the deceased. This tugged at my heart more than anything else — to see the faces of the people buried there as they were in life: their warm smiles and the kindness in their eyes. I spent a long time wandering around, kneeling in the grass next to the graves, talking to the people lying there and wondering about their lives.

At the back of the cemetery, a tomb twice as large as any of the others caught my eye. When I looked inside the cabinet, I found out why. It held a photograph of a young couple, arm in arm, smiling widely. The date of their deaths, etched in the stone, were identical. Apparently, they had died together in an accident. Roads on Greek islands are mostly unmarked and can be very dangerous. They had been laid in each other’s arms inside the tomb.

I can’t begin to relate all the feelings I had while looking at that picture of them together, bursting with youthful energy, their eager smiles full of excitement and anticipation of their lives together. A line from a poem by Andrew Marvell crossed my mind:

The grave is a fine and private place

but none, I think, do there embrace.

I hoped it wasn’t true.

A marble cross marking their graves had been broken at the base and fallen on the ground at the head of the tomb. Wildflowers had grown up around it. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning except for the fact that they were the only flowers growing anywhere in the cemetery. The contrast of these symbols of springtime next to the tombstone was so striking that I wanted to take a photograph of it. The best angle was from the top of the tomb, but I felt that standing on it would be disrespectful so I took a few shots from other angles. Unsatisfied, I said to the young couple buried there, “Excuse me. I’d just like to stand on your tomb for a few seconds to take a picture of your flowers. I hope you don’t mind.” I took the photo, then stepped back down and said thank you. Before I left, I brushed the dirt off the lid, pulled the weeds around their grave, then picked up the broken piece of the cross and put it back in place.

I left the cemetery and started the motorcycle. After being immersed in such profound silence, the engine seemed louder than ever. As I rode home, the faces of the people I had seen in the time-yellowed photographs repeated in my mind like a slideshow, especially the photo of the young couple. I prayed for their souls as darkness fell.

Though tainted with sadness, I had found the solitude I was seeking. There was peace in the old cemetery, but it was a dark peace and I was anxious to get back to the resort, and to life.

As it got darker, I reached for the headlight switch and discovered that it didn’t work. That meant I would have to ride home through winding, often treacherous dirt roads with only the faint starlight to guide me. At one point, I was riding up a very steep hill, unaware that the road leveled and turned abruptly just beyond the peak. A steep cliff awaited anyone who didn’t negotiate the curve correctly. Hungry, cold and in a hurry to get home, I was traveling too fast, oblivious to the danger ahead. But as I reached the top of the hill, the headlight flickered on and off, just for a few seconds, but long enough for me to see the cliff before it was too late. I slammed on the brake and skidded to a stop with only inches to spare. My heart pounding, I looked over the edge into the darkness and heard the rocks my tires had kicked up rattling down the rocky hillside. The headlight then turned off again and stayed off for the rest of the night.

I left Greece a few days later and traveled elsewhere for several months. I didn’t develop the film until I returned to California. I took approximately five hundred photographs on that trip, and about ten at the cemetery, but the only photo with an abnormality is the one of the young couple’s broken tombstone. A white mist swirls around it as if something, or someone, is rushing upward. The mist has defined edges in several areas, eliminating the possibility of a lens flare or light refraction. I don’t like to think that their spirits were hanging around that old cemetery, but maybe they had died so young, with so much life left to live, they had not yet accepted death and were eager to rejoin the living. That might also be the reason the only flowers in the entire cemetery were growing by their grave.

It also occurred to me that the headlight turning on during those crucial seconds as I approached the cliff, which undoubtedly saved my life, was not caused by an electrical glitch. It was caused by the spirits of the young couple, saving me from the same fate that had befallen them. There is no doubt in my mind that they were my guardian angels that night.

~Mark Rickerby

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