From inside the Gardiner cemetery, the town of Gardiner, Oregon, is hidden. A row of cherry plums blocks the view to the south; a thick line of trees shuts out the lonely patch of houses to the north. The cemetery sits on a steep hill, its back to a timber plantation, its face looking over Highway 101, out across the river with its two islands, and then over the low headlands that separate the river from its ultimate destination. The cemetery, like anyone standing on the top tier of terraced paths, stares west toward the glimmering line of the sea.
We moved into a duplex just down the street from the cemetery when I was twelve years old. The apartment smelled of onions sunk in on themselves, and when you took a shower, the walls ran with yellow streams of nicotine. I could walk from one end of town to the other in about ten minutes; fifteen if I stopped at the post office to get the mail. Compared to the apartments tucked in behind the post office, our duplex looked downright luxurious.
Gardiner was once known as the White City by the Sea, and its port bustled with more traffic than any town in a hundred-mile radius. By the 1940s, it boasted a medical clinic and a state championship basketball team. One of the first novels about life in Oregon was set there. A cannery perched on the island in the middle of the Umpqua’s lively estuary, shipping goods up and down the West Coast. The town had thrived once, but by the time we moved there, it had been dying for decades.
Some places become ghost towns quickly. An industry collapses and people flee, leaving their artifacts and empty buildings behind to rot. The places become fixed in time, held tight in the grip of the past. Tourists seek out ghost towns like this because they are like unstaffed museums, monuments to a philosophy or an economy that came to an end. A tombstone for a way of life.
Gardiner is a different kind of ghost town. It became a ghost before it actually died, its face looking the wrong direction even as it stumbled along in the present, and the people who found themselves there slowly turned to ghosts themselves.
I remember the TV blaring as I sat on the couch, chewing the skin off my fingers while the neighbors beat and kicked a man in our driveway.
I remember standing in my room while the woman next door screamed at her boyfriend, and I remember the way the wall shook as they threw their furniture at each other.
I remember a little girl with lice waiting on her porch for me to walk her to school while her mother sobbed on the couch in their living room.
I remember cutting my father’s sandwiches into sixteen tiny pieces so he could eat something while he waited for the last of his teeth to fall out of his jaw.
It is possible for a person to turn as gray as a revenant and still live. It is possible for their cheeks to go hollow and their breath to grow so slow and still that they cannot get off the couch for days at a time. In Gardiner and other ghosting towns, this is practically normal.
To escape life at home—my mother sleeping days and working security at the paper mill by night, my father unemployed and deeply depressed—I went to the cemetery nearly every day, the one place in a town of meth addicts and retirees that guaranteed me a measure of peace and comfort. Here there were flowers: rhododendrons and azaleas mostly, but a few roses and an entire legion of daffodils in the spring. In its headstones, history told its brighter story of prosperity and hope, art and culture spilling out from their neat engravings and charming statues. Every few years, someone repainted the flagpole a clean white that stood out in a town where the nightly fog stained everything a seaweed-y green.
At the very center of the cemetery stood an enormous headstone, four feet tall and nearly six feet wide. Gray and simple, the side it showed the ocean read only GARDINER in smug all-caps. John Gardiner probably thought it was a tasteful symbol for his life and the legacy he had created by founding a town in his own name. To teenaged me, it looked like a memorial to the dying town itself.
Gardiner’s grave sat on the widest tier of the steeply terraced cemetery, but for me, it wasn’t the highlight of the place. Two tiers above, a paved walkway simply ended in the open air, a metal gate marking the terminus. On a windy day, the gate would waver nearly open and then almost closed, too rusted to go entirely in either direction. It was a gate to nowhere, neither fastening shut nor presenting a barrier to a walker who might plunge four feet down onto a granite tombstone.
Who installed the gate to nowhere? What did it mean? Why did the sidewalk just stop? Every time I walked in the cemetery, I asked the same questions, and got no closer to their answers. It was a place for unanswerable questions. Why did some graves have iron frames like bedsteads around them? Unanswerable. Who shattered the tombstone for the man buried in 1896, one of the oldest graves in the cemetery? Unanswerable. How long would the stones last before the sulfurous fumes from the paper mill reduced them to lumps?
That one did have an answer. Gardiner might have been a dying town, but it was a dying town in a string of dying towns, the economy vampirized by the timber industry. Once there were no more giant trees to cut, the lumber mills and the pulp mills began to wink out one by one. In 1999, the last of the mills that had powered Gardiner turned out its lights, and the air cleared over the cemetery.
The garden cemetery gained popularity in the United States in the mid-1800s. Landscape architects like John Claudius Loudon made their names designing cemeteries that were parklike, planted attractively and arranged for the quiet enjoyment of visitors. Gardiner Cemetery might lack the beauty of larger and more carefully planned garden cemeteries, but its design retains a certain threadbare charm. As the town has shriveled, the cemetery lost the budget for a caretaker, and the area has lost the populace to provide volunteers. The plants grow wild and unattended. The cherry plums have spread. More deer than humans browse the walkways, nibbling the weeds that grow between the strappy leaves of the daffodils. The wind blows in from the ocean, damp and salty.
As a kid, I resented the cemeteries of the American West, most of them lawn cemeteries (flat, green, and falsely cheerful) or garden cemeteries (nicely landscaped, but heavily fluffed with religious sentiment). I craved graveyards like the ones I saw in books about New England, where winged skulls and dark poetry decorated the tombstones and called to my gothic heart. I wanted to sit on a proper tomb, preferably one engraved with some kind of memento mori, and perform a séance. I wanted to believe that ghosts were real and neatly contained by the wall of death, a wall I wanted to see as impermeable and fixed, something like John Gardiner’s granite headstone and not the creaking gate into nowhere. I didn’t learn anything about death from walking in the cemetery. But the more I visited it, the more I found myself enjoying the cemetery as a place unto itself—a place not for ghosts, not for the dead, but for the living. It was a place where I could, at least for a few moments in every grim day, rest in peace.
As an adult, I returned to Gardiner to visit my mother. The town felt quieter, the people, if not more lively, at least more resigned to the town’s desolation. There comes a time when ghosts stop rattling their chains and settle into the walls of their haunts, content to watch the world move past them. A time when a town stops dying and becomes a ghost town, its last inhabitants aware they walk on land lost to time.
Every day of that trip, I took my baby to the cemetery to walk and play. She learned to run on its sidewalks, one hand on the line of tombstones to steady herself. She picked grape hyacinths and daisies for childish bouquets. She sang songs and tried to chase cats. We picked the cherry plums for jam.
On our last day, we made our way up to the very top of the cemetery’s stairs, rows and rows above John Gardiner’s headstone. The sun sank low above Umpqua Head, and the fog crept in from the north. I picked up my daughter and watched it come, quiet and cold as death, peaceful as stone. And as we walked home, it spread through the streets, unmaking the town of Gardiner both alive and dead. It made my nose run.
Wendy N. Wagner is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Magazine and the managing/senior editor of Lightspeed. Her short stories, essays, and poems run the gamut from horror to environmental literature. Her longer work includes the novella The Secret Skin, the horror novel The Deer Kings, the Locus bestselling SF eco-thriller An Oath of Dogs, and two novels for the Pathfinder role-playing game. She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family, two large cats, and a Muppet disguised as a dog. You can find her at winniewoohoo.com.