Oskari went by Oscar to most people that knew him, and most of the time he thought of himself as Oscar. Christmas though was different. Christmas was one of the only times during the whole year that he truly let his Finnish ancestry show. It was this change from Oscar to Oskari that brought him to the cemetery. Opening his door allowed large snowflakes to swirl inside his car, landing on his heavy, camelhair overcoat and melting almost instantly. He got out quickly and began to walk. He was not sure where he would end up, but that was part of his tradition.
His foot steps were muffled by the snow, but he walked with a purpose and soon found himself among proper headstones. Some were new and made of polished granite slabs, while others were old and weather-worn, with the names nearly effaced by time and the elements. Some of the markers were half as high as he was, while other markers were just tall enough to make you trip if you were not paying attention. Here and there were angles with beatific eyes staring mournfully at the sky, and in one spot he saw what looked to be a Virgin Mary in her classical thinking pose, sans Jesus. Past that there were proper mausoleums, and near those large stones were actually laid flat into the ground with crosses embossed or carved into them. Oskari wondered if these were for monastics that he knew were buried here: the final act in fulfilling their vow of poverty. But what made it feel like a true place of peace was the fact that there were many straight rows in the newer parts of the cemetery, but in the older places rows were more uneven and you could see headstones that had moved when the earth shifted or that were wedged into spaces at odd angles. The places with those markers were now almost always quiet because the family of those who were first laid to rest there had either moved on, passed on, or simply no longer came. Oskari moved slowly marveling at the peaceful graves as he did every year. He could not see them well this year, but that didn’t matter to him. Other than the lighter, he did have any kind of light. That was the way both he and his father had liked it.
Vili Järvinent turned and looked at his son's face. It was bright out. A full moon hung overhead, illuminating the headstones and the snow-less ground around them. The boy's face was bright and eager, more for the presents that Santa would soon bring, Vili knew, but nevertheless full of interest and joy. "Now, Oskari, you know why we are here, yes?"
"Good. Then tell me, why are we here?"
"Because we have to remember Grandma and Grandpa Järvinent and Grandpa Vatanen and Momma."
Vili stopped and crouched down so he could see his son's face in the moonlight. "That's right. We remember them, but we also remember their parents, and their parents’ parents. Everyone that made you," and he touched the point of his son's nose with his finger. "Especially the ones with names that have been lost. Time is cruel and steals everything for nearly all men. Don't forget that."
"But Papa, what does that mean?"
Vili laughed and touched the gray hairs in his beard. "It means that first your hair turns silver, then it falls out, then you wind up in a place like this, and after more time than you can think about, nobody thinks about you, and that is when you are truly dead."
"But what if nobody knows your name? How can you be at all if someone does not know your name?"
Vili smiled at the quizzical look on his son's face and stood up. "Do you know the names of all the people back in Finland?"
"But you know they are there, yes?"
"Of course Papa. Where else would they be?”
Vili began walking, talking the candles and matches he had brought out of his pocket, and began walking towards his wife's grave. He didn't answer his son's question, but he said, "your ancestors, even if you do not know their names, know you, and when you remember them, you keep them alive. I do not know how. Nobody knows for sure, but trust me, son. When you get to be my age, you know it to be true."
Oskari nodded solemnly and fell in behind his father's broad back. "If you say so papa. But I don't understand."
Oskari did not see the smile that crossed his father's lips that night when he admitted he didn't understand; however, he had seen the same wry tug of the lips a few times when he caught his reflection smiling. That same smile crossed his lips now as he recalled the words spoken so long ago and his own agreement with them now. His father and mother were both buried in the small town in Minnesota where they had settled. He had not been there in years, and wondered if their graves looked like some of the older ones in this cemetery.
Oskari reached a spot that seemed like it would work. As none of his family was buried here, he moved his little vigil every year. A confirmed bachelor, he had no children. A fact that he regretted more and more as the gray hairs grew thicker and thicker on his head.
He was just reaching into his pockets to get the candles when he saw it: the distinctive beam of a flashlight was bobbing its way among the headstones. Oskari put the candles back in his pocket and moved to investigate. He knew it would not be any of the staff. They all knew him and his car, and it was through them that he had gained access to this place. He wondered who else had special arrangements.
The snow muffled his approach, and given that whomever it was did not expect to be disturbed, he was unsurprised that the light never drifted his way. As he got closer, he could tell that the figure belonged to a woman who was slender and graceful. She had the flashlight in one hand, and flowers in the other hand. She was obviously there to visit someone specific, and even though Oskari knew she probably wanted to be left in peace, but curiosity got bested him.
"Um, excuse me," he said when he was still about fifteen feet away.
The woman jumped on the spot, obviously startled, but both the light and the flowers remained firmly in her grasp.
Oskari felt butterflies flutter in his stomach, and in spite of the cold, he felt his cheeks flush in embarrassment. The woman had a large, jagged scar running across her forehead but nevertheless she was the most stunning woman that Oskari had ever seen.
"Yes?" said the woman.
"I'm sorry," Oskari said, trying to get his mind to catch up to reality, “it's just that I've been coming here on Christmas Eve for years and I've never seen anyone. So I was, uh, surprised to see your light," Oskari finished, the words ringing stupidly in his ears. He could not believe he was acting like some barfly, interrogating someone who had dared to intrude.
"Oh. Well, this is the first year I've come. I know the groundskeeper here, and he mentioned that I might run into you. You're Oscar right?"
He smiled. "Most of the time, but tonight I'm Oskari."
"Oskari," the woman said, rolling the name around on her tongue. “It's kind of pretty. Where are you from?"
"Minnesota originally, but the name is Finnish. I'm sorry though, you have me at a loss. You are?"
"Hope. Hope Rodriguez" the woman said as she walked towards him, tucking the light under her arm as she did. Then she stuck out her hand to shake his and smiled and the butterflies in his stomach were joined by what sounded like a heard of elephants thundering inside his ears.
"Pleased to meet you," Oskari said, noting as he shook her hand that Hope's complexion and appearance gave her the look of someone from Holland. He was, however, smart enough not to comment on this oddity. He was about to excuse himself and go light his candles when Hope waylaid him.
"So, Oskari, I thought I wanted to be here by myself tonight, I don't think that is true anymore. So, would you join me?"
"Are you sure? I don’t want to intrude.”
“Honestly I’m not sure, but you will not be intruding,” Hope said with that same dazzling smile, "It's Christmas and I don't have anyone waiting for me at home when I get there, so I would like the company."
Oskari could not think of anything to say to that, so he nodded his agreement. "How about I carry your flowers for you?"
Hope smiled again, and handed him the flowers. The crinkle of the plastic wrapping sounded incredibly loud to his ears, but he fell in behind her. The wry smile reappeared on his face as he noted that the top of her head barely came up to his shoulder.
They walked for a few minutes, and Oskari, just from the various trips that he had taken over the years, knew they were heading towards the area with the more recently interred. Soon none of the headstone were weather-worn, and on the few graves that still had letters visible on their markers, the writing was clearly legible—even in the dark. The whole time, Hope didn't say a thing, and even though Oskari was curious to know more about her, he held his tongue. As they walked the snow that was falling began to lighten and the air began to grow still.
Eventually they reached the spot Hope had been seeking. It was at the end of one of the rows; although Oskari could tell that there were still a few more plots left before this section of the cemetery filled out. The headstone itself looked to be made of rose colored marble that had large, white veins shooting through it. Hope knelt down in front of it and batted away the layers of snow that were coating the front of the grave. As she worked Oskari noticed Hope was wearing an intricately wrought bracelet made out of three thin threads of gold that weaved back and forth, until they converged just at the top of her wrist., forming a setting for a small diamond. The diamond glittered like the snow around them, but then Hope stood up. The stone winked at him and vanished.
Oskari read the names on the headstone, and as he did, his heart fell through his shoes. It said:
IN LOVING MEMERY OF:
THEY PASSED FROM THIS
EARTH ON 12/24/2010.
Hope's eyes filled with tears as she took the flowers from Oskari and laid them on the grave. Then from inside her coat, she pulled out a plastic G.I. Joe and a box of crayons. These she gingerly placed next to the flowers. She was sobbing silently when she stood back up, and Oskari could see her body shake under her coat as she cried.
Oskari walked to the graves and knelt down. The candles that he brought with him were each large enough that they contained two wicks apiece and were housed in glass jars. He had stripped them of their labels so that they were clear not only of the paper but the glue as well. He set the two jars on either end of the headstone and then quickly built snowballs around the glass containers. Once he had a sizable amount of snow around each candle, he lit them and stood back to see his handiwork.
The snow around the candles glowed with soft yellow light, and all the other fresh snow around it began to sparkle like the now hidden diamond. "It's beautiful,” Hope said.
"You were with them when they passed, weren't you?" Oskari asked, looking at the scar on her head again.
She nodded. "We were in our car. There was an accident..."
But before she could say more Oskari embraced her. He did not know why he hugged her, and unlike just a few moments before, there were no butterflies or elephants. There was just the two of them there together as the snow stopped falling. After a few moments, he let her go and stepped back. His cheeks were a little red, but they did’t feel hot enough to cook an egg on--something that made Oskari very happy.
Hope smiled at him. "I'm glad your here Oskari."
“Me too.” Oskari, the wry smile touching his lips.
Hope smile back. It was not the dazzling smile that she had shown him a few moments ago; rather, it was a more gentle and warm smile, like the light now coming from the snow. “You know, I took a taxi here, but I saw your car. Would you mind giving me a lift home?”
“It would be my pleasure,” Oskari said.
Hope nodded and then added, “Thank you. Before we go though, do you mind if I have a minute or two alone?"
Oskari bowed a little. Again, he did not know why. It was something he never did, but for some reason, it felt right, and then he withdrew back the way they had come. With his back facing away from Hope, he had no way of see the look of relief that flooded Hope's face, even as she unconsciously touched her bracelet. At the same time, Hope did not see Oskari touch his nose on the same spot his father had so long ago. Yet if someone were to look down at the two of them at that moment, they would see both Hope and Oskari look up and smile a knowing grin.