Saturday 30 December 2023


Golden leaves drifted to the ground as my daughter and I walked through the family cemetery. I’d always loved coming up here, walking among the aging stones on the quiet hill overlooking our family farm. These stones had character, they told stories that I thought were missing at the modern cemetery out on the highway. Someday, I’d be buried here, as would Sadie and her children.

We stopped at the foot of a pile of dirt with dying flowers piled on top of it. Two weeks had passed since my mother’s death, but the metal marker left to temporarily mark her grave still hurt to read.

Billie Shea Moore, 1932-1997.

‘You were so young,’ I whispered.

Sadie squeezed my hand. ‘It’s okay, Daddy.’

‘I know. Let me just walk around some, I’ll be fine.’

‘I’m gonna stay with Mamaw.’

While Sadie sat on the bench I’d put by Mom’s grave, I walked through the cemetery, looking at names and remembering stories. A white marble marker stood for Great-Uncle Jack, a revenue agent during the prohibition. He’d been the only honest one in Appalachia if Uncle Mark was to be believed. Mark was here too, his bronze marker two rows down, next to Aunt Meredith.

Going further, I found the old Civil War graves, some Union, some Confederate. The stones were starting to fade and crumble. These were the grand monuments of previous generations, ornate obelisks and towering pillars that made old cemeteries like this unique. When I was little, Mom sent me up here with paper and pencil to make rubbings of these stones. They were still down in her house, waiting for my sisters to come help me clean it out.

I’d walked down the hill to a newer section of the cemetery when a small hand slipped into mine.

‘I’m ready, Daddy.’

I’d expected tears, but Sadie’s blue eyes were clear as the wind pushed her blonde hair around her head.

‘Okay,’ we climbed back up the hill and walked toward the gate, stopping along the way as Sadie sounded out the names on headstones.

‘Who is Suh-Mur,’ she asked, pointing at a headstone a row away.

‘Samir,’ I corrected automatically, leading her toward the stone.

‘I don’t remember anyone in our family named Samir,’ she said, looking down at the stone.

I squatted next to her. This was one more of those teaching moments you’re never really prepared for as a parent. There’d been a lot of them the last few weeks, as Mom faded to nothing, then as Sadie learned about loss and the emotions that came with it. ‘Well, he wasn’t in our family.’

Sadie looked confused. ‘But this is our cemetery! Why is someone else here with Mamaw and our relatives?’

She’d put emphasis on ‘our,’ making it clear she thought this grave was an invasion. Sometimes I wished the world was as black and white as it was through my daughter’s eyes. ‘Because Uncle Jim saw a chance to help someone in need.’


Uncle Jim ran the county’s only wrecker service, and I’d been working for him since I was tall enough to reach the pedals on the wrecker. I’d been on call that night, when the Highway Patrol reported a wreck out on the Bristol Highway. It ran through our county as a winding, two-lane mountain road, but the wreck had happened on a small straightaway.

I pulled onto the shoulder behind the Patrolman’s car, and walked to where he was talking to the fire chief.

‘Fool kids, racing on this road. Ned Wilson is lucky he didn’t go like this one,’ the trooper pointed to a car tangled in a barbed wire fence on the edge of the road.’

Ned had been in my high school class, and I wasn’t surprised to hear he’d been racing. ‘Who was in the wreck,’ I asked.

‘Some kid from the University, I think it’s an exchange student.’ The trooper walked away, leaving me with Chief Britton.

‘Bad way to go,’ the Chief said. ‘Ned’s all tore up about it, he’s the one who pushed the dead guy to race.’

I nodded. ‘What happened?’

Britton pointed at the hill behind me. ‘Ned said they came off the hill there dead even, but there was a truck coming up through here. He slowed down to give the victim room to get over, but Ned reckons he didn’t see the truck until it was too late and spun the wheel a little too hard. Went rolling down the shoulder until he stopped in Lee Anderson’s fence.’

‘Damn mess,’ I muttered, as the trooper whistled and gestured for me to bring my truck over.


I’d barely made it home when I got a call from Uncle Jim.

‘You get that car from out on Bristol Highway?’

‘Yes, sir, just finished putting it in the lot.’ I tossed my keys in the bowl as Connie appeared in the living room, rocking Sadie in her arms.

‘Need you to do something for me in the morning.’

‘Okay,’ I moved the phone away and kissed Connie, then Sadie.

‘Go up to our cemetery and dig a grave in my section. You know where that is, right?’

‘West side, near the pine trees.’

‘That’s right,’ he said, his southern drawl revealing nothing. ‘I been talking to the family of the boy that died in the wreck. He’s from Pakistan, and their religion says they got to bury him quick, no embalming or anything like that. They asked me to work with the funeral home to get him taken care of, and I told them I’d do what I could.’

I checked the clock on the wall. The sun would be up soon, in about as long as it would take me to brew a pot of coffee and grab my tools. ‘Alright. I’ll call you when I’m done.’

‘Thanks, son. Say, you know four or five boys could help us out as pallbearers?’

I knew of one for sure, and figured I could round up a few more. ‘I’ll get it taken care of, Uncle.’

‘Good, bud. We’ll see you in a bit.’


There were no Muslims in our area to conduct the funeral, but Uncle Jim did the best he could under the circumstances. He talked Mae Frazier into opening up the library, and came out with a copy of the Quran and a book on funeral practices of the world. Aunt Laura was soon missing three of her best bedsheets, and an hour later the old black hearse wound slowly up the gravel road to where I was waiting with Uncle Jim and the pallbearers.

Ned Wilson was the first to step to the back of the hearse. Since there was no casket, the undertaker had strapped the body to a plastic board to hold it steady and make it easier to carry. Four pallbearers carried it across the cemetery, to where uncle Jim was waiting by the grave I’d dug.

Two of us climbed down in the hole, and the others passed the body down to us. Laying him in the bottom, we climbed out and stood with the other pallbearers.

Uncle Jim stood at the head of the grave. ‘The book I found wasn’t very detailed about how the ceremony should be, but I reckon reading some scripture over the body would be appropriate.’ He opened the borrowed Quran, then shook his head. ‘Trust Ol’ Mae to give me a book in a language I cain't read. Well, boys, let’s all recite the twenty-third psalm, then I’ll close with a prayer. Reckon that’s appropriate enough, and our God and the Muslim God can sort out any errors in translation.’


Ned filled in the grave himself, his tears mixing with the dirt. Jim and I stood at the cemetery gate with the undertaker and watched. Finally, the old hearse rolled slowly away, and Uncle Jim clapped Ned on the shoulder.

‘It’s done, boy.’

He nodded, but the look in his eyes told another story. As Uncle Jim walked away, I stayed with Ned, guiding him to a nearby bench.

‘What happened, Ned?’

‘What do you mean?’ He looked scared, like talking about what happened would break him. I’d talked to his girlfriend when I’d called about him being a pallbearer, and she said he hadn’t slept all night, had sat out in his garage staring at his car. The breakfast she’d taken him was untouched, and I figured his lunch had been too.

‘I mean, you have to put it into words,’ I said. ‘Everyone in the world can tell you it’s not your fault, but until you actually tell your story and let people tell you why it isn’t your fault, you’ll never believe it yourself.’

He sighed, then nodded. ‘You’re right. Well, I was down at the county line, and this kid blew in with some other college folks, talking about his car. He bragged a while, and I finally got fed up and told him speed wasn’t worth a lick where I came from, you had to have skill.’

I nodded. ‘That’s true.’

‘Well, he didn’t like that too much, he said he had all the skill he needed and then some, so I challenged him to a race from the County Line to our courthouse. He accepted so fast, I didn’t know if he heard me right. We lined up and took off, and about the time we got to Connors Creek, I could tell he was out of his element. I eased off the gas so he didn’t have to run as fast, but he jumped ahead and took off.’ Ned shook his head. ‘Damn, that was hard to watch. His lines were all wrong,  he was using the wrong damn angles and approaches, I knew eventually he was going to wreck.’

I nodded. ‘Wasn’t anything you could have done. He got in over his head, you gave him a chance to back down, and he didn’t take it.’

Ned nodded, tears still falling. ‘I know you’re right, but it don’t feel like you’re right. I’d just caught up to him, was trying to signal to him to pull over when he flipped. As soon as I saw him rolling down the road, I knew he was gone.’

‘It still don’t mean it’s your fault, Ned. Pride goeth before a fall, and pride also goes before rolling down a highway shoulder because you get in over your head.’ I put my arm around Ned. ‘It sounds like you done everything you could to ease him back.’

He nodded. ‘I did. God, I wish I’d succeeded.’

‘Sometimes all you can do is try, and whatever happens is what’s meant to happen.’

‘You reckon that boy, his parents, they understand that?’ Ned looked at me, and I could tell this was the question he needed answered the most.

I thought for a minute. ‘I reckon there ain’t many that do, but if anyone does, it’s them.’


Silence fell as I finished the story. Sadie knelt next to the stone and ran her fingers over Samir’s name, thinking about what I’d told her. ‘I guess it’s okay he’s here, then,’ she finally said.

I smiled. She was so young, she acted like her approval was the final word on the matter. ‘I’m glad you think so.’

‘What’s this at the bottom?’ Sadie brushed away some fallen leaves, revealing an additional inscription.

‘Something his family said when they were talking to Uncle Jim. He thought it’d be a good addition to the marker.’

Sadie leaned over and slowly read, ‘Samir was never one to back down from a challenge.’


About the author

Joe Stout is an east Tennessee based writer. His work has been published by the Non-Binary Review and Literary Cocktail Magazine. When he’s not writing, he enjoys exploring the mountains and spending time with his children. You can follow him on Facebook at Joe Stout Writing or Instagram @joestoutwriting 

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)


  1. I enjoyed this story! I'm shaking my head at Samir, but we all know people like that.