While living in London, I only left the city on a handful of occasions. My final foray in England was a spur-of-the-moment decision on one of my last days before returning to the States. It was a pilgrimage I wasn’t sure I was ready to make.
I rose early in the morning for my train from King’s Cross to Leeds, where I bought a round-trip ticket on the regional train to Hebden Bridge.
From Hebden Bridge, I took the bus a short ways to Heptonstall. From the bus stop, I chose a path at random, with the hope that I would get my bearings as I went along. I followed the path up a steep hill, and suddenly the ruins of a cathedral emerged in the distance.
But what I had come searching for was a little further afield, across an unpaved road from these tombstones, in the modern part of the cemetery: the final resting place of Sylvia Plath.
This overgrown cemetery, abuzz with insects and small living things, seemed to embody the essence of Yorkshire– or, at least, the image of Yorkshire I’d constructed in my mind without realizing it. Picking my way through the rows of tombstones, I felt like Mary Lennox in her garden; like Jane Eyre on the moors; like Esther Greenwood retracing her genesis.
In the center of the courtyard was a small square surrounded by benches. One bench was occupied by an elderly couple reading Plath poems to one another. I feigned interest in the 19th-century tombstones engulfed by weeds, and I eavesdropped. “Oh, we must read Lady Lazarus!” the woman exclaimed, more shrilly than I thought the poem’s tone warranted. Dying/Is an art…
When they finally left, I walked over to Plath’s grave and sat down in front of it, remaining there for a long time in silence.
I thought about how far we both were from our hometowns in Massachusetts. How distant those places that we both loved, loathed, were wary of: the Smith College campus, which still feels haunted by her ghost; the eerily polished grounds of McLean; the tangled grid of Manhattan. I thought about how, for so many years, I felt as if my life traced hers, as I graduated from Smith and went to Europe on a Fulbright, then to London, exactly fifty years after she took her life. But here the path ended, and I could no longer take courage in knowing that Sylvia had forged on ahead of me.
I was about to leave when I noticed the bumblebees hovering at the flowers around Plath’s grave. Bumblebees, Plath’s own totem: a sure sign that I was brave enough to continue without her. Maybe, even, if I dared believe in that sort of thing, a sign that she knew I would be okay.
The encroaching weeds and wildflowers brought the poem “Mushrooms” to mind: We shall by morning/Inherit the earth. So far from home, in one of the remotest parts of England, here it was: my inheritance, the very real, alive, present earth. I left and began the long trip back to London, and shortly thereafter back to the States, determined not to squander it.