Grave Digger

The folks here call me Grave Digger. I’ve been shoveling dirt here at St. Phillip’s for almost seventy years. Some of the folks here I know from town. Most of them I met after I started working here. It’s a good job. Pay’s decent. I don’t have a 401K or anything, but my work keeps me young. I get to work outside, and I get the holidays off. People say things about all cemeteries, but this one really is unique.

I’ve learned a lot of history working here, too. Like, I know Count Franklin Schmidt IV founded this town in 1762. I know his son, Franklin Schmidt V, fought in the war of 1812. The countess was a real kind lady named Emeraldine-a very friendly sort. With his young wife, Louisa, Franklin Schmidt V had a son the couple named Bartholomew Alastair Conroy Schmidt. After the war, Franklin Schmidt V took a government office, and when young Bart was old enough, Franklin offered him a position. But Bartholomew had a taste for the sea, and he took off with a merchant ship in the summer of 1845. Bart worked legitimately for a time, but just like too many men during his era, he discovered the real profit was in freebooting. He turned pirate somewhere around his thirty-eighth birthday. In the fall of 1862, Franklin Schmidt V, who was then nearing his eightieth year, watched his only son dangle from the hitch. Louisa, having succumbed to cholera in the spring of 1847, was spared the tragedy of losing her only child to the gallows.

Lady Leona Betancourt arrived in our city from Paris in 1856 with her elder husband, Old Man Williams. Some folks said she only married him for his money, but Leona claimed there was a burning passion between her and the old man from the moment they met. Only two people know the truth, and both of them are dead. Old Man Williams’ demise, though he was quite up in age, was deemed mysterious. Leona was visiting her sister in Lyons when the old man was found by neighbors, soggy and dead in the bath. The widow inherited every bit of his wealth, including properties on both sides of the Atlantic. Rumors speculated she’d taken a lover, but no one had any accounts of ever meeting the mystery man. Some said he was a sailor, and postulated his being off at sea was the reason no one actually saw Leona with her lover. Tales grow tall amongst the elite in this city. Leona was ostracized when her acquaintances decided Old Man Williams’ death was a murder conspired by Leona and her unknown lover, the supposed sailor having carried out the deed himself. Leona lived in her Uptown mansion, alone but for a housemaid, until her own death in 1862. The housemaid discovered Leona at the bottom of her high marble staircase, skull split apart like a cracked coconut. The housemaid was never suspected of foul play, however, since Leona left a note simply saying she could no longer bear to exist on this Earth with her true love. Leona was buried in her favorite crimson frock, the last gift she received from her husband.

*****

The pocket watch my old man left me ticks in my coat pocket, reminding me that the night is approaching the proverbial witching hour.

“Got a cigarette, Grave Digger?” Comes a corroded voice through rotted vocal chords. I turn, and with a flick, I ignite my Zippo’s orange flame, illuminating my companion’s deteriorating visage. His empty eye-sockets, home to various pests, are fixed on my own eyes. He leans forward and lights his cigarette then returns to an upright position. Smoke wisps out of the head, the eyes and the center of the skull where a nose once was, resembling an incense burner fashioned after a Death’s Head. Insects scurry about, irritated by the intrusion of the smoke.

“You’re working late,” he observes. He straightens the sleeves of his threadbare dress coat and tosses the rope that hangs from his neck over his bony shoulder.

“I decided weren’t no reason to go home all by myself when I can stay and finish up this job,” I answer.

“Seems a man like you would want to rest his back,” says my companion, “seeing as it’s so crooked.” The fingers of his skeletal hand rattle as it slaps my wasted spine.

“I’m old, Bart, but I ain’t dead,” I say, lighting my own cigarette.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks, peevish. “Well,” he continues after a silence, “you’ll be dead in enough time, mate. Believe me.”

I smile. Not soon enough, I want to say. Some essence of this accursed graveyard has delayed the Reaper’s visit.

Headlights appear on the road in the distance.

“You reckon’ it’s a new neighbor?” Bart asks.

“Nah,” I say. “They don’t bring them in this late.”

The headlights are stationary for a moment, and then make the inevitable turn all lost vehicles make when their drivers discover they’ve traveled too far down a dark, unknown path.

“Gone the wrong way, I figure. Don’t want to get lost on this route, eh?” Bart chuckles and tosses his cigarette into the open hole I’m digging. He looks at me. “That wasn’t disrespectful or nothing, was it? I don’t mean to disrespect the dead.” He howls with laughter, throwing his smooth, hairless skull back so far it seems it will break from the spine. The cranium appears luminescent from dew in the moonlight. I think of some folklore about crystal skulls.

“I like you, George, old man,” he states, his voice reminds me of the groan of warped wooden ship bows that have been too long at sea. “I hope you don’t mind me leaving that cigarette.”

I shake my head without responding. I know Bart’s incorrigible, even in death, and always will be. I watch as he ambles away. Another figure joins him, a petite frame swathed in a tattered crimson frock that sways with the motion of its wearer’s hips. Bart bows and addresses his escort, “Madame Betancourt.” She curtsies. Bart throws his bony arm across the lady’s shoulders. They stroll together along a well-traveled avenue among their neighbors while I observe the now enlivened festivities and finish my cigarette.

The Spinet

It was cold. Colder than usual for a fall night. Carl looked upward. The stars were like far away diamond specks against the sky’s sapphire backdrop. The first quarter moon was bright and cast a smoky glare. Carl thought it looked like rain.
It’d been six months since Carl last walked the trail through the woods to the old house, his grandparents’ house. There was no reason to since grandma’s funeral. But his mother had asked him and his brothers to remove the old spinet. Once his great-great-great-grandmother’s, the instrument had literally been in the family for centuries. His brothers were supposed to be meeting him there with the truck. Carl thought they should have gone earlier in the day, but Geof didn’t get out of work until after five. And Brian couldn’t make it until eight for some reason. He didn’t have an explanation, like usual. We always do things on their schedules, thought Carl.
Carl’s foot came down on something long and narrow. It was hard, harder than a small fallen branch or brush. The thing rolled as Carl’s shoe made contact with it, and Carl’s foot slid before him for about a foot before he caught himself on an extended tree limb. He knelt down to examine this long, narrow, and hard thing.
It was difficult to see at first because Carl’s eyes hadn’t adjusted to the level of light under the canopy of trees. He held the thing, holding it in both hands, his palms open. He lifted it with care, like an infant at a baptism.
Carl squinted to see in the dimly lit woods. He brought the thing closer to his face, and when he realized what he held, he threw it down and wiped his palms against his clothes-as if he would cleanse them that way. His breath was heavy; he placed a hand on his chest. He stared at the thing. Carl turned around, looking in all directions, as if he would find an explanation as to why such a thing was laying on the path.
He contemplated turning back, but he decided it was best to walk to the house. Geof and Brian would be there. He would tell them. Maybe they would call the police.
Carl swallowed hard, but his mouth and throat were dry. He could feel his pulse in his head and in his throat.
Suddenly, Carl was aware of the sounds of the woods. Sticks cracked under the foot of some unseen animal. The bushes’ leaves thrashed and whipped, the victims of some unknown commotion. A cat shrieked.
Carl broke into a run, nearly tripping down the path as his feet attempted to outrun his body. Neither Geof nor Brian were there when he arrived at his grandparents’ dark and abandoned house. He wanted to go inside, but he didn’t have a key. He wished he’d brought the thing with him. He didn’t remember where it was. He was so frightened by his discovery that he couldn’t remember where on the path the thing was located.
Ten minutes passed as Carl stood with his back against the house. With his leg crooked, he tapped his shoe against the wooden slats. They were neglected and needed painting. Carl’s mother had sent him and his brothers to paint the house, but their grandmother refused to allow it saying she’d rather spend the afternoon with her boys. She took them all in from the heat and made them lunch and dessert. Five days later, she suffered the stroke. Carl thought of his grandmother and wished she were there now, to take him inside.
After fifteen more minutes, the headlights of Brian’s Chevy appeared on the long driveway. Carl stood in front of the house waiting for his brothers, squinting against the light. Geof exited the truck first, then Brian’s door swung open. He groaned, and he stepped out.
“Let’s get this done,” he said as he pulled up the waist of his jeans. “What’s wrong with you?” Brian asked when he saw Carl’s anxious expression.
Carl explained to his brothers about his discovery. He told them how he’d fled and didn’t exactly remember where to find it. His hands were shaking, and he crossed his arms and stuffed his hands into his armpits.
“It’s probably from some animal,” scoffed Geof.
“I’m telling you, it isn’t,” insisted Carl. “I’m in my third year of biology. I know the difference.”
Geof and Brian looked at one another then back at Carl. They decided to call the police.
“If it’s some kind of dog or something, I’m going to kick your ass, Carl,” swore Brian as Geof made the call.
“It’s not,” Carl said. “I swear to you; it’s not.”

The men moved their family’s spinet into the truck while they waited for the police to arrive. Carl thought he would feel more comfortable inside the house, but he didn’t. The electricity had been turned off, but everything else was the same. The furniture was all there, the television. All of the doors in the house were open. It was as if his grandparents simply vanished leaving everything in place. Carl thought it was creepy.
The police arrived just as Geof was locking-up. Carl explained to them about his find, and that he wasn’t sure where on the trail he’d found the thing. Another police car manned by two officers pulled into the long driveway. The seven men started on the path, walking away from the house. The officers held flashlights, and their beams joined to create one uniform glow over the path. They were almost to the end when Carl stopped them.
“It wasn’t this close to the street,” Carl explained.
“We walked the whole path, Carl,” sighed Geof.
“I know but . . .” Carl was interrupted by the sound of brush crackling and more chaos in the tall grass between the trees. The officers shone their lights in the direction of the noise. It stopped, and they walked into the woods to investigate. Brian and Geof followed, and finally so did Carl.
Carl stood several feet behind his brothers and the officers, not wanting to be left alone but not wanting to head into the danger. The officers moved the leaves of the bushes around while Geof and Brian watched. It seemed they were satisfied they hadn’t found anything significant, and all seven men turned back to the path.
“Good job, jackwad,” sneered Brian as he passed Carl and gave him a hard push.
“It was there. It was somewhere,” said Carl. It really was, he thought. Wasn’t it?
The others walked back toward the house while Carl followed, staring at the dirt the whole time. He hoped to see his thing. He didn’t imagine it.
Brian and Geof were far ahead of Carl, talking to the officers and offering apologies for their brother. Carl heard something to his left, like shoes shuffling in the dirt. Before he could turn to look, four hands were on him, forcing him into the brush. Someone pressed a long, narrow, hard thing against his throat.
“Seems you found something don’t belong to you,” a man breathed into Carl’s ear. Carl could smell his rancid breath. He tried to scream, but the thing was pressed hard against his throat. Someone else took hold of him, and then he was off his feet.
Carl struggled and writhed, but the men were too strong for him. He was losing oxygen and losing strength. When they reached their destination, the man holding Carl’s legs let go of them so that his feet struck the ground hard.The first man with the rancid breath was still holding the thing against Carl’s throat. Carl looked up at the man through his half-opened eyelids. The man realized this and spat in Carl’s face. Carl tried to turn his head, but the thing was pressed too tight against him.
The second man had Carl’s legs again, and the first man abandoned the thing he used to crush Carl’s trachea. He took Carl by the shoulders, and both men heaved him into a sort of pit. Carl was dizzy, but having his oxygen renewed, he scrambled to his feet. He looked at the high earthen walls surrounding him. Helpless, he looked up at the men. They grinned at him and turned away for a moment. Carl clawed at the dirt, but it was useless. The more he tried to climb out, the more the soft clay came apart in his hands and crumbled to the floor of the pit. With his back pressed against the cool, damp earth, Carl peered at a form crouched in the corner. His heart rate increased, and his breathing was again heavy. He swallowed, but his mouth was full of dirt. Carl knelt down beside the figure in the corner. Mud struck Carl’s head as the men shoveled dirt on top of him. Carl’s hand shook as he reached out to touch the figure. It tumbled to its side when Carl’s trembling hand felt it. He could then see it was a female skeleton, its left femur missing. Carl knew. He was in his third year of biology.