This short story, “A Walk through the Cemetery” appears in one of my e-Books, “More Cemetery Tales and other Phantasms” and is copyrighted, but I offer it for you this weekend.
A piercing shriek roared through the evergreens; loud, hard, and violent, then died as soon as it began. A small branch, high in an evergreen, snapped off from a longer limb and fell to the ground. Leaves fluttered down from nearby maples. Upon hearing the howl a man walking in the cemetery stopped and looked up at the swaying tree tops. A storm coming he thought as he looked at the dark gray clouds swiftly arriving from the east, beginning to blot out the sun.
He walked through the cemetery nearly every day since his retirement. Good for the heart. Build up the legs as well. Mountain View Cemetery took up a few city blocks in length, so it was a good walk from end to end, then a few blocks to the park with a small lake where he once saw a river otter swimming. There was a dog park farther down from the lake. Also there were sheltered picnic areas, ball fields, and a wading pool. Years ago he attended a memorial service in one of the shelters for a deceased relative.
He thought about that service when he was walking through the cemetery last week. There appeared to be a celebration going on. A grave had dozens of balloons, the kind you find in grocery stores with writing on them, tied down with rocks. Cars were parked along the back of the cemetery where people were greeting each other like it was a reunion; everybody drinking something from cups, kids eating hot dogs, grownups with chicken in their hands. The man did not know whether to chuckle at a picnic in a cemetery or be impressed that so many came to honor what must be a deceased relative.
Today the cemetery was quiet, nobody in sight. Except for the man sitting on a small John Deere tractor with a large claw that was digging up dirt. As he neared the man he saw that there were two by fours on each side of the rectangular pit. It was a grave, one being made new and fresh for an occupant.
He watched for a minute. Then the man got off the tractor, got a long pole and placed it in the pit at various spots. “Are you measuring to make sure it is all even,” he asked.
The man with the pole said nothing.
“I didn’t mean to bother you. I have never seen a grave dug before that’s all. It’s kind of interesting. Not to you of course. To you it’s work. Do you mind if I watch?”
The man with the pole set it down and climbed back onto the tractor. The claw scooped out more dirt, and then the arm of the claw swiveled around and dropped the dirt into a wagon. After this was done twice the man climbed down once again and did his measuring. He began to stomp down a section of the pit close to where the tractor was.
“I’m guessing it must be close to being done huh?”
The man in the pit said nothing.
“Did you hear that wind screeching a few minutes ago? That was something wasn’t it?”
The man in the pit climbed out, walked to the tractor, opened a knapsack, took out a sandwich, took a bite, then placed the sandwich in a plastic bag, and placed it in the knapsack.
“Is there some kind of rule about not talking to gravediggers, or whatever you call yourselves? I’m just trying to be civil and thought it interesting what you were doing. Forgive me if I am being out of line, but are you a mute? I’m not trying to be funny here, just wondering why you won’t talk with me.”
The gravedigger, if that was what he was, walked about ten yards to a grave and set upright a small vase that had fallen over. He walked away leaving the man to himself. The man walked over to the grave where the grave digger had set the vase and reading the headstone realized the man resting below was a new arrival, having died a few days ago.
He looked for the gravedigger, but did not see him. The man continued his walk until he was at the entrance. He stopped, though he did not know why. But he did not want to walk to the park. For some reason he wanted to continue to walk here. So he walked, not down his normal path, but on the path that took him along the outer edges, a much longer walk. After about twenty minutes he encountered another man who was raking up some fall leaves.
“Excuse me, but do you work here?”
“Yes, can I help you with something?”
“It’s about a co-worker of yours, the other one here today.”
“I am the only one working today. What man are you talking about?”
“He was over there; you see where the tractor is. He was digging a grave, then got out and looked to be measuring the depth of the grave, I guess anyway, with a pole.”
“And when did this happen?”
“Oh, I don’t know. About half an hour ago, give or take.”
“Uh huh. Well I didn’t see him.”
“I did. The tractor is about what, fifty yards or more from here. Maybe you didn’t see him because you’re here working.”
“I wasn’t here half an hour ago. Just came over here a few minutes ago.”
“Well this guy had a knapsack in the tractor and I saw him reach in and get a bite of a sandwich.”
“What kind was it? Ham and cheese?”
“I don’t know what kind?”
“Well what about this guy you’re talking about anyway. What’s the problem?”
“I was watching him and asked some questions about what he was doing. But he would not answer me. I was trying to be friendly and all and he ignored me like I wasn’t even there. Don’t see the reason for him to be rude.”
The man with the rake lost a little color in his face. “What did this man look like?”
“Well he was maybe about fifty or so, not to good with figuring a man’s age you know. But was tanned like he worked outdoors, and his skin was real smooth, kind of aristocratic you might say. Tall and lean.”
The man with the rake shook his head. “Don’t know him, never seen him, don’t want to see him.”
“What is going on here? If you don’t know him, aren’t you worried about him fooling around with your equipment? Was that your sandwich he took a bite from?”
“Look, the next time you see him, just leave him alone. And be grateful he doesn’t talk with you. He is not somebody you want to know and you, for sure, do not want to engage in any conversation with him, about anything.”
“So you do know him then? What’s his story?”
“The truth I told you. I don’t know him, but I know of him. Just let it be, forget about it.”
The man with the rake then dropped it and walked hurriedly away towards an area where the tractor was stored.
Just forget about it he says, thought the old man later as he sat in his home watching a show on TV called “Diggers,” about two men with metal detectors who go to historic sights looking for artifacts. How do you forget something like this? Why was this gravedigger, if that was what he was, being so rude and why did the man with the rake tell me to stay away from the man he has never seen in the first place. None of it made sense.
The old man did not have a restful night. Sleep came in awkward fits, awakened by the sensation of something, maybe a spider crawling up his leg; then later on his other leg. He brushed the sensation or spiders away. The sound of what seemed like somebody standing outside his window scratching softly on the glass. He felt probed and poked. He woke up, but nobody was there. Sounds real or imagined-and if imagined-just as real, for delusions have their own reality, kept him awake. He would not give into sleep. He would remain watchful, vigilant. Finally the sounds, the sensations went away. All was still. His eyes weary, feeling nothing, sleep came whether wanted or not.
He awoke the next morning without any memory of a sleepless night. In fact he felt at peace, rested and refreshed. He was not hungry, but eager for a walk, so he headed out to the cemetery.
The morning was sunny and warm, birds chirping; a late autumn gift to soothe woes, lift spirits, the last chance to enjoy the warmth of the sun before winter brings gray skies, cold weather to chill the bones.
The man enjoyed the walk through the pioneer section of the cemetery, a section thick with evergreens, dirt roads, and tombstones so old that one was tipped askew; facing a tree as if looking into a mirror, the name and dates of the deceased could not be read without bending down and around and then the weathered name was near impossible to make out.
When he came to the columbarium the evergreens gave way to a few maples, but mostly clear spaces with long rows of graves. When he walked from the dirt trail to the paved path he saw the tractor exactly where it was yesterday and standing next to it was the aristocratic man who would not speak with him. He was standing next to an open grave below a canopy, chairs aligned facing the grave.
The man walked up to the tall and lean man and asked, “Do you remember me from yesterday?”
“It wasn’t yesterday, it was a couple of days ago, but of course, I do remember you.”
“You may be younger than me, but I know it was yesterday. I am not senile. Why wouldn’t you talk with me? What’s wrong with you anyway?”
“Don’t let appearances deceive you. I am much older than you. I did not talk with you because there was nothing I had to say to you. I was aware of your questions, but really, it was obvious what I was doing. I really don’t like small talk. I knew you would return and I knew your questions would be answered. I am patient. All things in their time.”
“You’re an odd duck. I talked to your buddy yesterday. He says you don’t work here, that I shouldn’t talk with you. So what are you doing here?”
“Well, ‘my buddy’ as you call him is not my buddy. He is the caretaker here at Mountain View. I am merely the gravedigger. We have separate responsibilities and never see each other. I don’t think he likes me much, not many do I’m afraid.”
“Well if you don’t talk with people you won’t have any friends. Kind of obvious don’t you think?”
“I talk with people when the time is right.”
“I guess the time is right for me because here we are chatting.”
“Yes the time is right.”
“So who died?”
“Look for yourself.” He pointed towards the head of the grave. The man walked over and stood in front of it. He did not know whether to laugh or be mad. He looked to the tall and lean man who was smiling.
“Some joke. What’s the gag? This headstone has my name on it and yet I am here talking with you. Standing right here, standing and talking, and you are listening and talking. We are talking here.”
“Yes we are talking aren’t we?”
“Well then, I’m not dead, I’m alive.”
“Of course I am you nut. I can’t be dead if I’m talking with you. That caretaker guy said there was something wrong with you, that I should stay away from you and now I know why. You’re going to get into trouble for this. What happens when the mourners arrive and see the name on the headstone? What then huh?”
“Do you hear anything?”
“What? What do you mean ‘do I hear anything?’ Of course I do. I hear you don’t I?”
“Did you hear the cars arrive? Did you hear the car doors being opened? Do you presently hear any voices besides mine?”
The old man turned and looked. He saw his cousin Pamela first, then Denny, Brad, John, Mindy, all cousins. He saw his children, his grandchildren. He saw friends, acquaintances, business associates. Everyone he saw, he knew. He called to them. They did not answer. He walked up to them and said hello. They did not answer. Frustrated, he walked back to the tall and lean man. “I am not dead. I am standing here. I am wearing cargo pants, a Hawaiian shirt. I am not in a coffin. This is quite a prank, but it’s not funny anymore.”
“You did request, did you not, to be buried in comfortable clothing, saying cargo pants and a Hawaiian shirt?”
The old man thought for a second. “Of course you would know that. It is part of the prank. I told a few people about what I wanted. It is in my lawyer’s file. Of course you would know and be part of all this.”
“But alive you would be wearing shoes. Are you wearing shoes?”
The old man looked down. “I forgot them. I was eager to go for a walk, to see you, to find out what was going on with you yesterday, to question your rudeness.”
“And did you have breakfast. I think not.”
“I wasn’t hungry, that’s all.”
“But you always have breakfast. Don’t you?”
“This is absurd.”
Everyone was seated. Some man he did not know was speaking about the old man. The old man looked at the tall and lean man, and then turned and walked away. He was going to resume his walk. He was going to walk to the park today, to see the lake, maybe the river otter, stop at store for a candy bar. He would not take part in this stupid joke.
As he approached the building housing the tractors he saw the caretaker. He walked up to him, raking leaves as he was yesterday, and said, “That stupid gravedigger talked to me today. You were right. He is somebody you don’t want to talk with, what a nut case.”
The caretaker said nothing.
“Oh for God’s sake. Are you in on this joke too; they get to you. Who is responsible for this anyway? You must know?”
The caretaker said nothing.
“The joke’s over. I’m on to you guys. Very elaborate. Everybody I know is involved, but it’s over. You can tell me, you can talk with me.”
The caretaker said nothing.
“He can’t hear you.” It was the tall and lean man.
“You know I’m going to walk out of here you know. I just am. You can’t stop me. This is not funny.”
“You are free to walk wherever you want to go. It changes nothing. The last time you saw me I would not talk with you because it was not the right time, but the caretaker talked with you didn’t he. You were alive then. But today is your funeral. The caretaker, your family, your friends, all who came, could not see you, nor hear you. Because you are dead you see. I can talk with you now because I am the gravedigger.”
The old man stared at the tall and lean man, and then turned to stare at the caretaker; the old man’s face grimacing, he turned and walked in circles around the two men, pacing quicker and quicker, anger rising within him. He had enough. He stopped and all the frustration, all the anger, all the fed up emotion came out in one loud, bellowing scream.
A piercing shriek roared through the evergreens; loud, hard, and violent, then died as soon as it began. A small branch, high in an evergreen, snapped off from a longer limb and fell to the ground. Leaves fluttered down from nearby maples. Upon hearing the howl a woman walking slowly in the cemetery stopped and looked up at the swaying tree tops. A storm coming she thought as she looked at the dark gray clouds swiftly arriving from the east, beginning to blot out the sun.
Thanks for reading my story. I hope you enjoyed it.