I returned as an old man to the house that I had quitted as a boy. The years in between had been filled with many adventures for me. Even love had taken me along her fair path for a season. But now all that was past. I was returning bent and broken and dreamless, returning to the only place that would take me in.
The house had fared no better than I had; its shutters were sad and broken, paint peeled from its walls, and thin patches shone in the roof that I was certain would let in the rains.
I was dispirited, and so were the damp rooms through which I wandered. Something within me knew how useless it would be to attempt to fix up the place: how much time, after all, did either of us have? No, we must settle for the present, and learn to do for one another until an end came, and the world out there marched on without us, scarcely noticing, much least caring, that we had gone on our way.
How mistaken I was. There are things that do care. There are things – spirits, ought I to call them? – who do not easily and naturally go on their way.
I was to learn this haunting truth for myself, though I did not imagine it on that warm autumn afternoon when I ventured a longer walk than was my custom.
“Exercise is essential,” the doctor had instructed. “But, in your condition, it is a bit of a tricky thing. Too much will lay you up with the gout and a fever, and be worse than too little; too little will freeze your legs so you’ll marvel that you were ever a young man and went traipsing over these hills, commanding your muscles to move at your will.”
His words frightened me, though I refused to make him privy to the fears I felt. There were no others to commiserate with or encourage me. A cleaning lady came in once every fortnight, straightening up the gloomy, haphazard interior as best she could. I arranged to pay the woman who cooked for the large family down the lane to bring me a portion of her hot evening meals, and loaves, sometimes cakes, from her weekly baking; I foraged on my own for the rest: and was content, by and large. I had my books to read, birds to watch at the sagging feeder that still swung from the old hawthorn tree. And I had my memories, pleasant and unpleasant, to chew upon.
This day, I had aimlessly ventured farther than my wont. The air was bracing and cool on my skin; the autumn sun warm on my head. I could not get my fill of the splendor of colors that drew me, unthinking, into the long narrow cemetery walk which was bordered on either side by trailing yellow birches and brilliant red maples, burning, burning above my head.
There was no sign or sound of any other living mortal in the heavy stillness until, after a few minutes, I sensed that someone was near. Looking up, I spied a child, a very young child, wandering off the path, among the dark, leaning gravestones. She was either singing to herself or crying softly; I could not tell which.
She is lost, I told myself, alarm surging through me. Surely her mother is somewhere near! But glancing round I could see no one, and the child was wandering further into the shadows. I found myself hastening after her, crossing the uneven, lumpy grass, stumbling awkwardly, holding out my hand and urgently calling.
The little girl turned and looked back. I was close enough now to discern that her eyes were blue, so blue that the intensity of their color almost hurt me, and her long, tangled hair raven-black. She paused, and I think she began to lift her hand to me, but then the blue sky seemed to shudder and turn instantly black.
I think I cried out – or was it the child? We gazed at each other. I felt the longing in her eyes, I felt it pierce me like the sharp edge of a knife or a long sliver of wood driven deep into my skin.
I put my hand to my head. When I took it away, the child had disappeared.
Not possible! I glanced wildly on either side, then behind me: the earth had seemed to swallow her up. Or perhaps it was the sky, lowering like a heavy, live veil or eerie mask, swirling, surging, unwilling to hold still. A cold nasty wind was driving it down, down, so that I felt its dark folds must smother me, and I turned madly, lowered my own head against the onslaught, and headed back to the house.
I know not how long it took me to work my way against that wind, and the heavy rain that drenched me entirely. I do not remember reaching the house, nor entering it. I do not remember removing my wet things, building up the fire, or drawing my chair close beside. I remember only the child: the thinness of her as the wind began to lift her flimsy garments, as she stood out white and stark against the ever-darkening sky. And her eyes. It seemed the gaze of those blue eyes yet bored into me, and I felt a terrible pain behind my forehead, and I could not stop shivering.
That is all. A strange, disquieting adventure, which I did my best to throw off. For nearly a week I immersed myself in my books. I puttered about the grounds, doing what I could to put the place a bit in order before the return of winter. I refused to turn my eyes North, in the direction of the old burial ground, the cemetery that had been set in place by the first settlers in the village, long before my grandfather’s time.
At length, as the weather softened into long Indian summer days, I was lulled by the gentleness, and told myself I would return and search out those ancestors. After all, I had many of my name and line who slept there. It would prove a pleasant and instructive undertaking for me. And I was bored, bored with my own company, and the silence around me. That is all I would tell myself. And so, on one fine day, I returned.
Gentle is an apt word; there was a gentleness in the graveyard, something in the very atmosphere beneath the long black tree branches and the spread of brilliant leaves, that spoke of love in all its varieties, and resignation to all the stages of existence, including the one we call death.
I looked about for the sexton, but unable to spot him, I wandered with a keen eye past clusters of Bates and Booths, Harwards and Leavitts, past Murdocks and Taylors, and dozens of odd names mixed between: the city of the dead as diverse with interest and variety as any of the living might be.
I found my own people, both the Pools and the Wagners. I do not know how long I stood, or knelt stiff-kneed among them, examining names and dates of the tragically young, of the distinguished very-old; of aunts and uncles and great-great-grandfathers, and unmarried dames; of a set of twins who died upon their third birthday, a bride who was struck and killed by a runaway team on her wedding day.
Life’s sorrows and complexities . . . the wonder of it all compacted and chiseled into a name and a date . . . into the dregs of remembrance when even those who remember are gone.
I did not see her at first; I think I heard her, a snatch of song carried by the low wind that scudded the leaves at my feet. I think I smiled at the sound; it is somehow re-assuring and pleasant to hear a little child sing.
“She is coming, she is coming!” a lilting voice chirped, so close beside me that I could not help but start.
“Who is coming?” I found myself asking.
“Why, mummy, of course. Aunt Jen said she has been crying, and I must be brave or they would not let her come.”
“You are brave,” I answered without thinking. “But, what must you be brave about?”
“Why, I have been awfully sick, you know, and the doctors frightened mother, and she is not well herself.”
The child leaned close, so that her dark curls brushed the sleeve of my jacket and her blue eyes held mine with their expression of concern and awareness far beyond her scant years.
“There is a very small grave somewhere here, you see – a little brother who came for such a very short time, and then left us, you know.”
“And that is why Mother cries?”
“Yes. She misses her baby dreadfully, and she does not want to admit that they have put him into the ground.”
A shiver passed over me. I bent my knees so that I was closer to her level. “What is your name?” I asked.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” she replied.
“But I want to know, dear.”
“Why, very well, then. I am called Laura Belle. Do you like it?”
“Oh, I find it quite pretty,” I breathed.
Laura Belle smiled. “Good. If you like my name and you like my black hair, perhaps you will help me.”
Something within me went cold, but I rose and shook off the feeling. “Of course, I will help you,” I said.
Just then the sun slipped behind a cloud and the wind picked up and began to be bothersome and unruly. “Do you think it is going to rain?” I asked aloud. “Perhaps we should find some shelter. Do you live near to here, child?”
“I shall be fine, Mr. Wagner.” Laura Belle brushed off my questions. “Are you going to help, as you said?”
“But how do you know my name?””
“I guess I just know it.” She shrugged her slight shoulders. “Oh, dear, it has gone all dark again. Black and windy; it always does when I come here.”
My mouth felt suddenly dry. “What is it you want from me?” I made myself ask.
“I want you to find my mother. Please find my mother, and tell her that I am all right.”
“But, my dear!”
“Please find her!”
The words trembled through me. I drew a deep breath.
“I must go now,” Laura Belle sighed. “But I shall come back. Will you come, too? Will you come?”
The entreating words sounded hollow and haunting. “Where shall I find your mother, little one?” I realized I was raising my voice against the wind’s howl. “Can you not tell me quickly now where you live?”
With a sudden crack like the report of a gun a large tree limb, almost above me, broke and landed on the ground at my feet. I glanced back and forth wildly, but I could see Laura Belle nowhere, it seemed the earth had simply swallowed her up.
The earth swallowed her! The very thought crawled over my skin like the prickles that are raised by a nightmare, or a sudden frightening shock. I simply stood there. I could not move or think. I could feel myself shaking. I did not understand what was going on here. But, did I want to? Was it possible to make sense of what I had experienced?
At length I turned and began to walk, and the more steps I took the more quickly I took them, for I felt an urgent compulsion to leave the stormy cemetery behind me, and I did not once look back.
But I went again the next morning, returned at noon, and once more just after my supper, before the evening shadows could have their way with the piles of leaves, the swaying, creaking tree branches, and the leaning headstones, that were already mottled, shaded and gray.
It was of no use; I saw not one sign of her; no child, no human being, no reason for me to keep turning my footsteps to seek – what? Why could I not go on my way, and let Laura Belle go on hers?
But I had promised, though not in so many spoken words, and the child was counting on me. So the following day I doggedly returned again, and this time I saw, in a distance part of the graveyard, past a small copse of willows and atop a little rise, the figure that was becoming familiar to me, and I felt my heart give a leap.
Laura Belle appeared to be dancing and singing, stopping now and again when a particularly pretty leaf caught her fancy, to pick it up and tuck it into the large pocket of her little blue coat. She did not see me; indeed, she was not looking for me. I cupped my hands around my mouth and called out to her, but the sound did not seem to carry more than a few feet from where I stood.
“She asked me to come back,” I said aloud. “I would not have come otherwise.”
“Now, don’t bother your head ‘bout it, sir. Children are flighty things, aren’t they? I suppose it’s gone clean out of her mind, whatever it was she said to you.”
I turned to see a man about my own age standing not ten paces from me, yet I had not heard his approach. He leaned on a long wooden rake and surveyed me. “Be you new in these parts?” he asked.
I explained, explained about myself, but only a little about my little visitor. “Are you acquainted with the young lady?” I asked.
“A bit,” was the answer I got.
“Do you happen to know where she lives?”
“Somewhere east,” he said, moving his head in that direction. “I am Tucker Sessions, gardener, gravedigger and general handyman, sir, but I don’t know many of the folks who come here, keeping as I do to myself.” He grinned suddenly, and the way his face wrinkled made me think that he must be older, perhaps much older than I was. “Course, they’uns feel the same way now, don’t they? Nobody comin’ here to bury a loved one is much concerned about chit-chatting with the help, or anyone else, for that matter.” He cocked his head, and his hair, a thin, faded brown, moved and resettled itself in strands that did not begin to cover his bald head. “You know what I mean, sir.”
I nodded. “I do. But I would certainly like to find that child’s mother.”
“Oh, I can help you with that.”
A shock – was it a feeling of fear? – trickled along the skin of my neck, like an annoyance of heat on a hot day. I ran my finger under my collar. “You can?” “Ellen Yates is her name and she be at the big place up on the hill, edge of town where the highway into the city starts.”
“She lives there?”
“She be living there for a season. ‘Tis a hospital – “ he coughed into his hand, “for the ill and disturbed, sir, and I believe she be a little of both.”
“I see.” But I did not. “Could you direct me to it?”
Mr. Sessions nodded, and proceeded with slow, exact instructions, so easy to understand that I did not write them down, but knew I could find what I wanted as soon as I sought it. I thanked him, then lifted my eyes again. Laura Belle was still jumping and playing, alone by herself as far as I could judge, and having a marvelous time. She raised her head as though she could feel my eyes on her and, lifting a little hand, waved to me. I found myself waving back. It seemed I could see the pleasure in her blue eyes smiling into mine, as though no distance separated us; as though she stood right there at my side.
I moved quickly again. A wind was blowing up. Was it going to storm again? I wanted to do this thing, this thing I had promised, and get it over with. When I reached the house I walked straight to the garage, dug my keys from my pocket, and started up the old Cadillac that had nearly two hundred thousand miles on it, but still hummed like a top. It took very little time for me to clear the few streets of the village and reach the outskirts where a few brave souls had built plain, unimaginative diners and gas stations along whose stark walls the dirty paint had peeled or faded to no real color at all.
I spotted the old building that sprawled a bit, but was as high as it was wide, perhaps five stories tall. I parked in front, cut the engine and, pushing the door with as much purpose and determination as I could, walked inside.
Though the broad hall was dim with old paint, the space was clean and not unpleasant. When a matronly-looking woman appeared from one of the side doors I asked to see Ellen Yates, and the woman merely smiled and said, as she turned toward the stair, “Follow me, sir.”
Up one floor and then another – were the bad cases kept in little cubicles near the top, I wondered, then shook my head at myself. Yet we kept going, up to the third, the fourth floor, and the room she led me to was a small one, tucked under a low wing of the eaves.
I thanked her, then paused. “Go right in,” she said. “Mrs. Yates will be happy to see you.”
I turned the door handle, pushed tentatively against the heavy wood and took one step inside.
“Mrs. Yates, Ellen Yates, are you in here?” My voice came out somewhere between a rasp and a croak; I cleared my throat and started again.
Then I saw her. She was sitting in a low rocker that had been placed by a window, and she was looking out – out at the gray sky and the crows that blew across it like black rags. Without turning she said, “Yes, I am Ellen Yates. Do I know you?”
I took another step into the room, still holding the door open with one hand. “No, ma’am, I fear we do not know one another, yet I have been sent here with good news for you.”
At this she turned her head slowly. Her hair was thin, her skin paper white and stretched tightly against her fine bones. I could see she was young, but something had aged her horribly, prematurely. I drew in my breath, for she had turned her eyes upon me, and they were the same startling blue, the same relentless blue as Laura Belle’s.
“Who could have sent you to me, sir?”
“I have seen your daughter, seen and spoken to Laura Belle.”
I had not meant to speak so bluntly; the blue eyes burned and froze.
“We met one another quite by accident,” I stammered, “and she said she was worried about you – because you were worried about her – and asked me to please tell you that she is well – she is well and happy.” Why did the words seem to stick in my throat?
“You have seen her!” Ellen Yates breathed the four words like a prayer. “Describe her for me. Tell me about her,” she pled.
For the next quarter hour I did just as she asked me, repeating my little store of information in as many patterns as I could contrive, over and over again. She kept nodding her head, and at last her frozen eyes began to soften. “I knew it,” she cried at last, triumphantly. “My sister-in-law is a spiteful woman, and she told me, she hinted – but that no longer matters. You have seen my Laura, and through you she has sent her love to me, and with that I must be content.”
I found that I liked this woman, this thin, wasted wisp of a woman. We smiled at one another. “Will you come to see me again?”
“Yes, of course,” I heard myself saying.
“Laura Belle is staying with my brother’s family, you know, until I can get out of this place. And I shall. I am determined to do so now.
“Good!” I cried as I moved closer, wanting to take her pale, blue-veined hand in mine, but not quite knowing how.
Somehow we murmured those pleasantries that would allow me to leave, to close the big door behind me. I stumbled in haste down the stairs, relieved to find no one in the front hall. I do not remember climbing into my car; I do not recall the drive home. I seemed to come back to my senses hours later, sitting in my big chair by the fireplace, staring into the thinning embers, feeling cold drafts at my shoulders and on my feet. I had turned on the lights; it seemed I had turned on every lamp in the large room, and I was glad for the encircling comfort and warmth of them now.
Would the child be expecting me? Surely, yes. Surely I must return and report to her. But I shrank at the very thought of it, and convinced myself that I had caught a chill out in the rain and must ply myself with tea and soup for a day or two before venturing outdoors again.
By the time I did, many of the leaves were wasted, the trees apologetically hanging their bare branches down. A dismal gray was becoming the predominant color in the colorless landscape, and I shivered, realizing, with a start, that I hoped Laura Belle was there, waiting for me, there where the resting places of the dead spread beneath the earth I walked on – earth they would rise and walk on no more.
I raised my eyes and searched in every direction, fighting a wave of disappointment, chiding myself at the intensity of this unreasonable expectation.
“It does not matter,” I muttered aloud. “The child has probably forgotten our meetings and gone on her way, perhaps re-united already with her mother, perhaps happy and content again. Children do forget; children do offend without meaning to.”
So my thoughts ran, and I was unaware that I had been speaking out loud.
“May I be of some help, sir?”
The voice, so nearby, so unexpected, made me jump a little and glance askance under beetled brows.
“You seem in distress. Are you having trouble locating someone – locating a place, or a person?”
“A person,” I heard myself say. “But not here – “I glanced down at my wet feet. “Not here, but among the living.”
As I said the words I heard a faint buzz in my ears, and I felt suddenly unbalanced, dizzy.
“Have you a name for this person? Are you certain they are not buried here?”
“A little girl? I spoke with her only a few days ago – saw her dancing and romping up there on that hill.” I pointed a long finger in the proper direction.
“Well, then,” the strange woman said, with a tone of finality, and began moving away.
“There was a name, though,” I added, needing all at once to find out something. “Family name of Yates. A mother named Ellen, who may still be alive, and a child, a very young child who died.”
The woman brightened and nodded. “I know the family well, sir. The lot of them are straight ahead and to the right a bit, just before the rise where you said you saw the child playing, under that copse of young hawthorn trees.”
I walked to where she pointed, and I could tell she was trailing behind me. As soon as I stopped she was at my elbow. “Why, look there,” she said, “’Ellen Yates, born 17 September 1827, died 11 November 1879.’ Could she be your Ellen?
“Of course, not. A grandmother, who perhaps she was named for.”
“But there are no other Ellen’s here.”
“The Ellen I told you of, the little girl’s mother, I saw her myself only last week.”
“Where did you see her?”
“Why, in that big brick hospital that sits at the edge of town. Mr. Sessions, the caretaker, directed me to it.”
“Mr. Sessions, Tucker Sessions, the caretaker?” The woman’s voice had gone quiet. He died in the flu epidemic of 1885.”
“What are you talking about?” I pulled off my hat and ran my fingers through my hair. “I tell you, I saw him last week!”
“He had no son, no grandson. Tucker never married.”
“And how, ma’am, do you know that?”
“He lived next door to my grandmother. They were great friends until his death. Would you like me to show you his grave?”
I stared, open-mouthed. “Do you know what you are saying?” I gasped.
“What was the little girl’s name?” A tender note had crept into the woman’s voice; she put her hand on my arm.
“Laura Belle. She looked to be seven years old, eight years old; it is not easy to tell.”
“Yes . . . yes . . . here she is. She died in the autumn of 1863. Her mother must have been . . . let’s see, thirty-six years old. Laura was going on eight.”
A gray dimness was spreading over me, I felt weak as a baby, and the black trees began swaying, swaying, and blurring before my eyes.
When I came to myself I was stretched out on my own living room sofa with a wet rag on my head. “What the deuce is going on here?” I growled, but an effort to rise sent my head spinning.
“You have had a bit of a shock, Mr. Wagner, that is all.” This from the kind stranger who had given me the shock, leading me to a grave – to her grave –
“I can see by your face that you do not believe, not even the evidence of your own eyes.”
I rose up on one elbow, despite the room’s spinning. “Precisely, madam! The evidence of my own eyes! Explain that, if you will. I saw Laura Belle on three different occasions. I spoke with her extensively, and she spoke to me. Then there was the caretaker, and the little girl’s mother – both as real as you or I. Explain this if you can!”
“Take some of the broth Mrs. Mason brought over, my good man,” the doctor said, stepping closer, “and a dose of this medicine I am leaving. Take a good dose before going to bed; it will help you sleep.”
He faded into the background; I assume he left by the front door. My eyes were riveted to the woman’s face, and she met my gaze with one of such sympathy that I heard myself sigh as I fell back onto the cushions. “I have not even introduced myself,” she was saying, “and I apologize for that. My name is Jane Sewell, and I am the local librarian and a bit of a history buff.”
I nodded in acknowledgement, as much as to say, Well, that is established. Continue then, madam, continue as quickly as you can. You have something else for me – you must have something else for me!
“I can tell you some things, but not everything,” she began. “And I am afraid I cannot explain what has happened to you.”
Even that backhanded acknowledge of my recent realities was somewhat of a help.
“Actually,” Jane Sewell continued, “I wrote a paper ten, twelve years ago on some of the more strange, intriguing local stories, and Laura’s was one. You see, the child did die when the mother was very ill, and it was agreed not to tell her about it. They kept maintaining that the little girl was sick, but not in danger; if the mother would calm herself, they promised to bring her daughter to her as soon as she was able to come.”
“Perhaps Ellen Yates did not believe them, but their ruse did not work as they had intended; Ellen, herself, grew more wild and demented each day.”
Jane paused. I think, as she told the story aloud to me, something new, though still vague, was presenting itself. She turned wide, wondering eyes upon mine.
“’She’ll be in the grave beside her daughter within days,’ it was predicted. Then, suddenly, one day a great change – a sudden change – came over the woman. She relaxed, and she began to take hope.”
“She survived—so the dates bear out.” The words were thick and dry in my mouth.
Jane nodded. “Yes, she survived, and went on to bear two more children, one of whom was a daughter who raised up seven children of her own. The other, a son, served twice as the mayor of our little city, and was a valuable and well-loved citizen. . . “ She was slowly shaking her head.
“One day –“ I said slowly. “One day . . . what made the difference?” This time Jane Sewell would not meet my eyes.
“You know what made the difference!” I spoke the words slowly, deliberately. “My visit made the difference – my assurance that her daughter was all right, that she was happy!” I drew a ragged breath. Instead of speeding up, racing away with me, as they tell it in books, the beats of my heart seemed to have slowed and become laboured, almost painful. “What did she do when she came out and found that, indeed, Laura Belle had died?”
“She used to tell folk; she wasn’t shy about telling folk – “ Jane’s voice had grown thin and small. “She said she knew what she knew, and she’d seen this kind man, and he had spoken to her and, after he left, she had felt her little girl’s spirit, like a tenderness fold around her.
“’Must have been someone from the other side,’ she explained it, ‘telling me to take heart and go on living. I wouldn’t have accepted Laura Belle’s coming, you see; I wouldn’t have had the strength to accept it – and, of course, my Laura knew that.’”
“Someone else from the grave . . .“ A cold shudder passed over me. “Not quite, but close,” I tried to quip. “Would she have believed someone from the future?”
“I hardly think so,” Jane pronounced.
“How do such things happen?” There was an agony in my own voice that startled me.
“Ahhh . . .” My new friend shook her head again. “I have not even a suggestion, much least an answer for that.” She leaned close and tucked the covers around me in a comforting manner. “But I can tell you this – I can guess why it happened, as I imagine you, yourself, can.
“Due to conditions we are at our wits’ end to try to comprehend, Laura Belle was able to make contact with you—save the sanity and the life of her mother—and, by doing so, enable others to be born, to lead noble and useful lives—people who had to come here and spin out their own destinies—“
I closed my eyes. I felt suddenly very, very weary. ‘Yes, you sleep now. I shall come again in the morning,” Jane promised.
The last thought I remember having was: I should like to meet Laura Belle again—on equal terms. I should like to ask her some questions . . . I should like to see her blue eyes.“
Jane Sewell kept her word. She came the following morning, and the one after that. She hauled me into the research room of the old library, into the newspaper archives, into the original schoolhouse, and fed me lunch in the summer kitchen of her grandmother’s big stucco house. But she did not take me back to the graveyard, and I did not go back on my own.
Winter came. I contracted a cold, then what the doctor called “walking pneumonia”. I was cooped up and ill and lonely, especially when the long shadows fell, and with them a stillness that was unnerving. The uselessness of life – of my life, at least – settled around me, as well. Jane was more than kind to work me into her daytime life, and she was excellent company, too. But, Nights! Each night seemed to get longer and darker, and more dreaded as the sky, drained of its sunset colors, bespoke of another’s approach.
One evening, while all within the house and without was yet a wash of gray silt, I sat alone in the sagging parlor, beside the wisps of a fire, smoking the tail end of my pipe, and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself. Then—as before—I heard, not saw something near me. The brief sound was as warm as a summer sun, as gentle as new, greening spring grass.
I held my breath. It came again. Louder this time. And with it a laugh I remembered. A child’s musical, innocent laugh.
“Mr. Wagner,” Laura Belle said, “you have not come to see me, though I have watched day after day for you. Have I vexed you? Are you angry – “ I spun round to face the voice. “Angry with you, little Laura?” I cried. “How could that be?” “Oh, good. I am glad of it,” she sighed. Even in that dimness the blue of her eyes blazed out at me, warming me, drawing me.
She was there. I could not have told you even the following morning what she was wearing, though I think her dark curls were pulled back to rest demurely beneath a little gray hat.
Is that how she appeared day after day, year following year? I am an old man, and my memory fails me; I could not tell you at all.
I only know that she comes. Not every night, but often enough that I can anticipate her; often enough that she pushes back the gloom and brings loveliness with her – that the words “I am lonely” have very little meaning for me.
She comes. We speak of many things, though I could not tell you in detail of a single one. I read stories to her from my favorite books, we play games, we laugh. Simple fare between people who care about one another, and that is all.
Four times a year I visit the old cemetery, and sometimes Jane Sewell walks with me, but Laura Belle never comes to me there. On Easter Sunday, on Christmas morning, on the day of my child’s birth and the day of her death, I place flowers all round her, and read out a sweet rhyme or two.
And I have arranged things. It was not difficult to locate a plot near her; indeed, it seemed almost uncanny that one narrow stretch of ground had remained unclaimed for over a hundred years, ground not six feet from Laura Belle’s bed.
I shall lie there in due time; sooner rather than later, I warrant, and that is all right with me. I have no fear of death, and I await the moment in patience – as I await each night the sound of her footstep, the lilt of her laugh, and her high, childish voice eagerly calling my name.
As it happened, Sir Reginald had been buried in this same far end of the graveyard many years ago. He was an old soul, and his headstone had long since crumbled away. Looking down from the bench, he could actually spot 3 small stones, which were all that was left of it. The park was created no more than 50 years ago, and as this particular bench had been placed just over Sir Reginald’s grave, he felt completely justified in claiming it for his own.
He had been content in this spot, especially now that he had a bench upon which to sit. But, he was growing increasingly lonely. Ferdinand the chimney sweep had recently decided to take, what Sir Reginald liked to call, the great leap to the sky. He had been Sir Reginald’s last surviving neighbor, as all the others had either gone off journeying, or taken the great leap before him.
Of course, there were the bugs and crawling things that still kept him company, but no rodent, bird or even alley cat would come within 10 feet of him, and he was beginning to resent it. Earlier that day he had watched a particularly mangy dog saunter lazily into the park. He had frozen, hoping that the dog might not notice, or even think he was still among the living and come to beg. But, without even a glance of recognition, as the dog neared, his course casually changed until he had made a lengthy half circle, and disappeared among the hedges.
Sir Reginald looked down at the family of centipedes that liked to forage in the cracks by his feet, and exclaimed, “He looked like he needed company even more than I!” He paused to watch them slither around in sympathetic recognition. “What hurts the most, you know, is that he wouldn’t even look my way. He wouldn’t even acknowledge me with a friendly wag of his tail!” He paused for a moment and then irritably added, “Honestly, frantic barking would have been a kinder approach than turning a cold shoulder!”
A particularly black and hairy spider crawled onto his arm and looked up at him. “Yes Harold, I know you understand my plight, but what am I to do about it? I am quite powerless, you know.”
The spider twirled around and paced quickly from side to side in a sort of spider-dance. Sir Reginald understood him completely and cut him off before he could finish, “Harold! I am not ready for the great leap! I don’t know if I will ever be inclined to do so!” He looked at the spider disapprovingly, “Please do not bring it up again.”
Harold made a movement that resembled a shrug, and then began his dance again. Once he was finished, there was a long pause before Sir Reginald replied. When he finally did speak, his voice cracked a little, “I…I suppose you are right. Journeying is my only other option. Unless, of course, I simply decided to stay here.”
He had smiled at this idea, but the smile soon faded. Harold simply stood there looking at him, as if to say, You know you can’t stay here forever Reggie!
Sir Reginald sat still, thinking it over. He sat like this for a long time, which could have lasted days or even weeks; time does not move the same way for someone who has been dead past the numbering of days.
Harold was finishing off a particularly juicy fly when Sir Reginald finally broke the silence. “I have decided that you are in the right. I have decided…” he stopped for a moment, struggling to find his next words, “I have decided to go journeying!” As he said this, he abruptly stood up, and took a few steps away from his bench.
He turned to look once more at the bench, the three pebbles and his adjacent grave. The centipedes were writhing their goodbyes. They were far too content in their bit of earth to want to join him. Harold, on the other hand, was a very adventurous spider, so he quickly jumped down from his web and scurried over to where Sir Reginald stood. Once he was settled comfortably on his shoulder, he wriggled around in excited anticipation until Sir Reginald took the hint and turned to face the path.
At first he had to take it one step at a time. After his 9th step, anxiety welled up inside of him and he thought that he would turn back. But, faithful Harold encouraged him until he was able to continue onwards.
Together they made their way into the depths of the graveyard. Sir Reginald observed that few souls were present, and knew that the vast majority of them moved on long ago. He saw a portly ghost up along the path. He was dressed extravagantly, had a tidily trimmed beard, and appeared to be talking to himself (unless, of course, he also had a spider of his own).
Sir Reginald, feeling a little shy, approached him cautiously. He was only a few feet away when the portly ghost finally noticed him. He abruptly stopped his speech, looked straight at Sir Reginald, and exclaimed in a loud, booming voice, “Good heavens my dear fellow, you have nearly startled me out of my breeches!” He paused for a reaction, but never received one. So, he continued, “Is there some way I may be of assistance to you?”
Sir Reginald didn’t know how to respond to this. He was in search of a friend, but felt that stating this fact might be a little too straightforward. So, he opened his mouth, and said, “Good day to you, sir!”
The portly gentleman looked satisfied with this response, “A good day, indeed! One might even go so far as to describe it as superior, fine, excellent!” At this, he danced a small sort of jig and followed it up by producing an embroidered bow.
Sir Reginald took a step back, not knowing how to respond to a statement such as this. He was able to produce an, “Um, yes. I suppose so.”
“Suppose so? My dear fellow! Do you not feel the overwhelming essence of Mother earth calling out to you?” At this, he patted Sir Reginald on the back, and with his other arm made a wide sweep as if he had never laid eyes on the scene before him.
“Why, you have just now interrupted me from a most captivating recitation on just this subject. Would you like I should begin anew? It has been so many years since I was actually able to perform to anything but nature itself. Not that I complain, sir, she is the most generous of mistresses.”
As the portly bard stood in anxious anticipation, Sir Reginald took a moment to organize his thoughts before responding. “You see; I have just left my grave to go a-journeying. I would love to stay, but the road calls me on. Please accept my kindest apologies. If my feet ever resolve to return, rest assured I will come to you first with every expectation of enjoying said recitation.”
Despite the obvious disappointment he had just given, Sir Reginald began to walk resolutely on down the path. He felt a small pang of guilt, but knew that eternity with such a friend would be too much to bear. Harold gave a simple shake as if to say, I fully support you in your decision and would have asked you to leave had you consented to stay.
He was beginning to remember what it was like to walk more than a few steps at a time, and his timid step soon had a spring in it. After a minute or two he spotted a lovely female ghost. She was perched on a gravestone about ten yards off the path and was busy brushing her long, flowing locks of hair. She paid no attention to him, and he decided that was for the best. He hadn’t had much luck with women when he was alive, and he doubted that his luck in that area had increased these long years after his death.
The path led him through an over grown area of trees, bushes and all sorts of plant life. When he emerged he immediately heard the cackling of birds. There were as least a dozen of them, and they descended and landed by him without warning. When Sir Reginald saw that they were crows, his heart sank. There had once been a Murder of crows that frequented his part of the cemetery, but they had long since given up on him and found other spirits to pester.
You see, crows were the one living thing that was not afraid of spirits. And, what’s more, they took it upon themselves to be, what they called, the Final Facilitators. They were always trying to get you to talk about your feelings, trying to get you to understand why your spirit had not moved on. More often than not, when they set their eyes on a ghost, he or she would be gone within a fortnight. This only encouraged the birds more, though Sir Reginald thought that many spirits probably made their great leap to the sky solely to get rid of the crows.
He tried to ignore them and continue walking by, but one cocked its head and said, “Well, who do we have here?” He flew to a closer vantage point, looking deeply into Sir Reginald’s eyes. “I do believe it is our long lost friend, Sir Reggie Townsend.”
He stopped walking and looked pointedly at the bird, “Reggie is a name reserved for my closest friends.” On his shoulder, Harold raised a few of his legs, which was the spider version of, well, it was a very rude gesture, lets just leave it at that.
Another crow chimed in, trying to speak a little more serenely than the first “There is no need to be upset. We are your friends and are only here to help you.”
Sir Reginald scoffed at this, “Yes, well, as you may recall I don’t want your kind of help. I never asked for it.”
They all spoke in unison at this, “Journeying is always a step in the right direction. Tell us, where are you going?”
It was always a little creepy when they spoke in unison, and cutting them short, he said, “Oh no, you don’t! You are not going to take credit for my decision to go a-journeying!”
They seemed to have no response to this until the first one piped up, “You are obviously lonely. Let us ease your pain. We know who you are and where you should be going.”
He was infuriated at this, “You bloody well do not know who I am! I must beg to differ, and bid you good day!”
The crows followed him for a minute or two, but knew he was a lost cause. So, feeling very sorry for him, they turned around and left him alone.
It took Sir Reginald a good while to walk off his anger. He slowly became aware of his surroundings, but had lost a little of his purpose. He passed at least half a dozen other ghosts before Harold reminded him just why he had left his bench in the first place. At the mention of his bench, he felt a little pang of regret. He was almost tempted to turn around, but remembering the crows suddenly made him more determined than ever.
Just then, the sound of many voices drifted over the air. He wondered if there was a funeral, and stepped cautiously ahead. All spirits knew that it was rude to disturb another’s funeral. But, as he approached the sound, he unexpectedly saw that it was a large number of spirits gathered together on a comparatively small plot of land. At first, he thought that they were having a party, but then realized that these things were rather taboo in the world of spirits (except on All Hollow’s Eve, of course).
He said quietly to Harold, “Whatever do you think they are doing there?”
Harold jumped and scurried around until Sir Reginald suddenly felt enlightenment dawn. He looked down to where Harold was pointing and saw a small marker on the ground. “Of course!”
The marker read: This spot is believed to be the location of a mass burial dated somewhere between the years 1348-1350. All souls who died from the Black Death were placed in unmarked graves, such as this. May they all rest in peace.
As he looked at them, he noticed that they all seemed to have the same sort of spots and blemishes. He was long since used to seeing ghosts (as it were), but a hoard of slightly demented spirits was still a little frightening to behold. They were, all of them, talking amongst themselves animatedly. He wondered if they always spoke this much, and if so, how on earth they found enough topics about which to speak.
Sir Reginald was also a little surprised that so many of them were still left, especially after so many long years. He supposed that since they had so much company, and were all united in death, none felt pulled to move onwards.
He wasn’t sure if he should attempt to interrupt them or not. He tried clearing his throat loudly, but none of them seemed to notice. He even chanced a, “Hello there!” But nothing happened. In the end, he moved on. Obviously they had all of the friends they needed and were not interested in meeting anyone new. And as he walked on, he actually felt relieved to have avoided an audible run-in with them, which may have proven to be overwhelming.
He was nearing the other edge of the graveyard now, and suddenly realized that darkness had probably fallen hours ago. He was a little frightened to continue on to the world outside, but felt he had no other choice; surely he could return if he want to. As long as he kept reminding himself of that, then he would always be able to take the next step. After passing the grand, aged, iron gate, he chose the path to his left, and set out at a steady pace.
He continued on his chosen course for a very long time. At first, there were rows upon rows of houses. He approached a few that seemed to have particularly inviting lights peeking through their windows. He saw a family gathered around a rectangular object that was projecting images of people in rapid concession, it reminded him of a live painting. There was a woman sitting up late with a book in one hand and an infant resting in the other. In one particularly tall and narrow house he observed an old woman surrounded with at least a dozen cats, one of which flew to the window and began to hiss until he went away.
After a while, the houses started giving way to shops. He passed a homeless man who was asleep in the doorway of a bookshop. When he stopped to observe him closer, the man squirmed in his sleep. Even if the living were asleep, they could obviously still sense the presence of a ghost.
As the sun started to rise, he began to see automobiles driving down the streets. Then the shopkeepers emerged; opening doors, unlocking gates and displaying their fresh produce or other such items. At first he just continued his stroll, trying to make a wide berth when any individual came his way. But this became increasingly harder to do as more and more people began to make their way along the city streets.
He tried to avoid them, but many of them ended up brushing through him. He didn’t mind this very much for himself, but there was always a terrible reaction from the person. One woman broke into tears; another began screaming at the little girl who was walking along with her. One man became suddenly violent, and was subsequently dragged off by the police.
Harold was also having a hard time of it, as some people noticed a spider floating through the air and tried to exterminate him. No doubt they assumed he had made an invisible spider web there the night before. Few people knew that spiders were the only things left on this earth that could physically touch a ghost, so long as the ghost was willing.
Sir Reginald was becoming a bit frantic when he suddenly spotted his escape; down a less crowded side street, there was a bus stop with a deserted bench. He was so relieved to see a bench that he practically ran to get to it. He sat down abruptly and took a deep sigh of relief.
He had been basking in his contented bench-sitting for at least half an hour when he suddenly realized that there was a small boy sitting next to him. He was wearing a typical, grey school uniform and appeared to be no older than seven or eight. Sir Reginald gaped at the boy, not knowing what to do. And then the boy returned his gaze and spoke, “Hello Sir. How are you today?”
Sir Reginald looked around to see if there was anyone else standing by, but there was no one. He was dumbfounded, and questioningly pointed at himself. The boy nodded and said, “Well of course I’m talking to you. Who else would I be talking to?”
“Well, I…” His mind was racing. A real, live, human boy was talking to him! “I’m sure I don’t know.” He paused again, and added, “My name is Sir Reginald Townsend.” He would have held out his hand for a formal shake, but he knew that would have been fruitless.
The boy’s eyes widened slightly, and he said incredulously, “Sir? I’ve never met one of those before! My name is Ernest.”
“It is very nice to meet you Ernest!” he said, rather more enthusiastically than he had intended.
They sat quietly for a minute or so, until Sir Reginald broke the silence. “I’m not sure how to ask you this question, but I was wondering how you are able…That is to say…are you aware that I am…not like all the others you see around you?”
The boy gave a very innocent and endearing smile, “I take it you really are a ghost then? I mean, I had noticed you were a bit transparent, but I wasn’t sure if that was the morning sun playing tricks on me.”
There didn’t seem to be any fear as he spoke these words, and Sir Reginald was yet again astounded. “Then you…aren’t afraid of me?”
Ernest’s smile widened even further, “Are you kidding? I have always wanted to see a ghost! And now, being able to talk to one just goes above and beyond all I had ever hoped for!”
At this, Sir Reginald matched the boy’s smile, and said, “Well, I am very happy to oblige! Do you know how long it has been since I have spoken to someone who is still living? To tell you the truth, you are the first since my demise.”
The boy seemed terribly interested, “And how long ago might that have been?”
He had to think about this one for a moment, “If I remember correctly, I was born in 1627 and died in the winter of 1679. I remember it was winter because it took them an awfully long time to dig up the ground in which they eventually placed my remains.”
Ernest enthusiastically said, “That is amazing! Why, you lived hundreds of years ago! I’ll bet you could tell me things that would really impress my history teacher!”
“No doubt I could, young lad!”
As he said this last remark, a large white bus pulled up to the nearby pavement. The boy looked up, startled, and quickly said, “Oh dear! I have to go to school now!” As he grabbed for his bag and lunch box, he said intently, “I don’t suppose you’ll be here when I get back?”
Sir Reginald was touched to the core, and calmly replied, “I have no plans of going anywhere else, Ernest.”
“Fantastic!” The boy shouted as he walked toward the bus. Just before he entered, he turned back and said, “I’ll see you later then, Reggie!”
Sir Reginald nodded approvingly, and watched the bus pull away. Harold squirmed frantically as he descended onto the bench next to him. “I am sorry, Harold! It completely slipped my mind. I suppose there will be plenty of time for introductions later.” Harold squirmed away to find a suitable spot for a new web.After a long time of talking to Harold and observing traffic, Sir Reginald looked down at the cracks and crevices and noticed a family of centipedes. He smiled brightly as he tapped the arm of his new bench.
You can’t tell where her flesh ends
And his bones begin.
In the dim light the hollows
Of her soft curves
Turn into the dipped
Hard line of his pelvis.
She clutches him,
Pressing him closely
Into her warm skin.
A small frown tempts the corners
Of her pink mouth
As his yellow teeth spread