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The Gravedigger

Elias Adams leaned on his shovel. Thirty feet ahead, Father Callahan was finishing up the funeral for old Mrs. Worther.

Elias could hear the priest’s closing prayer, but paid it no heed. Instead, he gazed at the angel statue that stood at the center of the cemetery. Elegantly carved out of marble, it depicted Saint Michael battling a serpent. Two wings sprouted out of the angel’s back and he was wearing full armor. His perfectly symmetrical features were emotionless, even though his sword was poised to deal a death blow to the great serpent coiling around his ankles.

“Amen,” Father Callahan finished.

“Amen,” the assembled mourners repeated.

“Fools,” Elias said under his breath.

He didn’t know much. If he did he’d be something other than a gravedigger. But even he was smart enough to know that the stories about life after death, angels, and souls were a fat lot of nonsense.

He tossed his shovel into his wheelbarrow and watched the mourners disperse. He couldn’t get to work until everyone had left the graveside.

Some mourners headed back to their carriages, while others went in search of graves of other rotting loved ones. A few remained to talk to Father Callahan, but they thankfully kept their conversations brief.

When only Father Callahan remained, Elias grabbed the handles of his wheelbarrow and pushed it over next to the hole.

“Doing well, Elias?” Callahan asked.

“As well as I can, father,” he replied.

“God bless you.”

Father Callahan walked away and Elias rolled his eyes.

Elias grabbed his shovel and plunged it into the pile of dirt next to the grave. Just that was enough to revive the back ache he’d received as a reward for digging the hole. He scooped out just a small pile of dirt and dropped it onto the coffin. As he collected a second, he glanced around the cemetery for mourners. A few still lingered.

He’d worked there as a gravedigger for almost thirty years. While his official title was just ‘gravedigger’, his duties extended far beyond that. He was the one who made sure that the grounds were well kept. And he was also the one who kept watch against any body snatchers or grave robbers. Caretaker would be a more appropriate title for what he did, but a caretaker would probably be owed more than the pittance they paid him. And isn’t money what the world comes down to?

It was for him.

The carriages holding the last of the mourners clattered down the road heading out of the cemetery and went out of sight. He took another glance around to make sure he was alone and confirmed that he was.

Trees surrounded the cemetery on three sides, cutting it off from view. There were hills on the one side not guarded by trees. The road crested one of them before heading away into the plains. Elias’ house, more a shack than a proper home, stood alone on the left side of the road, the only structure intended for the living for miles around. There wasn’t a pair of human eyes on the earth that could see him now, and that was how he liked it.

The sun began to set. He’d still be filling the hole well after dark. He looked down at the coffin, mahogany and brass, top of the line, and smiled. For this haul, it would be well worth it.

Time to get to work.

He tossed his shovel down into the hole. The metal head clanged against the wooden casket. Then he carefully climbed down after it.

He jammed his shovel between the lid and body of the coffin. It was nailed shut, so he moved his shovel up and down gradually to work it open.

He hadn’t seen Mrs. Worther herself, but he had seen her family. He’d noticed her son’s gold watch and chain, and his glittering cufflinks. He’d been staggered by the size of her daughter’s gold and ruby necklace. How she didn’t walk around with her head bowed was a mystery to him.

Yes, this would be a very good haul.

He finally forced the coffin lid open and took in Mrs. Worther. He didn’t notice her paper thin skin hanging loosely on bones so delicate they looked like they’d snap with the slightest touch. Nor did he notice her hawkish face. What he noticed was her necklace, made of pearls the size of grapes, the matching earrings, and the diamond ring on one hand and the ruby one on the other. When he was finished admiring her jewelry her dress caught his attention. Silk with a mink collar. He didn’t know how much something like that cost, but knew it would be worth something.

He liberated the body of jewelry and stuffed it in his pockets. It took some time to remove Mrs. Worther’s dress. He even had to pull her out of the coffin to do it. But eventually he succeeded. That he deposited in his wheelbarrow next to his tools, throwing his coat on top of it just to be safe. It was impossible to predict when someone might come out to talk to a loved one incapable of hearing them or responding.

He jumped back into the hole and pushed Mrs. Worther into her casket. He shuddered at the texture of her wrinkled skin. It felt close to tearing under his fingers. She was in only her undergarments now, and he sincerely wished he hadn’t noticed what she looked like in such a state of undress. Time had not considered her its friend.

He pulled on the coffin lid and it slammed down with a crack but didn’t completely shut. A quick investigation revealed that her left hand was hanging over the edge. Her dead fingers had been hit by the lid, keeping it from closing. From the looks of it the bones had snapped, but what did that matter? It wasn’t as if she’d felt it.

With a shrug he climbed out of the hole and got back to filling it. This time the piles of dirt were heaping on his shovel. He moved at break back speed, not resting until Mrs. Worther’s coffin, and fingers, were completely covered by earth.

He paused to catch his breath and wipe the sweat off his brow. His back ached so badly he grimaced and could hardly stand up straight. But he was comforted when he put his hands in his pockets and felt the jewelry inside. The pay as a grave digger was crap, but opportunities for advancement abounded if one knew where to look and had a strong stomach.

*

The night was dark by the time Elias finished filling the hole. He tossed his shovel into the wheelbarrow and started pushing it home. A little dirt got on his coat and the dress, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be cleaned.

Elias navigated the wheelbarrow around tombstones and over grave markers that were set into the ground. He had a lantern, but the full moon overhead provided more than enough light to see by. Even without it, he wouldn’t have had trouble making it back home. He knew every inch of that cemetery so well he could walk back with his eyes closed and never bump into anything.

Every once in a while he’d pass by a grave that had a seven foot wooden structure at the head, next to the stone. On top was a small wooden box housing a bell. A line stretched from that bell, down into the coffin beneath, where the other end was tied to one hand of the corpse. It was a device known as a coffin alarm, and should someone wake up and find themselves buried alive, that simple device was supposed to deliver them from the jaws of death. They could pull the string and ring the bell, alerting someone that they were still alive and should be saved.

The first time Elias remembered hearing about premature burials was during the cholera epidemic, when he was just a lad. Rumors spread that many who caught the disease were mistaken for dead, while they were actually in a temporary catatonic state. Fears grew when a hack writer, Poe, wrote stories about people being interred alive. In one, the main character even created elaborate contraptions in his tomb to save himself in such an event. Elias remembered reading those stories in the newspaper, and his blood running cold at the thought.

Because of those fears, a number of devices had been invented in the intervening years to put the minds of the yet to be departed at ease. Some had tubes for air, some had flags, others bells, and some even ladders and escape routes. But the purveyors of the cemetery had chosen to offer that particular model of coffin alarm because it was the cheapest and the easiest to install.

Elias shook his head each time he passed one. They were a good boon for the cemetery, another optional extra they could offer and get a few more dollars for. Elias understood that end of the equation. But on the other end, he could only say that the people that bought them had to be fools. Wealthy, gullible fools, sure. But still fools. All the stories about premature burials in the papers and magazines were nothing but fantasies contrived to frighten the gullible and the young. Most doctors were useless, but even they could tell whether someone was alive or dead.

Elias passed by a grave he’d dug just a week before, for Harry Joiner, aged 32, and paused. A coffin alarm was next to the gravestone, and after the name and dates of birth and death the inscription on the stone read, Beloved Husband and Father.

He remembered standing there during Harry’s funeral, taken by the unusually large crowd around the grave. He scanned the bystanders until his eyes rested on Harry’s pretty, crying, pregnant bride standing there with her arm around a little blonde girl, also crying. Harry had been a lucky man to get into bed with a woman like that every night.

While he was dreaming about what that would be like, a little brat lost his grip on a remembrance card. The wind caught it and carried it Elias’ way. He knew that if he didn’t pick it up and one of the cemetery directors saw it they’d claim he was being lazy and dock his pay, so he hurried after it. It took a minute and three tries to finally grab it. By that time, he was thoroughly winded.

As he tried to catch his breath, he looked down at the card. A prayer was on the front, and Harry’s obituary was on the back. He perused it with only half interest until a sentence towards the end caught his attention.

Harry was renowned as a powerful medium and helped many by manifesting the spirits of the deceased every full moon.

“A con artist, eh? Good for you, Harry,” he’d said, looking back at the crowd around the grave with new appreciation.

Later that night he lay in bed trying to get some rest. His back ache was worse than usual, probably due to the damp air. His eyes had just closed in blessed sleep when a bell rang.

With a growl, he got out of bed and looked out his window.

He stood there in silence, not seeing or hearing anything. Just as he was about to get back into bed and dismiss it as just a dream, the bell rang again.

The sound was coming from Harry’s coffin alarm. Or rather, it seemed like it was. How was he supposed to know if the ringing was coming from Harry’s coffin alarm and not some little snot trying to play games with old Elias? It wouldn’t be the first time kids snuck into the cemetery after dark. And it wasn’t like it was difficult to acquire a bell.

He went back to bed only to have the bell ring out again. And this time, it kept ringing.

He returned to the window and saw nothing more than he had the first time. But just because he didn’t see someone didn’t mean they weren’t there. There were several tombstones by Harry’s grave large enough to conceal a person.

Someone was trying to trick him. They wanted him to run outside with a shovel and unearth a grave it had taken him 8 hours to dig and fill. They wanted to make a fool of old Elias and laugh about it with their friends later.

He refused to give them that satisfaction. He refused to be made a fool of. So, instead of running outside, he got back into bed and pressed his lumpy pillows so far into his ears that he couldn’t hear anything and went to sleep. He’d made a fool out of them, sitting there in a cold graveyard all night for no reason.

Elias’ breath rattled at the back of his throat. With a croaking cough he dislodged the mass of phlegm that had camped there and spat the clump of yellow mucus out on Harry Joiner’s week old grave. Then he grabbed the handles of his wheelbarrow and headed home.

There were only three rooms in Elias’ house, the main room, where he slept and ate, a small kitchen, and a closet. He went to the closet and pulled out a box hidden under a pile of old rags. It was heavy for its size. He opened it, revealing jewels, gold, silver, pearls, and all manner of other precious stones. He noted the silver watch he’d taken from Harry Joiner, engraved with To my beloved, with all my love on his 30th birthday, and then added his newest articles to the collection. The dress he set beside the box.

Then he moved another pile of rags on the opposite side of the closet, revealing five stacks of money, the haul from selling his past loot. He’d gain at least another three piles of cash when he sold what he had now.

Just a few more months of grave digging and he’d be set for the rest of his life. He could explain the sudden windfall by spinning a yarn about an inheritance from a long lived great uncle or something like that. Then he’d move to the city where no one knew of him as the grave digger and live large. He could go to the tavern every night and then the whore house after that. He could buy the kinds of fine clothes he’d taken off so many corpses before. He could feast like a king on beef and pork and soufflés and fruit tarts. He could do all of it, as much as he wanted, until it was his turn to burden a grave digger and turn into dust. Might as well have as much fun as he could before the nothingness of death crept over him.

Those dreams sustained him as he ate his dinner of stale bread and half moldy cheese and climbed into his hard bed.

Just a few more months, that was all. Just a few months and he’d never have to even look at another shovel again.

A few minutes later, worn out from his long, albeit productive day, Elias drifted off to sleep.

*

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Elias woke up with a moan. Was that the bell again, or just the lingering remnants of his last dream?

For a moment all was silent. He hoped that it had been nothing but his imagination. He rolled onto his side and tried to drift off again.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Elias cursed as he sat up and got out of bed. He shambled over to his window and peered out.

The moon was full and high in the sky. From its position, he’d say it was about 3 am. He was good at calculating the time from the sun and moon. He was as good at telling the time as any of the watches he’d liberated from their dead owners.

He peered out at the graveyard. In the light of the moon he could see everything. But he couldn’t see anyone out there.

“If it’s those kids again, I’ll have their hides,” he snarled.

He turned back to the bed when it happened again.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

He spun back to the window, sure he’d catch whoever was playing games that time. But again, he saw no one there.

The culprit or culprits had to be the same ones that had been ringing bells the week before. And they’d be back in another week’s time unless he taught them a lesson.

A plan formed in his mind and he smiled. He might be getting older, but he was still strong. He had to be to dig graves and pry open coffin lids. He was surely stronger than whatever brats might be out there playing games.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

The sound, as far as he could tell, was coming from near Harry Joiner’s grave. There were only a few places in that area where someone could hide.

He walked to the closet, this time disregarding his hoarded loot, and instead grabbed a broken shovel handle. It had snapped a month before, but he’d held onto it. Shovel handles, even broken ones, always came in handy eventually, as the little imps out there would soon learn.

He put on his long black coat, pulling it tight against his body. It was rubbish for keeping warm, but at least it was dark. With that on, he’d be almost invisible if he kept low and in the shadows. Combined with his unrivaled knowledge of the cemetery, they were as good as his.

Without a sound, he crept to the door and stepped outside.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

It was coming from Harry Joiner’s area, all right. And that meant there were only three places they could be hiding.

Elias crept along the outskirts of the stones, close to the tree line where it was darkest. The grave markers jutted out of the ground like the teeth of a great monster hiding under the earth. Elias shivered as he snuck along. The night was cold, the wind biting, and his coat no good against either.

Being out there at night, sneaking along, reminded him of when he was a lad, stealing eggs and chickens from old man Martin’s farm. He hadn’t been caught a single time, even when the old man invested in guard dogs. He was a natural thief, even if his present marks didn’t enhance that reputation.

The first of the three stones was up ahead. Elias got lower to the ground, and his back shouted in protest.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

The sound clanged loud against the silence. He couldn’t tell if it was coming from behind that stone or somewhere else. But it was close.

He grasped his shovel handle tightly. His heart thumped hard in his chest at the thought of beating the fun right out of the youth or youths who were trying to fool him. He hadn’t had such fun in ages.

Finally, he rounded on the first stone and saw-

Nothing. But that was fine. There were still two more spots he needed to check. Of course whoever it was wouldn’t be behind the first one. That would be too easy.

He crept towards the second stone, stepping so that his feet avoided the dry leaves that had blown onto the grass. Just so much as one crunch, and he’d be found out. Strong he was, but his speed hadn’t improved with age. If they knew he was there and ran, he wouldn’t be able to catch them.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

It was coming from up ahead. His eyes focused on a large granite tombstone, shaped like a cross. He thought a priest was buried there, but he’d never looked at the inscription. That one was before his time. Sometimes, it was hard to believe that any were before his time. As far as he could tell, he’d probably buried 2/3rds of the bodies there. Not that he’d stolen from all of them. That was a more recent development, the last ten years or so, when his back started to hurt and he was forced to consider what would happen when he could not keep digging graves.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

At first when he started, he was so worried that he would be found out or that some evil would befall him. He didn’t believe in curses, but society was so adamant that the dead be treated with dignity that even he’d been paranoid to do otherwise. He’d heard stories of ghosts and ghouls and all the horrible things that would befall someone who treated the dead disrespectfully from the time he was just a boy, bouncing on his father’s knee. His father told him that when wronged or stolen from, the dead couldn’t rest until whatever was taken was returned or vengeance enacted. After a lifetime of indoctrination, it was hard to think otherwise. It wasn’t until he sold his second haul of loot that he became confident that nothing horrible would befall him. And the money was just too good to stop.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

He was close now. The youth had to be there, and when he got a hold of whoever it was, they’d learn the meaning of-

Nothing behind that stone either. Which left just one hiding place. The angel statue in the center of the cemetery. He had them now.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Soundlessly, he made his way over to the statue. The base was square and about five feet on each side. He’d have to be quick to find whoever was there before they ran away.

He stood with his back against the north face, his head inches from the bared jaws of the serpent, before peeking around the west side. No one. He checked the east side and saw no one there either.

He raised his shovel handle high, the way the angel might have held his sword at one point during the battle, and walked around the statue. There was just one place they could be hiding. He kept his ears peeled for any sounds indicating movement.

He took a deep breath, held it, and then spun around to the south side. He brought his shovel handle down and it struck-

Nothing but air. No one was there either.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Suddenly a cacophony of bells hit Elias from all sides. He pressed his hands against his ears to drown out the deafening noise.

No youths could do that. That many bells sounding at once, from every direction, with no one around, had to be… had to be…

The coffin alarms. Every one of them ringing all at once.

Elias turned to run back to his shack and froze at what he saw.

Mist was gathering over all the graves. No, not all of them, just the ones he’d dug. No, not all of those either. Just the ones he’d stolen from.

And then Elias noticed something worse still.

The mist was rising out of the dirt.

At first it hovered low to the ground, like normal mist. But then it grew vertically, until it was five, six feet off of the ground, depending on the grave.

Then, all at once, the mists started moving towards Elias.

As the mists moved their forms clarified. Soon club like appendages were taking the steps, and a loose outline of arms, shoulders, and a head could be seen. As they went further, the shapes clarified still, until they were distinctly human.

In blind terror, Elias fled back towards his shack. But the mists were still coming. Now clothes, or a lack thereof, could be made out, now fingers, now facial features. Elias knew each of those faces, but only in death.

He made it to his little house, slammed the door shut, and began barricading it. When everything he could move was in front of the door, barring entrance to anyone or anything, he looked out the window.

They were still coming. Five, no seven dozen of them. There was Barry West, who he’d taken a wedding band and shoes from. There was Margaret Cat, who he’d taken a gold locket from. There was Mrs. Worther, already out of the grave she’d barely begun inhabiting. And at the head, leading the dread procession, was Harry Joiner.

Elias thought back to what he’d read on Harry’s funeral card.

Harry was renowned as a powerful medium and helped many by manifesting the spirits of the deceased every full moon.

He’d dismissed those words then, but there was no dismissing them now. Harry had conjured not only himself, but all the other dead Elias had wronged.

His entire body shaking, Elias fled from the window and crumpled to the ground on the other side of the bed. His eyes drifted over to his barricade and he took heart. Let them come! Let them get through that! Let them just try!

His breathing slowed, and he started regaining control, until a transparent hand came through the wall, followed by the incorporeal form of Harry Joiner and all the rest.

Elias wept, sure the end had come, when the lesson his father had tried to teach him returned to his thoughts. They were the ones he’d stolen from. So what if he gave back what he’d taken?

He jumped over the bed and ran to the closet, staying as far away from his uninvited guests as he could. He seized his box of plunder, spun around, and threw it at the assembled specters. Its contents clattered to the floor. He grabbed Mrs. Worther’s dress and threw it at her.

But then, he realized, that wasn’t all he’d taken. He’d already sold some of it.

He grabbed his piles of cash and threw them at the ghosts. What did it matter if he was poor the rest of his days as long as he was alive?

The ghosts stopped, looking down at their prized possessions and the money at their feet.

“That’s all of it! That’s all! You can have it! I give it back! Leave me be! Leave me!” He screamed.

The longer the ghosts remained where they were, the more confident he became that it had worked. That was what they wanted. That was all.

“Now go! Go!”

One by one, the ghosts turned and left the shack. Elias watched with wide eyes. He was going to survive! He’d looked death in the face, and yet would live!

By the time a minute had passed, every ghost but Harry Joiner was gone. Elias looked down at Harry’s silver watch on the floor, waiting for him to go.

But instead of leaving, Harry Joiner stepped forward.

He held out his hands so Elias could see. Every one of his fingernails was gone, or broken in half, or hanging onto his fingers by a shred. His mouth was wide and his chest heaving, as if he was struggling to breathe.

And like that, Elias understood.

The coffin alarm the week before hadn’t been a prank. It had been Harry Joiner, buried alive, begging for help that never came. He’d stolen more from Harry Joiner than a watch.

Harry took another step forward.

“How could I have known? No, please! Mercy! Mercy!” Elias begged.

But the time for mercy had passed. It was already a week gone.

Harry’s hand plunged into Elias’ chest. Icy fingers closed around the old man’s heart, and Elias collapsed to the ground.

*

In the days that followed, hundreds of people flocked to the cemetery. But they hadn’t come to pay their respects to Elias. They came to see if their family treasures had been stolen by that scoundrel of a grave digger.

The directors of the cemetery had collected everything they found on of the floor of Elias’ house. They started returning what items they could back to the graves where they belonged, but they’d barely just begun. They split Elias’ money between the families whose heirlooms hadn’t been found. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to pacify them until another solution was worked out. Anything to keep them from suing. If they did, the cemetery would go bankrupt.

Elias’ funeral was held two days after he was found, in the middle of the chaos. Only two people attended: the priest and the new gravedigger, a young man of about twenty three.

After saying a quick prayer, asking God to have mercy on the poor wretch that was Elias, the priest left the gravedigger to his work.

Plop. Plop. Plop.

In his world of darkness, Elias heard every pile of dirt hit his coffin. His eyes were shut, but he knew he wouldn’t see anything but darkness even if he could open them. He smelled the moist, musty smell of dirt all around him.

He’d tried to fight his paralysis, tried to move, tried to scream for every second since they found him. He tried to give a sign to the doctor that he hadn’t died of a heart attack, that he was still very much alive. And when he heard the cemetery directors talking about what a horrible man he’d been, he’d tried to yell back that he only did what he had because of them and their miserly ways.

But he couldn’t move or make a sound. Not while Harry Joiner’s fingers were wrapped around his heart.

Plop. Plop. Plop.

Finally, when the plopping ended, the icy hands of Harry Joiner retreated and Elias found himself in full control of his body.

“Help! Help!” He screamed.

He hit the top of the lid with his fists, and when that proved fruitless tried to pry the lid open with his fingers. One of his fingernails broke off, and he screamed in agony.

Up above, meanwhile, the new gravedigger was sitting beside the fresh grave, enjoying a smoke. It was a bad time for the cemetery, sure, but it was a great time to be a gravedigger. He was getting triple wages until all the graves Elias had dug could be opened. The stolen objects would be put back, and it would finally be determined what exactly was missing from the others. It was a lot of work, but he could do it. For what they were paying, he was happy to.

When his cigarette was nothing more than a butt, he tossed it into the fresh dirt. He grabbed his wheelbarrow.

On to the next.

***

Recommended2 Simily SnapsPublished in Fiction, Horror

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Responses

  1. Loved Elias from the first bit of dialogue he spouts. Y e s.

    I gotta begin my commentary by saying that I love pieces that deal with religion in a cynical manner, so I might be biased. However? the contrast of the funeral, the priest, and your protagonist’s feelings on the matter hooked me in from the start.

    Ah, yes, and when we find out what Elias’ /true/ intentions as a gravedigger are. Splendid bit of macabre, that.

    Just a general observation, this whole story is giving me Cemetary Man vibes. Can’t help but picture Elias as Dellamorte.

    Great pacing. And I personally love the Edgar Allen Poe reference in conjunction with the ongoing torment of the ringing bell.

    Ahhhhh, the reveal about Henry. Y I K E S.

    And that ending. I’m pleased that the bit about his blood running cold at the thought of being buried alive foreshadowed that.

    Right proper little spooktale for October. Well done. 🙂