From the editor:
Death is just a small detour when you’ve been together as long as Esther and Thomas have. In the meantime, cemeteries speak their own language, if you take the time to listen. Get ready for Halloween with this (kinder, gentler) ghost story by James Van Pelt, finalist for the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Campbell awards, and veteran English teacher.
From the author: Tending a cemetery really tests the belief that love is eternal. Here's a gentle ghost/love story for the Halloween season.
The pink granite stone stands out among so many grey markers in their long rows, catching afternoon sun and shining from the recent rain, two names carved on its face, Thomas Bramwell, 1930 – 1998, and Esther Bramwell, 1932, but no death date for her. Underneath Thomas’s name, “Husband” is inscribed, and underneath Esther reads “Wife.” Jammed into the ground on Thomas’s side of the stone, a black iron plant holder, its solemn “J” at the top to hold a flower basket, sported a Mylar balloon instead with just enough helium in it to keep it floating, but not enough to pull the narrow ribbon that held it to its place taut. “I Love You,” said the jaunty script on the pink balloon.
Cemeteries hold stories like butterflies alight on your palm. Every stone a revelation. Every flower laid on the ground, some with nothing left but stems, some as fresh as yesterday, every framed picture faded in the sun, leaning on the stone, or stuffed bear, fur weather-beaten and one eye out, tell a story, but mostly the cemetery is empty. One could sit on the solitary bench for hours on a week day and see no one. Just traffic noise from the highway over the hill, the staccato bark from a semi’s air brake and the soothing hiss of wheels rolling on asphalt. Some birds too, chattering away, no doubt thankful for the rain.
The balloon twists back and forth. Thomas died seventeen years ago at 68. Esther, if the stone was to be believed, still lives and would now be 83. Maybe a son or daughter visited the grave and tied the balloon to the plant holder, but that’s not the story the balloon tells. A bereaved, old woman, bought the balloon at the supermarket maybe, choosing it over the superhero balloons and the happy birthday ones and the anniversary ones. She stood at the grave, alone in her thoughts, and then fastened it to her dead husband’s memorial.
Graveside tokens appear as if by magic. Today, nothing. Tomorrow, a huge flower arrangement. Many graves are visited, but the mourners come and leave unseen.
A Mylar balloon might float for a month. Did she come once a month? Did she live far away and made the long drive as a pilgrimage, the balloon bouncing against the ceiling behind her?
Thomas saw Esther sitting on the Denver Public Library front lawn. Poe images had been filling his thoughts, and a morning deep in the library’s stacks, pulling books on Poe scholarship had attuned his eyes to darkness and old wood cuts, beautiful black and white illustrations from “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Black Cat,” but mostly he saw the fat king from “Hop-Frog,” holding his beer mug, and the two leering cabinet ministers behind him, laughing at the belled dwarf-fool who was Hop-Frog. How Hop-Frog loved! How Hop-Frog suffered from their derision, but he stayed pure to himself and to his love for Trippetta, who like him was society’s outcast.
It’s a dark revenge story that ends with lovers united that swamped his vision as he made his way across the library’s marble floors and the blinding June light. Thomas blinked away tears and shook his head as if struggling from Poe’s embrace. Hop-Frog’s world contained no flower gardens, to hear Poe tell it, and no automobiles, no shining, state capital’s golden dome, and no girl, sitting on the lawn in a summer dress, leaning against a suitcase, reading a slim book.
Thomas almost staggered. He was six months from finishing his undergraduate work, and he’d already applied for graduate school. For months, he’d only thought of Poe and Ambrose Bierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne, “the dark musketeers,” as he’d called them in class. He was twenty-three, but he already identified himself as a confirmed bachelor, a lone scholar, and a man of letters. He would write treatises some day. He would lecture to earnest students, perhaps at Oxford, which he imagined as filled with dark-oak studies and leather-bound tomes.
He shifted his note-heavy briefcase to his other hand as he approached the girl, delirious, lost as to why he was doing it. His shadow crossed the book, but she didn’t look up. She wore scuffed saddle shoes, short, white socks. The dress, now that his eyes had cleared, sported large blue circles on white, and her light-brown hair curled at the ends almost touched her shoulders.
“What are you reading?” he said, at a loss for anything else. His voice sounded harsh to him, as dry and dusty as old bookshelves.
She looked up. For the first time he saw her face, and whenever he saw it again for the next fifty-five years, when he saw it on his deathbed, this was the face he saw, a smiling, June-filled complexion whose eyes shone the deep, dark blue of raven wings sheening in the sun.
“It’s Tamerlane,” she said.
“Edgar Allan Poe?”
She smiled anew, and so he was wed at that moment.
Cemeteries look empty, but they have visitors, quiet people who check the register for a name, like Ziegler, block C, row 3, site 5, or returnees who come on a schedule every weekend or once a month or once a year who know their way around. Some people like to walk the cemetery, and occasionally a jogger will bounce through, all life and motion and beating heart. But there’s evidence of others too who must slip over the wrought-iron fence after the gates are locked. Beer cans strewn across the graves, or empty liquor bottles. Sometimes hypodermics. Candles. Condoms. Once a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee. A jacket. Fast food wrappers. A paperback book.
The cemetery has an equipment shed. It used to house a backhoe, but that work is contracted out to Bill Wynn, who supplements his farm income by digging graves. The shed holds cement grave liners, lowering straps, plywood grave covers, shovels, two jackhammers for the frequent rocks that stop the digging, an air compressor, pry bars, coffin rollers, folding chairs, two podiums, a riding lawnmower, a small tractor, grass trimmers, fertilizer bags and grass seed, flower seed, and Astroturf blankets to throw over the excavated dirt.
The shed is a comfortable place in the summer with the double doors open. Shady, cool, smelling of motor oil and dirt.
From here, mourners are visible, walking onto the grounds, real or artificial floral arrangements in hand. Families trekking solemnly to their departed. Little ones, too young to stay still, running across the graves. Mothers yelling at them to be respectable.
Part of the grounds keeper’s job is to tidy up. When the plastic flowers have faded from exposure. When the toy car has rusted. When the stuffed animal has rotted out, they are gathered into trash bags. The policy is that “temporary memorials” or “memory tokens” can stay for up to six weeks, then into the bag they go.
Thomas carried the blanket. A picnic basket dangled from Esther’s hand.
“Poe didn’t love death,” said Thomas. He waved at the tombstones, which cast long shapes in the setting sun. “He hated it. His mother died too young. His wife died too young. He lived in the 1800s, where death often came too soon.”
Esther nodded. She’d become used to Thomas’s impromptu lectures since they met a year earlier. “He seemed fascinated with it, though.”
Thomas grunted. They’d reached their favorite tree at the back of the cemetery. Here the ground rose, the stones like small boats floating on a swelling, grass wave hill. Beyond the crest, the cemetery ended in a bluff overlooking the river. Graves lined the hilltop. The two lovers stood among them and looked out on the river.
“What a lovely place to rest,” Esther said. “A grave with a view.”
They spread the blanket. Esther unpacked the sandwiches and wine. Sitting as they were, the nearby stones hid them from sight, as private as a bedroom. The Grouchers, the Clays, the Fisks, and the Van Houts. Travis Groucher, the family patriarch, had the largest stone, a mammoth, black slab with the somber verse on the back,
Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you will be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
Thomas uncorked the wine. “There was this apocryphal story about Poe’s youth that a young woman died and was buried. A week later, they had to exhume the body—I don’t know why—but when they did, they found the fabric in the casket had been shredded. The woman’s fingernails were torn off. She’d stuffed her fingers into her throat. Clearly, she had been buried alive. They say Poe’s obsession with being buried alive came from that incident. The story might not be true, but in the early 1800s people became fascinated with premature burial. Companies offered a ‘safety casket’ with a rope in it attached to a bell on the tombstone. That way if you woke after being buried, you could pull the rope. People would hear and then save you.”
“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” said Esther.
“It’s a great idea, the message from below.”
After they ate and drank most of the wine, the wind came up off the river, swept between the stones, chilling them. She gave him his birthday present, cufflinks shaped like ravens. Laughing, they lay on the blanket. Thomas grabbed an edge, then rolled over Esther. They rolled two more times until they were bound in the blanket, face to face, as tight as a pair of bundled babies. They kissed, the heat building between them, until they didn’t care about the breeze anymore, or the grave markers. Esther slid her hand around his hip until she held him, sweat on her brow, her breath tight in her throat.
“I can’t . . . move,” gasped Thomas. He unrolled them as they both laughed and panted, unclothed each other beneath the blanket, but there were gaps and holes, and now the cooling evening breeze could reach them, but they didn’t care.
They didn’t care.
They didn’t care.
People talk about ghosts and hauntings. “Don’t you ever get the creeps out there,” they ask, “when you are alone at night?”
“I couldn’t do it,” say others. “Not even on a bet. I’m not superstitious . . .” they always say, “. . . but still.”
At night the cemetery is just a quiet park. The riding lawnmower’s lights paint the grounds with sharp shadows. The mower roars irreverently, throwing grass into the catcher. The evening smells sweet from the distant river and the fresh cuttings. In the silence when the clippings are put into the composter, crickets chirp. A frog croaks somewhere. Bats squeak as they circle the one light post, snatching up bugs.
It’s peaceful, not spooky. If there are ghosts, they walk secretly. They bother no one.
When there is noise, it’s almost always something human. Someone trespassing. The shed holds flashlights too, big ones, so that it’s safe to search for intruders.
A bear, once, came through. The flashlight caught him first, a great shape behind the stones. A grunt. A huff, like a furry demon. At first, the flashlight shook. Was this the supernatural ascending? Had hell opened up and brought a creature forth? It shambled a few feet, then stood still, an unrecognizable shape in the darkness. A gleam might have been an eye, but indescribable, not familiar. For a moment, all the fears others voiced about a night in the cemetery arose. “What if the dead can walk?” they’d say. “Surely the weight of so much death must have an incarnation, a coming into flesh. Surely, centuries of stories about spirits and hauntings must have a truthful thread within them. All séances could not be faked. All mediums could not be charlatans. Not all.”
And for a moment, rationality fled. The world became much stranger, much broader, and way, way more interesting, until, at last, the bear stood, and in standing, reduced in stature. It was just an ordinary black bear. A single yell, and the bear fled the grounds. Peace reigned. Steady hands locked the shed that night, not quivering ones.
A cemetery’s silence is of the mundane sort. Nothing seeps from a crypt. No rattling chains. No moans that are not the wind. No bones clattering against bones. What lies below stays below.
An ailing Thomas said to his aging wife, “I never got to Oxford.”
They sat on a blanket beneath the tree at the top of the cemetery’s hill as they had every Sunday for forty-four years. He looked much older than her. His dark hair grown grey and thin, deep lines in his face, skin sagging from his neck. He thought she still glowed, and when he turned to look at her, she surprised him as she always did with her presence, and that she was with him.
“England’s a humid, foggy place. You wouldn’t have liked it,” she said.
He laughed, which turned into an extended coughing bout. When he stopped, it took a minute to get his breath. “I could have taught ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ I could have connected it for them, the premature burials, Virginia Poe, undying love, ‘Annabel Lee,’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ I would have talked about the dark romantics. I always wanted to see Oxford. I can see it. The spires, the halls, nine-hundred years of scholarship.”
They held hands on the blanket. The late afternoon sun warmed their faces.
“Poe died when he was forty, two years after his wife. I’ve contemplated those two years. What was he thinking? He visited her grave often. Poe had a friend who reported Poe would even come to her grave during winter nights and stay with her until he nearly froze. When he stood there, did he leave flowers? Did he hope to see a sign from her?” Thomas closed his eyes against the sun. His chest felt heavy, but he loved sitting on the lawn. He loved Esther’s hand beneath his own.
Esther’s breath caught in her throat. Thomas asked questions. That was his life: asking questions and trying to answer them. Eternally curious. Always peeling back the mysteries.
Esther said, “They had so little time together. They were so young.”
A cloud moving across the horizon, darkened the cemetery, cooled their faces. Esther shivered.
“I couldn’t do it,” said Thomas. “I couldn’t live without you.”
His breath rattled. His hand trembled on hers. Was it the cold? Was it fear?
Esther said, “You won’t have to. We’ll be forever.”
They ordered the pink granite tombstone on Monday.
Work at the cemetery is rhythmic. After eleven years, the repetitions feel ingrained. In late April, after the last, deep frost, sprinkler heads need inspection. Broken ones require repair or replacement. Roses want early spring pruning. Soon, there is fertilizing. Summer has its chores. So does fall and winter. Monthly chores exist too, as do weekly ones. Every day, the gates open, the grounds are inspected. Who is to be buried this week? Which plot needs to be prepared? What setup will the grave-side service require?
Tending a cemetery demands discipline, a devotion to quality, and a reverent sense. Every stone reminds that lives end. Dates bind them. Epitaphs describe them. “No pain, no grief, no anxious fear can reach our loved one sleeping here,” or “Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.”
There is no epitaph on Thomas Bramwell’s marker, no brave little verse. His stone contains no hint of the man, but the twisting balloon, the partially inflated Mylar with its “I Love You” speaks eloquently. It’s easy to stop work in the cemetery, holding a black trash bag filled with dead flowers and rain-soaked cards, their messages lost in moldy paper. The ribbon detaches easily from the iron bar, and the balloon deflates with almost no pressure. It joins the other memory tokens in the bag.
“Thank you for leaving it up so long,” says the voice behind.
She’s surprisingly slim and upright for an eighty-three year old. Hair that’s gone white. A summer dress. Saddle shoes. She holds an empty wine bottle. “I finished this last night, thinking about him,” she said. “I thought I would leave it. Flowers are so clichéd, don’t you think?”
It’s embarrassing to be caught graveside, throwing away another person’s expression of grief. There’s nothing to be said.
She crouches, leans the bottle against the stone, then runs her hands over the grass as if searching. “We always leave each other something,” she says. “Until I join him, it’s what we have, these little exchanges.”
She sighs. “Ahh,” and stands. She turns, holds what she found on her palm. “It was his birthday present,” she says. Two silver cufflinks, crusted with dirt, catch the sunlight. They are shaped like ravens.
The question is hard to force; it’s so ridiculous, but she said “exchanges.” What did that mean?
“Was he buried with them?”
She nodds. “Last month he gave me his watch. I wish I had buried him with notecards and a pen. He could write.”
She laughs. “That’s silly though, isn’t it? It would be asking too much.”
The woman puts the cufflinks in a pocket, then lays her hand atop the stone. “Until next month, Thomas. We are forever.”
There are chores to be done. The grounds are huge. Maintaining them requires constant movement, but time stops in the enormity. She left remembrances for him in death, but he . . . but he . . . it is too hard to grasp, leaves tokens to her from death. The old woman raises her face, eyes closed so the sun is full upon it. “I thought to put an epitaph on the stone. I liked, ‘If there is another world, he lives in bliss . If not another, he made the most of this,’ but we have no need for final words, Thomas and I, no need at all.”
She walks away, steady in her stride. A taxi waits at the iron gate. Across the cemetery are other communiqués: flowers, balloons, photographs, more than one liquor bottle like the one leaning against Thomas’s stone, toys. Someone left a putter and sleeve of Titleist balls on the grass two graves down.
Eventually they will go into the trash bag, the gifts in memoriam. But each tells a story. Each speaks in a voice of the living and dead. Each talks, and the conversation goes on.
Who is to say the story ever ends?
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.