Dead Men & Their Tales
by Eric Hackler
“You’d think someone would lock the door to this place once in a while.” Roman was whispering to himself again as he entered his deathly quiet workspace for the night. He was the only one there…so to speak, and that was just the way he liked it. Around the corner, he could hear the sounds of horses and carriages passing in the distance. Roman rolled his eyes. “Amish folks…useless in every way but one. They won’t ever come in here after dark.”
The damp grass was silent against his boots. If anyone ever wanted to sneak up on him, they wouldn’t find a better place. Roman set down his tools and began looking at tonight’s options. The freshest was a little girl. That wouldn’t work. The professors at the university of west coast wherever couldn’t be teaching anatomy to important college people with so small a subject. He moved on.
“What about an athlete? Their bones would be nice and strong. Eh… chances are they died of an injury of some kind. I need intact. A lawyer? No, too greasy. What about the cat lady? I don’t want to risk that again.” The last cat lady he’d dug up had apparently insisted on being buried with her felines. Roman moved away. He walked quietly through the small graveyard checking names, dates and occupations here and there. He flat out ignored the grave labelled “Yorick”.
This was a typical Roman evening. Strolling through the past and ascribing his own legends on the poor souls he found there. The grave by the corner stood over the body of a transvestite. A nice chap who had been arrested by the fuzz for lewd behaviour but had escaped prison with the help of a dwarf cell-mate only to be struck and killed by a misjudging pelican. The tiny headstone surrounded by american flags belonged to a general. A curmudgeonly fellow whose family having become so sick and tired of his claims that he fought in the cold war all simultaneously attempted to kill him. Now they all leave flags so all their other relatives will think they really did love him and therefore not suspect their involvement. The collection of rounded headstones in the shape of a triangle guarded the many-layered resting place of fifteen unacquainted friends, each of whom said they wanted to be buried with one of the others and seeing as the funeral home really couldn’t be bothered to decide who had loved who the most thus created an unintentional mass grave that was certain to completely befuddle future archaeologists. Roman fully expected that some day, one of these characters would crawl from their coffin, shout at him regarding how wrong he was and politely ask him to stop making things up. But until then, the graves were up for grabs. All but one.
At the very heart of the yard, hidden in a swamp of bouquets, was the body of the child everyone loved. The one tale that Roman hadn’t created. But the one he wished with all his heart he had. Her young body was curled in the fetal position beneath the earth, never knowing the love that was given to her in death, remembering only its absence in her short life. The bullet was still inside her and hers was the only grave Roman would never touch.
Finally, he came across a small grave in the shadow of an ash tree. The man beneath it had died a perfect ten years ago and the cross in the upper right corner (Roman had been stealing from this business long enough to know the codes) indicated that this was a priest. “Wonderful! Clean, virtuous and won’t send me anywhere I’m not already going. Father P. M. Barry, the scientific community thanks you for your generous donation.” And with that, Roman headed back to retrieve his tools.
Digging up a body is hard work. Unless it’s rained recently, then the job’s a bit easier (albeit messier).
“At least it’s not winter,” Roman reminded himself as he embedded his rusty shovel in the unearthing and cursed the creators of the show Supernatural for making it look so damn easy. The best way to get through it, Roman had learned long ago, was to just sing a song in your head and move the shovel to the beat. Tonight, it was “A Pirate’s Life For Me”
“We're rascals (shovel in) and scoundrels (throw dirt) and villains (shovel in) and knaves (throw dirt)
Drink up (shovel) me hearties, yo ho (throw)
We're devils (shovel) and black sheep (throw) and really (shovel) bad eggs (throw)
Drink up me hearties, yo ho”
At three feet, Roman’s muscles started to ache. At four, he had to stop for ten minutes to catch his breath. At four and a half, he stopped for another ten minutes to curse Supernatural again. Then at four and three quarters, his shovel connected with wood. “They buried their priest in a shallow grave? That’s a new thing.” Roman used his hands to uncover the lid of the coffin. It was a simple pine box with a cross on it and the occupant’s name and death year. “Really, the funeral home wouldn’t even donate a nice coffin to the death of a priest? He has to be their biggest supplier. Mortuaries should have a membership. ‘Attend X number of funerals, get your own absolutely free’ kind of thing.” Roman looked down at the shovel at the bottom of the hole. “I suppose reversing the process would increase the price of my coffin…oh, well.” Roman and his shovel climbed out of the hole and headed over to the pile of tools to find a pick axe.
As he walked away, the wind blew through the trees and Roman could swear it was whistling ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’. “Why did I choose that song? It’ll be stuck in my head for weeks! Ugh!”
Roman traded his shovel for the axe and returned to his bounty. Pine box lids are easy to pry open. They don’t usually spend too much money on the nails. As the hinges gave, the skeleton was revealed and Roman’s exhausted delight turned to exhausted bewilderment.
There was no skeleton. The box was empty. In a business that practically defined the phrase “this wasn’t supposed to happen”, finding an empty box was definitely not supposed to happen. “Did someone beat me to it? Did they bury an empty box?” The wind whistled through the trees and Roman spun around. His eyes darted from grave to grave. He’d heard about this. Rumours and stories. Police burying false graves to catch graverobbers. Set up a tender looking grave, let the guy dig up the empty box, and arrest him once he’s all tired out. Roman gripped the pick axe tighter. The wind whistled behind Roman and he spun back in a panic, but saw nothing. He still heard the wind though. It was louder and Roman could almost hear notes. Like someone was whistling a tune and the night was singing harmony.
Then Roman noticed the ash tree next to the grave. His ears noticed it first. For all the whistles in the air, there was no rustling accompaniment. Roman looked at the tree and his eyes confirmed the suspicions of his ears. The leaves weren’t moving. Roman could feel the wind blowing on his face; could hear the song in his ears, but it seemed the rest of the world couldn’t.
Then it all stopped. The wind, the cold, the music. It all went silent. Roman looked around. The cemetery was back to normal. After taking a moment to rub his face and pat down the hairs on the back of his neck, Roman looked again at the grave he’d just re-dug. Empty. “Who buries an empty coffin?” There was dust at the bottom and in it he could clearly make out the outline of a man. The coffin had been occupied at one point or another. He looked again at the lid. No other pry marks. No one else had opened this coffin.
The wind whistled wildly through the trees again and now, “I swear is sounds like someone is whistling!” Then the voice broke the silence.
“Most people just leave a white rose.”
Roman spun around so fast, he dropped the pick axe, embedded the end in the lid of the coffin and tripped himself with the handle. He slowly climbed back to his feet to face the speaker. The man standing at the edge of the grave was thin. Very thin. But weirdly proportioned. His torso and legs seemed to be the proper width but his head, shoulders and arms were all malnourishedly skinny. When he moved, there seemed to be a delay. It was like each bone in his body was getting the message from his brain a second after the one before it. The man wore a priest’s robe. He smelled of cheap wine. The kind that only tastes good for a second, then leaves a bitter taste in your month for hours. That kind of wine. “Maybe I should cut down on my drinking.”
Roman stared in disbelief. The man checked his fingernails and continued nonchalantly.
“Or a bouquet on the ground by their toes.
Any one who goes deeper
Is some kind of creeper
And the smell isn’t great for your nose”
The man looked up at Roman but Roman was too busy having no clue what was going on to worry about getting his mouth to work properly. So the man began again.
“Oh don’t stand there with your nerves looking shot
You wanted me here, did you not?
Well, I’m here and I’m real
So let’s us make a deal
And thereby continue the plot”
Roman had this habit of remembering the strangest things at the most unexpectedly appropriate times and at this moment, his mind leapt back to that third grade English assignment, recognised the man’s rhyme scheme and then leapt right back to the front of his head. “Was that a limerick?”
“An unfortunate side effect, yes.”
“Yours is as good as my guess.”
“You can’t stop?”
“Oh your god, how I dream,
I could end this rhyme scheme,
But I’ve got no other way to express.”
The man dropped his hand to his side and just stared at the ground, a dejected look on his sallow face. The clock of the nearby church chimed three. The man took a deep breath and suddenly there was a grin on his face.
“Ah, but our time in this darkness grows short
And by sunrise I have to report
What to you can I sell
That’s worth going to hell?
Roman’s immediate attempts to back away several feet were thwarted again by the handle of his axe and he crashed back into the grave. “I’m sorry. What?”
“Why else does one, with Devils, consort?”
“What do you mean, you’re a devil?”
“I thought I had made that point clear.
By being dead and yet still standing here”
“But you were…are a priest”
“They once called me ‘Elder’
Now, I guard the hell door”
“That one didn’t work as well”
“What do you want, I haven’t rehearsed all year?
“I’m still lost though. How does an Elder end up going to hell?
“There were little boys.”
“What? No limerick about that?”
Elder Barry shrugged. “I can’t make that whimsical”
“So then…” Elder clicked his lips. The awkward silence had begun. Roman looked around the graveyard trying to find some way out of this mess. Elder interrupted Roman’s thoughts with a clap of his hands.
“Yes, let offers begin”
Roman bit his lip. Explaining to someone that you don’t want to hang out with them was bad enough when they couldn’t throw you into the inferno for laughs. He started carefully, “Believe it or not…”
“You’re imagining the trouble you’re in?”
“Something like that”
Elder Barry waved his hand in a nothing-to-it kind of way. When he spoke again, he sounded like the most agreeable person since King Henry VIII’s seventh wife.
“You sell me your soul,
I accomplish your goal.
It’s what Wall Street would call a ‘Win-Win’.”
The knot in Roman’s chest tightened. This explanation was going to be harder than he thought. “Yes, I do see that, the thing is…”
“Are those feet in your shoes getting cold?”
“No colder than yours,” Roman muttered to himself. “Look, sir. The point is: I didn’t call you.”
“Yet, I bring knowledge of treasures untold.
Though your mouth may groan,
You heart wants what I own.”
Roman checked the tombstone quickly to make sure this guy wasn’t a Jehovah’s witness.
“You can see all the wonders I hold”
The cheap wine smell was overpowering. Roman’s legs hurt from standing and tripping over a pick axe twice. He wanted this to be over, but how to make that happen? The direct approach. He took a deep breath. “Elder”
Elder’s face lit up at the tone of Roman’s voice.
“That’s the sound of a man of conviction.
A man who is free of restrictions.
Speak onward, my son
Tell me what you’d like done.
And your dreams can be works of non-fiction”
“Go away!” The smile vanished from Elder’s face like Jesus’s body post-crucifixion. He took a startled step backward, making a sound that sounded like a seal swallowing a baseball (which, thank god, is too strange a noise to base a limerick around) and thus silence fell. Roman stared at Elder. Elder stared at Roman. No one said a word. Rhyming or otherwise.
The clock struck three fifteen. Roman started and narrowly missed falling over the pick axe again. Elder was too stunned to move, but at long last he broke the silence.
“Is there nothing at all that you’re wanting?”
Roman thought about it. He thought of his one room apartment. His rusted tools. His empty wallet. There was so much in this world he could use…
The clock struck three thirty before he was ready to answer.
"There is. It’s a very long list.”
“Then let me make it yours for the flaunting.
Flying carpets unfurled.
An entire new world.
No more graveyards you need to be haunting.”
Silence fell again. Elder Barry waited. Roman considered. Elder Barry waited. Roman considered. He thought of all his woes. He saw the possibilities. He felt the bruises on his legs. Then he thought of her. Alone in the untouchable grave and he summoned his courage.
“That’s the thing though. I like this.” The graverobber’s voice was barely a whisper but in it was more poetry than in the whole of the conversation. “I don’t want to cheat. Where’s the experience in that? Where’s the challenge? Look where we are. Surrounded by people who’s lives hijacked themselves, crashed and burned but because of that, because they failed in life, they are loved. And loved more than most. This is where I’m meant to be”
“That’s The Beatles.” Roman smiled. Elder returned it. Roman bent down and wrenched his pick axe from the lid of Elder’s coffin.
“Well, the night is young and I have another grave to dig up before the sun rises”
“Find the unmarked grave on the far side”
“Man was a killer ‘fore he died”
“They injected his arm,
Doing his bones no harm.
All the wet eyes for him have since dried”
Roman looked in the direction Elder was pointing and headed off. Three paces later, he stopped and looked back. Elder was standing by his grave looking very alone. His thin arms were held at his side and his eyes were looking over the grass. “Hey.” Elder looked up. “Do I have to dig you up if I ever want to talk to you again?” A smile spread across the thin face.
“Just knock three times on the tree,
If it’s me that you would like to see.
I will come round each time
For with more lyrical rhyme”
Roman returned the smile. “Oh, by the way, would you mind filling your grave back in?” Before Elder could reply, Roman held up his hand “that’s not a deal, it’s a favour.”
Elder Barry laughed and nodded.
“Because, grave robbing, you know, is a felony.”
Roman winked and headed off to unearth a murderer’s corpse.
When he finally left the cemetery at six in the morning, the sun was just coming up, the first horses were trundling along their cobblestone paths, Roman’s body bag was full and there appeared to be two freshly dug graves in the earth behind him. As he walked to his old beat up Volkswagen, he whistled a song to himself and he’d be dammed if the wind didn’t join in too.
© 2014 by Eric Hackler