It keeps some out, yes. It keeps others in.
Morley looked out the cottage window into a morning fogged over by the sea. It was early spring, barely emerged, still in the clutch of winter's hoary claws. Something flitted beneathe the blanket of clouds. He squinted, and it was gone. The time between day and night, especially during the flow of seasons, was rife with shadows and specters, each gliding from headstone to headstone, aimless and ethereal. He sighed. They were harmless, mostly. Mostly.
He took his coffee with cream and three sugars. Ate his toast with butter and jam. A small fire burned in the stove, its heat and his breath condensing on the window in a layer of dew and blurred vision. In the fridge was some cold cheese and pickled herring. Next to the door hung a great brown parka. They would be his only companions during the lonely day. But the morning, the idyll of spirits and sighs, murmuring winds and residue of half-forgotten dreams, was sacred--a jealously guarded solitude.
March sunlight battled the fog, its feeble light failing to burn the mist until well past two in the afternoon. A coastal wind bit hard into the weathered canvas of Morley's coat. The calendar called it spring, but in this seaside garden of the dead it was hard to tell. Might be the sobs of a banshee or rumbling of a geist. Morley had seen all kinds of dead in his thirty years at the groundskeeper's cottage. Most got on well, aspired to restfulness and meditation in the hereafter. But he tended to remember the ill kept spirits, the restless and rogue. A change in weather could mask their coming, and trade winds often brought the salted ectoplasm of forlorn sailors. He would have to do extra rounds for the next week, peek in corners he'd rather forget, and make sure that all sprites were accounted for.
"Desecration!" the floating head of Abner Mayhew cried as Morley entered the family's mausoleum. There hadn't been a living Mayhew in the county for well on fifty years, but their name still marked streets and buildings, not the least of which was the only marble charnel house in the cemetery.
"Easy there, Abner," Morley cautioned, hefting his lantern to get a better view of the vault. Outside, streaks of sunlight melted into frothing waves. Night was coming. Languorous shadows pooled in every corner of the graveyard, more than accommodating to any spectral miscreant. The weak light of a fluorescent torch barely pierced the brume that blotted out the waxing moon.
"This is insufferable, Morley! What violation, what indignation! I demand an explanation."
Morley saw nothing in the dark, but that was no satisfaction to the phantoms, who took umbrage at any disturbance that reminded them of their incorporeal limitations.
"Quiet now, Mr. Mayhew. Just give me a few minutes and we'll get it sorted."
Then he saw it. A piece of chalk, snapped in half, and the windblown remains of poorly scribbled hieroglyphics. Morley let out a soft curse. This was no rogue spirit.
"This. Is. An. Outrage!" Abner wailed before screaming out towards the raging sea.
The sheriff dismissed it as vandalism, of course, and asked that Morley call him should it happen again. Kids were restless with education, so close to the year end and yet far from summer, and prone to this sort of impishness. Morley insisted on filing a report, if only to force the sheriff to send a deputy. They agreed that someone would come by during the week and that the night patrol add them to their route. A break-in to a home would have garnered the attention of at least half the cops in the county, if only for the excitement of “real” crime. But breaking in to the sanctuaries of the dead was little more than an inconvenience to the living.
Morley sighed. Last evening’s fog hung heavy like the jitters of a half recalled night terror. Someone was rousting his spirits, disturbing them with invocations half understood and twice as dangerous. In the old days, they might have burned or lynched folks on the suspicion of such a thing, but the gravekeeper no longer wielded that political helf. Morley was on his own, more or less. He put on his parka, grabbed a tuna sandwich from the fridge, and braced himself for another long day.
Late afternoon found him on the southern side of the cemetery, amidst the newer headstones. As he walked along the stelae and plaques, he barely stifled a lament for the lack of flowers. Despite the engraved "beloveds," "devoteds," and "dearly missed," the graveyard was a lonely place. A place to bury ancestors and forget history. He'd seen dozens of movies with graveside dialogue, but had seen less than ten regular visitors throughout the year. Otherwise, it was the same troop of Boy Scouts, armed with small flags, combing through the war dead on Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, and the Fourth of July. Besides them, the only time living souls trooped through the necropolis was during the interment of new residents.
Mrs. Imai was waiting for him by the modest memorial paid for by her grandson. The image of a woman dressed in white floated before him. Her eyes were downcast, her hands folded over her lap, black hair pulled into a bun. If this spectral reflection was any indication, Mrs. Imai had been quite beautiful in her youth. But time had not worn her well. She was prune shriveled in her coffin, hunched over and worn down in a way that an undertaker cannot obfuscate. Her epitaphs read: "Resilient," "Determined," "Survivor of Manzanar." Things endured in silence and transcended by death. Morley nodded towards her. She returned this greeting with a formal bow, coming up just an inch and pausing before returning upright. She was the first yurei in Morley's cemetery, yet she reminded him of many of the older spirits, in ways the comforted and confused him.
"Greetings Imai-sama, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Hello, Morley-kun. Today is pleasant," she replied in a warm whisper. The day was cold and wet, sodden with a clamminess that rattled in Morley's bones and pinched his joints. It was not a pleasant day. But she didn't mean that.
"Indeed, it is a fine day to be about."
"Does something concern you, Morley-kun?"
"There have been prowlers," he admitted, "But with luck they have not disturbed you."
She was quiet for a long time. Green fire danced around Mrs. Imai's head. Dusk purpled the sky like an old bruise while the ocean sucked the sun beneath its covetous waves. When she spoke, it was in reference to nothing.
"There are some breezes at night that come not from the sea. Ill winds. Drifting on fluttering shadows, swift as foxes and silent as thieves. They wait for a moon that is full, I think, to steal some power meant for the sea."
"There's no accounting for the weather," Morley spoke in a faltering voice, some chatter in his jaw and shivering in his bones. Mrs. Imai nodded, and then faded, going to the place that spirits went when the living no longer suited them. The green fires around her winked out one by one until Morley was left in the pale glow of his electric torch.
If there was any vice that Morley would admit, it was a love of ghost stories. When he finished his rounds, he made himself a toddy and collapsed backwards into a lumpy sofa in front of an old tube TV. Though the picture was weak and the antenna attached by various ill-fitting converters, he could still get the black and white classics. Lugosi, Karloff, the old House on Haunted Hill. Strange that this childhood infatuation still appealed to him, given the gross exaggeration of dead and undead alike. Maybe part of him still wished for the fantasy, however dark, in spite of the unglamorous reality.
That night, however, he watched the weather. Despite the humming of the TV cabinet, the weather man spoke clearly, elucidating in front of a green screen with arcane hand movements and emphatic gestures.
"--The low pressure system should be moving out to sea, leaving us clear weather for the next week--"
Morley thought that this seemed sensible, but then doubted it immediately. He fell into that easy derision of anyone who needed to validate themselves in the failures of others. Why, if I got my job wrong half as many times as the weatherman, then no one would find their loved ones--
Then he saw it. It was on the ten day forecast. Tonight, cloudy with blustering wind. Tomorrow, clear and cool, and the rise of the full moon. The dark reality Morley craved.
He did not know when he dropped off into sleep. What he did remember came in frightening flashes, the pocked countenance of the moon leering into his soul. A lunar terror, rising to a fearful apex that he could not escape, or prevent. As the gaze pierced him, he felt something seep inside him, cruel and unforgiving like a revelation. Worse yet, he felt something leak out, too.
He made himself two cups of coffee that morning, black, no sugar, strong with an extra scoop of grounds per cup. For breakfast, he put bologna in the microwave, long enough so that the edges curled and it was almost like Taylor ham. He ate it on a sandwich with process cheese. He picked the least mealy of the apples to finish his breakfast, and left the cottage with two turkey sandwiches.
Achille La Esclave and Paloma de la Paz were waiting for him outside. Achille was a young boy who had been taken by fever shortly after being sold. Paloma and her father were killed in a car accident two summers ago. They were the youngest spirits, in terms of living age, in the cemetery and had become inseparable friends. They were also the most troublesome. For while most spirits found death a satisfying capstone to lives of pain or accomplishment, the pair instead treated it as eternal youth. They became tricksters, and their appearance was an ill omen. It was about then that the sheriff's deputy showed up.
Achille and Paloma rippled with spectral giggles. They deputy would not see them.
"Well, I suppose you'll want to see the site of this devilry. Come along."
The Mayhew tomb was in the same state as Morley had left it. There were chalk markings on the ground, evidence that the door had been forced, and the some remains had been disturbed. Abner Mayhew was shouting inconsolably.
"Well," Nigel Freeman said, "That's a hell of thing, ain't it?"
"Outrage! An affront to decency!"
"I suppose," Morley agreed.
"Don't you find this a bit creepy, Morley?" by which he meant he found Morley creepy.
"A contemptible indignity! A grave slur against the peaceful rest of our respected ancestors!"
From behind the door, the ethereal heads of two children poked through. The floated and bobbed with barely suppressed laughter. Abner's tirade was reaching operatic tenor. Achille and Paloma leered at him, made faces, and disappeared through the door.
"I think, Nigel, there's something else I want to show you."
The two picaros bounded towards the western end of the cemetery, with the two mortals in tow.
"What's on your mind, Morley?" the deputy wanted to know.
"Better wait until you can see it for yourself," he answered. He licked his lips. Some warmth was creeping into the afternoon. He felt the sweat pooling on his back. It was a flowering sun. Good for lilies. Normally he was happy for clear skies.
The children stopped at a marker wrapped under ivy. It happened sometimes, when there were no living relatives to pay the upkeep fees. Morley did his best to tend all the graves, but he had to mind those that were paid first. Some of the older ones were tended more by nature and time. He reminded himself he was but one man.
On the leeside of the marker, someone had cleared away enough of the creeping growth to scrawl in charcoal. It was a Solomonic pentacle.
"Nigel, take a look at this."
The deputy came round the grave and let out a low whistle.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said without irony, "You know what it is?"
The children ran round Deputy Freeman, pulling at his pants and his belt. The deputy struggled to keep them about his waist, but otherwise payed them no mind.
"Can't say that I do, Nigel."
The deputy squatted down to get a better look. Morley bent down next to him, his bones creaking like old shipdeck and popping like gunwales in chop. Freeman used his phone to take a picture of the marking.
"Is this something we should be concerned about?" Deputy Freeman asked.
Necromancy. Demon summoning. The forbidden science of ancient grimoires. Nasty stuff, out of place in a sanctuary for the ancient and the dead.
"I don't know, you're the expert in petty crimes, Nigel."
"So this doesn't mean anything to you?” Achille tipped his hat over. The deputy replaced it upon his head and pulled it down tight as if they were caught in a gale wind. “I guess I can run the picture through our databases to see if it's a gang sign or in the cult registries."
"No need to go to the trouble, Nigel," Morley barked, too curt and sudden a refusal of help, "Kids find this stuff on the internet or what have you. Just keep them off my grounds."
"You sure it's not a problem, Ezra?" Freeman held up a charred bone, "Is this something you recognize from the Mayhew tomb?"
Morley shook his head.
"Probably rabbit or squirrel, something easily trapped and seldom missed. Just keep them off my grounds and there won't be no problem."
There was, in the deepest, oldest parts of the cemetery, things better left dead and buried. Spirits were not, as a rule, violent or malevolent. They were merely expressions of who the person was in life, shades of their personality, colored in ectoplasm and electromagnetic distortion. But death was ancient, and it captured all things--good and bad--held them deep in its belly where they more safely remained than among the living.
The moon was rising. It shone in the night sky with a terrible brilliance, shimmered with grim portent. Morley packed a thermos of soup and took his shovel. He was, after all, a gravedigger. A man like him was nothing without his tools. And if he was working tonight, they would be a comfort for him.
Morley walked north. He did not need torch to see by the moonlight, nor did he need his map to find the way. He was drawn to it like a magnet to lodestone. North, true north, to the center of the place. Not a geographical center, not something that can be bisected or triangulated on a piece of paper. It was a spiritual center, the nexus of a confluence of energies so profound that they defied scientific instrumentation, rational explanation, and most constructs of the human psyche.
After about a half hour, he stopped and drank some of the soup. It was hot, burned his tongue and warmed his belly. It felt like medicine, better than a belt of whiskey, a pure talisman against the obscene forces of the night. But it was only soup. Half drunk and boiled from a can.
Morley found the coven dead. There were three of them, young, painted up like dolls. Mascara under the eyes, black nail polish, cheap dye that stained the scalp. They were scattered in a circle around an unmarked mound. Poor little fools. He cursed them and he cursed Nigel Freeman, and everyone from their parents on up to the sheriff.
Pau'guk stared at Morley with a vile grin. Teeth split his skull in a wide grimace, a famishing so profound that not even a wiindigoo would understand. A lesser man would have brandished a cross, invoked a god, begged or pleaded to be spared from the devouring Pau'guk. Morley nodded respectfully and turned his gaze downwards. After a time, the spirit faded, returned to his mound with the three souls he now owned, and let himself rest until he was called upon once more. Morley grabbed the first body by the ankles and began dragging her off to a discreet part of the boneyard.
Many people mistake life for hunger. They eat, they thirst, they fuck, and, above all, they crave time. Some, it must be said, even crave the power to control the wills of other, to manipulate destiny, to seek an immortality of flesh. But all this is transient, and in no way should be mistaken for hunger.
Hefting his shovel, Morley reveled and raged at the little knowledge he had in this regard. Death is the only true hunger, and it consumes all. No plant, no person, no biology can escape it. It is the one true inevitability. Some believe they can control this hunger, bend it to their will, direct its voracious craving at their enemies, or at least away from themselves long enough to eke out a few more petty years. A profound foolishness that has proliferated for centuries, first through the grimoires of deranged men and then through the chronicles of medicine and science. But death takes all. As the little vandals found out, it comes for you sooner than you expect.
Morley dug. The soil was clay. The chill in the air had hardened it. His shovel was not as strong as it had been. Nor were his arms or back. Yet he dug, because he was a gravedigger and that's what he must do. Their parents would miss them. The sheriff would ask questions. But duty came before decorum.
He dug. First he saw the fires of Mrs. Imai. Then he heard the smug satisfaction of Abner Mayhew and his scions. Achille and Paloma danced around him in a child's rhyme. Even the specter of Pau'guk himself came by to gawk, to rub hands along his belly and to slather his tongue along the jagged contours of a gaping maw. One by one, the coven came too, for closure, for realization. Morley dug and they watched. They all watched. The entire cemetery. They watched and waited for the one day when someone would dig for Ezra Morley himself. For a day when he too would watch, wait, know the hunger and finality of oblivion.