(for your Hallowe'en edification)
She awoke from her evening dozing with a slight start. It hadn’t happened in years, but tonight she felt as if he’d been calling to her. How odd it was, after all this time, to be drawn out of the comfort of her well-worn rocking chair for a midnight walk. She couldn’t remember the last time it had happened, but she immediately recognized the urge for what it was.
She glanced around the room for her walking stick. She’d need it to get to her destination. As with so many things these days, she couldn’t remember where she’d left it. The light given by the gently crackling fire was dim, and certainly not bright enough to light the room. As the shadows cast by the flames’ dancing spun around the room, she glimpsed a dull, oily shimmer next to the front door. As she had been many times before, but especially this evening, she was glad for the ornamentation he had added to the stick: an opal collar, just under the curved handle. The dark wood from which the rest of the cane was made blended in with the darkness, but she could see the shimmer of the collar if she squinted.
Slowly, carefully, she leaned forward and urged the rest of her body out of the chair. The one good thing about her advanced age was that she weighed next to nothing at this point. In fact, she was practically all skin and bone, but she knew she had enough strength left in her remaining sinew to take this walk.
Hobbling forward on unsteady legs, but gaining more strength for the motion, she reached the front door. Her shawl hung from the hook where it always was — that habit had never altered. She placed it around her shoulders. It didn’t hang the way it used to, when she was a younger woman, more broad of shoulder (and truth be told, of hips as well). Still, it covered her well enough, and should be proof against the briskness she expected awaited her beyond the door. She took the walking stick from where it leaned against the wall, and a moment later was outside.
The night was clear and colder than she’d expected. While it wouldn’t happen immediately, she knew that before too long her bones would start to ache from the chill. At least the moon was out and almost full, and the sky was decorated by the same stars she’d always seen. The moonlight would be enough to walk by. She had gotten accustomed to not seeing clearly years and years before.
She straightened her back as much as she could, extended the walking stick, and stepped forward. One foot, then the next, she slowly progressed down the narrow path from her front door to the slightly wider lane that passed by the front of her house. No one had trod either path in a long while, it seemed, but her steps grew more sure and quick as she moved. A right turn on the lane would take her toward the village. Tonight, her walk mandated a left turn, toward the church and its graveyard.
A moment later, or so it seemed to her, she was walking amongst the headstones. The way was familiar to her, even after all this time, her cane finding its way amongst the stones without conscious direction. The stone she wanted to see was in the middle row, back by the half wall that marked the far boundary of the graveyard. Even in the dim moonlight she could tell that the wall itself was crumbling in places, so much so that it cast a strange shadow over her destination. As she drew closer, she realized it wasn’t actually a shadow, but a mound of earth, as if there were a newly covered grave adjacent to the one she sought. She didn’t recall there being enough room around the grave for a new burial…
As she drew up to the neatly piled dirt, she realized the source of her confusion. The mound wasn’t covering a new grave; it had been removed from an old one — the one that she had come to visit. She realized she was trembling now, and not because of the cold. Her breath puffed out of her body in little clouds of small gasps. The coffin in the unearthed grave was open, and empty.
She suddenly felt faint and realized that she had to either move or fall forward into the grave. She took a staggering step to the side, thrusting her cane out for support, wrenching her gaze away from the gaping maw of the six-foot-deep hole. Doing so cast her glance to the church house adjoining the graveyard. She hadn’t taken note of it at all on her approach, being intent as she was on the graveyard itself. Even now, the church house was only barely visible, lurking in the shadow of the church.
Now that she was looking, she noticed a supremely dim light emanating from one of the two windows on the front of the rectory. No wonder she hadn’t noticed it earlier; it couldn’t have been lit by more than a single candle. Fear swept through her in a way she hadn’t felt in many years. The owner of that candle must be responsible for this desecration, or at least know something about it. She gripped her cane in both hands until they were only slightly trembling, then, leaning heavily on the stick, she willed her old body to move toward the church house.
The rectory was small, but then again, so was the church and graveyard. Even so, the dread in her increased with each step she took. Her cane made almost no noise in the loose gravel as she made her way cautiously up the house’s walkway. Nearer to the door, the loose gravel spread out into a small rock garden, bordered by petrified wood of various shapes and sizes. Approaching the door, she took a quick glance through the window with the bleak light. The window was covered with grime both inside and out, preventing her from seeing anything but the dull gleam she’d noticed earlier. As she turned back to the door, she thought she caught sight of a shadow passing in front of the flame.
Reaching for the door as if to knock, her brow suddenly creased, drawing the feeble remnants of her eyebrows together. Her lips formed a grim horizon across her wan face. She grasped the doorknob and gave it as abrupt a twist as it had ever know. The door opened easily revealing the darkness beyond, broken only by a single candlelight suspended from the far wall where a lantern should have been.
She crossed the threshold of the house and took a moment to let her eyes adjust to the new dimness. Outside, everything had been a silvery white. Inside the rectory, it was an inconsistent yellow. The candle was indeed mounted on a lantern hook on the far wall. Its soft light illuminated a small section of a writing table, and she could just discern the outline of a man hunched over the table. The broken-rhythmic scratching noise coming from that direction reminded her of long ago days, where letter-writing was still considered an art form, and sharpened points dipped in inkwells skittering lightly over vellum pages were her heart’s delight.
She wasn’t sure how long she stared, but eventually realized that she was needlessly clutching her cane with both hands in front of her again. She shifted the cane back to one hand and took a step forward. A soft tap from the cane’s tip seemed to grab the man’s attention, as the scratching suddenly stopped. His shoulders straightened, and he turned very slightly towards her.
“I’ve been waiting for you. It’s time,” said the man. His voice was almost familiar — a voice not unlike one from her youth, one that she’d enjoyed listening to countless times, yet more sepulchral. Her heart fluttered in both fear and anticipation.
He turned toward her more fully, casting half his face into the light of the candle. His pallid, decomposing face was covered in maggots, crawling in and out of an eye socket whose contents had turned to a greenish jelly. The corpse face smiled at her, and the jaw came unhinged, falling partially onto the man’s chest.
She shrieked, stumbling backwards and out into the walkway. But her cane… she’d dropped her cane inside the church house. She took a single step backward, but lost her footing on the loose gravel. As her feet and balance gave way, she fell sideways. She managed to turn her head just in time to see a jagged looking piece of petrified wood rushing up to meet her.
The church caretaker was up early on All Saints Day. He didn’t have much to do today except make his semi-monthly trip to the old church for maintenance. He needed to ensure the doors to the church and rectory were secure, that none of the windows where broken, and then do some quick trimming of the weeds in the graveyard. A short jaunt from his abode at the edge of the village, doing the chores, and he’d be home in time for lunch.
The walk down the lane took him by the old widow’s house. He thought he should check in on her, but then thought better of it. This, also, was part of his semi-monthly routine. He noticed that there was no smoke coming from the widow’s chimney, which was odd given the crispness of the morning. The old bat was probably sleeping in after a raucous Hallowe’en night of witchifying the countryside. He chuckled to himself as this jest, impressed as always by his wit.
Arriving at the church, he immediately set to work. As expected, the doors to both the church and the rectory were locked tight. The gravel on the church house walkway seemed slightly disturbed, but he accounted that to a fox or some other nighttime vermin. He also thought he caught the faintest scent of burned wick and candle wax near the rectory door. He took a quick glance through the window, realizing as he did so that he wouldn’t be able to see much. He could make out the vague shape of his shadow on the floor, but nothing seemed amiss.
Shrugging, he made his way down the gravel walkway to the graveyard. He wandered up one row and down another, looking for weeds that needed pulling. As he got to the far end of the middle row, he noticed that something was different about the old parson’s grave. It looked like the dirt had been turned over. And what was that near the headstone? A cane of some kind with some paper wedged underneath…?
The cane was made of a lovely dark wood, and looked to have a little Mother of Pearl inlaid collar. No, not Mother of Pearl… that other stone that makes the iridescent colors when you shine light on it. Opal! That’s what the stone is… opal! Isn’t Opal the old widow’s name? He couldn’t remember off the top of his head.
He picked the paper up, which almost blew away as a sudden sharp breeze blew at him. It was folded neatly, and the paper seemed extra thick. Well-made paper… they don’t make it like that anymore. Opening the fold, he saw that there was a poem of some kind written there. The ink was slightly splotchy, as if someone had written on the paper using a pen and old inkwell. The poem read…
There was an old woman all skin and bone
Who lived near the graveyard all alone.
She thought to go to church one day
To hear the preacher sing and pray.
And when she came to the graveyard stile
She thought she’d stop and rest awhile.
And when she came to the old church door
She stopped to rest a little more.
But when she turned and looked around
She saw a corpse upon the ground.
The worms crawled out, the worms crawled in,
From up his nose down to his chin.
The worms crawled in, the worms crawled out,
Across his eyes, his ears and mouth.
The woman to the preacher said,
“Will I look like that when I am dead?”
“You already do,” the preacher said.
“You’re skin and bone because you’re dead!”
The woman fainted with the shock
And split her head on a sharp rock.
They buried the woman all skin and bone
But from the grave they heard her moan.
“I’m not yet dead” the woman cried.
“You will be soon,” the priest replied.