Thursday, February 9, 2017

STORY The Little Gray Ghost

The Little Gray Ghost by Susan Buffum

Bartholomew, the grave digger, blew his nose into a dirty rag that had once been some fine gentleman’s linen handkerchief, but was now much the worse for wear. He tucked it into the pocket of his shabby coat then pulled on the gloves his wife had knitted for him two years ago. There were holes through which his fingers stuck out like blind white worms poking their heads above the brown soil. The cuffs were unraveling, yet he would not discard these gloves until they were nothing but strands of tatty wool. They were the last Christmas gift he’d gotten from Lydia. She’d died before spring had arrived that year, her lungs weakened by chronic cough and congestion.

“Time to go dig that grave,” he said aloud as he reached for the old shovel leaning against the wall of the caretaker’s shack. It was late in the afternoon to be starting this task, but he’d had a terrible night, plagued by uneasy dreams. Therefore he’d been late this morning, and then there’d been that business about the disturbed grave site of the young woman they’d buried three weeks ago. Her beau had come to put fresh flowers on her grave and found the soil churned up with signs of digging. The constable had been summoned. Although he’d thought it merely the mischief of wild animals he’d had to dig the grave out and open the coffin. He hated having to open the coffins. He hated disturbing the dead like that, but grave robbers were plying their gruesome trade throughout all the city’s cemeteries.

She’d been in her coffin looking as if she was merely asleep, her flesh yet uncorrupted by death. Her beau had turned away, making a terrible sound in his throat. The constable had nodded at him to close the coffin and refill the grave, which he’d done, but the young man’s grief at having seen the sweet face of his departed love once more had nearly torn his own heart apart.

“Looks like snow,” he muttered to himself as he trudged along the dirt lane toward the grave site he was to prepare. There’d be a funeral here tomorrow. He’d stand in the shadow of the mossy mausoleum, under the awning of evergreen boughs, well out of the way and watch the fine coach with its glass windows draped in black crepe, the tall black ostrich plumes fluttering at the four corner posts rocking its way along the rutted lane, the horses curried to a fine gloss with shorter black plumes stuck into their harnesses. It was a society funeral. He liked the somber pageantry of it all, but thought a simple wagon bearing his crude pine box to its final resting place, drawn by a sturdy cart horse, would be fine for the likes of him.

He turned his face up to the leaden sky draped low above his head. A few frosty flakes brushed his weather-worn cheeks before he ducked his head and applied himself to the shovel, digging into the nearly frozen top layer of ground, feeling the jolt of it running up through his arms to his shoulders. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, digging the graves, the gravediggers must,” he chanted as he dug, turning the soil to either side as he excavated deeper.

Time passed. The bells of St. Mark’s tolled five o’clock. The crystalline flakes continued to drift down dusting the ground and the shoulders of his coat. The cold made his nose, ears, and fingertips ache. With each shovelful of dirt he felt the weight of it strain his lower back, but doggedly he dug deeper. The grave had to be ready for tomorrow despite the sun having slipped lower and lower in the western sky, the hour growing late.

The air was redolent with wood smoke and the odor of raw earth. He paused to blow his nose again into the damp handkerchief, finding a usable corner. As he lowered the filthy rag his eye was drawn toward a dim, small, gray figure darting between the tall gravestones. He frowned. St Mark’s had just tolled a quarter to six. It was late for anyone to be wandering about the cemetery, especially a child, for that was the impression that he’d had—a child in a gray cloak.

His eyes searched the deeply shadowed area of the cemetery he could see above the piles of dirt. He was a good four and a half feet down inside the grave now, the dirt mounded up so he really couldn’t see all that much beyond it. Shaking his head, he stabbed the blade of the shovel into the ground, loosening another area, heaving the dirt up and out. As the tumbling of the soil and stones settled on the far side of the mound he thought he heard a voice, a child’s voice, and then a brief laugh. Again he raised his head and scanned the area, but he saw nothing moving.

It was growing even darker. All hint of the sun had bled from the sky leaving nothing but heavy charcoal clouds suspended below an utterly black pall. No stars shone through the gloom. No moon glowed overhead. He stabbed the shovel into the dirt and dug deeper, leaving himself some crude earthen steps by which to climb up out of the hole when he was done. As he neared the completion of his grim task he sensed someone standing behind and above him, spun around, and saw the form of a female child standing there. She was looking down at him, but it was far too dark to make out her features. “The cemetery is no place to play. It’s late. You’d best run along home now,” he said. “Your mother will be looking for you.” The child did not move. “I said, run along now. Off with you! Scat!”

She darted away. He leveled out the bottom of the grave and then climbed wearily out as the bells tolled the hour of seven o’clock. His shoulders and back ached from the arduous labor. The raw chill in the air had invaded his very bones. Turning back, he looked down into the deep, dark grave, nodding, satisfied with his efforts. Hoisting the shovel onto his shoulder, he began the trek back toward the caretaker’s shack, anxious to turn his toes toward home.

Only, once again, he saw the little girl in gray, now wandering among the graves as if dawdling. Why was she still there? He turned his head, looking for an adult figure. Had she accompanied her father or mother to the cemetery to bring flowers to a loved one’s grave?  Had she wandered off and was now searching for that family member? “Hello!” he called to her, but she kept walking among the graves.

He quickened his step, although he was tired and hungry for his supper. He just wanted to return the shovel to the shack, lock the door, and make his way home to the comfort of his rooms. Perhaps his landlady might have a bowl of hot soup and a crust of bread waiting for him. She was a kind woman who had been bringing him an occasional meal since Lydia had passed.

There she was again! “Hey, you! Girl! Wait a moment!” The child stopped, looking back over her shoulder at him. Yes, she was wearing a gray cloak, the hood of which was raised. He caught the curve of her cheek, the darkness of her eye as she studied him as he drew nearer. He thought it curious that she did not seem afraid of him. His coat and cap were dusted with snow. Dirt trickled with every step from his trousers and boots. He must appear to her to be no better than a beggar, yet she stood there watching him from inside her hood, no sign of apprehension about her. “Are you lost? Did you get separated from your mother or father?” he asked as he drew nearer. She said nothing in reply, only watched him. In the darkness, he could not make out whether or not she was frightened of him. He could not see the expression on her face, but still, she was not fleeing from him in terror. “What say I fetch the lantern from the shack and walk you to the gate. Perhaps the person you came with is waiting there hoping you’ll find your own way out.”

He was nearly to the place where she stood now. It was a fairly recent grave. He remembered digging it only too well. It had made him sad for it had been for a child—a little girl who had been trampled by a runaway cart horse. She’d been just four years old, about the same age as this small child who’d been left to wander on her own in the cemetery with darkness now fully upon them and the snow beginning to fall more heavily, the fine flakes having become thick and wet.

“Come along,” he said as he came between the gravestones. He held his hand out to her. “Take my hand. We’ll go put this shovel away. I’ll light the lantern and then we’ll have a little stroll through the snow to the gate, shall we? I bet Mummy is waiting anxiously there for you.” She held out her hand to him—a small, pale hand upon which she wore a little ring with a tiny stone. He curled his fingers, closing them around her hand—and was startled to close his hand upon nothing but cold air! “Good Lord!” he cried, for the child had simply vanished.

He looked all around, but there was no sign of her, no sound of small booted feet fleeing on the nearly frozen ground. He continued to turn in slow circles, looking and searching, shivering, squinting into the gloom of night, but there was no one there. No one at all.

And then he looked down, realizing that he was standing upon the grave of the dead child. He could barely make out the name on the stone, but he didn’t need to read the lettering. He knew her name. It was Mary Streeter. Little Mary Streeter, four years old. She was lying cold and dead six feet beneath this very ground upon which he stood.

A shudder rattled down his spine. He dropped the spade as he moaned with fear and then broke into a run toward the gate. He could not shake off the feeling that he was being followed, glancing over his shoulder every few yards, but there was nothing behind him, only the silent stillness of a winter’s night and the eerie black shapes of the gravestones.

It would be a long time before he remained in the cemetery that late again. And not until the fragile warmth of spring began to linger in the evening air was he finally able to bring himself to speak to anyone of the little gray ghost in graveyard.

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