(Title story from the book The Fresh Grave and Other Ghostly Stories by Raymond Bial.)
Out on the side porch, Hank Cantrell was easing back and forth on the wooden swing in the black of a moonless June night.
As they did most every evening, frogs chorused down in the marsh and crickets fiddled in the high grass. The hills and woods around Hank’s farm made the hours after sundown absolutely pitch-black, as if the very light had been swallowed up by the hollows. So he was startled when across the pasture there flowed a white essence, spiraling like a whirlpool. At first he thought it was just a wisp of fog easing up from the creek bottom.
A strapping boy with blue eyes and straw-colored hair, Hank stood up to see better, his hand trembling on the cool metal of the pump handle. The approaching white fog might have been a trace of mist, but instead of drifting randomly, it flowed directly toward him. At age fifteen, Hank knew every rock, fencepost, and tuft of grass in that pasture, from doing chores and taking care of the livestock, and the unusual appearance of the mist traveling toward him disturbed him considerably.
He started to retreat into the house where his parents and brothers and sisters were reading and playing board games in the parlor, but he was so curious, he couldn’t take his eyes off the strange mist advancing over their land. Gradually, as he watched, it assumed the shape of a person and he stepped back in shock. Then as it whisked across the strawberry patch right next to the house, the face of a woman emerged from the fog—old and creviced, with keen eyes reflecting light like an animal caught in the headlights of a car. Hank couldn’t determine the source of that light, not for the life of him, because it was so dark that the stars seemed to be drowning deep within the sky.
Just as he was about to flee into the house, a voice called to him, “Hank.” The sound wafted across the distance that separated them, reaching him in a whisper. “Hank Cantrell, I need you.”
The boy’s hands shook. He was so frightened that his entire body felt on the verge of breaking apart.
“Come here, Hank,” the old lady called from the mist. “I need you.”
Hank glanced over his shoulder to the safety of his family. He could run inside, but he kept telling himself, “I know this land. I should be safe on my own farm.” Yet as he stepped off the side porch and approached the old lady, he could hardly feel his feet beneath himself. “What am I doing?” he repeatedly asked himself, as if he had lost control over his own actions.
But when he was just yards away from the figure, it spoke again, “It’s me, Hank. Hattie Rutledge.”
Instantly he recognized old Hattie and, much relieved, said, “You gave me a start, Mrs. Rutledge. I thought—well, uh, never mind. Say, what brings you out tonight?”
Wisps of gray hair floating about her face, she said, “I want to talk with you.”
Hank wondered why she was dressed entirely in white, the fabric so delicate that it floated as light as air. Her pale blue eyes had a wild, almost transparent look to them. He glanced back to the porch window from which a comforting light shone and said, “Why sure, Hattie. Mom and Dad will be glad to see you.”
“No, out here,” she said. “No one must know but you, Hank.”
“How come?” Hank wasn’t in the habit of keeping secrets from anyone, least of all from his parents.
“No one but you, Hank!” she cried, her eyes flaring with an eerie blue light.
Goosebumps rose on Hank’s arms, and he shivered like he was freezing from the inside.
Now, Hattie Rutledge was just about the oldest person in Varnell County, loved and trusted by all, and she knew more about local history than anybody. For many years—as long as Hank had been alive and then some—she had made a study of it, writing articles for the Myrtleville Weekly Gazette and even a book which had been published by the Varnell County Historical Society.
Hank was well-acquainted with Hattie and he knew that she could be trusted completely. So he followed her past the strawberry patch and the chicken coop. Just under the basketball hoop on the side of the barn, she paused and told him, “I’ve got a little job that needs doing, and I’m counting on your help.”
“Why is she asking me?” Hank wondered to himself.
Seemingly able to penetrate his thoughts, she explained, “You’ve always been a boy that folks can count on, Hank. You’ve always been a hard worker.” Aware that he had that reputation, Hank swelled a little with pride, yet for the sake of humility he maintained a sober expression on his face. Hattie went on, “You’ve always been able to do a good day’s work. Well, tonight I’ve got a good night’s work for you, if you’re willing.”
Hank shuffled his feet. “Well, I don’t know, Hattie. It’s getting awful late.”
Hattie pleaded, “It’s for a good cause, Hank. And it can’t be done without your help.”
Anxiously, Hank rubbed his palms on his jean legs. He was scared all right, but offered, “I’m willing to help ’long as it’s for a good reason. I know you wouldn’t steer me wrong, Hattie.”
“You’ve got to promise never to tell a living soul!”
Although he didn’t know why she was asking him to keep a secret, Hank swallowed and told her, “I promise.”
“Come on!” Hattie urged, suddenly agitated.
“Where are we going?” Hank thought to ask.
“To Spring Hill Cemetery.”
Hank stopped cold. “Just what are we going to do there?”
“I’ll explain on the way,” she said, taking his arm. Her touch felt light and cool to him. “We’ve got to get there before it’s too late.”
They walked along through the dark, down a tractor path that led to a bridge over the creek. There were scattered woods on either side of them, which further obscured the faint light of the stars.
Glancing over her shoulder, as if to make sure no one was eavesdropping on them, Hattie explained, “Lately there have been grave robbers at work in Varnell County.”
Hank nodded. He had heard the stories.
“More’n likely they’re plain vandals. God knows there’s nothing of value to rob hereabouts, especially in graves. People die as they lived—dirt poor. But once they’re dead, poor folks have got as much right as anybody to rest in peace. Trouble is those grave robbers are hard to catch. Sheriff Rollins has laid out there more’n one night already trying to catch them, but he usually falls asleep. And those violators are crafty. Likely they’ve spotted him on those nights and haven’t dug up any graves or done any other damage. But old Roily can’t spend every night camped out in the graveyard. So I’ve got a plan to stop them good, and permanent.”
Hank swallowed. “Permanent?”
“Yes, for forever and a day. You said you were willing, didn’t you?”
“Well, I. . . uh . . .”
“Then let’s hurry!”
“What about my parents? Shouldn’t I have told them?” Hank asked, glancing back to his home, the lights of which were fading in the distance.
“Don’t worry about them,” Hattie said. “They’ll think you’ve gone to bed and won’t miss you.”
Hank wondered how she could be so certain that his parents would not discover his absence. He wasn’t at all sure that he wanted to get mixed up with these violators of the dead, especially as Hattie began to explain her scheme to him, but he had already promised her. It was a little over three miles to Spring Hill Cemetery, that is, if you took a shortcut through the woods and pasture. The old graveyard covered most of a field at the south edge of Myrtleville. Like so many teeth, the tombstones littered the slope at angles, interrupted by clumps of daylilies and oak trees.
“Are you sure this will work?” Hank asked, short of breath, wondering why Hattie wasn’t in the least winded by their rapid pace.
“Don’t say that.”
“There’s a fresh grave on the slope just waiting. For you, Hank.”
For me, Hank thought, with a ringing in his ears, because the plan called for him to be buried alive.
Hattie removed a small bag of flour from the pocket of her white dress and used it to powder Hank from head to foot. Then, indicating the open coffin at the bottom of the rectangular hole, she said, “Climb in.”
He hesitated. “I’m not so sure I can do this, Hattie. What if you can’t get me out in time? There’s only so much air in that coffin and—”
“Have faith, boy!”
“But how will you get me out?” Hank asked.
“I won’t,” Hattie said. “It’s the grave robbers who will dig you up.”
“What if they don’t come?”
“Then I’ll dig you out myself.”
Hank wasn’t so sure. Hattie might be spry, but she was too old to be handling a shovel for any length of time.
“How long will I be buried?” he asked.
“Until they come for you.”
“But how long before my air runs out?”
“You’ll have a couple of hours or so,” she said.
Since he had promised, and since Hattie was a person to be trusted, Hank climbed down into the cold hole and lay down in the pine box. For a second, he caught a glimpse of the wide-open sky, flecked with stars. Never had he seen a more inviting sight. Then the wooden lid slammed down upon him.
Instantly he was trapped in absolute black.
In panic he tried to push open the coffin, then he beat upon the walls, but shovelsful of damp earth were already thudding down upon the lid, much more quickly than he imagined Hattie could possibly work with a spade. As the earth accumulated over him, the sound gradually softened, coming from a greater and greater distance, and then all was silent.
Hank tore at his hair. He beat and kicked at the coffin walls, and scraped the inner surface until his fingers bled, all the time reproaching himself, “Why? Why? Why did I agree to this crazy plan—to be buried alive! Hattie must have gone mad!” His thoughts swirled in confusion. Then he fainted outright.
It could have been minutes or days before he gradually surfaced to consciousness. His mind was lost in a blur of visions and colorful fragments of dreams, and he was certain that he was asleep at home in bed. Grinning to himself, he sat up—only to knock his head against the lid of the coffin.
“Why?” he demanded of himself. “How could I let myself be buried alive?” Again he vented his terror on the walls, until gradually, in that absolute black, he lapsed into a strange calm.
He wondered if he would have enough air in the narrow box, if he would ever stand on the earth again, if he would ever again behold the sweet light of day. After a while, he simply lay there thinking of nothing, until—
“What was that?” he asked himself, the sound echoing back to him in his confinement.
“It must be my imagination,” he told himself. Then he heard it again—a muffled thudding and then a scraping of metal on the wooden lid directly over him. Faintly, he heard laughter, drunken snorts, and a rough voice insisting, “I get to crack this one open, Junior!”
“No, you don’t!” another man’s voice answered.
“But you got to bust up the last one!”
“Well, you done wrecked two in a row before that!”
“I sure as heck didn’t!”
“Okay, we’ll all open up it together.”
Hank collected himself, lying stiff and wide-eyed as Hattie had instructed. The creaking of the lid as it slowly opened sounded to him like the entire sky wrenching itself apart. In the distance there were brilliant, sudden flashes of heat lightning, but not a sound of thunder, just that anguished creaking sound as the lid was pulled back.
Strangely, Hank felt that he was high up at a great distance, looking downward, and that the sky far below him was nothing but a vast ocean into which he was about to plummet. The wind flashed around him as he slowly sat up, tilting forward, into an immense void. If he kept falling into the deep sky, he would end up orbiting the earth, he thought, always looking downward, without a body or a soul, just himself and the universe around him.
Out of the corners of his unblinking eyes, he saw the utter terror in the faces of three men—the Leach brothers! Usually Orville, Junior, and Ferris Leach hung out at the Sinclair station on the way to Boggsville. They had been a few years ahead of Hank in high school, before they’d dropped out, but they didn’t recognize him now, not with the flour dusted all over him.
“It’s alive!” Junior gasped.
“No it ain’t, it’s dead!” Ferris answered.
“Then how come it’s movin’?” Orville asked.
“It’s a ghost!”
As Hattie had instructed him, Hank raised his hands as if to strangle them and demanded in a deep, formal voice, “Why do you disturb my rest? Can I not rest in peace?”
Their faces twisted, the three guys were already stumbling backward. Junior cried, “We didn’t mean nothin’. We was just havin’ us some fun. We won’t do it again. Not ever again.”
Hank sprang out of the coffin and screamed, “If you ever do, I’ll bury you alongside of me for all eternity! Do you hear me?” He made like he was going after them, and they ran as if they’d seen death itself—which, in their minds, they most certainly had.
Getting the shakes again, as he recalled his recent burial, Hank scrambled out of the cold hole. From behind a spruce tree, Hattie appeared. She cackled, “It worked! I’d say we cured them once and for all!”
“Do you suppose so?” Hank asked, unable to control his nerves which crackled like electricity through him.
“Yes,” she said, looking at him curiously. “I expect that the only thing worse than being dead and buried is to be buried alive. Wouldn’t you think so?”
Knowing the feeling all too well, Hank nodded.
“Well, thank you,” Hattie said. “I know it was hard for you to lay down there, Hank, probably the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your young life. But now you know something—more than most folks, old and young alike, and here you’re only fifteen.”
Hank asked, “You want me to cover up the coffin?”
She looked strangely at him, her blue eyes going soft. Then shaking her head, she said, “No, honey, you’ve done more’n enough work for one night. What’s left to be done, I’ll have to do myself.”
Hank glanced briefly down at the black rectangular hole, then turned back to her, but Hattie Rutledge had vanished.
That night he walked home, neither scared nor happy, just filled with wonder over the amazing complexity of the universe.
At the hand pump on the back porch, he washed off the flour, at least most of it. Then he quietly entered the house and slipped into his bed, sleeping so long and deep that his mom had to call to him several times before he awoke the next morning.
“Hank, I’m not yelling up these stairs again,” she said. “You’ve got chores to do and here it is practically six o’clock in the morning!”
He bolted upright, dreaming that he was still buried alive, and was thankful to see the light angling in through the window. At first he thought the whole thing had been a dream—until he noticed the flour which remained in the folds of his shirt and jeans. He dressed in clean clothes and went downstairs where his mom asked him, “Are you going to the funeral today?”
“Yes. You mean you haven’t heard? Old Hattie Rutledge died the day before yesterday.”
“Day before yesterday? But I just saw her. I . . .”
His mom looked at Hank a moment, then said, “It couldn’t have been her, Hank. She’s been dead for nearly two days. Now eat your eggs before they get cold.”
Hank shook, suddenly chilled to his very bones at the thought that Hattie really had been a ghost.
“Are you all right, Hank?” his father asked, his arms planted firmly on the table.
“Sure,” Hank muttered in the general direction of his plate.
“He just doesn’t understand much about death,” his mom said gently. “He being so young.”
But Hank knew something about death, which thereafter gave him a better appreciation of every day of his life. That afternoon, he stood at Hattie’s graveside, and found himself looking down into the very same hole he had occupied the previous night.
The Leach brothers were also in attendance. They were shaking like they had a bad case of the chills, and, though Sheriff Rollins could never figure out why, there never was another grave disturbed in all of Varnell County.
“The Fresh Grave”
A Story by Raymond Bial
from the book, The Fresh Grave and Other Ghostly Stories
copyright 1997, 2014, Raymond Bial. All rights reserved.
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