I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than a cemetery in the Fall, though I love cemeteries no matter the season.
There’s normally an abundance of majestically tall trees, more than you typically find in a public park, but not so many that they obstruct your view, like in the woods. At the peak of Autumn, you’re treated to a panoramic vista of vibrantly coloured foliage dangling from the branches and blanketing the ground, rustling in the wind and crunching underfoot. The gravestones themselves have an apothic allure to them, ruggedly cut slabs of polished slate or granite or marble, their dark bodies glistening ever so slightly in the dappled sunlight, meticulously arranged row by row in solemn respect to those they stand in memorial to.
What I love the most though is the serenity, the tranquillity, the quiet. Aside from the occasional funeral, they’re often entirely empty of visitors, and virtually never have more than a few at a time. The memento mori of rotting corpses only six feet underground must sour most people on the otherwise gorgeous landscaping. Not me though. I guess I’m something of a misanthropic loner to seek out solitude in the confines of a graveyard, but reminders of mortality don’t bother me. It’s comforting, if anything, that we set aside such charming sanctuaries for the dead.
It was on the first day of October 2018 that I came across a new cemetery, one I had never been to before or even knew existed. I was taking a scenic route home along the country sideroads to admire the Fall landscape when I spotted the weathered gravestones up ahead. Pleasantly surprised at my discovery, I turned in without a second thought. The corroded metal arch over the gates only read ‘cemetery’. If the sign had ever borne a name, those letters had long since rusted away.
It wasn’t a large cemetery, maybe a little over a hundred yards across by a couple hundred long with a single looping gravel path, so I parked my car and explored it on foot. I was immediately enthralled by its pristine silence. I couldn’t hear even the most distant sign of human activity. The only noises were the cawing of crows, the scampering of small animals, and the wind blowing through the trees. The towering oaks and maples that populated the graveyard were stunningly dressed in their Fall colours beneath the sombre grey sky, but the gravestones themselves were a different story. None of them were recent, and most were so worn they couldn’t even be read anymore. There were only two structures still standing upon the grounds; the dilapidated remains of a maintenance shed and a small, marble mausoleum, my entrance barred by an iron gate. I walked the entire length of the cemetery, searching for any sign of recent activity. Plant overgrowth was limited, but that looked more like the work of grazing wildlife than a groundskeeper, and I came to the conclusion the place must be abandoned.
I was ecstatic. A small, quaint, aged cemetery all to myself.
I came back a couple of days later and reclined up against a large gravestone that I thought gave the best view, with a book in one hand and a Pumpkin Spice Latte in the other. I wasn’t usually so casual about my behaviour in cemeteries, in case someone came across me and deemed it disrespectful, but after a brief web search on Ecosia yielded absolutely nothing about the cemetery, I was certain it was abandoned. If there’s one thing people find creepier than cemeteries, it’s abandoned, isolated, decaying cemeteries. I was quite confident that I wouldn’t be bothered, and that the long-forgotten person beneath me would be grateful for any attention at all after such prolonged neglect.
Once I had finished my drink and a couple of chapters of my book, I decided to get up and stretch my legs a bit. I nearly screamed out loud when I saw a man in a long black coat and wide-brimmed hat standing over a grave near the cemetery exit. In a more ordinary cemetery, his presence wouldn’t have been much cause for concern, but I was so utterly convinced that this place had been abandoned for ages that it seemed next to impossible that he was just paying his respects. My mind immediately assumed the worse, that he had seen me come in here and hoped to take advantage of my isolated state. If I were to scream at the top of my lungs out here, would anyone else even hear it?
I dropped back down behind the gravestone, waiting to see what he would do. He continued standing over the same grave, barely moving, and giving no indication that he even knew I was there. I pulled out my phone in the hopes of calling someone to pick me up, only to see that I had no reception. Not entirely unexpected, given the rural area I was in, but I still cursed my luck.
Twenty minutes to half an hour went by with no change, and I realized it was going to start getting dark soon. I decided it was better to walk past this guy in daylight than to risk being trapped with him in a graveyard at night. And it wasn’t like I was completely defenceless either. Being a woman with a penchant for wandering by herself in lonely areas, I had made it a habit to carry a small can of Mace on my person, and I had taken some basic self-defence classes.
Gathering my things, with my Mace concealed in the palm of my hand, I set off towards the exit, following the route that kept me the furthest from the stranger. I kept my gait steady, my breathing soft and level, and my gaze ever flicking back and forth between my car and the dark figure. At the sound of my footfalls drawing near, he listlessly lifted his head, gave a perfunctory nod, and – to my great relief – let me pass without incident.
A few days went by before I went back to the cemetery. My encounter with the stranger had left me a bit spooked, but since he’d done nothing to actually threaten me, maybe his presence there had been innocent after all. All I knew was that the spot was far too beautiful and secluded to give up without a more tangible threat to my safety. I went out for another leisurely country drive that eventually took me back to the cemetery, and as soon as I pulled into the entrance, there he was again. Or, possibly, there he was still, since he was standing over the exact same grave with his back to me.
Part of me wanted to back up and get the hell out of there, but at that point, I honestly was more curious than scared. If he had intended to do me harm, he could have done it the first time we were in the cemetery together, and it didn’t really make any sense that he would be lurking out in the open to ambush me days later on the off chance that I would come back. So, what the hell was he doing then? And how did he get here? I didn’t see any other vehicles around, though that I had escaped my attention during our first encounter.
Now that I wasn’t cornered, he didn’t look nearly as threatening as he had before. Instead, he seemed a forlorn, almost tragic figure standing over that grave. My curiosity was peaked, and I was resolved not to give up this cemetery, so I decided to speak with him. Shooting off a text to an acquaintance as a minimal precaution – which didn’t send immediately thanks to the poor reception – and palming my Mace, I stepped out of my vehicle and approached him.
As I got closer, I became more confident, as I could see that his coat added a lot of bulk to him and that he was actually a rather frail man. He had sharp cheekbones over sunken cheeks and under darkly circled eyes. He was pale, but his skin also had an odd, almost silvery luster to it, if that makes sense. His hair was white, too white for someone who looked fifty at the oldest, but oddest of all were his eyes. They were this incredibly vibrant shade of green that stood out like two beryl gemstones in his silvery-white face.
It would be a shame to have to Mace such beautiful eyes, I thought. Not that that would stop me.
“Ah, excuse me, Sir,” I squeaked out when I was a few feet away from him. He raised his head and turned it towards me, his face sternly melancholic but otherwise friendly enough. “I apologize if I’m intruding, but I saw you by this grave a few days ago. It’s just, it’s got me wondering since all the graves in this place seem far too ancient for any living person to have ever known the people buried in them so… I was just curious as to what you were doing here.”
The man nodded understandingly, seemingly aware of the oddness of what he was doing.
“The person buried here’s an ancestor of mine. Never knew them personally, but their deeds have been felt throughout my family for generations, and it’s been our tradition to honour them for that,” he said in a hoarse voice. “I’m the last of my bloodline now, so the honour falls to me alone.”
I turned my gaze to the moss-covered grave, scrutinizing it as best I could, but failed to discern any identifying features other than the outline of a cross. There was a single purple rose placed upon the ground, and several silver dollars placed along the base of the gravestone.
“What about you, Miss?” he asked. “What brings you to this place?”
“Oh. I, ah… I just like cemeteries,” I admitted sheepishly. “They’re pretty, and quiet.”
The man nodded with a slight smirk.
“Um… how did you get here?” I asked. “Did someone drop you off or do you live nearby?”
“The latter. Very much so,” he admitted, pointing towards an enormous evergreen tree. Beneath its sagging branches was a tent, along with some plastic totes and canvas bags.
“Oh. You’re squatting here?” I asked as sympathetically as I could. I was secretly relieved since the situation was starting to make at least a little sense. A secluded place like this was a perfect place to squat, and his homelessness explained his emaciated frame, his poorly-fitted coat, even his prematurely white hair. “But we’re miles from the nearest store. You don’t walk all the way there and then haul supplies all the way back, do you?”
“I have enough to last me ’til the end of the month,” he replied. “After that, it won’t matter.”
I mulled over asking what he meant by that, but decided better of it. I was unsure of his mental state, especially since I could see no evidence that this rather humble grave belonged to some venerated ancestor. I deemed it best just to let him believe whatever he wanted. I slipped the Mace back into my pocket and pulled out my coin purse.
“May I?” I asked, gesturing to the row of coins he had laid along the base of the gravestone. He nodded appreciatively, and I left a token payment to his ancestor – or him – for using their graveyard. “Is it alright with you if I keep visiting? I really do like it here.”
“It’s not my cemetery, Miss. Do as you please,” he nodded.
“Thank you,” I smiled. I headed back to my car for my coffee, when I paused, tempted to ask him his name. I couldn’t do that though without offering mine in exchange, and as harmless as he now seemed, I still thought it best not to give him any compromising information about myself.
I visited the cemetery often for the rest of October, the foliage growing more vibrant and beautiful as the month progressed. I bought some pumpkins from a roadside stand and spent an afternoon carving them into Jack-O-Lanterns and scattered them across the grounds. I befriended the semi-feral barn cats that came there to hunt. I played in the piles of leaves like a little girl, pressed my favourite ones into a scrapbook, and just generally did whatever the hell I felt like. One day I examined each grave one by one, noting down anything I found interesting. Angels and crosses could still be made out on some of the headstones, but the only legible words were generic phrases like ‘gone too soon’, ‘beloved wife, husband, etc,’ and of course, ‘may she, he or they rest in peace’. Not one gravestone still had a date or a name left on it. It struck me as strange, of course, but I honestly had no idea of what to make of it.
Each time I entered the cemetery, I’d leave a few more coins by the “ancestor’s” grave as an offering. Sometimes the man would be standing there, but sometimes he’d be in or around his tent, other times he’d be walking around the rest of the graveyard, and on at least one occasion I wasn’t sure if he was there at all, though I have no idea where he would have gone. We acknowledged each other politely, but spoke seldom. We were both there because we wanted to be left alone, after all. I do realize that me going by myself to a cemetery with a possibly crazy homeless man might sound reckless, but after the first time we spoke I just never got the impression he was dangerous.
There was only one time he took issue with any of my activities, and that was when I tried to gain entry to the mausoleum. I was fiddling with the lock, thinking it was so old I could probably just break it, when I felt his cold hand grab my shoulder from behind.
“That’s a private mausoleum, Miss. Not open to the public,” he said firmly. “Leave it be.”
Looking back on it, I will say that he probably wasn’t justified in putting his hand on me when the reprimand alone would have sufficed, but at the time I just felt such an intense sensation of being caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to that I squeaked out an apology and scurried off to examine the maintenance shed instead. Most interesting thing I found there was one of those old, non-motorized lawnmowers.
On my next visit I brought him a deli sandwich; partially as an apology for my attempt at graverobbing, partially because I brought one for myself and didn’t feel right eating it in front of a homeless person, but also in the hopes of getting some information out of him.
He accepted it politely, but not exactly gratefully. More like it was a pack of store-brand socks from a secret Santa. He didn’t seem to care what he ate, or that he was underfed. He was sure he’d make it until the end of the month, and that was enough for him.
“So, how long have you been here already?” I asked between bites of my Rueben sandwich.
“Since I buried my father,” he murmured.
“Buried him here?” I asked in surprise.
“Wasn’t enough left for a proper burial, but this is consecrated ground, so it was good enough,” he said with a distant nod.
“I’m sure you did the best you could,” I assured him. His vague, cryptic answers did make me a little uneasy, but I had developed a sense of camaraderie with my fellow graveyard enthusiast, and decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for the moment. “So, how much do you know about this place? I haven’t been able to find out anything about it. How old is it? Does it have a name? Why don’t any of the tombstones have names or dates left?”
The man just shook his head.
“All lost to time. Most of us are forgotten in less than a hundred years after we pass. No sense in the stones keeping names when those names won’t mean anything to anyone,” he claimed. I just nodded and finished my sandwich. I didn’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment, but it hardly explained the condition of the gravestones. I briefly entertained the thought that maybe he had chipped off all the dates and names, but quickly dismissed the notion. None of the gravestones appeared vandalized, just old. I eventually settled on the theory that the headstones had been mass-produced with the generic phrases pre-engraved and any personal information being only cheaply and shallowly carved, explaining why it had all eroded away. It wasn’t a perfect theory, but it was the best I could think of.
During the last week of October, there was a heavy rainstorm. When it started to lighten, I tossed on my coat and drove out to the cemetery, eager for the smell of wet leaves on the cool, damp air in my beloved sanctuary. When I arrived, I saw that the grave where I had been leaving my offerings had been dug up. Baffled, I ran from my car to the open grave without even shutting the door behind me. To my horror, I beheld the man, muddied and barely conscious, lying at the bottom of the freshly dug four-foot hole. He had evidently decided to take advantage of the rain-softened earth to exhume the grave, but in his fragile, half-starved state the excursion and the chill of the rain had been too much for him.
Without hesitation, I jumped into the grave, grabbed him from under the armpits and hoisted him up.
“What the hell were you thinking!” I demanded as I slung his body up onto the ground.
“I, I had to know for sure,” he mumbled. That was the only lucid sentence I got out of him for a while. I dragged him back to his tent, cleaned him up, put him in a blanket and got some water into him.
As he recuperated, I started thinking about what exactly my obligations were. I had known that he probably wasn’t mentally well, but I’d also thought he was harmless. Just a creepy loner who liked hanging out in graveyards, like me. But clearly, whatever delusions he clung to had just caused him to nearly kill himself. If I didn’t at least try to get him help, and he died, was I at fault for that? If I didn’t get him help, then who would? But would his delusions even let him leave the cemetery peacefully? The thought of him being dragged out of here by cops to be locked up in some asylum was soul-crushing. There was also the more selfish concern about what would happen to the cemetery if I brought it to the attention of government officials. I had fallen so in love with it, I had seriously started considering buying a camper and squatting here myself.
I was roused from my contemplation by the shameful and apologetic murmur from my tent mate.
“You’re lucky I came here when I did, dummy,” I said, giving him a punitive slap across the knee. “Otherwise you’d be just another nameless corpse right now. What were you trying to do? Do you even know?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he shook his head. I groaned, and shoved a cup of dollar-store instant ramen into his hand.
“Look, I can’t stay here all night. Are you going to be okay by yourself?” I asked.
“Yes, Miss. I’ll be fine. Thank you,” he nodded.
“Promise me you won’t do any more digging, or anything else that might make you keel over,” I demanded.
“I promise, Miss,” he swore. I sighed, and accepted that that would have to do. “I do have one small favour to ask, Miss.”
“And what’s that?” I asked as I put my raincoat back on.
“Halloween’s my last night here,” he said. “If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind seeing me off?”
Now, I of course wanted to know where the hell he thought he was going, but given his mental state, I figured it wouldn’t actually do any good to ask. If Halloween was some sort of locus for his delusions, then it was probably best for him not to be alone.
“Well, it’s not like I had any other plans,” I acquiesced. “Sure. I’ll be here at dusk. I’ll bring drinks and stuff. We’ll have a little Halloween Party. I always meant to go to one of those.”
Halloween night came, I set out a bowl of fun-sized candy bars with a “Please take two” note posted to it, and drove off to the cemetery. I’d brought chips, dip, whiskey and ginger ale coolers, a sandwich platter, Halloween candy, my blue tooth speaker and a downloaded Halloween playlist that mostly had covers of ‘This is Halloween’, ‘Monster Mash’ and ‘Spooky Scary Skeletons’. Maybe not the wildest evening, but it was literally the first party I’d ever thrown, so cut me some slack.
When I pulled into the cemetery, I saw that he had placed a trash can in the center and started a bonfire, and surrounded it with my Jack-O-Lanterns. I was a little concerned about the safety of this, and that it might attract attention, but it did look amazing, and the night was cold enough that the warmth of the blaze would make the party much more enjoyable.
“This looks awesome!” I cried as I got out of my car and donned my kitty mask, putting out the spread on my car’s hood.
“All I did was put some leaves in a trash can and light a match. You’re the one who took the time to carve the pumpkins,” he said humbly, perched upon a headstone and staring into the fire.
“Yeah, I’m a real Michelangelo with gourds,” I said sarcastically, handing him a fox mask. “This time you’re not leaving me hanging. Tonight, you’re going to eat the food I brought and you’re going to enjoy it. You’re my only guest and I will not have you spoiling the evening for everyone else.”
“Yes Ma’am,” he chuckled, helping himself to the sandwich platter. I pulled out my phone, hit play on my music app, and started dancing to Johnathan Young’s cover of the Ghostbuster’s theme song.
Normally, I’m pretty self-conscious at social gatherings, to the point that I avoid them as much as I can without being rude, but since the only other person there was even more reserved than I was, I was able to cut loose a bit. I danced around the fire, I sang, I drank, I feasted and just generally made merry. It was the most fun I’d ever had at a party.
A couple of hours in and I was taking a breather, leaning up against my car and monologuing to the man about nothing in particular, when a strong gust of wind picked up and blew out the fire in the trash bin. I was taken aback, especially since all of the Jack-O-Lanterns stayed lit. The cold set in immediately. It was so cold that I could see my breath and frost forming on the ground. In the sparse candlelight, I could see that the man was roused from his normal melancholy. He craned his neck forward, and as I followed his gaze, I saw pale, blue flames appear one at a time, hovering in mid-air over each grave.
“Miss, stay inside the ring of Jack-O-Lanterns, and you’ll be safe,” he said as he quite deliberately stepped outside the ring. “They don’t want you anyway. Your offerings have been more than sufficient. I’m the one who owes them a debt.”
“Wait, what are you doing?” I whispered.
“I told you; tonight is my last night here,” he answered. The wind picked up again, howling like a wild dog, and yet the seemingly weightless apparitions remained exactly where they were.
“What are those things,” I asked, spinning around frantically at the surreal siege of fool’s fire.
“Will-o-the-wisps,” he said solemnly. “Spirits who’ve have been dead so long they no longer remember their human lives, and thus cannot summon human form. They appear here every All Hallow’s Eve, when the veil between the Elder World and ours is weakest.”
“You’ve seen these things before?” I asked, bewildered at both the supernatural spectacle and his mundane reaction to it. “So, they’re not dangerous?”
“No, they are, but the Jack-O-Lanterns are effective wards against them,” he assured me. The wisps started to move now, very gently and heedless of the wind, slowly bobbing towards me and the man.
“Well then get in here then! What are you doing?”
He hung his head and let out a long sigh of resignation.
“I broke my promise to you,” he confessed. “I finished digging up my ancestor, though I paced myself a little more this time. It was exactly what I was told it was; an immaculate corpse, incorruptible, perfectly preserved after lying in the earth for centuries. But despite its perfect condition, I can’t tell you a damn thing about it; not even if it was a man or a woman. That was part of the deal they made with the Elder Things so long ago; they traded their identity to ensure the prosperity of our family. Burying their corpse here made the cemetery Hallowed to the Elder Things. It’s why there are no names on the graves anymore; the wisps stole them, desperate for any semblance of humanity. It’s why this place is so hard for most people to perceive, let alone remember.”
“Listen to me, you’re not thinking clearly. Those things are just oxidizing gases from the graves,” I choked out, not believing it myself. “Let’s just get in my car and leave, and you’ll see we’ll be fine.”
“Do not leave that ring until they’re gone!” he ordered, the wisps slowly but steadily drawing nearer. “I have to do this. Part of my ancestor’s deal with the Elder Things was that each of their direct descendants would sacrifice themselves as well eventually, and every one of us who broke that pact brought ever-increasing misfortune upon us, until there was just me.
“I… thank you. I thought this place would be forgotten after I was gone. I don’t know why you can see and remember it, but so long as you do the wisps won’t be able to steal its identity completely. So long as you remember me, they won’t be able to steal mine. And, you did make my last month just a little more pleasant. Thank you.”
The wisps were all around him now, spinning in a languid vortex, nipping at him gently as if testing his mettle. His breath hung thick in the air, frost began condensing on his skin and clothes, and he shivered like it was fifty degrees below zero. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a keyring.
“The cemetery may not be mine, but the mausoleum is,” he said, throwing the keys into the ring of Jack-O-Lanterns. “It’s yours now, and everything inside it.”
Before I could ask anything more, the wisps engulfed him en masse. He was smothered in the cold blue flames, but he didn’t burn. Instead, each wisp seemed to take a bite out of him, each piece turning to a dark fluid vapour within their flames, greedily devouring him without even leaving a skeleton behind.
I, shamefully, was not a hero that night. I screamed and I cried at the sight of him being eaten alive, weeping and cowering as the wisps circled my protective ring. All I could do was pray that the Jack-O-Lanterns wouldn’t burn out.
Since that night, I’ve often wondered if I should be mad at him for inviting me to watch him die like that. If he had told me ahead of time, I never would have believed him, and would have insisted on being there anyway to make sure he didn’t harm himself. Even afterwards, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t witnessed it myself. I never would have known what happened to him otherwise, and I am glad that he didn’t have to die alone, so I think it’s better this way. It’s hard to stay mad at the dead, anyway.
Once I knew exactly how special the cemetery really was, I followed through on my plans to live here. I gave my landlord my one month’s notice, bought a camper and some solar panels and set myself up near the woods in the back. I placed a proper font near the entrance where I throw my spare change, in the hopes of placating any Elder Things that might be watching. I brought a couple of people out there, just to test what the man told me, and all they can remember about it is that I have some trailer out in the middle of nowhere that they can never find without me. They can’t even remember it’s a cemetery.
I spend most of my free time here now. Despite what happened, and what this place is, I still love it. And I decided it was best not to take what I found in the mausoleum out of the cemetery.
It was filled with tomes, grimoires, honest-to-god spellbooks full of occult knowledge, presumably accumulated by the man’s ancestor. I’ve been studying them, too. I’ve become something of a Hedge Witch, you could say. And I know exactly what my first Grand Working is going to be.I don’t think it’s fair that the man had to give himself to the wisps because of a deal his ancestor made. I don’t believe in ‘the sins of the father’ or anything like that. I know I didn’t know him that long, or that well – I still don’t even know his name – but by my standards at least, what we shared was fairly intimate. He was my friend, and I want to do more than just remember him. I plan to take his spirit back from the wisps and make him my familiar.
That’s why for Halloween 2019, I’ll be throwing another party. This time, one wicked enough to wake the dead.
Written by The Vesper's Bell