As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’m typically a fairly anxious person, and moving out to an abandoned, haunted cemetery and living off the grid miles from town was not a decision that I made lightly. I worried about everything that could possibly go wrong, and probably quite a few things that couldn’t actually go wrong, but no matter how much I tried to talk myself out of it I could not break my own resolve. I couldn’t leave the cemetery and its secrets to rot. No matter the challenges or risks, I would make it my own.
I wasn’t foolhardy about it either, though. I did a lot of research and preparation for it, and before I was willing to fully commit by buying a camper trailer, I decided I needed to spend at least one full night in the cemetery to make sure I wouldn't be in any danger from the spirits that dwelt just on the other side of the weakened Veil. Otherworldly things do tend to be more active at night, when the Veil is a little weaker and mortals tend to be either sleepy or fearful. The man had been squatting there for at least several weeks, but I was unsure what precautions, if any, he had taken to ensure his safety.
The cemetery itself sits in the middle of a municipal forest called Harrowick Woods, a little under ten miles past the city limits. It’s around a mile wide by four miles long, with a country lane named Harrowick Mile Road slicing through the center. The cemetery is a five-acre plot of land in the middle, just to the north of the lane. With the exception of the entry arch, the graveyard itself is almost entirely obscured by the tree line, and the path leading into it is easy to overlook. Harrowick Mile isn’t that heavily used either, so even if it wasn’t hexed, the cemetery is pretty inconspicuous.
Since I couldn’t find anything about a cemetery in Harrowick Woods online, I combed through records at the public library and town hall, and still came up empty. Ever since the man’s ancestor made it hallowed ground, information about the cemetery and anything in it just fade from mortal memory.
If I stayed long enough, I’d probably be forgotten too.
I am at least pretty sure that the existence of the cemetery is perfectly natural, since it makes sense that back in the days before motor vehicles the local farming community would have wanted a closer graveyard than the one in town.
My research wasn’t entirely fruitless, however, since the Harrowick Woods has long held a reputation of being haunted. Over the past two centuries there’s been at least dozens of sightings and encounters of spirits and fairies, a legend about a horned Green Man that still protects the woods from development, a handful of other minor cryptids, and even one account of the Harrowick Mile becoming an infinite loop during certain times, just to name a few. Aside from the will-of-the-wisps, I had yet to experience any of these things during my time in the cemetery.
While there wasn’t a lot of consistency between the various alleged encounters and folklore, I did manage to find multiple incidents of hikers wandering off the trails and experiencing missing time, which is exactly what would happen if a non-clairvoyant found the cemetery and there was no one else there. They’d just forget about it.
Other than that, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the hodgepodge of urban legends and campfire stories that seemingly had nothing to do with the Elder Kin, wisps, or the Hadean Underworld. At first, I thought I could dismiss them as apocryphal, but then it occurred to me that maybe creatures weirder than myself might be attracted to a hallowed cemetery as well.
As unnerving as that thought was, I couldn’t find a single confirmed instance of someone dying in the woods, and there weren’t supposed to be any large predators living in it either. There was even a small campground at the north end of the forest, which I remembered I had actually been to a few times as a teenager, so I decided it would be safe enough to spend the night.
The cemetery was beautiful as always when I arrived, though not as vibrant as it had been in October. Now the trees were all but bare, the leaves upon the ground had grown dull, and the atmosphere was overall more somber and subdued. There aren’t many people aside from myself who’d consider naked trees and crumbling gravestones under a dark grey sky a cordial sight, but I’ll take it over a crowded urban center in a heartbeat.
I was also glad to see that the man’s tent was still standing under the evergreen tree. I had never taken it down, and though I had only been in it once before I deemed it suitable enough to spend at least one night in, though I’d brought my own sleeping bag for hygienic reasons. I had arrived long before sunset and set to work sorting through the man’s possessions, what little there was, as respectfully as I could. Anything fit for donation I would drop off at Goodwill, but I was somewhat taken aback to find that there wasn’t a single item of food left. He really had only brought himself just enough to make it to Halloween. Aside from a meager allotment of clothes, blankets, hygiene supplies, and water testing strips - which I presumed he used for the handpump well at the back of the cemetery - the only notable personal effect I came across was a russet brown leather wallet with a mandala embossed on the front. I opened it up and found no cash or cards, only a single pocket-sized photograph framed in the plastic window slot. In it I saw the man standing with a slightly younger woman, holding what looked like a two-year-old girl upon her knee. I could only assume they were his wife and daughter, and that the Elder Kin had likely caused their deaths just to torment him.
After finding that, I had to take a moment and steady myself before I could continue.
Once I bagged up all the man’s old belongings and tossed them into the trunk of my car, I hauled out the fountain I had brought to serve as a kind of donation font for the Elder Kin. The ancestor’s journal had made it very clear that the Elder Kin must be shown respect and deference at all times to avoid offending them. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, leaving spare change on the ancestor’s grave had been a token sacrifice that expressed my gratitude for them letting me use the cemetery. I figured that if I wanted to live there full time, I would need to show them a little bit more respect, and the fountain was a kind of down payment on that. I spent a few hundred dollars on it, which I hoped would be a sufficient investment to ensure my well-being. It was fiberglass with a pewter finish, solar-powered with a large basin upon a three-sided base. Each side had a relief depicting either the Maiden, Mother, or Crone. Though I wasn’t yet a practicing Wiccan, the ancestor’s journal had alluded to Persephone being an avatar of the Maiden Goddess, so I thought the motif was appropriate.
And if the spirits didn’t like it, it would at least make a nice birdbath.
Once it was filled up and running, I reverently gathered up all the coins along the grave and plunked them in, along with the spare change I had with me. I didn’t know yet what I would do once it was filled up with coins, but that was a while away.
While I was doing this, I noted that the purple rose I had first seen resting on the ancestor’s grave all those weeks ago was still there, and didn’t appear to have wilted at all. Curiously, I picked it up to see if maybe it was plastic or some other artifice. A gentle prodding of its thorns seemed to indicate it was genuine, as did its still vibrant fragrance, as strong as if it had been freshly picked. Each time I had seen it before Halloween, I had just assumed it was a fresh wild rose that the man picked from somewhere nearby, as weird as that was. He’d been dead for weeks at that point, so it obviously hadn’t been replaced in at least that long.
“An undying rose in a graveyard,” I smirked to myself. I brushed it off as having something to do with the ancestor and their magic, and maybe during my studies of their library I’d learn more about it. I dug a small hole with my finger into the earth, still soft from when the man had exhumed the grave, and placed the stem so that it stood erect inside it. It still had leaves, and even an ordinary cut flower that still has leaves can be replanted. Since this rose was magic, I was fairly optimistic about its prospects.
Once I’d finished setting myself up to spend the night, I went about my secondary purpose for visiting the cemetery; having a small memorial for the man who had been there before me. As far as I knew, I was the only living person who both knew and cared about his death, so it was the least I could do. I leaned a memorial wreath up against the ancestor’s grave, placing the photograph I had found in the man’s wallet inside of it. I fetched three of the silver coins from the safe in the mausoleum and, lacking a body, placed them on the wreath as well in the hopes they could still be used to pay the ferryman. As the sun went down, I lit a small candle inside of a porcelain jack-o-lantern holder and, kneeling by the grave with it in my hands, deliberated on what to say.
“I, ah, I don’t know if you can hear me, where you are. I still don’t know how a lot of this works. It’s all pretty terrifying, to be honest. And while I’m being honest, part of me is mad at you, and thinks you ruined my life, but… even that part of me doesn’t think you deserve to burn in hell forever. The time you’ve been down there already is probably more than you ever deserved.
“Anyway, despite my mixed feelings, I do want to thank you for what you did; leaving me the keys to the mausoleum, indexing your ancestor’s journal, all of that. Without it, I would have been so confused and lost, but now I at least have an inkling of what happened, and I have the chance to understand more. Even if the truth is terrible, I still think it’s better to know the truth than to live in ignorance, so… no matter what ultimately happens with me or my sanity, thank you for sharing your knowledge with me.
“God, I wish I knew your name. I wish I had told you mine. I’m sorry I never properly introduced myself. When we first met, it was a justifiable precaution, but after that… crazy homeless guy or not, you were my friend. I’d like to say better late than never, but I have no idea if that’s true either. But in case it is, my name is Samantha. Samantha Sumner.
“So, if you can hear me, I’ve decided to appoint myself the caretaker of this cemetery. As you already know, I love it out here. It’s so beautiful and peaceful – other than that one time, of course. It’s sacred to the Elder Kin, a weak point in the Veil with a store of arcane knowledge, and I can’t let that be lost. I’m going to try to live out here, as much as I can anyway, but who knows if that will work out. The monetary assets you left in the mausoleum, I promise I won’t waste them on anything frivolous. It’s all going to go to maintaining this place. I’m pretty sure that’s what you would have wanted. I don’t really want for money, anyway. I’m a bit of a poor bourgeoise. My parents bought me some mutual funds when I was a baby, which they filled up with savings and inheritance until I turned 18. If I had to, I could survive off those alone.
“It’s the books that I’m really excited about. I’m going to learn everything your ancestor knew about spirits and the Otherworld, hone my own clairvoyance into full-blown witchcraft and… if I'm lucky, if we're both lucky, maybe figure out some way to help you. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. You and all your other ancestors had access to those books for generations and you couldn’t figure a way out of the deal with Persephone. I’m not going to lie, right now I have next to no idea what I could possibly do, but I’m still going to try.
“I think that was all I wanted to say to you. Thanks for everything, and know that I’m still up here to remember you and take care of the cemetery, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for anything that might make your eternity a little less infernal. Until then, I’ve left you a few pennies for the ferryman, just in case you actually do have to pay to get into hell. I also have some libations. It’s a hors d’age Cognac my dad likes and we drink together when we visit. Cheers.”
I raised the bottle in a toast, took a swig for myself, then poured out the rest upon the ground for my friend. When it was empty, I replaced the lid and propped it up against the grave as well.
“May these spirits lift your spirits, my friend. Amen.”
After that, the sun was gone, and it wasn't even five-thirty yet. I had five or six hours to kill in the dark before I could go to sleep. That's probably why people don't go camping in late November too much. I had brought a powerful flashlight with me in case I needed it, but I still didn’t want to go stumbling around the cemetery in the dark if I didn’t have to. Instead, I got a fire going and set myself up in a canvas folding chair which I didn’t intend to leave until bedtime, baring biological necessities. I read the book I brought with me, I listened to downloaded music on my phone, I ate my dinner, and quite often I just sat there quietly listening to the world around me. A winter silence had already set in that was seductively soothing. All cold-blooded creatures had either died off, migrated, or gone into hibernation, leaving just the owls and coyotes as the only singers in the nocturnal choir. I was still a little on edge from Halloween, of course, so I did pay close attention for any signs of spectral happenings. But I saw no wisps or ghosts, heard no ethereal voices, and while the Veil was slightly weaker than it was during the day, it was still nowhere near as weak as it had been on Hallow’s Eve.
As the hours ticked by, I became more and more complacent in my surroundings, convinced that there was no otherworldly threat here. Mundane threats seemed vanishingly unlikely as well. I didn’t even really need to worry about trespassers. I was probably the only person around for miles, and even if I wasn’t, the nature of the cemetery itself shielded me from everyone accept those wandering in by sheer happenstance. It was ironic; I had been so anxious about spending the night in the cemetery, but in its peace and quiet and seclusion I was probably the least anxious I had ever been. Reveling in the pureness of my solitude, I tilted my head back and looked up at the rural night sky. The clouds had parted some time ago, and with no light pollution, the stars were innumerable and brilliant. I could even make out the Milky Way, which I hadn't seen with my own eyes for many years. Living in the cemetery, I'd be able to see it every clear night.
“This is going to be great,” I smiled, reassured in my decision to make this my new home.
When I did finally retire to the tent for the night, I fell asleep surprisingly easily considering I was fully dressed in outerwear with only a thin layer of nylon as shelter from the outside world. I’ve read that your brain never goes fully to sleep during your first night in a strange location, but I definitely slept deeply that night. That was all the proof I needed that even my subconscious thought of the cemetery as home.
My dreams though were not familiar. That night, and every night I’ve slept in my cemetery since, I have had vivid, mystic dreams that I often struggle to interpret. I’ve since come to realize that when I sleep, when my mind is quiet and deprived of earthly stimuli, it is more receptive to spiritual revelations from across the weakened Veil.
That first night, I dreamed of my cemetery when it was young, in the bright daylight of a bygone summer. The graves were not only pristine, they still had names upon them, though I was unable to recall a single one when I awoke. I then saw a figure standing in the entry arch, their body completely shrouded in an impenetrably black fog, without a single identifying feature left exposed. They stood right in the middle with their arms outstretched and their head craned towards the sky. They began to chant in a language I didn’t recognize, and without changing their stance they slowly marched forward.
Behind them followed a procession of astral beings, issuing from the now hexed archway. They were incorporeal, skeletal things made of faint shadow, their gaunt frames wrapped in thin cloaks of darkness, bobbing along the ground as if gravity were a mere suggestion to them. All of them had bowed heads and bent backs, all carried themselves with a trodden stance and hopeless grimace, all marched forward only because they had long ago lost the will to resist anyone who might seek to dominate them.
As the shadow wraith and its dejected slaves advanced through the cemetery, day was turned to night and summer to winter, life and light and hope forsaking everything in their path. I saw the names on the headstones evaporate into the night, forever lost to the void. When the grim troupe finally reached the opposite end of the cemetery, and it was entirely cast in a dismal winter darkness, they stood before a second archway identical to the first. When the shadow wraith stepped foot under it, it seemed that the ritual was complete. The slaves, released from their duty, collapsed to the ground to weep and scream and moan as they disintegrated into dust. A ring of bright blue, deathly cold flames encircled the cemetery, forming a perimeter with the two archways as its terminals. Thunder cracked and a palpable darkness deeper than any earthly night enveloped the cemetery, pelting it in a rain of black ichor from some cursed titan. I could feel everything slowly sinking, sinking away from the mortal plane and into the Underworld.
The shadow wraith moved towards the middle of the cemetery now to inspect its work. The cemetery would evermore be of two worlds, with the front gate for mortals, and the back gate for spirits. With both of them now an equal distance from the wraith, the question remained; which world did it desire the most?
I awoke then, in the early morning, well-rested but with the strange and unexpected dream still at the forefront of my mind. Had any of that really happened? Not necessarily literally, but was there any kernel of truth to it at all? There was one way to find out.
I leaped out of the tent and raced to the far end of the cemetery, skidding to a stop before I reached the woods. There, just behind the tree line, was a second archway. I hadn’t seen it before because the foliage had been too thick, but now the naked trees left it plainly exposed. It seems that the cemetery had originally been a bit longer, and that the tree line had managed to encroach inwards over the centuries.
I stood there dumbfounded for a moment, the revelation from my dream clearly manifested in the waking world. I didn’t doubt that it was a portal to the Underworld. Even in those early days, my clairvoyance was keen enough to sense its ominous astral properties. I took slow, cautious strides towards it, fearful that Cerberus himself would come charging to keep me out. The archway looked so mundane, exactly like the one out front, but its intrinsic Chthonic nature was bearing down on my soul like a freight train. The closer I got, the more I had to fight my instinct to recoil. When I was right in front of it, I tentatively raised my arm.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” I muttered before shoving my arm through the archway.
Nothing happened. It was a portal for spirits, after all. The dream had been quite clear about that. I could walk under it all I wanted and nothing would happen so long as my soul was firmly bound to my body. If I ever wanted to use it, I’d have to be dead, or – like the man’s ancestor had – learn how to astral project.
I was a little crestfallen at this new revelation, to be honest. I had proven to myself that I could spend the night in the cemetery with no ill effect, though not without effect entirely. I had learned more about the nature of the cemetery and discovered a means by which I may aid my hell-bound friend, but the reality of the task was daunting. I ruled that nothing needed to be decided right away, and that I should go to the Somber Starlight Roadhouse up the highway and get a hot breakfast.
I didn’t have much faith in myself at that moment. Even if I could learn to astral project, I doubted if I’d ever have the courage to make an Orphean trek to the Underworld by myself.
But I wouldn’t have to. Just a few months later, I would meet Genevieve; a gifted Witch, learned occultist, and the love of my life.
Written by The Vesper's Bell