Wednesday, 19 September 2018

F Fic, Non-fic

The Ways of the Dead

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way of dead pic 2

By Brian Johnson


There was once a time when I fancied I felt at home among the dead. I have never feared the sight of them, nor did their company perturb me, even as a child. To me their faces were smooth and calm, seeming more at peace than any of my careworn ilk; they were forever washed and dressed in the finest clothes – rosy cheeked and poised, what was to fear? But I had never traversed the passages of their homes, never truly seen behind those masks of blush or learned what became of the hearts beneath their fineries. I had never gone the way of the dead; I was too young then.

But when I became a man (or so I considered myself) I went to find work, and in the foolishness of my youth sought it out among that venerated multitude. My elders urged me to make my way among the living, but I was convinced their wisdom was folly, and so I came to work at Mister Morgan’s Mortuary.

#

How well I remember when I first saw what lay beneath the maquillage of color and blush I had long associated with the dead. Mister Morgan’s sexton brought me to the parlor at the center of which stood several long, aging, wooden tables. Draped across the center table was a coarse sheet of white linen beneath which the awkward angles of a body laid in repose. The room was small, lined with old wooden shelves, glass cabinets, and counters. Rickety chairs cluttered what little floor remained, and scattered across every surface were beakers and vials, covered trays and mysterious cases. The room was dim and a strange air hung about the place – oppressive and dense.

The Sexton, a ratty young man with mud stained britches and fingernails dark from the dirt trapped beneath them, grinned leeringly and pointed a finger at the table.

I nodded and strode forward confidently, taking up the sheet without much thought. But as my eyes locked on the features of the man beneath, my stomach lurched. I reeled back sharply, gasping in horror, transfixed by that face. Gone was the smooth skin I had remembered so well, gone were the rosy cheeks and the even, pleasant tones. The face I looked down on was slack and hollow, its icy, waxy skin draped weakly across a horrid, grinning skull. The mouth sagged and the eyes lolled through slatted lids. What devilish trick was this? I turned on the Sexton and demanded to know, but he only grinned and nodded, looking dully down at the hideous flesh mannequin.

In time, I collected myself and was able to return to the body. I gathered together my supplies and slowly, squeamishly, and with much grimacing and cringing began my work. I molded and shaped the malleable canvas, washed and dressed it, and slowly it began to take a more familiar form. The leering skull vanished from beneath the skin which filled with color. The mouth closed tight and the eyes shut in restful repose. Now I was comforted, now I remembered the dead as they ought to be.

All the while the Sexton chatted merrily along; inane, meaningless chatter of which I noticed little and remember none. He seemed content with my few grunts and vague, murmuring responses, and when his tongue finally went still, he drew out a pair of old, pewter spoons from his soiled pocket and began to play with them, clacking and rattling them in endless rhythms the melody of which only he could hear.

#

Such was my work: restoring the poise and beauty of the dead while the Sexton lounged behind me, clacking. His prating was only a mild nuisance to me. In truth, it was those wretched spoons that rattled my nerves. For a short while they had seemed innocuous enough, but in time they began to resemble the eerie clattering of bones, an endless reminder of what lay hidden beneath my carefully crafted masks.

Yet one day the Sexton did not come to my parlor. Instead, Mister Morgan entered the room to explain the man was ill and would not be able to carry out his customary vigil over the night. Mister Morgan, a tall man with skin grown pale from long hours in the dim mortuary, looked down on me with deep set eyes and explained that, in the Sexton’s absence, it would fall to me to carry out his watch.

#

I have found that when one stays late in an unfamiliar place, the slightest thing can set the nerves on edge – so it was that day. I had attended to the last body and, after setting my parlor in order, had stepped out and made my way down the passage to find a grieving woman with her very young son waiting in the front. The woman dabbed her eyes with a lace kerchief and asked if she could see her dearly departed, to which I assented. I instructed her to follow the corridor to the very end and then take the last door on the right. As she and her son tottered away, I hurried home to gather a few things so as not to be uncomfortable during the night watch. When I returned I found the woman and her child in the front again.

She gave me an uncertain look through bleary, red eyes and explained that, though they had gone into the last parlor on the right, the dearly departed had not been there.

I frowned. Surely they must have entered the wrong room, or perhaps overlooked the body in all the clutter. I explained her mistake and led them personally to the parlor where, as I had known it would be, the body lay where I had left it. As the woman, now more confused than ever, said she had been sure she entered that very room, we heard a small voice from the doorway.

“He was in the hall.”

I looked around to see the child standing in the door, looking up at us with an expression of utmost earnestness.

“He went down there when he heard you coming,” he explained, pointing down a narrow flight of descending steps at the very end of the corridor.

It was a distinctly childish thing to say, but for some reason I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I saw his small finger gesture down those steps. He could not know it, but the little boy was pointing down into the cellar where the dead waited to be buried.

The mother chided her son for telling tales and that was the end of it, but somehow the nape of my neck continued to prickle unpleasantly. I waited quietly as the mother and child looked sadly upon their loved one. How strange they seemed to me; the dead man with his smooth, peaceful face resting comfortably while his family wept, their faces drawn and pale. As I looked away I caught sight of myself in the glass of a cabinet – even I looked drawn. My skin had gone very white and tired wrinkles were forming at the edges of my shadowed eyes.

Time passed, and at long last the mother and son were ready to leave. I saw them gently to the door and locked it for the night.

#

Peaceful silence settled over the mortuary. For a moment I stood still, key in hand, and listened. Slowly the creak and moan of wind washing over the old timbers of that building began to fill the void, accompanied by settling groans. I walked across the floor, my steps unusually loud in the absolute still, and took up my things. I set a small table in the middle of the front and brought a chair. Settling down with a sigh, I began to eat my simple supper of bread and cheese.

Golden sunlight fell in streams through the grimy old windows, illuminating flecks and currents of dust drifting in the air. The light beamed brighter, deepening into infernal orange, and then settled slowly into the cold blue of darkness.

After finishing my meal, I struck up a lantern and began the evening vigil.

First, I went down the corridor and descended those narrow steps at the end of the hall where the child had pointed saying, “He went down there when he heard you coming.

Remembering those words, my skin tingled uncannily.

He was in the hall.

That foolish child, what could he have been thinking of? Telling such tales to his grieving mother!

The air was clammy and uneasy in the cellar. Shadows seemed to cringe away as I brought my lantern up, but then pressed in tightly around that small sphere of light, unwilling to relinquish their hold on the aged vault. A corridor ringed the center room into which I stepped, many passages springing from its outer wall like roots creeping out into the earth. Large, metal doors stood unmoving at the mouths of each of these passages; they were old doors, not opened for some years since that place had ceased to be a crypt and became instead a place of brief repose for those destined to be taken up out of one long, straight corridor which terminated in an old and weathered wooden door into the graveyard.

I swept the cold stones beneath my feet clean and threw the dust and soot into the great, blackened iron furnace at the far wall which stood cold and empty, having not been used that day. I closed the furnace door and threw down the latch. Turning, I began to make my way up the long, sloped corridor to the yard, taking out a heavy old key from my pocket as I did. Many shovels, rakes, and hoes leaned against the walls at the end of that corridor, and a battered wooden chair perched in the middle. The door was secured with a heavy length of chain and a lock which I undid with a loud rattling of links. I took up the chair and opened the door, breathing in fresh night air.

Rows of darkened stones lay around the yard, some leaning and weathered with age, some so clean and fresh the bells still dangled from them. It was those bells that I was here for. It was the duty of the Sexton to spend the long night watch about the mortuary and the yard, to look over those waiting to be buried and to listen for those already interred. There were times, rare and strange, that some living souls fell into a deathlike state, and for their sake were bells strung to the surface from their box and hung over the tomb in case they woke and, in their desperation to escape, rang the alarm.

After closing the door behind me, I set down the chair and took my seat, listening to the dull, mournful chimes set up by the wind. In time, the breeze ceased altogether, the moon slipped in and out of sight behind clouds traveling at an unnatural pace, and a still fell over the yard.

There is a time in each night when that quiet comes, when the world goes so still that all that can be heard is the scratching of insects on the earth as they scurry along their ways. Everything was quiet and still. And then…

A sharp tinkling broke the silence. I startled and sat bolt upright in my chair, listening. As I sat, my heart beating quickly, I heard it again, the unmistakable tinkling of a grave bell. I leapt to my feet and pushed the chair aside, toppling it in my haste as I tore open the cellar door and took up a shovel. I started away, following the sound which suddenly died as I approached the source. I saw the bell still swaying ever so slightly as I came to the gravesite and looked down in amazement at the old stone. On its sooty surface I saw quite clearly that the occupant beneath my feet had died nearly ten years before and lain there ever since.

I stared, blinking uncertainly at the date. “Can these bones live?” I said to myself perplexedly. Surely I had been mistaken, perhaps a bat had nudged the bell on its way, or some creature of the night toyed with the weathered string. But then to my right I heard the hair-raising sound of a grave bell, not three paces away.

For a moment, I froze, then turned and looked to see the bell on a fresh grave, merely three days old ringing, jerking, and twitching wildly above the soft ground.

I lurched forward, gripping my shovel tight as I drove its blade into the earth, digging furiously with all my might and speed as the bell rang again and again, and then went suddenly still.

My heart beat furiously. Sweat beaded at my brow and trickled down to sting my eyes. My spade struck hard wood and my pounding heart leapt – or perhaps shuddered. The box was not so very deep and I quickly removed enough earth to open it. I cast the shovel aside and dropped to my knees, reaching into the open grave and scrabbling at the lid of that box.

To my surprise, I found it was loose. I pulled hard, straining to displace the last mounds of dirt and finally tore open the casket. I gaped, astonished, into an empty box.

#

For a long time I simply stared as though expecting at any moment to find I had simply not noticed the body within. But no, it was empty. I rose to my feet, still gazing down in bewilderment. The words of that dratted child crept slowly into my mind but I pushed them out.

Suddenly, at my back, I heard the tinkling of another horrid bell. The hair at the back of my neck crawled and my skin seared as though being pricked with a thousand needles. I turned and stared, my mouth sagging open at another grave – another writhing, twitching bell!

But through my dazed uncertainty a realization came. This must have been a devilish trick, a macabre joke played on me by the village boys. Yes, of course that was it! A loud crack made me jump and wheel around, but it was only the cellar door; the wind must have slammed it shut…or perhaps it was those children. I snatched up my shovel furiously and stomped to the door. Reaching out and taking hold of its tarnished handle, I found it would not budge. I tried again to no avail. Perhaps those children had thrown the latch. I glanced to my left and saw the chain lying beside my toppled chair. That rickety old latch would not have held without the chain; they must have been holding it! Indeed, I fancied I could hear a quiet hiss of surprise as I tried the door a third time. I pulled furiously, but they had a tight grip.

An idea occurred to me and I smiled. Taking up the chain, I wrapped it well around the handle and secured it to the door with that rusty old lock. Feeling in my pocket for the key, I nodded with satisfaction. I would go around to the front and wait at the entrance of the cellar for those loathsome children to come tearfully and fearfully up the steps. Perhaps I might even wait in my parlor and leap out at them!

I took up my shovel and lantern and hurried around, taking care to extinguish the light and tread quietly as I entered the front and set my things aside. I crept down the still corridor and slowly eased the door to my parlor open. I waited, listening.

#

For some time I waited, but nothing stirred. Then, from the farthest corridor of the cellar, I heard the distinct sound of a door rattling and the clinking of aged chains. I smirked to myself, laughing silently as the sound faded and then returned again. Clearly they were just discovering the awful truth, that they were trapped inside a crypt!

But even as I celebrated my victory, a queer uneasiness began to settle inside my mind. Perhaps it was the result of their nerve fraying prank, and the words of that miserable child to his mother, but somehow I felt on edge. The building settled around me, wood creaking and groaning. Twice, I thought I might have heard rustling in the corridor, but no, no one was there, I could still hear the distant sound of that chain.

My perturbed imagination brought to mind the idea that something was rustling behind me, but I told myself it was nothing. And yet slowly, slowly to my horror I began to realize it was not my imagination at all. Something was rustling behind me, it was the rustle of soft linens falling away, the creak of a table as something moved upon it. I stared around and saw the most terrible sight any man has ever beheld; the body I had only hours before leaned over was rising, sitting up. Its smooth, blushing face was emerging from beneath the pale sheet, its eyes opening wider and wider.

I opened my mouth and tried to scream, to shriek, but only a terrified gurgle croaked from my paralyzed throat. My limbs felt numb and frozen but I forced myself to move, to fall out of my seat and stagger into the corridor, tumbling out of the doorway and leaning against the wall. I gaped in horror at the door to my parlor as the unmistakable sound of feet hitting the wooden floor reached me. I had to move. The sound of footsteps, slow and twitching as of those made by stiffened limbs was approaching. I glanced toward the cellar and there saw in the dim, darkness a figure ascending. It was not a child. I choked out the quietest of screams and lurched backward, throwing myself into the parlor adjacent to mine and frantically closed the door, pressing myself to it and grasping the knob. I pushed hard and squeezed my eyes tight, praying that God would return those hideous specters to their rest. Those horrible steps moved out into the hall and were joined by another set. They paused, and then I heard a voice.

“Did you see it? That hideous creature lurking in the passage?” It was a dreadful voice, high and gasping, uttered as air was sucked hollowly into desiccated lungs.

“What was it?” The reply was croaked, this one dry like the wail of an arid wind moaning through dead and tangle thorns.

“A horrid face; pale and damp.” the first voice wheezed.

“Nonsense.” sighed the second. “We’d best be away. Come!”

And the steps started again, fading slowly as they sank down under the earth.

#

For a long time I simply stood there, pressed against the door. My body trembled uncontrollably and sweat now poured down my face. I could do nothing but shudder and gasp. As I stood quivering, the air was filled with a terrible din – a howling, echoing screech from bellow as though numerous ancient iron doors hung on rusty, bent hinges were suddenly yawning open, their hems scraping along a cold stone floor. My heart was gripped with an icy chill and my limbs went numb. I slumped, unable to rise for horror. Those doors…those crypt doors were opening!

But then I heard a new sound, this one from the front – a rhythmic rattle and clack, as of two spoons struck together in a merry rhythm. My heart leapt. I knew that sound!

The Sexton! Good man! He must have returned and was waiting for me in the front, playing with those blessed spoons!

Suddenly new life surged into my limbs. I sprang up and jerked the door open, stumbling out and hurrying down the hall away from that howling cellar and away from my parlor. I stepped out from the corridor into the front, feeling as one saved from damnation. There he was, sitting leaned comfortably beside the doorway…but no, it wasn’t the Sexton – it was hardly even a man. It was little more than bone and dangling tendon, and it didn’t play with spoons but rather its fingers – two fingers – which had fallen from his right hand for lack of ligaments and which were now loosely gripped in the left and tapped and clacked and rattled in a horrid cadence. I turned and fled without a word back into the corridor. Trapped!

Now I saw from the entrance to the crypt an infernal glow, and a deathly, horrid din emanated from below with all the clacking of bones and sucking of cold, desolate air that could fuel the nightmares of every man.

I pressed a hand to my pounding heart, wondering if it might fail me. I felt a bulge in my pocket where the key to the cellar door still rested and the notion of one last hope came to me. It was a terrible route, but if I could slip through the cellar and down the long corridor, I might be able to open the door at its end just enough to undo the chain I had locked to it and make my flight.

Heart leaping and stomach lurching, I crept down the corridor and started my descent. The fiery orange glow grew brighter with every step, and I saw shadows cast along the stones – horrible dancing shadows of rail thin figures dressed all in the tattered fineries of the grave. As I entered into the cellar I saw the most hideous sight. There, dancing and railing in the light of the burning crematory was a host of the dead, their voices raised in a murmuration of dead, hideous voices all chattering and clattering, each uttered from mouths in varying states of decay.

Skeletons danced, their bones bouncing and clacking while ladies and gentleman spun round and round, their smooth faces cast with shadows to illuminate the grotesque, sharp angles beneath those failing masks. The dead talked and laughed in a macabre revelry the likes of which I have never seen. For a moment I thought I might faint dead away, but I forced myself to press on and slipped quietly down the corridor ring, scurrying across each vaulted doorway to my left and cringing as I passed the gaping maws of the crypt doors now hanging wide open. The laughter of the dead echoed back from each passage, amplified and twisted into hideous moans. But I could not stop, could not turn around now.

I came at last to the passage leading out and glanced down it. In the grim, orange light I could see no obstacles to my flight. I rose and started down the hall at a breakneck pace, dashing away and praying that the roar of dead revelry would mask the sound of my escape. I could not bear it down there one more instant. I pounded down the hall, knuckles white as I gripped the large, old key tightly in my hand, but no sooner had I come within six paces of the door than I realized with horror that what I had fancied was the rattling of children endeavoring to escape my trap from within was in fact emanating from the outside! The door shook and shuddered, the latch narrowly holding as some dreadful form battered against it. I skidded to a halt, gaping in terror. Dread overwhelmed me.

Where could I go?

The latch was weakening before my eyes. I could not stay there, pinned between some assailing being and the host of the dead. I turned and fled back down the corridor – where I would go, I didn’t know. My mind was frozen with fear. I ran, but something caught at my foot as I came to the end of the passage. I stumbled and narrowly caught myself, but in the process staggered out into the open – into the midst of the deathly celebration.

I froze and stared up in abject horror as every eye and every gaping, hollow socket descended on me. The noise died, sinking into a cold, deadly still. Then, for the first time my throat was opened and I shrieked.

And as I uttered that long, echoing howl of terror, I fled, bolting past them and away, out from the cellar, up the steps, and down the corridor. I hardly heard their multitude burst into howls of the most dreadful nature – I simply ran. I didn’t look back to see them reel away from me, nor hear their appalled exclamations. I didn’t stop to see them turn and scatter like dried bones in the wind, terrified by the very glimpse of my face. For I did not know then as I know now; that the dead abhor the sight of the living, and the living the ways of the dead.


Brian Johnson cut his creative teeth as a songwriter in Austin, Texas, where he recorded two albums and a song for the Indie-Horror game "Uncanny Valley." Finding he enjoyed writing more than performing, he traded in his microphone for a typewriter (metaphorically speaking). He now lives in El Paso, Texas, with his wife, three cats, and a dog named Wiley.

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