We Barrens have always been gravediggers, for as long as anyone can recall. There once was a joke in our family that the first of us crawled out of cemetery soil rather than a womb, that being how the trade came so naturally to us. It is a grim and thankless toil, to tend a graveyard, there being much more to be done than cutting holes into the ground. But we Barrens were sturdy people, and did our work well.
I had hoped to be the family exception, breaking away from the village to pursue schooling, and make my own money out in the world. But as it turned out I hadn’t the concentration for lessons, so to the churchyard I went in my fifteenth summer to study under my father.
There was always much to be done, from weeding, to repair work, and other such things, thus I learned many skills, and found that my hands were intelligent in ways that my mind was not.
Sinister a profession though it seemed to outsiders I quickly found a love of it, long days under the sky in the sombre quiet of the place. It did not concern me that it was often troublesome and weary labour; there was purpose for me in it, however small, and with the earnestness only known to young men I applied myself to even the smallest task.
However, there was an uneasiness in the proximity of the dead that persisted long after it should have lost its power over me. There seemed a crowded air, at times, as though a thousand people stood, unseen, about the graveyard, with me.
Sometimes there were sounds I could not account as animals, often so like human voices that I was in the habit of calling jovially back to them to rid them of their hold on my courage.
One night, after I hollered thus to some yelping cry across the graveyard, I saw something pale, like a woman, move steplessly across the grass by the railings. She had only the pale impression of a face, like something molded from snow, and her hands twitched like white mistletoe before her.
The woman was but small and slight, yet I was threatened by her, standing oddly sideways by a grave. I called to her that if she was about some evil business that she stood in the church’s shadow, and could not harm me there. The woman only looked at me- at least, I thought she looked, for I could not make out any eyes.
Again I heard that strange animal cry, and the interloper moved back in amongst the graves, where I could not find her. Such strange things occured, in the churchyard, from time to time, and I was never sure whether such sightings were but mad vagrants, or imaginations, or spirits such as the villagers were afraid of.
“Best not to ask,” my father would tell me. “They leave you well alone if you do the same.”
He had no time for otherworldly things, as simple and as sober a man as one could ever find. That was until the winter came, fragile as bracken and much plagued by arid winds that chapped my hands raw as I dug by my father in the graveyard.
Austere the work was, then, for the soil was hard, and the green beauty of August was forgotten under a sheathe of snow. Even the wights appeared to keep away, as though the cold had driven them hide, like animals. Only the dead came in any number as the pitiless season starved the village folk, and seated illness up in their lungs.
One morning my father came to me across the graveyard to where I was mending a bit of railing, and bid that I come away from it.
“Son,” he said. “I do not trust my ears, nor my old eyes, either. Come with me, and tell me what you see and hear.”
Bewildered, I lay down my tools and walked with my father across the crunching earth. His demeanor was strange, his weathered face pale, sweating against the cold.
It was as we approached a plot with no stones that I stopped, my throat seizing with horror. Upon a stretch of grass a grave bell hung from a stand of wood, its clapper dancing a silvery jingle. That it rang so on a windless day could mean only that whoever lay beneath the soil in their coffin still lived, and was ringing desperate to be freed from their smothering prison.
“We must dig them out, Pa,” I said, seizing up a spade in shaking hands. “They will die if we don’t make haste.”
My father laid his hand upon my arm, staying me from piercing the earth.
“A minute, son,” he said. “You know well that no one has been buried here by you nor I, nor did we place this bell.”
“There must be someone-“
“There is not. I swear on my life that there is no man or woman in that dirt to ring for us, living or dead. But I will dig with you, so that you will believe me.”
I looked from the bell to my father, afraid of the frailty of his voice. We dug for hours in the frozen soil, our fingers blistering and our backs seizing with the effort of it.
All the while the bell rang, the sound maddening, sinister, like some fae song.
At last the grave was dug, but neither coffin nor corpse lay in its bed. The plot, as my father had claimed, was empty.
Silent, we stared down into it, for there seemed no words to summarise the strangeness before us.
The bell still tolled without hand to make it so.
At length I put forth, “Perhaps the wind has got at it.”
My father gestured to a copse of nearby trees, their straggled branches motionless.
“What wind? I see nor feel nothing of it. I tell you, the bell rings itself.”
“Or something else does,” I said. “Haven’t we seen more peculiar things at night than this?”
My father raised his eyes from the grave. They were ringed darkly with an exhaustion that was foreign to him, being a man who did not easily tire.
“But it is day, still. What devil is unafraid of the sun?”
“A poor one,” said I, “if its only mischief is to bother us with noise. Come on, Pa. Let’s be rid of this nuisance.”
I reached out and seized the clapper, my boldness a mask for the crawling nerves that accosted me. But as I held the thing there came, abruptly, the same sound from all around us: every other grave that possessed a bell had begun to ring in unison, shrill, insistent, menacing.
My father took hold of my arm and pulled me away, clipping me about the face as if I were a small child again.
“Idiot! Have I not told you to leave such things be?”
He bore me from the empty grave, which now was silent again. One by one the other bells followed suit, until there was only the fragile quiet that had come before.
Rubbing the heat in my cheek I said, petulantly, “Well, I’ve ended it, haven’t I?”
Again my father fixed me with a haunted look, his eyes rolling like a horse in a thunderstorm.
“This is not the first time that bell has rung,” he said, quietly. “I doubt it will be the last. I thought that it must be in my mind- you have not heard it, til now? You’re sure of it?”
Sobering from my hurt, I shook my head.
“None of the bells have chimed in all my time here. I thought they were a foolish notion, to tell truth. How many folks have we seen buried alive, after all?”
At this my father’s mouth twisted, and shadows seemed to jump like snatching fingers across his countenance. I was more afraid of that expression than of any spirit, for I saw in it the deception of words left unsaid.
Never had my father lied to me before, and the suddenness of it frightened me.
“Pa,” I said. “Have you seen a living person put in the ground?”
“No,” he muttered. “The way the dead are prepared for the funeral, for burial- it would be unnatural to survive it. And yet-“
A crow flew up from the trees and loosed a parched caw, making my father start with nerves. He wetted his dry lips and gazed at the open pit, as if expecting some figure to inch its way up from the charnel darkness.
I realised, then, that my father had been tormented for some time, weeks, perhaps, and that I had only failed to see it.
Feelings were not much discussed amongst the Barrens; we were a quiet folk, holding an unspoken camaraderie that required only a look or gesture to be understood. Secrets, therefore, were easily kept, although we lived soberly enough that were precious few amongst us.
I wondered, then, how it came to be that I had lost my father to the burden of hidden things.
“Let’s leave it be,” I urged, for I, too, had begun to dread the vacant grave. “We’ll fill it in tomorrow. If the bell still plagues us then we might ask the priest to say a blessing over it.”
My father loitered, compelled by his disquiet. Again I called to him, and this time he followed, looking back over his shoulder with a eyes that seemed to search and to fear all at once.
For some hours more we worked in other quarters of the churchyard, sweeping plots and trimming back trees in an unvoiced attempt to push away what we had witnessed. I could not seem to rid myself of the sound of bellchimes, nor the dank coldness of the hole my father and I had vivisected in the earth.
The longer I dwelled on it the more I seemed to think of that grave as a creature, the toll its predatory cry. It was only my father’s superstition affecting me, this I understood. Yet I was helpless against the thought that there was an intelligence there, something more than the vague, repetitive motions of a ghost.
How cold the churchyard seemed, that evening, as we trudged out of the gates, towards the village. The night swallowed light and colour in under half an hour, as if a giant’s palm had clapped over the world. We lit oil lamps to walk by their guttering fire, although we knew our way back well enough to have made the journey blind.
Now and then my father stopped, or twitched his head, as if I had spoken. The third time he did so I asked what ailed him, knowing before he spoke the sum of his answer.
“That bell,” he said. “I can still hear that damned bell.”
“There’s nothing, Pa,” I said, harshly, although I did strain my ears, also. “We’re too far on the road to hear it now.”
Although he muttered under his breath my father walked on with me, stumbling a little in his agitation.
Upon reaching the house he did not even stamp his feet of dirt and snow at the door, only went in up to his room, ignoring my mother as she called up to him with supper. She gave me a hard look, set to blame me for tiring my father with some jape or other.
I did not deny it. The day had been long, and I knew from tales I’d told of wights and wraiths that even a whisper of the day’s events would be wasted on her ears.
So weary was I from the work that upon lying in bed that night I had the kind of sleep that seems to last but a moment, opening my eyes to morning daylight. My father was not at breakfast, an event he had not missed since I was an infant. According to my mother he had left the house for work before the dawn, having spent the night restlessly.
“There was nothing to be done with him,” my mother claimed, shrugging her shoulders. “Tossing and turning and muttering in his sleep until I felt half-mad from listening to him. He said he would go to the morning service, have the Lord’s word settle his mind.”
She spoke with a blunt disapproval; for all the Barrens worked in churchyards our worship was a private thing, and no less Godly for it. Working people did not have time to sit about singing hymns, after all.
“I’ll be joining him, then,” I said, scraping back my chair from the breakfast table.
“Best make haste, then, Silas,” my mother chided. “You, at least, would see the benefit of a sermon.”
To my poor luck I found the church empty, save for Father Bastien, brushing away the remnants of trodden leaves and snow his congregation had walked in and out of the building. He was an eccentric man, and as a child I had been much frightened of him. Now as he rose stiffly to greet me he appeared only frail and tired, and I could no longer recall what exactly had so disconcerted me all those years past.
“Two Barrens in one morning,” said the priest, with an open. “A rare surprise, indeed.”
Shifting bashfully I asked, “My Pa was here, then?”
The priest nodded his aged head.
“Aye, for a short while. He seemed distracted. My sermons are not to everyone’s liking, I’m afraid.”
“It wasn’t the sermon,” I muttered, and turned away, meaning to leave.
Only thoughts of the bell shrilling over the empty grave had me pause at the threshold.
“Father,” I said, “do you know anything of spirits in these parts, spirits that would not fear our God, nor daylight?”
At this the priest raised his considerable brows.
“It is not the Catholic belief, I’m afraid. Even demons might be driven off by prayer and the presence of faith.”
I shrugged, made indifferent by a youthful worldliness.
“Beg pardon, but I believe, and I have seen things I should not.”
Another holy man might have taken offence, but not so Father Bastien. Leaning across the top of a pew he studied my face, perhaps so that me might judge whether or not I spoke in jest.
At last he said, “These parts were druid lands before the seafarers came and brought word of the Lord to our shores. Christ would have seemed foreign to pagans; they would not recognise His glory, and their Gods, by theory, would care for them even less.”
“Druids,” I repeated, cautious of the word.
The villagers often told stories of such people, practioners of human sacrifice and curious ritual that had been driven out, long ago. I had thought only a few of their ways remained, uncommon prayers and superstition, but now it seemed that there were more I had not seen.
The Priest leaned forward across a pew, his thick fingers gripping polished wood. There were white hairs coiling on the backs of his knuckles, and something about this sight quickened disquiet in my belly.
“But such things are not in the Book,” said Father Bastien. “Gods of flowers and mud and death. They are but stories, a heresy, and have never truly been. You must not trouble your mind with folk tales, Silas”
I saw that any protest would do no good, so I said my thanks and departed from the clammy church into the bitter morning again.
Thoughts of the pagans and their Gods Gods haunted me like ancient ghosts as I entered the graveyard, and I endured regret that I had asked of them at all. The wights did not seem so harmless, now, nor the bell that had sprung up from the dirt like some dread rose.
I walked quickly between the plots, flinching at the slightest sound or motion about me. Even the birds that plucked at the unyielding snow posed sinister figures, malignance in the animal blankness of their eyes.
Fog swathed the paths between the graves, as though a storm cloud had descended to creep on its belly in the dirt. I could not see my father within it, nor did he answer my calls to him.
Yet through the whiteness each tombstone rose darkly, and then, at last, the bell. I knew it from the others at once, curving on a great hook of iron like a scythe paring the mist. Something in me had expected it to disappear in the night, or had hoped it would, so that my father and I might laugh the thing away as yet another passing weirdness.
But there it was, still, undeniable against the pallid air.
Again I spoke my father’s name, for I thought then that I sensed him near me. Perhaps he had set out early to fill in the grave, wanting the job done to lift the weight of it from his mind.
However, as I stepped towards the grave I almost fell into its chasm, which stretched blackly in the frozen earth just as it had the day before. The soil my father and I had piled to the side of it remained, now buried under a layer of unforgiving snow.
Footprints arced the plot in crazed spirals, as if someone had paced and stumbled upon themselves about the grave. Even before I looked down into the pit I knew the culprit as my father.
He lay at the bottom of the hole, his neck so badly broken that the back of his head turned frontwise, his dark hair full of snow. His hands clawed stiffly at angles, and he appeared, against the hard soil, very thin, as though all flesh and blood had been drawn out of him in the fall.
Numb with horror I stared down at him, my boots fastened to the earth. Beside me the bell began to ring, but softly, as if with a sly, gutted satisfaction. I saw that there was no rope or chain leading from it into the pit, that it rang with neither cause no reason, just as my father had told me.
The priest’s talk of Gods of mud and death conjured themselves once more, and in my terror I felt compelled to pray aloud to the nameless things that had taken my father.
Only when the bell quieted again did I endeavour to retrieve his body from the grave. As Iifted my father I saw his face, warped over his shoulder in an aspect of reverent terror. I knew, then, that he had seen something in the graveyard with him, and that it had driven him down to his death.
It was as I thought this that I looked up from my father’s body and saw a line of figures bordering the graveyard, cast in too much shadow by the trees for me to see their faces, if faces they had at all.
By the time I rose to go for help they had gone again, leaving me alone with the corpse in the snow.
I was last Barren to become a gravedigger, for I will not teach the trade to my children. My father’s death bought grief and misery to my family, a rupture that never healed. Few believed my story, as I told it, and that drove us all apart further still.
When I die I will be burned, my ashes scattered. I will not feed the Gods of death with my flesh and bones, nor tend to the places they walk.
Sometimes, when I am alone, I see them, deities with the appearance of people. They follow me like wolves after a bleeding stag, but I avert my eyes from them so that they cannot claim my mind.
Sometimes, on cold days, I hear the bell. This I cannot shut out, no matter what I do.