Being a Baptist preacher in rural North Carolina, if I was going to drink whiskey I’d need a place to hide to do it. And one day I looked out of the window of my study in the church and there it was. A moment of discovery. Eureka! Just like it had always been there waiting for me.
The graveyard. The biggest cemetery in three counties. Just lull back on a soft grave, hidden from prying eyes by tombstones and darkness, in a place where decent people don’t go after the sun goes down. Drink whiskey and watch the velvet darkness of the night.
It started out with one night a week and then it was two. My favorite spot was the grave of Ebenezer Hamilton, 1769-1843; his mold-tarnished gravestone slanted at just the right angle for lying against, a bottle of whiskey tilted from my lips toward the sky. His grave was in the oldest part of the cemetery, deep among the jutting stones and away from the road, back near the woods. It was my dark safe world, all to myself.
Until the dead boys showed up.
The dead boys came after about a month of my semiweekly visits to Ebenezer Hamilton’s grave. One night they were there, sitting in my place atop Ebenezer’s bosom and talking in low voices. I don’t remember when I first knew they were dead, but it wasn’t long. I was drunk most of the time, but I could tell soon enough. You just know it when you’re talking to dead people.
“We wasn’t stealin’ no mule.”
That was the first thing I heard one of them say. The younger one. I knew he was younger because he was smaller and his voice was softer, almost like a girl’s.
“We wasn’t stealin’ no damn mule.”
I talked to them sometimes, but mostly just listened, until the sun started to come up and light began to fill in their dark forms, their clothes and faces. Then I would go back to the house, on the other side of the graveyard next to the church, and lay down beside my softly snoring wife.
My wife knew I went into the graveyard at night; she didn’t care. But I didn’t tell her about the boys. She didn’t care anything about what I did, but that would have been too much. “Oh, by the way, I’ve been talking to two dead boys in the graveyard.” That would have been too much even for her.
“We come all the way from Virginia. Walked all the way.” That was the bigger one, the older one. “Come from Proctor’s place. He come out one day and told us we wasn’t slaves no more. Said for us to take that mule and go.”
There was never enough light for me to see their faces clearly, but sometimes I saw a glint in their eyes, like drops of water shimmering with the silver of the moon.
“Said he wasn’t going to feed no niggers no more. So we left. Walked all the way from Petersburg.”
The younger one didn’t talk so much. I could see, even in the dark that he kept his head down, looking at the ground.
“Old man Proctor said for us to get on, we could go anywhere we wanted to,” the older one said. “So, we walked with that mule, taking turns riding it, till we got here. We just kept walking and riding, walking and riding, just like old man Proctor said, to anywhere at all.”
I reached out my hand to touch the younger one, my hand was shaking. The boy looked at me, waiting for me to touch him, but I couldn’t.
“Come all the way from Petersburg,” the older one said. “That’s a long way.”
“I know,” I said, my voice trembling.
Soon it was three nights a week. During the day, I was a Baptist preacher; church committee meetings, visiting the sick, preaching on Sunday. The usual. But, three nights a week I spent with two dead boys in the church cemetery. And, I was getting used to it; my hands didn’t shake or my voice quiver so much after a while. But I still wouldn’t touch either of them.
“What you doin’ here?” the younger one said one night. A dim gray light lay on the horizon all around the graveyard. I could feel the morning dew chilling the air, even through the warmth of the whiskey.
“Yeah, what you come here for?” the older one said.
I thought for a second, and then I said, “Guess I need a place to hide. I need to be by myself sometimes. I like the dead. They don’t expect anything. Just let you be. I guess that’s it.”
The older one said, “That don’t make no sense, don’t make no sense at all.”
The younger one laughed. It was the first time I heard either of them laugh. It was like a little girl’s giggle. The boy’s shadowed head moved as he laughed. I laughed too. Then I took a drink of the whiskey; the bottle was almost empty and I had to tilt my head and lean back toward the stars in the sky, like Gabriel blowing his horn toward heaven.
“But, you wrong about the dead,” the older one said. “They expect everything, they want something, you just don’t know about that yet,” he said.
Why Do We Exist?
Literary Fiction, Noir, Pulp Fiction, Short Stories