Homecoming

 

 

I had craved exercise that evening - a classic fall evening, shabbily dressed in the fading threads of a sick and useless summer. You know the kind, a late October evening when the sky gleams a hoarfrost blue, when dying leaves crunch hungrily at your feet, and the air fairly snaps with a ghoulish chill; a night when funereal breath gobbles ears and nose until both crimson to a bright blood red.

Yes, you know the kind.

I had bundled hands and feet that afternoon, gaily braving the day's white cold with fierce determination. My customary route when jogging led me on a brief tour of the school playground and wound past Mid-City Park. Somehow though, the thought of costumed and chittering children with doting and doddering parents on this particular evening held little appeal for me, so I found myself wandering along a circuitous path heretofore unknown to me, choosing to stroll rather than run.

October's dying brilliance lay scattered in groaning heaps all around me as I walked. Faded golds and umbers mingled into one final bid for splendor before winter's ghostly white burial rites. Having spent most of the week in a fog, my mind slowly yawned into wakefulness. All that year, memories of Adrian had numbed and paled me, paralyzing me with fears best left unnamed, alienating those few friends left to me.

The diagnosis had been paranoid schizophrenia. Naturally, given my histrionic nature, my illness would have to be dramatic. I had always craved that sort of notoriety. Poisoning the neighbor girl's Siamese
had been only the start, of course, although no proof had ever been discovered. Stupid people. A little rat poison dabbed lightly into the cat's food had such interesting results.

Shaken, not stirred. After all, who would suspect an eight-year-old child? The minor investigation launched by the Mid-City police had been little more than a courtesy extended to appease the fat and grieving child of a prominent citizen, but it had been enough to feed the growing hunger inside my small frame. Enough to fan the fires inside a burning brain.

I had improved so much since those childhood days.

Now at thirty-two, I walked in ghostly silence through the only hometown I had ever known. Overhead, sundown threatened with great purple clouds, like aging bruises in a fragile sky. I scarcely noticed. I scarcely noticed the increasing winds, failed to hear the faint call riding the crest of that wind. My mind was too full of Adrian.

I had met Adrian Hunter on an evening much like this one. Only then, it had seemed more pleasant, more cheerful. Adrian had arrived upon my silent doorstep with a raft of bleached white papers tucked beneath the crook of his gabardined left arm.

"May I tell you about our city's plans to renovate Mid-City Park?"

he had asked with a beautiful smile. I had answered no at first, but his insistence - shy but firm - had won me over. Within a trio of days, our naive acquaintance had warmed into a relationship. Cozy evenings spent by my fire or his, robust merlot in hand, metamorphosed two lonely hearts into one. We soon began the inevitable talk of marriage.

On the day we had selected to begin our lives together - the day I had planned to glide into his arms, resplendent in virginal white - found me instead in our chosen church, listening to a clay-faced minister bemoan life's bitter twists, while I soaked three handkerchiefs, not the least bit resplendent in my weeds of crow-feather black. I'm so sorry for your loss, that will be $150.00, please. Funny, that church had burned down some time later. Life's twists and turns can be bitter, indeed.

The doctors had been commiserating, but complacent. Some young men have weak constitutions, said one. Perhaps if he had only come in to see me earlier, said another. Bad luck. Excuses all.

The fact was that Adrian had abandoned me, just like Father had. I had tried to please Adrian, but nothing had sufficed. Adrian simply hadn't understood me.

Sometimes, though, I am sorry I had to kill him.

It had grown uneasily dark now. The last vestige of the late season sun had disappeared, and the gentle chill that had before nibbled softly now snarled and snapped. I pulled my collar tight around both ears against the cold and walked on.

It was then I noticed the graveyard.

Funny how nomenclature has evolved over the years. What once had been called a graveyard or burial ground now bore the sterile and civilized epithet of cemetery. Neatly delineated rows of polished limestone or granite, gleaming like perfectly groomed teeth, surrounded by well-behaved stone fencing on an evergreen-lined boulevard is the modern man's image of mankind's final resting place.

Eternal rest.

Some things just aren't what they used to be.

Not so with this bogeyman's bedroom. Before me stretched an awesome sight: a real and genuine graveyard.

I walked on, a bit faster now. The full moon cast her long, lovely fingers across my face, as I delighted in the dilapidated fence that formed the yard's perimeter. Nothing well-behaved here.

Hey Charlee, how come they always put fences around a graveyard?

Cause so many people are dyin' to get in! (Ha ha ha ha!)

I smiled at the tired joke, drinking in the cherished scene before me, carefully examining the fence. Some skilled and caring craftsman had designed and lovingly wrought the iron that hemmed these burial mounds. Sharp spires rose above each slender pike, like gothic shafts reaching longingly toward heaven. Here and there, a brittle leaf had impaled itself on one of the flinty prongs - suicidal foliage.

How sad that I had not known of this hallowed place when Adrian had died. Or even when Father had died. Both my men would have loved this dismal and gloomy atmosphere.

I turned toward the broken gate, a gaping wound in the perfect black band of iron. I should have worn my heavier gloves, I thought ruefully. Mother would have scolded me for not planning better. She often scolded me in dreams, but kept silent tonight.

I smiled at her muteness. No voices now, I thought, remembering I'd not taken my medicine for days. Perhaps the magic of this spectral lair had stilled even her sharp tongue.

But then why not, I mused. This was, after all, October's last day, Celtic day of cleansing. A night for purging wayward shades from the haunting of mortal men. Or women.

I love Halloween.

I kicked at a stone beneath my booted foot, something small and white amidst the browns and blacks. Bones. Small, small bones, thought I.

Cat bones.

It was then I saw Her. Eldonna. I had chanced upon her elegantly hewn marker, marred and windswept into near blankness by decades of blood and bluster.

The moon brightened, and I could just make out the writing.

Eldonna Elizabeth Duncan
Born May 25, 1789
Died October 31, 1825.

Thirty-six years of life, then what? I asked aloud. What of the lively, lithesome girl reposing softly within this boreal bosom? What had brought about so abrupt surcease to her corporeal dance? What killed the wench?

I sought clues upon the tomb's face. Darkness made reading difficult, but the moon's friendly brightness cast the shadows aside as if by Stygian command, and I deciphered the lady's epitaph.

Her heathen tongue Hath now been stilled
Beneath the sod Her mouth be filled.
And may there be a just fiery end In Hell....
So she'll ne'er speak again!

An intriguing verse, to be sure, thought I. Eldonna Duncan must have been a most loquacious conversationalist to deserve so curious a testament!

I traced her name admiringly with my thinly gloved hand, wondering what sort of death she had suffered. She must have felt alone, too, I mused, imagining a kinship.

I knelt beside the marker, my knees sinking into the blanket of rain-soaked leaves that safeguarded her bower. Night's embrace settled lovingly on my shoulders, and I felt more at ease than I had since Adrian's death.

This demonic ballroom, where ghostly courtesans danced wildly 'midst raucous paramours, promising favors to all, fidelity to none, this eternal bedchamber soothed something deep within my troubled mind, and I found myself talking to Eldonna.

"Why should they slander you so, Eldonna? What sin did you commit that they laid you to rest beneath so libelous a stanza? Why should they fear you?"

I dropped gently at the monument's foot, stretching like a fat and lazy cat. The doughy sod welcomed me like a bride's downy pillow. Odd how the ground gave me warmth! Wrapping my well-worn coat around my thin shoulders, I pressed against the leafy couch, allowing body and soul to rest in its loving embrace.

Above me, the wind screamed like an approving banshee. Voices rose and fell amidst her woeful cries, echoes from shadowy centuries past, black, spectral soprano overtones wailing in reply to my plaintive
query.

Charlee....Charlee....talk to me....

Paranoid schizophrenia, I recalled. Voices. Voices from out of the void of my own imagination. Yet, the ground grew warmer.

Charlee...Charlee....Please!...Talk to me again!

Eldonna? Impossible! Hadn't her slandered tongue been forever stilled? Hadn't Azrael taken her, silently, mutely across the river Styx' black and bottomless waters? Yet...the voice. The voice!

Charlee! Please! Talk to me....TALK TO ME!!!!

"Eldonna?" asked I faintheartedly.

The winds pricked my ears; invisible hands caressed my supine form, phantasmal lover to my broken soul.

"Eldonna..can you...are you talking to me?"

I FELT the ground smile. Beneath my frantic heartbeat, the ground grew warmer still. She had spoken! I had heard it!

"Eldonna, how do you know my name?" I asked of the earth beneath my cheek.

The wind sighed.

You know, Charlee....You Know....You Know the Answer.

I stroked the tombstone softly. "How could I know that? You died a century and a half ago!" I protested to the damp earth.

What about Adrian? Did Adrian know, Charlee?

My heart froze. "How can you know about Adrian? He...he's de-"

Dead?

"Yes," I replied meekly. "But...how?"

I know ALL THE DEAD, Charlee. I know YOU, TOO.

The ground had warmed so much my hands no longer stung. I sank into the crypt's sodden arms. "Eldonna, I have to go home," I mumbled
blearily.

Remember the cat, Charlee?

Dear God! Could she know THAT, too? Suddenly, I wanted to run, to flee this wormy dining hall and return to my four safe walls. I wanted only to forget this place, forget this night!

I instructed my arms to support my weight, push me from the grave's unwanted caress, but they refused to obey me. Each effort on my part to rise sent me further and further into the barrow's clinging grasp. I sank deeper.

Charlee...You must stay and talk to me.

The plaintive voice had sharpened, becoming oddly familiar.

"Please, let me go!" I begged my ghoulish keeper. "I want to go
home now!"

You can't go home, Charlee. Who will talk to me if you go?

"I'll come back tomorrow, I promise! Just let me go now, please!"

You ARE Home, Charlee. THIS is your HOME.

"NO!" I screamed. "This is YOUR home, not mine! Now please, let me go!"

Never, Charlee. You belong here....with us...with ALL of us.

Desperately, I pushed against my lover's bosom, but her embrace tightened into a vise. I stared, wide-eyed, as first my right then my left hand disappeared into the earth's yielding flesh. I pulled, pushed, squirmed, and stretched. Below me, SHE pulled with a hellish strength while above me the ghoulish gale blasted me with its foul breath.

"Eldonna, nooo!" I screamed.

She laughed.

No.

THEY laughed.

And THEY pulled me into their darkness. And as my eyes disappeared beneath the mound's crown of decaying leaves, I spied the bones.

Cat bones.

Adrian's bones.

Father's bones.

Welcome home, Charlee. Welcome home.

 

The End