".Man hats also befunden wenn Man das Grab eröffnet
dass solche Weiber die Lippen und Schleier oder das
Tuch am Halfe gefressen."
There was only the greyness about me, the unremitting, unrelieved grey through which a cold drizzle filtered. The dampness had penetrated my overcoat, the tweed suit coat and the starched white shirt, whose collar was wet and choking as I stood on my doorstep fumbling for the latchkey, and the steam from my breath reinforced a chill that made me shiver-but at the least I was still alive.
It seemed incredible to me that in this modern age, at the peak of civilization, that my lifelong friends and fellow citizens of Cobston, Ontario lived in terror of a ravening spectre.
Once inside my home I felt the radiating warmth from the coal fire the housekeeper had stoked in the fireplace at the north end of the sitting room. I threw off my topcoat and slung it carelessly on the coat tree. Looking into the hallway mirror I felt my brow, half afraid that I might detect the beginnings of a fever. God, but a bullet in the temple would be better than that.
"Mr. Stoneham, is that you?" The trill of Mrs. Almquist's voice echoed from the kitchen.
"Yes, it is," I said with some distraction. Silly woman-who else would have a key to my house? I wiped the beaded moisture from my dark mustache as she came toddling briskly down the hallway in her peculiar side-to-side gait. Her coat was already on.
"Your supper is on the stove and everything else
is taken care of. I really must get back to the house now."
Mrs. Almquist just shook her head and that told me all I needed to know. Without another word she went out into the rainy gloom, leaving me to ache in the silence of an empty house and the dusk that gathered in all the corners where the lamps could not reach.
The story of Carole Almquist was my personal tragedy in this epidemic. She was 29, four years younger than me, but we had been talking of marriage. She was a petite, beautiful girl with long dark hair and deep brown eyes; yet, her health was never the best. Almost predictably, she began several days ago to complain of fever. Because of the danger of contagion, the doctor had warned me not to see her, although he realized that I cared for her a great deal. Carole had studied the ballet and also worked at the local library to supplement the modest Almquist family inheritance that enabled her and her mother to live comfortably enough.
The sadness was a stone in my stomach and I would not show it to another person, yet I could feel it etching lines of agony on my face and bleeding the color from every compartment of my heart.
I went into the sitting room, whose walls were flickering faint orange and yellow from the light coming from the fire in the grate, and I switched on the single electric light with its elaborate stained glass shade, one of my indulgences.
Looking at the front page one more time, I took it all in. It was my newspaper as it had been my father's and it seemed that it was my only life any more. October 27, 1919, and my lead story today had been one more about sickness and death no less frightening than that which Daniel Defoe might have penned.
The sound of a heavily laden wagon rolled past on the red bricks of the street outside. With the clock near to striking six, his load could only be one thing.
Never before had I felt so isolated and yet were scarcely more than two hours away from the city of Toronto by motorcar, and even closer by the daily train. We were a village of 6,700 and by my figures we had lost 79 residents in no more than two weeks to the scourge of cholera.
Damned immigrants! But then no one heeded my editorial just six months ago when the new furniture factory had begun construction here and a source of cheap labor seemed desirable; but the town fathers had not been to France as I had in 1917, did not know of the terrible problems which could come through indiscriminate influx of Europeans to our town.
The first workers brought in to advance our town's massive construction projects presented no problems but then came September, and with it a small group of Polish laborers who had not been thoroughly enough checked by Immigration health officials.
Even Dr. Peeler had mis-diagnosed the first case of the disease as dysentery and only the rapidly ensuing death of the worker had caused him to reconsider. By that time, four more of the workers had been gripped by the syndrome and it was only a few days later that cholera began to strike like a cloaked assassin in the business district, the schools, until quarantine seemed futile. As a macabre underlining to our situation, today's death list included the town's only mortician.
I let the eight-page broadsheet fall to the coffee table, feeling as a stranger in my hometown, and even to this family home that had been bequeathed to me, along with the ministrations of the housekeeper Mrs. Almquist, who had served my parents as well. Aside from my service in the Great War, I had never left Cobston's sleepy streets and, today, I walked the four blocks down the same brick street to the same downtown district to the same two-storey building housing the print shop and daily newspaper, just as my father had done. Tonight the streets would be empty but for one or two police constables and that cursed horse-drawn van with its load of death.
I was barely through half my meal of pork chops and potatoes when the knock came on the front door. I opened to the night and recognized the silhouette of my visitor despite the darkness and the patter of rain falling on the porch. "Good evening, Reverend Gresham." I invited him into the brightly lit sitting room, noticing that he had his own copy of the Telegraph-Dispatch wedged in his coat between inner arm and chest-only his copy was wilted from the wet.
He removed his black fedora to reveal a shining pate. His greyish-white hair, much like lamb's wool, formed a semi-circle about the bald hillock of his head. The purse of his mouth hid beneath an overhanging beak and I knew him to be almost as puritanical as his mouth suggested. Small, bright hawk's eyes peered at me through rimless glasses whose lenses were still speckled with rain moisture.
Much as I secretly disliked Rev. Gresham, I knew him to be well read and as much a scholar as any local could claim to be. How he had remained a prig was beyond me; but then I had little to boast about considering that my reading was all in the area of contemporary novels and light histories. Rev. Gresham's visits were never social and, with his grim black gabardine suit and its starched white collar, I could always expect his gentle but firm pressure to editorialize on behalf of the Temperance League or to strongly condemn such threats to the body politic as women's suffrage and so forth. Normally my sense of humor was sufficient balance to endure his phlegmatic nature, but the shroud of events that had enveloped the town was exhausting me just as it was energizing this wizening old rector.
Rev. Gresham slapped the wet, rolled newspaper down
on my table, his mouth moving as though savoring an invisible gumdrop;
then he spoke, "We must do something before a more terrible fate
is visited upon us."
"I'm not talking about the living I'm talking about the dead." The little eyes squinted at me.
"I'm not sure I understand." That was pure honesty.
He gestured to the paper with a pale, wrinkled finger. "Jonathan Dell's death is what I'm talking about."
"I'm sorry, Reverend Gresham, but many of our friends are dying. The death of our undertaker is no less difficult than any other."
"Who will embalm the dead? Who is going to assure proper burial?" His voice was gently grim, but his eyes gleamed.
I shrugged, "My God, Man, we haven't time for niceties. In France we never stood on ceremony; the dead will be buried. Your sexton is being helped by six other town employees. The graves are being dug as quickly as possible though not so deep as you are used to."
"Do you know why we embalm the dead?" He was relentless.
"I suppose that well, it's what we always do when someone dies. Beyond that I don't know." My exasperation almost broke into language more suited to the trenches than to the parlor.
The rector perched in his chair, leaning forward, "Unlike most people in this town, I have read more than the daily Telegraph-Dispatch. There are reasons for everything we do, including our procedure for burial. I see something terrible coming which none of us is prepared for. I do not believe that the dead always stay dead."
"Please, I'm in no mood for this kind of talk. This is the very kind of thing, when you verge on it in your sermons, that tends to make one avoid going to church. I shouldn't say it, but you are viewed as a somewhat eccentric cleric." My impatience with him was spilling over.
His severe mouth almost made a kiss, but he continued as though talking to a misbehaving child. "Believe me, I am not talking to you out of choice. I am talking to you because you are the only person who might be able to convince the rest of the town before something terrible happens."
"Perhaps you had better leave. I'm sorry, but I have been working 15 hours a day since the plague-yes, and that's what it is-struck us. I don't have time for metaphysical excursions."
Rev. Gresham seemed unmoved by my anger although I could feel my face flush red. "I had hoped you would get your coat and walk to the rectory with me. I wanted to read you some history that you did not learn in grammar school.
"No, it's impossible." I did not even apologize for the brusqueness of my reply.
"I will keep the invitation open." With little else to say, he rose from the chair and I escorted him to the front door.
It wasn't until the following morning that I heard how the gravediggers had abandoned their jobs during the night.
The sky was an inverted bowl of lead with air temperatures ranging in the low forties. I had walked to my office in the pre-dawn twilight, bundled against the chill. A mist collected in depressions of the ground, and there was an aura of vacancy about the town despite the chimney wisps which spoke of wood or coal fires burning behind heavily curtained windows.
It was only because my main reporter had not come in yet that I decided to investigate the incident of the disappearing gravediggers. Because we were not certain of its reliability, we usually cranked up the delivery truck in the mornings during cold weather, and we left it running throughout the day. I drove through empty streets to the graveyard. I could have walked, but I was fast getting used to this modern conveyance.
The Cobston Cemetery sloped south from St. Mark's Anglican Church whose elaborate stonework capped a small rise marking the edge of the downtown district and the beginning of neatly apportioned rich Ontario farmland. I left the motor chugging out puffs of vapor into the dank air.
The tombstones of Cobston's former residents stretched for acres, their concrete dental work wandering through dark wet grass until they faded into the pall of the rain-mist which seemed to undulate at the reaches of my vision. I looked from the cemetery gates up the hill to the church and its steeple and then back down the slope to a large section of untenanted earth where recent activity had left a brown-grey quagmire of mud. A lone figure worked slowly, throwing spadesful onto a growing mound; at this distance he appeared as a black dwarf against an oppressive grey curtain. At the very center of the field was a large stone and concrete vault where I knew bodies were kept before burial in the days before Jonathan Dell's Funeral Home had taken care of the unpleasant aspects of this final transition.
I walked down the gravel walkway, which went from
the main gates to the vault and branched to the four quarters of the
graveyard. The sound of the idling Ford inline engine faded and was
replaced by the whisper of water droplets falling on the grass and the
slow but regular sounds of the sexton's spade attacking the clay.
"Good morning, Jonas Stiles." The sexton ceased his shoveling at my greeting, noticing me for the first time. His dark Welsh face bristled with three or four days growth and he seemed wet through even beneath his mackintosh.
"I have an idea what you'll be wantin'," he said without a smile, the words coming heavily through his rasping breath. Forty yards beyond where we stood, the cemetery field ended abruptly with a wall of heavy Ontario bush.
I gestured to the graves still in preparations, "Where is all the help you were supposed to have had?"
"They heard noises last night-that's where they are." Stiles pointed to the line of nine freshly filled gravesites that were not yet marked.
"What kind of noises?" I wondered what could scare a handful of hard-drinking, well-muscled working men so thoroughly that they would just disappear from their work.
"None of my concern. Nothing happening now. In my 23 years I ain't heard anythin' so bad that I'd put my tail betwixt my legs. All I wants to know is how we'll get all the bodies buried."
While I was listening to him, I glanced about me, cognizant of our isolation. "Tell me what you know, Jonas."
"It's fair and simple. The men came to work around one of the clock and I left them working at time for my supper-left lanterns and all for them. I'd been working the whole day, so I took a nap after eating. When I came to check on them-oh, must've been after eight, the lanterns was still burning, sitting beside the graves, but the men were gone, vanished like a bloody sailor's pay on shore leave. Only one reported today-said he couldn't work here no more because of the noises."
Digging tools were indeed scattered about, half-sunk in the soft, disturbed earth, but there was no apparent reason for their abandonment. "You have an idea, Jonas?"
"Everything breaks down with a plague like this, and even dyin' isn't no longer what it ought to be. And fear well, I wager we won't any of us be strangers to fear not me, not you, not anybody before this is done."
My smile must have appeared grim, for it caused Stiles to grin mirthlessly, revealing some of his missing teeth. "Good day to you, Jonas." I found my way back to the gravel path and made my way to the gate, my trousers soaked at the cuffs. I got back into the truck and sat for a moment while I wiped the inside of the windscreen.
From the mist, the horsedrawn van emerged, its drivers wearing surgical masks as though such pieces of cloth could be some protection. It rumbled past and through the gates. I sat watching while it went to that large holding vault and then the several bodies were unloaded and taken inside. It seemed a scene from centuries past. I worked the truck into gear and went back to the office.
A few enquiries netted me the addresses of the workmen, two of whom had been among the original group of laborers who had come from Europe. I knew they could not have left town-the general quarantine prevented that. So, I had hopes of getting the story.
The rooming house was two blocks over on King Street and the landlady showed me to the rooms where one of the workers lived. He answered the door, obviously inebriated, his face haggard from what I would have sworn to be fear. He had still not washed his hands of the graveyard mud of the previous evening.
"I don't care; I'm not goin' back there, not for my very life. The city of Cobston can't force me back there while I'm above ground." He had obviously expected someone from the town hall.
"I'm only the newspaper editor. I'm not here to exert any force whatsoever. I need to know what happened last night."
His face seemed to sag, and he opened the door wider, gesturing me inside. In the dim sparseness of his bed-sitting room I listened, unprepared for the bizarre character of this drunkard's tale.
He sat upon his narrow, unmade bed, hands clasped between his knees, his eyes on the threadbare carpet. "We'd been workin' steady all the afternoon. It was so grey that we hardly noticed the end of the daylight until it was that Sexton Stiles brought us the lanterns.
Those Polacks were workin' devils, though, let me tell you. The three of 'em scarcely stopped for a breather and all the time they just talked to each other in Polish. Y'know, laughin' and being of better spirits than us poor Canucks. Immigrants seem to always feel better about life than us domestics, eh?
"When the Sexton went off for his supper, we all stopped, having brought our own lunch pails. It was dark, and you couldn't see more than a few feet. The Polacks was eating sausages, y'know, and laughing. Then all of a sudden they stopped started whispering to each other. We didn't pay any attention, my mate and me, but they were just muttering and making those jerking hand gestures them kind always make then they pointed off in a direction toward the new graves. They stood up together, walked a few steps with a lantern held up and then I heard it too. It was just somebody's hogs rooting, I told my mate, and the noise seemed to come from maybe the farm next to the cemetery. One of the Polacks walked a few steps and then the noise clearer now came " He stopped talking and began to shake, but no tears came to his eyes.
He looked up at me with a child's eyes, shaking his head as he spoke, " It came from under the ground." My mouth twisted in disbelief at his words.
His hands reached out, imploring, "The Polacks yelled and started running as though they was one person left the lanterns where they dropped them. Oh, and I was the smart one-laughed I did, and walked over to where the lantern was. I leaned over and I heard it, from beneath the fresh-filled grave of two days ago. And then the same noise started in another grave, then a third. Sure, we ran. You can't know the sound-the feeling." He broke down to dry sobbing and I left him. A prank? A foolish misapprehension? And if it had been something strange, and I hesitated to seriously consider the word "supernatural" it could not have been as terrifying or inexplicable as that. I went back to my office, to the oak desk and piles of typed stories to be edited; I felt stronger. After all, I had seen the worst of things in war and had not been broken by it. What could night noises do to me?
Much as I tried to discount the laborer's story while we hammered out the daily edition, I found myself without ease. Perhaps it was the seed planted by Rev. Gresham which was now growing in me. Much as I would prefer to avoid him altogether, I resolved to visit him at the end of my work day, perhaps even leave before 5:30 and catch him at supper as he had interrupted mine.
By the time we had put the front page to bed, Cobston had registered six more cholera deaths and there were at least 17 new cases reported. We had all been touched by the plague and, though I had no immediate family now, I probably knew everyone in town better than most residents did. It was like the battlefield all over again, with each new day striking names from he roster of comrades. One of the names today was that of Carole Almquist.
I tried never to show emotion; I had not cried since childhood, but the idea of Carole dying was a wrenching feeling in my mid-section. The hand that had touched mine, the smiling face, the full comely lips that had kissed me were now forever taken. It was embarrassing now to think of things I had fantasized about her, things far beyond respectability-things so promising that it would be a long time before I could really picture her as dead.
Lights glowed behind the windows of the St. Mark's Rectory and I knew I would find Rev. Gresham there. He ushered me into his study, a small office lined with low bookshelves. The conversion to electric lighting had still not overtaken this place and we sat in the glow of gaslights that were sufficient to read by, just as clerics must have done in this same room before the turn of the century. Rev. Gresham offered me tea, and I politely declined. Somehow, I felt it was time to break with these British customs, and these Anglican priests-that's what they were-were the arch-conservative, Monarchists to the end.
"You heard about last night, I see." He puckered his lips slightly, the closest thing to amusement I had ever seen him show.
"I heard some nonsense from a drunk workman. Do you have anything better?" I had only been here a few minutes and already my irritation was showing.
"You know, we have too many misconceptions of the nature of things. We think of history as a tableau of events passing through a gateway of no dimensions. I suggest to you that not only are events capable of variability, but also that reality itself is variable. So the events change, but the size of the gate may also change too. It is bad enough that we face this epidemic-people are frightened, as well they might be, as well you might have been in France, but it is nothing I repeat nothing compared to the terror stemming from the collapse of the natural order of things. There is no horror so total as the realization that gravity can be suspended, that it is possible to cause death through the concentration of malevolent will, or that the dead do not remain so." His every conversation took on the rhythm of a homily.
"This is what you wished to tell me about?" I rose from my chair, making ready to leave.
His little eyes took on an imperious gleam, his voice rose to sternness, "Sit down, Sir. Now you will listen. I read to you from evidence 250 years old, but I think you will not have heard anything like this before in your life. Nor will you be able to dismiss it from your mind once you have heard it."
The gaslights wavered momentarily from some pressure change in the lines. Rev. Gresham's face was a pale melon nestled in his dark attire. The book he opened was obviously rebound but the interior pages were foxed and brittle, the print black and heavy, the title, Dissertation de Masticatione Mortuorum or, in English, "A Dissertation on the Chewing of the Dead."
I winced; there was something distasteful, almost indecent, about this prim and proper man sitting in the dim gaslight reading this uncomfortable stuff to me. I would not have expected him to sink to the level of the penny dreadful.
He worked his mouth and continued to translate freely from the German black letter text, "Those who the history of funeral rites and of the mysteries of earth have written, have not neglected to place on record that there have been found from time to time bodies who appear to have devoured the grave clothes in which they were wound, their cerements, and whilst doing so to have uttered a grunting noise like the sound of porkers chawing and rooting "
Rev. Gresham heard my sharp intake of breath and I was almost certain that he did smile at that moment. I opened my mouth to speak, but he held up his hand and turned over several pages which crackled in the deep silence. "The theme then of our disputation will be that there are some who were actually dead and who were buried, but energized by an unusual and extraordinary power altogether external to themselves, they have even within their tombs been know to eat and partake of food." Another rustling of pages, "The eminent Harsdorffer mentions an occurrence when the body of a man not only devoured his own linen shroud but also half-devoured the corpse of a woman in a neighboring grave. Only seven years ago, in 1672, there was a similar case in a certain village which lies at a distance of three miles from this very town, and it was observed by an intimate friend of mine, one who is worthy of the utmost confidence. The body of a man, whose name although known to me, I prefer not to mention, having been most rashly exhumed by the villagers was found to have eaten his own limbs."
I felt possessed of a queasiness that robbed me of any appetite, yet something I could not identify clearly. "Even if I admitted the possibility of what this man wrote in 1679 and I would do all in my power to disclaim it what has this to do with Cobston in 1919?"
"Perhaps you already sense the connection, but I will read you one more thing to make certain you understand. Under Rohr's number XIV we read that Corpses in their graves chew with this horrible grunting noise chiefly during a great plague. At other times, when no pestilence rageth, this loathly manducation is seldom observed."
"Reverend Gresham, anything related by some intemperate workman is more likely to indicate mental illness than real phenomena. Even the Society for Psychical Research which, I understand, you are a correspondent to, would laugh at this flimsy construction. "But " It was my turn to raise my finger to make a point, " but, even if such a thing were made possible by some peculiar quirk of the nervous system, some catalepsy, why should we even take this time to discuss it when we have real problems to deal with, problems of the living?" Frantically my mind sought to suppress an image of beautiful, delicate Carole Almquist lying dead in that forbidding stone holding vault, so close to the church in which we sat. I had never before considered the ghastly significance of the venting chimney on the vault's roof.
"Nervous system, catalepsy-you are already trying to make a commonplace occurrence of the unnamable. I submit that even someone as experienced as yourself could not restrain your panic at the slightest genuine psychic manifestation, much less an outside horror that has been hibernating these two-and-a-half centuries."
His words were only half-heard as I reviewed in my
mind the workman's tale, the words of a long-dead University of Leipzig
professor, and my own uncontrolled imagination. "I will take that
cup of tea now."
Contrary to my intentions, I listened to St. Mark's Rector for close to an hour as he quoted from one book then another, threatening my coherent views. His excerpts painted pictures of a Europe in twilight, stalked by gruesome death that destroyed whole populations-genocide by microbe. What emerged from different writers, all supposedly educated men, was a reality more fitting the art of Hieronymus Bosch than Whistler and Gainesborough. Stories of the resuscitated corpses which spread plague through villages were common, as were the half-hidden suggestions of things occurring below ground. Vivid tales of fear-struck citizens racing past nighted graveyards alive with underground noises would be hard to forget as I walked through Cobston's dark wet streets.
I had come to Rev. Gresham's residence a skeptic and I left the same way, but I could not explain why I felt shaken. The rain had stopped but my breath clouded more heavily than before. The air should have smelled fresh, but there was uncleanness in my nostrils as I walked along the street of bare trees, my footsteps resounding on the damp bricks. Again I was alone; not even a police constable intruded to break the dismal solitude as I made my way home. At one point I did see the vague silhouette of a figure walking far ahead of me, probably coming from devotions at the church.
None of us had ever questioned the manner of burial. It was all superstition, another word for ritual without meaning. To fill the veins with a noxious fluid and then to seal the body in a heavy coffin to be deposited six feet below the ground had little meaning but, in the darkness, I could not but wonder if the Rector could be right and that our sense of superiority over other times and societies was but an illusion that could be shattered by circumstances at any moment.
As I approached my house I suddenly realized that I did not know what to say to Mrs. Almquist; perhaps she wouldn't be there when I went in, but the lights suggested otherwise. What was I to say about the woman we had both loved as child, as daughter?
It was as I entered that I heard my housekeeper's long, wailing shriek and it galvanized me into action. I ran headlong to the rear of the house where Mrs. Almquist stood, cowering against the kitchen sink, facing the half-windowed back door. She was pointing, but I saw nothing.
The door was locked and I fumbled furiously for the key, flung open the door and ran into the back garden. Of course it was to no avail. The intruder, had there been one, was gone.
As I regained the back door stoop, I noticed again the unpleasant, almost nauseating odor that had permeated the air of Cobston. I had only found that odor one other place in my life.
Back in the kitchen, I comforted Mrs. Almquist. "It's all right. Whoever it was is gone now." I put my arm about her shoulders.
"Do you have any idea who it was?" She was shaking. If there had been a prowler, it was as likely to be a neighborhood youth who, for a lark, enjoyed scaring old women.
She nodded her head, attempting to speak, "It was Mr. DeWolff, the greengrocer. His face-he looked so terrible; I never saw a human being so dreadful looking "
It was then I touched her forehead and sensed the heat clouding her vision. It was a fever, and it must have distorted her perception; the prowler could not have been the grocer because DeWolff had died of cholera two days before.
Somehow I was thinking of the vague shape I had earlier seen walking at the furthest range of my night vision. No, it couldn't be, no matter where the silhouette had seemed to come from. Then there was Rev. Gresham's reading of accounts of a cholera plague in Danzig in 1855; the common people had succumbed to a fantasy that they were being attacked by vampires and many had reportedly died of stark terror. Along with this was the story that these undead creatures were the agents spreading the plague. I affirmed in my mind that I had seen nothing at the back door and that Mrs. Almquist was coming down with a fever. In my own morbid imagination I was already thinking of her as among the victims of the epidemic.
Later, after I had gone to summon the doctor and seen Mrs. Almquist home, I fell exhausted on my own bed, tormented by the seething mental activity sometimes sparked by fatigue. A dead girl danced for me and I now longed to touch her though she was gone. Now that girl's mother could also be struck by the phantom disease.
Somehow my imagination must have led me to sleep and my guided thoughts became the unbidden images of merciless dreaming. I embraced Carole Almquist, soaking in the fire of her fevered flesh. I had kept such thoughts from my conscious mind, but I was defenseless in sleep, and here were the desirous images though I somehow knew, even in the dream, that Carole was beyond anyone's touch. Her arms were burning bands about me, and I desired to sink forever into the depths of her, until I looked over and saw the face at the window. The mouth and nose of that visage were pressed out of shape against the glass; the face raged with eyes veined and staring from retreating sockets. The open mouth moved hideously against the pane until I was mindless of the arms wrapped around me. Suddenly I recognized the distorted countenance as that of DeWolff the grocer, and I began to yell.
My shouts bounded emptily about the bedroom and I was alone, awake, drenched in my own perspiration. I felt my forehead again in panic, but there was no fever, and I settled back to the dull ache of Carole's memory, and too many hours before morning.
I must have found sleep again because I heard the downstairs grandfather clock striking five when the knocking began on the door. I stumbled downstairs in my robe and opened the door to Rev. Gresham, ready to curse him with language he had never heard, but I held my words when I saw the widened agitation in his small eyes.
He pushed past me, his rain clothes glossy with the steady drizzle that had begun again sometime in the night. "Get dressed, Man. You must come with me to understand that I was not mad when I read those passages to you."
"See here, Reverend Gresham " My anger was strong enough to wash the sleep fog from my brain but not powerful enough to rebuff him.
"Let us hope that you and I will be the last to ever witness what is happening tonight in Cobston."
Perhaps it was my secret fear and perhaps it was my curiosity sending me upstairs to dress warmly and to don my rain gear. Within ten minutes we were walking in the darkness through Cobston's streets. The rain was heavier now and there were no lights along the tree-sheltered walks; pelting drops drummed against the street and flowed in the gutters. Rev. Gresham spoke above the rain sound, "It was my sexton who awakened me an hour ago. He told me what had happened, and then he disappeared. I will not forget the look in his eyes or the fact that this was the only occasion in the 23 years he has worked with this Parish that I have seen him run."
Though it was dark, I could sense the towering outlines of St. Mark's church as we completed our journey. The rain was steady and determined. Almost in the shadow of the church we entered the cemetery gates and I could hear the jangle of keys as the Rector led me off to the right where the sexton's workshed nestled among several large evergreens. Inside, Rev. Gresham struck a match and fumbled with the chimney of a lantern. In the small orange glow I could see the steam from each pulsing breath. He handed me a lantern and took one for himself, then we essayed the gravel path leading into the farther reaches of the graveyard's darkness. We walked, our rubber overshoes making wet, crunching sounds on the walkways.
It was so dark and our lanterns so pitiful that I felt lost among the dripping monuments. I felt a hand clutch my oilskin coat and Rev. Gresham lifted his lantern; ahead of us was the newly dug section, and it looked like the trenches of Europe, a mire of muddy pools, countless tracks and heaps of soggy earth. We walked testily, slipping, our lights wavering.
The sounds slowly emerged from the cover of the rain. Perhaps my eyes were as wide as Rev. Gresham's but I was seized with a dread I had never known, for beneath those recently heaped mounds I could hear the sonorous rooting of what seemed to be swine. Although muffled by the coverlets of earth, I could hear what was beneath the ground, partaking of hellish nourishment. Science and religion fled from us at the same instant, but my mind could not help but remember the Rector's lessons and I conjured images of wet, black tunnels underneath us with the only animated things being the worms and those who were dead and buried-some of them more than two weeks. My teeth clenched against the mumbled cacophony under the ground, and it seemed my entire being was penetrated by the ceaseless grinding of jaws whose work was mercifully hidden from us. What was it they were eating beneath our feet? Terror washed through me at such a consideration and only my military training kept me from bolting.
In the wan glow of our lanterns, I could see Rev. Gresham's face, wet and dripping from the rain. His voice quavered, "You see you hear there is no explanation, no comfort. I am afraid in spite of my faith but I must must see for myself in the vault."
I tugged at his raincoat. "No! You mustn't. Let's leave now; we don't want to know any more." My dream of DeWolff the grocer, of Carole, of how they might look, turned me toward the gates.
I fell into the mud twice getting to the gravel path, and my yellow raincoat was mottled and smeared, while my mind was irrationally gripped by the thought that a hand could reach through the sucking clay to pull me down. It was blind panic orchestrated by a blasting reality in that field beyond all description. Near the gates I turned to see if the Rector was behind me, and I saw the circle of his lantern disappear into the holding vault. I shouted his name, but the rain soaked it up, my voice cracked with fear. I stood still for a moment-maybe two-but it seemed an age.
Only the scream brought me back from the safety of the entrance gates. I shall never forget the piercing, drawn-out shriek issuing from that black and dripping structure. Despite blind terror, I forced myself to return along the gravel path, to approach the stone building with no windows except for the roof venting for the noisome stench erupting from its tenants. The door yawned, but nothing relieved the blackness within. The drumming of rain was preternaturally loud in the pre-dawn darkness.
Water poured off the roof in a stream, forming a veil in front of the doorway; I held the lantern in front of me, but it reflected from the water streams.
The noise inside was that of rooting sows; no human could have made such a sound. It was so plain, the rising and falling rhythm, the clash of teeth. I shouted for Rev. Gresham again. Nothing. Even here, outside the door, I was choking on the miasma stench coming in waves from within. My last shout had become a parody of my own voice, and I knew I had to go inside.
Recklessly I propelled myself through the gaping doorway, determined to grab the Rector and to retreat, but nothing could have prepared me for the horror of the vault. The bodies were shelved in graveclothes along three walls, but everything was in disarray. The feeble rays of the lantern showed three bodies twisted on the floor; one had a strip of cloth protruding from bared teeth. The stench and the noise were overpowering me and, thank God, the lantern was too weak to show what was going on in the deepest recesses of the vault though I sensed some kind of terrible movement where there should be nothing but inanimate flesh.
The pieces of Rev. Gresham's smashed lantern were strewn on the concrete floor to my left and I saw him lying, his arm leaning, pointing upward against one of the shelf supports. I reached down to pull him to his feet and saw his sightless, staring eyes and I backed out of that repository of horror beyond human ken, for his hand was lacerated, ripped open, and his arm carried the marks of human teeth.
The most terrible thing I carried away with me never to reveal to another living person for, in that lightless gloom, saturated with the odor of death, filled with the noise of some force beyond the grave, I saw yes, I saw on the shelf just above where the Rector's hand stretched, the pale cadaver of a once-beautiful girl with long black hair whose empty eyes saw nothing but whose mouth chewed and swallowed with that noise that haunts my waking moments and chases me down the corridor of dreams.
The delicate arms of this woman whom I had loved were folded over her breast, and one of those limbs was half eaten.
In the deep grey of the early morning, with no promise of better light, I located Sexton Stiles at his home. Though all was quiet with the coming of the daytime hours, we put our backs into shoveling a wagonload of coal through the door of the holding vault. I brought a constable with us and he but looked through the doorway before helping us. Ten gallons of kerosene followed the basic fuel and then we threw lighted lanterns into the vault. The flames crackled and the choking smoke was a pall over Cobston for a number of hours.
We then ordered 150 gallons of sulfuric acid from a Toronto firm and, when it arrived three days later, we drove lengths of four-inch cast iron pipe deep into each of the recent graves, filling them with the reagent. Some of the graves sucked up the acid as though something had burrowed out great cavities under the ground, and the corrosive liquid made hollow gurgling sounds as it filled those tenanted dens. We pretended not to hear the other noises. Behind us came the local stonemason who plugged the pipes with hard mortar as a cap.
Though nine more cholera victims succumbed, no new cases were reported after the day of the burning of the dead. The epidemic had mysteriously ceased, dispersed by the last wisps of smoke from the cemetery. Even Mrs. Almquist survived, having been infected with the common cold rather than cholera. She will never know how I last saw her daughter. Cobston's relief was more numbness than exultation, though far too many had died in that short space of weeks.
As a final act, we obtained a court order that would prevent the exhumation of those new graves for so long as any form might remain beneath the ground.
Henceforth I shall do all in my power to raise the
rational scientific banner that all of this may someday be scoffed at,
relegated to the scrap heap of the world's legends and superstitions;
but I shall also never question the ways of the mortician. He has proved
wise beyond his own knowledge.