I am an English lecturer at KCC, writer, poet, and freelance editor. When not teaching, writing, or editing, I am painting 28mm-scale wargaming miniatures.
YEAR OF THE SNAKE CONTEST
The New Gravekeeper Is Made Welcome
Year of the Snake Contest entry. August. 931 words. Trigger: #3: Denial of Death; #6: A Personal Name. Gloss: Aysus Mariosep: ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph.’ An expression in which one takes the holy family’s names in vain. Kuya: ‘older brother.’ Honorific.
With a start, Alejandro delos Santos realized he had slept just fine in the cemetery. By the light of the half-moonlight coming through the cottage window, he pulled his brand-new pocket watch off its hook above his headboard. Opening the hunter case, he watched the minute hand go around once. Outside, the bell continued to jangle. No, it wasn’t the wind. Father Joseph’s words came back to him. The cemetery had been so long without a caretaker, it had become tradition for the Kakalaio Town youth to test their bravery here. Perhaps, if he were lucky, the red light would scare them off. Though with his luck, they would think the cemetery was really haunted.
He reached up once again to slip on the crucifix he had left draped around a bedpost. As he made to rise, muscles twinged and joints creaked from the mowing and raking he had done throughout the day. Hissing through his teeth, he rose to dress.
At the door, Alejandro fumbled for an old brakeman’s signal lantern and a matchcover. By the lantern’s red light, he grabbed his garden spade, which he had left leaning behind the front door.
The bell continued its clarion call as he trudged across the cemetery, careful not to step on the graves. The dew seeped into the boot leather, until even his cotton socks were wet. He could feel his cold toes squelching with every step. From the tour earlier that day, he knew the bell beckoned from near the old pink-and-white shower tree. That was where he would be digging graves in the months to come.
Alejandro stood at the foot of the grave. It was one of the safety coffins, from before the turn of the century, scattered throughout the cemetery. It had features to tell those above that those below were still alive. He watched the silver bell jangle in its weathered housing for a moment longer. The thin chain that tugged at the bell led to a pair of copper pipes streaked with verdigris sunk at the head of the grave. The chain disappeared into one pipe. The hairs on the back of his head rose at the thought of the hand still at the other end. The other pipe was bent at a right angle and capped with a speaking tube—a clockwork daisy. He could not hear anything over the noise of the bell. Father Joseph had said no one had ever been saved. There had to be another explanation.
With the lantern held head-high, he circled the grave by red light; no footprints had disturbed the dew on the grave grass or the fallen petals. He looked for string or wire leading into the shadows of nearby gravestones; there were none.
The hairs on his arms rose up as Alejandro crept toward the speaking tube. He could hear faintly over the bell, screaming. Jamming the spade head into the grass, he snatched at the crucifix hanging around his neck and kissed the holy silver.
After kneeling down, he leaned forward, placing his mouth before the daisy. “Hello?” The jangling bell stilled. He turned his head to listen.
From the pipe, a murmur: “Please help me….”
“Who are you?” Alejandro turned his ear toward the speaking tube even as he swung his lantern to hover before the gravestone to read the name there.
Another murmur, “Hattie Haywood.”
The inscription read: Hattie Ann Haywood. The lantern dipped as Alejandro read the date by the red light. He turned to the tube, “Ma‘am, when were you born?”
“October 31, 1862…. Please… there’s been a mistake…. Help me….”
The lantern swung again as he squinted to read the other date: November 1, 1890. That had been nearly twenty-seven years ago. Cold clutched at his innards. He nearly dropped the lantern as he scrambled for his spade.
Alejandro felt relief as he wrapped his hand around the haft. Setting down the lantern, he wrenched the spade free from the earth. Crossing himself, he recited the first words that came to mind: “Iti Nagan ti Ama, ken ti Anak, ken ti Espiritu Santo. Amen.” With the spade in his hands, he stabbed down, severing the chain.
As he brought the spade up and behind, he hesitated. His mind cast out for the words to any prayer. The Apostles’ Creed tumbled from his lips: “Mamatiak iti Dios Ama nga Mannakabalin-Amin a Namarsua iti Langit ken Daga…!”
Continuing to shout the rest of the prayer into the night, Alejandro swung using the back of the spade head as a makeshift hammer. With a clang, down went the copper pipes. He drove them further and still further into the ground, until they met resistance. He brought the shovel up for another blow. Years later, when he would lie awake at night listening, and when the darkness had noticed and gone quiet at his attention, he would still hear echoes of that scream.
Whimpering out the last words of the prayer, he hammered at the pipes until their tops were flush with the grass. And then he dug up a patch nearby and shoveled more dirt onto the grave, burying the pipes.
In the silence, by the red light, he shoved the spade head into the freshly-turned earth. With his trembling hands wrapped around the haft, Alejandro rested his forehead on the handle. He let out a shuddering breath. Aysus Mariosep. And this was just the first night. Kuya, you were wrong. I should've stayed in Ilocos and followed you into the Navy. At least the Great War wouldn't have endangered my soul.