“Excuse me, madame. We have to lock the gate at seven bells,” James says, leaning on a cane and carefully not looking my way.
“Are you the caretaker?” I ask, though I already know that he is.
“Yes, ma’am.” He tenses, and I realize he’s expecting me to complain about the weeds around my mother’s gravestone.
“Well, a lovely job you are doing.” I pointedly pore over his face, willing him to meet my gaze so I can see his eyes like a full moon, but he stares off into the distance.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he says, coughing gently.
I hear the bells, and so I sigh lightly and curtsy his way. “A good evening to you, sir.” Making a big show of picking up my purse and hat from beside the gravestone, I run my fingertips along the flowers I have left for Mother. I turn, set my back, and bustle along towards the gate far off in the distance.
Not for the first time, I wonder how a hillside with this many graves belongs in a town this small. And still I think about wars and dying in battle and bitter spouses and resentful children and jealous murders and lonely heartbreak and the worst things we all do to each other.
Of course, I’m really here to investigate the rumors that have spread about this cemetery. So although James thinks he sees me walk out the gate, I use a line of trees to work my way back in before he coughs his way to the lock. While I wait for him to return to his cottage, I lean against a large, gaudy marble monstrosity with a larger-than-human angel atop it, marked only with the name “SMITH”. Noticed it earlier, it obscures me from his rounds. Didn’t even realize this spot would give me a lovely view of the purple sky dimming over the woods at the edge of the hilltop. And it’s about now that I wonder what I really want to find, here.
Do I really believe that ghosts can sing? Do I want to hear my mother’s voice, one last time? What would I even say to her, if she could hear?
The wind picks up. I’m quite glad now that I planned and brought an extra shawl. As I lean down towards my bag, I hear a pattern in the leaves and branches moving in the gusts of chilly night air.
It was described to me as singing. Choral, in the distance, in the sky, in the ground. I was told sometimes it sounded like screaming. I also heard that it was just a loud and heated argument, carried on for eons, between ghostly entities long gone. But I’m hearing it carried on the breeze, it’s getting louder now, and I’m certain even from these short snatches that it is a communal song.
The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck are standing up, like an unseen lightning storm is brewing. The wind makes the clouds dance past the moon in tatters, flicking the wan light like a distant, vast, and cold candle. Gravestones live up to all the cliches late at night, when one is alone in the place that they meet, a clandestine group of spies hiding secrets of the world of the dead from us.
But I must know what this ghostly song is. So I clutch my shawl to my chest, and strike out up the hill, glancing at each shape and shadow.
I feel like I am getting closer to the voices, when all of a sudden I realize there is a scraping in the gravel ahead. Schhhhhk schhhhk, pt. Schhhhk shhhhk, pt. A light wobbles from behind a tree. My mind conjures the terror of a ghost in shackles, white globes for eyes and a glowing black shroud, lurching toward me from the darkness.
The figure lifts a ghastly lamp and points it my way. I don’t even scream. It’s as if I’m frozen in a moonbeam. Schhhhk schhhhhk, pt.
“Ma’am, what in the seven hells are you still doing out here?”
My heart tries to return down my throat. It’s just James. The sound was just the caretaker, shuffling with his cane. Worried about me, not an angry spirit.
“I’m sorry,” I squeak out. “I just wanted… to hear them. How did you know I was here?”
“I’ve heard them near every night for more’n forty years. I can tell when they’re not happy.”
I don’t know them well enough to tell. It sounds like the wind is performing a choral piece by a long-dead composer. “Although it’s… odd…” (I pause to listen for a while.) “They sound kind of… pleased. To me. You know, my mother always said she enjoyed singing, long ago, when she was young. It wouldn’t surprise me if she sang as a ghost.”
James grunts, noncommittal, and settles his weight over his cane, head down, listening to the voices in the wind. “I think they’re…” he says, but it gets caught and carried away by a gust.
He finally looks me straight in the eye. “I think it’s their way of working through the things they couldn’t figure while alive.”
I look up at the cloudy night sky, where a few stars peek through the moving banks of gray-black and the moon is an ominous glow behind them. Then I look back at him, and he has turned away, back bent, coughing silently. “So, what is the curse that settles on me, now? After hearing their song, do I find myself the caretaker when I wake up in the morning, cursed to a limbo of singing with the ghosts?”
“Good grief, woman. Where do you get such ideas from? You just get to know my story, now. And you get to listen to them sing. That’s all.” He turns and gestures towards the little cottage with its warm yellow windows. “If it’s not too odd, come in for tea?”
My legs have gotten a bit wobbly as night has set; I do feel like I could use a sit. “I would love to, James.”
“Call me Jim,” he says, as I help him back onto the path. He tries to offer me an arm, but as he wobbles on the cane, that just feels ridiculous. He takes my hand in his, and the chorale seems to decrescendo behind us, pianissimo, until it is just the wind in the trees. “What’s your name, anyway, ma’am?”