Tomorrow You Shall Find Me a Grave Man ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Deadman’s Tome, February 2010.)
I had fallen on some hard times and was forced to hire myself out as a grave sitter. No sooner had I placed my notice in the newspaper than a bereaved family engaged me to watch over, for three days and three nights, the grave of their recently deceased son. The agreement called for me to remain by the graveside and remain unfailingly vigilant through all the hours of darkness. I was to be allowed to leave for short periods of time during the daylight hours to refresh myself, but only on the stipulation that I would be away for minutes at a time rather than hours. I was told that I would be paid for my time at the conclusion of the three days and not one second before. If so much as a clump of dirt was disturbed on the fresh grave, however, I was not to be paid a cent for my seventy-two tedious and uncomfortable hours, and a warrant would be sworn out for my arrest, the result of which would be that I would never hold another job again, of any kind, for as long as lived upon this earth. I had heard such threats before and had a good laugh that people still thought they could bluff me in this manner.
The profession of grave sitter had come into being as a result of the recent illegal and highly unethical practice of “resurrectionists” stealing fresh corpses from graves. The enterprising and unscrupulous individuals who engaged in this activity were able to sell the corpses to medical schools for dissection for a good price. I had heard it said that just one body of a recently deceased, healthy young male could bring the equivalent of a month’s factory or mill wages. The medical schools, of course, denied any involvement in such a ghoulish practice. They claimed to have their cadavers provided to them in a reputable manner by city morgues and by the doctors of indigent patients.
Since only fresh corpses were desired, only recent graves were in danger of being violated. If the body had been in the ground for more than three days, the process of decay had begun and the body was no longer fresh enough to be useful for medical study. A grave sitter was engaged for three days and nights only. At the end of that time he was no longer needed.
I arrived at the cemetery at about four o’clock on a Thursday to take up my post. I found the caretaker easily enough and he directed me to the fresh grave of the boy who had been buried that day. It was near a large tree and also near a little pavilion where I could take shelter if it happened to rain during my three days and nights there. I was fortunate the month was October and the weather still quite warm.
I was determined to make myself as comfortable as I could with the few provisions I had brought. The ground was a good enough resting place for me as long as it remained dry. I had brought a blanket and a little pillow and a canteen of water and some nuts and bread and dried beef; also a couple of books to keep me company and some writing paper and a pencil if I needed it. The caretaker had told me about an old woman named Miss Beck who lived just over the ridge a quarter of a mile away. She would provide me with a simple meal for a reasonable price and also a place to wash up if I desired it. The caretaker would keep a watchful eye on the grave while I was away at Miss Beck’s, as long as I went while he was on duty. He went home every day at about five o’clock. After that I should find the place quite lonely, with only the squirrels, rabbits, owls, field mice, and the occasional deer for company.
I found my surroundings pleasant enough. I installed myself under the tree a few yards from the grave—what I had come to think of as my grave for the next three days and nights—wrapped myself in my blanket, leaned against the tree in a sitting position to help me to stay awake, and began my long vigil. It was so quiet I would have been able to hear anybody approaching from a long way off. I amused myself by watching the clear night sky with its myriads of stars and its three-quarter moon and by meditating on a number of topics that occupied my mind during such quiet times.
I couldn’t help thinking about the poor fellow whose grave I was watching. He was only sixteen, as I had found out from the caretaker, and the picture of health. He had been playing a rough game with three of his friends in a field and had received a sharp blow to his neck, fracturing his windpipe. He was rushed to a doctor but died within minutes from not being able to breath. It was a freak accident that sometimes unexpectedly claims the lives of young people.
From where I sat underneath my tree, I could see almost the entire cemetery. If any other person had set foot inside the gates, I would have seen him in an instant, long before he would see me. It was plenty light enough that I could have read my book to help me pass the time, but I wasn’t in the mood for reading. I had fallen under the spell of the night and I wanted to drink it in and not have my attention diverted away from it by the words on a page. When I grew tired of sitting, I stood up and walked around some, breathing in the smells of the grass and the leaves, but always remaining within sight of my grave. Along about midnight, the air turned decidedly cooler and the wind picked up and I huddled into my blanket. I was so sleepy I longed to stretch out on the ground beside the grave and go to sleep, but this would have seemed a sign of weakness. I was determined to remain in a sitting position to keep myself as alert as I could.
After dozing lightly and waking several times in this upright position, I fell into a deeper sleep. I had slept for possibly three-quarters of an hour when I first heard the sounds that woke me up. It was a light thumping sound and then a tearing sound, followed by a faint cry of distress. I was on my feet almost before I was awake and I looked for the source of the sounds I thought I had heard. Seeing nothing, I decided I had been dreaming; my surroundings had affected the kind of dreams I was having. My mind had played such tricks on me before. Once when I was much younger I woke up in the middle of the night, believing I had been hearing my older brother’s voice, but my older brother had been dead since I was twelve years old.
I stayed awake—or mostly awake—for the next couple of hours. Staying awake all night was more difficult than I remembered. About three o’clock in the morning, though, I gave in to my impulse to sleep and wrapped myself in my blanket like a giant cocoon and lay down next to the grave. The mound of dirt helped to block the wind from me. I was as comfortable and as cozy as I could be sleeping on the ground, and I went to sleep as soundly as I’ve ever slept in any bed in my life.
The next time I awoke it was to a whimpering, crying sound, punctuated by a muffled banging. The ground on which I was reclining actually seemed to move and shake slightly. I jumped to my feet, forgetting for a moment where I was. Then when I focused my attention, it occurred to me the sounds had been coming from the grave. That poor boy wasn’t really dead, only unconscious, and he had been buried alive. He was frantically trying to signal to someone to get him out of the grave before it was too late. How horrible to be buried alive and to suffocate, knowing you would never be able to claw your way out of the grave no matter how hard you tried. Your only chance—and a remote chance at that—was to make someone hear you. Maybe he somehow knew I was there and he was trying to signal to me to help him to get out.
Almost without thinking, I was on my knees clawing at the mound of dirt with my fingers. If I had had a shovel, I would have dug down without stopping until my heart and lungs burst to get to him.
When my mind cleared from the fog of sleep, I realized how ridiculous I must look down on my knees clawing at the dirt. How illogical it was that he could be alive! It was just a dream. I had only been dreaming. Dreams defy logic. A doctor had attended to the boy after he was injured. A doctor would know if someone was alive or dead, wouldn’t he? He would never make the mistake of believing someone was dead who was really alive.
Morning came and the caretaker arrived at about seven o’clock. I was still a little shaken and I had never been more glad to see another human being in my life. I met him as he was coming in at the gate. He greeted me and asked me how I had fared through the night. He asked me jokingly if I had seen any ghosts.
When I told him about the sounds I thought I heard coming from the grave of the boy, he smiled and patted me reassuringly on the shoulder. He asked me if I had slept any during the night and when I told him I had, he said I had only been dreaming. He said it isn’t easy to spend the night alone in a cemetery and the place had been playing tricks on my mind. He offered me a shot of whiskey and when I declined, he advised me to go to Miss Beck’s and get some breakfast; it would make me feel better.
I walked over the ridge, glad to be out of the cemetery for a while, and found Miss Beck’s place. When I knocked at her back door, she came to the door and allowed me into her kitchen. She said she had been expecting me and when I asked how she knew about me, she said the caretaker was a friend of hers. He told her everything that went on in the cemetery.
She provided me with a simple yet satisfying meal of strong tea, cornmeal mush, and eggs with little squares of potato cooked in with them. When I was finished eating she told me I could wash up in the spring house if I wanted to. I would find everything there I needed.
I returned to the cemetery in a calmer state of mind than when I had left. I was happy that I had concluded my first night and was heartened to think that my three days and nights would soon be up and I could return to my own home, which at that moment seemed more inviting to me than it ever had before. I didn’t see the caretaker or anybody else upon my return, so I thought to take advantage of the solitude by sitting against the tree and dozing, with one eye, so to speak, on the grave of the boy.
The day passed pleasantly enough, without incident, and then it was night again. I felt my apprehensions returning when I saw the caretaker leave for the day. I had discovered the night before that a cemetery is the most solitary place in the world at night. I was sorry I had ever signed on to be a grave sitter, and I considered giving up and going home before dark came, but I had promised the boy’s father I would remain for three days and nights and I didn’t feel right about going back on my promise. More than anything else, though, I needed the money I was going to get at the end of the three days.
The sky had turned cloudy and darkness came earlier than expected. The air was very still and I could hear every sound within a hundred yards of where I sat underneath the tree. I tried reading for a while, but my mind couldn’t absorb the words on the page so I gave it up. Since no one was around, I tried singing to myself, but my voice sounded so hollow and foolish to my own ears that I blushed with embarrassment and looked around. If anybody had heard me singing they would have thought I was insane.
As I had done on the previous night, I slept lightly against the tree and awoke and then slept again. Once when I heard a rustling sound in the leaves near me I opened my eyes with alarm and saw a small fox standing a few feet away. When I held out my hand to the fox, which seemed as docile as a kitten, it eyed me suspiciously and bolted into the brush.
Whereas the previous night had been clear and moonlit enough to read by, this one was cloudy and dark. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see some rain before morning. Several times I stood up and walked around among the headstones down the hill to stretch my legs and help to pass the time. I had never seen a longer night and I longed for the morning.
Finally, very late in the night, I wrapped myself in my blanket and lay down on the ground next to the grave, as I had done the night before. My last thought before going to sleep was that this was my second night and that when I woke up it would be morning and there would be only one more day and one more night to get through, and part of the day after that, until I could get my money and go home.
I slept for a couple of hours—I don’t know exactly how long. I was dreaming I was in a boat on the open sea when someone touched me roughly on the shoulder and I awoke with a violent start. I sat up in a panic. I think I said something incomprehensible, but I don’t remember what it was. My first waking thought was the awareness that somebody had been able to come upon me and I hadn’t seen or heard them. When I opened my eyes and looked around me, I saw that I was surrounded by three men I had never seen before. I tried to stand up but one of them pushed me back to a sitting position. The second man shone a bright light in my face, while the third one brandished a rope.
When I saw they meant to tie me to the tree, I grunted like an animal and tried to get away from them in a blind panic, but I was outnumbered and easily subdued. When I started to speak to ask what they meant to do, or at least to attempt to bargain with them not to hurt me, the first man—who was the youngest of the three—brandished a gun in my face.
“You see this?” he asked. “If you so much as make one sound, I’ll blow your head off and we’ll put you in the grave that we take him out of.” He gestured with his thumb toward the grave of the poor boy and I knew at once that they meant to steal the body.
“You can’t do that!” I began, but when he held the gun six inches from my nose, I knew he meant business and I would do better not to speak.
They dragged me to the tree and tied me to it in a sitting position. They made the ropes so tight that I felt a crushing weight around my heart and I thought I would probably die. When they had me securely in place and helpless, two of them set to digging, while the one who had spoken to me—obviously the leader—stood and watched them and held the light.
I figured they were going to kill me, anyway, whether I spoke or not. I had seen all of their faces and would be able to identify them if they let me get away. Maybe, I thought, their tying me up was a good sign. If they had meant to kill me, why hadn’t they done so at the outset? They could easily have squashed my head like a melon while I slept and I would never have known anything.
With the two of them digging fast and efficiently, they had unearthed the coffin in a very short time. When they had piled all the dirt beside the grave, one of the diggers disappeared into the hole and tied ropes to the handles of the coffin, and in a couple of minutes they had hoisted the coffin out of the ground.
“Hurry up!” snapped the leader. “We haven’t got all night!”
One of the diggers was on his knees trying to pry the lid off. The leader brought the lamp closer and I realized with a little thrill that I was going to get a good look at the face of the dead boy whose grave I had been sitting beside for all those hours. I had never seen a coffin unearthed before and I had to admit I felt a personal interest in this one. It was almost as if the boy was a long-standing friend of mine or a member of my family.
When the man had the lid ready to open, he paused for a moment and looked up at the leader, almost as if he wanted to make sure that everyone was ready before he revealed what it was they had come to steal. I started to say something foolish and banal, such as, “You’ll never get away with this,” but before I could get the words out the man lifted the lid and the contents of the coffin were revealed.
There in the coffin lying on a bed of satin was a wax dummy of a man dressed in evening attire with a painted-on face. His mouth was a rosy cupid’s bow and his cheeks as red as apples. Black hair was painted on the head in the semblance of curls.
“What is this?” the leader asked as though he had been duped. He raised the gun and pointed it at me as if he thought I was the one who had duped him. He knelt down and picked up the wax dummy by the lapels of its suit. When he had confirmed to himself that it was indeed what it appeared to be, he threw it back into the coffin. Its arms and legs splayed crookedly.
I started to speak but the words wouldn’t come. I had no explanation. I was as surprised by what I saw as the three men were. I was thinking that now they would be sure to kill me, when I heard a sound and twisted my head on my neck to try to see around the tree to which I was tied.
Several men were approaching. They had obviously been hiding and observing in the brush off to the edge of the cemetery without me or the three grave robbers knowing they were there. When the men were closer, I recognized the one in front as Mr. Sage, the grieving father who had engaged me to watch over his son’s grave.
The men with Mr. Sage were carrying rifles, which they pointed at the grave robbers. The leader of the grave robbers pointed his gun at Mr. Sage and the men and acted as if to fire, but when he saw all the firepower arrayed behind Mr. Sage he desisted.
“Good work!” Mr. Sage said.
His men subdued the grave robbers, who put up no resistance. As they led them away, Mr. Sage pointed at me and instructed one of his men to untie me.
“What is this all about?” I asked as soon as I was on my feet.
“You just helped us to apprehend a gang of body snatchers,” Mr. Sage said.
“Do you mean none of this was real?” I asked. I punched him on the shoulder to keep from hitting him in the mouth. “Those men could have killed me!” I said.
“Oh, come now,” Mr. Sage said with a laugh. “You were never in any real danger.”
“You’re a policeman?” I asked.
“Well, why then?”
“We circulated the story about the death of the sixteen-year-old boy. It seems that healthy young males bring a better price. There is no boy. I have no son.”
“Why did you involve me in this?”
“We needed a sitter who knew nothing about what we were doing. If there had been no sitter, the snatchers would have been suspicious.”
“I want my money!” I said foolishly, not knowing what else to say.
I discovered later that the caretaker and Miss Beck were both involved in the business of stealing bodies. The caretaker informed the body snatchers when there was a likely candidate to be had, while Miss Beck acted as a lookout and provided a good hiding place whenever one was needed.
And so began and ended by brief career as a grave sitter. After that, I would rather have died than to spend another night alone in a country cemetery.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp