By and By ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The Cemetery of the Holy Ghost was sprawling and composed of many parts, reflecting different eras in the history of the country. There was the very old part that contained the bones of people from so long ago that some of them had fought the British and had laid eyes on George Washington. And then, moving on to the more recent past—but still long ago—there were bones of those who had fought in the Civil War, including a famous general or two and their wives and offspring. After that, there were the rich industrialists and beer barons of the 1890s who built their elaborate mausoleums at great expense, looking like small gothic churches, to house their remains and those of their families. From there we move on to the boys who fought and died in the First World War and, farther along, the Second World War. Mixed in are some famous writers, a mistress of a president or two, a long-forgotten North Pole explorer, a famous operatic tenor, and on and on, not to mention the tens of thousands who never did anything to distinguish themselves while they were living and certainly had no plan to do so while they were dead.
Somewhere between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, one might find the grave of Reginald Maxim Winfield, known to his intimates as “Reggie.” He was born in 1886 and died in 1896 at the age of ten years, five months and eighteen days. The cause of his death doesn’t matter, except to say that he wasn’t sick more than a day or two and didn’t feel much of anything when he passed from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead.
At Reggie’s graveside service, his mother, still not quite believing he was dead, moaned softly behind her veil. Just before the coffin was lowered into the earth, she bent over and, placing her arms around it as though she meant to pick it up, whispered a few words in the region close to where Reggie’s ear would be. When asked later what words she had spoken, she claimed she didn’t remember, being mollified by her grief as she was.
Several lifetimes passed by, the world changed as much as it had ever changed in a hundred and more years, and Reggie’s spirit still remained in the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost; still hadn’t moved on as it should have done. Reggie was lonely, waiting behind, but only doing what he believed he had to do. Certain living people had seen Reggie’s restless spirit over the years, but those people were few and were uncertain, after the fact, of exactly what they had seen. After a couple of startling encounters (startling for Reggie), he assiduously avoided any contact with the living people who, for whatever reason, found themselves in the cemetery. He was a shy spirit, as most spirits are, and believed that nothing good—for him, anyway—would ever come of anybody who still had a beating heart.
When he first laid eyes on the young girl, though, he didn’t run away as he usually did because he wasn’t sure if she was alive or, like him, dead. She was dressed in filthy rags and her skin, what could be seen of it, was caked with layers of dirt. She was so wan and pale and appeared so underfed that she was, he deduced, one of those unfortunate living people who didn’t have a home and who ended up in the Cemetery of the Holy Ghost because it was a good place to hide and also because she had no place else to go. If she wasn’t a spirit yet, she would be one soon. That’s why he felt a connection to her.
The second time he saw her, he made sure she also saw him.
“Have you seen my mother?” he asked.
She stopped and looked at him, not certain if he had spoken to her. “Who are you?” she asked. “I haven’t seen you before.”
“I’ve seen you,” he said.
“Why are you dressed in such funny clothes?” she asked.
“They’re not funny.”
“They look funny to me. A little bit out of the run of normal fashion for boys.”
“Getting back to my original question,” he said, “have you seen my mother?”
“What does she look like?”
“She’s tall for a woman. She has hazel eyes and auburn hair and always dresses stylishly.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like that in my entire life. What is her name?”
“Dorothy Abbot Winfield. She’s married to my father, George Herbert Winfield.”
“How long is ‘by and by’?”
“I said, how long is ‘by and by’? My mother told me to wait for her here and she would be along ‘by and by’.”
The girl closed her eyes and opened them again, putting her hand to her forehead as though she might faint. “I’m not sure I’m even seeing you,” she said. “I haven’t been feeling well lately.”
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“Uh, I don’t think so.”
“So you haven’t seen my mother?”
“I haven’t seen anybody since…oh, I can’t remember!”
“If you see her, tell her I’m waiting here for her.”
“If I see anybody answering to that description…wait a minute! You’re a ghost, aren’t you? You lived a long time ago.”
“I thought maybe you were a ghost, too,” he said.
“What year were you born?”
“Why, 1886,” he said. “What difference does that make?”
“What year was your mother born?”
“There! That’s it! You are a ghost and your mother came and went a long time ago and you missed her.”
“That can’t be,” he said. “She told me to wait here for her and she would be along ‘by and by’.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said. “I’m afraid I can’t help you. I don’t think you’re real, anyway, but if I see your mother I’ll tell her you’re looking for her.”
When she started to walk away, the boy put his hand on her arm. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“What are you doing in the cemetery? You’re not just visiting somebody’s grave, are you?”
“I’m staying here for a while until I find a better place to stay.”
“You’re not afraid?”
“What’s there to be afraid of? There’s usually nobody here but me. It’s peaceful. I like it.”
“Where do you sleep?”
“That’s enough questions,” she said. “If anybody should be asking questions, it’s me! How often do I get a chance to talk to a dead person?”
“I’m as alive as you are, just on a different plane.”
“I’m sure it’s all very interesting,” she said, “but you’re not even here and I feel a little foolish talking to nothing.”
She went to the nearest large tree and sat down with her back to it; put her head back, closed her eyes, drew in her legs and seemed to go to sleep. He stood looking at her for a while and then moved on to continue his search for his mother.
The next time he saw the girl she was sleeping in a pile of leaves between two very large gravestones. He didn’t want to wake her but as he approached he saw her eyes were open.
“It’s you again,” she said. “I know now you really are a ghost because you walk on the leaves without making a sound.”
“You look sick,” he said.
“I think I’m dying. Somebody needs to come along and put me under the earth. I wouldn’t mind a bit.”
“Maybe you can help me find my mother.”
She laughed. “How do I do that?”
“I don’t know. You’re alive and you seem to have a facility for communicating with ghosts. Maybe you’ll see the ghost of my mother and if you do you can tell her where I am.”
“I’d like to help but I don’t think I can.”
“I have to get out of the cemetery today and go back to the city. There’s going to be a purge tonight. They’re cracking down on the vags, like me.”
“What’s a ‘vag’?”
“You’re looking at one.”
“Oh, I see. It’s a bum, a wayward person who doesn’t have a home.”
“Yes, that’s me. A girl bum.”
“You had a home but you left it?”
“We won’t go into that now. Maybe some other time when I’m feeling up to it.”
“I think my mother is close by. I can feel it.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We all have our troubles. You have yours and I have mine.”
“Will you help me find her?”
“Right now I don’t think I could even find my nose.”
“You need a doctor.”
“If you see one, give him my regards.”
“I think maybe you are my mother. That’s why I’m seeing you and you’re seeing me.”
She gave a weak, snorting laugh. “I’m nobody’s mother,” she said. “I’ve never even been married.”
“No!” he said. “You don’t understand. I think my mother’s spirit is in your body. Same spirit, different body.”
“I don’t think so, but if it makes you feel better to believe it, then I guess there’s no harm in it.”
He heard voices and thought someone was coming, so he ducked out of sight. A little while later when he went back to the pile of leaves between the two grave stones, the girl was gone.
That night he heard the commotion of the purge, screaming and rollicking laughter, the tromping of feet over the hallowed ground. He hoped the girl had left in time and had gone to some safe place.
In the morning just as the sun was coming up, he found her, bleeding and barely breathing, hiding in some bushes. One of the night watchmen had hit her in the head with his night stick and split her head open. He knelt beside her and put his face close to hers.
“Why didn’t you leave when you had the chance?” he asked.
“No place to go.”
“You’re hurt bad.”
“Have to get out of this place,” she said.
She struggled to stand up but her arms and legs wouldn’t work.
She died with the birds singing in the trees over her head. He stayed beside her and then when the end came he wasn’t too surprised to see the spirit of his mother, Dorothy Abbot Winfield, rise out of the girl’s body. She wasn’t dressed in mourning but was wearing a beautiful brown dress for autumn and looked exactly as he remembered her.
“Mother!” he said. “I’ve waited all this time!”
“Reggie!” she said. “I knew you’d be here!”
She wrapped her arms around him, held him tightly and kissed his head.
“You told me to wait, that you’d be along ‘by and by,’ and I did wait and now you’re here.”
“I’m so glad!” she said. “So happy!”
“Where are father and Jacqueline and Edward?”
“They’re waiting for us just over the hill.”
He took her by the hand and together they walked into the radiant light of early morning. Nothing would ever keep them apart again.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp