Without Sin ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(This short story was published in Paranormal Horror Anthology and is a re-post on my website.)
The service ended. All the mourners departed, and the caretaker, whose name was Lemon, was left alone. He stood beside the open grave, his hands in his pockets, looking off into the distance. He was waiting for the two grave diggers to come and finish the job.
He approached the coffin. The lid had not yet been secured; he lifted it and looked inside. The deceased was a woman with artificial-looking red hair, about fifty years old. He wondered, as he always did, what had taken her. She looked healthy enough. He had heard of many suicides—something inexplicable in the air, perhaps, that made people melancholy and want to do away with themselves. Maybe she was one of those.
She was wearing a necklace with one fairly large red stone, apparently a ruby, and several smaller ones. It could be a real ruby or it could be colored glass. Her family looked prosperous enough. They wouldn’t want her to go to her eternal glory wearing fake stones. She was also wearing a wedding ring with a medium-sized diamond and some smallish earrings, no doubt worth a lot of money. He shook his head in amazement, as he had many times before, at the foolishness of people. Burying precious jewelry forever in the ground where it will never do anybody any good.
He heard someone coming and closed the lid. He looked up and saw the two gravediggers coming toward him. Drexel was the older of the two and out in front. He walked with a swagger wherever he was, even when no one was around. He thought he was cock of the walk and wasn’t bothered one bit that he displaced dirt and buried dead people for a living. The profession, for him, had certain advantages. He had few rules and could always do the job no matter how drunk he was.
The other gravedigger was as much a boy as a man. His name was Lanier. He lived with his mother in town. People believed him simple-minded but he was a good worker and never complained or caused trouble. He was happy to work as a gravedigger and looked up to Drexel, who was his third or fourth cousin. The two of them got along well because Drexel didn’t mistreat Lanier and Lanier always did as he was told without question.
“Where the hell have you been?” Lemon asked.
“Around,” Drexel said. “We’re here now.”
“I could have you fired in a flash for not being here when you’re supposed to be.”
“Well, we’re here now,” Lanier said in the cheeky tone he used only when he was backing up Drexel.
“What have we got here?” Drexel asked, pointing toward the coffin.
“A good lady, waiting for you to send her off to her eternal slumber,” Lemon said.
Drexel raised the lid and looked inside. “Looks like she’s already started on that,” he said with a little laugh.
Lanier looked away when the lid was opened. He didn’t like looking at dead people.
“That’s a ruby necklace she’s wearing around her neck,” Drexel said. “Must be worth something, if I know my jewelry.”
“Not this time,” Lemon said.
“What do you mean ‘not this time’?”
“I mean the good lady keeps her jewelry.”
“How is it that you get to say? You’re not the only one here.”
“Every living thing on earth is part of a hierarchy,” Lemon said.
“Part of a what?”
“In the hierarchy of things, the caretaker of the cemetery is above the gravedigger in all matters.”
“That’s crazy talk.”
“Nevertheless, it seems this woman is a distant relative of my mother’s. I don’t want to defile her person at a time when she is most unable to prevent it.”
“You haven’t got a mother.”
“Very well, then. We’ll let a coin toss decide the matter.” He reached into his pocket and took out a coin. “Call it,” he said.
“Tails,” Drexel said.
“Very well. If the coin lands on its tail, we take the goods, bury the lady, and nobody is any the wiser. If, however, the coin lands on its head, the lady goes to her eternal slumber fully equipped.”
He flipped the coin into the air and made no attempt to catch it when it came down. It landed at his feet.
“Hah!” Drexel said. “It’s tails! I want the ruby necklace. I have a dear friend that it would look very good on.”
“I saw it first!” Lemon said. “The necklace is mine. And I’m not so stupid as to give it to somebody who might wear it in public and have it recognized.”
“Oh, and what are you going to do with it?”
“I’ll sell it to the acquaintance of mine in the faraway city who pays a good price and doesn’t ask questions, as with the other stuff. You see, there’s a way to remount a stone like that so the lady herself would never recognize it.”
“A worthy rejoinder, if I ever heard one!”
“You talk like a damn fool. Let’s get the goods before somebody comes and get the old dame in the ground and get it over with.”
Lemon opened the coffin again and took hold of the necklace and gave it a tug. He couldn’t see how to get it off and didn’t want to break it, so he slipped it off over the dead woman’s head. Once he had the necklace in his hands, he held it up to his own neck, waggled his hips and took a few mincing steps.
“Oh, what a lovely girl!” Drexel said with a sneer.
Lanier had turned his back on Drexel and Lemon and didn’t want to think about what they were doing. He knew they were doing something bad and he wanted no part of it, although he did nothing to stop it.
“I’m going over there,” he said and walked quickly away out of sight.
“That boy is without sin,” Lemon said, “rather like those three little monkeys: Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
Drexel removed the woman’s wedding ring with a devilish chortle and put it in his pocket. When he tried to remove the earrings, though, he couldn’t see how to get them off.
“There’s a little thing in back that releases them,” Lemon said.
He helped Drexel turn the woman partway over so they could see the backs of her ears. She was as stiff as a pillar of salt and didn’t bend at the joints.
“She’s really truly dead,” Lemon said.
“I think I hear someone coming,” Drexel said.
He let the woman fall back into place and took out the pruning shears. He cut off the woman’s earlobes neatly and wrapped them, earrings and all, in a rag and put it in his pocket along with the wedding ring.
“The good woman will arrive at the gates of heaven with her earlobes missing,” Lemon said. “St. Peter will take one look at her and believe she has met with an accident.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Drexel said. “When you’re dead, nothing matters.”
“Nevertheless, she shall be welcomed with open arms!”
Drexel whistled for Lanier to come back and began to secure the lid of the coffin.
“One moment!” Lemon said. “I wish to bid the good lady the fond farewell that she so richly deserves.”
He bent over and kissed the dead woman full on the lips. Drexel did the same and, not to be outdone, licked her lips and squeezed her breast.
“Ah-ah-ah!” Lemon said. “There’ll be no necrophilia in my presence.”
“As if you yourself don’t engage in the practice every chance you get!”
Lanier returned and they secured the lid and lowered the coffin into the grave. Before they were finished replacing all the dirt, another service began in another part of the cemetery. They tidied up the gravesite, cleared away their tools and left unnoticed.
Two days later Lemon and Drexel were both dead.
When Lemon failed to appear to perform his duties as caretaker, the cemetery owner and his assistant went looking for him, expecting to find him in a drunken stupor. Instead they found him in the caretaker’s cottage, lying on the bed in full woman’s rigging, including dress, stockings, shoes and curly red wig. Around his neck was the ruby necklace he filched from the dead woman. They thought to revive him but on closer inspection discovered he had been dead long enough to stiffen. His tongue was swollen out if his mouth and his eyes and ears were seeping old blood.
As for Drexel, an old farmer saw him standing in the middle of an empty field with his arms outraised. When the farmer went to him to find out who he was and what he was doing, Drexel was babbling and insensate. While the farmer was asking Drexel useless questions, he fell dead at the farmer’s feet. The farmer looked through Drexel’s clothing to try to find some clue to his identity and discovered the handkerchief containing the earlobes with the diamond earrings attached and the wedding ring.
The woman with the ruby necklace had sickened and died with alarming suddenness. Her doctors didn’t know how to treat her illness because they didn’t know what the illness was. How or where she contracted it was never known. It was obviously an illness that came about through contact with one infected, rather than through the air. Had the lady led a secret life of some kind?
Lanier never touched the woman or her jewelry, so he escaped the illness. His mother forced him to abandon his profession as grave digger, however, as she suspected that Lemon’s and Drexel’s deaths had something or other to do with acts they performed on a dead body when nobody was around. The thought sickened her.
When Lanier was asked what Lemon and Drexel were doing on that last day in the cemetery that might have made them sick, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled his benign smile. They were always doing and saying things that didn’t interest him, he said. He was in another part of the cemetery tending to some flowers he had planted, minding his own business while other people minded theirs.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp