N. D. Coley
“Safety coffins addressed the primal fear of premature burial by incorporating design features such as air tubes, strings linking the body’s hands and feet to an above-ground bell, flag or lights and, for coffins installed in vaults, spring-loaded lids. Despite the rash of patents and production, there are no reported cases of the left-for-dead being saved by such contraptions.”
Ella Morton- “Scratchmarks on her Coffin: Tales of Premature Burial,” Slate, 2014.
Oh how I love that sound–the sweet, slow snips of the scissors against the rope. You may, I daresay, presume my senses to have gone too far, but listen: When I cut I can hear each fiber buckle, shake, and snap. You must be quick to notice it, for the waste of a moment, however insignificant, might be enough for you to miss it altogether, and once that rope is severed from the bell, that pathetic scrap of metal, those poor souls (ha ha!) will have no recourse. They will pull the string into their coffin and, if they have their wits, run a finger on the frayed pieces of rope, and know that the Almighty is now counting their breaths, one by one, His hand ready to open passage to eternal bliss, or the pit below.
Now, even in my present calamity, that sound is sole resident of my thoughts.
It was in the autumn of 1844 that I found myself in this post, tending to the dead, carving their final path to bliss or perdition, one shovel of dirt at a time. I was discharged from the military on account of my fondness for drink, though this was a loss for those fools, those infants who feel liberated by the constraints of a sober mind. That sort of mind, my friends, is of limited use. I learned, quite sooner in my youth than most, that intoxication is the surest path to the sublime.
With my coat turned backwards, and my breath reeking of whiskey, I was given my discharge papers, dropped outside camp, and compelled to find my way home. I’ve no doubt that my commanding officer tried to sentence me to death, figuring that I must stumble into a river and drown, or collapse into a ditch and, consuming my own vomit, be picked at by a parade of scavengers. Indeed. The old fool surely pictured my innards being pulled and stretched in the teeth or beak of some carnivore.
But he sentenced me to death for nothing, for I not only knew my way back, but had my own pool of connections along the way. For two days I lodged in the inn of a childhood friend, though was forced to part ways when he announced his business to be a place of temperance (Good luck to him!). I departed and, with only the slightest acts of persuasion, was able to speed my journey through the kindness of some merchants. I drank from their casks all the same. They would not notice. It is among the most perfected skills among our species: we are, especially in moments of sobriety, oblivious.
I bid the merchants goodbye when I arrived at the town of my youth, an insignificant blot on any map, and inquired as to how I could make myself useful. The inhabitants did not let me down, denying me every station for which I was qualified. My reputation had, once again, preceded me, and it was only when I threatened violence that I was stationed at the cemetery. I had no objections to this, as the conversations among the dead are far greater than those between the dull, wooden chatter of the living.
I ask you. With whom would you rather pour a drink? A man who has scribbled numbers in a bank record all day, or a man who has broken bread with the Devil himself?
My routine was a lovely one. I would pack a pipe, knowing how much the departed relished the burning of fine tobacco, and carry a lantern in one hand and, should there be the need, my shovel in the other. As the Almighty had seen it fit that man shall be saved through consumption and wheezing, I had more work than I could manage, and often found myself digging into the hours of the night.
This was the best time to sink a shovel into the dirt. A cemetery is a dormant, dreary thing in the daylight, but at night it is, for all of its store of corpses, more alive than anything on this earth. If you look at the right times, especially after popping a cork or two, you can see the apparitions, floating between the crosses and angels and markers, and oh— the songs that they sing! A choir of angels could not produce such chills, for there is nothing like the power of melancholy and song, especially among those who can no longer hope.
Forgive my rashness. There was hope for some, as it seems all of the education and prayer has not made our coroners and physicians more equipped than a common halfwit. I cannot say how many times I, while digging my way in the direction of hell, would hear a pounding in a freshly delivered coffin, only to find some poor soul, confused and half-starved of air, having been prematurely boxed up for the day of judgement. You should see how these idiots burst from their boxes! Their inhalations were desperate, even as they rolled on the ground and drew from the air.
As it happened, one day I was given an order from the local government. I was informed that a system of bells and ropes would be installed over each new grave. Should someone be trapped by the deception of a coma, or some other silent state, they could pull on the string, which would ring the bell, which would ordinarily be heard by me (though I did not attend to this all the time, as I am a busy gentleman!)
I complied with the new orders with much derision, as I do not see it fit to meddle in timing of the Almighty. If He has placed someone inside of a coffin, He has willed it. What good can from contrivances meant to halt the inevitable?
That autumn was unusually cold, with flurries of snow on the first of October. The leaves had died before it was time. It was that day that I learned that a certain military dignitary, an officer of sorts, had provoked something of a rebellion in his unit, and found his skull on the unfavorable end of a blunt object. He recovered from the blow, but, having taken ill in the hospital, succumbed thereafter to infection. He was to be buried in my cemetery. It was later that I learned that said officer was the very scoundrel who had sought to my discharge. I did not begrudge my current station. I simply reflected on how I would fashion the grave.
Listen. I have heard legends that say that if a man’s gave is dug too deep, that his soul will not ascend to the heavens, nor will it descend to hell. A poorly dug grave confuses the soul, leaving the spirit trapped in a mix of anticipation and dread. I confess I do believe it. It seems so to me.
I commenced digging the Commander’s grave. I dug deeply, and so much so that I had to fashion a taller ladder to ascend it. All the better for him, and again, I held no ill feelings against the man, though it was plain to me, as it would be to you, that he would be getting what he deserved.
Soon his body was deep in the earth, though I’ve no doubt that he was not enjoying the bliss of heaven (as if he could!) nor the torments of hell. He was in the worst of all places; cold, dark, impersonal, impenetrable solitude, where his only friends would be his thoughts. As deep as he was, his thoughts would betray him too.
It just so happened that, in the dark of the evening, the day of the burial, I was enjoying a moderate amount of drink at my hut, when I heard the sound. I nearly missed it beneath the howl of the wind and the cries of the ravens. It was a jingle—a sad, faint bell. It was most certainly that of the Commander. I journeyed to the site and confirmed. Ha! The fool had not succumbed to his infection at all!
But, it was his time.
I downed the remainder of my drink, tossed the bottle aside, and crouched down. I fixed my eyes on the bell as it jingled back and forth. The sound made me smile. I had been given something that cannot be purchased by those clothed in the finest silk and served the most exquisite of meats. Who, I ask you, would not pay to have the very power to decide between life and death? This was my power. In the grand allotment of heavenly powers, this was my partition. Do not think that I would squander such a thing.
I went back to the hut and, searching for drink and scissors, returned to the Commander’s grave. The bell continued to send its cry. I looked at it, much as a hunter might gaze upon some mortally wounded animal, took the scissors, and quickly cut the rope, letting to bell fall to the ground with a soft thump. The string disappeared into the earth. I took a hearty swig.
I then lowered my head to the ground and pressed my ear into the grass, and listened, and I swear by Heaven that I could hear an awful, muffled screaming. The ground shook, and I could feel the screams tunneling through the dirt, and my smiles were not those of a man drunk on vengeance, but of a man who knows that he has done that which is virtuous. I retained my position until, some 3 or 4 hours later, the screams had either stopped or were too faint to reach my ears. I settled into my cot and dreamed, and in those dreams I was given the gift.
As if I would warp the truth here! Of course it’s true! In my dream I was in the middle of the town square. I had discarded my shoes and let my feet soak in the fountain. My toes were cracked and blistered. The cold water felt welcoming. I scanned the scene around me, watching the usual business of the day: gentleman in snug suits and top hats, ladies bustling about, with babies tucked under one arm and packages in the other. There was a group of children that kept tossing a bone amongst themselves, much to the frustration of some shambling canine.
I do not know if I recall when, in the middle of the dream (if dreams can be said to have such things, as they are more like scattered pearls than a sequence of events) the sky suddenly turned red. My eyes gazed upon the heavens, and the sky was a deep red, almost a shade of black. Around me, the townsfolk had ceased their comings and goings. The canine had halted its barking, the giggles of the children were silent. If I had coughed it would have sounded like a keg of gun powder had been heaved into a flame. Everyone was silent and still. I could hear my own heartbea. A young lady, who had been saddled with parcels, let them drop to the ground. She approached me with the utmost caution, and as she got closer I could see that her eyes were somehow altered. What should have been white orbs dotted with pupils were just white, and the whites swirled as if they were small tempests, trapped inside her skull. I looked into those tempests and, in an instant, saw things that I cannot say to the living, at least with any efficacy—it would be like trying to say what a howl smells like. Does this strike you as nonsense? Even so, there is a fine line between nonsense and the sublime. In those eyes I saw everything.
Since that dream, I have been able to see how the guests in my graveyard had met the end of their earthly travels. Indeed, it was a gift that I had to seal in the vault of my lips, and I would be remiss if I did not admit to periodic pride. I remember, after my vision, the first time that I saw a corpse. I did not simply see the body, pale and drawn in, cold and shriveled. I saw the deathly event itself. Replayed. In my mind. I saw the rose colored checks of a farmer as a store of crops, all sealed in barrels, come tumbling out of a barn loft. I saw those rosy cheeks turn to crimson cheeks—a barrel had crushed the poor soul’s head. Clumps of brain and blood shot out the side and onto the ground. He grunted once and was silent.
In some ways this was a frustrating gift. I would know details, many, many details, but never full accounts. My gift was much like a shattered stained glass window. I would know the colors, and perhaps the general effect of the death, but there were always gaps. I would be able to say, “So and so will fall to this method of expiration,” or “Before the month is out, old age will have had its say on this one!” Such knowledge simply made my duties easier to plot out.
My gift was packaged with another benefit. If someone was put under my charge for burial, and I had no ghastly vision of their demise, I only had to draw upon the most fundamental powers of deduction. A corpse without a vision meant that it was only a corpse in appearance. Whether such souls were buried was at the mercy my judgement.
When one has the opportunity to play the role of God, do not think it an easy temptation to resist. Was it so difficult to be divine? I had never, after I had acquired my gift, seen a person placed within the earth who did not deserve it. A fair girl of no more than 19 lived a life of habitual infidelity, and on one of her numerous indiscretions, took a wrong turn in the woods and slipped into an abandoned well. A pathetic and inept gambler sought to poison his parents, no doubt to reallocate their fortune to his futile games, only to get drunk and ingest the poison set aside for his victims. A clergyman asked a modest favor from his young parishioners, who were compensated with his forced and unwanted passions.
I could lay out these examples up to the heavens, and perhaps crush the glorious realm with the weight of it all. My argument is plain: I have never buried a corpse that failed, by one means or another, to earn death. It is as if people live so that they might be cursed. Think not on the innocent faces that you might see in the pew or in the village commons. Behind the giggle of a child is a sneer. The deeds of an honest old woman are a cloaking mechanism for her intended robbery. I shall not speak further on these matters, but beware of the smiles of the innocent. They only render transgression all the more insidious.
And so—it was no hard task at all to presume that the living—those who did not invoke my gift—were a rather nice fit for their pine boxes. Indeed, it would have been more of a sin to sound the alarm and let them roam again.
Or would you rather have had your humble narrator increase the odds that rape, murder, theft, and violence would blossom among you? While God has slumbered during your frail petitions, I have kept you safe. You would do well to meditate on that thought before you unleash your arrows of condemnation.
The Commander’s bell was the first one that I cut, though my immediate dreams solidified the deed as a matter of daily routine. The premature burials would ebb and flow, and dead or alive, there was always a plot in which to sink my shovel. It was now January, some months after the commander had perished, when a sudden spike in premature corpses passed through my gates. By some stroke of luck, an extraordinarily dimwitted physician, a fat, stupid man with a flat skull and a round belly, was driven from his practice and into our village. Finding himself in a financial pit only achieved by the very worst betting men, he concocted an elixir for the purpose of preventing death by consumption. It was a relatively harmless concoction, though it did a fine imitation of the charms of death for 3 full days. The fool kept me with a fresh supply of premature burials. That the masses did not catch on immediately was unfortunate and expected. People are sheep who cannot be sheared.
And oh! What a marvelous thing it is to play a graveyard like a symphony—to dance lightly over the flattened, weedy grass, up and over the tombstones that offer remembrance of the past and warnings for the future. I skipped from one marker to the next, darting in and out of the shadows, under bare trees and through collapsed hedges. My scissors were my baton, and I was, as I had been born to be, among the most exquisite of conductors. Jingle-snip! Jingle-snip! I drank ferociously. I danced ferociously. I cut, and cut, and cut, and cut. I collected the bells, those precious bells, and placed them in my hut, underneath the mattress. Each one made an impression into my bedding, each one a pleasant, reassuring lump in my back.
I slept so very well.
If only it were still so! Not long after the fraudulent physician had been arrested and sent to trial, I went through an unusual drought of premature corpses, and those who came through my station were, in fact, dead. No inquiry was made into the missing bells on the gravesites, though I did not expect one. As a matter of routine, I removed them from a gravesite weekly. The growth in my bell collection, in the meanwhile, had ceased. My back ached, and the hours of my slumbered decreased, and, by degrees, transformed into nights of waking, sweating, and shaking. I was anxious and I knew not why. I feared for my life and was in no visible danger.
One night, as I replayed my infamous dream in my slumber (ah, as I did so often!), I was awoken by something like a whisper, though different in character. The sound of a whisper is, I think, the closest link that the living to the underworld. A whisper beckons the listener. It coaxes. It calls. When one hears a whisper, they can easily imagine tracing its path around corners and secret passages. No matter the distance, an astute listener can pursue such sounds to their destination. I confess that I, in the dampness and solitude of my evenings, had done this very thing. But those are other tales for another time.
What I heard was not a whisper, but like a whisper. It was soft, but (here you will think me insane) it had a glow to it. Upon hearing it, I could immediately picture a string of thick, radiant fog, curling its way into my hut and around my legs, and I had the dreadful feeling that it threatened to pull my entire person away.
I wiped my eyes and gazed at my feet, but there was nothing save for the two calloused, flat, clumsy fixtures that had carried me to and fro my whole life. The sound persisted. I put on my slippers, slid into my robe, and ventured out of my hut and into the rear of the cemetery. The phantom sound pulled me along. An onlooker would have supposed my movements to be deliberate and perhaps routine, though I controlled nothing. I went on, one foot after the other, with no choice in the matter. My robe was soaked in sweat. My heart pounded.
After some time, how much is hard to say, the phantom noise seemed to say, Turrrn arouuundd. I closed my eyes and wished it away (I dare not have prayed, as men who pretend to be God have no further business making a heavenly petition). The whisper persisted, and I turned.
In front of me was a grave that, in all the hours that I had tended to the plots, had never seen. I was so meticulous a worker that, even now, I could be blindfolded, and, without running my hands over an inscription, identify the grave markers by their very touch. This marker, however, was tall and deep. It was shaped in the likeness of a cross. The beam on the left was cracked and broken. The stone was of the most exquisite granite, and among the common, brittle graves of paupers, it seemed like a misplaced relic from another time. A cloud of mist curled around the bottom, and in front, next to a dark, unreadable inscription, was a bell. It was larger than the ones I used, at least by 3 or 4 times, and it appeared to emit its own gentle, silver light. To this day I am still not sure what I fancied was a rare kind of firefly.
It was then that a cold hand lay on my shoulder, though it would be better to say that it was a bony, an icy, skeletal hand. Bumps popped up, rapidly, one after another, on my skin, and my heartbeat increased with such rapidity that I felt as if I no longer had a heartbeat at all. Maybe I did not. A plot of graves can do strange things to living men.
What happened next might not, dear reader, be in your power to believe, though remember this: belief does not make something so, nor does it make that which is so, not so. Belief is respite for the mind and is not binding on reality, or to put it plainly, I know what I saw, and your opinion on the matter is no matter.
As my skin froze over, the bony hand on my shoulder pressed into my skin, and it was almost as if I could feel drops of purple blood pushing their way to the surface. I breathed and thought about my heartbeat, but felt nothing. I closed my eyes, and that’s when I felt the distinct, rough texture of bone on my cheek; the skull of something horrid, no doubt, some poor being that had since forfeited its flesh to the worms of the earth. We are all reduced to bones. Even you, dear reader.
A person of less control and heightened emotion would have, without question, allowed the senses to become overwhelmed, resulting in a fit of shrieking and flailing more ghastly than any apparition; whatever you might think of my demeanor or readiness, know this. I have never allowed fear to have its way with me.
I concentrated on my breathing and relaxed my hands. The skull pressed further against my cheek, and it stank of waste and rotten flesh. Just as I resolved not to let out a cry or a jerk, it spoke, perhaps in that mock whisper that had drawn me so deep into the graves.
Ting, Ting, Tinggggggggggh. Ting, Ting, Tingggggggggh.
My head rose, and I did not immediately realize that the skeletal hand had moved from my shoulder to my chin. It cradled it gently and titled my gaze upward. In front of me, it appeared that a gathering of fireflies was assembling around the cross, but no. This was wrong! It was not a cluster of insects. My vision was of the kind one might find in the fiercest of predators, those who hunt in the dead of night. The glowing insects were bells, the very same bells that I had tied and snipped. The apparition chanted, and I came close to fear when, having digested the sounds and syllabus in my mind, I realized that I knew that sound, that voice. I had heard it a hundred times over—scolding me, berating my character, lamenting my existence, mocking my appearance, making jokes of my wits.
This was the voice of my commander.
He nudged his skull into my cheek in perfect rhythm, much as a cat might do in a plea for food. In front of me his other hand, white as white and frail as I have ever seen pointed to the bells, which were gathered in a tight formation, much like I was used to in my military days, and oh how they glowed! If anyone else had been there that night they might have presumed there to be a graveyard wedding.
The commander’s finger pulled back in a beckoning motion, and the swarm advanced. He pulled back again, and the swarm advanced, and he did so until the bells were not more than a few inches from my eyes. I could hear the light from the bells pulse. My face felt warm, and I could hear the voices. Oh how each bell cried out! I heard the wails of men and women. The ones who had been buried alive and been sentenced to die. I confess that, for a brief instant, I questioned the appropriateness of my actions. The thought was fleeting, and I stamped it out immediately. It is a painful thing to do the right thing, and all the more hurtful to hear the consequences of a noble decision. Those who mourn would do well to think about the difficulty of making the kinds of choices reserved for Heaven. I knew those choices well. Heaven carved out that choice for me. It was mine.
With no permission from my will, my mouth opened wide. The Commander’s hands formed a circle around my gaping lips, and in a one swoop, the bells launched into my mouth, clinking off my teeth and thudding into my throat and down to my stomach. I gagged and clenched my teeth, one of them cracked and lodged itself under my tongue, and I gagged again. My stomach felt as if I had swallowed the whole of the earth. I tried to vomit and could not. I dropped to my knees.
And that’s when I saw it. A grave so perfect in shape and so black in tone, that I knew that I could not have dug it. Not myself. It did not bear the imperfection of a shovel dug by human hands, and if you have never seen anything blacker than black, my words cannot help you. I have never succumbed to fear, but I know the look of it. It was there, in and under that blackness.
I scarcely had time to process another thought before the Commander’s hands were evenly pressed into my back, and then I was moving, gliding, falling down and into that darkest of pits. It swallowed me, and I let it. The contents of my stomach turned, and my insides felt as if they had been set aflame. I expected to hit ground and did not, and I tumbled and tumbled, turning around.
I woke in what was, I safely presume, a standard coffin. My shoulders were broad and squeezed into the sides. I pounded the top with my fist, making a soft and ineffectual thud. I was, however, able to breathe, and so this prevented panic from taking root. I collected my thoughts and wiggled to the left, and to the right. I wiggled backwards and felt nothing. I nudged my head, but no coffin wall was found. I wiggled, a fraction of an inch at a time, over a matter of hours. I was convinced that, by my manner of progress, that there was nothing to wall me in at the point of my head.
It is hard to say when my body fell backwards and out of the coffin, but my movements were suddenly free. I rolled over and kept crawling. I was in a tunnel of some kind, no doubt dug far below the graves. I crawled until I hit a wall in the earth, which become a turn. I followed that and the tunnel turned again, and again, taking lefts and rights at seemingly random intervals, and I stopped when, ahead of me, I noticed the glow of candle light. I quickened my pace and made that light my prized possession.
At last I approached it, and I was astounded to see a room that was, by all appearance, very much like my own gravedigger’s hut. In one corner was my mattress, flat and torn, and stained brown. A writing desk sat in the opposite corner, and on that a candle, a stack of parchment, and a pen. Unlike my hut, however, there were no windows or doors. The tunnel behind me was the only way out, and I had no intention of retreating to my grave. It was not my day to die.
I could restrain my emotions no longer, and I raised my voice not out of fear, but much in the same way that a foreman might yell in order to increase efficiency. I screamed in earnest. I shook my fists and cursed. I stomped and pleaded. I made all manner of noise. You must understand that I had no choice. I had to plead for my release, just as any man would.
As I am merely another mortal strapped to a pile of bones, my energy was soon exhausted. I gathered my composure and walked over to the writing desk, and there, next to the stack of parchment, was a note penned in clean, cursive lettering:
Tell your story.
Like a madman driven towards a well of obsession, I sat down and penned this very account. I wrote until I sweat and my hand cramped. My stomach, heavy and sick, craved food, and the bells therein rolled gently. My mouth was dry with thirst. My knees ached. At length I finished. I dotted the last line with a period, and placed the pen back in the ink. As if it were some kind of dream, the parchment vanished, by slow degrees, and only moments later, the notecard went blank. Then, as if an invisible hand were writing, new script appeared. It read:
It was then that, after my labors, I might have partaken the nectar of fear, a small but powerful sense of dread that compelled me to take up the pen again and tell this very account, from the very beginning, but in a different manner. I simplified my lexicon and made short goings of my thoughts. I finished, placed the pen back in the ink, and waited. The note when blank and reappeared:
And so I did, and have been, without end, and have lost track of more hours than I can count. I feel as if I have eclipsed eternity. If you read this, dear friend, you have read (if my counts are correct) the 800th version of this tale. And here I sit, in the dark, merging my own thoughts with the cries of the dead. I fear that, by degrees, my story will shift, much like grains of sand get pulled into the sea. I will write as long as I have to, until the howls of the deceased break me and push me into madness. And even then, I will write.
This place will not be my grave. It will not be my partition.
N.D. Coley currently serves as an instructor of English at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Community College of Allegheny County, and the University of Phoenix. His work has recently appeared in Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey, Deadlights Horror Fiction Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Corner Bar Magazine, Jakob’s Horror Box, Massacre Magazine, Funny in Five Hundred, and Crack the Spine. In his spare time, he laments the human condition, reads satire and dark, depressing literature, plays with his son, irritates is wife, and tries to keep a smile on his face. You can irritate him at firstname.lastname@example.org.