Whistle by the Graveyard


 

Hey!

Yeah, I’m talking to you!  Come on over here, and I’ll tell you something that happened when I was ten years old……….

Yeah, I’m Junior Hoffman, and you heard right. I’m an old codger. 96 last Spring. I’m the oldest man in Sandbell County. That lyin’ sap-sucker George Tucker said that he was, but he wasn’t. Had him beat by a day. And anyways, he got struck by lightening two months ago, right in his own front yard while he was cussing at the mailman. So, now, I’m definitely the oldest man in Sandbell County.

So, you’re settled comfortable now? Well don’t be comfortable for long. This story is gonna scare the bejesus out of you. Worse part is, I ain’t no good storyteller. This story is just plain true.

You know how some folks like to act tougher than what they are? Like they ain’t scared of nothin’, right? Well, let me tell you. Comes a time when someone like that meets up with something they can’t understand nor figure out. And that’s what happened with Jill Ledbetter and Paul James. What they learned sure took the ‘tough’ right outta them. Sure did.

It was about June, I think. School had just got out and most of us was working in the fields for our Daddies and such. I had been since it had gotten hot, which as you know, in Florida is about always. So, I didn’t manage to go to school much. But I always hated sitting still, so being out in the fields suited me just fine.

I was takin’ a break and drinking some water that my Mam had put some sugar and lemon in. It don’t sound like much, but man, you put a top on that stuff in a mason jar and cool it in the creek, you’ll find it sure hits the spot. But, I was telling you that story. You don’t care about cold sugar water that you can’t taste the like of anymore, anyhow do you? No, of course not. So, here’s what happened.

You see there was this old graveyard, Mabsey’s, just off the side of town, where nobody who had good sense ever went after dark. Nobody much went there in the daylight. Weird things happened there. Bad things. At night there were lights where they ought not to be lights, and sounds too. Sounds you wouldn’t expect from a graveyard.

No one had been put there for ages. It was an old Indian burial ground. Then a few folks who came over from other places. I think some Spaniards, and old time colonial folks. Well, that yard got full right quick, and someone had the smart thought to put a fence all around it and leave it alone, except for a gate that nobody used, cause no one ever wanted to go in there.

There was a story about how this little gal went in there daily to sit at the grave of her feller, one of the boys who fell down fighting for us at Gettysburg against them Yankees. She just about grieved herself down to nothin over that poor old boy. Then, one day, she wasn’t there no more. Or sorta wasn’t.

She’d sing his favorite song “Listen to the Mockingbird” over his tombstone. Folks coming by at the time she was there got used to hearing it. But then, she wasn’t there anymore, and folks still  heard the song. They just didn’t see anyone there singing.

Then, some no-goods from Mecklin country came over and decided to throw a drunk out at the graveyard. No particular reason, just up to no good. They showed up, sat on a few stones, and started out to have a good time. The next morning, the liquor, hardly touched, was there. They weren’t. No one ever saw them again. But plenty was heard of them. Every once in a while, you’d hear them fellers beggin and pleading to be ‘let out.’

So, the graveyard became a thing to be let alone, and pretty much walked a round circle around. I was just like the rest. I was working for my Daddy, and he said if we brought in a good harvest, he’d give me a dollar bill to spend any way I liked. Now, this was when 16 dollars would buy my Mam a brand new cook stove. I was planning every durned day out in that heat what I was gonna do with my riches.

Well, here came Jill Ledbetter and Paul James, laughing and full of beans.

They liked to spend time together, and not cause they was sweet on each other, neither. It was cause they were mean as two snakes in a flour bag, and that was just separately. Put them two together, and there was bound to be trouble. The two were in the same grade, and if they weren’t givin’ each other idears about how to trouble another kid or the schoolmarm, they were laughing about what they did or what they was gonna do, you know.

That day, they was headed my way. I stood in the corn, hoping they wouldn’t see me. Part of why I didn’t like school was the way they lit into me and the other kids who hadn’t grown enough to fight ’em. I knew that me not bein’ in school wouldn’t slow ’em down none. Sure enough, they were talking about payin’ me a visit.

“Let’s grab some eggs and hide ’em….and when they get good and rotten……” Jill was saying.

“Or maybe some dewberries….they’d never come out of that one shirt he never seems to take off….” Paul was sayin’ back……

That day, something just got hold of me, and I decided to take a chance with these two old bullies of the schoolyard. “Ya’ll don’t wanna fool with me, like that.” I said, coming out of my hiding place.

“Yeah?” Paul said, rearing up to the height that made him the most feared kid in the grammar school. I just about lost my nerve. What was I gonna say? What could I come up with to take their attention away from tormenting me?

Then, like the lightening that struck that old lying George Tucker deader than a doornail, the idea hit me. “I bet ya’ll won’t whistle when you walk by Mabsey’s graveyard.”

“What?” Jill said, laughing in a way that made her pretty face, well…ugly. “Who cares about old Mabsey’s graveyard. Just old hoodlums and Indians burried there. No one cares about it.”

I had to think fast. “Well, I heard that whatever you do when you walk by there at midnight, the graveyard….or something in it, will do back.

The two cohorts looked blank for a minute, minds off whatever misery they planned to add to the berry and egg stoning they had in had in mind for me. “Who told you this, kid?” Paul asked, stepping a foot closer than I would have liked.

I was stuck. You see, I was lyin’ a blue streak. I gulped hard. “Why, I heard it myself. I was walkin’ by it on the way home last night. I was whistling as I walked by, so I wouldn’t be scared. And something in there whistled back. Like it was callin’ for me.”

I knew it all sounded stupid, gushing out, but I was trying to save my hide from a good pummeling from Paul at this point. One that I knew Jill would help him do. And I might try to hit Paul, but my Mam told me to never hit a girl, even a mean one.

Jill squinted her bright green eyes at me, and considered what I said. “Don’t believe you a bit.” She said. Then, she looked at Paul. “I think we should put him in a sack, and tie it up and put him in there to stay the night. Maybe something in there would eat him the way it ate up them bunch of drunks that camped there. Remember?”

“Ummm hummm.” Paul said, considering. “It whistled, you said? Like it wanted you to come to it?”

“Sure did.” I said, wondering how long it would take my Daddy to think of looking for me in a tied up burlap sack in a haunted graveyard.

“I’m gonna try it. In fact, I’m gonna go right at midnight and try it” He said, surprising the heck out of me. “But if nothing happens, get ready to like living in a burlap sack.”

Well, that night, I went home, ate dinner, and told Mam and Daddy I was sick to my stomach and could I go to bed early. Since I don’t normally take on like that, they let me. Mam came and checked on me before they went to sleep. I climbed out the window and ran to the graveyard, wondering if Jill and Paul would come. I wasn’t much at telling time, sides’ looking at the moon, and listening for the church-bell and countin. And they was a little late. But, just after midnight, both of them came. Jill first, then a minute later, Paul.

I hid behind a tree near the fence of Mabsey’s scared to be so close, but still watchin. I knew nothing was gonna happen like what I said would happen, but I wondered if something else would…….

Paul started up the whistling first. He walked one time the whole length of the weathered old fence, and then back, whistling up a storm. Jill joined him, her own girlish whistle.

“See, nothing….I told you….I….” Jill was saying. But then, from somewhere within, a sound was heard.

“You hear that?” Paul whispered.

“Shut up.”

“Listen!”

The whistle, sounding somewhat cheerful came from the back of the burying ground. Those two bullies, so quick to pound fear into others, seemed to freeze where they stood. Then, they recovered. They began to whistle back, again walking up and down in front of the graveyard.

The whistle, closer this time, got louder. And had a strange quality to it. Even I wanted to leave the safety of my hiding place and get closer to listen. I thought of the story my Mam told me about a pied piper leading children plum out of town….she told me that story when I was a little feller. I liked it and made her tell me it again and again. I wondered why I thought of it now.

Then, I saw Paul, as if being pulled by something walk towards the rarely used gate of the cemetery. Jill tired to grab at him. “Stay away from there. It could be anything. Watch, I’ll throw something at it. It’ll stop!”

She grabbed some rocks and threw it at the sound of the whistling, which was quite close by this time. The source of the whistling nowhere to be found. When Jill threw them, out of pure idiotic defiance, she began to whistle, loud. “See there, I can do it too!” She hollered.

The whistling was so loud by this time that it was hurting my ears. I looked and saw that Paul had begun to move, quickly towards the gate, though it was clearly not his idea. He had gone into the cemetery. And then, he was just gone. Poof. Like he’d never been there. Jill, half her defiance gone by the sight of that, tried to run, but couldn’t seem to use her feet the way she wanted. The whistle took on a new tone, one that sounded charming, mysterious, compelling. And she moved towards the cemetery….and was gone.

It was all I could do not to follow them. The pull from the whistling was so hard that it was like being gripped with the fever and ague. You just don’t feel in control of yourself. I grabbed onto that tree I was hiding behind with all my strength and started saying the bedtime prayer Mam taught me, but that I usually forgot to say. Suddenly, the sound was gone. Shaking to my toes, I took off, ran home, and woke up Mam and Daddy.

They was too shocked by my crazy story to be mad at me for leaving home in the middle of the night, and they came out to Mabsen’s. The gate was in place, as if nothing had happened….except for one thing…..skid marks up to it, as if the kids had truly been pulled into the place by some huge force. The marks of the struggle stopped just inside the yard…and there was nothing there.

“Now this don’t mean nothing. Boy, are you playing a joke? I’ve got a razor strap that will cure that…” Daddy said. But Daddy knew I didn’t tell wild tales. He went into town and stopped at Jill’s house, and then Pauls. Both kids weren’t in their beds.

Now, they were bullies. And none of us other kids ever missed ’em to be sure. But nothing was ever found of either of them. Except, about a month later, one of Jill’s shoes…….near an old grave.

Now, I’m here to tell you. 96 years old, and never heard of such anywhere else………except that in the years since, a few others have tried it…..walking by and whistlin’. And these were grown folks that ought to have known better. No one ever saw anymore of them neither.

It’s a bad place, Mabsey’s. So, why am I telling you? Cause someone will, sometime or another. And you look like a kid that likes to take a dare. You say you’re gonna try it? Well, son, I’m here to tell you, you’ve been warned.

I’m the oldest man in this county. I didn’t get that way by doing foolish stuff….you better listen to me and not do it…….

Well, durned if he didn’t go. But I’ll tell you folks readin’ this story. If you walk by Mabsen’s tonight or some other time, you better not whistle at the graveyard.

Chances are, likely as not, you’ll probably get a response.

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Reach Out


 

The heart does not change

Tho the body withers ’round us

Forever eternal–that which is basic, just and true.

If the mirror shines Christ outward

In the things we say and do.

The heart cannot reflect outward

What was never there to start

The changeless, that which is interchangable

With the soul’s outstretched arms

And the heart, which is eternal

Creates beauty across life’s canvas

The heart, it is eternal

And it is the sea of life

For therein lies both deceit and truth

Sin and that which is forgiven

That discarded and that which is used

Look past the outward beggar

To see the prince within

For we are all ragged beggars

In need of grace which transcends

Look past the destitute widow

The aged, the orphan or the infirm

To see the ageless heart within

Look past what you see on the surface

And seek to make a friend

“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35, NIV

‘Dem Bones


      

 Roscoe Tanner wasn’t a superstitious man, but there was clearly something funny going on at his funeral home.

 He’d been the owner of Newville Eternal Rest for some 40 years. He’d conducted matters in a discreet, professional, and somewhat detached fashion all that time. Folks who knew him said he made the perfect funeral home director and mortician. Never seemed to raise an eyebrow at anything. No one, as the commercial said, ever saw him sweat.

Til the Ramer situation.

George Ramer was part of probably the most famous romance in Proctor country. He had fallen in love with his equally devoted wife, Lucille, when they were in kindergarten. He’d proposed, in 2nd grade. Then again, each grade school year, until they were old enough to be taken seriously by both families. They married the day after high school graduation. For the next 30 years, if you saw George, you pretty much saw Lucille, or vice versa. Or you saw one hurrying to be near the other.

It was a charming situation, and there was not the hint of marital discord. Never the time immemorial hints in voice and attitudes that alerted folks that all was not well within a marriage. The two just seemed to devotedly love one another, forsaking all others for 30 blissful years.

Then, George Ramer had a heart attack, right in the middle of his Jaycees meeting at Sullivan’s diner, downtown. He was probably dead by the time he hit the floor.

Lucille was bereft, saying that she never thought she would lose him so suddenly, with no time for goodbyes.

There was but the one funeral home in Newville, and so that is where George Ramer’s body went. Or at least, seemed to. The strange things started happening right after he was laid out in a fine black suit that Lucille lovingly picked out for him. She’d put a sachet with her perfume on it, and a locket of her hair in the casket, in his hand. Kissed his cheek tenderly, and leaning on her best high school girl friend, Elsie Morgan, had left the place for home.

But then, so had George.

Roscoe was getting everything in order for the viewing the next day, and just happened to go by George’s coffin. He’d thought that he’d done an especially fine job on George, and decided to peek in and examine his handiwork.

But George wasn’t there.

The sachet was there. The lock of hair was there. But only indentations in the pillow and a cast aside blue silken blanket were left in the coffin. And he’d been there maybe an hour before.

Roscoe had never had this happen before. He tried not to panic. He tried to think what in the world could have happened to this upstanding citizen’s embalmed body. Just as he pondered calling Sheriff Wilson Dudley who was his friend and Lion’s club brother, the phone rang, sounding so loud and unexpected that Roscoe, always at ease in this house of the dead, jumped and gave a tiny sound of alarm.

It was Lucille. George, had apparently been found. At home.

It was hard to get the whole story out of her, because she was pretty much hysterical. She’d had dinner at Dairy Queen with Elsie Morgan and then, rejecting her invitation to spend her first few days of widowhood at her home, had gone home.

She’d found the front door slightly opened, which troubled her. But she chalked it up to forgetting from being distraught. Because Newville had little or no crime, didn’t think of an intruder being there. Even one that she’d never ever expect.

But someone was there. George, her beloved, still at eternal rest, but looking quite comfortable in his favorite Lazy boy recliner. Lucille screamed, and screamed again.

Then, she called the funeral home. Roscoe was at the home with the hearse within ten minutes. He had no idea what was going on, and Lucille could not explain it either. George, being stone cold dead, was offering no ideas to help them.

Clearly, he could not have stepped over the side of his coffin, left the mortuary, and gone home. Dead people, in Roscoe’s experience, just weren’t that energetic.

Off to the funeral home went George in the hearse, Roscoe driving. Lucille, thinking twice about her friend’s invitation, called her and told her she’d gladly take her guest bedroom for a few days.

“I can’t believe that!” Elsie said, when hearing the strange story. “It would be the meanest thing anybody could do, wouldn’t it.”

Lucille, wiping tears away, nodded. “Who would do it? George loved everybody. And I don’t think I have any enemies in this town.”

“Of course you don’t, Darlins” Elsie said, using her odd endearment that she’d called Lucille by for over 30 years of friendship. “It has to be some…well…unhinged person to do a thing like this. I’m glad you’re staying with me for awhile.”

The two tried to calm down by watching some TV and playing bridge. Then, when that only helped a little bit, Elsie produced some white wine and sternly prescribed it to Lucille, Darlins, for ‘good sleep.’ Lucille, still very shaken, didn’t have to be really pushed. She had three glasses.

And normally, a tee-totter, she quickly fell asleep in the warm guest bedroom of her childhood friend. At about three in the morning, something woke Lucille.

She opened her eyes, and realized she was bone cold. She hadn’t been when she went to sleep. Elsie was very cold-natured, and even in the summer, which it was, sometimes ran the heat. It had actually been pretty stiffling when she’d gone to sleep, but somewhat tipsy, Lucille had barely taken note of it. Yet, now, it felt like she was lying next to a block of ice………..

Her screams woke Elsie, Elsie’s neighbors on both sides, and the Wilsons on the back of the property, all from sound sleep. The screams were awful, bloodcurdling. And when Elsie got to the bedroom, and saw the source, she joined her.

There was George, still just as dead as he had been before, lying in bed next to where Lucille had been sleeping. Actually, seeming to be next to her in the manner of a husband wanting to cuddle with his wife in sleep. His arms, of course, hadn’t been around her, but the coldness that Lucille had felt had been from the very closeness with which his chilled corpse was lying, his chest against her back.

Roscoe Tanner was woken from a sound sleep by his friend, Sheriff Wilson Dudley, and his friend wasn’t looking very happy. In fact, he was looking pretty stern. “Something bad is going on here, brother.” Dudley said to him.

The two stood in Roscoe’s hall, and talked about the newest thing. “Can you think of anyone who would have a reason to torment Lucille this way?” Dudley asked.

“No. This is beyond bizarre. Could there be fingerprints?” Roscoe asked.

“On a corpse? Not likely. But its an idea. Maybe on the coffin. But not the doors. Everybody and his cousin walks in there. We’d have to question the whole town.” “Well, we gotta find out. This is past being a mean prank. Poor Lucille looked like she was about to have a heart attack herself. No point in them having twin funerals.”

George was again taken to his coffin, and the Sheriff personally dusted for fingerprints. Some were found, but they belonged to Roscoe, who had to have his on file due to his job. Others were found, but were assumed to be of the mourners, because nothing came up on the searches. This ruled out criminal mischief, it seemed. Or did it?

Lucille didn’t sleep the rest of the night, and Elsie didn’t either. The neighbors, stayed with the two frightened ladies, and greeted the sunrise together. And George didn’t make any return visits to Elsie’s.

The next morning, Lucille, nervously went to the funeral home, and sat beside her husband’s occupied coffin. From time to time, she’d reach in and pat his still hand, and tell him what had been going on since his last breath. Grief and shock about the actual death came back, and Lucille’s thoughts went to how she’d miss him. How she wasn’t sure how she’d be able to manage without her beloved George.

She went out for lunch, and came back to see the Sheriff’s Expedition in front of the funeral home. A nameless terror seized her, and she, with more quickness than most middle aged women knew, ran into the establishment, and to where Roscoe and the Sheriff stood.

George was there, thankfully, in his coffin, but the two men looked very troubled. They turned to her, and their expressions made her wonder. “Lucille, where were you the last hour?” The Sheriff asked her, somewhat sternly.

“Why, I was….at Padgetts Drug Store. I got something to eat.”

 “Could Rick Padgett confirm that?” Sheriff Dudley asked, something about his tone making ice grow in her heart.

 “Why would he? Well, no, he couldn’t. But that new soda counter clerk, Zoe….Bill Phillips’ girl could….why do you ask?”

“Well, George here almost eloped again.” The Sheriff said, bluntly.

 “Is there something you’re not telling us? Roscoe asked

“What do you mean?”Lucille asked, and then it hit her. “You don’t think I could be removing him, do you? That’s crazy! George is….was five inches taller than me and over 50 pounds bigger!Look at me, do you think I could lug him out of his coffin and all over town?Why would I do it even if I could?”

“Easy, Lucille.” Roscoe said, using his most calming tone. “It’s just this is strange, and we just don’t know why it keeps happening. This time, he was found in the chair next to door here, and the door wide open when we got back from Lion’s club. I always leave the door locked when I am gone. Always have.”

 “So, you’re accusing me, his wife? I’ve sat with him all day….I…”

“No one is accusing you, Lu.” Sheriff Dudley said. “It’s just damn strange, that’s all. For a dead fellow, he’s the busiest one I’ve ever saw….oh, Hon, I’m sorry, don’t cry.”

The men spent the next hour calming down the widow, and assuring her that they didn’t think she was a grave-robber before the fact. By that time, folks had started coming to pay their respects, and a few, having heard the story, and variations that had gotten progressively more wild, to view the corpse. The funeral home was pretty much packed the rest of the evening.

That night, when the last guest signed the guest book, Lucille was again, alone by her husband’s side. Roscoe was in the office next to the room, and heard her talking to him, but couldn’t hear the words. He was planning to close the place, and was exhausted. He wondered, given the extreme circumstances, how to gently encourage the widow to leave. He finally decided to just tell her to come back the next day, and he’d let her have as much time before the funeral as she wanted to sit with George.

Still, he felt worse than a scalded dog in doing this, and stared at the ground as he walked towards the viewing room. And it was because of this that his eyes fell on the piece of paper on the ground. It was a folded piece of stationary. It hadn’t been there before, or had it? It was beside the chair where George had been found sitting after lunch. Maybe in all the confusion, they just hadn’t seen it.

Roscoe picked up the paper and opened it. The writing was a man’s writing, not a woman’s…all block letters and somewhat messy, but easily legible.

 “My Darling,

I missed you so much last night that I had to find you. I’m sorry I upset you. I told you the day I married you that nothing would separate us. I will never, ever leave you.”

I love you eternally,

Your George”

Feeling like he’d stepped into a second rate horror film, Roscoe read the note again. Then, once more. Started to wad it in his pocket, then thought about it. Whoever wrote it was the one moving George’s body. If they could find the identity of the writer, they could stop this. And, in the meantime, the Sheriff had put deputies outside all exits of the home. George’s traveling companions would not come for him this night, if the authorities could help it.

 He walked into the room where Lucille, leaning over the casket was stroking George’s hair. Even in death, George had a great head of fire-red hair. Roscoe, bald from his late twenties felt a pang of jealousy.

“Lucille, I don’t want to trouble you further….but.” The widow looked up, her reddened blue eyes taking in Roscoe’s discomfit.

“Oh, it is late. I need to let you get out of here…what’s that?” She pointed to the note in his hand.

Roscoe looked down, and cursed himself for not wadding it into his pocket. “It’s a letter. Hey, you’re a teacher, or you were til last year. Would you recognize, say a student’s handwriting, if it wasn’t too long ago?”

 “Might could. But, I graded a lot of papers, Roscoe. What is it?”

Roscoe handed the letter to her, figuring she couldn’t get more upset than she already was. She read the note, color draining from her face. Then, she started to shake. For a moment, Roscoe thought she was going to pass out.

“Lucille? Who wrote that? You know the handwriting?” Lucille nodded, her eyes wide with fear, and knowledge.

“Roscoe….that’s George’s handwriting. He wrote it.”

Two hours later, again with the Sheriff and Roscoe gently talking to her and trying to reason, Lucille was not persuaded. George made his O’s with a line upwards, making them look like B’s. George wrote in that right-handed slant, even though he was left handed. George had written her love-letters every few days during their entire married life. He always started them by calling her “ My Darling.”

“Can I stay here for a bit longer, with the two of you gone?” She asked the men.

 “Ah, I can’t imagine what good that would do, but sure, go ahead.”Roscoe said finally. Just pull the door closed and it will automatically lock behind you.”

 The two men left her, and Lucille turned to the man she’d been married to for 30 years, had loved for 12 years more than that and said gently. “Honey, we need to talk.”

The next day, the funeral went off without a hitch. George made no further excursions. Lucille bore up well. The days that followed, passed without any new strange events. Folks stopped talking about it. Lucille went to the cemetery daily and often spent hours there. As time passed, people just noted that she was a devoted widow, and sometimes talked about how much the two loved each other, but in time even that was forgotten.

Five years later, Lucille met a fellow from Camden, the town over. He was a retired pharmacist, and quite a nice looking man to be in his early sixties. He asked her to dinner. She accepted. They had a nice date, and she allowed him to walk her to the door. He gave her a kiss on the cheek, and asked to see her again. Lucille agreed.

She turned to see her door was a bit ajar. Feeling a bit unnerved, she pushed the door open and looked in. This time, she seemed to sense what she would see, and wasn’t terrified, nor did she scream.

In the recliner that her husband favored, was the weathered skeleton of George. Traces of the bountiful red hair still there. At his feet a note. It was one word.

“Why?”

Lucille, feeling somewhat bold, went to her husband’s chair and to what remained of him.

“George, you have to let me go.” She said tenderly. “Don’t you want me to be loved again? Be cherished again? No one could do it as well as you, but will you give me that chance?”

And though it was hard, she bent down and kissed the red hair, which still had traces of red mud from the cemetary on it. “You always were a persistent man, George. I guess I never knew you were stubborn too. Go back now. Let me go.”

She went to the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee, noting that her hands were shaking. A tear fell from her eye and hit the counter next to her coffee cup.

And in the next room, she heard the door to the house gently close.