Halloween Fiction: The Gravedigger’s Son

Sleepy Hollow, 1790.

Wakker worden, Issac. Wake up!” says Issac’s father with an unusual urgency, rocking his son violently with hands calloused and caked with earth.

“We hebben een klus te klaren. Come on, son -”

Issac stirs. He opens his eyes to find his father, August de Graaf, towering over his makeshift cot: drenched in clay and soaked to the bone, his father’s long hair dangles unkempt; his face, craggy and hollow in the lambency.

“- come now.” says his father. “This one can’t wait for sunrise, mijn zoon.”

As De Graaf turns to light his pipe, Issac’s eyes follow the trail of leaves and dirt on the floor to the far corner. There, leaning against a trunk, stands one of his father’s pickaxes – covered in fresh mud.

***

With a plain pine casket in their hands, August and his son tread across the path ungainly – their only light through the fog, a single lantern balanced on the coffin and the harvest moon anchored overhead.

Issac was barely strong enough at his age to lift the back end of a casket, but this evening his father told him to take the front end instead, for reasons he did not elaborate on. According to tradition, a corpse must be carried feet first. Thus, August led the way. The further they trudged from their wagon, the more mired they were in the bog of the burial grounds. Truth be told, Issac’s father was never one for conversation, but tonight, he might as well have been mute. Gravestone to gravestone, they made their way in silence – barring some early crowing and the gentle rumblings from a distant storm…

The old Dutch church to the east was like a second home to Issac. Sloped against the hillside like it had broke from the earth, a crooked tree; the church was one of the oldest in the colonies, but tonight it hardly looked familiar: cutting a long, haunting shadow across the yard, this spire of faded planks and cobblestone offered neither invitation to parishioners, nor escape from the autumn gloom.

They approach an unmarked grave, neatly dug with the shovels still present.

“Father, why must we bury it before sunrise?” whispers Issac.

The senior De Graaf lowers the casket beside the grave cut. “Here,” he says under his breath softly, “gently, Issac.”

Folklore says it is imperative to whisper around the dead, so you don’t wake them. But in this particular case, it was far too late for that:

The casket knocks from within, a single quake. They jump in fright, their hearts racing.

“What was that, father!?”

“Possession beyond death, like the others.” says August, his nerves betraying an otherwise calm appearance. “A wayward soul must be buried.”

Thud! The casket rocks again, a clear knocking of a fist. And again. Thud! The lantern falls off the coffin. Thud! Thud! The two bolts holding the coffin closed begin to show signs of stress. Thud!

“They must be near,” says his father, looking to afar with concern. He pulls a crumpled psalm from his inner pocket, reading it with panic in his voice.

<< … Brother, thou art gone before us,
And thy saintly soul is flown … >>

Thud! The coffin rattles once more.

<< … Where tears are wiped from every eye,
And sorrow is unknown.
From the burden of the flesh,
And from care and fear released, >>

“Father, look!” Issac says, pointing to the north where a line of figures – a cavalry of sorts – emerges from the syrupy fog. “The Headless Monks!!”

They ride atop the darkest of stallions; strange cephalophores, adorn in tyrian robes. Unsheathing enchanted blades to cut through the abyss, jack-o’-lanterns in hand.

<< … Where the wicked cease from troubling,
And the weary are at rest. >>

Nudging himself in front of his son protectively, August drops his psalm. He pulls a pistol from his pocket, his hands shaking as he pours gunpowder down the barrel.

“We’re outnumbered, father.” says Issac. “We should run. They won’t stop until they get their convert. The body belongs to the Papal Mainframe now.”

“Wait… how do you know so much about them?” says August, confused.

“I learnt about them in school.” Issac says innocently. “This is how they recruit; they take the head of the converted to the Seventh Transept.”

“Seventh Transept!?” says August incredulously. “I’m sorry, Issac. I didn’t want to tell you this yet, but that… that is your schoolteacher -”

Issac’s father points to the rattling casket.

“- poor Mister Crane.”

“No not Mister Crane, the Doctor – our schoolmarm, the substitute. She’s been teaching us all about the Headless Monks.” says Issac.

“The Doctor? Doctor Who!?”

The Headless Monks close in around them, chanting in unison with a deep, psychic shriek – “o’æmmm!, o’æmmm!” – stirring the leaves and parting the skies.

“That’s their attack prayer.” Issac says.

“Help me lift the casket.” says his father, lifting the coffin with his son’s help into the grave, dropping it unceremoniously into the ground below.

The old De Graaf lays his pistol down beside the grave, lighting his pipe once more and taking a deep breath in a pensive moment.

“Issac, remember what you said about running?”

Issac nods.

“Run. Run as far away from here as you can. Go on, Issac.”

His son hesitates –

“But, father, they’ll get you.”

“Trust me, Issac, they won’t.” his father says. “Go! Moven!”

– before darting for the hills.

He takes only a moment to watch his son one last time, before he grasps the right end of his shovel, piling dirt into the grave.

As they trot closer, the Monks become less abstract to August – the whites of their horses’ eyes, the emptiness beneath their hoods. He takes another deep breath, shoveling the dirt as quick as he can. The earth spills across the casket – beating like a heart as it resists its own burial.

He begins to push as much dirt as he can into the grave, expediting the process. It took hours to dig, but he reckons he only has mere moments left to fill what he can of it.

Pzz’zz! They toss bolts of lighting his way: the first blasts a nearby headstone into shrapnel. The next takes out his leg. He howls in agony, dropping to the ground. His pipe slipping from his mouth. Persevering, August pushes what dirt he still can using his upper body. The longer he continues, the more it hurts; the burn on his leg becoming more present. (Truthfully, he didn’t want to survey the damage, fearing he might not have any leg left at all.)

His vision deteriorates, now blurry and strained.

How much time has passed, he wondered? For there was no longer any space at all between him and the ghoulish cavalry. It was the end of the line.

The Headless Monks had formed a close procession around him, their grim jack-o’-lanterns casting what judgment on him their silence could not. A patient funeral.

The Monks reminded him of the first time he had seen a dead body, the unsettlingness of it – no chest rising, no muscles moving in the neck – an inexplicable absence of life. As a patriot, a gravedigger, and as a widower, he had seen many a dead man or woman, and buried many more, but this time, it was the dead coming for him. He had moments left.

***

A shot rings out from the graveyard.

Issac stops to look behind him. Over heavy panting, he stares from afar at the church, witnessing nothing but a murder of crows fleeing the scene.