The Man Who Stalks The Space Between The Graves

My house is haunted but there is a logical explanation. This is not one of those stories where a tragic death happened inside. No one has ever died here. Still, tragedy surrounds the place; the two windows upstairs at the back gaze sadly out every day. No, this is not a story about a house built on an Indian burial ground. There is no one interred beneath the foundation...only in the yard. Rows and rows of tombstones stretch out past my back door to the tree line beyond. My haunted house stands in a cemetery. The cemetery to which I am now the caretaker.

My great-grandfather Heinrick built this house 117 years ago. At the time, there wasn’t a cemetery within fifty miles. When this county was young, the thought of paying someone else to bury your dead as they died was an uncommon luxury. Most took care of their own, and that was the way many preferred it to be. If they had the space, viewings were held in the home of the deceased. Any clocks were stopped. Every mirror was covered to prevent the soul from being reflected back and becoming trapped. When the day of viewing ended, the body was carried out, foot-first as superstition dictated. They did this to prevent the corpse from beckoning anyone whom they’d left behind to follow. Your mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife, or child was brought out to be buried in the yard. Many thought my great-grandfather was foolish–but some, particularly those of means, saw my great-grandfather’s practice as a worth-while expense. The wealthy would much rather pay a gravesman than to do the task themselves and their wealth transferred to his hands. At one point we were one of the most prominent families in Bradenville. That is no longer the case and hasn’t been for many decades. This is mostly thanks to my late father and his drinking.

Father was not a good man. He was overly stern and would hit you for speaking out of turn if he were sober. Heaven help you if you were stupid enough to do so when he wasn’t. His addiction and bad business acumen resulted in the first mortgage this property had ever known sometime in the 90’s. I was unaware he had taken out a second one until he was dead and I began to go through his effects and found the notices. The mortgage was eight months past due. That was a month ago. If I don’t find a way to come up with $30,000 this month to cover missed payments and penalties, the bank will take everything my great-grandfather built away from me. I would have to sell 10 plots and do 10 burials in less than a month to make that happen. So far, since moving back, I’ve only done one. Selling the rest would be an impossible feat for a small town mortician. Then after, what would I do to maintain the cost? There are only 17 plots left. The work would dry up in time and the bank will be knocking at the door again within a year or two. I have to find another solution.

I worked as a mortician a few towns over until father died. I grew up in the funeral home, and had grown into the trade. It was a family tradition, even if i was unable to work in this place under his tyranny, I intended for it to continue. I moved back here the day he died. The house is much as I remember, if older and falling into disrepair. A small Victorian style two-story with outdated refrigeration and work spaces in the basement, two viewing rooms, a washroom and the kitchen on the first floor. Three bedrooms upstairs. In the largest, two massive windows peaked in semi-circle arches like two wide eyes stare out at the graves below. In the stress of worry and hopelessness, I have spent a lot of time gazing out from these windows.

Every night since I’ve arrived, I see the thin man walking slowly between the headstones. I remember him well from my youth. In all of these years, he hasn’t changed a bit. He is still as uncommonly tall as I remember him being. Draped in an oversize coat; on his head, he wears a black felt hat. Even as a child, I knew there was something preternatural about The Graveman but I never questioned it. Not like I do now. When I was young, I used to call him great-grandfather…then yesterday, I found a photo album over a hundred years old. It was filled with pictures of the dead, a sort of catalog, with notes in the margin. The final photo in its pages was of the late Heinrick on the day of his funeral. I knew him from the note scrawled next to the picture. This man who walked between the plots could not be Great-grandfather Heinrick’s ghost. Heinrick had died fat. Obese would actually be a more apt description. The lank, bony man who walks between the graves must be someone else. The mystery that clouds him troubles me now, nearly as much as the looming foreclosure.

Treading softly through the grass, with each ginger step his feet leave a trail of sickly light in their wake. A bio-luminescent trail of glowing green footprints leading to where he travels to and from as he makes his way through the gates and between the trees and between the graves. Sometimes he pauses to touch a stone, and the stone too illuminates with this pale light. Who is this man who steps gingerly between the stones? Like a man sneaking past rows and rows of those in sleep–as though he is afraid the dead may wake? He is a ghost, I’m fairly certain of that…except seeing ghosts doesn’t usually strike such harsh strings of fear within me. I have seen plenty of ghosts. Mostly they are the standard fare. Stereotypes that one might expect–those whose tragic deaths still resonate in frequencies seen only few. I encounter them with a regularity that would probably bother another man–but this is how this house has always been…

A little girl hides behind the furniture downstairs. Her name is Emilia. Usually you can see her feet, sticking out from behind a couch or chair. Two little toddler shoes of vinyl, shiny white. You almost always see where she’s hiding. If the shoes don’t give her away, the giggling will. Still, you must pretend you are afraid when she jumps out at you, otherwise, you’ll have to hear her mournful weeping seep from the interior of every wall until morning. Good luck finding sleep with that happening.

A disembodied hand may sometimes grab your ankle on the last few steps of the basement. If it catches you, you may stumble, but there are only a step or two remaining, so you won’t die from the fall. The ghosts cannot actually touch you unless you give them enough power to manifest. When he clutches your ankle what you’re really feeling is his displacement of that energy. The energy that the ghosts feed on from me is weak so even when he’s able to grip me, it’s seldom strong enough to make me fall. It’s best to step on the fingers. Your foot will pass through the ghastly form and the hand will pull sharply away. It will leave you alone for about a month after, until it forgets and tries again.

Sometimes a man’s head appears in the oven. I do not know his name, but you’ll only have to hear him wail while the door remains open.

These specters I understand. I can navigate them. They are a part of this house and have been since before I was born. Their numbers have grown considerably in the time since. I almost never see them out in the yard like I do this man…There has always been something about the man outside that unsettles me, even when I had assumed we were related. It’s because of this that I’ve never interacted with him. I can’t explain how I know he is different from the rest. I just do and I always have known. I have never ventured to even entertain the thought of following him to see where he goes. The very sight of him breeds an instinctual discord from the pit of me. The rest of the manifestations are parlor tricksters playing games.

I would hate to know that once the bank forecloses, someone unknown was being haunted my ghosts. How would they know to ignore the wide-eyed specter of Florence in the linen closet? If you don’t, you’ll wind up needing to replace your towels. Who would teach them that the thumping of the plumbing beneath the first-floor washroom sink is not the house’s old pipes but the ghost of Chauncy, an amputee that haunts the washroom cupboard? Legless and naked, he hides there exposing himself when you open the door beneath the sink; the nubs of his legs spread wide to expose his flaccid penis as he taps on the drain with a toilet brush. You can try to take it away from him, if you dare, as I did once. I know now not to bother. He found it again within the hour and began tapping twice as loud. These are my ghosts, dare I say “friends”…? Well, except the man who walks between the plots. Why should I give them up to the bank?

As I sit here watching the strange ghost stalk the graves, I come to realize that I cannot keep this place in my name conventional ways. The sadness of this revelation comes to me in waves. I will have to do something awful to raise the money to stay…but what?

There is always one way to remain even after the bank has come to claim this place– No. I mustn’t think of such things and I have not yet become quite that desperate. If I stay, I prefer to do so alive–not as some tragic ghost with the story of my suicide embellished for decades whoever comes after.

From behind me a draft of cold rushes in, bringing with it a harsh breathy scent of Jack Daniels. I know this ghost well, though he has not appeared to me since I took residence here. He only has as much power as I decide to give him, and I stopped doing that before the man was dead. I have reserved all of my fear for the man lurking outside, not the one behind me now. His power to hurt me has long since withered and wanned.

“Hello Father,” I whisper without turning to look. I can feel his breath on my neck but make the easy choice to not flinch away. “I don’t suppose you have any ideas how I can unbury this place from your debt?”

“I jussst might,” his words are slippery, sodden wet with whisky.

I sigh. I’m still gazing out the window as the man turns the corner of a mausoleum and disappears from sight. His trail of footprints slowly begin to dim and diminish once he is gone. One--one until the world is dark beyond.

“Sssome very wealthy people are buried out there,” my father says quietly. “Lotsss of ‘em you won’t even need to dig. Necklacess. Diamond ringss,” he slurs, “I’d sstart–sstart with the mausolee-”-hiccup-”mausolee-”-hiccup.–and then giving up–”The ones above the ground…”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

“The oness above ground…then work your way down.”

I turn to face him then. His drunken eyes lack focus as they gaze. He is much the same as I remember. His face is gaunt and stubbled. I walked through him as though he weren’t there. “Go away now, Dad.” I said. I need some rest. “Tomorrow is a big day.”

When I turn to face him again, he is already gone.

I awake at dawn to the sound of Chauncy rapping at the pipes so loudly that it reverberates through every wall. As I take the stairs down, a boy I don’t recognize is in the path. He whispers: “please make him stop.”

“Sorry kid. No can do.” I say, “don’t worry. He’ll get bored soon.” At the foot of the stairs, I see Emilia’s feet beneath the grandfather clock in the right viewing room. As I pass, she presses her face through the back and through the glass of the clock door. “BOO!”

I jump in mimicked fright, “oh my Emilia,” I say. “That was a nice spot to hide! You got me good today” and as the house chimes with her giggles like a string of charms in the wind, I head out the door at the back, taking with me a large ring of keys.

I spend the day opening and closing many gates and pushing open heavy doors and the time that dusk begins to fall, the pillowcase I brought to carry the spoils of my robberies is laden so heavy with gold, silver and diamond jewelry that it’s beginning to tear. I was shocked to find so much and excited the spur of discovery, continued my searches with zeal. I didn’t realize how much time had passed. I found myself outside after dark and completely unprepared to meet the spindly man. As I exit one of the mausoleums he is there and approaching in his slow, methodical way. I duck back inside to hide until he passes. When I think that I’m in the clear, I stick out my head and as he tips the brim of his dark felt hat, I learn with dread that I have been seen. The man who walks between the stones makes no attempt to hinder my escape and for the first time in my life, I have no fear of him. Only curiosity. I realize I may have been wrong about him. With the exception of the strange glowing lights and the overly skeletal shape of his face, draped in paper-thin skin, i convince myself that there is nothing to differentiate him from the rest. He is just another specter following a set routine. Before I realize what it is that I am doing, I have set the pillowcase of treasure down inside of the mausoleum and shut the gate behind me. I’m slowly following the strange green prints he has created in his path; a glowing trail to guide me.

I trail him to a mausoleum, an old one at the back. Last night I thought he ducked around it, but I realize now he’d ducked inside. This mausoleum is the massive monument built to inter the bodies of two prominent figures whose name I knew well; “Braden” etched boldly into the smooth stone arch above the doorway.

Could this be the ghost of Edgar Braden himself? He stood within, just inside, next to the gate which, with a push, he’d swung open wide.

“Edgar? Edgar Braden?”

He nods and gestures an open-handed invite inside and I enter disregarding the sinister gleam in his eyes.

And this mausoleum is very strange indeed because it lacks the stone casket I expect. Instead there is a staircase to the left with the flickering light of hearth-fire dancing on the steps. He gestures open-handed once again… This time the invitation is an invite to descend.

“Honey is that you?” A woman’s voice calls from below as I begin, compelled curiosity to follow the steps down. Edgar follows close behind.

What I find at the bottom is a living room lit on either side. To the right, the gentle modest glow of a fireplace, the electric kind that you can buy–to my left rows and rows of mason jars arranged on shelves: each with a slowly churning fog of emerald colored glowing light. A woman sits reading, in an aged rocking chair before the fire. On the small table next to her one of these mason jars sits uncapped. She lifts it to sip the eldritch smoke within.

The woman looks up at me with a start. “Oh!” She gasps, “this one is still alive, Edgar.” This woman I assume, is Doris Braden. She rises from the chair and through her thin night robe I can see scars lacing across her back from her shoulders tracing down to her waist. I am entranced. What exactly am I seeing? What is this place?

She makes her way across the room, leaving the same glowing footprints in her wake until she stands face to face with me. Here she leans in and smells deeply. She takes in a great, massive breath of me before stepping back with a frown.

“Not this one, Edgar, you dumb idiot.” she says, “can’t you smell that?” She takes in another deep breath of me, “he’s kin.”

“He ain’t even,” Edgar replies, “He’s Mary and Paul Marshall’s boy.”

“Well either Paul or Mary must’ve been kin too, then. Distant cousin I reckon, or whatever. We spread so many seeds, whoever knows.” She turns to her husband and says: “How many times I gotta tell you, I ain’t eating the souls of our relations.” Shock sets in then and I don’t move to run. I only stand, eyes wide. She places her small hand firmly on my shoulder. Her small, warm, hand–still very much alive. I feel my stomach drop.

They aren’t specters at all, these two. I can feel her gentle hand, not ghostly energy but the flesh of her hand touching me where a ghost would have passed through. That must have been the feeling about Edgar, the mysterious fear of the man who walks between the graves, that for my entire life, I just could not place. Surrounded a house that was always brimming with ghosts, instinctively I must have known that he wasn’t the same.

They would had to have been living down in this crypt for over a century. It was one of the first erected in the cemetery’s long history. Somehow, they both appeared to be in their early 50’s. I did not know how this could be possible, but it must be something to do with the jars of light. I turned then, and shoving Edgar from my way in the path, took off in a run. I ran up the stairs, outside, and back to my house where I locked every window and checked the bolts on every door.

The following day, a man comes to the door. When I answer, he says he is a lawyer and he has come to deliver a check from an anonymous donor. The amount on the line is a large sum. Enough to save everything. The memo line reads “for keeping secrets” in a flourished, aged scrawl. When the man who stalks the space between the graves passes beneath the window he has begun to wave and now I wave back–he is a relative after all–not great-grandfather, but related somehow. His feet still leave the vibrant light in their wake. This was how I came to learn I was a distant descendant in some way, to Edgar and Doris Braden, for whom our town is named.

I think I understand now, why my father drank.

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