Every cemetery needs a gravedigger, and Oak Hill had Ned Stone. Ned was a wiry fellow, stood about six-five and was lucky if he could stand up in a stiff wind. His hat was tall and ratty and his arms felt like steel. As a gravedigger, he was perfect; his grim humor and dark appearance reminded every citizen of Platfield that death was a sure deal that no man or woman would escape.
Father Duffy, a grey haired, former Ginger kept his eye on Ned, for while he was a perfectly adequate gravedigger (and not a bad undertaker if no one could afford old Mark Calloway’s prices), he had one peculiar custom which rubbed the pious priest the wrong way: every Friday night, Ned Stone would go out to the oak that gave Oak Hill its name and play his fiddle. Ned wasn’t a poor fiddle player, and even if he was, the Father wouldn’t berate him for it; what caused the Father’s weekly vexation was that the fiddle playing would be joined in by drum beating, horn blowing, bass plucking, and song singing merriment that would wake up the whole town.
Father Duffy demanded that Ned tell him what strange folks he was inviting up to the cemetery, but Ned paid the priest little heed.
“They is no strangers,” said Ned, “you know every one of them.”
“Even if I know them, there’s no cause for raising such a ruckus every week. There’s even less of a cause to create such a ruckus in a cemetery where people seek eternal rest. Boy, if you keep up your hooting and hollering, you are sure to wake the dead.”
“And if’n I do, they will start to dance. Even dead folk deserve to be happy, priest. Not everyone gets to go to Heaven, and them that don’t got a lot of waiting to do before Jesus comes to give them salvation. They deserve to have a good time, sir, yes they do.” said Ned with a doff of his hat and a gaped-toothed grin.
Well, the priest turned pink, then red, then purple, and before he turned any darker, he prayed for guidance. It was when he prayed that Joanna Miller screamed like a banshee because Cassius Kepler fell off of the roof of the First National and shuffled off his mortal coil.
Both the priest and the gravedigger rushed to the scene, but Kepler would only need the gravedigger’s services. Father Duffy crossed himself and said a prayer over the body; he then prayed silently to God, hoping for divine wisdom. Cassius Kepler was an insufferable bastard and the biggest prick that ever walked the earth.
Kepler was the sort of man that kicked cats and told children that fairies didn’t exist. He snickered when women fell in the mud, and he guffawed if they ripped their dresses. He was a cheat, a skinflint, and as likely to spit in your face as say hello. Above all things, he hated when other people enjoyed themselves. He was the sort that wanted misery multiplied. By most accounts, the world was better off with Kepler out of it, and Father Duffy had to say twenty Our Fathers when he conceived that thought.
Kepler was laid out on a Thursday evening and folks came by, as they always will when food is given away. A few glanced at Kepler, admiring how well Ned Stone had hewn the cheapskate’s casket.
“Almost as good as one of mine,” said Mark Calloway grudgingly, “and still better than he deserved.”
“No reason to do less for a man.” retorted Ned. “Everyone deserves a good place to rest, especially the wicked. Trapped in that box until Doomsday, he’ll be glad to have a nice pillow.” Ned admired the cotton pillow he had crudely sewn and set under Kepler’s bandaged head.
“I’d have had no regrets if I put him in a coffin for a man half his size and had to hack off his legs. Kepler was a cruel man, and he deserves Hell and worse.”
Ned just shook his head and smiled knowingly.
“If you go before I do,” said Ned, “I’ll fit you up real nice. A good solid box, maybe velvet pillows if Miss Jessica has the material. I’ll even throw in a flannel blanket.”
“Well, you better keep in good health, ’cause all I got for you is a pine box with rusty nails.” said Mark with a laugh.
Ned waited until the wake was all said and done, and caught Father Duffy’s eye.
“This is it, eh?” asked Ned.
“Yes,” said Father Duffy, seeming about to weep. He had more than his share of guilt, so he had made sure to balance it out with more than his share of drink.
In the wee hours of the morning, they took a cart up to Oak Hill with Kepler in tow. No one came to see the casket lowered into the grave that Ned prepared; the burial was swift, but proper.
“My son,” said the priest in the most dignified way he could, “please, don’t take your fiddle out tonight. Now that Kepler is put to rest, let him be.”
“I’m sorry Father, but I can’t. He needs a good welcome. It would be wrong if I didn’t…”
“Please, Ned.” pleaded Father Duffy, grasping for the gravedigger’s tattered lapels.
Ned doffed his hat and agreed that he would try to keep things quiet for the evening, but the priest didn’t believe him, which is why he crept up to Oak Hill under the light of the full moon in the middle of the night.
The cemetery took on a more ghastly aspect by Luna‘s pale and eerie radiance. A light fog blanketed the ground, and the old, gnarled oak looked more than a little like a crooked witch’s hand trying to blot out the round moon. The priest tried to keep such wild thoughts out of his head, but they kept coming of their own accord. The tombstones are like rotten teeth, the clouds like devils in flight, the sod hold worms that are eating flesh; all these and more plagued the priest until he spied Ned Stone and his fiddle.
Ned cleared his throat and performed a few deep stretches before he dragged the bow across the strings for the first time. It was a long, low, melancholy note that was then sawed into something happier. Soon, it was a song of youth and spring; something that made the priest think about the girl he loved before he became a priest, before she was kicked in the head by a horse and buried under the sod of Oak Hill.
Ned’s foot stomped the ground as the music’s tempo quickened. A stomp, another, then a twist and a turn, and soon Ned was dancing amongst the tombstones and kicking up grave dust.
Then, Father Duffy heard a thumping. It was Jimmy Howard, who used to run the candy store before he had a heart attack five years prior. His spectral hands were thumping against an empty jar that produced a sound not unlike a kettle drum on one slap and a snare drum on the next. Father Duffy’s eyes smiled when he saw the jovial old man thumping away with zealous abandon.
Next came the trumpets of Todd, Marie, and Rebecca LaSalle. The three had died before they were Christened; old Roddy LaSalle didn’t believe in baptism and killed himself after he lost his children in the flood. He never seemed so happy in life as he was in death, playing a tuba behind his children.
Ned cavorted amongst the tombstones, urging the dead on in their jubilant song. Father Duffy didn’t know what to make of it: was Ned some Devil, or was he from the other way?
“John,” came a voice from behind him. It was small and girlish, and familiar.
“No,” said Father Duffy, unwilling to turn around. He recognized her voice, and he knew his heart couldn’t stand it if he saw her.
“John,” she said again, and the priest felt a tugging on his cuff. “I’m glad you finally came. I’ve been hoping for this day for so long.”
“Is, is that you, Laura?”
“Yes John,” she said, and Father Duffy knew she was happy. Tears rolled down his cheeks; he never imagined he would hear her voice again, he never could have imagined he would hear true joy in her voice again. Before he could turn to see her, a loud booming broke the music’s pace. Ned’s fiddle screeched as Cassius Kepler crawled out of the grave, body and all.
“You!” Cassius said, pointing at Ned. The specters stopped their frolics, anxious to see what would happen.
“How dare you!”
“How dare I what?” said Ned smoothly.
“How dare you interrupt my slumber!” howled the corpse.
“How dare I?” asked Ned, “How dare you? How dare you come into my cemetery and tell me what I can do? After I clothed you, after I washed your wounds and bandaged them so the world could wish you good bye, after I made you a bed to rest in, you come to me and make demands? You, Sir, are an ingrate!”
Never in life had anyone spoken to Cassius like Ned did just then. The corpse’s mouth dropped wide in disbelief as Kepler struggled to find some combination of words that weren’t ‘I’m sorry.’ Unable to retort with words, Kepler lunged at Ned Stone, eyes filled with red hate.
Father Duffy threw himself between the two and brandished the symbol of his faith. Kepler looked upon it and stumbled backwards.
“Stop!” ordered the priest, stepping forward while the corpse crawled backwards, inching slowly into its grave. Ned gasped in disbelief as he watched Father Duffy force Kepler back towards the grave.
“Duffy! Why are you protecting him! You hate this man’s music! He annoys the entire town. Even now they are turning on their lamps: Look! The whole of Platfield is coming to life because of this buffoon’s antics.”
“Don’t even,” warned the priest as he took the cross from around his neck and placed it around Kepler’s neck. After some convulsions and foaming, as well as a few words best not repeated, the corpse was just a corpse, and everything was quiet.
“Well,” said Father Duffy to Ned.
“Are you going to play again?”
“Can I, Father?” asked Ned with a playful grin.
“You may,” said Father Duffy, who walked away slowly while Ned dragged his bow across the strings once more. The priest didn’t stay to see the specters again; instead he went back to the rectory, crawled up the stairs into his bedroom, opened the window, and settled into bed. There, in the darkness, he listened to the songs of the dead. With his eyes closed and his breathing shallow, he listened to Laura’s voice on the wind, and for a moment, he felt near her again.