Cemeteries have always intrigued me. They have been the subject of my writing and photography endeavors since I was a young boy. I had adopted the local graveyard as my playground during my elementary days for it was just down the old dirt road on which we lived. I remember playing hide and seek with my childhood playmates and jumping from behind one headstone to another. We would pretend to be zombies, chasing each other, crying for living flesh and blood. We had a blast. This is where my fascination began.
There are mysteries abound beyond the cemetery gates. Tombstones can be such a wonderful piece of art in themselves but what about the individuals to whom they honor? So many people who have lived such a wide variety of lives and dying different deaths. From newborn infants to the elderly; rich and poor; plain and sophisticated. Now, all resting side by side, equal in death. The mysteries of these resting souls is what brings me to the oldest cemeteries I can find. It is why I am powerfully drawn to the weather worn and moss covered markers.
Cloaked with my Nikon around my neck with it’s bag full of goodies hanging from my shoulder, I enter one of the oldest cemeteries in New England for the first time. Inside the gloomy gates, the air has an eerie quality to it. Silent, except for the wind rustling through the ancient trees, seeming to whisper messages from the graveyard’s inhabitants. The rows appear crooked, for most of the timeworn markers lean as if they are weary and reaching towards the earth to lie down.
I stand before “Abby Crawford - Goodbye Dear Sweet Mother. Born: Aug, 1738. Died: Jan, 1792.” Did she die from a winter illness? Wondering about the circumstances of her life and death, I notice the other headstones surrounding hers. There are several Crawfords. Abby lies next to her husband, “John Crawford- Rest In Peace. Born: Sept. 1732, Died: Apr. 1792.” He only lived a short time after his wife’s passing. Could he not tolerate a life without her? Is there a grand love story here? I jot a few notes and fire off several snapshots from different angles trying to capture the honor in which they deserve.
As I travel deeper inside the cemetery, I notice that there is an open section in the southwest corner with a short stone standing alone. How unusual, I thought. I had to see who could be so lonely in death. As I approached the mysterious corner, the air became heavy and cold. An ill feeling came over me as I searched for inscription. No name, date, nothing. The earth atop the grave is as bare as the stone which marked it. Not a solitary blade of grass or weed. The ground is cracked and hard.
“No one ever visits this grave.” a voice says behind me, startling me. I turn around and see an old man, dirty, unshaven and in tattered clothing. He seemed fixed in a gaze at the empty stone. His eyes sunken and sad.
“Who rests here?” I asked.
“ No one rests here.” he whispers, still staring at the lonesome marker.
“What do you mean, no one rests here? There is a marker and by the looks of the ground before it there is obviously someone buried beneath.” I stated as I knelt down to touch the bare, cold plot as if to convince him that it is, indeed, a grave.
The earth trembled beneath my palm. I jerked my hand away and stood up quickly, becoming dizzy and nauseous. I took a deep breath and bent down slowly to touch it again. The trembling had stopped.
“Did you feel-?” I started to ask as I turned to face the old man. He was no longer there. He had come and gone as quickly as the tremors. I strained my eyes to search for movement, any sign of the old man. Darkness invaded quickly as did an enormous gust of wind. The ground beneath my feet began to tremble again and panic took hold of my senses. I hurriedly made my way back to the rod iron gates. No, they can’t be locked! An oversized padlock joined the clanking, rusty chain. No way to climb over; no way out!
I feel my way along the fence in search of another exit. It is too dark to see now. A loud roll of thunder startles me and I jump and turn towards the cemetery, my back against the fence. A bolt of lightning illuminates the sky casting ghostly shadows of the swaying trees upon the cemetery grounds. Rain begins to fall heavily, stinging my skin. The wind becomes fierce, whirling about me threatening to tear the camera bag from my shoulder.
“Hurry, you must come with me, sir!” The old man screams as he urges me to follow him. Although I was a bit frightened by the man, I felt that going with him must be safer than wandering alone among the tombstones blanketed by darkness.
The man leads me inside a tiny structure built of stone. He is shaking nervously as he bolts the heavy, wooden door shut behind us. The room is faintly lit by a small lantern on a table in the center of the room. There is a cot tucked into a cozy corner in the back and a broken rocking chair in the opposite corner. Along the north wall stands an old wood burning stove. A stone fireplace drapes the south wall with two wooden chairs in front of it.. I can hear the thunder and the pounding rain, but there are no windows for the lightening to shine through.
“What the hell is going on?” I demanded.
“You will have to stay here for the night.” the old man stipulated. “It is not safe on these grounds after dark.”
“Not safe? All I want to do is get to my car.” I yelled.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I must insist that you stay for the night. It is for your own safety.” The old man looks down, dragging his feet as he slowly moves toward the fireplace. He bent to place a few small logs inside the stone fixture and soon there was a crackling fire to warm us. He hands me a towel with which I hastily dry my camera, hoping it wasn’t ruined, and then I dry myself. I sit by the flickering flames wondering just what this was all about but afraid to ask. There is an uneasy silence between us as we stare at each other. I desperately wanted to know what this was all about, why the old man felt it necessary to detain me. I wasn’t sure whether to feel angry or grateful towards him.
After sitting quietly for a short while, listening to the storm rage on, he calmly arose to make me a hot cup of tea. I was anxious to break the ice now and hopefully, find out the meaning behind my presence in this ghastly situation.
“My name is Robert, Robert Nichols.” I stated as he hands me the welcomed cup of tea.
“I know who you are.”
He spoke those words with such a sureness in his voice that I knew it to be true. But how could he possibly know who I am? A chill ran up my spine as I sat staring at him in wonderment. A hundred questions run through my mind but I dare not ask them. I begin to sip my tea as he slowly reclaims his seat in front of me and I instinctively knew he was about to tell me something dreadful; something that would change my life forever.
“You must listen to me very carefully.” he said. “The grave with which you were interested hosts an evil spirit; one who does not rest. He haunts this graveyard from dusk `til dawn and has for over two hundred years. He is outside this door as I speak, watching, waiting. This building is the only safe place in this cemetery after dark.”
I sit silently, listening, beginning to shiver, not wanting to believe the old man. Deep inside my frightened soul, I know that what he is telling me is true. I begin to feel nauseated and take another sip of my tea. It is warm going down but doesn’t seem to help the queasiness in my stomach. I breathe deeply, trying to stay strong in order to hear more of what the man had to say. He moves closer now, staring me straight in the eyes insuring that he holds my attention as he begins his story.
“In 1792, a terrible thing happened. There were twin brothers, James and John Crawford. James was evil from the beginning. He was the troublemaker and relished wreaking havoc in Johns’ life. He was extremely jealous of John who seemed to have it all; charm, friends, contentment with himself, but most of all John seemed to be his mothers’ favorite. This enraged James. All throughout their lives, they were at battle. The evil twin became an outcast of society, living alone, deep in the woods. It was suspected that he was responsible for brutally killing three of the townspeople but no one could find him and bring him to justice.”
The door rattles fiercely as if being shook by something other than the wind. I spring from my chair, nearly spilling my tea. I can feel the evil force lurking about outside the stone walls.
“Relax, Robert. You are safe in here.” the old man says as he smiles at me. His smile mesmerizes me and I slowly sit down again, unable to take my eyes off of the old man.
“John married a lovely, kindhearted woman.” he continues with great eagerness. “ This woman was Johns’ life. They had many wonderful years together and had beautiful children. James would spy on his brother and his wife, purposely leaving clues of his presence but never allowing himself to be seen. Finally, he could stand his brother’s happiness no longer. One evening when John was in the forest hunting, James took an ax to his brothers’ wife. This destroyed John and he vowed to hunt his brother down to kill him in the same manner in which his wife had been horribly murdered.”
I begin to tremble now, feeling quite dizzy and unable to speak. A fear sets in me as he continues his disturbed tale. A kind of fear that I have never before encountered.
“One dark night before John set out to seek and destroy his brother, he visited his wife’s graveside knowing he would soon be resting beside her. As he was standing over the grave, he was hit from behind being knocked to the ground. He looked up and saw James peering down at him, laughing uncontrollably with wild eyes. He had gone mad. There was a fierce battle between them, both receiving injuries from which they would die. As James lie dying, he put a curse on John. An enormous storm approached as James uttered his curse. He vowed that John would have to watch over this cemetery, unable to leave until he could find a replacement. This replacement must be of Crawford blood. He could only recruit a new caretaker after darkness enveloped the cemetery. You, my dear Robert, are the last descendant of John and Abby Crawford. You have been summoned here to release my spirit from this hell in which I have been existing for over 200 years!”
No, this can’t be happening, I thought. I did not want to believe what I was hearing. This man is surely the John of whom he speaks and James must be the occupant of the lonesome grave. I am in the company of a ghost! The guardian of the cemetery! This must be a dream, a horrible nightmare. I cannot utter a word. Illness takes a hold of me and I drop the cup and spill the contents of my belly. I try to get up but only fall to the floor. The spirit stands over me as he continues to speak. He is more excited now, almost screaming his next few words.
“You, Robert Nichols, are going to be my replacement! I will finally be with my dear sweet Abby!”
My head spins and I can barely see. I become paralyzed. The tea! He has poisoned me to insure my death. Darkness takes over.
I awake in the same room, only it is dusty and cold. The fireplace is empty and draped with cobwebs. No sign of life is apparent. I laugh with relief as I realize that I must have found this place for shelter during my panic last night and the incident was only a terrible dream.
I bend down, pick up my camera bag and head for the gates. Yes! They are now open! Anxious to return home to write this incredible story, I walk through the gates only to find myself back inside the cold and musty room!