(A short story)
“The Locket of Charon”
While the morning fog commissioned its lift, the Holly Hill cemetery began appearing into the landscape with ethereal magnificence. A crow sat perched atop a stone cross, acting as if it were being seared by a mysterious heat that radiated from underneath its winged body. The crow gave image of dance as one talon moved upward while the bird strove to maintain its balance on the other talon, quickly alternating back and forth as if having been choreographed into a panicked rhythm. It soon wisely dismounted from the monument to the lower lying grass where it began to nervously discover stray twigs. The crow’s erratic paranoia could not be contained so it could retain its presence on the cemetery’s grounds. Its abandoning flight portrayed yet an evermore increasing angst that only became unnoticeable once the avian creature had fully disappeared into the remaining mist of the morning’s blurred horizon.
The then abandoned cross of stone stood in field of view while a group of men began appearing from the remaining fog that marked the treed boundaries of Holly Hill’s bluff. They were adorned in Victorian work clothes, already sullied from the previous days of labor in which they had engaged in numerous tiring hours of strenuous effort. In the preceding week mother nature had given path to a tornadic storm that had ravaged the nearby small town. Apart from the many attentions that were being given to those wounded by the storm’s inflicted violence, these men were counted among the many additional allocations of human agents who saw to the beginnings of removing and cleaning the physical damage that laid atop the entire vicinity’s geography. Holly Hill was a cemetery that belonged to a church congregation, and the only thing of greater degree than its amount of trees was the incline of the slope that led up a steep hill that was covered in graves on its peak. The farther up the hill one went, the older the gravesites became, until one finally emerged onto a plateau at the very crown of the topography. It was on this plateau that the cemetery not only gave revelation to its age, but to the poverty of many of its deceased, as well. The majority of the graves were not memorialized in any way, headstones were prevalently absent, and the only signs of the land possessing remains of the departed was that the graves were highly raised and mounded by their compiled earth. Many downed limbs and trees rested on top of the graves and the team of workers sent by community leaders to the summit of this local landmark were tasked with cutting wood and clearing the area out of respect for the interred.
The workers were specially skilled and able-bodied. They were also primarily members of the congregation under whose caretaking watch the cemetery fell. The group was led by the church’s minister into the cemetery as he gestured with his hands to communicate the plan of action. The objective was to clear the burial site while at the same time keeping a reverential respect in observance for those who rested beneath the mortal efforts taking place for reconstructing the corporeal world above ground. Among the group of hardy reconstructionists was one individual who was not a local resident from the battered town. He hailed from a neighboring town, and upon learning of the devastation sustained by his neighbors, his instincts immediately drove him to enlist in the efforts of assistance that had been assembled. While being a jovial, honest, and well-intentioned steward of an idealist, his imagined ancestral lineage tracing back to King Arthur and his valiant court kept him free of corruption by not craving that which glitters of gold and is of sheen to shine. This knight of chivalrous crest fell not to flaws of wine, song, debauchery, or greed. However, this knight of a champion who came to the aid of his suffering Victorian countrymen was afflicted by a malady that toppled all of his other resolve and strength of resistance to all other vices. The Victorian Templar was plagued by an almost religious reverence for what we term as, “romance,” and there was no armor nor shield that could protect him from this prominent cancer that tainted his negligent soul.
When the conference between the men and the minister concluded, it was agreed that some men would work as coordinated teams in the process of cutting large trunks of downed trees, while others would individually work the peripheries and begin the clearing of debris from the many graves. The neighborly visitor would be one of those working around the boundary edges of the upper tier of Holly Hill, and he chose a sector to work in while his counterparts did the same in the efforts to maximize manpower over the greatest amount of area as possible. The early hours of the day began to turn into the middle hours to the sounds of saws scraping across logs and brush being dragged and thrown down the sides of the elevated graveyard. The numerous graves seemed to multiply with the removal of multitudinous limbs and the time consuming process of cutting tree trunks that had also come to know Holly Hill as their final resting place while then displaying their majesty in a reclined posture. Most of the men exuded the same look on their faces when they took the time to ponder this environment in which they were working. Which was more disturbing, the fact that the graves were so prominent and raised above the ground, or the fact that most of the graves bore no markings or identification? Were these men coming to terms with their own futures, and were their thoughts more than philosophical? Was their reflection more deeply and inwardly theological? What if those graves were theirs–lives concluded underneath grotesque mounds of dirt, all the while with the graves adding emphasis to the anonymity of the once living creatures that the mounds have forever covered in meaningless obscurity. These men did not discuss what they saw in each others’ faces, but rather they attempted to focus on their hard work in lieu of macabre thoughts about mortality and the human condition.
As the late afternoon began to issue end to the work for the day, our noted giving neighbor of hospitable repute began dragging limbs from another plot of burials. He was determined to conclude his day having felt like he served with diligence and with the work ethic becoming of a servant of the local population in this time of its affliction. Some men were tiring and were huddled near the entry point of the cemetery’s precipice to where they had climbed many hours earlier. They were medicating their aches and fatigue with drinks of spring gathered water, while overhead the skies appeared to aspire to add more water of their own to the gray and disordered wasteland that rested on the peak of Holly Hill. While the dampened clouds levitated as if methodically contemplating where to drop their next inundations, it seemed as though lower clouds were filling the air beneath so as to make sure Holly Hill should not know the touch of sunlight ever again. While the rest of the congregants and the minister were diverted by these distractions and as to whether it was time to scale back down Holly Hill in order to bring a cessation to work efforts at the cemetery for the day, it was the pious and neighborly volunteer who would have his cognizance redirected from mundane discussions over weather and whether work for the day should be abated.
The graveyard did have some headstones, and some of those had either been displaced by the strong winds of the storm or by falling trees. There were tell-tale signs of damage to a portion of the graves in a few areas. However, our visitor from the neighboring town had his fancy captured by a grave he had just uncovered. Near the head of the grave there was a subtle anomaly. Our generous benefactor noticed that the dirt of this grave had a small opening. A slight indention had occurred in the dirt that revealed something metallic and shiny in its chemistry. What was exposed was a small chain, and as our careful knight reached down to raise the links from the grave, they betrayed a locket at their end that was of an aesthetic craftsmanship and quality. As the stranger lightly and caringly gave the locket rest in his palm, the trinket seemed to speak to him not only in his mind, but through the very pulse of his heart, as well.
He felt a connection to the locket. It not only read his mind, but the sensation was as though it claimed him for itself. From his palm to his heart, electricity carried a message that was beyond language for understanding. It was cosmic and spiritual at once in its communication to its possessor. While his comrades were locked into earthly preoccupation with completing manual labor and retreating to the warmth of their homes for the evening, the man holding this locket momentarily gazed into another realm. His body physically registered the locket’s beckoning, while his heart became full of a paradise that only the heart of a romantic can decipher. It was then that he tactfully moved his other hand into position so as to open the locket into its two halves. As he did so, the top portion of the locket gently maneuvered to the left, matching the carefully applied pressure of his cautious hand, and in it was a photograph. While he remained in a trance-like state, there was that remaining rational part of himself that could not understand why he continued to be drunken by this inexplicable euphoria. The photograph on which he gazed was a Victorian death photo of a woman, and her countenance betrayed not only an enduring pain, but also a look of mental torment, if not complete maleficence. Peering into the photo was horrifying, and the darkness her face seemed to project felt as though it was inching up through the observer’s hand and arm. He could not look away and break the spell of the rapturous bliss while at the same time having his every living cell experience terror in its most palpable form. His hands began to slightly tremble and his arms felt their sanguinity become restricted while the locket caused them to burn. As his eyes began to twitch, he saw this disturbing enchantress in the center of his vision, while around the photo circled the blurry right compartment of the locket that contained no photo. The metallic right side of the locket became more obvious when it morphed into circumscription of the photo of the lady who had been photographed before being put to her final rest.
While almost fainting from this dichotomous experience of ebullience and inexplicable consternation, an aggressively stout wind raced through the cemetery grounds that blew limbs and detritus in a southerly direction. The men still working who were facing the north had their lungs so quickly filled with additional air that it took them a moment to regain their normal breathing cycle. As the wind violently passed through the trees its temperature was significantly cooler than the ambient air, and it seemed to speak in its force as if to convey a message to anyone who experienced its discontent. Fortunately, it was due to the unexpected wind that the bearer of the locket was able to break his gaze and dexterous possession of the locket long enough to close it and set it back into the hole from which it emanated. He staggered to his feet, somehow understanding the connection between the two events of the opening of the locket and the wind that vanished from Holly Hill’s upper region as quickly as it had rabidly made its emergence in between the trees and around the witnesses who were there to feel its gales. As all those present had their conversation turned toward the great wind that must have assuredly been ushered in along with the ominous clouds above, it was unanimously agreed that it was time for everyone to begin the descent downward from Holly Hill until they could commence additional work the following day provided any extreme weather did not impede a repeat of the day’s accomplishments.
When the entire work force was reconvened at the forested opening through which they arrived, they accumulated whatever goods they would be taking back down the hill with them. Their volunteer helper from the neighboring town continued to look back over his shoulder as he made his way across the many graves to rejoin his group. While speaking from behind a pale pallor, he approached the minister and asked him if he knew who had been buried in the grave to which he pointed. The specific grave in question was on the outer edge of the cemetery’s tree line, and it was near a monstrous oak tree. Once the minister realized the specific grave of which the stranger was making inquiry he immediately took on a look that was both simultaneously expressionless and stern. The minister replied that he knew nothing of the grave’s history, and quickly proceeded to march off in the direction of the cemetery’s natural exit while cajoling all of the helping hands to follow his lead down the steep hill that would take them all back to the land of the living. Their accompanying outsider was the last in line once they all began to make the climb back down Holly Hill, and he continued to glance back at the grave where his visionary encounter had taken place. In his mind he was questioning his sanity, whereas physically he was feeling the circulation return to his arms and hands that had touched something of lasting indelibility.
Had the minister chosen to reveal the background of the grave to his zealous volunteer, the information would have only added to his newly inherited trauma. The grave was that of Elsie, a name that drew silent reactions from everyone in the local town that knew her family and her story. Elsie had been the daughter of parents who were vital contributors to the success of the surrounding community. They were upstanding in their character when appraised by the local citizenry and the appraisal was reinforced by the parents’ commitment to the congregation that oversaw their affiliated cemetery on Holly Hill. The parents’ status in their beliefs and devotion to the community left the township in absence of explanation why pillars of the community could give rise to the seed of the Devil himself. Elsie’s storied lore contained ruminations of her connection with the occult. In rebellion and opposition to her parents’ tradition, she divined, cast spells, and came to exhibit traits that were only explicable in shades of the demonic. In fact, the town came to regard her as more than just a witch, but a demon all unto herself. However, there was always one sliver of Elsie’s story that kept her from being regarded as entirely inhuman. The stories from family members and the live-in assistants all bear consistency to the claim that Elsie, ultimately, was always in search of what she would have defined as the, “love of her life.” She had countlessly stated the qualities that her ideal man would manifest within his personal composition. Sadly, that requitement never came for Elsie, and for every day that passed without its having come to fruition, it is said that Elsie continued to deteriorate into a delirium that was only made worse by the conjuring of the spirits in which she placed belief. She lapsed into a darkness that gave her the power of retribution through anger and hatred in response to her despondency over never becoming matrimonially bound to her Prince Charming. It has also been recounted that in one of her final fits of rage, she declared that in the next life, not only would she take revenge on the ideal man with whom she should have been betrothed, but she would also make every man of the same description endure fitting punishment. After undergoing continued physical and mental disintegration, and after going through multiple exorcisms performed by her family’s minister, Elsie passed away at a young age after such a rapid deterioration set in with her overall health. She was buried in the finest dress that could be ordered from Europe during the day, and placed around her neck upon burial was a locket that contained as flattering a photo of her as could be devised by the photographer in postmortem fashion. That photo in death was placed in the left side of the locket. The right side of the locket had a light inscription in its metal which read,
‘The world thou now leavest, it allow’d not joy abound.
Thy world of to so now, may thy happiness be truly found.’
The rest of the group made their way back to their nearby homes and spouses, while their Good Samaritan went back to a camp set up for additional out-of-towners who came to assist the storm ridden town. Because of the events that had just transpired in his life, he was able to eat very little. His mind raced and continued to beg of reality, “What had just happened to him?” Why was he continuing to be summoned by a piece of jewelry from a grave? Many of his fellow campers began to retire into their tents despite it still being early evening. They were aware of the amount of hard work that awaited them the ensuing day, so extra rest took precedence over card games and the telling of tall tales. As activity in the camp began to wane after a reinvigorating meal was served to the spent men, the one man who had held Elsie’s locket a mere couple of hours earlier had made a decision with unwavering resolve. He decided to slip from camp and return to the cemetery in the cool dampness of the darkened night. The threat of heavy rain had moved onward, but the fog had begun to set in again with determined thickness. The adventurer procured a lantern, only donning his overcoat as added supply, and he left his few belongings at his assigned cot in the camp. He faded into the fog and began the arduous challenge of having to navigate back to the cemetery through additionally impaired visibility due to the onset of darkness. These conditions would only be compounded by him having to scale the gradient of the climb in order to arrive at the top of Holly Hill.
With the ambitious challenge of navigating back to the cemetery and scaling its bulwarks behind him, he finally found himself weaving on foot through numerous graves by lantern. After what seemed like an endless venture, he finally stood before Elsie’s grave and illuminated it with the contained flame he held in his hand. His bowels began to knot themselves from anxiety as he knelt by the side of the grave and found the shallow hole that contained the small locket. The source of light created by his lantern enabled him to put his hand on the chain of the locket and hold it up to confirm that this was what he had held that had instantaneously changed his life and challenged any mental acuity he may have previously had. He rubbed his thumb across the face of the locket as he looked it over via the aid of the lantern. His next step was to gingerly place the locket in his coat pocket so it had safe passage on the way back to camp. He rose to his feet and began to follow the path his lantern laid out before him. There were many more graves to traverse in order to exit the heavily wooded edge. A breeze began to pick up as he made his way across the countless graves that covered every square inch of the grounds. The fog and the darkness began to merge into one and the lantern began to burn at a lower output. He made it to the tree line on the outer edge of the cemetery. It was then up to him to navigate in between an innumerable amount of large trees before he could begin his downward travel to the base of the hill itself.
Each step he took into the trees became more eerily considered propositions. The darkness was then becoming so disorienting that it could not be overcome. The lantern, despite his relighting it and checking kerosene levels, continued to produce less and less light. A sense of fear began to set within his psyche. The breeze began to escalate. Leaves and limbs were rustling in the trees that had survived the damage from the storm. This daring soul who made the return trip to retrieve the locket then heard what he thought was his name whispered somewhere in the wind that was rounding its way through the trees. He rapidly turned around in a circle, which just furthered to disorient him in his worsening predicament. Just moments ago he knew he was heading in the correct direction toward camp, but then his certainty was lessened. Again he heard an unidentifiable noise riding in the wind. Then, striking the fear of paralysis into his spine, he heard a shrill scream that seemed to be right by both ears, while at the same time, it was as if the scream came from an indeterminate distance behind the trees. The sounds were yards away, they were right next to him, and they were not just waves of sound, but in some inexplicable manner they permeated his entire body. The scream faded, but the brustling wind did not, and he was staring into nothing but total darkness; or perhaps, darkness that was nothing. His name was then called again, but from what direction he could not know. The murmuring of his name was a whisper, while at the same time ear deafening from the sinister raspiness of voice that proffered the utterance. Then, he was turning in circles repetitively, not having any sense of the cardinal directions. He knew he was not alone, but could not formulate an escape route because of his intense fear and loss of spatial bearing. Another shrill scream burst his ears as his heart began to pound at a life threatening rate. Something was surrounding him; taking him over. But, it was not physical, and it was not bounded by the same physical constraints that he was. He then stopped and stared out into complete darkness while consumed in panic, praying that the mercies of heaven would be granted him at that very moment. Upon beginning to further the issuance of his dire prayer, he felt an unspeakable pain consume his entire body. The pain was immediate, it was unbearable, and he would have qualified it as infinite in its measure. His mental faculties were shutting down from shock, as was his body. He marveled at how while enduring this encompassing terror, in the applied recognition of time at the scale of microseconds, he could not believe that his brain could still process the realization of the horror while independently feeling its effects throughout his body at the very same time. It was just before his life ended that he peered onto a canvas of the blackest darkness as can be known and he briefly saw and processed what had committed this evil act against him. His cognition allowed his brain to briefly assimilate the data and process what flashed across his visual registry.
The victim saw a face that was luminously white, for it had not seen the likes of any blood running through its vessels with any recency. The phantom appeared to have flesh on its face that was rotting and peeling, but it had not decayed to the point to where it would release the skull from its attachment. It was as if the flesh had been made to stay in a state where it could dilapidate only to a predetermined and unsightly degree, but it could never do its possessor a favor and fully waste away in order to reduce the torment. There were additional cracks and lesions on the skin that revealed rotting flesh at the subcutaneous layers. The eyes were discolored, and nearly shone as luminescent because of the evil energy lurking behind their stare. The teeth were repulsive, and like the skin, they displayed a rot that was not allowed to regress beyond a point that would repulse the strongest of stomachs. Their enameled layer was of a time passed, but still remaining were brown and yellow tints that in the physical would accomodate a bacterial stench as offensive as was their appearance. Seeing and processing the image was a vexation far greater than the pain experienced as the life left the body of the victim. The excruciating infliction of and the horrendous appearance of the creature must have assuredly been carried as a memory into the next life, for if consciousness survives the earthly death, then it could certainly never rid itself of the vision that flashed across the mind of the man who lost his life to Elsie of Holly Hill.
At the rendezvous point the next morning, none of the local congregants who were to scale Holly Hill for another day of restoration work could account for their outsider who had been so motivated the preceding day to do good works on behalf of their town. They sent word back to the camp where he was supposed to have slept that night in order to see if any campers knew of his whereabouts. As the minister began to coordinate the group’s effort to return to the mount of Holly Hill, he had heard all of the speak about the whereabouts of their missing volunteer. It was time for his group to start making its ascent to the top of Holly Hill in order to stay on schedule and put in a productive day’s work. The minister pronounced that they would simply have to begin the climb without the accompaniment of their missing visitor. Like the day before, the men made it to the top of Holly Hill while fog was still lifting from the half-concealed graveyard. After the men completed their setup of operations and had been working for a couple of hours, the minister quietly slipped away and made his way to the far side of the graveyard. He made it to Elsie’s grave and began to inspect it. Just as the visitor from the day before had done, the minister bowed to his knee to take a closer look at the mound that contained the remains of Elsie. The face of the minister then lost all of its color and his breaths were shortened. There, in a small depression at one end of the grave was Elsie’s locket slightly revealing its chain for someone to find. The minister slowly rose to his feet and scanned the work site. While all of the men were toiling and were oblivious to his location at the grave, he calmly dragged his foot over the small opening in the mound where the locket lay. He did so a few times until enough dirt covered the locket and hid its whereabouts from the naked eye. As the dirt came to cover the locket, the ground under the grave rumbled. It was almost as if screams were being muzzled by the dirt of the mound. The minister serenely looked forward over the grounds and began walking back to oversee the work being done with the fallen trees. Some of the men had looked around when the dirt covered the locket and the underground rumbling commenced. They had thought they may have heard something out of the ordinary, and indeed they had. The minister began walking back through the maze of graves, all the while bearing a secret.
Had the minister opened the locket upon making his discovery, on the right side, there would have been an imprinted image of the friendly neighbor, the gallant knight who had come to help his fellow man in a time of tragedy. The phantom image would have shown opposite Elsie’s photo on the left compartment of the locket. By opening the locket, the minister could have freed the good neighbor’s soul from the clutches of Elsie. But, he would also have been unleashing Elsie again to do more of her evil deeds to the community she had left behind. The minister was bound to have reflected on the words of Saint Luke and the narrative of Lazarus and the rich man. The rules are written, and the gulf cannot be crossed. The locket had to remain closed. The knight from the next town had to cross over the gulf. Of course, when he makes the final crossing is up to Elsie. In the meantime, the locket must remain closed. That is simply how the rules are ordered.
It has been one-hundred-twenty-five years now since the locket was covered back up with dirt. Over this span of time, the tale has been recited often that late at night there can be screams heard in the trees at the top of Holly Hill. Recent meteorological forecasts are calling for the possibility of severe weather in the Holly Hill area in upcoming days. The caretakers who look over the cemetery today are anchoring the tombstones that do exist in the cemetery and that are more vulnerable to toppling. They are also shoring up some limbs as a precaution should Holly Hill see a repeat of the devastating weather that occurred over a century ago. The caretakers are aware of the stories of screams that are reported to originate from their cemetery on some evenings. Some of them are even convinced that they have heard things that make them believe in the stories. As a general rule, for safety’s sake, they try to have all of their work done on the top of Holly Hill before sundown. It can be considered unsafe business practice to try and travel down from the pinnacle of Holly Hill in the dark, much less to try and addedly haul work equipment down. But, there seems to be an unspoken part of their policy that would also indicate there’s more to the stories of the audible screams than are admitted by those who frequent the top of Holly Hill. I should know.
There are those who blame the accounts of screams on the winds that whistle through the oaken wood that decorate the top of Holly Hill. I would beg to argue that the events are separate in their make-ups. In regard to the winds of Holly Hill, I would say pay close attention to them. The winds do more than simply produce an acoustical effect. They have a purpose. If one hears the winds of Holly Hill, they will find that not only do they have sound, but they will find that the winds are also conscious. The winds have a direction, and the question that is just as important as what the purpose is falls under the interrogative of whose direction do they follow? The winds of Holly Hill carry more than screams of the accursed. The winds of Holly Hill exist primarily to serve the function of blowing off the top layers of dirt on Elsie’s grave so that her locket is once again exposed. To the one who says my explanation is only folklore, I would not only say that I speak from experience, but I would also warn that to ever visit Elsie’s grave and to find the locket in clear view is to not only take one’s life into their own hands, but is to jeopardize their hope for the joyous form of immortality, as well.
I would expound further, but you will have to excuse me. The tornadic winds of Holly Hill are beginning to build. I must retreat and do what I have done for the last one-hundred-twenty-five years. I must escape the locket.
The winds of Holly Hill must rage so the locket can be opened again. But, pray it is not you who opens it. I must now place my tortured hope in the winds of Holly Hill, by which I must be spared. Until that time comes, if you should visit Holly Hill, beware the winds. Should you stumble upon the locket and it is open, your fate is undone. You may try to close the locket, but do so quickly. Someone must be with Elsie inside the locket, and it will no longer be me.
How quickly can you close the locket?
And, in so doing, whatever you do, don’t look behind you.