The Grave-Keeper

It is within the largest cities, hidden in the bustle, that the strange and unnatural often go unnoticed. The busy streets, the cluttered alleyways, the constant noise; they all help to mask each other as they collide and mingle in ways overwhelming to the senses. They deafen you, deaden you to anything outside of your own mind, but listen carefully and you may be able to pick out veins of madness running through the streets. London is no different from the rest.

Where does my story start? About seventy years ago, give or take a few, I lived near here; a building almost opposite in fact. It’s not there now, of course; the city toils forever onwards, building over the remnants of itself like giving a face-lift to an ageing whore. The city below is still there, and it is still rotting.

Still, some things remain sacred within the city. The resting places of the dead are the last sections to be disturbed, only being touched when derelict and long-consigned to their own grave. When I lived on the third floor of the building opposite, this graveyard you now stand before was as still as you see it now, tended by a single man as you also see now.

My life was busy. I ran to my job, to my girlfriend, to my family, and back to my job. I hurried in the day, I hurried through the night, enveloped in my own self-created bubble. I lived in the city, but I took no notice of the city itself. All was well, or at least I thought it was.

My girlfriend died. Even after all of these years, it still stings like it was yesterday. Still, that is not the point of this story. Things were rough for a while. I struggled at work, I struggled with connecting with my friends and family. My little bubble had burst, and I became aware of the beating heart of the city itself.

One sleepless night of many, I found myself staring out of my window. One of the things you seem to forget about a city is that it never gets dark; the lights are always on somewhere, blotting out the starlight above. Some nights, if you were lucky, the moon might make an appearance, but that was the only natural light you would see.

I think that is what drew my eyes to the graveyard. The dead do not need the light, of course, and this little section of the city seemed to draw all of the shadows around it in on itself. All was dark, apart from a curiously glowing lantern which a figure held who meandered around the crooked gravestones, occasionally stopping in the centre of the old iron gates of the cemetery.

I’m not sure what it was that fixed my attention. Perhaps it was the strange glow of the flickering lantern or the lone procession the figure seemed to lead. It wasn’t just that one day during which I watched the figure; they became my obsession.

Every night I found myself at my window, watching that figure make their way around the old stones. They never took the same route, sometimes lingering in one spot and sometimes making only fleeting visits to several of the larger mausoleums which erupted from the dead-rich soil.

One week I saw my doctor. I told him everything of how I felt; the constant drudgery of my existence, the sleepless nights causing days and weeks to cascade into one another. I was signed off work for two weeks and ordered to rest.

This only led to things getting worse. Without the worry of dragging myself from my bed in the morning, I found myself quickly becoming nocturnal. The stillness of the night air seemed to comfort me more than the bright bustle of the day, and every time I looked towards the graveyard I saw that figure still.

After a week of watching his wandering, I could not contain my curiosity at their strange draw any longer. I pulled on a hoody and a pair of battered jeans and made my way down the several flights of stairs to reach ground level.

The sounds of the city permeated the air; sirens, horns, traffic. It stayed that way until I came close to the graveyard. I stopped momentarily, my ears pricked at the sudden lapse in noise. It was a serene scene, not a complete silence, but an almost undetectable hum.

Somewhere against that background hum was an unsettling tune. I trod towards the rusted iron gates of the cemetery, the glow of the lantern appearing intermittently as it’s owner wandered the tombs.

I quickly found myself stood in the centre of the yawning gates. The strange tune came closer, never growing in volume but instead in strength, such as when tuning a radio station into its correct frequency.

The glow of the lantern made itself known, the figure who held it emerging from between two ivy-wrought mausoleums. The lights of the city seemed to dim as the lantern approached, my eyes drawn to its odd, almost pulsating, glow.

‘Can I help you?’ the figure said. They drew nearer, holding the lantern a little higher. A face appeared from the oppressive darkness, lined with the crags of age. It was a man, his eyes milky with cataracts, skin sunken around his bony features. He turned back to the graves. ‘Make it quick. Can’t leave them for too long.’

I found myself stuttering for words. When I had made the decision to come down here, I hadn’t come here to talk. ‘Them?’

‘Aye, them. The dead.’ He turned back to the old stones and hummed momentarily, that strange and haunting tune I had heard before. ‘Now, what can I help you with?’

‘What is it? That you’re humming, I mean. It’s beautiful.’

‘Beautiful?’ the old man said. ‘That’s not what some would say.’

‘What is it?’

‘It’s an old song,’ the man replied. ‘Older than the city itself.’ He glanced back at the graves and nodded me to walk alongside him. ‘I cannot leave them for long. If you want to talk you’ll need to walk with me.’

I don’t know why, but something about the old man drew me in. I could have retreated back to my apartment then and there, but instead, I followed the light of his lantern further into the cemetery.

He hummed as we walked the uneven ground, upturned graves and roots of gnarled trees churning what was once an evenly paved path. His head darted to areas of the graveyard as we walked, with surprising speed for his age. I followed his gaze, and more than once I swore I could have seen shadows of people moving.

‘Have you worked here long?’ I found myself asking.

The old man emitted a joyless chuckle. ‘Longer than you can imagine, believe me.’

‘And you’re out here every night?’

‘If I’m not, then who would be? This role does not allow for days off.’

‘I’d speak to your boss if I were you,’ I said. ‘I’m sure that’s not allowed.’

He shook his head and muttered under his breath.

‘Is there something wrong?’ I asked. I glanced back down the path we walked, a creeping sense of being followed chasing me.

The old man came to a halt outside of a crumbling mausoleum. The entrance had partially collapsed, the gate which world of the living from the dead below bent and bowed. ‘Do you know who is buried here?’

I strained my eyes in the dark to see any kind of name etched into the old stone. ‘No.’

‘You won’t find the name anywhere on the tomb,’ the old man replied. ‘The beast that lies here doesn’t deserve one.’

I had to admit, he had my interest. I bit. ‘Beast?’

‘The Marquis of Pendle Vale. He was a vile beast in life, a drunken, whoring glutton of a man, and even worse in death.’

‘Worse in death?’

‘He was an obsessive of the occult. He hoarded and gorged on knowledge not meant for man to know of. When his body died and his soul was stripped of its physical form, something much worse took residence within him.’

The hairs on my arm prickled. I stared into the pitch darkness beyond the damaged gate, my mind imagining the horror trapped in its depths. Following the old man further into the graveyard suddenly seemed like a terrible idea.

‘The worst of it is that when they buried his body in this graveyard they thought that was it. So naive.’ The old man snorted at the thought. ‘Whatever is in his body now has polluted the ground around us too. Every poor sod who was laid to rest in this soil was rudely awoken when his vile corpse was interred.’

I found my gaze fixed on the Marquis’ mausoleum, and somewhere within the depths, I swore I heard movement and talking. I managed to dredge some words from my throat. ‘But that’s just a story, right?’

The old man turned back to me, his ancient eyes burning into me. ‘Whether it’s a story or not, it does not relieve me of my duty. Story or not, if I do not recite mortuus est dormitationem when I hear them stir, then I dread to think what would happen if they broke from the soil.’

A nervous laugh fell from my lips. ‘You’re joking, surely?’

‘Am I?’

We stood in silence for a moment, eyes locked to each other. The noise from the crypt could be heard again, almost like the sound of fingers clawing somewhere in the deep. It was slow and methodical, the action of something which has waited this long and could easily spare more.

Beneath my feet, the ground grumbled as if some device churned it from below. Muffled voices cried out, pained screams and shouts from far below us.

My mind whirled, panic seeping into a fight or flight response. Before I could react, the old man’s hand shot out and grasped my wrist with surprising strength, anchoring me to where he stood.

The mournful tune he hummed returned once more. The cries of pain subsided, the earth becoming still once more. The fingers which clawed in the deep fell silent. We stood in the silence of the graveyard once more.

I looked at the old man. ‘How long have you been doing this?’

‘One hundred and seventeen years.’

‘What?’ Earlier tonight I would not have believed such a thing, but now it somehow seemed plausible. ‘How?’

‘Just as the Marquis is bound to this soil, so is the grave-keeper. So the last one was bound and so I am bound. Someone must guard the graves.’

‘But how were you bound?’

‘I was drawn here,’ he said, a wistful smile of a past life remembered passing his lips. ‘A long time ago now. I spoke to the grave-keeper and that was that.’

‘So you need to find someone else?’ I said.

‘I already have,’ he said, his grip weakening. He stumbled, legs buckling from beneath him. ‘Here, hold the lantern.’

I took the lantern from him and held it high to see better. His skin had thinned, his bones almost breaking through. ‘I’ll go get help.’

‘No,’ the old man replied. ‘I need my rest. I so need my rest.’ He lay himself down on the grave he sat, his chest wheezing as he gasped for breath.

I stood and looked for anyone nearby but the nearby street was deserted. I yelled for help at the top of my voice, but no response came. I looked back down at the old man, but all that remained was a scattering of dust.

From down in the crypt the sound of fingers scraping emerged once more. The earth groaned beneath my feet, those faint voices crying out in torment of being awoken. I did all that I could do, I held the lantern up high and hummed the same tune which the grave-keeper had. I’ve been here ever since.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, you were the one who came here after all. As the grave-keeper before me said, you were drawn here, weren’t you? Come, hold my lantern for a moment, I simply need to sit down. You know the song, don’t you? Don’t forget to hum it when you need to.

I need my rest. I so need my rest.

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