Still Morning

Submitted into Contest #121 in response to: Write about someone in a thankless job.... view prompt

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Fantasy Speculative

Still Morning

The birds always trilled the song of morning during the spring and summer, but during the fall and winter even they would fade into the silence that hung over Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery. It had always been a small cemetery, with a pond in the back corner and a tract of protected land to the left. The wrought iron fence that faced the street had long since been overrun with vines and scrub-brush. No one was buried anymore in Our Lady of Mercy, it was too full and had been for nearly a hundred years. The residents seemed to like it well enough. No one complained anyway as Jedidiah Smith Weston Harlow or Jed for short raked the leaves that fell across their plots like he had done for the past sixty odd years.

The Harlow family had owned Our Lady of Mercy for as long as it had been a cemetery. There was even an old scandal that reported that Jed’s great, great, great grandfather, also named Jedidiah Smith Weston Harlow, had murdered a man and in order to get away with burying the body at the edge of his family land started a cemetery. 

In those early days Our Lady of Mercy had been a booming place, newly dead clambering to be buried beneath the ancient oaks or overlooking the pond. It had also been helpful that it was the only cemetery in a town not well known for long life expectancies.

The main exports from Coal, Pennsylvania were coal and trees that got in the way of getting coal. Neither of which were professions that had good life insurance policies.

It had taken nearly two hundred years and three generations of Jeds to fill up Our Lady of Mercy. It was a beautiful place really, a place that laying your loved one to rest didn’t so much feel as though you were simply throwing them into the ground to avoid the smell and more like you were investing in a place to sit beside grandma on a lovely spring day and have a nice, one sided chat.

That had all been a long time ago now and the rusty gates were nearly always closed against the rush of teens who had recently come to the conclusion that toppling worn headstones was great fun, and that ghosts hardly ever complained. The only one who ever said anything was that crotchety old caretaker Jed. He’d shout at the teens and try to chase them off with a rusty spade in his hand. The man was nearing eighty now, the delinquents usually laughed and threw their Monster cans at him as they fled.

Disrespectful youth wearing black sweatshirts and pants that sat too low on their hips doesn’t really cut it as a description at the local police department. Rodney the sheriff had been friends with Jed’s son before the accident, he had a soft spot for the old man, but never once had he actually been able to put up anyone on charges of vandalism. The Coal courts were too small for such a thing. The judge was far more likely to say that ‘boys will be boys’ than he was to throw anyone behind bars for something so trivial.

The stones were getting to heavy for Jed to lift back into place. They lay across the lawn’s carefully cut grass, reminders of the fragility of life. Stones stood for a hundred years, felled by youth. If Jed had been a philosophizing man perhaps he would have seen the irony, but he was not. He was a man contented to the monotony of a simple life keeping the grounds of his family’s cemetery even if no one would thank him for it and no one would continue it after he was gone.

Jedidiah Smith Weston Harlow had once loved a girl by the name of Mary Lou. He had courted her with wildflowers and the old guitar that his grandfather had left him. The two of them had lain out on the grass by the pond and watched the stars reflected in the water. It had been as though the universe was within arm’s reach, all they had to do was dive into it.

The day the cancer took her Jed had thrown a rock into the pond and screamed into the darkened sky. He’d watch the stars scatter across the water’s surface, breaking into a million wavering points of life. His universe had come apart.

Mary Lou had granted Jed a son. This Jed was a fearless child. He would jump from trees and run through the tombstones shouting the names of people long since beyond hearing. Some of the local church women thought it improper to keep a boy in a graveyard. Especially one who had lost his mother so young. It just wasn’t right to have a child so surrounded by death. Jed kept the boy fed and in clothes that were clean when he put them on. He went to school and he smiled with a toothy grin. The church ladies could only gossip.

Jed the younger had only heard his dad yell once. That had been the day of the accident. He was sixteen, young, invulnerable and always, always in the right. He had thrown a party by the pond. His friends loud enough to wake the dead. They’d thrown beer cans into the water watching as the rippling changed the stars into a blur. The tires of trucks tore up the grass and Jed the elder had been so angry. He had sent them all packing with hanging heads and extracted promises of manual labor come the weekend when the ground was to be raked and the pond skimmed.

The sixteen-year-old Jed had been furious. Who was his dad to shout at him when he was with his friends? Friends who had only agreed to hang out with him because he had sworn that he had the perfect party spot and knew where his dad keep his box of cheap beer cans. Didn’t his dad know how hard it was to make friends in a town like Coal when everyone knew that your great, great, great, great grandfather had only started his graveyard to get away with murder? No one wanted to hang out with the boy who talked to ghosts and cut the grass around slabs of stone too faded to read. Didn’t his dad know how much it sucked to be the boy whose mom had died, and now lay buried beside the pond?

He had stolen the keys to his dad’s truck. He had his learner’s permit, he was a good driver. He knew what he was doing. All he wanted was to drive around for a little while, run down the gas that Dad was always complaining about the cost of. That would show him that Jed the younger was not to be trifled with, that would teach him to yell at his son and embarrass him in front of the people he wanted to be friends with.

Even one beer is enough to slow reaction time.

Jed the elder knelt down on knees swollen and painful. He carefully wiped the leaves from the two headstones in front of him and laid down the bouquet of flowers he’d bought half-price in the supermarket clearance bin. Mary Lou deserved better.

After the boy had died the father buried him beside his mother. The church ladies had brought the casserole dishes and ears open for gossip, but they always left bitter and disappointed. Soon they stopped coming all together.

Jed raked the leaves in the fall, he mowed the grass in the summer and he shoveled snow in the winter.

People stopped coming to Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery. All those who had known someone entombed there had gone and gotten themselves buried somewhere else. The locals said it was a place surrounded by death and misfortune. Perhaps it was even haunted.

The god-fearing women of Coal had warned their babies not to go near that place or that rotten old man. After all his great, great, great, granddaddy had been a murderer and they weren’t so sure that the current Jedidiah Smith Weston Harlow wasn’t just the same. After all his wife had died and his son had died. Either God had been cruel or it was just what Jed deserved.

The old man did not rise from the ground as he knelt in front of his family. His fingers reached out and traced the names carved into the stone. They were only visible by the light of the full moon. Jed lay down beside his wife and his son. His old eyes filled with tears as he beheld the watery lights of the stars above.

Pearlescent hands helped Jed to his feet. He looked into her face and smiled. The boy looked sheepishly on, but the old man just hugged him close.

There were others now. Men and women standing across the field and around the pond. Their forms half transparent in the moonlight.

The gates had begun to glow, their wrought iron painted gold. Jed felt the pull of them now as he took a step forward.

The residents of Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery all made way for Jedidiah Smith Weston Harlow as he walked arm and arm with his Mary Lou and the boy that shared his name. They only had two words for the man who had so carefully tended to their plots for so, so many years.

Jed reached out for the gate and it swung open in his hand.

“Thank you.” The ghosts whispered on the wind and vanished into the night.                                

November 21, 2021 23:47

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1 comment

Francis Daisy
01:07 Dec 02, 2021

I love how the ghosts whisper their thank you at the end. This story is well paced and tells the back story so well. There is only one place where I think you meant to say "kept" instead of where "dad keep his" alcohol.

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