By Michael C. Keith
The cemetery is an open space among the ruins . . .
–– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Margaret Hamlin lived across the street from a small, centuries-old cemetery. Its neglected appearance had disturbed her since she moved into her house. In the beginning she tried to avoid looking at the burial ground but found that was impossible, since her large bay window faced it. Keeping the drapes closed only made the living room in her house dreary during the day, and she found the idea of having to turn on the lights before nightfall depressing.
Eventually she decided on a solution to the problem––she would spruce up the graveyard. She began to pull the weeds surrounding the headstones and to plant colorful flowers in a few strategic spots.
Despite her efforts, the cemetery remained a gloomy and forlorn patch of land for half-of-the-year, given the frigid northern Wisconsin winters. The cold gave it a bareness that accentuated the leaning and decrepit monuments and made Margaret all the more mindful of the ancient remains beneath them. In the twilight shadows, the headstones took on an even more disturbing aspect. To her, the dead appeared unearthed . . . as if risen out of some kind of profound sadness.
It was then that Margaret decided to take further action. She would add lights, colored lights, in an attempt to change the bleak aura that hung over the resting place of people that once had likely lived on the very land her house now sat on.
Why do graveyards have to be such lonely, foreboding places? she wondered, on her way to the local hardware store. Didn’t the deceased once revel in the joys of life? Why are they depicted in such melancholy and grim terms? We die, but does it change who we were? We no longer breathe but does that turn us into something terrible . . . monsters?
“I hate those horror movies. Zombies . . . my word,” she grumbled, as she pulled into Ryerson’s Variety Emporium, determined more than ever to give the old graveyard a facelift.
In short order, Margaret found strings of tinted bulbs and spotlights, but how would she light them so far away? she pondered.
“Could probably use a heavy duty extension cord,” said the young clerk. “We got a hundred-footer. You could connect a couple of them if you need real length. Cars will just roll over them. Shouldn’t cause a disconnection. What are you using them for?”
“Oh, just want to decorate something across from my house,” answered Margaret, evasively.
“Well, all these pretty lights should do the trick.”
“I hope so,” said Margaret, paying for her goods. “If not, I’ll be back for more.”
The next morning Margaret unraveled the long extension cords, and, to her great satisfaction, found that they reached the cemetery with room to spare. She then draped the colored lights over several tombstones and arranged two spotlights so they would splash their glow over the lot.
When evening arrived, she excitedly hit the switch and to her delight what was a dreary chasm was transformed into a luminous tableau.
“Oh my. How wonderful. That’s how it should be. Not a place of gloom and doom, for heaven’s sake.”
The few cars that typically used the road slowed as they passed the illuminated resting place. Each subsequent evening, more cars appeared, and some pulled to a stop to take in the full effect. One driver parked his car and followed the extension cord to Margaret’s house to express his satisfaction with her handiwork.
“Never did see a cemetery all lit up like that. It sure does make you feel better about those sad places,” he said with a broad smile that brought one to Margaret’s face.
That night, Margaret decided to add more lights to brighten some of the monuments at the far reaches of the graveyard. No reason anyone should be neglected, she thought, feeling happier than she had in a long time. Life had mostly been a burden to Margaret since her retirement and divorce. It had been ages since she experienced a sense of purpose, and illuminating the graveyard gave her one.
News of her deed spread, and she found herself the subject of an interview in the local newspaper. The reporter, Deek Bellows, asked what motivated Margaret to decorate the cemetery and she enthusiastically gave a full account.
“Well, it does make sense that the living should make an effort to improve the resting places of the departed. They sure can be pretty dreary,” observed Bellows, who then posed another question. “Do you know there’s a pretty notorious character buried there?”
“No, I didn’t. Who might that be?”
“Seymour Cowley. Killed his wife and daughter and then took his own life. They’re buried there with him up in back, I think. Apparently he acted out of fear that his family had smallpox. Really was chicken pox though. A terrible tragedy. Names are pretty much worn off their headstones, but some old folk around here still know the story of Crazy Cowley, as he came to be called. Come to think of it, they may not take too kindly to your prettying up the place or drawing attention to it. Was a pretty big shock and embarrassment to the town when it happened all those years ago. You can imagine.”
“I had no idea,” responded Margaret, taken aback by the information.
The reporter left her feeling somewhat conflicted about her work on the graveyard, but eventually she came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter that one of its occupants had committed murder. What was important to Margaret was that he had done so thinking he was sparing his family the pain of a horrible disease. In her mind the act had even been heroic. It soon became apparent to Margaret that others didn’t feel that way. Shortly after having her lunch, the doorbell rang.
“Hello, Mrs. Hamlin. I’m here to ask you to remove those lights from the cemetery,” said a middle-aged man in coveralls.
“Well, why should I do that?” inquired Margaret, blocking the entrance to her house.
“’Cause it ain’t right. That’s why.”
“What isn’t right?”
“To be making something of that wicked place,” grumbled the man.
“Wicked? What’s so wicked about a little graveyard?”
“Crazy Cowley’s buried there, and he murdered his kin.”
“And how do you know that?” asked Margaret, beginning to feel her blood rise.
“He was my great uncle twice removed. Gave my ancestors nothing but heartbreak with what he done. My mama heard about you prettying up his grave and she near fainted. Had me come over here to get you to stop.”
“Look, Mr. . . .?”
“Crowley. Just like . . . like him” said the man, pointing in the direction of the cemetery. “I’m Edward though.”
“Mr. Crowley . . . Edward,” Margaret proceeded, “there are other people buried there, too. Besides, what your relative did wasn’t without compassion. He thought his family was dying from smallpox and didn’t want them to suffer. It was a terrible misunderstanding.”
“Maybe so, but he killed them just the same and gave the Crowley name a bad reputation. We don’t need to remind people of that by your making a carnival of the place.”
“I’m doing no such thing. I’m just trying to make it . . . well, less gloomy,” defended Margaret.
“That’s what it’s supposed to be. Dead people are there. It’s not an amusement park, for mercy’s sake. Just get them blasted lights out of there. Besides, ain’t your kin buried there. You only been here for a while and want to change things that ain’t your business.”
The man turned and quickly strode to his parked pickup truck. Margaret was tempted to call after him that she had no intention of removing the lights but she kept quiet. When he sped away she gave her door a good hard slam.
“The audacity,” she mumbled, pouring herself a rare third cup of coffee.
For the balance of the day she fumed over the encounter, and when nightfall came, it gratified her to turn on the cemetery lights. Revenge is sweet, she told herself.
“There you go, folks. Enjoy the deserved attention,” said Margaret, with uncharacteristic bravado.
She turned off the living room lamp and dragged a chair over to the bay window. There she sat observing the cars as they meandered by the cemetery. By the time she was ready to go to bed, she calculated the number of cars passing her house had doubled since the first day she brightened up the burial ground. It filled her with pride that her effort was causing people to have more appreciation of the resting place of the long departed.
Poor forgotten souls . . . no one should ever be ignored because they’re gone, thought Margaret, finally going to bed and quickly slipping into a deep, satisfying sleep. It was past eight when she woke up and the sunlight in the room caused her to squint as she reached for her robe.
The cemetery lights, she recalled, I need to turn them off. As she looked out of her second floor bedroom window, Margaret noticed an object on her lawn but could not make it out. I need new glasses. Better make an appointment with the eye doctor. From her living room she was able to identify what was in front of her house. What the . . .? The strings of colored lights, spotlights, and extension cords were neatly stacked next to the birdbath. It immediately occurred to Margaret that Edward Crowley had take action into his own hands. Well, that’s not going to happen, fella. After she downed a cup of coffee, she returned the lights to their original location, vowing to stay awake that night to confront Crowley, if he returned.
As soon as the late day sun fell behind the pine trees, Margaret hit the switch to light the graveyard. She sat at the bay window and poured herself a hot cup of coco from the thermos she had filled in anticipation of a long night. Cars soon began to appear on the street. At one point, she counted seven vehicles parked in front of the cemetery and again she felt great satisfaction. It was well after midnight when the last car left the site and despite filling herself with caffeine, Margaret had to fight to remain awake and ultimately lost the battle. She awoke as dawn was breaking.
“Shoot!” she blurted, again finding the cemetery lighting coiled up on her lawn.
She dressed quickly and reconnected the lights to the graveyard. She then located Edward Crowley’s address in the phone book and drove to his house. A woman Margaret assumed was his wife answered the door and without hesitation invited her inside. Mrs. Crowley called for her husband, who immediately emerged from the kitchen.
“Can I help you, Mrs. Hamlin,” said Crowley, with a sour look.
“Yes, indeed, you can, Mr. Crowley. I would greatly appreciate it if you would stop removing the lights from the cemetery. You know why I put them there, and although you have your reasons for not liking them, everyone else in town seems to appreciate them.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t done nothing like that,” protested Crowley, with a sincerity that surprised her and made her doubt her conviction.
“Well, if you didn’t, who did?”
“Maybe someone else don’t like all the attention you’re bringing to that old bone yard. But I can tell you it ain’t me pulling them lights off. I got better things to do with my time, like getting to work right now,” said Crowley, turning his back to Margaret and disappearing from the room.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” asked Mrs. Crowley, sweetly.
“No, sorry to bother you,” replied Margaret, feeling awkward.
If he didn’t do it, who did? wondered Margaret on her drive home. Probably some kids pulling a prank.
That evening the largest crowd ever gathered at the graveyard. The visitors were mostly teenagers and left their cars to romp through the headstones with music blaring from a boom box. The partying went on until late at night, and Margaret was tempted to confront the revelers but resisted the urge to do so fearing the consequences.
“So disrespectful,” Margaret mumbled, finally climbing into bed after things had quieted down.
Not long after she had drifted off, a loud crash caused her to sit bolt upright. Glass from the shattered window covered her bedspread. At the foot of the bed was one of the graveyard spotlights. Margaret pushed the covers aside and walked carefully to the broken window. What she saw outside caused her to gasp. It can’t be! Impossible! Standing under her bedroom window was a decomposed figure in a rotted waistcoat.
“LET US REST IN PEACE!” bellowed the reanimated corpse, which turned and lurched back toward the cemetery.
“Crazy Crowley, is that you?” shouted Margaret, causing the cadaver to stop and glance back at her malevolently.
It then vanished into the darkness.
“Well, be that way,” grumbled Margaret, indignantly.
As expected she found the cemetery lights on her lawn when morning arrived. Instead of restoring them yet again, she put them in the garage.
“You try to do something nice, and this is what you get . . .” she huffed.
Margaret returned to her house and closed the curtains in her living room. They stayed that way for some years until it came her time to occupy a forgotten plot of earth.