By Lady Euphoria Deathwatch
The grave digger was a large, strong man. His name was Jonathan Arnold, and despite the families prestige and standing in the community he was an odd sort. Because of his strength, even as a boy, the family had him apprenticed to the blacksmith. Jonathan didn’t like the heat of the furnace. He would run away from the forge and later would be found in the cemetery. He would be clearing the weeds away from the base of the headstones of the people that had no one to look after their care.
When someone died in town, young Jonathan could always be found helping the old gravedigger make the large squared off hole in the earth. When the old man died, Jonathan was given the job, even though he was only fourteen years old. His family, although they still acted kindly towards him, wouldn’t acknowledge him in public. He moved into the old shack that had been the old man’s house on the edge of the cemetery grounds. His family made it comfortably livable for him and hired the Widow Henderson to provide him his daily meals. She was chosen mostly because she lived the closest to the gravedigger’s small house, but the meals were hardy and hot.
Although Jonathan dug ditches and wells at times, mostly he dug graves and maintained the cemetery grounds. His health was good, better then most, and when a plague came through town he was hired to collect the bodies for Mr. Hanson, the coffin maker.
People in town had their wakes at home. They would clear the end of a room and put the coffin on a table or saw horses. The house would be filled with flowers in the warmer weather to help hide the odor. If the deceased didn’t rise again in a few days, the family would bury the body in the cemetery and all was done until the headstone was made ready. But if there was no family to sit the wake with the body, or they were afraid of becoming ill and dieing themselves, the coffin went straight into the ground with a bell string. A watcher, usually a family member, would sit in the cemetery for the next few days and nights to listen for the bell. This bell was strung through a ‘Y’ shaped stick set upright in the ground at the foot of the grave. The other end of this string had been wrapped around the dead person’s hand before the lid was nailed shut.
Only once was Jonathan woken to save the ringer. The son of a woman buried that day was there to listen for the bell. He woke Jonathan with a shout when he heard the bell ringing, but it was only the wind playing with the bell that had scared the young watcher. After quickly uncovering the casket and finding her still dead, Jonathan went back to sleep. By the time he woke up the next day, the tale was all over town that a bell had been rung in the night, but sadly not in time to save the ringer. No one in town would sit as the bell watcher any longer and that job also was given to Jonathan.
Years later, Jonathan was sitting the bell watch in the night. The widow that had been making his meals these past years had died and been buried that afternoon. Since she was the third to die that week from the latest deadly illness, she was buried with the bell string wrapped around her hand.
Jonathan wrapped a woolen blanket around his shoulders and moved the pebble out from under his rump. He was tired from digging graves all day but he didn’t want to fall asleep on his watch.
The next thing he knew, his head was coming up and he was waking to the sound of a bell. He shook his head to try to clear his thoughts. He looked at the bell in front of him but it wasn’t moving, yet he could still hear a bell ringing.
Jonathan rose up on his feet to hear better. He checked the bells on the other new graves but all were still, yet he could clearly hear a bell in the cemetery. Before he could track it down, the ringing stopped.
He made his way back to the widow’s grave and sat under the tree again after finding another pebble to sit on to keep him alert. He fought harder to stay awake this time, but found himself nodding off.
After a short time the ringing started again. He jumped up to search in the dark. He looked in every direction for the sound, but before he had gone a few steps it stopped. Now he suspected that some of the boys in town were playing a bad joke on him. He walked around the edge of the cemetery for the rest of the night, but the bell was silent. Jonathan was not going to let some young ruffians disrespect the dead.
The next day two others died from the same illness. Jonathan, exhausted from digging graves, tried to find someone in town to do the night watch for him. No one wanted the job.
After dinner, he napped because he didn’t have the energy to do anything else. Once it was dark he went out to the center of the cemetery under the tree by the widow’s grave to start his watch. Jonathan was not going to let the bell ringer get away if they returned to the cemetery that night. He left one lantern at the tree and took the other on his circuit around the outskirts of the cemetery. Most of the night passed without any unusual noises. He heard a fox cry out around midnight, but then it was quiet for hours. Not even a breeze ruffled the leaves.
Jonathan was coming back to the other lantern at the tree when the sound of a bell could clearly be heard. He took a quick look at the nearest bell, but it hung still and quiet from it’s string along with all with the other bells he was watching. During the day he had made a clear path around the cemetery. Jonathan began to run around the outskirts, only to find that the ringing kept pace on the other side of the graveyard from him. Did some boys tie the bell to a dog and let it loose in the cemetery for the night? The ringing stopped by the time he was almost back around, so he sat panting under the tree.
In the morning light he hatched a plan to trap the bell ringer. He spent most of the day digging graves, but found the time and energy to dig some holes here and there in the cemetery to trip up the someone or something running with a bell. He marked the holes with a stake at the side and covered the holes with branches from a nearby bush. Tonight he was going to put a stop to this foolery.
After napping, as the preacher oversaw the most recent internments, Jonathan was ready for a long night. He closed the graves of the latest residents, hoping to find someone skulking about in the lowering light. No one came.
The night moved on like the two before when the brass bell tinkling woke him, taunting him, but no culprit was caught. Jonathan made a vow not to let another night go by without catching the miscreant. He rested all he could during the day and was as fresh as could be expected when the night watch started in the cemetery.
He brought no blanket to comfort against the chill, for this night would be the bell ringers last.
When the bell began to ring, the fury in Jonathan’s eyes would have stopped hardened generals in their tracks. The ringing brought him back time and again to the center of the cemetery and to his starting place under the tree. Now all he could think of was that a ghost bell now inhabited the grave yard.
In all these long years he had never seen or heard a specter, but there were first times for everything one encountered. The bell must have an unseen hand ringing it. He checked all the bells still hanging by their strings from the graves and not one was in movement while the ringing could be heard. Jonathan slept fitfully against the tree. He wasn’t going to shirk his duty to those recently buried and their families. He would wake himself time and again to check the bells for movement until morning.
The sickness left the town with little more then a dozen dead. Things quieted down and Jonathan was back to his business as before. But a month later his mother died and even though she had a wake, he had insisted that she also had a bell, just in case the wake wasn’t long enough for her to revive. He walked the grave yard nightly to check the bell at her feet. The phantom bell still rang out at times in the night air.
This greatly angered him that the ringer would disturb him in his own grief over his mother‘s death. With no one to be caught, he grabbed one of the lower tree branches of the tree above his head and shook it violently. The bell peeled out it’s ringing with a vengeance.
He looked up and saw by the light of his lantern a small brass bell. It was dangling from a birds nest by a string. He gave a hearty laugh for the first time in many weeks. Climbing the tree, Jonathan tried to remover this bell from hell. The string was entangled tightly around the branch along with the nest. He reached further out to remove the whole nest and the branch broke, plunging him to the ground.
As soon as he hit the ground, the bell in the church started to ring out in the night air. Then all the bells in the whole of the town began to ring. People rushed from their beds out into the streets. When the church bell could not be quieted, the town was then searched and by the morning light Jonathan was found with a broken neck under the tree in the grave yard at his post.
He was buried that day without a bell and string, for no one would watch his grave. So when Jonathan awoke in his coffin minutes after being lowered into the ground, he was left to die there all alone as the dirt was shoveled onto the box. He had no bell to save him.