The Grave digger was a large and strong man. Jonathan Andrews, despite his family’s prestigious name and high standing in the community, was an odd sort. Even as a boy he was known for his unusual strength and apparent need to be out of doors and alone.
Mr. Andrews felt that his son’s strength should be put to some good use so he had young Jonathan apprenticed to the towns blacksmith. But when Jonathan would run away from the close, consuming feeling of the heat of the furnace fires, the family felt the embarrassment of his ill behavior and turned their backs on him. It didn’t help that Jonathan could always be found, at these times, in the cemetery clearing weeds away from the base of the headstones of the people that had no family to look after their plots.
When a person in town died, young Jonathan was there in the cemetery, helping the old gravedigger create the large, rectangular hole in the earth. Jonathan was only fourteen when the old man died, and having done the job before, he took over the duty. Jonathan moved into the small hut at the cemetery’s edge and even though, or maybe in because of, his new profession the Andrews family declined to acknowledge him in public any longer.
Mrs. Andrews did arrange for a meeting with the Widow Henderson.
“As you know Mrs. Henderson.” she straightened up and leaned in. “My son, thou large, is still a boy and in need of some little provision. Good hearty meals, served hot?”
“I believe I understand you, Mrs. Andrews. I do live closest to the grave keeper’s shack... And it would not seem amiss for me to bring him his meals. Twice a day, let us say, and a loaf of bread?”
“There will be money on your account at the grocers, enough for two, and meat will be provided weekly. Will that be satisfactory, Mrs. Henderson?”
“I should say so Ma'am. I thank you for your concern in my welfare. I will be silent as the grave as to our arrangement, Mrs. Andrews.”
Sometimes, Jonathan was hired to dig ditches and wells, but mostly he dug graves and maintained the cemetery grounds. His health was robust, better than most, and when a plague came through the town, Mr. Hanson, the carpenter and coffin maker, hired Jonathan to collect the bodies.
There was no funeral parlor in town and wakes were held at home. One end of a room would be cleared and the coffin would be placed on a table or saw horses. The house would be filled with flowers in warmer weather, to help mask the odor. Family and friends would sit and mourn, and wait to see if the deceased would rise. After three days wait the family would have the body buried in the sweet earth of the cemetery.
If the deceased had no family to sit the wake, or the people were afraid of disease, the coffin was interred at the cemetery straight away and the body had a bell string. 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 corpse’s hand before the lid was nailed shut. A watcher, usually a family member, would sit in the cemetery for the next few days and nights to listen for the bell.
Only once was Jonathan awakened by a bell watcher in the night. The young son of a woman buried that day was there to listen for the bell. He woke Jonathan, in his hut, with a shout when he heard the bell ringing. It was only the wind playing with the bell that scared the young watcher, for the string was not moving.
Jonathan uncovered the casket to settle the boys mind, then 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 was also given to Jonathan.
Three years later, Jonathan was sitting the bell watch in the night. Widow Henderson, who had made him such good meals for so long, had died and been buried that afternoon. She was the third to die that week of the plague, so she had been buried quickly with the bell string tied around her right hand.
Jonathan wrapped a woolen blanket around his shoulders and moved the pebbles 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 snapped up in shock at the sound of a bell. He shook his head to try to clear his thoughts. He looked again at the bell in front of him, but it wasn’t moving. Still he could hear a bell ringing.
Jonathan lumbered to his feet, in order to better hear from whence the sound came. He checked all the bells on the other new graves, but all were still. Yet he could clearly hear a bell somewhere in the cemetery, but before he could track the tinkling down the ringing ceased.
He returned, shaken, to the widow’s grave determined to stay awake. He found a small sharp stone to sit upon hoping the discomfort would keep him awake and alert. He even talked to the widow, “I should have told you before, but I only have now. Your cooking was very good.” There was no reply in the quiet night air, but he hadn’t expected any.
Listening for noise in the quite dark of night is hard work. In spite of his effort, Jonathon found himself drifting off to sleep again.
Suddenly, a bell was ringing. Despite his size Jonathan jumped up to search the darkness in every direction. He listened for where it could be coming from, but before he could take a few steps - it stopped. Now Jonathan suspected that some boys were playing a cruel joke on him. He was not going to let some ruffians disrespect the dead. He walked around the edge of the cemetery for the rest of the night, satisfied that the bell rang no more.
The following day, two others took their last breaths because of the illness. Jonathan, exhausted from the labor of digging graves and nights spent alert, tried to find someone, anyone, in town to do the night watch for him. No one was willing to do the job.
After a long day of struggling through his digging and collecting bodies, Jonathan took a nap. He could do nothing else. After it was already dark he dragged his large tired frame out to the center of the cemetery to the tree by the widow’s grave to begin his watch.
Most of the night passed without any unusual happenings. The night was quiet, save for a fox’s bark around midnight; not even a rustle of leaves could be heard.
On what he hoped would be his last circuit until morning, Jonathan approached the tree when the sound of a bell could clearly be heard. After glancing at the bells in his care and finding them still, he ran to the side of the cemetery between the graveyard and the town in hopes of cutting off the hooligan’s escape. When the sound of the bell didn’t move the gravedigger began to run around to the other side of the graves. The sound of the ringing kept pace with him, always from why seemed to be the other side of the cemetery. Did some boys tie the bell to a dog and let it loose in the graveyard for the night? As suddenly as it had started, the ringing stopped.
Before the day dawned, Jonathan was hatching a plan to trap the anonymous bell ringer. He was not going to let the bell ringer get away if they returned tonight.
Jonathan had spent some of his time that day making a clear path around the outskirts of the cemetery. As he did this, he dug some holes to catch the foot of anyone or anything creeping around in the dark. Jonathan covered these holes with small branches and he put a stake in the ground near by marking the spots so he didn’t trip in them himself.
He napped as the preacher presided over the latest internments. Jonathan prepared for a long night. He closed the graves of the newest residents, hoping to observe someone skulking about in the lowering light, but he saw no one.
Now that the gravedigger’s watch had started, Jonathan put down the lantern and laid his blanket against the tree so it would look as if he was sitting there.
The moon was almost full and only thin high clouds graced the sky. There wasn’t a whisper of a breeze. Jonathan could see well enough to walk his circuit without a light, but anyone not familiar with the graveyard would have trouble getting around the headstones.
The night moved on just like the two before, and the tinkling brass bell woke him tauntingly, but as in previous nights, no culprit was to be found. Jonathan had made a vow not to let another night go by without catching the miscreant. He had rested all he could during the day and was as fresh as could be expected when his night watch had started in the cemetery. He had brought no extra blanket to comfort his shoulders against the chill as he walked, for this night would be the bell ringers last.
So when the bell began to ring, the fury in Jonathan’s eyes would have stopped hardened generals in their tracks. The sound of the ringing brought him back to the tree in the center of the cemetery time and time again. All he could think of was that a ghost bell now inhabited the grave yard.
In all these long years Jonathan had never seen or heard a spook or specter, but he knew there was a first time for everything a person encountered. This bell had an unseen hand ringing it, he was sure. He checked every graveside bell and string and not one was in motion, yet the ghostly ringing could still be heard. He was not going to shirk his duty to the recently buried and their families. Jonathan was tired, but he stayed and he woke himself hourly to check the bells for movement until morning arrived.
The plague at last left town, leaving a dozen dead. All was quite and peaceful again, and Jonathan’s work load was back to only day work. There were no more nights of watching bells. He tried to convince himself that the business of the bells was just his imagination. He even asked the town doctor to check his ears and was found in good health.
A month after the ordeal of the bell, Jonathan’s mother died. She had not been sick for very long. Her wake was well attended. Jonathan buried his mother under the shade of the tree, and he felt that she should have a bell and a proper watch that he himself would do, out of respect. He was, after all, the gravedigger and the caretaker.
The son walked the graveyard nightly to check the bell at his mother’s feet. Suddenly the phantom bell chimed in the night air.
Jonathan was greatly angered that the ringer would disturb his grief. His own Mother! Was there no sanctity? When, as usual, no one could be found, he grabbed the tree’s lower branches and shook them violently. The bell’s ring pealed with a vengeance.
By the light of his lantern, Jonathan saw a small brass bell tangled in a bird’s nest above him. He gave a hearty laugh for the first time in many weeks. The large man climbed into the tree and tried to remove the bell from hell, but the string was tangled tightly around the nest and branch. As he reached his hand out further to remover the whole nest, the branch broke and Jonathan was plunged to the ground.
As his body hit the hard ground, strewn with twisted roots, the bell in the local church began to ring out in the night air. Then, all of the bells in the entire town rang. Everyone rushed from their beds into the streets. What could this be?
The church bell could not be quieted, and so the town was searched from one end to the other. By the weak morning light Jonathan was found with a broken neck under the only tree in the cemetery. He was lying near his mother’s grave.
He was buried that very day with no bell or string. After such a scare of bells, no one would watch the watcher’s grave. So when Jonathan awoke in his coffin only minutes after his coffin was lowered into the ground, the gravedigger was left to die there all alone as the dirt was shoveled onto the box.
He had no bell to save him.