The Dead

The dead watched her.

At first she thought it was ordinary, and everyone lived in the world like she did, as though you were living in a giant fishbowl, watched by silent, judging ghosts just beyond a glass wall. When she was a child, sometimes they played with her, especially when they, too, were children, but when she got older, they grew colder towards her, and she always lived with a sense that they were never quite satisfied.

She didn’t know what the dead wanted.

When she got older and learned that most people weren’t trailed by an audience of silent dead, didn’t see the dead in every new place, she started reading about the dead. Some people said that they had difficulty crossing over because they longed for justice or had unfinished business. She tried talking to them, but they never replied. She tried finding out who they were and telling their family members to let them go, but the dead were immovable, fixed, still silent, still judging.

She found herself starting to suffocate under the weight of the dead.

What people thought was a childhood fancy became something more sinister when she got older. As a teenager, she was told to stop making things up, to stop intruding on grieving families. Even then, she sensed that telling people she saw the dead, was watched by them, might not be wise. They surrounded her at night, silently looming over her bed, weightlessly sitting on her coverlet, waiting.

People said she was chilly and standoffish.

Sometimes she felt like she was behind a glass wall herself, trapped between the living and the dead. She asked her mother about the circumstances of her birth, wondering if something unusual had happened. Maybe a black cat crossed her mother’s path or she was born at midnight, but none of those things were true. She was born on a sunny August evening on an otherwise unremarkable date. Her mother remembered little of note, other than her birth, which was notable enough.

She asked the dead for answers but they never replied.

The only place the dead didn’t go was cemeteries, and she found herself drawn to them. It was the one place on earth she could go where she wouldn’t be surrounded by silent judges, the only place she felt truly alone. She sat under cypresses and drew headstones, wondering why the dead wouldn’t go to the one place they were supposed to be. As soon as she passed through the cemetery gate, closing it carefully behind her, they drifted back.

The dead never made any indicator that they wanted anything from her.

People thought she was morbid for spending so much time in cemeteries, especially those who remembered her childhood obsession with ghosts and death. They told her to live a little, laughing as they did so. Her mother forced her on a college tour, but everywhere, she saw the dead, leaning over the shoulders of the professors, following the students, walking the tree-lined greenways. She couldn’t stand it.

She went to work for the cemetery instead, trimming graves and cleaning headstones.

The church loved her. They said she was the most diligent graveyard attendant they’d ever had. She spent hours in the cemetery, staying long after she was supposed to and coming in early, all to escape the dead. It wasn’t long before the church in the neighbouring town asked her to look after their cemetery too.

She learned about graves.

She became an expert on headstones and plaques, skilled at identifying them by era and maker. She could restore anything put before her, from cracked marble headstone to faded wooden markers. When she put her hands on graveyard objects, they bent to her will. She insisted on working on the premises, never taking her work away with her. People thought it was strange she didn’t have a workshop, that she worked outdoors in the rain if she had to, but they were too pleased with the results to probe deeper.

People said she had an affinity for the work.

Eventually she was offered a groundskeeper’s house that no one wanted to occupy because it wasn’t next to the cemetery but in it, surrounded by graves. She loved the quiet of coming home at night. She started ordering everything she needed, from groceries to books, to avoid stepping outside sanctified ground. Whenever she left the cemetery to go to a new job, the dead massed in larger numbers than ever before, trailing her, harrying her, until she reached the gate of a new cemetery and they disappeared again.

She dressed eccentrically to fit the part of the cemetery lady.

When they asked her to restore the graves set just outside the boundaries of the cemetery for suicides, she told them she’d only do it if the ground was sanctified, folded back into the cemetery itself. She said something about uneasy dead and the church debated, long and furiously. She made national news, the peculiar woman who lived for cemeteries, and CNN did a feature on her. She wore her most black and frothy dress and waved stonecutter’s tools for the camera.

At last they agreed.

She watched them from inside the cemetery while they performed whatever rites they needed, and then she stepped inside the cool peace of cemetery grounds. It was the first of many unhallowed grounds that she insisted be resanctified, from pauper’s graves to newly unearthed historic cemeteries to mass graves with memorial markers. She hated traveling to those, barreling above the earth in a plane with the dead all around her.

People called her the advocate for the dead.

She laughed when they said that.

“Truly,” she said. “All I want is for them to leave me alone.”

They laughed too, not knowing that the dead watched her.