Sexton needed for small parish and attached graveyard
Room and Board incl.
Matilda Barker stood in the center of the village, carrying her suitcase like a shield. She’d never heard of the town, never traveled so far from home, but she had found the ad in the paper and used a healthy chunk of Rosie’s gratuity to get there.
The moment she laid eyes on the graveyard she knew it was just what she needed. A task she could pour herself into and forget the listless, grey days since the war ended. The pastor’s scrutiny said he had doubts but he offered her the position all the same.
The wet spring gave way to a warm and sunny summer. Mattie had never been much of a gardener, but she spent her days cutting back shrubs and pulling the endless tide of weeds that had claimed the graves for their own.
After a day’s hard work, Mattie took her supper in the flat below the belfry and read for an hour or two on the window seat overlooking the sea. Then, once the church fell into the quiet of late evening, she explored the chapel by candlelight. Though she was alone, it felt like sneaking and so it was exhilarating. A secret kept between her and the church.
But the church had more secrets than Mattie realized. Each day she spent tending its needs, each night she shared with it her most guarded, curious self, she drew closer and closer to the truth.
That truth revealed itself in the first weeks of autumn. Mattie sat in one of the oak pews of the chapel, reading a hymnal by candlelight and struggling to remember the tune. She hummed to herself, searching for the notes in the dark.
“You’re flat,” a voice said.
Mattie dropped the book of hymns and nearly dropped the candle. The flame flickered and wavered and threatened to snuff.
“Careful now,” the voice said, so close. “You don’t want to burn the place down.”
She swung the candle but saw no one. A heavy sigh came from beside her and a gust tore through the chapel, dousing the single flame that lit her corner of the pew.
She blinked at the sudden darkness. She’d never moved through the church without her candle, never seen it in the full weight of the night. Mattie’s eyes adjusted to the gentle glow of the moon through the windows and let out a shaky breath.
“See now? Isn’t that better?”
Mattie stared at the slight man that sat beside her. He was young, with thick hair that rolled like the sea. He wore a shabby coat with a high collar done all the way up, the buttons shimmering in the moonlight.
Shimmering and see-through.
The pale, translucent man fidgeted with the cuff of one sleeve. “I defended you to the others—don’t fall apart at the seams now.”
“You’re,” Mattie swallowed against the shiver in her voice. “You’re a—”
“Ghost. Yes. You might have noticed us sooner if you spent less of your evenings in the chapel.”
“You think I’m the only one? That’d be boring.” He tilted his head back and forth. “Although, it’d be much more peaceful. Do you know how hard it is to keep the tenants in line without a proper sexton?”
Mattie thought she was a proper sexton, or did a decent job imitating one, but perhaps she was mistaken? Though she wasn’t sure how one could maintain the grounds so poorly that a ghost had to come chastise you over it.
He cast a critical eye over her. “Come on, then.”
“It’s time you met the people you work for, don’t you think?”
She thought she worked for the pastor, but the ghost seemed certain otherwise. He glided out of the church, rippling through the solid oak door like fish nipping at the surface of a pond. Alone in the frail moonlight, Mattie thought she might have dreamt it all.
Then he poked his head through the center of the door.
“Hop to,” he said. “The night’s never long enough and they’re dying to meet you.” He frowned. “Pardon the expression.”
Dream or no, Mattie followed after him, the chill damp of the sea air against her skin before she could talk herself out of the madness.
She worried she would lose sight of the spectral man, but he glowed against the rhododendron and roses, brighter for the moonlight. Mattie followed, heedless of the peat moss that matted the hem of her nightgown, or the cold that clung in her chest.
Mattie was proud of the progress she’d made in reclaiming the grounds from the greedy weeds and ferns. Only a handful of graves hadn’t been cleared yet, and she’d even begun scrubbing the moss from the engraved letters on some of the older stones.
“You know,” said a voice. “Pumice would work better than that silly brush you’ve been using to scrape away the lichen.”
An ethereal man perched on a tall, leaning tombstone, his feet swinging merrily above the ground. He wore a tailcoat and top hat and looked exactly like the Mad Hatter; all dapper and out of place, and pleased as punch at the fact.
“Pumice? Do you want to be erased?” A woman appeared, the opposite of the dapper ghost in every way. Stoop-backed and wiry, she wore a frayed coat and billed cap, with a pipe tucked in the corner of her mouth.
“Some of you don’t have names worth remembering,” the first ghost said.
“Oh, aye,” said the second. “Meanwhile some haven’t got a relative left to care.”
“You old goat.”
“I’ll worry what you think when you finally hop off that gauche gravestone and do something about it.”
The ghost from the chapel retraced his path back to Mattie. He cleared his throat and the sound sliced through their threats, a fin through water. “This is Matilda Barker, the new sexton.”
“Hello, ma’am,” said the first. “Reginald Taylor the First, at your service. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He smiled at her and flourished his cap in a little bow, tilting forward precariously on the gravestone.
The second glared at Reginald then looked at Mattie. “I’m Regina Taylor the Not-Quite-Second, but you can call me Reggie.”
Reginald the First scoffed. “I hate that nickname.”
“Why do you think I insist on it?” said Reggie.
The man floated between Mattie and the arguing ghosts. “Come. They’ll be at it all night at this rate.” Without touching her, he guided her away from the bickering pair and further into the graveyard.
“They’re related?” Mattie asked.
“Yes, though,” he turned to shout over his shoulder, “Heaven forbid they act like it.”
Neither Taylor seemed to notice.
“The Taylors never saw eye-to-eye, in life nor death.”
“Hardly seems like a happy story,” Mattie said.
He stopped in mid-air, and Mattie might have collided with him if such a thing were possible. “This is a graveyard, Mrs. Barker. And while there are some happy stories, many of them aren’t.” He spun, gazing at the markers. “The war stories chief among them.”
He continued up the path, but Mattie couldn’t convince her feet to follow. The words were too heavy. Too true. Her heart raced and her breath came shallow and frantic. She closed her eyes and counted up through ten, then twenty, and past thirty until the shaking in her hands settled.
When Mattie opened her eyes the thin ghost hovered before her, his gaze unsettling in their intensity.
“Do you know what is required to be a proper sexton, Mrs. Barker?”
“A sharp pair of shears?”
He laughed, the sound brittle as seashells. “No. To tend to the dead, one must know death, must carry it in their bones and wear it on their soul like a badge.”
They watched one another for a moment, but Mattie couldn’t think of anything to say to that. So she nodded, took a deep breath, and bade the ghost continue the tour.
They walked through the graveyard until the pale hint of dawn tinged the sky. Mattie met a ghost for every marker in the graveyard. Every marker except the fresh, gleaming one with flags and flowers at its base.
It was so new, so obviously cherished that Mattie had avoided it out of respect. There were other graves that needed her attention, so she’d spent her days trimming hedges and scrubbing stones.
Now, alone in the murk of twilight sky, Mattie passed the grave and felt a distinct chill. The moisture on the polished tombstone trailed like tears down the front to catch in the sharp lines of the words engraved there.
Here Lies Robert William Boyd
Beloved Son of William and Bonnie
“The war stories,” Mattie said, the ghost’s words echoing through her head. She’d lived a war story of her own ever since that knock came at their door. A uniformed stranger delivered a letter and a check. As if there were a price tag on life. As if any dollar amount could replace what she’d lost.
She knelt to right a toppled flag against the gravestone, and beyond the pristine granite marker, at the border of the graveyard where the stones lined the cedars, she saw a flicker of pale light against the shadows.
Then the sun broke through the clouds and snuffed the specters in the light of day.
Since moving into the church, Mattie’s days had been long, but her nights had been her own. Now her nights belonged to the ghosts.
Each night a spirit would find her. Perhaps while reading a book, preparing dinner, or to her utter mortification, taking a bath. It mattered not to the residents of the graveyard what she was doing, it mattered only that she listened.
The Taylors joined her for dinner at least once a week, separately of course. And though they couldn’t eat, Mattie always set a place for them; it felt rude otherwise. One spirit visited almost nightly to tell Mattie about her concerns for the graveyard, from raccoons to seagulls, all manner of critters worried the anxious ghost.
Fall came and went, her evenings shared with a host of ghosts, each full of stories, concerns, and problems. Mattie became less a groundskeeper and more a caretaker, attending to the residents of the graveyard with more tenderness than she ever had the plants. Always, she strove to make them feel better; whole and cared for. Human.
She did that for all of them. All of them except the ghost of Bobby Boyd.
She lavished his tombstone, polishing it by day and visiting it by night. She wandered the dark grounds, her peacoat pulled tight and her collar high against the early winter chill, but still he never appeared.
Mattie finally decided she would wait him out. She moved the flowers and the flags, now shredded and sagging from the weather, gathered her skirt beneath her and sat with her back against his tombstone. The wind wove through the trees, the coarse branches waving and whispering against one another. She feared she might catch cold if she sat there too long.
“You do know you have to be alive to be a proper sexton, right?” The ghost with the high-collared coat stood beside the grave marker, peering down at her. “You’ll do us no good if you die of cold.”
“A bit late for that.”
“He died in the war. I know a little something about that.”
He squinted those too big eyes. “You lost someone.”
She lifted her chin. “Who didn’t?”
They stood in the cold wind and watched one another before the ghost said, “Tell me about him.”
“Her,” she corrected. “And I’d rather not.” She looked away from him. From his inhumanly still face. From the wide eyes that saw everything.
She didn’t want him to see the tears in her eyes.
“The war took something from us all,” he said once the quiet spread too long between them.
Mattie wiped at her face, but when her vision cleared the ghost was gone.
When the winter winds crashed against the coast, the visits from the graveyard’s denizens dwindled. She hadn’t expected the weather to affect the ghosts, but even they weren’t impervious to the ocean’s fury. She’d just grown accustomed to the quiet once more when, while reading a book in bed, she heard the stilted notes of the piano from down in the chapel.
She didn’t bother with a candle; after so many nights shared with the specters, she’d grown used to the dark. On bare feet, Mattie moved through the church silent as her tenants. When she reached the chapel a familiar figure in a high-necked coat hovered upon the piano bench, his thin fingers pressing the keys with effort.
It took incredible focus for the ghost’s fingers not to go through the keys, so that he could never press more than one at a time. He sat hunched before the instrument, hair heavy on his brow and his mouth set in a line.
Mattie wasn’t sure if it was the struggles of the piano that tormented him so, but watching him reminded her just how young the ghost was. Had been.
“I used to play,” he said.
She flinched at his voice. His words were sharp, the crack and crumble of boulders turned to rubble. A broken voice for a broken boy.
“When Pastor Evans was out of earshot, which was always since he’s half-deaf.” He chuckled, a sound dark as the moonless night beyond the windows. “I used to do a lot of things. Swim. Fish. Garden.” He turned luminous eyes on Mattie, and though they were large in his thin face, they were hollow and cold. “Care for this graveyard.”
Of course. The way the ghosts deferred to him, how he knew so much about the graveyard and its residents. How he’d never told her his name.
“You’re Bobby Boyd.”
He didn’t blink, didn’t lick his lips or look away or do any of the million little things the living did without thinking. The ghost of Bobby Boyd hovered at the piano, his hands poised over the keys and stared at her with too bright eyes.
He vanished. He didn’t dissolve like sea spray caught in the breeze, didn’t fade from view like the cape succumbing to the fog. One moment he sat at the piano, a shimmering and sad apparition, and the next Mattie stood alone in the chapel, gaping at the ivories and the faint indentations they wore.
She spun the plain gold band around her third finger. She maintained the grounds, the records, and the graveyard. She was the sexton, and a proper one too. She cared for the ghosts of this graveyard—Bobby Boyd would be no exception.
Days bled into nights, and the winter storms mellowed into the timid cheer of coastal spring. With warmer days came busier nights as tenant after tenant came to call on her after sunset. She convinced both Taylors to join her for dinner at least twice a week, and their bickering gradually turned into conversations. Mattie was certain that, given enough time, they would find common ground. Or at the very least, stop antagonizing one another on a nightly basis.
But of all the ghosts in her care, the one she most desperately wanted to see eluded her.
She thought she saw Bobby Boyd once, late at night, as a glimmer of moonlight against the cedars. She ran across the graveyard to meet him in just her nightgown. But when she reached the trees nothing greeted her but the dark and damp of cedar and salt. And suddenly she was furious. She was here. She wanted to help, and he was just going to wander the woods and mope?
“I know you’re out here Bobby Boyd!”
A cormorant warbled at her in irritation, but the dark was otherwise silent.
“And I have to tell you, I’m a little sick of this woe-is-me routine.” She glared at the trees, at the moss and the ferns. “I am sorry you died, Bobby. I’m sorry you were shipped off and snuffed out.” She winced at the words, her frustration sharpening them more than she liked. “I’d change it if I could.” Her voice caught, her throat tight as her eyes stung. “I would undo that whole damn war and you’d all be back where you belong.”
The cedars creaked and rustled in the breeze. Even with all the ghosts for company Mattie had never felt so alone. Standing there in the dark, surrounded by the trees and the sea breeze, she had never needed to talk to someone so badly.
So she talked.
“Rosie was a nurse, even before the war. We sobbed when we read about the camps.” Mattie would never forget the way Rosie’s tears had soaked through the newsprint, smudging the article with her compassion. “She enlisted the next morning.”
Alone and crying, she told their story to the night. How Rosie had kissed her for the first time, behind the ice cream parlor. About the private ceremony they’d had in their backyard years later, just the two of them and a friend. How Rosie had never once kept their love a secret, even when the whole town had shunned them for it.
How they’d fought before Rosie left. How Mattie had begged her, pleaded and screamed and demanded. How she threw her words at the woman she loved: “If you love me you’ll stay.”
How Rosie replied: “If you love me, you know I can’t.”
She wiped at her cheeks and nose, banishing the tears as more fell. “Then that letter came with the money and I didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know how to face all the places we’d made memories. I saw the ad in the paper and I—“ She shrugged. “I ran away.”
“But it didn’t work. I still carry Rosie with me. I think about her when I wake up and when I fall asleep. She’s never left me—I was haunted before I ever came to this graveyard.” Mattie shook her head. “I thought I came to this town to start over, but all I really did was start again. Same heartache, different town.”
Mattie wasn’t sure what she expected. Maybe that a heartfelt admission of her grief and loneliness would resonate with the ghost. That he’d appear like a mirage out of the trees to tell her she was right. That, thanks to her, he would try to make the best of his afterlife.
None of that happened.
Instead she stood in the dark, shivering and searching the trees for any sign of Bobby Boyd and finding nothing at all. She waited until the tears dried to salt on her cheeks, until her teeth chattered and her hands trembled and she knew she needed to get back inside.
She cast a final glance around the woods and sighed. “You know where to find me when you’re ready to talk.” She counted to ten, just in case he decided to show his face, and then she hurried back to the warmth of the church.
Weeks went by same as they had before. Dinners with the Taylors and days spent weeding and mulching and scrubbing. The time went quickly enough, the days getting easier as the sharp lance of grief ebbed into the dull ache of memory.
The days were easier, but her worry for Bobby Boyd weighed her down like an anchor.
One night in September when sleep proved impossible, Mattie stood at the window overlooking the coast. She’d opened it before going to bed, hoping the crash of the surf would soothe her anxious mind. But the chill wind prickled her skin and nipped at her fears, whipping her thoughts into whirlpools of doubt. She worried that Bobby’s spirit still wandered, that he lingered between the boy he’d been and the ghost he was. She feared that the war would haunt him long after the treaties were signed.
These thoughts consumed her, despite the calm hush of the sea, until a new sound climbed the steeple and floated through her window. A single note, high and chiming. Then another. And another. Until at last they melted together into a simple, lilting melody with the ocean for its guide.
She swayed to the song until she yawned, the notes easing her mind. With the ghost’s lullaby floating through the room Mattie returned to bed, a small smile on her face.
Bobby Boyd had come home from the war at last.