To the Bones

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To the Bones

Charley was a constant feature of the cemetery, and he was universally liked. It was difficult not to like him, and not just because he was a very simple man for whom tasks like writing a letter or doing mental arithmetic would be forever out of reach.

He lived in a rustic cabin on the cemetery grounds, just inside the main gates and to the right, and he was always there. He would come out to greet most visitors, even, and while he had to concentrate to tie his shoelaces, he could direct you to any gravestone just by being told the name inscribed there. He was also unfailingly polite and respectful, removing his flat cap whenever he spoke to a mourner, and he looked genuinely pained whenever anyone mentioned their family members who had passed on.

The people of the town were unsure what exactly the legal or financial situation was regarding the cemetery and Charley’s employment there, but there was no shortage of plots across the fenced-in fields, and Charley’s father before him had tended the graves in his own time. A woman in town handled all of the fees and payments, and ensured that Charley had enough to live on. The system seemed to work, and everyone was glad that the sweet, simple man had a role and a purpose for himself.

Charley worked very hard. He dug the graves when needed, starting with a machine but finishing by hand to ensure the job was neat. He covered the piles of earth with discreet green cloth, and he welcomed the mourners, then he stood a respectful distance away in absolute silence with his head bowed and his hat in his hands for each and every service. Then he would wait until everyone had left, and he would fill in the hole, re-lay some turf, and dust off the gravestone. He would go around every day, once or even twice, and tidy up. Flowers would be removed when they had wilted and started to look sad, litter would be taken away, and of course the grass would be cut and the paths tended. He painted the fences and the sign every few months, and the gates, and he generally made sure that everyone felt welcome.

Some of the people in the town had been into his cabin, too. He would always invite visitors in for tea if it was raining, and almost everyone declined, but a few were too curious to say no. And their reports of the interior of his home were just what everyone else expected: a little cluttered, and a little faded, but warm and cosy and in good order. He didn’t even have a TV, apparently, but he had a radio and he had some large-print children’s books that he was able to read without help. Then there was his pride and joy: his workshop, which took up almost a third of the space, complete with all his prized tools. Many had been gifts from grateful residents of the town, in recognition of his kindness, and his diligence, and his constancy. To the townsfolk, Charley was a reminder that even if you hadn’t had the best of luck in your life, you could still make a place for yourself, and have a purpose, and be well thought-of.

The only time of the week that Charley was likely to miss your visit, or not be there to direct you to where you needed to go, was a Thursday afternoon at around two o’clock. That was when he went to the oldest part of the cemetery, the part from before the town was incorporated, and he unlocked the door of the lone mausoleum, and descended the steps inside to the catacomb below. He tidied up in there too, though there was less to do because it was shielded from the weather and there had been no visitors for many years — indeed, none since his father’s day. It had never occurred to Charley that the entire family who owned it had died out, and were all in fact already resting there, but that was the case nonetheless. He closed the door behind him when he went in, and locked it too, because that was what his father had taught him to do. It was a mark of respect not to leave the door open to anyone who might wander in. Charley wasn’t frightened at all, and he never had been. He had grown up around death, and he knew it for what it was: a long and quiet thing, after the brief noise and movement of life.

On rare nights when the weather was severe, the local police would always check in on Charley. He was always fine, quite happily sitting in his cabin and listening to the radio while making a replacement fencepost, or reading one of his story books. In a way, he was the whole town’s beloved nephew, even though he was at least forty years old. Age sat lightly on a brow untroubled by complexity of mind, after all.

The kindly local police would also check in on Charley whenever there had another of the very infrequent but troubling disappearances. They had happened for years now, sometimes with a year or two between, and always fitting the same profile: young women, dark hair, last seen walking home alone after a night out in the town centre, then never heard from again. The police weren’t even sure that the six cases were connected at all, and it had been almost two years since the last one. They were unaware that the young people of the town liked to take a shortcut past the cemetery to get from where the pubs and nightclubs were, to the various housing developments on the outskirts.

Charley had seen the young people passing. He had seen them through his window, while the radio was on, and he didn’t understand where they’d been. He knew they must be going home — because it was always so late at night that it was actually the dark part of the morning of tomorrow — but he didn’t understand why they hadn’t been home hours ago, before the darkness came.

Once in a while, he’d even go out, and it was always in his mind to ask them where they had been, but they usually reacted with fright and ran away. There were a few who didn’t, though. They had large eyes and kind faces, and they had pretty smiles, and Charley thought that they looked like the beautiful people in the big pictures on the sides of buses, telling him what toothpaste to buy. He thought they looked like angels, still here even though the right place for them to be was the next place, where it was quiet forever.

It was so easy. It was so easy to just bring up the hammer so quickly — his favourite one, that he was given by the kind lady who saw that his old hammer’s handle had splintered, and gave him this new one with an actual ribbon and bow on it like it was Christmas — and then down they went, quiet at last, like an angel should be. Then he picked them up, wondering why he couldn’t see their wings, and he carried them all the way to the one door in the whole cemetery that wasn’t his.

He took them in, and he took them down, and he did his job.

He added to the bones.

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