Sebastian doesn’t mind the dead. He’s lived his entire life surrounded by towering stone tombs, crumbling brick walls, and iron fencing. It’s the living he has a harder time with.
He let Tim and Matthew leave early, to be with their families, and microwaved himself a slice of cold pizza. It’s best to do this ritual alone anyway. He’s not sure the others take the responsibility as seriously as he does and they talk too much. Sebastian prefers the silence of the night.
After pouring raspberry tea into a dark green thermos, he wraps his red woolen scarf around his neck, buttons his peacoat, and leaves his little stone cottage on the edge of the graveyard. He doesn’t bother locking the door. Nobody comes around after dark on Christmas Eve.
The tiny twinkling lights of his small decorated tree can be seen through the yellow frosted window, it makes him smile. Mother would be proud he’s carried on her traditions. He hoists the big burlap sack onto his shoulder and gives a nod to the glowing, full moon casting its light in rings through the thick grey fog.
Although it makes sense to start in the center of the graveyard and weave himself out like his mother taught him, he makes a quick detour to her grave. It sits in the furthest south corner under a sprawling oak tree draped in soft Spanish moss. The silvery strands of garland look like flowing water in the moonlight—ancient silken gowns.
Setting the bag on the damp grass, he unties the brown twine holding it closed. Gently, he pulls out a small pine tree clipping tied with a soft red satin ribbon—the prettiest piece for mother. Kissing it softly, he places it on the curling carved letters spelling out her name. Margery Higgins.
“Merry Christmas, mother.”
His voice sounds soft in the night and it brings with it a memory of her singing “Thankful Heart” while cooking split pea soup on the old gas stove. She’s got her bright red hair pulled back into a massive curly bun at the base of her neck, and she’s wearing an old tattered apron covered in stains. Her voice manages to be both soft and strong—exactly like her.
“With a thankful heart that is wide awake
I do make this promise every breath I take
Will be used now to sing your praise…”
Wiping at his eyes, he closes the bag and weaves his way to the large mausoleum in the exact center of the dense city of the dead. Passing hundreds of stone crosses, carved marble angels, and granite slabs, he at last arrives at a crumbling plaster tomb carved with over 50 names. Reading each one quietly to himself he holds within his heart a space of honor and love.
After he’s finished he opens the bag and places a large pine branch across the names. His fingers brush a soft patch of moss pushing through a splintering crack in the gravestone. He whispers into the night.
Repeating this process he makes his way through his workplace and home, one of the oldest cemeteries in New Orleans. He takes his role as caretaker seriously. Around hour three his back feels tight and he stops to take a drink of his hot tea. Silence spreads around him in all directions, thick and cold.
A feeling wiggles its way through his layers and lands heavily in his chest. He’s running out of time to find her. He turned 40 a few months ago and although he’s told himself he’s fine on his own, visions of a woman walking beside him continue to haunt his dreams.
She’s got soft eyes and bright pink cheeks. They’d make the cottage a home again, filling it with music and laughter. He’d teach her how to honor those forgotten and she’d tell him nothing is impossible with love. The thought makes him smile, but it quickly becomes a frown. It’s too late. He’s out of time. He missed his chance.
A part of him wants to fall onto the ground and sob at the thought of spending another Christmas alone. His mother died 10 years ago and he’s tried so hard to remain hopeful, but loneliness presses in on him from all sides. Its crushing weight makes him stumble and almost fall.
He looks at the night sky, hoping for a sign, a bright star peeking through the foggy gloom or the call of a night heron signaling change, but the misty darkness remains still and silent. Sebastian wipes tears from his eyes and takes a big sip of tea, letting the warmth fight against the paralyzing fear which has settled firmly in his gut.
Flipping open his grandfather’s golden pocketwatch he confirms what he already knew, its almost midnight. He sighs. He better get to it if he hopes to finish before the first rays of morning light peak over the horizon and burn off the thick fog. Love must be given first in order to receive it. He tucks the thermos back into his pocket and continues.
Lost in his rhythm of reading names and leaving a pine offering on each grave, Sebastian doesn’t see the woman until he almost bumps into her. A thick scent of vinegar and roses fills the air and he clears his throat to announce his presence. She responds by turning slowly toward him with a graceful, smooth movement reminding him of a swan or crane.
Dressed in layers of smoky grey and black clothing, the plump woman has thick silver ringlets peeking out from beneath a dark, lacy bonnet. The word “matriarch” comes to mind. Her eyes are cloudy but contain a hint of blue—hydrangeas in autumn when the color has almost fully drained.
She’s holding a white handkerchief covered in tiny pink embroidered butterflies. Sebastian finds his voice but it sounds shaky and small in the night. Almost a whisper.
“I’m sorry if I startled you. Not many people visit graves in the middle of the night.”
She doesn’t look startled and it’s a lame apology. He’s not sure he should be giving her one anyway. People aren’t allowed in the cemetery after sunset and he wonders if perhaps Tim forgot to lock the front gate. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The woman makes a small movement, a sort of slight wave, and the handkerchief blows from her hand and lands at his feet. Sebastian lifts it and gently shakes out a few dried leaves which instantly clung to the feathery soft piece of cloth. He hands it to her and she smiles.
“Thank you, dear.”
Her voice sounds rumbly—a snare drum in the night. He knows he should tell her to leave, but the softness of her eyes stops him. It’s Christmas, a time of magic and love. She must miss the person she’s visiting an awful lot to risk catching a cold or getting caught.
He gives her his best reassuring smile. She’s standing at the foot of one of the oldest graves, a tiny brick house covered in cracks and adorned with a simple marble vase he sometimes fills with flowers. She speaks in a scratchy, dry voice—an old voice.
“I called him Benny and he called me Etta. In our 50 years together we never spent a Christmas apart. When love burrows its way deep into your heart nothing can stop you from finding each other again and again. My home is with him…always.”
The old woman smiles at Sebastian and reaches out her hand. It doesn’t quite reach him. Her voice rumbles louder now—cracking like weak thunder.
“You know what I mean, don’t you dear?”
Sebastian looks at his feet and nods. He doesn’t know the kind of love she’s talking about, but he wants to. The painful sensation of time slipping away vibrates through his body ringing like a brass bell. Where is she? Why can’t he find her? He presses the toe of his boot into the ground, making a round hole in the soft dirt.
The woman doesn’t move but, somehow, suddenly feels closer. Her eyes meet his and a rush of wind blows around them filling the air with swirling bits of dirt and dust. Sebastian closes his eyes and the woman speaks directly into his ear—a cold breath sending shivers through his body.
“It’s never too late for love. Don’t give up hope. She will find you. Keep your heart open. Magic happens for those who love and care for others like you do. Oh, dear, sweet, Sebastian. Don’t. Give. Up.”
In an instant, all is quiet and still again. Sebastian opens his eyes and isn’t entirely surprised to find he’s alone. Pulling out a small sprig of pine with tiny blueberries, he places it across the names Benedict Murray and Henrietta Murray—Benny and Etta. He smiles.
“Merry Christmas, Etta. I won’t give up.”
Throwing the burlap sack back onto his shoulder he moves to the next gravesite. This time he sings a little song.
“Stop and look around you
The glory that you see
Is born again each day
Don’t let it slip away
How precious life can be.”
Author’s note: With Christmas upon us, I wanted to write something sweet and hopefully touching for those reading during such a festive time. I hope you enjoyed my little ghost story and if you are feeling blue this time of year, please don’t give up. Keep being the loving beautiful soul you are and things will get better. Thank you for supporting me and lifting me up with all your wonderful comments on each of my stories. May your holidays be merry and bright!
Short Story Challenge | Week 51
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where magic interferes in New Orleans. We had to include the words matriarch, throat, impossible, vinegar, apology, snare, choose, raspberry, microwave, and slice.
Write With Us
Prompt: Caught in the rain
Include: Las Vegas, radiology, etch, funeral, textile, sweep, wholesale, wildlife and English
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger
- Week 33: The Masterpiece
- Week 34: The Blackberry Quest
- Week 35: The Broken Shell
- Week 36: The Octopus in the Room
- Week 37: With a Touch of the Tapestry
- Week 38: Meet Me at the Elephant Ears
- Week 39: The Wheels on the Bus
- Week 40: Room 313
- Week 41: The Cornfield
- Week 42: Afraid of the Dark
- Week 43: The Abandoned Church
- Week 44: Let’s Go to the Ocean
- Week 45: A Night at the Carnival
- Week 46: Late Night Visitor
- Week 47: Chalky Hands
- Week 48: Under the Sign
- Weel 49: Full Moon Harvest
- Week 50: Emerald Shoes