Excerpt from the Forthcoming Novel “Nightwalkers”
Hanover County, Virginia
Standing shoulder deep in the grave Henry looked around. From his low vantage point and in the dark couldn’t see very far. The only sign of life he could see was the old mule hitched to the cart he’d used to bring Oscar out to the plantation graveyard.
The graveyard lay on a plot of land at the edge of Mr. Glenwood Johnson’s five hundred acre plantation, about a half mile from the big house occupied by the Johnson family and the cabins occupied by the men, women and children the Johnsons had once owned.
Henry peered into the darkness in the direction of the big house. He couldn’t see much, only the full moon’s icy glint on the nearest rises in the plowed potato field, and on the wheel ruts in the narrow trail that dissected the field. He didn’t see anyone standing in the field or on the trail, or any sign of life save for the mule hitched to the cart he’d used to bring old Oscar to his final resting place.
He looked at Oscar’s body, which lay an arm’s reach from the grave, wrapped from head to foot in the burlap sackcloth that would serve as his burial shroud. He imagined that Oscar’s eyes were open, and that he was looking at him through the sackcloth with malicious regard. Henry shivered, not because of the night air, and then told himself that he was being foolish. The dead could not see. He wiped his brow with his forearm and looked around again.
Stop being a fool, he told himself. Oscar’s been dead all day and he’s going to stay dead, Lord have mercy on his soul.
At twenty-five years old Henry had reached his full height of six feet, and he stood shoulder-deep in the grave. However, standing more below ground than above it in the darkness, he suddenly felt uneasy. He felt vulnerable. If someone or something were to spring out of the darkness at him he’d be almost helpless to defend himself.
He’d brought a torch along; it was in the bed of the mule cart. He wished that he had thought to light it before the sun went down. His wish became urgent need. He tossed the shovel aside, hoisted himself out of the grave and hurried to the mule cart.
The feeling that he was being watched grew stronger. He imagined that behind him, old Oscar had turned his head to follow his movement, and was staring at him with dead eyes through the sackcloth. He imagined that Oscar was struggling, trying to wriggle from the sackcloth, trying to get free so that he could get up and come after him, come after him and take vengeance for them letting his body lie all day in the back of the mule cart while the rest of them worked. The hairs on the back of Henry’s neck stiffened as he anticipated the grip of the old man’s fingers clutching at his shoulders from behind. With trembling hands he lit the torch and turned around, his imagination having him ready to fight or run.
Oscar still lay next to the grave. He was still dead.
Henry held the torch out like a protective shield and looked around the graveyard again. Now he could see the headstones at the graves of the white former occupants of the plantation. With the exception of the few simple wooden crosses that had not succumbed to time and the elements, the closer slave graves were unmarked. He saw nothing unusual within the area of the graveyard.
Beyond the gravesite in the direction of the big house the trail and the field still appeared empty, so Henry turned slowly around, scanning the darkness for as far as he could see, until he faced the grave he’d dug for Oscar, and beyond it, the dark forest.
Blades of torchlight flickered against the tree trunks at the edge of the woods, but didn’t penetrate into its deeper shadows. Instead the dancing light played tricks with his eyes, making it appear that many things moved stealthily in the inky depths just beyond the reach of the firelight.
He looked away from the illusion, down at Oscar’s body. He imagined again that beneath the cloth, the old man’s eyes were open and staring angrily up at him. Gooseflesh pimpled his arms and he backed a step away from the body.
He’d had no choice about how Oscar’s body had been treated. Glenwood Johnson – who owned the plantation and had once owned Henry and the rest of the workers – had ordered that they complete the day’s planting before Oscar was laid to rest. Mr. Johnson had grumbled that Oscar wasn’t going anywhere in the meantime.
The Negroes who had remained on Johnson’s plantation after the war felt that after a lifetime of servitude, Oscar deserved better than to have his body wrapped in burlap and stowed in the back of a mule cart amongst sacks of seed all day while they plowed and planted. They didn’t voice their opinions too loudly, however. Mr. Johnson no longer owned them, but he was still their employer, and they had to obey his work orders just as they had before the war and before emancipation.
Of the nearly seventy slaves on the plantation before the Civil War, only fourteen remained as free people three years after it ended, and thirteen since Mr. Johnson had killed Oscar that morning. But the work still had to be done, and there were many fewer bodies remaining to do it. So burying Oscar had had to wait, and it was late afternoon before Mr. Johnson had directed Henry to go on and bury him. Alone.
Henry didn’t want to climb back down into the grave in the dark; however he felt that tossing Oscar’s body into the hole as if he were a dead dog would be a final and unnecessary disrespect to the old man. Oscar deserved better. He deserved to be laid to rest with a little dignity.
Still feeling that unseen eyes were on him, Henry reminded himself that Oscar’s body was just an empty shell. The Good Lord had taken his spirit away. Oscar saw nothing; could watch nothing. He was dead.
Hanging on to that reassurance, Henry jammed the torch in the mound of earth he’d displaced while digging, took a deep breath to steady his nerves, and jumped back into the grave. Immediately his feeling of exposure and vulnerability returned.
Standing in the grave again, Henry imagined what it might feel like to be buried out here all alone or worse, to be buried alive and left out here in the dark with no one to hear your final dirt-choked screams.
Stop thinking such foolishness. Get a move on and get Oscar in this grave and get yourself out.
Henry reached and grabbed double fistfuls of burlap and dragged Oscar’s body closer. Carefully he lifted and lowered the old man down into the grave. When he straightened up the sense that he wasn’t alone became so intense that he almost expected to hear someone speak his name.
Anxious to get out of the hole Henry braced his palms on the dirt and boosted himself up. His fear made him anticipate with all certainty the clutch of Oscar’s bony fingers on his pant leg as the dead man tried to pull him back down into the death hole. But his legs swung free of the grave.
Standing, Henry grabbed the torch again. If someone was out here, it was likely someone from the cabins. Mr. Johnson had probably started feeling guilty about what he’d done and sent someone to help him bury Oscar. That someone – probably one of the younger men – likely thought it would be fun to try to scare him before showing himself.
With the grave and the woods at his back, Henry squinted out into the darkness toward the other graves, toward the field, toward the trail. He saw no sign of human or animal presence. Still, the feeling that eyes were watching him remained.
Well, he had no more time for such foolish thoughts. He was anxious to finish burying Oscar and get back to his cabin.
Henry turned around, intending to set the torch down and pick up the shovel.
The little girl was standing on the other side of the grave.