Sample Sunday: Excerpt from NIGHTWALKERS (Book One: Night Child)
He was standing in the grave, shoulder deep. From his low vantage point the inky sky seemed to press down on him and surround him, seemed so close that if he desired, he could reach and collect a fistful of ice crystal stars.
The stars didn’t hold Henry’s attention. Whatever it was that gave him the sense that he was not alone wasn’t in the sky. He stuck his shovel in the floor of the grave and focused instead on his ground-level surroundings, squinting, peering as deeply as he could into the pressing darkness of the graveyard.
Oscar’s corpse lay on the ground within arm’s reach of the grave, wrapped from head to foot in the burlap sackcloth that would serve as his burial shroud. In the darkness Oscar’s body was an oblong lump. Henry let his gaze linger on the body for a moment. He discarded that consideration before it could blossom into foolish fear. Oscar was dead. He wouldn’t be looking at anything, ever again.
A half dozen yards beyond the corpse, nearly invisible in the dark, the gray mule stood hitched to the cart Henry used to bring Oscar out to the plantation graveyard. The mule stood as still as the nearby gravestones. It could have been dead on its feet, it was so still. Except that its head was up, reared back like the beast was ready to go up on its hind legs either to kick, or to wheel and run. Moonlight caught its eyes and made them gleam blackly. Its ears shot straight out, as if straining to hear. As if it sensed too that something was out there.
Henry held his breath and listened. He heard nothing. If he had put his fingers in his ears the night would not have been quieter.
Even the night crickets had nothing to say. No breeze stirred the leaves in the forest at his back. Had the woods ever been so quiet, even at night? Instinct made Henry turn that way, toward the woods, but the mound of displaced earth blocked his view of the trees.
He imagined something lurking on the other side of the mound, listening for him as he listened for it. But no animal would do that. And it couldn’t see him from the other side of the mound, which was what Henry sensed—that at that very moment someone or something was looking at him.
Facing the mound, he caught the scent of raw earth; a clean and not unpleasant smell. But another scent lingered beneath that of the fresh-dug soil, one less pleasant—a putrid odor of decay that made him wonder if the blade of his shovel had sliced through earthworms while he dug Oscar’s grave. Or perhaps that subtle stench came from Oscar. He had after all been dead since just after sunrise. And that was what the underlying scent brought to mind: death.
Henry wished that Mr. Johnson had not sent him out alone to dig Oscar’s grave.
He wished more that Mr. Johnson had not killed Oscar.
He turned in the grave and looked at the corpse again. He imagined that beneath the sackcloth Oscar’s eyes were open, and that the old man observed him with malicious regard.
Stop being a fool, Henry told himself. The dead cannot see. Oscar’s been dead all day and he’s going to stay dead, Lord have mercy on his soul. He wiped his brow with his forearm searched the night again.
The graveyard lay on a plot of land at the edge of Mr. Glenwood Johnson’s five hundred acre plantation, about a quarter mile from the big house occupied by the Johnson family and the cabins occupied by the men, women and children the Johnsons once owned.
Henry peered in the direction of the wagon trail that dissected the potato field beyond the graveyard and led back to the big house. He saw no one out there; could only make out the full moon’s icy glint on the nearest rises in the plowed field and on the wheel ruts in the trail. And yet he felt eyes on him, watching.
At twenty-five years old Henry had reached his full height of six feet. He was quick and strong. He had outwrestled every worker on Johnson’s farm who had challenged him. However, standing more below ground than above it he felt exposed and vulnerable. If someone or something were to spring out of the night at him he would be almost helpless to defend himself.
He had brought a torch along; he’d left it in the bed of the mule cart. He wished that he had thought to light it before the sun went down, before night caught him standing in the grave. He wished he were back in his cabin, safe and warm, not out here alone in the cooling night, in a dead man’s grave.
Henry heard something—a rhythmic wheezing so thin it was almost a whistle. It was close. His eyes shot to Oscar’s wrapped corpse, and he was certain now that the old man had awakened from death. He stumbled backward, and something touched him in the small of his back.
Henry whirled and swung wildly. His fist sailed over the handle of the shovel he’d stuck in the dirt. The scream he’d been about to let go died in his open mouth. He’d backed into the shovel handle.
He heard the whistling breaths again, louder now, and realized that the sound was coming from him. Fear had gripped his breath tight in its fist, had squeezed it down to a wheeze.
Fighting back panic, he tossed the shovel out of the grave, hoisted himself up and out, and hurried to the mule cart.
He felt no better being above ground. He was fully exposed to the night and whatever lurked within its shadows. Something that watched him.
As he reached the cart he had a wild notion that behind him old Oscar had turned his head to follow his movement, and was staring at him through the sackcloth with dead his eyes. He imagined that Oscar was wriggling and struggling, trying to get free of his burlap binding so that he could get up and come after him and take vengeance for their letting his body lay all day in the back of the mule cart while they worked. The hairs on the nape of Henry’s neck stiffened as he anticipated the clawed grip of the old man’s fingers digging into his shoulders from behind. With jittering hands he lit the torch and turned around, his imagination having him ready to fight or run.
Oscar lay unmoving 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. Farthest away, nearest the big house, were the gravestones of members of the Johnson family. Closer to the forest stood the grave markers of the McClintock’s, who had owned the plantation generations ago, before the Johnsons.
The slaves were buried closest to the forest. With the exception of the few simple wooden crosses that had not succumbed to time and the elements, their graves were unmarked. Henry saw nothing unusual within the area of the graveyard.
Seeing nothing in the graveyard or in the direction of the big house, 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 black-curtained forest.
Torchlight flickered against the tree trunks at the edge of the woods, but did not penetrate into its deeper shadows. Instead the dancing light played tricks with Henry’s 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, out of its reach.
Henry had 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 while they earned their keep.
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 rolled in sackcloth and stowed in the back of a mule cart amongst sacks of seeds all day while they plowed and planted. They didn’t voice their opinions too loudly, however. Mr. Johnson no longer owned them, but he still employed them, 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; now thirteen since Mr. Johnson 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. He didn’t want to touch the corpse again. But 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. He could at least give him that.
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; could hurt no one. He was dead.
Hanging on to that reassurance, Henry jammed the torch into the mound of displaced earth. He 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 to the grave. Carefully he pulled the corpse over the edge of the grave. The hair on his nape crawled in anticipation that Oscar would suddenly begin struggling in his arms, trying to free himself from his wrappings to clamp his cold, gnarled fingers around his throat. But beyond the lifeless flop of dead weight into his arms when his body cleared the edge of the grave, Oscar did not move.
Gently Henry laid his friend in his final resting place. Being careful not to step on Oscar, he straightened up, and the certainty that someone else was in the graveyard struck him like a blow.
Desperate to get out of the grave Henry braced his palms on the dirt to boost himself out again. The crawling at his nape became cool talons clawing down his back, making him shudder. He braced for the clutch of Oscar’s bony fingers on his legs 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. With the grave and the forest at his back he 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.
To calm his nerves he told himself that if someone were out there, it was likely someone from the cabins. Mr. Johnson had probably finally felt guilty about what he’d done and sent someone to help him bury Oscar. That someone—most likely one of the younger men like Junie or Hank—probably thought it would be fun to try to scare him before revealing himself. Or maybe they were hiding to get out of helping him.
Well, he had no more time for such foolish thoughts. He was anxious to finish burying Oscar and get back to his cabin to eat and rest.
The mule snorted and hoofed the ground.
Henry turned around, intending to set the torch down and pick up the shovel.
The child was standing behind him, on the other side of Oscar’s grave.
Once again Henry wanted to scream. This time he purposely choked back his cry. To scream would mean he believed the little girl was there, standing on the far side of Oscar’s grave. To scream would be his admission that for the past seventeen years he had been lying to himself. To scream would mean that what he had told himself was no more than a childhood nightmare was in truth a memory.
NIGHTWALKERS BOOK ONE: NIGHT CHILD