The Groundskeeper

Chuck Wendig’s latest Flash Fiction Challenge: choose 4 items* from ten random objects and include them in your story. 1000 words is the aim. This is also my 100th post!

        Strange things happen in the bedroom of the dead. I’ve heard bagpipes in the middle of the night when there is no one else around. I’ve smelled gunpowder that faded like the mist that rises and falls without warning. I’ve seen the trinkets people leave behind disappear and reappear. I take care not to touch anything. Even the jewelry stays until the rain washes it away or rusts it or the wind takes it. There was a service for an officer and someone left his badge on the stone. I left it where it was, shining on the headstone in the setting sun. I never know what the families think when they come back to visit and things are gone. Maybe they think their loved ones retrieved their little treasures. Maybe they curse the groundskeepers. That’s what Momma said before she ran off: that the living–not the dead–ruined us. But Dad’s family owned this plot of land for centuries and he wasn’t leaving. You’d think living around death for your whole life—playing knights and cowboys among the mossy gravestones and the crumbling mausoleums–would make it all easier. Then, I buried Dad; and I finally learned why he didn’t leave.
         He wasn’t a pack-rat like I am, but there was enough clutter around to keep me busy, to keep me from noticing the silence. In the process of boxing up his stuff, I found an envelope on his desk. It sat on the welter of tangled rubber bands, stray papers and yellowed receipts. The old iron horseshoe he used as a paperweight held it down. It had my name on the front. I sat down in Dad’s chair and opened it with his favorite letter-opener, the iron horseshoe on my knee. I could feel the cold, familiar weight of it through my jeans. I remembered what he always said about horseshoes and luck and smiled as I pulled out the letter and read Dad’s spidery handwriting.
        I guess there are people out there who seek out destiny—for a sign that their life has a path laid out to greatness. I never thought about it. I would tend the dead until they turned into bones—until I joined their ranks. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I never knew Dad to be much of a storyteller, but, in that letter, he told of the early days when the world was still trembling from creation and drawing its first breaths, no need for us in that verdant beginning. Only after death came into the world did we become necessary. I’m sure you’ve heard the myth about Charon, the ferryman who takes the souls of the dead across the river Styx in his little boat. Same general idea, but without the boat. Now, we were just the Watchers, the Keepers. He left me a set of keys and a big silver ring with an emerald in it—the tools of a new Keeper. I thought it was Dad playing a final practical joke, albeit an odd one. I put the ring on my finger and the keys in a drawer.
        Almost a year later, I watched a hearse pull out of the gates from the cottage window. The cottage is set back from the road, where the oldest stones and tombs are. Something caught my attention—I knew this part of the cemetery like the back of my hand. Leaning against a wind and rain-scoured stone was a guitar. No case, nothing. The pale wood on the body was shiny, freshly polished and I thought I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. I looked around—I knew better than anybody that this was a great place to find some solitude. I called out, but no one answered. There was the threat of rain in the low clouds and the wind was picking up. I walked over to retrieve the guitar. The wood was silky smooth when it met my fingers; the strings looked brand new.
        I carried it inside and laid it on the table to take a better look. There was a marking on the neck under the strings—carved into the wood. I looked down at the ring on my index finger—I always felt a little silly wearing it–and realized it was the same funny symbol carved into the silver band. It always puzzled me–a three-pronged trident and some kind of flower. I stood very still, feeling like icy snakes were wriggling under my skin and in the pit of my belly. I reached out to pick up the instrument, not sure why my fingers trembled. The wood felt warm in my hands, like it had been sitting in the sunlight for hours. I propped one foot on a chair and rested it on my knee, arranging my fingers on the neck and giving the strings a gentle strum. Perfectly tuned. The snakes in my belly writhed along with the notes hanging in the air. It seemed to shimmer around me, like a mirage. I hadn’t played in years, but it seemed like yesterday.
         “You know, the last time someone played an instrument for me there was a wager,” the voice behind me held repressed laughter. “You know the song, I’m sure. Of course, Johnny got it all wrong, can’t blame Mr. Daniels for that.”
         I was afraid to turn around, the strings beneath my fingers hummed with every word, thrumming like my heartbeat.
         “I hope you like it—you’re the first musical Keeper in centuries.”
         I turned then to look at the strange man. He looked young—no older than me–with fair skin and hair. I almost would have wondered if he was an albino if I hadn’t see the eyes; I swear they were black. My mouth felt dry and I didn’t know if I imagined the scent of sulfur.
         “You can play safely, you know. I prefer the fiddle,” he smiled and I saw that his teeth were black, too.
         He waved a long, skeletal hand at the guitar.
         “Besides, I already own your soul.”

*I chose: a police officer’s badge, an unopened envelope, an iron horseshoe and a dead man’s guitar