Walter eased against a soft log and stared at the pale moon through the cascading leafy branches of a weeping willow tree and thought about how he’d spend his fortune. Earl just thought he was mad.
It was almost time. They had smoked the last of the tobacco and swallowed the last of the coffee. Both men were vagabonds — soon to be no more.
“Let me see it again, just to be sure,” Earl said.
Walter handed him a torn piece of newspaper. “You done read it twice already. What’s once more gonna do ya?”
“I just wanna be sure is all,” Earl said, carefully unfolding the paper with his grimy hands. Dirt was beginning to build underneath his fingernails and he hadn’t had a good washing in weeks. Overall, he stunk like sour garbage. Both men did, actually. But when you’re a drifter, you get used to that stink. The pungent odor of failure.
Earl held the paper close to the crackling campfire. His faced gleamed an ochre hue as he read the obituary for a third time:
Hilda Boggs, aged thirty-four, heiress to Franklin Boggs, a wealthy fur trader, died Wednesday of a heart complication at her home. She is survived by her daughter, Lillian Boggs, and her husband, Ernest Boggs.
A private service will be held on this morning of May 15, 1901 to close friends and family on their estate, where she’ll be buried.
Hilda was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and was known for her generosity, donating her time and money to the University and local church.
Earl handed the paper back to Walter who tossed it into the fire. The article burned fast, sending black flakes of ash into the air like confetti.
“Now let me see the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“The slab, you idjit!”
“You’re a pain in my ass sometimes Earl, you know that? You can’t even read the damned thing.”
“So. It’s interesting.”
“You can’t even spell interesting.”
Earl pouted his lip and shooed his hand at Walter. “Say what you want, but I won’t believe it until I see it.” His eyes grew enormous as he said this, his face once again glowing from the small fire.
“Oh all right. Fine!” Walter reached into a worn knapsack, held together with thin stitching, and removed a stone tablet. With both hands, he carefully passed it to Earl.
“Hold it like—”
“Like a delicate piece of art. Yeah, yeah, I know. You must’ve told me once if you’ve told me a hundred times. I don’t why you’ve been holdin’ out on me until now to see it.”
“Because it is a delicate piece of art,” Walter stated. “It’s not something to be showed off to with all your buddies.”
Earl rubbed a grubby hand over the tablet’s etching, caressing every groove with a knobby, soiled finger. In the distance an owl spoke, causing a colony of bats to flee across the night sky as two elongated gray clouds shifted in front of the moon.
“You can read this here? This–”
“Dialect. Yes sir.”
“How? I mean, where’d you learn a language made of shapes and lines and things?”
Unable to relax from Earl’s questioning, Walter sat up, somewhat frustrated.
“A medicine man.”
“Yup. Met him at a fancy masquerade ball. There was caviar and champagne, and nice, beautiful–”
“Quit pullin’ my leg, Walter!”
Amused from his own sarcasm, Walter said: “I met him down in the bayou. He let me shack up with him for a couple of days if I’d let him see it.”
Earl gasped. “You mean you let him see your…?”
“No! The tablet. He wanted to see the stone tablet that you’re holding right now. He said it holds great power. He even recorded the translation for me.” Walter removed another piece of raggedy paper from a thin pocket and held it up for Earl to see.
“Whew. You had me concerned ‘cause we’re out here in the back wood and all, you know — alone!” Earl adjusted himself, now resting his head on his shoulder and ran his open-toed boot into the dirt. “So you got the note from the medicine man, but where’d you get the tablet?”
“Never mind that, Earl. Look.”
Holding the tablet, Earl lied down on his back and titled his head backward. He saw two guards on the Boggs’ Estate circling the family graveyard. “You know Walter, they don’t look so scary when they’re upside down.”
Walter reached for a pail and poured the water he retrieved from a nearby well earlier over the flames. It quietly hissed back at him. “Help me cover this thing so the smoke don’t go giving us away.”
Earl did as instructed. He didn’t understand much, and although the fire they built was tiny, he did have enough sense to know if the guards spotted them before their plan even had a chance to unfold, they’d both be drawn at the quarters before midnight.
Lillian’s Diary: May 16, 1901
We buried Hilda, my mother, into the ground next to Grandpa Franklin and Grandma Reese yesterday. But last night I saw her in the worst of conditions. She looked very sick. Sicker than she had when she was here in our home the morning her heart stopped.
A man stood above her, a guard, and another man of whom I don’t know. They all laid on the ground below him. Hilda’s head was missing from her body. I believe this means there will be another funeral service soon.
Just like Hilda, Ernest, my father, has never showed any interest in me and I don’t believe that he will begin to now, even though she is dead. So long as I have Arthur here, our butler, I will be cared for.
However, the man. He held a sack in his arms and before he rushed away into the darkness, he blew me a kiss. He seemed like a nice man.
After wafting away the smoke from the extinguished fire, Walter used the bright moonlight to read from the tablet:
Dee-ka Mansei Frilish
Dee-ka Mansei Frilish
He repeated those words several times aloud. Earl kept his focus on the two guards who wore royal blue uniforms embroidered with a golden crest on the left side of each lapel. Service rifles rested on each of their shoulders as they stood watch. Both men were almost identical in size, thin and every bit of six feet tall.
“Did it work?” Earl asked.
Walter and Earl remained quiet and listened to the bullfrogs sing over the chirping crickets. The moon was fully exposed now—emanating a sort of spotlight on the family gravestones. One guard suddenly nudged the other and turned his attention to Hilda Boggs’ tombstone.
“Do you hear that?” he asked. “Sounds like bells chiming.”
The other guard nodded. Disarming themselves, they put their rifles on the ground next to the mort safe that covered Hilda’s grave and placed their ears to the soft earth where she had been buried that morning.
“Sh-she’s alive?” The guard asked. His face twisted in horror as the words came stammering out.
“Stay here,” ordered the other guard. “Maybe her body is settling? Here’s my key. Unlock the mort safe. I’ll get the shovels just to be sure.”
The guard soon returned with two shovels. By this time, they could hear the sound of chains jingling into one another. Both men titled the heavy iron cage onto its side and immediately started digging.
“Yeah,” Walter whispered. “It worked.”
Earl was lying on his stomach and kicking his feet about like an excited child waiting for a magician to remove a rabbit from his hat.
“Stop all that stirring, Earl. They’ll hear you.”
“Not with all them chains and bells hollerin’ they won’t.”
The guards’ shovels moved steadfast, removing layers upon layers of dirt in heaping mounds as they dug up Hilda Boggs. They paused for a moment to rest and to stretch out their tired backs when the loose dirt below them began to shift. The bells now rang louder, faster, clanging against metal chains with ferocity inside Hilda’s coffin.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” said the stammering guard. “M-m-maybe we should call a doctor.”
“Keep your eyes to the shovel and keep digging. We needn’t worry Mr. Boggs quite yet.”
Shwoop-shwoop-shwoop went the shovels, until finally — a thud! The coffin! It bounced from corner to corner, back and forth. They stared at the gold-plated casket, mouths gaping until finally the lid forced itself open.
There she was. Hilda Boggs. Back from the dead.
Her mouth hung open like she had to sneeze. Inside, rotted teeth. Her eyes were swollen and their sockets were sunk into her skull. The stammering guard cautiously moved back. The other knelt down and leaned over her grave to get a closer look.
“Mrs. Boggs?” he said, to who he wasn’t sure.
She released an agonizing moan and raised her frail arm decorated with gold bracelets. With a withered hand, she pulled the guard through the suspended bells and chains and into the coffin with her.
“L-L-Leonard!” cried the other guard, his hands on top of his head in disbelief.
Leonard’s screams were soon a quiet plea as Hilda chewed at his throat. She let his warm blood seep from his neck and slowly slid two pointed fingers into each of his nostrils while she drank.
Bits of bone and flesh were discarded from the grave like leftover courses from an undesired meal. They landed at the stammering guard’s feet. His skin was pale and Walter and Earl watched in amazement as he slowly dropped to his knees and fainted.
One crippled hand sank into the ground, followed by another, and Hilda planted her face onto the wet grass.
Meanwhile, Earl buried his head into his arm, unable to watch, while Walter rubbed his chin, anticipating.
Hilda’s long dark hair hung over her face as she pulled herself from her grave. No longer her eternal resting place, but now Leonard’s. She slowly reached for the stammering guard.
“Look,” Walter said, his voice a curious whisper. “She’s going for the other one.” The fascination in Walter’s eyes made Earl nervous. He suddenly found himself missing his former life underneath the bridge where Walter met him a few weeks ago — drunk, wet, and hungry. At least then he was drunk and being wet and hungry was far better than being eaten alive by a woman who just climbed out of her own grave. Earl now had something to finally be thankful for. His life.
Hilda straddled the guard and wrapped her hands around his throat. His eyes shot open, and as he reached for his breath, she bit down on his curled tongue and vehemently shook her head.
A raspy, failed cry for help was all he could muster as she chomped away on his fleshy tongue. His eyes bulging, his face purple, while he mouth the word “How” into the form of a statement before exhausting his last breath.
“What have you done?” Earl said.
“I just unlocked our buried fortune,” Walter replied.
Lillian’s Diary: April 21, 1904
I thought something familiar about Mr. Pearce when I first met him but I couldn’t place from where. Although he had a nice round body (he swore he used to be very, very, frail), he was handsome: dark brown eyes, stout shoulders, and a prominent stature. But it wasn’t his physicality that I was attracted to. It was his charm.
He knew how to impress a lady, providing me with far more than the basic necessities. He often surprised me with expensive jewelry and frequent trips to the movie house. We spent most of our time at home, reading stories by the likes of Stephen Crane. My favorite of his being ‘Maggie’. I could relate to her abandonment. We both came from disconcerting parents. And although we never spoke of our dramatic pasts, we both had in common that our immediate families had either passed on or had just forgotten about us entirely. And much like my Arthur, he also loved and cared for me.
Walter removed a small axe from his knapsack and gripped the wooden handle with confidence.
“C’mon Earl. It’s time to take what’s ours.”
Earl was still on the ground, shifting his body into different positions, trying to come to grips with what was happening. “I don’t know if I have the strength, Walter. I didn’t think it could happen. That you could bring someone back from the dead like this.”
“Aren’t you tired of poverty? This improper way of living?”
“We have the opportunity to say ‘fare-thee-well’ to the scant life. Do you want to live out your days shivering in the cold all alone when you could be drinking wine from a crystal glass next to someone warm?”
He nodded again.
“Then stop your whimpering and let’s get what’s been owed to us!” Walter helped Earl to his feet and they left their camp of self-pity behind.
They found Hilda standing above the guard, his life squeezed out of him by her cold, dead hands. Axe readied, Walter placed the knapsack down cautiously as he and Earl slowly paced around her.
Hilda’s eyes were yellowed, bloodshot. Her arms outstretched as she bit at something that wasn’t there. The blood from the guards’ once existent bodies was now randomly splotched on her gray, decaying skin.
She swooped a jeweled arm at Walter, making the precious metals clack together. He swung his axe, missing her by a few inches. Meanwhile, Earl steadied his arms, looking as if he could follow suit with the stammering guard and pass out himself as he placed one careful foot in front of the other.
“That’s it,” Walter said. “Just a little closer…”
Hilda swung her head toward him, then back to Earl, watching both men now as Walter taunted her with a welcoming hand. Her body swayed with an unusual grace as if she was searching for a light source in a dark room, deciding on which man to attack first.
“Just get her already Walter, so we can be gone. She’s dead for God’s sake.”
“Medicine Man said you can’t get too close to them. You saw what she did to those guards.”
“We gonna be rich…right, Walter? I just wanna–”
Before Earl could finish, he tripped over his own nervous legs. Hilda swooped over top of him without warning, like an eagle does to a fish swimming too close to the water’s surface, and bit down on his arm.
Her jaws were strong as they tore through flesh and snapped through bone. It didn’t take long for Earl to realize he no longer had use of his right limb. Although a clean break, it was mangled at the end with shredded tissue.
Between screams he pleaded to Walter “Get her off me!” This commotion caused curiosity from the Boggs’ residence as lights went up inside the Victorian-style home.
Walter leaned over Hilda’s shoulder, keeping himself at a safe distance, and watched Earl’s face contort into madness. He then shrugged his shoulders and spoke over Hilda’s growl.
“I guess the split goes in my favor. Sorry, Earl.”
Earl’s good hand was full of Hilda’s hair as he squirmed beneath her, trying to free himself from the monster. Her face was now buried into his side and her hand began creeping up his face. He tried to pull away, rolling his head in different directions, but he was getting dizzy from blood loss. His struggle soon ended as she shoved those two sharp fingers into his nostrils. They travelled up his nasal passage, split his nose across his cheeks, and punctured his soft brain.
Hilda looked up at the moon through her long, matted hair and whipped her head back and tilted it to the side. She looked confused with her actions. She glanced at Walter with hopeless, demeaning eyes as he sent the sharp end of the axe against her neck. Her head rolled some few feet and fell into her grave. For a moment, her decapitated body remained still before it timbered on top of Earl, who was no longer a vagrant involved in a grave robbery, but a poor victim of persuasion, magic, and greed.
Up ahead, Walter heard shouting and saw lanterns bobbing in the distance. He quickly filled his knapsack with gems, diamonds, and gold from Hilda’s body. The lanterns were getting closer, the shouting grew louder. The faint rustle of chains were also heard from the nearby tombs of Grandma Reese and Grandpa Franklin.
Cradling the knapsack, Walter took one last look at the house. He saw a young woman staring at him through the upstairs window next to red velvet curtains. A blank look on her face. In the moment of victory, he put his hand to his mouth and blew her a kiss. It was Walter’s way of saying “thank you and goodbye”. Thank you for the loot, and goodbye to this nightmare.
Lillian’s Diary: June 12, 1904
I finally have the courage to encounter my past, albeit on paper. Love will do that. Give you confidence. Maybe one day I’ll be able to speak about it, but for now, my diary will have to suffice me.
After the mysterious man disappeared into the night, Ernest and Arthur had to dispose of not only Hilda’s (un?) dead body, but also the guards’. After burying all three of them together in Hilda’s grave, they dug up Grandma and Grandpa’s as well and used the service rifles to fire shots in their caskets. I don’t know what purpose this served. My only guess is that they too had awoken. I have never heard of any such thing before, a buried person coming back to life, but I suppose anything can be possible.
I found my father, Ernest Boggs, hanging from a noose in his study a few days after the man in my family’s graveyard blew me a kiss. His body softly spun as it dangled above a toppled desk chair. I suppose after what he and Arthur had to do, I can’t blame him for taking his own life.
I wish I could feel remorse over the loss of my parents, but I cannot love in someone whose desires for money and social class are far greater than that for their own child. I know this now to be true because before I was wed, I went to the church who received an astonishing sum of my family’s wealth. Sadly, they left nothing for me, their only child. To them, I was a burden. Just someone who made them look like decent people.
I pleaded to the church. “Please, can’t you offer some of my family’s wealth to me? For I have no man in my life to love and care for me!” They denied me of my request and instead encouraged me to find God, to listen for His word. Only then would I find true salvation.
Not too long after Ernest’s suicide, Arthur was admitted to a hospital. I visited him once, after I ran away from home. His once gray hair combed to a neat part was now short, stark white, and standing on end. A dab of drool would be permanently bubbled at the corner of his mouth while he stared at the wall. He was unrecognizable, so how could I expect him to even recognize me? That was the last I would see of him.
With no other place to go I found refuge in a house full of desirable women. I thought I would spend the remainder of my life in that place of ill repute, but fate arrives in the most unusual of places sometimes.
I met my husband at a time when we were both vulnerable: I wanted to be married and he wanted someone who was more than just an evening companion. After our first night together he asked me to come live with him. Considering he had given me twice what I normally would charge for a man to spend the night with me, I knew he would do.
He said he had made his fortune through smart, calculated investments and that he had a gift for seeking profitable opportunities. He couldn’t have been more right.
Our home is located some miles away from the University. It has three floors, a beautiful winding staircase connecting them, and plenty of weeping willow trees on the lush acreage.
And I’ve just been “oh, so happy!” Until last night, when I recalled why my husband looked familiar to me.
Lillian already had the dinner table set by the time Walter arrived home that night. He had spent the past few hours speaking to business students at LSU and was his usual three-whiskeys-in self when he sat down.
“I tell ya Lill, those kids are doomed. Wouldn’t know a vicious animal if it bit them in the caboose.” He removed his bow tie, unbuttoned the top three notches on his collared shirt, the top button of his pants, and let his belly droop over his lap. “Don’t know what they’re teaching those kids over there, but it sure as hell ain’t (he corrected himself), isn’t business.”
Lillian kissed him on top of his feathered hair and set a glass of strong bourbon in front of him.
“Maybe you should start a course of your own,” she said and took a seat next to him. Her eyes were bright, encouraging. “After all, you said you came from nothing…and now…look around!”
“And spend my time away from you? Never!”
Walter playfully reached for her arm and knocked over his drink.
“Oh dear! Let me pour you another glass!”
Walter began soaking up the liquid with a cloth napkin and as she walked to the counter to pour him another drink, he raised his empty glass and said: “Show me a successful man and I’ll show you a wife that cares to his every need!”
Lillian glanced over her shoulder as he said this and from the corner of her eye, she saw the same kiss that was blown to her on the night Hilda left her grave. It was a short smack, followed by a triumphant wave.
Lillian’s Diary: June 14, 1904
One thing about Walter is he always walked around like he was a keeping a secret. We could afford a butler (although no one could ever replace my Arthur) but Walter preferred that I take care of our home. More privacy that way, he said. And after he blew that kiss, I knew what he meant.
Walter Pearce, my husband, wasn’t a friend of Hilda and Ernest who frequented their parties and he certainly didn’t work as a caretaker for The Boggs’ Estate.
He was the man who chopped Hilda’s head off and disappeared into the moonlit forest with her possessions. He was also the man who drove the one person who cared for me the most insane, Arthur.
So today I went to the pharmacy where I purchased chloral hydrate because “Oh gosh, those bullfrogs are just so awfully loud and keep me awake all through the night Mr. Pharmacist and I hadn’t a good night’s sleep in months!” and had Walter’s drink ready for him when he arrived home that evening.
The revealing gown that Lillian wore was almost see-through — white, elegant, lacy — when Walter walked through the front door.
She put her tongue into his mouth and grabbed hold of what was between his legs. He dropped his leather bag and returned the gesture.
“Well, well. Welcome home, Mr. Pearce!” Walter said. Lillian ran her thumb over his parted lips and inserted the tip of her finger into his mouth. “I’m going to wash up,” she said. “Your drink is in the kitchen. Be ready when I return.”
Lillian went into the bathroom and turned the faucet on. She let it run hot while she leaned over the porcelain sink.
You can do this. You will do this. You’re both so deserving.
She took a soft linen towel and cleaned an area of the steamy mirror. Her reflection now looking back at her as she studied her eyes. They were no longer bright and encouraging, but dark and sinister with a certain evil morality about them. Her mouth curved to a slanted grin. She gripped the sides of the sink with intensity and willed the voice telling her this was a mistake away. Then she heard the loud thud outside the bathroom door that she was anticipating.
The grass was cool against her bare feet as she thrusted each heavy leg behind the other. Her back grew weak from dragging Walter by his underarms. She thought, he has put on more weight since we’ve been married. I hardly noticed. If only I had discovered this sooner, before the elaborate meals of beef and wine and dessert, maybe this wouldn’t be such a chore. This made her chuckle.
But it’s worth it. All of it.
When Lillian reached the open casket, some five feet into the ground, she slapped Walter’s face three times: Once for each guard, and once more for Arthur. As far as her parents went, she considered Walter had done her a favor. She had been dead to them since birth and now they were dead to her. And to this life.
His belly jiggled when she pushed him into the wooden casket with her damp foot. He nearly split the bottom out. She closed the coffin, climbed down on top of the lid, and drove nails into the wood — placing two where normally one would go to ensure maximum confinement, just in case his nap ended before she was done.
Next came the shovel. She transferred the mound of dirt she piled earlier on top of the casket. Her hair swung wildly into the warm night as she worked the heavy spade, ignoring her breasts that would occasionally slip out of her gown. This was no time to be modest.
There were no chains, no bells inside the coffin to startle anyone who might happen upon the plot of land where Walter was buried. Alive.
Lillian’s Diary: September 7, 1904
I never thought that being wealthy would be quite the lonely life it has become. I imagined myself to be happy in ridding Walter away. But now with him gone, and Arthur, oh poor Arthur who has become nothing but a phantom, I realize now that life isn’t about riches. It’s about abundance in every aspect.
Sometimes I sit on a blanket in the yard, watching the breeze glide through the willow’s and wonder what Arthur thinks about. Does he replay the scene of he and Ernest shooting my (un?) dead grandparents over and over in his mind or does it just come to him in a flash, suspending it as a bad memory in the place where we lock away such tragedy? Maybe his thought is just a void, a vast atmospheric vacuum, trying to no longer recollect the life he, we, once had. I should be happy with Walter’s money and I do believe his death was justified. But I have no one to take me to the movie house, to read poetry with, to make love with.
I received a letter the other day from the University. They requested Walter to send them his documents and research so they could use them for their teachings. Guess it wasn’t a bad idea after all. I wrote them back, stating he would be overly obliged to know that his work would be used to aid in the education of our young businessmen while he travelled abroad. After all, it wasn’t just a keen eye for profitable opportunities he had, there was something else. I stumbled upon it in his study, the one room in our house he never wanted me to tend to. I doubt they’ll have any use for it. What would they want to do with a stone tablet with odd engravings? Or for the weathered paper used to translate it? Why would they have any use for brining someone back from the dead?
Besides, it gets lonely here.
And I kind of miss Walter.