October 29, 2016

The Headstone of Hezikiah Bronson, By Hunter Ligore

I am the headstone of Hezikiah Bronson, who was a Salem man with a shady demise. From my vantage I’ve seen things that would raise questions among you humans—like how I was placed beside his grave three nights before he was actually dead.

The story begins when I still lay dormant in a quarry, a mile east of Cemetery Road. I was cut free, and brought to the workshop, where I was shaped and given life under the chiseler’s tool. Tanner Wilson worked his art, and carved Hezikiah’s name onto my surface. Next came the dates of his birth and death—July 31, 1661 – October 21, 1691. A man still very much alive when it was carved. Tanner also added a line of scripture:

Beware the false ones, who come in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Under the cover of darkness, I was delivered to the cemetery, and carried to a secluded place on a hilltop overlooking the town’s tavern and gunsmith shop. After setting me in place, they covered me with a tarp, but I could still hear them talking. Jessup Brown, a wealthy farmer, said that Hezikiah was the town drunk, and would take the blame for the murder of T. D. Rice, the banker who held the deed to a particular property that he wanted to buy. “Rice won’t sell. But once he’s gone, it’ll be mine.”

Beside him Tanner shook his head in agreement, and held out his hand, as he was paid handsomely for making the stone and keeping quiet.

Three days later, my tarp was removed. I had a front row seat as the events unfolded. Under the guise of darkness and lantern light, Hezikiah had a gunshot wound to the head. His lifeless body was tossed into the shallow grave and covered. People believed he had killed himself because of the bad deed he’d supposedly done. No one attended the funeral; not even the pastor. That same day, T. D. Rice also got a headstone, one of my siblings, and was buried in the more prestigious section of the cemetery. The funeral had a huge turnout, with lots of tears.

I wish I could tell you things grew quiet and complacent—as it should be in the cemetery. But when the living have been wronged, the dead don’t rest.

From that first night, Hezikiah tossed and turned in that hole, keeping me up all night! Near the Witching Hour, he broke free—a restless demon unleashed. For a moment, he rested his head on me, asking, “Why, why did they do this to me? What did I ever do to anyone?”

I tried to console him, only the way a piece of granite can, but it did no good. Each night he roamed the streets of Salem, past the orchards, and right down into Main Street, looking for the men who wronged him.

When he wandered, he groaned something terrible. And what a terrible sight! He even made me cringe. His skin was the color of turpentine, his arms crooked and strained with rigor mortis—at least until the fourth day, when his arms started moving again, without any rhyme or reason. He looked like a windmill cruising down the slopes, leaving a smelly trail of a heavily used outhouse in his wake.

That night he landed straight into the yard of Mrs. Larmandy, a fifty-year-old churchgoer, sent to her grave early. Folks at the funeral said her heart stopped when she saw Hezikiah crawl over her fence, one eye hanging by a vein, the other a black hole. He went straight to the front door, knocking, and moaning, “Let me in! I know you’re in there.” To a human it might’ve sounded more like, “Lee-MAHn-innn! IWOE UUU WintARe!” He knocked and knocked and knocked…  She now has a headstone shaped like an angel. “Just like she was in life,” said her neighbor.

Townspeople came by droves with charms and talismans, holy water and crucifixes, and any other trinket they brought along to keep the dead from rising. Charlatans, in the guise of mediums—speakers of the dead—rolled into Salem as word spread through the newspapers. They pedaled handmade trinkets and hair-of-the-dog lotions to ward off evil. At night they held séances for big fees, each one claiming to have spoken directly to Hezikiah to find out what he wanted.

One medium said Hezikiah needed a drink to be put to rest—he was the town drunk after all. So by day, the townspeople left bottles of whiskey lined up against my waist, thinking it would help. When nightfall came, a new town drunk showed up and stole them all.

Another medium said Hezikiah needed love, but no one jumped up to marry off their single daughters to a dead man, even to rid the town of its ghosts. The last medium, Gerry Potter, a robust woman with a mole on her cheek and white hair—said to have changed overnight when she was touched by her dead grandmother across the veil—had this to say: “A murderer is among you. Find him, and you shall put the dead to rest.”

Hezikiah wasn’t the only ghoul on the loose. T. D. Rice, the banker, also got restless—well, especially with all the prancing into the cemetery by the townsfolk and visitors, the tourists, and journalists, the mediums, and the people selling hand-drawn portraits of spirits. It was as busy as Main Street during the annual country fair celebration. Pretty soon, other ghouls and ghosts started to wake and roam. Gunsmiths sold guns with special bullets to “apprehend a moving corpse and kill them dead.”

People listened and bought all manner of weapons. They went home, and sat up at night waiting for ghouls. But you humans rattle easy, and are quick on the trigger when you’re scared. Unfortunately, quite a few of you got a bullet in the head, or a knife in the skull, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like poor Martha Glover, who was returning home from delivering a load of wash. More and more of my relatives popped up all over the cemetery; it became like a family reunion.

At dusk, Tanner usually visited, when the daily fanfare and ruckus died down. With a smoke-pipe between his teeth, he’d polished my surface, and thanked Hezikiah for all the extra business. He even cleared the charms, and reopened the earthen grave, hoping he’d go scare a few more people to death.

The sheriff did make an arrest for Hezikiah’s murder. Philip Danvers was hanged for it, thanks mostly to Jessup Brown, who made a convincing case against him. Wronged in life, Philip took up wandering for revenge in death, just like the others. Salem quickly became filled up with equal parts human and ghost and ghoul.

Then something happened to change everything. It started in the Potter home—yes, Grace Potter, the medium. Those who were there for a séance said an evil presence came through, causing the walls to turn to ice. Even Grace was a bit bewildered. The next morning, her two children started having fits, their bodies contorting into shapes like the dead. They would hide under furniture and were afraid of the sun. Rumors started that the Salem ghosts possessed them.

Not long afterward, when the town seemed to be falling to pieces—people going insane or hanging themselves—a bigwig from Boston, a pastor named Cotton Mather, showed up claiming it wasn’t ghosts, but really witches that were the cause of all our problems. The dead continued to show up at the cemetery, as people hunted the supposed witches down and exacted their own kind of justice, at least until the trials started. Tanner had to hire two men to keep up the demand for headstones. People were buying them “just in case.” For no one knew if they would live until the next morning.

As for Hezikiah, he eventually got some peace. Jessup’s daughter was among those accused of witchcraft. In a quarrel with a neighbor over it, he was shot and killed. His land was divided up among his brothers, all too eager to get a piece of his wealth. His daughter soon joined him on the family plot.

Once Jessup got a headstone, Hezikiah, along with T. D. Rice and Philip Danvers, felt avenged and gave up their nightly haunts. No one seemed to notice though. Salem had a new fever and interest, and no one had time for us anymore. Our side of the cemetery grew quiet, with fewer and fewer visitors passing by. Eventually, my headstone lost its vibrancy and got overrun with vines and lichens. Looking back, those were my youthful years, and times I long for again.

These days, I got a hefty wrinkle down my face, right through Hezikiah’s name. Sometimes, around the time of year, when the leaves change color, groups of school children will come around and read all the stones; some put paper to my surface, and scribble with charcoal to make a picture of me. If I could, I’d ask them to sit for a while, and let me tell them my story.

Hunter Liguore is an American writer with degrees in history and writing. A two-time Pushcart-Prize nominee, her work has appeared in: Orion Magazine, Strange Horizons, James Gunn Ad Astra, Writer's Chronicle, The Writer Magazine, Masters Review, DESCANT, Fate Magazine, Writer's Digest Poetry Market 2017 and more. She teaches undergraduate and graduate writing in New England. 

1 comment:

Alicia Cole said...

I love this! I'd never thought to hear from the gravestone itself before, but stones do have vibrations, being "living" beings. Thank you! This was fascinating.