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A Grave Sight

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

A Short Story by Kirk Barbera

With Apologies to William Wordsworth & Thomas Gray






A white flash illuminated a black figure as it entered the old church. Beside the altar, an aged parish priest stood tall, as much so that he was able. He appeared older than the old church walls, older than the crooked yew that stood outside his garrisoned universe. In his hand he held a broom. This seemed all that remained to him. The church was one of those shattered vessels passerby considered long vacant. One or two cold souls might enter on a Sunday morning. Though, they certainly came for warmth of the building, not for the fiery sermons from an aged priest.


The flash of lightning came once more. The figure who had entered had not moved. He did not seem a threat. And yet, the cut of his figure in the archway of the church carried a quiet danger that made the priest sweat. He had been accosted many times in his career. He held the scars proudly, as symbols of his work on this earth. Though he would never put voice to his deepest thoughts, he believed he would arrive before the gates of heaven to showcase his scars before St. Peter, who would embrace him as brother-in-arms.


"What a lonely place heaven would be," he often muttered to himself. Only the angels and I. Far better than the earthly beings he found himself among. This was duty. He would not cease.


Come what may, this dark figure had entered the parish for a reason. The priest would see to its fulfillment.


The figure searched the room. It trembled. As the figure moved closer to the priest, it became clear that it was a man and that he served no physical threat to the priest. The man took a seat in the third row. He did not sit at the edge as do most newcomers. Rather, he moved, as if involuntarily, toward the fourth seat. His hands grazed the bible and then the hymnal before him. The priest watched the water drip from the man and onto his precious books. He saw the trail of mud and leaves that he would once again need to sweep. It never would end, the priest thought. More muck to clean than God could have possibly comprehended. This is why he was needed.


He moved deeper into the church. The man’s face was pleasant and strong. He had high cheekbones as of a nobleman in a time long ago. His face was covered by a light beard. It seemed a beard grown in haste, not grown with care over time. His clothes proved the man a gentleman of some means. He kept his eyes away from the priest as though attempting to avoid an unpleasant vision. The priest approached and saw the man was staring out the window toward the church graveyard just beyond.


The priest searched his mind and could recall no recent funerals. Yet the look in the man’s eye was one he had seen many times. As he came closer to the man, he could see the white of his scratchy beard. He was in his fifties at least. The man was dancing with ghosts, as the priests called it. He saw the wistful longing look of someone who had seen lives won and lost over the decades. His eyes were a piercing grey. They searched for something out the window, some semblance of a sign.


The tombstones could easily be seen. They all sat in haphazard manner at the foot of a hill, which was east of the church, where was the window the man presently stared. The gravestones were small and ill placed. There were a few that lined into neat rows. These were family plots of three, four, five or six. A few of these family graves had one or two empty plots, awaiting the freshly dead to fill them. Many, the priest knew, would wait till the second coming, since no one these days believed in family or mortality.


“You live, Father, among this hill and this church, in quietude and solitude.” The strangers’ voice had a deep low timber that would have made for a great preacher. The sound resonated on the walls and warmed the fire in the priests heart. The man continued, not awaiting a response or answer, “Scarcely a funeral comes here but every twenty four months. Yet even to one as constant as you, change must be present. This hill would not have changed this past century, not even this tree outside. And so you trace the finger of mortality. You must see that we men in our eighty years are not all that perish from the earth. I had passed through this place in my youth and I recall on the other side of this hill was a foot path, well worn, that leads a long way between another hill. There, once round the hill, was a vast meadow, with only a single large tree, its branches providing a good shady spot on a summer’s day.”


The priest cleared his throat and in his stilted way uttered, “no sir! That path and meadow and tree do indeed sit along the other side of this hill as unchanged on this day as on the first I saw them in my youth. Change is inevitable upon all things, but we must all seek the unchanging that exists in God’s universe. And that most unchangeable of things is God’s love and promise.” The priest paused. “Your memory is superb. There, not far from the meadow is a town. The town has changed, the rocks have not. The place of man has been torn down and rebuilt many times, but the place of God persists. The snows come in January, and the flock of young that survived leaves in April.”


The man had not yet turned to look on the priest, who now stood mere feet from him. The stranger began to recite:


“Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,

Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,

Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,

The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”


“Few today know of such poetry. I’m gladdened to see some young people still read.”


“Father,” the man said, though with a hint of distaste, “this gravesite seems heedless of the past; how could orphan find his mother’s grave? There’s neither head or foot stone engraved, no plate of brass, no crossbones, no skull, nothing to identify the souls entombed there. There are no emblems of living hopes. The home of the dead is as anonymous as the rocks in that field.”


“Ah,” The priest smiled knowingly. “You speak of the pride of stone-cutters. We have no need of men such as that,” he pointed to his heart, “here lay the names and epitaphs of the dead. In our small town, we talk of the dead by the fireside. There is our touch of the immortal as we sit in this earthly grave. It is outsiders who need the occasional coin reminder of death. The thought of death sits as easily as a child in a swing to the man who has been born and lives among the mountains.”


In response, the man turned his eyes upon the priest. There was a depth rarely seen these days. There, one could fall into eternity like looking into the darkness of a cave. Only a hint of grey stared back. He said with simplicity, “you then, Father, could help me to the history of half these graves.”


“All, indeed,” came the answer. “For ninety years I have passed these walkways. For eighty I can recall with vividness each of the seasons and their comings and goings, for seventy can I specify all the death and life that has passed before me. As a man traveling through our town, as a bauble for his curiosity. For those who preceded me, those lay equally in my heart as the forefathers you spoke earlier. Were we by my own fireplace in the other room, I could serve you tea and we would be off on travels of the mind and through the strange and unchanging broad highway of the entire world, which is represented here in this graveyard, as it is in all graveyards hidden or visible. There,” the priest pointed to a grave just outside the window, and with a clearly marked footprint upon it, “the grave all newcomers accidentally put a foot on as they approach the entrance—it looks like all the rest; and yet that man died broken-hearted.”


“That seems common enough. Let us take another case. Do you see those four graves all in a neat line? The one to the left side of the hill and near the broken fountain?”


“Walter Ewbank sits in the far right of those graves,” the priest said. “The old man had a head of white hair that stretched back to his youth. His cheek was rosy and fresh his whole life, despite the tremendous hardship which left him indebted and eventually dead. He was the last of a tight knit family going back five generations. Walter’s original forefather in this area became wealthy through some case of luck and ingenuity. By Walter’s time but a single small cottage in this town remained, and a few small plots of farmland. From son to son did they work the land. And old Walter received the little remains along with the family heart and all the burdens therefrom. Year after year, the old man’s cheek remained as rosy as his demeanor. That stems from a simple mind, you know—yet, he was buffeted this and that way by bonds, interest and mortgage. This eventually sunk him. He went early to yonder grave, rosy cheeked and white headed in death as in life. In life his pace was never akin to an elderly man. I can almost see him tripping down that path to his farm. Two children skipping behind him.”


“And those two orphans?” “Orphans?”


“Yes the two children. Were they Walters? Did he marry? Have a child?”


“No woman would marry a man so indebted. Walter never sired sons. Yet his youthful manner always attracted the youngsters and he indeed helped raise a few of the locals. Beside Walter’s grave are two grave plots awaiting two souls very fond of Walter, but I fear they will be waiting till judgment day.”


“For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn.”


“Not indeed.” The priest had turned all black as his ebony robes. He shook his head as to escape the wisps of the past.


“Where are they now?”


“Fled from infamy unspeakable.” Came the rock solid voice of the priest. “They were brothers.”


“No. Though often raised by Walter, the two you speak of were a kind of orphan indeed, sired by different parents, but even in youth bound to one another.”


“Tell me, Father.”


“No. This is a tale that should be tossed on the burning embers, not to be retold to strangers.”


“But your duty to history obligates you.”


“Only to die with the burden of knowledge.”


“They were young when they left here?”


“Yes, most young, but not innocent.”


“Father, unburden yourself.”


“Nay! There are things the old can and must do and that is to be the holders of Good and the protectors of virtue. I will not release into the world the stains of those who rest in faraway lands.”


The stranger again reciting:


“Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,

Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?”


“Stop! I will not.”


“But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page

Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;

Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.”


“Damn you! Why have you come here?” The priest screeched.


The figure stood. He approached the priest in a most violently unthreatening manner. His grey eyes flashed with the lightning. There, barely visible beneath his rough hewn beard was a scar on his noble chin.


“Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;

Along the cool sequester'd vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”


The priest finally continued the words the man had started:


“Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse,

The place of fame and elegy supply:

And many a holy text around she strews,

That teach the rustic moralist to die.”


Taking a step closer, bringing to light a visage from the past, the stranger quoted the last:


“Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth

A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.

Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,

And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.


Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,

Heav'n did a recompense as largely send:

He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear,

He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.


No farther seek his merits to disclose,

Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,

(There they alike in trembling hope repose)

The bosom of his Father and his God.”


The stranger now face to face with the withered priest said with finality, “sit, Father, there is one grave out there I will tell to you its history. It is one imprinted on my heart.” He pointed “you see that lone plot beside a single grave? It sits lonely by itself. You must know of it.”


The priest sat down. Now he trembled.


“It is …”


“Yes. It is the future grave of the old priest who haunts these hallowed grounds. I will tell you its history; not one written in white script along the hearts of fools, no, I will tell you of the black letters etched in bone and blood among those who know him.”


The stranger held his head high, exposing his throat and Adam’s apple which bobbed like a guillotine. Never a sermon more powerful was given in these church walls:


“You know the story, Father. A man had two sons. One of his body one of his spirit. One son was his by birth of flesh; the other by birth of mind. The son of his flesh was filled with a passion for life and a fear of his father; his son of spirit was filled with a righteous conviction and fear of nothing. The two boys were separated as much as possible but often found each other at play time. The father felt a strange kind of anger at the play between the two boys. He did not believe play was an enjoyment boys should practice.


“The son of his flesh stayed in the man’s house and the son of his spirit only watched from these pews. The son of spirit became a choir boy and believed devoutly in the Good Word, while the son of flesh grew to become a lover of butterflies and flowers and poetry. He loved life and sought to suck all life from all the world around him. He was sensitive and frail.


“All the boys picked at him as he picked at flowers. His only friend was this choir boy. The choir boy was big and powerful with fists the size of anchors. When he stepped before the frail son, all the other boys ran away. The two were forever bound to one another. No matter how the Father separated them, they would inevitably find one another again.


“The father beat his son of flesh for his frailty and sensitivity, till it seemed only fear remained—fear of his true desire. With his words from the pulpit the father beat back desire from all the boys and the girls in the small town; he was a priest in black gown walking his round and binding with briars all their joys and desires.


“One day, the two friends were walking in that meadow. There was an unusual tension in their manner toward each other on this special day. Where they had always been close, now they walked apart. They were becoming young men and new feelings were blossoming.


“The frail son paused by the bent tree. He would often tease the choir boys' rigidness. Look here, he said, see this little mushroom? Can you imagine two ants enjoying the shade beneath this bower as we enjoy shade from our tree? Beneath it even you would look tiny. The choir boy fumed in mock anger. Me tiny? he roared and leaped one upon the other. They played as they always did. The choir boy easily pinned the frail boy beneath him.


"The heat of day creeped through the dark shade provided by the tree. Two birds chased one another in a circular dance midair. The flowers beloved by one were crushed beneath their two bodies. The choir boy tenderly touched the face of the other, who did not immediately stop it. Then, his hand touched the others ear, he rubbed gently the ridge of his ear between thumb and knuckle.


"The choir boy could feel the effect he was having when—”


“STOP!” The priest screamed.


He rose but an enormous hand held him and pushed him back down to sit upon the pew.


“That Father, is precisely what your son said to me. Stop! Henry told me to stop. He scurried from underneath my body like a scared rabbit. I knew he could not deny what affect my touch had upon him.” The stranger grew darker and larger, “but hear me now, Father, you will listen. Do not close your eyes; do not cover your ears. Listen.”


“I had felt your son. I knew what he wished. But you stood between us. Your voice and your cruelty had marred a beautiful young man. In a flash, he threw caution to the wind and pounced upon me. We fell to the ground and kissed.” The stranger looked hard at the priest “What did I say father? Open your eyes!”


He continued, “Your son was all beauty and in that moment I discovered the pleasure accompanied by such beauty. In that day, the first of uncounted times thereafter, we broke God’s law. I learned that I could banish all that you had engendered in him with a touch, and that he could show me all the wonder of pleasure with a kiss. He enjoyed my largess and I exalted in his frailty. He read poetry to me and opened my eyes to beauty. I protected him from harshness.


“We decided to leave this small place and make a life together. I knew that I would follow Henry wherever his heart desired. I also knew he would follow me. We were always inseparable and the passion we enjoyed under that tree so near your church solidified our bond. We loved with a love that was more than love—with a love that the winged seraphs of heaven coveted Henry and me.


“The boys in town discovered our love and ran to this father. With rock in hand he went to kill his own flesh and blood, as God commanded. But young though I was, you had taught me to be a fighter. I stood between you and my Henry. And you smashed my face with a rock.


“My jaw was broken. When you saw what you had done, you fled. Henry, though weaker than you or I, carried me to the doctor. I was mended and stitched.


“I want you to know that every night your Henry bathed me. And every night brought me ecstatic pleasure through my pain. This was the foundation of the rest of our relationship. Pleasure through the pain you brought.


“And you have come to smash an old man’s face with a rock?” Said the Priest with fervor and fire.


“No, Father. I am not here to kill your body. I am your spirit, remember? I am here to kill your immortal soul.” He pointed to his chest. “Here, Father, is my rock to cast at you.”


“Your son and I were happy. Happy! We loved and made love every day for all days. I have become a well respected writer of history and your son a writer of stories for the screen. Millions have been brought to see the wisdom and beauty of the world. Your two sons have, stone upon stone, brought down the empire you and your kin have built for millennia. The rock meant to smash you is the knowledge of all that you have missed in life. We spread joy and inspiration to all those we meet. Not to your bitter soul. Your body died decades ago. You are here with your broom and empty pews. You see nothing but muck and dust. Well, Father, I cleaned dust from your sons body one last time. He has died of cancer. Do not try to rationalize the misery of your life in that your son died. If he died for anyone’s sins it was yours. Your brutality and cruelty made him too frail for this world. But he lived a full life of pure bliss and joy and happiness.”


He looked hard at the old priest “I want you to know that every time the fear of our father washed over our skin, I would banish it from him by grabbing his ear between thumb and knuckle and he would banish you from me by a kiss. Then we would make love. That is your legacy—hatred and meanness engendered more sacred bliss and pleasure than you would ever feel in a lifetime. That is your evil—the inverting of what is Good. Any God who claims power over us and commands we stifle our pleasures cannot possibly be Good. God was in our pleasure. The flood of it filled the other till our last days together. That is what you have created in flesh and spirit. I will wait for you to die and then I will toss your corpse into that grave and no one will remember the evil you and yours have brought to mankind.”


The priest had laid down toward the end of the sermon. He could feel the weight of rocks piled on his corpse. “Lord take me now.”


“Oh no, Father. No. I am here to torture you much more. I wish you a long life. I will recount the full history of your only son and all the joys and successes he had in his long and wonderful life. May that serve as a reminder of the evil and horrid life you have lived. And that for one such as you there is only a single life wasted. Yours” Outside the thunder grew louder.


And the stranger began his history.



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