Listen to the Graves

I grew up next to a graveyard. As a child the calm darkness made me uncomfortable – my bedroom looked out over the graveyard and often I found myself at night pressed against my bedroom window. I stared at the flickering candle lights and the shadows they threw and imagined things climbing out of graves.

As a teenager that fear faded. The graveyard was the only green area in the neighborhood and until the security was tightened it actually became our smoke-and-meet spot, a place where our parents would never look for us.

Since then graveyards seem to me more like parks. I think of them as places where I can go to relax and read a book without disturbance. There are always pretty flowers around.

I got my job offer before I even graduated. I didn’t have much time to go apartment hunting. So I wouldn’t say that I particularly looked for an apartment near a graveyard, but I certainly didn’t mind it either.

The view was superb. On the weekends I found myself again pressed against the window, but this time to watch the ceremonies. Call me a morbid person or a horrible human, but there is something incredibly intimate about funerals. You can see a person’s character from the way he stands next to a grave or from whether she chooses to throw a flower or a shovel of soil. Whole family histories become visible when you see a woman standing next to the deep hole with a man comforting her – and three children stand right behind the two and glare at the man.

As said I might be odd in that respect, but I don’t consider it as voyeurism, I consider it as an exercise in understanding humans. I feel the pain of the grievers. When I see their tears I feel their pain and suffering; I feel what it feels to be human.

But I always feel uncomfortable when they smile next to the grave; when they play happy music and when I overhear phrases like “he won’t need to suffer anymore.” It speaks of more than just the pure basic pain, it speaks of months or years of pain and a desperate attempt to hide it. Often I can see the relief on those laughing faces; the guilt-free smiles of relatives that don’t anymore have to care for a dying loved one. Seeing that relief makes me feel a sickening pain.

Still I watch. It’s not something that I would tell my friends but I watch the people on the graveyard whenever I can. Maybe you can get addicted to people watching.

I moved into my new apartment just about three months ago. It must have been the third or fourth night when I saw the man for the first time.

It was shortly past midnight. I pulled the window open to get some fresh air for the night. I stuck my head out of the window and breathed the fresh air. The sweet scent of trees and graveyard flowers was in my nose.

I saw him next to a fresh grave. He wore a suit and was bent over the grave as if to stare at the wooden cross.

I figured it was a sleepless griever, a man kept awake by a recent, deep loss.

I watched him for several minutes. His body swayed slightly and his hair moved with the wind but he kept his position – stiffly bent over the grave.

Finally I got bored and admittedly also felt a hint of guilt for staring at him for so long; I closed the window and went to bed.

It was a few days before I saw him for the second time. It must have been either a Saturday or a Sunday because I had been home during the day and watched a funeral at the close end of the graveyard.

They had lowered a thick casket of light wood into the ground and heaped the soil loosely on top. The ceremony was small with just twenty or thirty people.

It was past midnight. I don’t remember why I looked outside, but I saw him straight away. He wore the same dark suit and was leaning over the fresh grave. I was sure that he hadn’t been at the ceremony.

I turned the light in my room off and leaned on the window sill to watch.

He kept his position for about fifteen minutes. Then he bent his knees and slowly lowered his body to the ground. His stiff right arm brushed the flowers to the side. He turned his head and pressed the side of his head on the ground. His eyes were closed and his lips pulled into a stiff smile.

He remained on the ground. He seemed to enjoy it.

Then, slowly, his left arm moved forward and, in one clumsy motion, slammed on the ground.

I was fascinated. All I could do was stare while his hand rhythmically repeated the motion. It seemed nearly like a knock.

He must have knocked twenty or thirty times when his hand suddenly froze mid-air. His body stayed perfectly still, only his head seemed to sink deeper into the soil.

His eyes opened. He stared straight at me. A moment too late I pushed myself backwards and fell against my bed.

After about two minutes of silence I dared again to glance outside.

I moved slowly to the window. Slowly I raised my head until my eyes were high enough to see him.

The man still lay on the grave. His arm was still frozen in mid-air. His eyes were still in my direction.

I tried to play it casual. I was sure that he had seen me. Showman-like I pulled the curtains shut and sank into my bed.

Then I got up, checked the front door and all windows, and again returned to bed.

I didn’t dare to look outside again. It took me hours to fall asleep.

In the morning I saw that the soil on the fresh grave was different. Much of it seemed to be spread over the footpath.

The next days, as soon as the sun fell behind the horizon, I felt uncomfortable. I spent my nights glancing outside. I tried to convince myself that he hadn’t seen me.

For three days he was nowhere to be seen.

When he was back he wasn’t alone anymore.

There had been another funeral. A smaller casket and many of the grievers had cried.

They stood next to the child’s grave. Two men in suits, leaning forward and over the grave. The smaller one, the one I had seen before, occasionally turned his head as if to look in my direction. I’m not sure whether he really did look – each time his head turned I quickly moved away from the window.

For half an hour they stood. Around 2am the smaller man finally straightened his back; the other one followed suit.

With large and slow steps they walked towards the center of the graveyard.

I saw them disappear behind the series of stone buildings that marked the entrance to underground family crypts.

The next night they were nowhere to be seen. The four days after that I was on a business trip. The sixth night, when the taxi dropped me at my apartment shortly before midnight, they were already standing around a fresh grave.

Two men in suits and a woman in a dark blue dress.

They were all leaning forward with a nearly 90° angle between their upper body and their legs. The position must have been incredibly difficult to maintain – still they kept their stance. Fifteen minutes passed, then the smaller man’s head turned towards my window. I pulled my head away just in time.

I sat on my bedroom floor. The sweaty clothes felt dirty and cold on my skin. All I could think about was them. Three people bent over a grave.

When I finally dared to glance outside all three were gone.

Only then I realized that my light was on.

For most of the night I lay awake, debating with myself whether to call the police or at least the graveyard management.

In the morning I called the management. The man at the other end at first was polite but when I told him that I saw someone on the graveyard during the night he suddenly got monosyllabic. He interrupted me when I described what they were doing. He said I was insane – then he hung up.

The two security guards arrived around 10pm. They marched clockwise along the walls of the graveyard. They had flashlights in their hands and reflective metal objects dangled from their belts. The three people were nowhere to be seen.

The security guards came for exactly a week. The day they didn’t show up anymore the two man and the woman in blue were back.

They leaned over another fresh grave. Then they sank down on it. The small man slammed his hand on the soil four or five times. Then he stopped. They listened. They started digging.

They were fast. Within a minute they had shoveled about three foot of soil to the side. I rushed back into my apartment to find my mobile phone.

It cannot have taken more than two minutes for me to find the phone. The police said they would come straight away.

When I was back at the window they were shoveling the soil back into the hole. In disbelief I stared. The whole scene seemed absurd.

The small man kneeled with his back in my direction. Without warning his head turned. It turned within the fraction of a second. It turned at his neck. I would swear that I heard his bones crack.

He kept shoveling while his head was turned to me. He still had the stiff smile. His eyes were wide open.

I was stunned. I reacted far too late. He must have seen me before I managed to dive onto my bed.

Only then I realized that something had been amiss. When they were shoveling the soil back into the grave there had still been just one woman – but three men.

A few minutes later I heard the sirens outside. Two cars. When they stopped I finally dared to glance outside again.

The officers jumped over the fence and fanned out.

Three minutes later I got a call from the police. They asked me to describe what I saw and where I saw them.

The officers stood around the grave for several minutes. They shone their flashlights around the edges of the grave. Even from the distance I could see that the flowers were pushed aside and there was still soil next to the grave.

That was eight days ago. Since then I can hardly sleep. Every time sleep embraces me I see the digging men.

Since then there have been security guards at the graveyard every night. I also saw digging machinery around the grave to which I lead the police.

Still, a few minutes ago, when the security guards were at the other side of the graveyard, I saw him again. Just him. Just the small man. He stood near the digging machinery.

He is gone now. He disappeared behind a group of trees when the guards came around.

But this time, when I saw him, he didn’t lean forward. This time he stood straight.

And he didn’t look at a grave. This time he looked at me.

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