9. Dead and Gone

In the old City Cemetery, if you turn right down the first lane once you get in, you’ll see a large monument with no writing on it.  The sides of the stone, where the words should go, has been worn clean.  Or so it appears.

The first person who told me the story of this monument told me that it went like this.  A young couple, very well-to-do, very much in love had gotten married, as folks did.  And quickly discovered that the woman was pregnant.  They couldn’t have been happier.

Sadly, their happiness was short-lived.  The woman died in childbirth.  But, before she did, she made the husband promise he would never remarry.

That tomb is hers and on its side the husband had carved the most heartbreaking ode to his love for his wife.

But it’s not easy for a man to raise a little girl by himself and, eventually, he did remarry, not out of love, but out of wanting to provide a mother for his daughter.

It is said that, on the day of his wedding, the stone crumbled and his words of love fell off.

Or it goes like this.  He was a terrible husband, who beat his wife regularly and she could find no refuge from him.  Folks knew, as they do, but they didn’t think it was their business.

And then he killed her.

He didn’t mean to, of course, or so he told himself.  She could have kept her mouth shut.  She could have had his dinner ready on time.  She could have had it ready later.  He couldn’t remember why he was mad, just that he had hit her and hit her and hit her until she stopped moving.  And he had thought, when she finally stopped, struggling, “yes, that’s right.  You just take it.”

She wasn’t, however, just taking it.  She was dead.

He wasn’t sure what would happen next.  He was wealthy, but so was her father.  He might be hung.  In desperation, he carried her body up to the top of the grand staircase, and threw it down.  Then he stripped off his clothes and threw them in the fire.  He could hear the slave girl calling from the back yard.  She would find his wife, find him.  She would know.

He began to yell, “Go for help!  Go for help!  She’s jumped.”

The slave girl didn’t know, of course.  She had been in the garden and seen nothing.  But she knew enough about him to be shocked, but unsurprised, to hear that the wife had committed suicide.

The husband played the grieving widower to the hilt, put up a lavish monument in the city cemetery, with grand words of love written all over it.

And then, almost as soon as the last word was carved, the first word began to fade.  The worker who noticed it said it was like a wet rag on a chalkboard, in slow motion.
The husband paid, for a while, to have the stone recarved.  But eventually everyone in town came to believe the wife wouldn’t stand to have him lie on her grave.  So, it remains bare today.

And lately, I have heard it told like this.  That two young women were in love, though the times being what they were, they did not know to call it that.  They would spend their afternoons wrapped in each other’s limbs and everyone in town jokingly called them the two wives.  You have to understand how it was back then.  No one, least of all the two wives, took their love very seriously.  They would go on to marry men.  Love often didn’t enter into it.  And it never occurred to them to even consider spending their lives together.  It just wouldn’t have.

Both were married off to suitable men, men they both found to be fine, though they still saw each other when they could and wrote each other when they couldn’t.  Then, one of them became pregnant and, sadly, it killed her.

The other was distraught.

The husband buried the dead wife in an elaborate tomb in the city cemetery and had carved great words of love on it.

And when she could, the other wife would visit the grave.  Often she was so overcome with grief that she would trace over the words the husband had had carved.  And often she was furious that the husband’s words would stand as the truth and her love would go unacknowledged.

So, she slowly began to chip them away, those words that should have been hers.  And just as slowly, it’s said, a ghostly figure helped her.  Now, they say, when you drive by the cemetery, you will often see two young women in long, full skirts, walking arm in arm among the stones, admiring the flowers, stealing a kiss.

The truth is that there never was any writing on the tomb.  The uneven surface is not from words falling away, but from a century or so of rain and pollution wearing at the limestone.  Once you know this, it’s impossible to look at the marker and see anything but that truth.

And yet people would rather believe anything but that, rather hear any story of heartbreak and haunts.

Make of that what you will.

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3 thoughts on “9. Dead and Gone

  1. Thanks. This is one of the less fun ones I think but I wanted to get at why people tell ghost stories and how the stories shift to meet the needs of different generations.

    I remember writing all those ghost stories for the Argus when I was there and then not even ten years later a reporter from the Argus called me about haunted IWU and she had heard a bunch of stories I had never heard and hadn’t heard the ones I wrote about.

    I don’t know what to make of that, but I think there’s some thing important.

  2. Well … people want stories. That’s part of being human, I think. But I bet a story — a good one — could be made about that unwritten-on monument. One that would satisfy our craving for narrative, and human nature, and resolution, and justice. That people would enjoy, deeply enjoy at a deep emotional level. It could have ghosts in it, but it wouldn’t have to.

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