A Haunted Tale of Justice
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
a selection from her collection John Collier & Fredric Brown went Quarreling Through My Head
I heard this story when a child & have always believed it to be true. I've told it to a few people since. They say it had to be a dream, there never was such a story. I persist in believing it. It happened long ago. There was a robber with a bag of gold fleeing through the cemetery. He knew it was only a matter of hours before his capture, for there had been a young witness to a lamentable homicide; and, given his occupation, none were apt to believe it was an accidental killing.
He stopped to rest on the rim of a broken fountain. In the center of the fountain stood a gorgeous, sexless angel. The robber trod through the waterless basin to peer into the angel's mouth, from which water would never again spout. Within, the robber detected a large enough hollow into which to pack the gold. Taking the gold pieces by twos & threes, he dropped them into the angel's mouth.
Before morning he was captured. Of the gold, he would reveal nothing. He knew he would be hanged until dead at all events, because of the daughter who witnessed the death of her father. The robber felt that his death should be satisfaction enough & obstinately refused to confess to anything.
With gold clogging the angel's throat, it could not breathe comfortably, & lamented over & over again in its mind, "Oh! Oh me! My throat is clogged with gold!" Not until Michaelmas, a holiday of miracles, was the angel able to give a cough, thus regurgitating several coins among the many. The heavenly cough sent the coins halfway across the cemetery to settle atop the unmarked grave of the robber, whose long trial had ended & who had recently been hanged until dead.
As nobody concerned themselves with his grave, it was already a weed-patch, & the coins were hidden in brittle grass.On six more Michaelmas holidays, the stone angel gave a cough that sent forth a string of coins. WHen it was no longer so badly congested, the angel thought, "Ah! Ah! A few more years of this & I shall have cleared my lungs completely!"
During those six years the family of the man who had been robbed & killed fell into terrible poverty. The mother died & the young girl grew to beautiful womanhood but without decent clothes or prospects for marriage. But she never complained. And she went dutifully to the graves of her father & mother, who were side by side, no less than once a week.
One day she spied a young man who was vaguely familiar. He was standing across the cemetery on a weedy little mount that lacked a headstone. She could not quite recognize him, yet he hailed her with a friendly tone.
"Maiden!" he called. "Maiden! Would you come speak with me?"
For some reason he would not come to her but insisted she come to the place where he was standing.
"Maiden! Won't you look at this poor grave? It has been neglected a long time."
She approached & said, "If it concerns you, why don't you pull the weeds & trim the grass?"
"Alas! I lack the strength! But in your hands is the power of forgiveness, so it is for you to do. It is my own grave, dearest maiden, & a weight has been placed upon it so that I cannot go to where it is that souls must go. If you would care for my stoneless grave, your act would set me free."
Then the specter faded as a beam of light slanted under the shading trees. The young woman drew back with fright & remembrance. It had been her father's killer who begged succor! All the terror of that time, when she was not full fourteen years of age, rushed to the front of her mind in an instant. She hurried away from the robber's grave vowing never to forgive him by the labor of her hands.
Yet remaining a dutiful daughter, she could not avoid the ghost altogether. Whenever she visited her father & mother, the murderer would appear on his own grave further on, & cry out, "Maiden! Maiden! God rewards who are forgiving!"
But she would not. And the specter became so bold as to invade her dreams, or nightmares as they were. WHen he came in dreams, he was not the handsome ghost she had seen upon the site of the burial. Rather, his neck would be broken, his features puffy & blue, & he spat blood while demanding, "Weed my grave! Weed my grave!"
Only within the graveyard was he handsome & clear-eyed. The maiden had to admit, if this had not been the man who slew her father & caused her mother's early death, she might have found him greatly attractive. He had a look of sincerity, of sorrow, & regret. And it was pitiful to see him trapped on that small mound of weeds.
"Come no more to my dreams!" she scolded, standing between the graves of her parents, where she felt safe.
"I come to no one's dreams," he said.
"You do! Your neck is always broken!"
"We each live in dreams of our making," said the tragically handsome specter. "I'm sorry if I am in your dreams. But they are your dreams, & mine are separate."
"Nevertheless, I shan't forgive you."
"Not even to the length of a single prayer for the repose of my spirit? It might remove me from your dreams."
"Perhaps that," she said. "I'll say one prayer for you in the Chapel."
"It would be better," he said, "if you came to my grave on Michaelmas & prayed for me then."
It was months before Michaelmas, but, strange to say, the robber's ghost appeared to her no more, neither in dreams nor when she went to her parents' graves. She had the unhappy feeling, however, that if she broke her promise, the ghost would return after Michaelmas. So she awaited the day with a combination of resolve & trepidation.
Leaves were on the ground when she went to pray for the robber. Her prayer was this:
"I can't forgive him, God, so won't you?"
At that moment, the stone angel coughed. A string of coins shot through the air like bullets, slaying the kneeling maiden. She fell flat upon the robber's grave.
When she was discovered, & the coins too, people spoke ill of her, & not withstanding that she was only thirteen or fourteen years old when her father was killed, it seemed obvious to everyone that she had had some affair with the robber at that time. Isn't that how she happened to have with her, at the graveside, half the gold that had never been recovered until then? Clearly, people said, she had struck herself several times about the face out of madness & remorse, to die with the gold she had never dared spend, & with the lover against whom she once bore witness while he admitted nothing. No doubt his silence was out of a greater faithfulness to her than she had had toward him; for in silence he had refused to name any accomplice.
And the town's minister, who believed the story, took a strange pity on her, & put her stoneless grave next to that of the robber.
By evidence within the tale, I am of the opinion that fully half the gold remained for the angel to cough up. I'm convinced that somewhere is a grave with weeds, & perhaps two, on which the rest of the coins by now have fallen. I've been watching for this treasure my whole life. I watch for it in the marketplace & the uptown shops. I watch the streets & the gutters & the aisles of every church or bus. I look for it in all the places of the dead, apartments, on the fairgrounds & in the movie houses. Wherever there are unmarked graves, I look there. And I listen. I always listen not for the rustle of wings, but the wheezing cough that is the only likely gift of Michaelmas Day or any other.
"A Haunted Tale of Justice" copyright © 1989 is a selection from Jessica's short story collection John Collier & Fredric Brown went Quarreling Through My Head published by W. Paul Ganley's Weirdbook Press, & illustrated by Arkham House artist Tony Patrick. You may obtain this book from Violet Books, autographed by the author, in the Catalogs section.
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