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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-three IN ABNEY PARK

by
KATHERINE L.P. KING
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T

he old woman was dead.



My mother drew the curtains, and my father covered the mirrors in our house with cloths. Benjamin, the tallest of us, went to every clock and stopped them at just after eight in the morning. Sarah, my eldest sister, found the yew branches in the attic and began to weave the wreath for our front door. And the rest of us kept watch over the body. We knew it was custom that someone watch over it until the relatives came for the funeral, but our observation was more out of curiosity than any hope to preserve the longstanding traditions of our homestead.



Maisie and myself covered her in a white sheet, which no one told us to do but which seemed decent. Soon enough my mother brought in bundle after bundle of roses and pungent bougainvillea, setting them around the body whose passing had taken over our sitting room. Charlie sniveled on the floor as we sat watching my mother, and he said, "Aunt Susan is gone?"



"Shut up, Charlie," I told him, which only made him cry harder. I didn't mind. I'd never known a dead person before, and I observed every minute of the procession with wide and attentive eyes. Father lit candles in the room, and they too released a calming scent. I wondered that death should smell so sweet.



From then on, our home was an endless parade of friends, relatives, and curious townspeople paying respects. At all times someone stayed with the body, but we smaller children were soon dismissed from the responsibility. On the fourth day, our great-grandmother arrived, and from breakfast to tea time she was in the sitting room with the body of her eldest daughter, bemoaning the thought of burying her child, and staining her handkerchiefs with tears.



On the fifth day we had a funeral for Aunt Susan. My father and his brother and two men from the butchery carried it out, feet first so that her spirit might not look back at us and dare us to come away with her. I waited patiently for the sheet to twitch or rise as my dead old aunt beckoned us from the grave, but I saw no such thing. Death was as boring as my lessons, or more so.



They carried her to the church, and we knelt for what felt like a very long time before we were allowed to get up. Then they carried her to Abney Park, which was not far out of town and which Benjamin, in his younger days, had led our clan trooping past with a grave look in his eye, warning us that should we ever step foot into the cemetery, we would die of fright for all the spirits contained within. But I followed my brother and sisters into Abney Park and saw no spirits at all that day.



It was beautifully sunny out, and there were flowers all around. Each of us lay a white rose on Aunt Susan's coffin as it rested over the endless pit below it. When I placed my rose, I looked down into the pit and marveled that I could not see the bottom. The rest of the ceremony passed while I looked around me at the beautiful scenery, aware and enchanted by the idea that the dead lay all around me.



I happened to notice, as the men who worked at Abney Park lowered Aunt Susan's coffin into the ground after most everyone had departed, a thin silver chain emerging from a hole in the top of her coffin, and rising to a small silver device from which a bell hung, this located near her tombstone. I asked Benjamin what it was, as he was, in my mind, the sole person in the world who might know such things.



"That? It's a bell, you git."



"I know, but what's it for?"



"In case the old bat wakes up, isn't it?"



I had heard stories of people being buried alive before, and when Benjamin said it I imagined myself deep underground, cold, surrounded by firm darkness and knowing I could never escape. How brilliant to rig a device to help the not-dead demand their freedom! I could imagine grasping the delicate chain between my shaking fingers and tugging again and again until I could hear the scrape of shovels above me and know freedom was close at hand.



I slept poorly for many nights after that. In my dreams, the chain was a constant source of savior, always ringing the bell loudly so that someone might hear and come to my aid. But one night, perhaps a month after Aunt Susan's burial, I dreamed that I rang the bell, and no one came. I rang and rang until my arm nearly fell off, but never did I hear the sound of the living above me, working out the best way to free me. Instead, I died alone, thirsty, and hungry in my little box, ringing and ringing and ringing.



When I woke, I was consumed entirely by the fear that Aunt Susan might be ringing her bell in Abney Park at any minute, and no one was around to hear it. Surely the cemetery gents took turns walking the grounds, listening for bells? Or were visitors expected to report such events? What if no one visited the plot where Aunt Susan was buried?



I tried to ask Benjamin, but he was occupied with his studies, as he was striving to become a physician, and so I, not trusting any other authority in my home to this knowledge, went to Abney Park myself.



I went after school, making sure that Maisie and Charlie went straight home without me. My book bag was unusually heavy, and the walk to Abney Park from my school house was a little more than a mile long, but still, I went. The sky was gray and overcast, the wind chilling me despite my coat. I kept my hat low upon my brow. I was not afraid to be seen, but I did not want to hold conversation with everyone who passed.



When I reached Abney Park, I walked through the same gates our procession had gone through when burying my aunt. I knew the grave well—it was still, unlike so many of the others, decorated grandly with many flowers and candles and other assorted items. I walked quickly to the grave, but I could see even from quite a ways off that the bell sat motionless in the air, revealing what perhaps was the worst truth of all: Aunt Susan was absolutely dead.



I squatted near the grave, afraid of where I stepped. The idea of stepping upon a body, even with five feet of earth between us, repulsed me. A raindrop or two fell on me, and I rose to go. Clearly, having been a week in the cemetery, Aunt Susan was gone.



I walked down the rows of graves silently, with my head bent to the ground, and it was in this position that I froze when I heard it: the tiniest, thinnest sound of a bell chiming somewhere yards away.



I stood so long, so quietly, that when I did not hear it again I was quite sure I had imagined it. I was frightened in that dim and silent place and surely I had conjured the sound of a bell in my fantasies. I took a step forward to leave Abney Park.



And heard the bell again.



The second time the bell was louder; it came from somewhere on my left. I turned immediately and headed for where it originated. As I went, my heart began to pound inside my chest. What if I, young Edgar Evans, were about to discover a horrible mistake? What if I were to come across a beautiful young woman whose coma the doctors had mistaken for death? What if the bell was affixed to a grave that belonged to a very rich dowager, who would reward me with great sums of money and chocolates?



I moved faster upon hearing the bell a third time. I circled one row and paused, believing the ringing bell to belong to it. And there! Under an elaborate urn-shaped gravestone, the little silver bell, this one slightly weathered, rang out. I ran to the grave, pressing my head to the grass below me, believing I could hear the person inside screaming for help. I shouted, "We're on the way! Hold tight!"



I looked up at the gravestone as I rose to find an employee of Abney Park. The gravestone itself was weathered, too, which struck me immediately as odd. Carefully I searched the carved face for a date of death—surely someone buried alive couldn't survive underground for very long?



The gravestone read:



SIR WALTER ALBERT PENROSE



A FINE GENTLEMAN AND HUSBAND



1754-1820



I froze again. Sir Walter Penrose had been dead for near on sixty years. Yet still his bell rang.



And then, though I was scarce prepared to believe it, another bell began to ring some ten graves away.



And another. And another.



I fell to my knees in front of Penrose's grave. His bell rang madly—it looked apt to fall off its fixture. All around me, the chiming of the bells grew louder, until I had to cover my ears to escape the maddening sound of it.



And below me, the very earth began to move, as the dead strove for the freedoms that the living had forever denied them.



   
   

 

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Katherine L. P. King is a writer and Chapstick enthusiast from California. She recently earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from San Jose State University. When not working, her hobbies include baking, gardening, and tomfoolery.



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