‘’IT was close to midnight when I abandoned my walk to my lodgings in favour of a rest in the graveyard. This garden of tombs and vaults was of course not my first choice of a stopping place, but I was somewhat breathless from climbing the inclined street everyone called Heart-Stopper Hill. There was nowhere up this dark silent road which could serve as a seat: no low garden wall, no stump, no doorway stoop. So, I entered the wrought iron gateway and sat down on a bench presumably intended for those who wished to view the final homes of relatives, loved ones, or family friends who had gone. Certainly, I had no one in there, being a foreigner and newly arrived in the town.
Graveyards have never worried me, in the way that some fear ghosts or ghouls. As a child I had been puzzled by an inconsistency in that fear. One hears of haunted houses and yet also of haunted graveyards. Well, logic says you can’t have both. The spirit of the person who has died either haunts the place where he or she has taken their last mortal breath, or where the corpse has finally been offered to the worms. I have never heard of ghosts having the ability to split themselves into two distinct entities which haunt in parallel, have you?
So, I decided to make the choice long ago and since I saw no reason why a spirit should want to moon around a cemetery, I decided that ghosts only haunt their last resting places. In all I suppose this dark landscape at the top of the town was populated by around two or three thousand static inhabitants. Several thousand souls at rest, many of them in these times buried with an obsession with taphophobia: the fear of being buried alive. I could see bells and breathing tubes, and some with small flags, on all the latest graves which stretched over a good quarter of the cemetery. There were said to be those who went into a trance very like death, who were interred by accident and when exhumed for one reason or another, deep scratches were found on the inside of the lids of their coffins. They had awoken and tried to claw their way out of a black, suffocating hell: six feet of grave earth above them. With these safety trappings installed, a man or woman who woke in the claustrophobic confines of a coffin could ring the bell and continue to breathe until help came to the rescue.
The air, the evening was balmy and quiet. A light breeze rustled the leaves of those guardians of our churchyards, the dark green yews which had once provided the material for the longbows of our country’s early warriors. I felt calm and at peace with myself. This was a place where we are confronted with death, which is never a pleasant topic to dwell on, but being in my middle years I was not prone to depressing thoughts about my own mortality. I could view the end product of the life with a certain detachment. The occupants of these narrow homes were in their last resting places: I was not nor would be, God willing, for a while to come. Moreover, I was an artist, a sculptor and amused myself in this midnight garden studying the architecture of tombs in the moonlight.
There were the figures of angels of course, standing guard over the graves of the middle classes. The rich often had family tombs which were bulky edifices, not always attractive. There were various forms of cross: Maltese, Lorraine, Celtic, but most were the simple unadorned white ones of the poor or those of an uncomplicated nature. Some, in the shady elder-bushed corners away from respectable marble or granite, were even of wood, the oak ones undoubtedly surviving longer than the pine. There were other elaborate constructions, models and shapes stretching out over this shadowy kingdom of Death. The simplest and most prolific of all, without a doubt, was the half-lozenge shape with which we are all familiar.
Being a sculptor, I could appreciate beauty in certain designs, but also the ugliness in others. Ugliness has its own attractive qualities.
When I had recovered my breath and composure, I rose from the seat prepared to finish my journey. However, as I walked towards the open gates, my shoes crunching on gravel, I thought I heard something behind me. I stopped and ‘Like one that on a lonely road doth walk in fear and dread’ I was afraid to turn and look. For a few moments I stood still. The noise from my walking had now ceased and I heard a definite tinkling sound. Still I wasn’t prepared to confront anything preternatural and remained transfixed, my eyes on the escape route ahead. Again, that tinkle, sounding a little more urgent this time.
Now I let out a heavy sigh and turned. I listened hard. It was obviously one of the bells on a grave nearby. My heart began to beat a little faster. No, no. It could not be. I refused to believe in physical movement in a grave. Yet, there it was again, clear and fairy-like in the night air. The breeze, I told myself. It had to be the wind, blowing softly on one of the bells. Surely. Surely. Or an animal of some kind? A mammal or a bird, brushing against the instrument?
I dragged my feet along, weaving amongst the tombs, drawn forward by that unignorable sound. Finally, I found the tomb and stared down at it. Indeed the wire attached to it was jerking, making it ring. Still, I could not believe that a human was responsible. It had to be an animal down there: a mole or perhaps even a rat feeding on the corpse? Something of that nature. In the bright moonlight I studied the earthen mound. The soil had not been freshly dug. Next I read the tombstone, one of those half-lozenges. It said: Revd. Joseph Steadler 1805-1858.The year was now 1861. I let out a sigh of relief. No man could live underground for three years. There had to be another explanation for that bell making its loathsome sound. I reached down and plucked the small instrument from its stem. The same motion pulled upwards on the wire to which it was joined of course, and a faint cry came from the inch-wide breathing tube next to it. My skin tingled and I began trembling from head to foot. I felt the blood drain from my face and I knew I had gone pale as death.
The only creature that could have made that cry was one which had once walked upright on two legs and had the power of speech.
After a few moments during which my throat felt strangulated, I bent down and put my mouth to the tube.
‘Is – is there anyone down there?’ I croaked.
Faintly, again, came the words, ‘Help me. Help me.’
I straightened quickly, crying, ‘Oh God! Oh, dear God! What do I do? What do I do?’
I stared around me, my mind seemingly full of wild birds, trying to find an answer in the night airs. The bushes and trees waved blackly in the darkness. A foul scent was now coming from the tube. What did that mean? Was the man down there a rotting cadaver, flesh dripping from his bones after three years of interment? If so, how was he able to speak to me as if he were a living person? This was surely some infernal incident, pulling me into its machinations. I knew I should turn and run, not look back, trying to forget what had occurred on this ghastly night.
Ghoulish or not, I found myself walking to the shed by the gates where I guessed I would find tools. It was padlocked but I could see the wood was rotten and the ironwork very rusty. Indeed, I managed to wrench the door off its hinges. Going inside I felt around and found several garden implements, one of them being a spade. I returned to the grave, my heart leaden with fear I began digging, shovelling the dirt into a pile by the tombstone. It was comfortable digging, the loam being loose and sandy, and easy to excavate. In less than an hour my spade struck the roof of the coffin and a loud, guttural grunt greeted the thump of metal against mouldy wood.
‘Just one moment,’ I cried, ‘I’ll prise open the lid with the . . .’
I had no time to say another word. The rotten wood burst open and a hideous creature leapt from the coffin. It bore me to the ground and sat on my chest, staring down into my face from inches away. Its breath stank of the odours of hell. I gasped for clean air, finding none. It was a squat, lumpy form with a huge head and narrow yellow eyes. I tried to throw it off, but it was far too heavy and it suddenly fastened a large set of claws on my face, holding my head hard against the ground. The nails were as sharp as a hawk’s talons, locked on my skull through my skin.
‘Please, please, let me up,’ I pleaded with the beast, not caring that I was whining and snivelling like a child. ‘I am dreadfully afraid. I am in terror. Please let me go, sir.’
‘Sir? Sir?’ the creature shrieked with laughter. ‘I am your master, am I? You are my plaything, my mouse?’
‘I meant you no harm. I gave you your freedom.’
It snorted, its warty skin stretching into a sneer on its face. Mucus from its cavernous nostrils dripped into my eyes, stinging them. A large tongue flashed out as if by instinct and licked the lids clean, the saliva being almost as caustic as the snot. The creature was immensely strong, stronger than any human. Its weight on my chest was leaden. I knew now that I had to use my brain to escape from its clutches, for I could not attempt to rise.
‘What’s your name?’ I managed to wheeze. ‘What are you called?’
‘Name? My name. Ah, you treat me civilly now, eh? Now you know you are my captive to do with as I wish. You want to be friends with Ugleglyp. Yes, that’s what I’m called now. Ugleglyp. I was, I think, a Joseph, but no longer, not since I became one of the Lord’s creatures.’
‘God created you?’ I said in surprise.‘Not God,’ it replied, in that harsh guttural tone. ‘The Lord of Hell.’
The Devil. Satan. Beelzebub, Lucifer. He whose name is legon. I knew now that I would have to negotiate for my life. I was terrified, but I had to remain outwardly calm or I would suffer a horrible death – perhaps worse? This foul being would have no compassion, no empathy, no gratitude for the fact that I had freed it from its prison. I could not appeal to its better nature, for it did not have such a thing. I had to find another way to obtain release from its clutches.
‘What are you?’ I asked. ‘A demon?’It moved its position on my chest, making it more painful, but I kept my tongue in check.
‘Perhaps that, or perhaps something else. I was a man, once . . .’ its tone wistful, reflective ‘. . . but my soul had to make a choice. I was a good man, a man of that deity you mentioned a moment ago. A man of the cloth. Now I am something greater, something stronger. The choice was given me and I chose this.’ Its eyes stared directly into mine, the yellow red pupils flaring outwards into the yellow sclera. ‘It was the right one, for I know we are winning. Those others, those you mortals worship, they are falling in the battle by their hundred-thousand. We are defeating them. You know what I’m speaking of?’
‘Every time an angel is destroyed, one of my kind awakes.’
The darkness swirled around us at this sentence, as if it confirmed the words. I knew not whether Armageddon was a real or imagined, or if real where it lay? On some different time plain or in a space unknown to Man? Perhaps this creature crushing my breast was a liar? Possibly a deformed human who somehow managed to survive in the box by eating worms and drinking dirty water? It seemed an unlikely scenario, but then so did a battle between Good and Evil, fought between angels and demons. The questions, like the darkness and the wind, whirled around in my head.
‘So, you believe you will win? Your Lord and his horde of fiends? Now that I have had the opportunity to examine your strength, I can well believe it. You have the brute force of a lion and the supple muscles of a reticulated python. I can do nothing but admire such power. Perhaps it would be to the advantage of mankind – us mortals – to join with you and your armies? For myself, I am willing to offer my services.
The thing sneered. ‘You? What can you do?’
‘I can assist you in many ways.’
It stared down at my face, those baleful eyes trying to penetrate my mind. My assessment of its intellect led me to believe it was not stupid, but then it was not overly clever. The mind of a child, I thought. And I think I was right, because it finally climbed off my chest and stood by me, watching to see whether I would run. I had no idea of this bestial creature’s speed, but I was not going to test it. I still feigned an interest in its story of the war above us.
‘Have you personally destroyed any angels?’
‘No, of course not. I’ve been a corpse in that box until tonight,’ it replied irritably. ‘I’ve been recruited to deal with mortals, not the hosts.’ It looked menacingly up at me. ‘Mortals like you. You think I’m weak minded, don’t you? A gibbering idiot? Don’t forget I was once human too. I’ve not always been Ugleglyp. I know how you think. This disgusting body I have now – yes, I know how coarse it looks – do not judge me by it. I still have a keen mind. I can out-think a man like you. What do you do? Are you a grocer? A librarian? What?’
I drew myself up. ‘A sculptor.’
The monster let out a gurgle. ‘You’re a mason. Oh, a fancy one, but a mason just the same. I – I was a priest. If I had lived a little longer, I would have been a bishop, but that Lord you mistook for my creator took me away and dumped me in an earthen pit before that could happen.’
‘I would not presume to question your intellect.’
‘I think you already have.’ It turned little, his head no higher than my waist. I was now on my feet and glanced to his left. ‘Ah,’ it smiled, ‘you’re wondering where you left the spade. You think you might use it like an axe to hack me down? Think again, I’m quicker than might seem to look at me. Don’t forget I’ve just been born, just out of the egg so to speak, like a serpent’s child. I can strike in a flash. I could break your neck before you took a second step.’
‘I wasn’t – that is, I wouldn’t . . .’
‘Wasn’t, isn’t, wouldn’t. Gah! Listen!’
I listened hard, but could hear nothing but the breeze soughing in the yews.
Ugleglyp leered at me with a wide mouth full of yellow-black teeth. ‘The war!’ It looked out over the graves, as if it could see something beyond the edge of darkness. ‘A battle. There’s been a great slaughter. Listen. Listen.’
And all at once hundreds of grave bells began to tinkle in the otherwise still night.
I swallowed hard. Horrified, I turned away from the beast and began a slow walk towards the roadway. ‘I’ll get help,’ I called over my shoulder. ‘You’ll need more of us with shovels and spades.’ I didn’t hurry. There was no use in haste. Whether I would be permitted to pass through the open gates, I did not know, but I suppose in the end the creature must have shrugged its shoulders and let me go, probably thinking why bother with a single mortal just before the massacre of millions.’’
The rector, pale, his hands linked as if in prayer, looked at me earnestly.
‘Why are you telling me all this? What am I supposed to do?’
‘Why,’ I replied, ‘gather as many of your kind as you can – priests, pastors, bishops – men of the cloth. We’re going to have to try to save humankind. Haven’t you been listening? Don’t you realise this is the end of the world, unless we can rally, man. We must rally. We might not win, but we can’t just let them walk over us without a fight . . .’