Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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The Cemetery

by Florin Purluca

One night, which was exactly as a night should be, deep and as shiny as the obsidian stones in the witches' jewelry, a woman passed by in a hurry, almost running, along the street bordered by the solid fence of the cemetery. She reached the twisted gates of wrought iron and stopped. She glanced back, then she looked again towards the gates. They were high, as high as the wall itself--perhaps even a bit higher. With fine spikes like some blades in the lofty peaks of the bars, but which were no longer gleaming in the sparkling light of the moon – they had been beaten down there too many years ago to still do so, but one wouldn't take too long to understand that they could have even competed with the edge of a knife, despite their age.

She struggled to pass through the bars. At first glance, not even a ten years old boy could have done it, much less her. Still, due to the fact that the ironware was old enough it must have gathered four human lives in its existence – maybe even five – and still insisting to go through, the woman discovered a place where the bars were slightly curved. Not much, just a little, like this! A perfect fit for a fly, a category in which, undoubtedly, the woman's raw-boned body would fit. Who, when or what might have bent the iron, I do not think anyone could have ever remembered it, but hey, what difference does it make? – What mattered was that the runaway had managed to squeeze in.

Much further back, on the macadam washed by the numb light of the lampposts and by the freshly delivered rain, a silhouette was looming. It kept on rising, as the soles of the boots with iron reinforcement at the top, like the ones used on construction sites, were cracking the stones. The moon was dancing into the polished and shiny metal of the shoes. A small, round bead, that you could have sworn it was freshly released from a seashell, but the real moon, melting the cotton of the night, about the extent of a main course dish, was looking indifferent towards the world.

The woman walked through the bars with a short and deep groan, as if she had lifted something too heavy. Then, she glided through the darkness, zigzagging through dull tombstones and clumps of greenery multiplied impeccably. She dodged behind a slab stone--crooked from the weight of the years that have passed and the several hundreds of rebellious threads of ivy that had invaded it, crossing her legs, with narrow shoulders and stiffened in emotion. She sat there for a while to catch her breath, then she split the tangled strains of the shrub with such delicacy specific to fear. The slim fingertips, through the twisted shoots, so that she could distinguish the gate, and, in particular, what was to be found beyond.

The man with the boots broke the natural alignment of the bars when he appeared in a hurry. Noticing his shadow, the woman dropped a whimper of fear. Sitting there, without moving around one bit, one couldn't believe anything else except that tall, strong-built man had heard something coming from behind the fence, something that resembled the cry of a child lost in a restless sleep.

His strong fists grabbed the iron and began to shake it. Only that the gates had been made to last. They did not even budge. The man tried again one more time but without success. He took a couple of steps and then he vanished. Then ...... that sound. It was night, it was quiet, and the woman could distinguish it. Too clear, the scraping of an iron claw on the plaster. At first an arm, followed by a head – the man climbing the fence, and then, the muffled sound of the boots, hitting the ground. The woman went even deeper into that lair. Maybe there had been some sort of hiding places in the world, some endless ones, but unfortunately, that wasn't one of them. Its end was in the same place its back was.

The man was walking into the alley in a calculated manner, contrasting with the crosses and the tombstones that rose from the ground. The night, the darkness eating all details, the man was sneaking, like a floating shadow. He had a sailor's hat that covered his eyebrows, and the collar of his overcoat was brought up to his nose. Eyes that you could barely manage to distinguish and only if you paid enough attention: prying, shiny, long as two lines in the light.

And he had a knife, that man.

You could not figure out how that blade looked like, but where weren't any large spots of rust, pieces of starlight still lingered. You wouldn't know if it was long, wide, or as sharp as a razor. No, no! How would you know that? But what you could guess, too well, was that he did not look friendly at all. The man in black, with his fist tight on the knife handle.

He was walking and growling, a sound like a too focused animal to find its prey, and he did not even expect to hear what he heard: a soft but firm voice that could have sung a lullaby song or, if necessary, could have chased away an infamous spirit.

"Have you, by chance, got lost, sir?"

The man in the boots was tall, well-built. The one with the hat was even taller and looked even stronger. Very few people had found the courage to look at the man in the boots straight in the eye, in the middle of the night, without something far too bad had happened that could still be told, but when he turned around and looked towards the hematite stones that stood for eyes under the curved brim of the hat, then the man in the boots was the one who felt a cold shiver up his spine. He answered in a hardly controlled voice:

"I thought I heard something. Like a cry for help."

"In the heart of the night, in a cemetery with such large, locked gates?"

The man in the boots put his hand behind his back, so that the knife could no longer be seen, but it was still there, his fist tight on the knife handle, in case he might just need it.

"I think you were wrong, sir. It may have been an owl. These birds make some misleading sounds."

"Perhaps", said the man, tuneless.

"And yet, had you found someone, what would you have done? Perhaps an old man, a child or whoever, someone who couldn't have climbed the fence, like you did. What would you have done?"

"Probably, we would have cried out for help."

"Very well! Then I would have been the first to hear you."

"Ah! So you must be the caretaker of the cemetery?"

The man with the hat shook his head: neither yes nor no.

"Please follow me," he said.

The woman watched him closely, the one who followed her. He had put his knife aside and spoke by himself, half buried into the fine air of the night fog. Some fake tentacles were rising from the ground. He kept on talking for a while, not much, just a little, then he headed towards the fence.

The man with the hat, having reached the main gate, chose a big key from a clanking bunch of keys. He unlocked the sleeping padlock, which made a grumpy sound – as if a hundred years had passed since the last time it had been unlocked -, and pulled the rusty piece of ironware aside. A specific creaking of ungreased hinges.

"Here you go, sir! Hope you have a peaceful night."

The man in the boots would have said something more--anything -, but what can you say to such a man? He clenched the knife handle and perhaps he clenched his teeth just as hard. With a grudge or, why not, with fear, but who would admit that?

Outside it was a quiet night, the kind only in a cemetery would be, and the tall man in black didn't dare to use the knife. He crossed over the gate line and the old metal, carefully worked, snapped with a hollow sound when it closed behind him.

"Just so you know, man with a hat," he finally found the courage to say from behind the rusty pattern. "Because of you, one thing remained unfinished."

The caretaker cut the clean line of the hat, two fingers slipping along the brim. Plus a smile in the corner of his mouth.

"Nothing is useless, kind sir. In this world or in any other."

Just a step--or maybe two – took the man with a sailor's hat and then he winced. A lady appeared next to him--otherwise well, had you dared to call her a young lady. She was wearing white, certainly not black. Her hair was fair, certainly not dark. Lacy crinoline, certainly not a gown. She was smiling, her teeth were white, clean, straight. Her canines, maybe a little too long. Eyes of a strange beauty, and although they were burning in a red fire made from the wood of a coffin, they were quiet, as you can see at a three or four year old being.

"I am looking for someone," the young lady said. "Someone who feels a great need to be liked and admired by others. Who tends to be critical of himself. Who has some vulnerabilities, but is at large capable to redeem them. Sometimes he has serious doubts that he took the right decision or acted correctly, and, last but not least, who adores hunting. Would you happen to know someone like that?"*

The young lady smiled at the tall, dressed in black man who was wearing a pair of boots with iron at the top, like the ones used on construction sites. A rather odd smile, anyone could tell you that, that the man did not really know how to interpret it, but only for a second – or maybe two. Because there is no hunter in the world who would not understand – and frequently accept – the moment when the hunter becomes the hunted.


*The Barnum effect, also called the Forer effect, was discovered by the American psychologist Bertram R. Forer and named after American circus entertainer P. T. Barnum, is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices.

2017 Florin Purluca

Bio: Florin Purluca is a Romanian writer, living in Focșani, Romania. He has a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and works in a psychiatric hospital in his hometown. His fiction has been published in several Romanian periodicals. His short story “The Observer” was nominated at the 2015 RomCon festival for Best Short Story of the Year, 2014. His work translations have been published in The Singularity and Aphelion. His last Aphelion appearance was The Ark in our September, 2016 issue.

E-mail: Florin Purluca

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