TWO – DANCE OF THE DEAD
Father Dolenz said a silent prayer and stepped out of his car into the darkness. Mist shrouded the old cemetery, vaporous forms gliding between the pale tombstones which jutted like jagged teeth from the graveyard’s rolling hills.
Saints, what am I doing here at this time of night? he wondered. The cemetery’s eerie silence was enough to bring a chill to the bones of even the most pious man—and Dolenz was nothing if not pious.
You’ve nothing to fear, he told himself. God is with you. This is a place of God. Hallowed ground. He reached reflexively for the silver cross around his neck but didn’t find it.
Quietly cursing, he reminded himself that cross was why he’d come in the first place. He’d missed it when he returned to the rectory after evening services. The cross was special to him. It had been a gift from the late Cardinal Bernadin, given to him after the two had attended an ecumenical conference together.
Now there was a man that the world would miss. Not like Father O’Malley, who they’d put in the ground earlier today. Yes, O’Malley had been a good man, a fine Episcopal minister, and Dolenz was sure that he’d tended his flock here in Frosthaven well.
But O’Malley had had little imagination, and in recent years the fire had gone out of him as well. This last Dolenz could identify with. It was hard being a minister in these times, with crime on the rise and faith falling. People seemed more concerned with their possessions than with each other.
What profiteth a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul, thought Dolenz. But then, no one ever told him that the ministry would be easy. Dolenz took a deep breath and firmed his resolve against his doubts and the chill November air.
He felt certain that he must have lost the crucifix during O’Malley’s service in the graveyard earlier today. Calls to the caretaker’s cottage had yielded no results in turning it up—he hadn’t even been able to reach the man.
So, here he was, a minister in a graveyard after dark, not quite well enough dressed for the weather, standing at the bottom of a hill not far from O’Malley’s gravesite, screwing up the courage to look for his missing crucifix. He pulled a small flask from the inside of his coat and took a sip. The liquor burned as it ran down his throat, but it didn’t make him feel much better.
Damn! he thought, suddenly remembering he’d forgotten to bring a flashlight. He was about to get back into the car when the moon poked through the clouds overhead.
It’s enough, Dolenz thought, looking up. You can see well enough now. God will serve. You’ll be able to find it.
He stuck his gloved hands into the pockets of his wool coat and trudged uphill toward the last resting place of the recently deceased Father O’Malley.
As he neared the crest of the hill, his boots crunching on the frozen grass, a strange sound came to Dolenz’s ears. At first, he thought that it sounded like a rusty door swinging back and forth in the wind.
Perhaps someone forgot to lock a crypt, he mused. Then he remembered that there were no crypts near where O’Malley had been buried, and there was hardly any wind, either. The night air can play strange tricks. It’s probably coming from somewhere else.
But as he approached, the noise grew louder and more distinct. He could hear now that it wasn’t a single squeak, but a series of squeaks, like the tittering of rats—but much louder.
Reflexively, he reached again for the crucifix, cursed its loss once more, and pressed on. Old fool, he thought, next thing you know you’ll be seeing ghosts.
Ghosts would have been easy enough to imagine. Drapes of mist flitted around the pale tombstones. The moonlight shimmered on the vapors’ insubstantial surfaces, imbuing them with spectral life. But no thoughts of phantasms could prepare Dolenz for what he saw when he topped the hill.
There, in the fleeting moonlight, an obscene Bacchanal was taking place. Figures, nude or nearly so, danced wildly among the graves, capering and cavorting over the tombstones.
But the figures weren’t human. They looked unnaturally gaunt and pale, their skin blemished as from some rotting disease, their hair wild and unkempt.
Worst of all were their faces. Even in the moonlight Dolenz could see their miens were pinched and attenuated—drawn out like the muzzles of huge rats. They had pointed ears, sharp teeth , and green eyes that shone brightly in the fleeting moonlight.
The creatures chirped and tittered as they danced, revolving wildly around a single grave. To his horror Dolenz realized the plot belonged to Father O’Malley.
Dolenz had said prayers over the grave just that morning. Now he watched in mute terror as the ghouls desecrated the burial. Several dug at the fresh-turned earth like dogs, tearing the recently wounded soil with their long claws.
Near them stood a spectral figure shrouded in a brown cloak that might almost have been a monk’s cassock. Dolenz couldn’t see the man’s face, but his words drifted through the night air clearly enough.
“Turn, turn the earth. We burn—inside the hunger grows. A preacher’s sweet as any meat—to worms, from head to toes.”
As the wraith finished the gruesome rhyme, one of the creatures in the pit chirped with glee.
“Look, my children!” it called in a strange, chilling, sing-song voice, “the good reverend finally got a head in life.”
With that, it lifted its hand from the hole. Atop the hand rested the head of Father O’Malley, his dead eyes staring blankly into the darkness.
Dolenz gasped at the sight, despite himself.
The creatures heard the noise and turned toward Dolenz, their green, feral eyes seeming to bore into his soul.
“Get him!” hissed the creature holding O’Malley’s head. “We’ll have fresh meat tonight.”
With that, the ghouls stopped their dance and scampered toward Dolenz, like spiders scrabbling over a glass tabletop, their nails scraping and scratching on the tombstones they clambered over.
Dolenz turned and fled, running down the hill with all the speed his fifty-seven-year-old legs could muster.
The poet’s voice drifted after him as he ran. “Preacher down the hill. Preacher down the hill. Catch him, he’ll be still. Then you’ll have your fill.”
Dolenz didn’t dare look back. He could hear the creatures coming, their feet crunching the frozen grass, the barking sound of their breathing shattering the still air.
He saw his car ahead, at the bottom of the hill. He doubted he would make it. He was old, and out of shape, and the devil was on his heels.
Something brushed the back of his leg, and he screamed.
Father Dolenz sat bolt upright in his chair and put his hand to his chest. His heart was pounding almost hard enough to burst out of his ribcage. Sweat poured from every pore of his body. He could hardly draw a breath.
He reached up and loosened his collar, looking around to make sure of his whereabouts.
Yes. He was still in the rectory of Saint John’s—not back in the graveyard. Light filtered into the room from behind the study’s heavy drapes.
Taking a deep breath, he lurched to his feet and drew the curtains open. The afternoon sun flooded the room with warmth.
It wasn’t even dark, but he’d had the nightmare again—the fifth time in three days.
Even now, he remained unsure how he’d gotten in his car and escaped the scene on that horrible night. Somehow, he’d driven back to the parish—though he didn’t remember doing it—and called the police.
Investigating the scene, the Frosthaven PD had discovered little sign of the obscene frenzy he’d witnessed. Yes, the grave had been disturbed—but they turned up no other trace of the creatures.
They did, however, turn up Dolenz’s crucifix—and the flask that must have slipped out of his coat when he ran back to the car. Dolenz could imagine the many telling remarks the cops had made to each other on the second account. They’d still been smiling about it when they returned the now-empty container to him the following morning. (Sensibly, Dolenz had refused to return to the graveyard before daybreak.)
For his part, the old cemetery caretaker, McCoy, had seen nothing—and heard even less. He supposed that teenagers were the cause of the disturbance. Some people always thought youngsters were behind odd goings on, and Dolenz took McCoy to be one of them.
But Dolenz knew better. He’d seen the devil at work in the graveyard that night—and found himself wanting.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, took another deep breath, sat down at the rector’s desk, and pulled a fresh sheet of paper and a pen from the top right hand drawer.
He wondered sardonically if any Episcopal minister had ever resigned within a week of receiving his assignment before. If not, he was about to set a new record.
He put pen to paper thinking about whom he could recommend to replace him. Maybe Fortune, that young priest who’d come down from Superior to attend Father O’Malley’s service.
Yes. Fortune would do nicely. He was young and energetic, with more than enough zeal to tackle the devil’s minions.
As far as Father Dolenz was concerned, his replacement couldn’t get to Saint John’s soon enough.