The heavy iron gates of Bellemont Cemetery stood open like silent sentries, daring her to enter. Lila hesitated, fearful that once she passed through those gates, they would close behind her, trapping her in a cold, dark, colorless place forever. Thick brick walls enclosed the historic cemetery on all sides, walls much too high to climb if she became trapped. She forced herself to close her eyes and take a deep breath, squelching the rising wave of panic inside her. Then, heart pounding, she hurried through the ominous gates and breathed a sigh of relief when they remained open behind her.
A thick line of trees leaned wearily against the walls, their branches swaying in the cold wind. All around her, the trees were alive with sound: raindrops drip, dripping off rain-soaked leaves onto the rich, mossy soil below; a merry chorus of tiny birds chattering in the treetops, flitting here, then there, delighting in their wet, dewy bower. Overhead, the sky was heavy with white and gray clouds moving rapidly with the wind. More rain threatened to fall. But suddenly, long beams of shimmering sunlight broke through the clouds, caressing the earth with wraith-like fingers, providing a glimpse of heaven, and the possibility of angels breaking into song. Raindrops glistened like silver beads of light in the trees; the last of the autumn leaves burst into fiery red and gold flame; and she was alone, blissfully alone, in a magical world.
Lila breathed in the pure, rain-washed air; inhaled the heavy odor of decaying leaves; the spicy scents of cedar and pine; and the delicate perfume of roses, pink ones and black ones, which she carried in a large bouquet in her hands. She held them to her nose, luxuriating in the sweet aroma, and felt the wetness of raindrops on their velvety petals.
A damp chill rose up from the earth, making her shiver, and she pulled her heavy, black velvet cloak closer around her. The heels of her black leather boots echoed on the pavement. The skirt of her long, black velvet dress clung to her with dampness. But she didn’t care — she was nearly there.
At a fork in the path, she stopped. Gingerly, she stuck one booted foot onto the rain-soaked autumn grass, turned stubby and brown. But the ground held firm, so she continued through the grass, feeling the cold dampness penetrate into her feet.
She walked among the ancient headstones with care, noting with sadness how they leaned and crumbled in the shadows, their weathered faces obliterated over time, their stories forever silenced, forgotten, erased from the world. But a few remained to tell their tales: Baby Emma, dead of pneumonia after two days of life in 1842; Mary Whitehead, Beloved Wife and Mother, died age 27 in childbirth, May She Rest in Peace; Harold Whitby, who died a local hero in the Civil War; and Hope Blaisdale, born 1767, Asleep in the Arms of Jesus since 1857.
So many lives, come and gone; so many hopes and dreams passed away; so many joys and sorrows extinguished forever; so many years gone by. Both the hardness and frailty of life were represented in this place, and she was overcome, once again, with the stark realization of life’s shortness and the finality of death.
She found what she wanted in the newer section of the cemetery, a gentle, grassy slope once sparsely populated. But ten years had witnessed the gradual appearance of many smooth, cleanly-engraved marble headstones, and the open, park-like feel of this section was disappearing. Many of the more recent headstones were simple oblong markers embedded in the soil, flush with the earth, to make it more convenient for the mowers. They lacked the character and history of the older stones. But here they were, and here they would stay, until decades from now they, too, would appear weathered and worn, a testament to the passage of Time.
She had insisted on a more enduring headstone to honor the memory of her dead husband. She stood before it now, examining the clean whiteness of the weeping angel’s marble arms flung mournfully over the shiny, black marble headstone where her husband’s vital statistics were deeply engraved. It was not a new idea. The Victorians had doted on the image of weeping grief. She had borrowed the idea from William Wetmore Story, an American artist who sculpted the original monument for himself and his wife in 1894. It now stood in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, where they were buried. Lila had kept most of the original design but paid the sculptor to sculpt her own image onto the angel’s face — and it was her own grief represented in the statue.
She knelt before the marble monument and placed the pink and black roses in the bronze vase embedded in the marble base. Pink for everlasting love; black for everlasting death. It was an annual ritual which had consumed her life for the last ten years. She uncovered her head, feeling the damp, misty air all around her, and traced the carved letters of her husband’s name with one gloved finger.
“Happy birthday, Jonathan,” she said softly, and tears filled her eyes. With loving hands, she brushed away a few dead leaves clinging stubbornly to the cold, wet marble. Ten years ago, she had vowed to keep his memory pristine and shining. She would not allow him to be forever silenced.
The dull ache of her everyday grief filled the empty loneliness of her life, reminding her listless spirit that she was still very much alive and obligated to remain so until either God or the devil decided otherwise; but today, on the most special day of her year, when the ritual of her grief found its most sublime expression, she needed no reminder of the separation that lay between herself and her husband. The hardness of the marble headstone felt all too real beneath her fingers; the shortness of his precious life felt all too bitter in her heart:
Jonathan Harkins Born October 31, 1952 Died June 21, 1997 Beloved Husband, Lover, and Friend
She leaned over and kissed the cold, hard stone, unmindful of the clinging dampness or the tears streaming down her face.
“Tonight,” she said hopefully, and believed it in her heart.
At nine o’clock, when she felt certain there would be no more Halloween revelers at the front door, she stoked up the fire in the fireplace, turned down the lights, and placed a small, round mahogany table in front of the fire. She covered the table with a large square of deep purple velvet cloth and set out the wooden Ouija board and plastic planchette. She placed a small silver candelabra on the table next to the Ouija board, filled the candleholders with pink and black candles, and carefully lit each one. The effect was charmingly romantic, definitely Gothic, in keeping with her annual birthday ritual; and she said a silent prayer, hoping that this would be the year when Jonathan’s promise would come true. Then she changed into a long, black velvet gown embroidered with tiny silver stars and waited for her guests to arrive.
It wasn’t long before she heard a brisk knock on the front door, and she opened it with a large smile to admit two women of varying ages and costumes. They removed their coats, handing them to their hostess, and looked around the darkened room in expectation.
“How charming!” exclaimed a young woman with blazing red hair and large, green eyes dressed in a long-sleeved, forest green gown with red embroidery on the tight bodice. The material clung to her slender figure, emphasizing her plump breasts. “Lila, you’ve absolutely outdone yourself!” She leaned up and kissed her hostess on the cheek.
Lila crossed her fingers. “This year, Maureen; it has to be this year!”
“We’ll do our best, my dear.” She turned to her companion. “This is Madame Angeline, our guest psychic, just arrived from Boston, Massachusetts. Her reputation is impeccable!”
The older woman with platinum blonde hair and faded violet eyes was dressed in a long-sleeved, lavender-colored gown adorned with vintage cream-colored lace at the wrists and throat. An old ivory cameo was pinned to the starched, Victorian-style high collar, and Lila wondered how the woman could breathe. She stretched out her hand, and the woman took it gently, turning it over to examine her palm.
“Madame Angeline sees many things, my dear,” she said with a slight French accent. “But for you, I see a long, happy life — if you will allow it to be.”
Lila removed her hand from the old woman’s grasp. “Thank you, Madame,” she said nervously. “We will see tonight if that prophesy comes true or not.”
Madame Angeline shrugged. “A cup of hot tea with cream would be lovely. The air is quite damp outside.”
“Certainly. And you, Maureen?”
“I’ll pass. I’m nervous enough without adding caffeine.”
“Then, I’ll be right back,” Lila said. “Here, the table is all ready. Please take your preferred seat, Madame.”
“Merci.” The old woman seated herself in front of the Ouija board where she could easily reach the planchette. The chair opposite was left for Lila, and Maureen took the third chair to the side.
Lila returned shortly with a serving trolley bearing a large pot of black tea and a small, white birthday cake decorated with pink and black candles.
Madame Angeline observed the cake with a strange look in her eyes, but said nothing. Maureen smiled apologetically. “Lila, dear, you really must explain to Madame what this is all about.”
Lila poured cups of hot tea for herself and Madame Angeline and sat down in the empty chair. She took a few sips of the strong hot liquid and began:
“My husband, Jonathan, was a psychologist who became interested in the paranormal when he took on a young man with schizophrenic tendencies as a patient. This young man was a gifted artist who had visions of another world after death. He painted beautiful canvasses depicting a world full of light and angels and unearthly spirits. His paintings sold well, but the young man’s visions grew in frequency to the point where he could no longer function in the real world. He began to drink and use street drugs, and he finally sought counseling for his substance abuse.
“Jonathan took the young man under his wing, so to speak, and became convinced over time that the young man’s visions were real. He became obsessed with the idea of life after death, reading every book he could find on the subject.
“When Jonathan was diagnosed with brain cancer, we were both devastated. Right from the beginning, the doctors told us it was hopeless. We tried chemo and radiation, but nothing worked. We finally turned to hospice, and Jonathan died in this very house ten years ago.
“Before he died, however, he promised to come back on his birthday and prove to me that there is life after death. We chose a special number code that only he and I knew, and if that code was revealed during a seance or Ouija session, that would be his message to me that life after death is real and everlasting.
“It sounds crazy, I know, but I have celebrated his birthday and honored his death every year for the last ten years without fail. We have hired a different psychic or medium every year, to no avail. There has been nothing but silence from the grave. We were hoping that tonight would be different.”
She reached over and squeezed Maureen’s hand. “Maureen has been my loyal friend through all of this. She has been right here with me through all the disappointment and pain for the last ten years. He has to come tonight, Madame, he has to! I don’t know how much more of this I can stand!”
Madame Angeline listened to her gravely, then closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Then she placed her fingers gently on the planchette.
“Place your fingers lightly on the planchette, and do not force it to move!” The two women complied. “Now, open your minds and hearts to the celestial realm and join me in calling on the spirit of Jonathan Harkins!”
Lila’s heart leaped in her chest in anticipation. Please, God, let tonight be the night, she prayed silently.
Madam Angeline continued. “Jonathan Harkins, ten years ago, before you passed on to the other side, you made a promise to your wife, Lila, that you would send a message to her from the other side on the anniversary of your birthday if — and only if — you were able to do so. Please come to us tonight, on the anniversary of your fifty-fifth birthday, and deliver that message!”
The fire crackled in the background, and the candles softly flickered. Outside, the wind howled gently against the windows. Then the soft patter of rain could be heard upon the roof. The lighted jack-o-lantern sitting on the hearth grinned a snaggle-toothed grin, and the odor of burning wax and pine logs filled the room. But the planchette did not move.
Once again, Madame Angeline took a deep breath, let it out, and continued. “I call upon all the spirits of Heaven and Hell to dissolve the veil between life and death, spirit and flesh, darkness and light, and allow the spirit of our beloved Jonathan Harkins to break on through to this material world on this holiest of nights, when the barriers between life and death are at their weakest, so that he may impart the message he promised to give to his beloved wife, Lila.”
Lila’s heart pounded in her chest, and a thin film of sweat dampened her brow. Her fingers trembled, but the planchette did not move. She looked nervously at Maureen and smiled faintly. Maureen smiled back reassuringly, her eyes glowing like green emeralds in the candlelight.
Once again, Madame Angeline closed her eyes, threw back her head, and said loudly, “I call upon the spirit of Jonathan Harkins to appear in this room and deliver the message he promised to give ten years ago!”
Lila and Maureen each held their breath as they waited for the planchette to begin moving idly across the board, slowly at first, then gathering speed. But instead of searching for alphabetical letters or numbers or touching upon the oui or the ja or even good-bye, the little plastic instrument sat there silently, mocking them both.
Lila stared at the planchette in disbelief. “It’s no good, my dear,” Madame Angeline said quietly. “Jonathan is not going to appear.”
“I don’t believe it,” Lila said, gripping the planchette tightly. “You didn’t try hard enough. In fact, you hardly tried at all.”
Madame Angeline reached for her hand across the table. “Remember what I said, cherie. You will have a long and happy life — IF YOU ALLOW IT. Ten years is a long time to wait. You are still young — only 42, am I right? Young enough to remarry — have a child, if you like. This obsession with grief is unhealthy. Life was meant for the living. For some unknown reason, Jonathan is not able to reach you from beyond the grave. That does not mean he’s lost to you forever or that he’s suffering in any way. It simply means that it’s not God’s will that he contact you. It’s time to let it go.”
“I can’t let it go, especially when he promised –”
“People make a lot of promises on their deathbeds, my dear; sometimes, not very wise ones.” Madame Angeline stood up and prepared to leave. “If you will bring my coat, Lila, I will say good-night to you.”
Lila stared at the little plastic planchette held tightly in her hand. Ten years of grief and frustrated hope burned inside of her, and she wanted to scream. She squeezed the planchette until the plastic cracked in her hand, and she threw it on the floor in disgust. Then she grabbed the Ouija board and flung it into the fireplace, making the fire sizzle and pop.
Lila stood up and pointed an accusing finger at Madame Angeline. “You don’t believe me! You never believed that Jonathan would come back! You’re nothing but a fraud!”
“Lila!” Maureen cried. “Madame Angeline is just trying to help you!”
“She’s not receptive to help,” Madame Angeline said sternly. “Please get my coat so I can leave.”
When they heard the knock on the front door, they were all startled, then annoyed. It was too late for visitors. Cautiously, Lila opened the front door without releasing the safety chain. She peered through the open crack at a stranger visible under the porch light. He was standing in the rain holding his brown overcoat over his head. He smiled at her apologetically.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I seem to have run out of gas, and my cell phone battery is dead. Can I please use your phone? I know it’s late, but I have no other way to get home. I live about two blocks from here, at 12145 Maplewood Court. I could walk, I guess, but the weather isn’t too good out here. I’d really appreciate it.”
Lila stared at him, not believing her ears. “12145, you said? Did you say 12145?”
“That’s what I said.”
Lila’s heart leaped in her chest. “12145!” she exclaimed, clutching her hands to her breast and laughing ecstatically. She turned around. “That’s it! That’s the code! Did you hear, Madame Angeline? He’s come back! Jonathan’s come back!”
Maureen and Madame Angeline stared at her in stunned silence.
“Did you hear me?” Lila cried. “JONATHAN’S COME BACK! That man out there just gave me the code!”
But Maureen and Madame Angeline just looked at her in disbelief.
“Here, I’ll prove it to you!” Lila fumbled with the safety chain, released it, and threw open the door. But the stranger was already down the walk, disappearing into the rainy darkness. “No!” Lila cried. “Please don’t go!” She hurried after him, arms waving wildly, and calling frantically, “Come back!” until the rain and darkness engulfed him, and she was alone.
Dawn Pisturino is a retired nurse in Arizona whose publishing credits include poems, limericks, short stories, and articles. Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies, most recently in "Wounds I Healed: The Poetry of Strong Women" and the "2023 Arizona Literary Magazine." A monthly contributor for Gobblers & Masticadores, she is a member of Mystery Writers of America and the Arizona Authors Association.