I hate confined spaces. Hate. Them. Even as I write this...dwelling on sensations of being trapped, total darkness, struggling to move, to breathe...I sense my body's alarm bells ringing the first warnings of anxiety. The 19th Century saw a macabre fascination with premature burials. News stories, often sensationalized, carried these bizarre accounts of men, women, and children who were assumed deceased, buried by loved ones, only later to be exhumed reveling evidence of a struggle within the coffin. Edgar Allen Poe's short story, Premature Burial, first published in 1844 during the peak of this paranoia, inspired the story below. Dead Ringer, from A Piper's Song, does its best to pay homage to one of the all-time greats in the horror genre. Hope you enjoy. - JP
“Just because you hear it, doesn’t mean it’s true. That’s not how it started.” Eleven-year-old Edgar paused, “The doctor said it was fever, not the berries you picked for her. None of this is your fault little man. You’re not slow. You’re as smart as any other boy I know.”
“But what about—”
Edgar interrupted. “I don’t care what the others say.” He took Isaac’s chin and lifted till their eyes met. “You’re not slow. Maybe your brain thinks so fast the words can’t keep up. Ever thought of that?”
Tears streaked the dirt on Isaac Watson’s cheeks; he hadn’t thought of that. He wiped them with the sleeve of his jacket because he didn’t want Edgar to see. Edgar was almost a man. He didn’t care if the other people noticed, some of them were crying too. “Just because you hear something don’t make it true,” Isaac repeated.
“Shush!” George Watson, Isaac’s father, motioned him to his side. Isaac motioned for his nine-month-old pup Dash to sit.
Dash obeyed, and Isaac tried to shush. He tried, but as the men lowered his momma into the hole, his tears fell freely.
“Dry it up!” George grabbed the back of Isaac’s ear and twisted. “I can’t hear the preacher pray.”
Isaac closed his eyes and prayed for the preacher to pray louder. He knew he wasn’t supposed to hate but he hated the fever. He loved his momma.
Preacher Lafourcade closed his bible, thanked those around the hole for coming, and reminded them of revival the following week. Most left without speaking. Mrs. Victorine, the preacher’s wife, gathered the women who remained and herded them from the back yard into the kitchen. The men, shovels in hand, waited until the ladies disappeared inside then began scooping dirt onto the pine box.
Isaac found a bucket whose bottom wasn’t rusted out, flipped it over, and sat.
Edgar knelt beside him. “Sorry about your mom. I know what it’s like.” He patted Isaac’s shoulder. “1844 ain’t been nobody’s year has it?”
Isaac shook his head no. Edgar’s mom had died of the fever a few months before, and he’d already forgotten. “No, I guess not.”
They sat and watched the men work. Other than an occasional bark from Dash, no one spoke until the hole was nearly full.
“What’s that bell?” Isaac asked. “Edgar, do you know? What are they doing with that twine and bell?”
Two men pounded a wooden cross into the dirt then placed a bell, mounted on a small pole, beside the cross.
Isaac’s dad walked up before Edgar answered. He took off his gloves and leaned his shovel against the rail fence. “I have to feed the hogs.” He pointed to the two men still tinkering with the bell, “Stay out of their way while they finish. I want to be in bed by sundown and ain’t half-an-hour of light left in the day.” He took a few steps towards the barn. “There’s food in the kitchen. Ladies from church fixed it up.”
Isaac waited until his dad vanished behind the woodpile. “The bell. You know what it’s for don’t you?”
Edgar reached down and pulled a wide blade of grass from the ground. He examined it, then offered it to the wind.
“Edgar!” Isaac glanced to the barn, “Edgar,” much quieter, “if you know what it is you better tell me.”
Edgar paused again and sighed. “Alright, I asked my dad about it when my mom died, and he said it was so the funeral parlor could charge more money for the fancy coffin. That’s all, it’s nothing for you to worry about.”
So, Isaac didn’t worry.
“Edgar, can I tell you something and you promise never to tell anyone?”
“I’m serious, swear it.”
Edgar sweared it.
“Okay, momma was—” he almost didn’t continue. “You promise you won’t tell?”
Isaac waited a moment longer to be sure. “Okay, momma was afraid of him…father.” He rested his eyes and a couple of tears leaked out. “He yells a lot and sometimes he hits her. When she messes up,” more drops escaped, “he makes her sleep in the root cellar. She has a cot and quilt, but it’s horrible Edgar. It’s horrible.” He wanted Edgar to stop him, but his friend said nothing. “I heard her cry. I never told her, but I heard her cry. Sometimes she would pray. Never loud enough for me to understand the words, but I know she was praying. And,” Isaac took a breath, “I think she heard me crying. I cried too, Edgar.” He glanced up, but Edgar’s face didn’t make him feel ashamed. “On those nights, the really bad ones, she’d sing songs. She didn’t sing loud, but I heard. Not the words, but the singing. I ain’t slow. I know songs when I hear them.” He paused, held out his hand, and let Dash lick. “It made me feel safe.”
Edgar stood and pulled something from his back pocket. “I want you to have this.” He handed Isaac a folded jack-knife. “It might be a little big for you now, but you’ll grow into it.”
The knife rested in his small palm. Heavier than expected, Isaac steadied his hand. Edgar pointed to its side. “See here? Pull the blade up but be careful.”
Isaac moved to open it, but Edgar’s quick hand stopped him. “Slowly, so you don’t cut yourself. Here, let me show you.”
Edgar took the knife and opened the blade. Longer than his middle finger, an amber ray from the setting sun bounced off its razor thin edge. He closed it and handed it back to Isaac.
Isaac pulled the blade like Edgar had shown him, and it opened with ease. “Really? It ain’t Christmas or nothing. Is it my birthday?”
Edgar squatted and looked Isaac in the eyes. “It’s not your birthday, but you be careful with it.” He nodded to the barn, “and I wouldn’t tell your dad about it right away, maybe at least until you turn eight.” The older boy stood and jostled the younger’s wiry blond hair. “Put that away now, go ahead, before someone sees it.”
Isaac eased the blade down and slid the knife into his own pocket. “You sure?” The conversation seemed extremely grown-up.
“I got another. Just be careful and don’t cut yourself.” He turned to someone calling his name from behind.
“Edgar, gather your things and say your farewells.” Edgar’s dad waved a shovel as he passed, “and hold this for a moment. Mr. Stapleton’s wife cooked several extra meals for you and me to take home.” He paused and called back to Isaac. “I’m sorry about your mother. I really am.” Edgar’s dad lowered his head for a moment then walked away.
Edgar again. “I’ve got to go. Remember. Careful with the blade, and—”
“Don’t tell dad.”
Edgar smiled. “That’s right.”
Edgar met his dad and the group from the kitchen on the porch. Everyone either hugged, shook-hands, or shook their heads, then there were only two, Edgar and Edgar’s dad. They spoke for a moment, then Edgar took one of the two baskets Mrs. Stapleton had prepared and pointed to the shortcut between their small farms. Edgar’s dad nodded, and Isaac watched until they disappeared behind the big oak past his gate.
“They finished?” Isaac’s dad motioned toward the cross and bell.
George Watson swatted, but missed, a fly buzzing his nose, then motioned to the house, “They all gone home?”
“Yes sir. I think so.”
“I’m not hungry.” Isaac wasn’t, even though he hadn’t eaten all day.
“Suit yourself. You know where we keep the food. We’ve got a busy day on the fence line tomorrow, so I wouldn’t go to bed hungry. With your mother gone, you’ve got a lot more chores.”
Dash turned his nose to the air and snapped off a quick bark.
“Shut-up!” George shooed Dash away with his boot. “I ain’t slept in three days, and I intend to eat some beans then go to bed. I’m tired, dead tired. If you or him,” George pointed to the dog, “wake me, I’ll bury that mutt with your mom.”
“But Dash ain’t dead.” Isaac wished he hadn’t said it as soon as he heard it out loud.
“He will be.”
“Don’t say that!” It was the first time Isaac yelled at his father.
George Watson split Isaac’s lower lip with his right fist and knocked him to the ground. It was the first time he’d hit his son. “Don’t ever disrespect me.”
George turned and grazed Dash’s tail with a kick, but the pup barely whimpered. Still, Isaac knelt and held him until his father reached the house and the backdoor closed behind him.
Isaac heard his dad fumble through pots and pans and decided to count the stars. Not many at first, but by the time his father’s bedroom window went dark, he’d counted to almost fifty.
The house was silent. Isaac stretched out on the ground beside his momma and searched the sky. He wondered if she were up there in heaven, looking down on him. He found Orion, the hunter, then the Little Dipper. He never could find the big one. Edgar tried to show him one night, but he couldn’t see it. He wished he would see a shooting star so he could wish his momma back to life.
Isaac checked the house again, no lights. He closed his eyes and listened…no sounds of his dad. He opened them, tried not to think about anything, then decided to look for the Big Dipper on his own. Dash sat beside him and worked the cool evening air with his nose.
When he couldn’t even find the Little Dipper again, Isaac rolled over on his side and sighed. A half-lit moon cast enough light to highlight the bell and wooden cross. Dash stood and walked around his feet. Isaac reached for him, but the dog hopped over his outstretched arms and sniffed his way to the bell.
“Come here boy.” Isaac coaxed his pup with a low whistle. “Come here.” He patted the freshly turned dirt.
Isaac saw the bell move before Dash’s ears perked at its first faint ding. His bark came out soft, the confused yelp of a dog certain something was amiss but unsure what. The bell rang again, and Dash barked louder.
Isaac leapt to his feet and glanced toward the house. No lights. No movement. “Dash! Stop it!” He said it much louder than he intended. “Dash, quiet!”
Dash didn’t quiet, and neither did the bell. Both worked themselves to a frantic pace and pitch within seconds.
Isaac checked the house as he pulled his new jack-knife from his pocket. Still no light. He snatched open the blade and lunged forward. The knife cut through the bell’s twine with ease, and the ringing ceased with a final dull clank.
But Dash barked louder.
Isaac begged. “Dash, stop! Please don’t bark. It ain’t ringing anymore. Please!”
Isaac pleaded. "Dash, please be quiet. Please boy!" Fresh tears flowed down worn paths on Isaac's dirty face.
Isaac prayed. "Please God, make him quit barking! Please don't let father wake up."
Isaac held his pup tight to keep him quiet. He hugged him close and muzzled him in the crook of his arm. He clamped Dash’s jaws shut, but the pup fought harder and cried out louder.
Isaac doesn’t remember pulling the blade across Dash’s throat, but he remembers the awful sound his pup made when he did it.
Neither the bell nor Dash moved. The bell hung silent; a piece of twine hung limp from its top. Dash lay beside the cross in a puddle of blood. Isaac reached for his pup, and the dog quivered and tried to stand. A low gurgle came from deep inside the gash in Dash’s throat, and he collapsed back to the ground and died.
Isaac threw-up bile. He wiped Dash’s blood from his hands and onto his shirt then threw-up again. Finally, Isaac fell onto the fresh dirt and curled up by the cross.
The cold earth felt nice against his throbbing face and busted lip. He cried over Dash and how he would need to bury him. He was a good dog. Edgar might help…if he asked nice, he probably would… especially once he told him the story of how his knife saved him. They’d give Dash a nice burial, just like momma.
Isaac fought to keep his eyes open, but the curtains closed, and his scenery went dark. Alone on the hole, staggering along the last moments of awareness before sleep, Isaac heard his momma. Through most of a restless night, he heard her. He heard her sobs, and though he couldn’t understand the words, he heard her pray. Finally, deep into his nightmares, he stirred to her faint voice in song. He only caught a moment, but it was enough. He listened until sound sleep forced itself, then dreamed dreams that didn’t wake him. He felt safe when she sang.