The night before last I had a curious nightmare. Apparently, I sat on my doorstep in quiet thought with the hour nearing twelve o’clock. It was a warm evening for the last day of October, and I was relishing in the calm splendour of what might have been the last nice evening to be sitting outside so long with only a thin jacket around my shoulders.
The children, who, earlier that evening, had roamed the streets dressed in the usual garb of witches, ghosts and goblins were by then safely tucked in bed. Gone were their childish cries of excitement. There was not a sound in the air except for a slight wind through the trees and perhaps the distant passing of cars on the highway.
All was just right when, from up the street I could hear a boney clack-clacking. I turned to see what might be making such a strange noise on so quiet a night.
Around the corner appeared a figure, dressed in a mouldy, torn shroud, dragging behind him a long box of rotting wood which could only be a coffin. As the figure neared I could detect the distinct skeletal features of his face from beneath the hooded robe.
Approaching my side, he paused, dropped the burden he had been dragging behind him, and sat on the edge of it. It creaked in protest as he put his weight on it. His jaw, held to his skull with the thinnest layer of sinew, began to clack as he addressed me.
“It is too bad,” he said. “Too bad, indeed.”
“What is too bad?” I asked. In that manner we all accept strangeness in dreams without a second thought. It never occurred to me that seeing a dead man drag his coffin down the street was an abnormal thing.
He brought a skeletal hand up to scratch his boney chin. “Most things. It is getting to be that I almost wish I had never died.”
“Why do you say this? What is wrong?”
“What is wrong? Everything is wrong. Look at this burial shroud; it is now nothing but a rag. And this coffin, once comfortable, is now a rotting box that I can barely hold together. All my possessions are falling apart before your very eyes and you ask what is wrong?”
“Pardon me for saying, but I wouldn’t think that, in your state, you would mind such matters.”
“Oh,” he said, his white boned grin sending shivers down my spine. “You have much to learn about death, my friend – much to learn about what you call my state. The fact is, I do mind such matters. There is an element of pride in death, and comfort is perhaps the only thing left to concern yourself with in the everlasting sleep of death.
“You see, in the early years of the last century, when I laid down to my final sleep, I was happy and at peace. I had myself a strong and sturdy coffin lined in the finest of silks. Above me, I boasted a polished smooth gravestone which had been adorned with fresh flowers and plants by my surviving loved ones. For a while, I was the proudest corpse in all the graveyard. It was a wonderful thing to be dead.
“But see the difference now,” he said, and a ghastly expression developed on the decayed features of his face. “My grave is all caved-in, the wood of my coffin has rotted in places so badly that vermin have crawled in through the holes, not to mention the crawly bugs that have taken residence in my silks and what is left of my flesh. My gravestone, marred by time and the elements, now bows forward, as if in disgrace and threatens to fall flat in the moistened, flooded earth. And it has been years since anything but weeds and vines have graced my stone. My loved ones and descendants, who used to visit me on holidays and anniversaries, have all either died themselves, moved away or forgotten me.
“My headstone itself used to be a thing of pride, reading the simple term: ‘GONE TO HIS JUST REWARD.’ When first I died, it was a fine epitaph, one to be proud of, for finally, after a hard life, I would sleep in a comfortable, warm and dry place for all of eternity. But now the irony reigns strong. It’s also interesting how the grave not two stones away from my own reads ‘Death is the starlit strip between the companionship of yesterday and the reunion of tomorrow.’ Now despite the awful state of the gravesite, at least the epitaph holds a little bit of hope for my neighbour. But are these decrepit, forgotten graves our just reward now?”
“But,” I said. “You are dead.”
“Yes,” he replied. “Dead and forgotten. And while I lie in a mouldy, leaky box with maggots crawling through the sockets where my eyes used to behold the world, how should it be that you lie in a comfortable bed just one block away?”
Unable to answer him, I shook my head.
“Ah yes, I know – because you are alive and I am dead. You said it yourself a moment ago.”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” I insisted. “Perhaps we can do something, the townspeople and I. We can work on the graveyard and restore it to its former glory. There is no need for you to leave. Tomorrow, I’ll...”
But he cut me off. “No. No more tomorrows. It is too late, my friend. Much too late. You have all ignored our simple needs for too long now. We’ve already discussed the situation and the time is now at hand.” He paused and grated his teeth in a way that made me shiver. “I have but one thing to say to you. Memento Mori.”
Not understanding, I cast a confused look at him, to which he shook his head muttering how little Latin modern folks know and repeated the phrase in words I could understand. “Remember, you will die.”
With that said, he pushed past me up the stairs. I turned so that I might stop him, but was amazed at how fast he could move his skeletal bones. Before I knew it, he’d entered my home and locked the door behind him. I was locked out of my own house.
The clack-clacking sound arose again, this time in a loud chorus. I turned to spy an entire procession of the dead, each dressed in similar mouldy robes and dragging their coffins behind them.
That was when I woke from the nightmare.
As I lay there I thought about the dream, wondering at the moral involved, and then decided that we place too much emphasis on the meaning of dreams. After all, it was probably just the result of a weird combination of food I had ingested and that book of stories by Mark Twain I had read prior to falling asleep. Why couldn’t I have dreamed of meeting up with Huck Finn instead?
Shaking the sleep from my eyes, I sat up, and for the first time became aware of a presence in the room with me. The bed in which I typically slept alone was housing another body.
Slowly I turned to find myself face to face with the cavernous sockets of the dead man from my dream. A smile lit upon his face that struck terror in my heart. His skeletal hand lifted from beneath the sheet as he pointed the way out of the bedroom. “Memento Mori,” was all that he uttered.
I got out of bed and reached for my bathrobe but found instead a mouldy, putrid shroud. Shaking my head, I donned the shroud and sadly moped out of the bedroom as the maggots and bugs sought my warm flesh.
My eyes downcast all the way to the graveyard, I did not bother to look at the others who, like me, were plodding their way down the street. Refuges kicked out of our own homes by the very dead we’d forgotten about, we slugged along like the poor losers we were.
Tired, I walked along through the neglected tombstones, until I found the one that read: GONE TO HIS JUST REWARD. With one last look at the night sky, I sank down into the hole.
And here is where I lie, hoping that this too is another dream from which I will awake. I’m also thinking that the next morning we should all get up and put some work into this graveyard – make it a nice, respectable place to dwell. But I’m tired now, and all that I want for the moment is to sleep.
It’s a good idea though. Maybe tomorrow...
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