“A Presence in Graves” by Anna Berlinger

Issue 10 / Summer 2017

 

It was a dog—or at least, it was once. The decaying carcass of a massive wolfhound lay right in front of them, covered in pine branches. The bulbous eyes and long teeth protruded from sunken flesh, and the tongue was a swollen stub, bitten off by spazzing teeth. Blood and dried saliva encrusted the bony muzzle. The rest of the mutilated body bore repeated stab wounds. The mangy gray hair was matted in dark red all over, and one side of its gut was exposed. Some other animal had been feasting.

The horrifying image rose before the mind of Professor Graves. It was a strange one, to be sure, but appropriate in a way only he could understand. As the lank professor stood there in the center of the grassy clearing, he could feel the ancient stone walls of Tintern Abbey encircling him like protective arms. The semi-circle of public school students in front of him with their blank expressions, unblinking eyes, and general aura of boredom provided a stark contrast to the vibrant moss, ivy, and rich greenery that crept up the stones. Graves’ hands quivered and his thin fingers turned the pages of his poetry textbook with what might have been reverence.

The sound of his students’ distracted whispering tugged at his heart with a surprising pain. Professor Graves hadn’t expected this level of distraction. The wanderings of his mind took him back to his days as a public school youth: not to that horrifying day, but the events that occurred afterward. How he used to pour over old manuscripts and muse under the poplar tree outside the schoolhouse, contemplating the perplexities of the natural world and concepts of the afterlife. He had many friends in his youth among the poetry of the British Romantics, died decades before—but none of that mattered. In a couple decades, England would face a change in the next century, whether or not he would be alive to witness it. Would the poetry of those great men continue to touch the youth of the next millennium? Professor Graves couldn’t help but fear along with the blossoming genius John Keats—whom death had cut down, criticized and unappreciated—that their words, like his name on a cold tombstone, would prove to be “writ in water.”

Still, Graves clung to the hope that his students might grow interested. How could he reprimand them for being bored when he himself struggled once to grasp a sense of poetic sensitivity to the natural? If it were not for that terrifying day, the memory of that hound stamped in his mind’s eye, he would never have discovered the eternal truths hidden within English Romanticism.

Sighing to himself, Graves scanned his listless students once more. The whole group of them seemed to mesh together in his head to form the image of that dead hound. It refused to leave the forefront of his memory. Removing his circular spectacles, Graves rubbed his tired eyes.

Today’s lesson would be a long one.

But, of course, it didn’t have to be. Making a decision, the professor closed his book of poetry, crossed both of his lengthy legs beneath him, and sat down on the grass in the midst of his students.

“Boys, I have a story to tell you.”

 

Thirteen-year-old Eldon Graves was alone with his two classmates Merrill and Henry. Standing there as twilight fell on the English countryside, Eldon felt anything but peaceful as he and his friends riveted their eyes on their astonishing discovery. The sight and smell of the wolfhound made all three boys shiver to the core, though they would never have admitted it. The odor of rotting, maggot-infested intestines issuing from the cavity was nauseating, affecting their own digestive systems. Poor Merrill had to step away and relieve his disturbed bowels behind a shrub.

“Irish,” Henry said without a second thought. “It’s an Irish pagan sacrifice. It must be, or else, some sort of devil worship. I always knew we shouldn’t have let folk like that in our village.”

“What do we do about it?” Merrill whispered through clenched teeth.

“Do? We do nothing,” Eldon said, stepping back. “If anybody thinks we had something to do with it, who knows what kind of trouble we could get into.” Gazing at the lifeless empty eyes, Eldon couldn’t help but sense that the head with its perpetual sneer was staring straight at him.

“And here goes the coward again,” Henry said, taking advantage of the situation. “I couldn’t have expected anything less from you, Graves. Graves! Dead, shaking, bones. That’s what you are.” Henry continued his onslaught and Eldon felt the night air whirling around him. The smell of the carcass was affecting his brain, raising his adrenaline, and making him irrational.

“Graves! Weak and dead! Dead bones!” The sounds of Henry’s taunting blended with the hound’s hellish sneer in Eldon’s mind until the two became inseparable. Soon, his disturbed mind’s eye told him that the carcass was laughing at him. The horror drove him to act.

“Stop, just stop! Fine. What do you want me to do?” Henry stopped his barrage and gazed with a docile expression at Eldon. Reaching one chubby arm around his quaking shoulder, the taller boy spoke in a convincing tone.

“Well, you see it’s really simple, Eldon,” Henry said to his frightened classmate. “You prove yourself.” Gesturing to the hound with his other hand, he continued, “See the front right paw? There’s barely anything connecting it to the rest of the carcass. I dare you,” he paused to grab Eldon’s face and draw it closer to his own as he whispered, spitting saliva, “I dare you to take that paw, bring it home, and put it on old Ms. Ide Lynch’s gravestone tomorrow night.”

“Henry!” Merrill quaked. “Henry, have you gone—”

“Shut up, Mer. What do you say, Graves?”

“Fine,” Eldon mumbled. Too groggy to understand what he was doing and so sick to his stomach that nothing could make him sicker, he reached down and in one cold yank, severed the stiff, dilapidated limb from the rest of the body. Merrill gasped. Even Henry raised his eyebrows in surprise and made a low whistling sound. Bobbing his hand up and down, as if testing the weight, Eldon stood as if in a daze. He was petrified with fear.

“I feel like we should name him,” his quiet, deep voice spoke the absurd statement at last. Before anyone else could respond, the mouse spoke up.

“Digby,” Merrill muttered, just wanting to get the whole terrifying business over with and be away from the body. When his two companions offered him confused looks, he explained. “I had a…a stuffed dog with that name once.”

 

The next day was the longest Eldon had ever known. And yet, dread for what he had to do that night kept him busy, even on a Saturday. He couldn’t go anywhere near his room, for fear that the dreaded appendage would jump out of its hiding spot and take on life of its own. He had the small paw hidden under some broken floorboards beneath his bed. Eldon didn’t want to think of what his parents would say if they found it. As he went out to draw water from the pump, Eldon couldn’t keep his mind off the hound’s foot. In retrospect, it felt like such a foolhardy, superstitious thing to do. Regardless, Eldon knew better than to tempt the devil. He’d heard stories of people who meddled with pagan satanic rituals. And then there was the rumor among his own classmates that old Ms. Lynch was an Irish witch, smitten down not by heart failure but the devil, who wanted her for himself.

After finishing the rest of his chores, Eldon’s fear got the better of him. Maybe the smell would attract his parents to the room and reveal his secret. Grabbing his father’s copy of the 1837 London Daily Times, Eldon scurried to his room, shut the door, and crawled across the rough-hewn floor to his bedside. Within no time, the chilling artifact was hidden, folded beneath the newspaper’s effigy of Alexandria Victoria. After considering whether concealing such a gruesome relic would bring bad luck on the newly crowned queen’s reign, Eldon blocked the paw from his mind and left his room.

When dusk fell, Eldon took his lunch pail, no longer empty, and slunk away from the house. The last thing he needed was to be spotted by his parents or neighbors. His instinct was to run, but the sound of the pail’s nasty contents, banging against the metal sides like a screeching wren, slowed him to a brisk walk. It seemed to him that, the moment the sun set, a sharp gusty wind swept over the moors to hit him full in the face. The shock of it penetrated his skin, vibrating through his sinews until it ricocheted against his bones. Henry and Merrill were already at the graveyard waiting for him.

“I must say, I’m impressed, Graves,” Henry said, his voice somber. “I thought you would loose your backbone.”

“Never,” Eldon replied, squeaking. “Let’s just get it over with.” Reaching into the pail, he pulled out the wrapped parcel. An owl hooted nearby and Merrill coughed.

“Unwrap it, Graves, come on,” Henry said as he watched Eldon’s extending hand, bearing its burden, halt in mid air.

Swallowing the minimal amount of saliva in his dry mouth, Eldon removed the crinkled paper. The paw was much smaller, shriveled and darkened. Looking away from it, without thinking, Eldon placed it on the gravestone, pearl white with newness. Glancing down at the mound of loose turf, he half expected to see Ms. Lynch rise from her cold sleep in protestation. The moment he released the pagan relic, an ungodly wind broke through the trees, tearing at their clothes and knocking the hound’s paw off the gravestone. Charged by fear, Merrill dove for the object. The sheer terror that issued from his mouth made both of his companions freeze to the core.

“It’s gone!” he cried, his voice carried away by the wind.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Henry said, taking a few strides toward Merrill. “It’s probably just under a marker or something.”

“No, it’s gone,” Merrill said. “How can it be gone?” In a crazed frenzy, he began clawing at the loose turf. “Look over there!”

“Mer, pull it together,” Henry said.

“No!” the frantic boy said, his cry dropping to a serious whisper. “Look, over there! Behind that yew tree, look.” His change in tone prompted the three to comply. The darkness was total and at first, all they could make out was rows of graves, interrupted here and there by a couple of trees, until they melted into the blackness. Then, there was movement. Eldon took a couple steps away from the others and squinted. There was something behind the farthest tree. A shape was moving.

The wind died down, as the three riveted their eyes on the unknown observer. “Eldon,” Henry hissed, his voice loud in the quiet that suddenly returned. “Eldon, get back here! Something’s not right.”

Obeying, Eldon allowed his feet to remain fixed but leaned forward, peering into the thick blackness. A scuffling sound, as of an animal scraping its claws, broke the stillness.

“Hey!” the cry came out of Eldon without him even intending it to. “Ho, now! Who’s there?” The scratching stopped and the silence permeated everything. A low tone began, muffled at first, but growing in intensity with each passing second. Eldon’s blood went cold when he realized what it was.

A growl. But it wasn’t the meaningless, discontented grumble of an irrational animal. The tone had meaning. It buzzed in his mind, threatening to burst his head. From behind the tree, he could see a pair of luminous eyes staring without blinking at him.

“Stop.” Eldon grabbed each ear with a hand. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to, I promise. They made me. They made me do it!” His head throbbed, and Eldon closed his eyes from the pressure. Time seemed to slow to a standstill.

“Eldon!” Merill screamed. Snapping back to his senses, the boy’s eyes flew open to rest on the largest black wolf he had ever seen, standing a stone’s throw away. Eldon had never imagined an animal so grotesque and frightening in his life. Its back was arched, the hair standing erect. Its eyes dilated, glowing with pure evil. The creature bared its fangs and snarled, foaming at the mouth. The wind blew cold and clammy against their skin. It smelled sharp in their noses and electrified their muscles, charging them with fear.

The boys broke into a run. They seemed to act as a unit, their minds all sharing one thought: to get to safety. They could hear the soft, threatening padding of paws running in pursuit. Ducking, diving, sprawling, the three boys carved a desperate trail through the brush, leaping into ditches and scaling bluffs. No matter what they tried, they couldn’t shake their hellish pursuer. There was no doubt in any of their minds. Their foolish stunt had angered forces beyond their control.

They had become prey of the devil.

 

What seemed like hours later, Merrill burst out in a cry of relief. His fear had encouraged the muscles in his long shanks, propelling him to the front of the group. “Look! Up ahead. It’s the abbey. We can hide in the ruins somewhere. Come on!”

Clearing the bluff, Eldon looked out across the moonlit field. The dark silhouette of Tintern Abbey contrasted against the brightness of the heavenly body behind it.

“The full moon is too bright.” Henry gasped from the rear, his bulky form getting the better of him. “It’ll pick us off.”

“We have no other choice,” Eldon said. Turning around, he grabbed Henry’s hand and dragged him forward. Eldon’s eyes made contact with the hellish bulbs, piercing through the leaves before he tore across the clearing, Henry in tow. The grass seemed endless. Their hearts felt like bursting from lack of oxygen, and their legs quaked beneath spazzing muscles. The ruined abbey loomed ever closer, its black-silhouetted spires stretching across the ground like fingers, as if reaching out to draw them into sanctuary.

Their feet crossed the shadowy threshold and the boys felt the impulse to stop in their tracks. Standing in the middle of the clearing, everything felt so different. Although the air was still as death, the hanging ivy swayed to and fro and unseen leaves rustled. In the tranquility of the abbey, night sounds seemed to commence once more, untouched by the horror creeping outside. The lilting melodies of nocturnal birds, hidden in tiny stone cracks in the walls, contrasted with the boys’ frenzied fear. Huddled together back to back in a circle, the boys faced outward to the abbey’s perimeter. Though unspoken, this was the destination to which they had been running, as if somehow the confines of this ancient bower would provide some sort of safety. The thought made Henry scoff, and he was at the point of suggesting that they keep running when a snarl shattered the night air like glass.

“It’s over there!” Merrill said and all three boys faced the front of the abbey. Their predatory pursuer had slunk out of the bushes and was creeping toward the dilapidated wall. The full moon shone off the mangy fur, and all the boys froze in a state of total, incapacitating fear. Henry reached down, grabbed a small stone, and threw it toward the creature. It landed at the edge of the abbey’s shadow, just shy of the wolf. Tilting its head toward the projectile, the animal snarled louder and flattened its ears backward. The boys were certain they had mere moments to live.

When the wolf was a couple feet from the abbey’s shadow, it stopped. The snarling ceased, and the ears pricked forward. Hearing the silence, the three boys opened their wide eyes and gazed in confused wonder at the wolf. Dropping its head down to the grassy floor, it startled the boys with a sharp inhale, as if testing the intangible dividing line between itself and its prey.   Lifting its head up to the source of the shadow, it howled a challenge at the moon. The somber, unnatural moan shivered up and down the boy’s spines. It didn’t sound animal enough.

“What’s wrong with it?” Henry whispered, watching the wolf pace.

“I—I don’t know,” Eldon said.

When the wolf did decide to cross the threshold, it whimpered the moment its paw touched the shadow. Scampering backward, it rubbed its nose with its paws, looking for all the world like a punished puppy. Standing back upright, it gazed at the three boys. It had surrendered, and as the wolf’s eyes attempted to frighten them into submission, the boys no longer felt themselves under its power. A strange calmness permeated everything, like the feeling a child has when sitting in a warm house, wrapped in the arms of his father as a storm howls outside. The terror was so close, yet, somehow it couldn’t touch them.

Lifting his eyes to the soaring steeples overhead—lofty heights that once contained the echoes of glorious chant—Eldon beheld the deteriorated roof, open to the sky’s vastness. The sight of the soft stars filled him with a warmth that he could not explain. With his head still lifted up, Eldon took a few involuntary steps backward.

His back touched something hard and flat.

Turning around, he ran his hands along a cold plaque on the abbey’s wall.

“Graves,” echoed Henry’s sharp whisper, his eyes never leaving the hound. “What are you doing?”

Eldon didn’t hear. His heart had been set pounding by the words inscribed on the plaque, the words of a poem, written some decades before by one of the brilliant poets he could never understand. Eldon recognized the lines from a poem about Tintern Abbey. He read them out loud.

And I have felt a presence,” he began. The sound of his voice caused the others to turn with surprised expressions. Shocked at the fact that his tone didn’t quiver, Eldon continued, quoting the words of that great bard at whom both he and his companions scoffed.

And I have felt a presence
That disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused

There was more on the plaque, but Eldon couldn’t get any further. His vision blurred and he had to wipe the mist away from his eyes. When his professor had read those words in class, they never meant anything before. Turning around, Eldon saw his two friends staring at him. Their wide eyes, reflective in the full moonlight, betrayed that they shared his thoughts.

Then all three remembered the wolf.

Whipping around, a tingling sensation shot through Eldon’s body upon realizing that the wolf was gone. They looked everywhere, but there was no sign of the creature.

 

Safe, but disturbed and shaken to the core, the boys made the slow journey home. Along the road, Eldon walked beside Merrill, who was visibly shaking. As they passed through the graveyard, the silence between them grew charged. Breaking the stillness, Eldon placed a hand on Merrill’s shoulder, and they shared a moment of mutual understanding.

Amidst swirling new thoughts, Graves had the presence of mind to place a gentle, respectful hand on Ms. Ide Lynch’s tombstone as he passed.

 

 

Anna Marie Thérèse Berlinger is the daughter of a German father and Irish-American mother. Having heard English spoken by her mother and German from her father, Anna was raised bilingual. Homeschooled throughout her childhood, Anna graduated from the Seton Homeschool of Front Royal, Virginia in 2013. She graduated from Bradley University in 2017 with a double major in English and History and a concentration in creative writing. In 2014, Anna self-published a 600-page fantasy novel about the legends of the Irish tradition called Antíríon: The Forgotten Isle, with Xlibris publishers. This tale is about three boys in mid-19th century England and their paranormal experiences surrounding the legendary Tintern Abbey. Find her on Facebook, Twitter @AntirionElf, Instagram, and her GoRead author page.

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