Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
Isle of the Dancing Dead
by Rick Kennett
“Is it true,” said young George as he filled in his first grave, “that the best place to hide from a ghost is in a cemetery?”
“Yes,” said the grave-digger, shovelling. “Most times you’d be right aholding to that notion. But not here. Not in this particular cemetery. Not with the Chenoweth Grand Tomb not five hundred yards behind you.”
“A haunted grave?” George turned about, studying the lawns and masonry. “Which one?”
“You’ve not seen it yet?”
“Fair go, Monty. I’ve only been on the job six hours.”
“Well, you’ll know the Grand Tomb when you see it.” He chuckled. “Or, if you’re a Chenoweth, when you hear it.”
“Later, lad. One grave at a time.”
When they’d finished and patted down the earth, Monty conducted George through a maze of headstones to the centre of the cemetery where the young grave-digger suddenly found himself at the edge of a small lake. In the middle of this lake was an island, and in the middle of the island was a squat, black marble building.
“The Chenoweth Grand Tomb,” said Monty proudly. “One hundred and fifty years old and the grandest mausoleum in the southern hemisphere — and its maintenance and the keeping of its doors are my responsibility alone.”
“Haunted?” asked George.
“Haunted by the Wailing Woman. There’s been times in the past eight years that its coffins have been found danced about, higgledy-piggledy, when it’s opened to put another Chenoweth to rest. But as they say, there’s no rest for the wicked, and the Chenoweth Grand Tomb is proving it. A hundred year ago some Chenoweth massacred some blacks camped on their land. What with the Chenoweths being rich squatters and the blacks just being blacks, nothing ever came of it. Not as far as white man’s law was concerned, anyway, because it’s said the family was cursed by a koradji man — a sort of witch doctor — and ever since then the murderers and their descendants have danced in death to the crying of the Wailing Woman.”
“Have you ever heard this Wailing Woman?”
“No. She can’t be heard by any but Chenoweths about to die and those already dead.”
“Why is there a lake?”
“It’s a defence. It was dug ninety years ago in the belief that spirits can’t cross water, and that a defence is more convenient and dignified than shifting all the dearly departed.”
“Does it work?”
“Yes, most times. I remember five year ago a summer that burnt the lake to little better than mud, and that’s when I last saw the Grand Tomb opened.”
“And the coffins?”
Monty smiled. “What do you think?”
George thought, and over the next few days asked other work mates about the tomb, discovering little that Monty hadn’t already told him, other than, when the occasion arose, the island could be reached by a pontoon bridge stored in a special shed. Unfortunately for George’s curiosity, maintenance of the island’s lawn and garden was a once a year job, and unorthorized entry onto the lake and island was strictly forbidden. George had to make do with standing at the lake’s edge during lunch hour, staring out at the black tomb on the island, thinking.
A few months later millionaire W.W. Chenoweth senior became critically ill. Like discreet vultures, the cemetery management hovered in anticipation, assigning Monty the task of grooming the island. Permitted to chose his own assistant, he chose George.
George pressed his ear to the black marble wall and heard a voice say, “Take your partners for the Danse Macabre!”
He spun around, coming face to grinning face with Monty. Embarrassed, the youngster went back to his weeding.
“Five year they’ve had to jig,” said Monty with a chuckle. “Do you think they’ll pick today?”
George poked at the dirt with his weeding tool. “That’s not what I was listening for.”
“So what were you listening for?”
“No, Monty. I’m serious. I’ve been thinking over this dancing coffin caper, and I reckon the Chenoweths are causing this so-called curse to come true themselves.”
“Before I dropped out of uni I was doing a course in hydrodynamics. The tomb is airtight, right? It also has its foundations below the water level of the lake.” He indicated the three stone steps leading down to the door of the tomb. “What if hot weather was to effect the air pressure inside, causing the lake water to seep in and flood the tomb? It would float the coffins about. Then, when the weather changes, the water disappears, the coffins settle higgledy-piggledy, and there’s your dancing dead.”
“Well, firstly, lad, the floor of this tomb is tiles.”
“Tiles crack. Tiles break.”
“Secondly, the Chenoweth coffins are lead-lined; too heavy to float.”
“If the coffins are airtight they’d be buoyant. Steel ships float, you know.”
“And pigs may fly. Let me tell you again that I’ve seen – that’s seen — them coffins danced about: upside-down, against the wall, laying atop each other. There’s nothing natural about this particular grave.”
“Wouldn’t you like to be sure?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean have some method to see if I’m right — or wrong.”
“With a glass jar.”
“We leave an empty glass jar, weighted with lead so it won’t float, in the tomb next time it’s opened. Then, if I’m right, the next time the coffins are found danced about our jar will be full of water.”
Monty nodded. “There’s something in it, I admit. But what do you mean exactly by ‘we’?”
“You’re the one responsible for opening and closing the tomb. A little sleight of hand before you lock the doors after the next funeral, and when the tomb is opened again we may have our evidence, one way or the other. Haven’t you ever wondered what really goes on inside this tomb, way down deep in the dark? In the next few days we may have our only opportunity to discover the truth of the curse of the Wailing Woman once and for all. What do you say?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s tampering with the unknown.”
“All we’d be tampering with is the tomb’s phoney reputation.”
“Young George, there’s nothing phoney about the Chenoweth Grand Tomb.”
“Then prove me wrong.”
“With a glass jar, a lump of lead and a little sleight of hand?”
Next morning the news broke that W.W. Chenoweth had died during the night.
The day before the funeral Monty opened the tomb in the presence of the cemetery manager who, with an air of business-like solemnity, stepped into its shadows. When he re-emerged his expression was one that belied any belief in curses or rumours of curses.
“Very good, Mr Montague. Carry on.”
Duly checked, the mausoleum was closed for a further twenty-four hours.
On the morning of the funeral George handed Monty a glass jar coiled about with a thickness of lead. An hour later when he re-opened the tomb, Monty secreted the jar in a back corner, beneath the rear-most bier. That afternoon, as the last mourners left the island, he closed and locked the doors. All he and George could do now was wait for hot days and low water.
They got them two years later in a summer full of hot days. Despite a connection to a nearby creek, the lake level dropped. George could almost see it falling day by day. He grew restless and impatient to the extent of having vague fantasies of waylaying a Chenoweth just to get the tomb open.
The lake was little more better than mud when the late autumn rains finally broke the dry. But by then George had left the cemetery to have another crack at university.
Many months passed before George laid eyes on the Chenoweth Grand Tomb again. It was a sunny afternoon, and he’d decided to skip a class and visit Monty. He found him gardening by the lake. Almost immediately their conversation turned to the tomb. George expressed disappointment that the tomb hadn’t been opened since he’d left the cemetery.
Monty smiled with mock agreement. “Yes, it’s irritating how none of the Chenoweths have had the common courtesy to drop dead yet.”
“Why wait?” said George.
“Why what?” Monty’s smile disappeared.
“Why wait for a Chenoweth to die? Why not take a look ourselves?”
“Tonight. The water’s what? Knee deep? Easy wading.”
Monty shook his head. “It’d be my job. It’s not worth the risk.”
“Then lend me the keys. They can’t sack me.”
“The keys’ll not be leaving my keeping. Ah, it was a stupid thing I did, putting that jar in there.”
“The only stupid thing you did was failing to see that the dancing dead are caused be a series of circumstances all very natural in origin.”
“There’s nothing natural about the Chenoweth Grand Tomb, lad. It’s what I’ve always said and it’s what I believe.”
George pointed to the tomb on the island. “Proof of what you say is there right now, Monty. The lake went dry last summer; plenty of time for low pressure within the tomb to suck up water, plenty of opportunity for your Wailing Woman to cross and call the next dance. Whether I’m right, whether you’re right, the coffins must’ve been disturbed by now. The drying up of the lake is the common factor. But if you want to wait for a Chenoweth to die before you’ll take a look inside that tomb, then you may be waiting a long time. In fact you may be dead yourself before –”
“All right.” Monty looked across the lake. “All right. We’ll go tonight. But if the coffins have nor been disturbed then I’m waiting for the proper time.”
George nodded. “Agreed.”
The mud oozed between their toes and the midnight water was cold about their knees. They climbed onto the island and padded across the lawn to the tomb.
Monty unlocked the tomb door.
“The torch, lad.”
George handed it over. Monty pushed the door until it opened wide enough to admit half a face. He flicked the torch beam around inside, and what he saw he saw in fragments: a bit of wall, a dried wreath, the glint from a glass jar … He pushed again. He stopped.
“Go on, Monty, open it,” George said nervously.
“I can’t! There’s a coffin jammed against it!”
George peered around the edge of the door and saw that it was true. A coffin was jammed edgewise in the entrance; others were strewn about the tomb in total disarray. It took several minutes of steady pushing to open the door wide enough to permit George to slither through. He took the torch and made his way over and around the scattered Chenoweth coffins, trying not to look behind him, his eyes fixed ahead on the beckoning glint of glass. At the rear-most bier he stooped and plucked the jar from its corner. He didn’t dare look at its contents. Should it be dry he knew he could not long vouch for his reason there among the dancing dead.
Back at the door he handed Monty the jar, then squeezed through.
Monty held the jar up to the torch light and they saw.
After a moment George said, “I’m sorry, Monty.”
The grave-digger shrugged. He produced a lid from his coat pocket and screwed it down on the jar of water. “Well, maybe the Chenoweths will reward us if we can show that the Wailing Woman is just a tomb full of cold water. Perhaps you could take the water to your university labs and get it checked. You never know, it might come from a different source than the lake. An underground stream, perhaps, or perhaps it’s only condensation.” Monty’s eyes glistened in the torch light. “You never know,” he repeated softly.
“I’ll get it checked,” George promised.
Monty met George a week later, standing in his usual spot at the edge of the lake, staring out at the black marble tomb on the island.
“Did you get the water checked, lad?”
“Yes,” said George, still staring outwards. “In fact I’ve just come from the lab.”
“What’s the matter? You’re not acting like the one who proved there’s no such thing as the Wailing Woman.”
“I wouldn’t say that, Monty. It wasn’t just water in the jar.” George finally turned around. “It was tears.”
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gurch stories. When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Barry Haworth works as a statistician for the Australian Taxation Office which is more interesting than you might think. He holds a Masters degree in Statistics. Outside of work he is a keen reader of science fiction and enjoys choral singing and taking part in amateur theatricals, having performed such roles as Prospero in The Tempest, Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, and Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost in two different versions of A Christmas Carol.
Barry has narrated episodes of Escape Pod, PodCastle and also the Cheap Astronomy podcast. He lives in Brisbane, Australia with his wife Sylvia, those of his children who haven’t left home yet, and whatever the current quota of pets is.