December 7, 2014

His Cemetery Doll: Chapter Two

During the day, dappled green and gold sunlight played around the graves in Conall's cemetery. Cool, quiet woodland bordered three broad, gated sections, tree branches overreaching a tall iron fence, vines growing through and around scrolled-iron bars. He kept the tombstones clean and neat, scraped the moss from the mausoleums, and trimmed the worst of the overgrowth. He'd never clear away all the natural brush, however. It gave his cemetery a breath of quiet serenity.

Today, though, a thorny growth of brambles breached a little too far onto the grounds, creeping up toward an ancient pair of gray headstones. The inscriptions on those two stones had long eroded away, but Conall devoted an entire afternoon one spring, years ago, to deciphering and re-engraving the names of two young children, twins. Shyla sat behind him on another marker, swinging her little legs back and forth and watching him. He hadn't ever chided her for sitting on the graves. He'd didn't see any harm in it.
The bramble clung stubbornly to the trellis of an old mausoleum gate stuck in the ground, and Conall spat out an oath as he lost his grip. It sprang back to its anchor, scoring his palms with its thorns.
"How did the blasted thing creep so far in like this?" he growled, shooting an icy glower at the dark, gnarled creepers. He hadn't been by this corner of the graveyard in several days, but, still, he'd never have missed an intruder this overrun.
"It wasn't so bad yesterday," Shyla offered in a thoughtful tone. She leaned forward from her perch to inspect the bush. "I came by here to have a picnic under the willow."
"Well, it didn't sprout into a monstrous weed overnight," Conall grunted as he seized another branch and strove to untangle it.
Shyla cocked her head like a curious bird and swung her legs again. Though sitting on the graves had never been taboo, she still carefully avoided kicking the stone with her heels.
"Maybe the woman caused it to spring up. She could have been a witch, I suppose."
Conall paused and shut his eyes, quietly reminding himself to be patient.
He'd never been a fanciful or superstitious man, not by nature. He saw his graveyard as a simple thing, the community burial ground, and he tended it in dutiful respect. His daughter, on the other hand, precocious little creature, continually pondered the stories and secrets of its inhabitants. This wasn't the first time she'd taken up interest in one or another personality buried here, talking about witches or fantastic creatures hiding in the small surrounding wood.
Of course, he'd always tell himself, she's a child. Children are imaginative.
Lately, though, he worried about it more. At her age, such nonsense became less charming and more...weird.
"It's almost lunchtime," he grunted as he finally pried an arm of gnarling limb away. Tossing it aside, he wiped his brow. "Shall we go in?"
Shyla hopped off the grave, smoothing out her overalls, and nodded.
"Goodbye Luke, Lucia," she said, giving a tiny bob of a curtsy to each of the little graves. "We'll come back later to cut away the rest of it."
About a year ago, Shyla had decided the twins buried here had drowned in the river, clinging to one another as the current overtook them. She'd spent some weeks pondering aloud if they'd run away from home to escape an evil stepmother, or if they'd been following fairies through the woods and become lost. Conall frowned to himself as she turned away from their graves and started skipping back to the house ahead of him.
He sighed, rubbing at the back of his damp neck. Even in the shade, the day had grown outrageously hot. He carefully arranged his heavy toolbox and set it aside, by the mausoleum, before following his daughter up toward the house. He wanted a cold splash of water from the backyard pump, and then the cool interior of his kitchen. Most days he began work in the cemetery at dawn, and today he'd risen with the sun as normal. He'd earned the midday break. Before he came back, he'd set Shyla to her own chores. It'd do her good to get out of the old boneyard for a while.
Limping up the hillside to the higher, newer areas of the grounds, he didn't notice Richard Trask waiting at the cemetery gates, until the other man called out to him. Trask, a slight bit paunchy, took shelter from the sun under a broad oak tree, and the shadows had hidden him for a moment. Now, as he came toward Conall, waving, the groundskeeper crossed his arms over his chest and nodded a welcome.
"Alderman," he greeted.
"Hot as all blazes out, isn't it?" Trask said cheerfully. "How's the leg?"
"About the same as ever," Con replied. "Course, it hurts worse in the cold."
"And how are you and your girl?"
Conall glanced up toward the house. "Well enough. What brings you by?"
Trask paused before answering. Conall recognized the usual wariness his neighbors all appeared to suffer when visiting him in the graveyard. Tossing a quick glance over his shoulder, he followed Trask's gaze to the statue at the center of the main ring of tombstones.
Maya. Conall's stone angel.
Frustration pricked at the back of his neck. He'd always been sure the neighbors' discomfort had something to do with her.
"Well?" he asked Trask. "What brings you so far out of town, Alderman?"
"Father Frederick wanted to invite you to lunch," Trask said. "I had an errand to run over at the Dillons' farm so I told him I'd pass on the message."
Father Frederick was the local priest and quite possibly Conall's one "friend" in the small village of Whitetail Knoll. Conall nodded to Alderman Trask. "Thanks for passin' it along. I'll be there," he said.
Trask owned the tavern where Father Fred most often liked to meet. Before he turned away, his gaze flickered up to Conall's house.
"How's the girl, then?"
"She's fine," Conall grated. He tried not to betray the annoyance it gave him when others asked about Shyla too much. They never hid their doubt very well, as though he would be incapable of raising a child on his own. Everyone knew Shyla wasn't really his daughter. They believed her to be his niece instead, taken in when his sister died giving birth. He let them think so. Their nosy disdain would be even worse if they found out Con had no sister, and in fact, no kin left at all. He and Shyla were not even distantly related.
Trask caught the brusque tone, and his expression turned apologetic.
"Will you be bringing her along tonight?" he asked. "The wife'll have a dinner ready for her, if you like."
Conall considered and then bobbed his head yes.
"Right then," Trask said. An awkward silence settled between them, until the alderman tipped his cap and added, "We'll serve at sundown. Don't be late."
"We won't."
He watched Trask leave, thinking maybe he'd been a bit uncharitable. His temper might be shorter than normal thanks to the bramble and his stinging palms.
He turned and spent a long moment eyeing the angel.
What was it about her that always spooked others away?

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