Two men, joined by a common loss, become friends.
(Three years later...)
In the little town where Victor lived, it was the custom of the recently bereaved to gather wildflowers after Sunday morning church and to place them on the new graves. In this he was not alone - the epidemic of the previous year had hit the village hard and there were many survivors who, like him, were still in their periods of mourning.
But, still, it was a nice day for an outing. With the early coming of spring the flowers were blooming and the smells and sounds of new life filled the bright sunlit air.
When Victor arrived at the cemetery he visited first the graves of his in-laws, the Everglots, who had been among the first of the village families to be lost. He spent an appropriate amount of time paying his respects to them and then he moved on to the grave of the one he missed the most:
Victoria Everglot-Van Dort
Age 26 years.
Beloved wife of Victor Van Dort
The Lord is my Shepherd
He had been married to her for only two short years when the sickness had swept over the village like an early killing frost, mowing down the young and old alike. Victoria had worn herself down in a desperate fight to save her parents and, just when it had seemed like the epidemic had finally run its course, she had also taken sick and, forty-eight hours later, she too was gone.
Gently, he placed a fresh bundle of brightly colored flowers on the raw earth. The tears welled up again in his eyes, he collapsed on her grave, and he wept. Eventually, he ran out of tears and it was time for him to go.
But there was one more grave left to see, one that lay just outside of the main part of the graveyard.
And Walter was there as usual. Even more so than Victor, he was faithful to this custom - he was out here every single day and for him the mourning period had never ended.
Victor walked up to him and placed a hand lightly on the older man's shoulder. "Good day, Walter," he said quietly.
The Captain looked up. "Hello, Victor." Then he turned his attention back to the grave of his own loved one:
Emily M. Barrett Age 18 Yrs
Gone But Never Forgotten
"You should try going to church too," Victor said. "It helps..."
Walter studied Victor's red-rimmed eyes. "Does it, now?" he asked bitterly.
Victor changed the subject. "I brought some lunch for us. Are you ready to go now?"
"Just a few more minutes..."
Victor nodded, and he retreated from Emily's grave to give the old man his privacy.
Eventually, Walter rejoined him. "Are you going to the beach?" Victor asked.
"Aye," the Captain answered, and they started to walk.
The beach was not close as far as walking was concerned, but it didn't matter: neither man was in a hurry. The bright warmth of the day made it a pleasant walk and the two men had a good visit as they went.
Victor had made his acquaintance with Emily's father shortly after that night in the church. Captain Barrett had returned to town himself that very night on a mission of vengeance, a mission that had been cut short when his quarry had died before he could fulfill it.
Victor thought back to their first meeting...
About a month after his wedding to Victoria, in the middle hours of the evening, there had been a knock on the Van Dort family's front door.
"Who could that be?" Victoria asked her husband.
He didn't know. "But I'll go see."
Victor walked to the door and opened it - standing there was an older gentleman with bushy white mutton-chop whiskers and a white captain's hat.
"Ah, Captain Barrett, I presume?" Victor greeted him. "Come in, come in."
The Captain nodded, and then he stepped inside and took off his coat.
"What can we do for you tonight?" Victor asked.
The Captain didn't reply, but looked in Victoria's direction.
"Ah, Victoria," Victor said, taking the hint. "The Captain and I will be chatting in my study. Don't bother waiting up..."
She started to say something, but thought better of it and, after a quick goodnight kiss, Victoria retreated upstairs to bed. The men adjourned to Victor's study and they made themselves comfortable.
"So ... what can I do for you tonight?" Victor asked the Captain.
"I was hoping that you could tell me more about that night."
"The one at the church?"
Victor sighed. "I don't quite know how to tell it. It won't be easy to believe."
The Captain shook his head. "My own little girl leaves her grave and nearly marries a man in the town church, attended by thirty or forty guests who themselves have come back from the dead. If I can believe that..."
"Well, it happened," Victor said defensively.
Walter held up his hand. "No, no ... I believe you," he said. "I got the story from the Crier, whom I would trust with my own life. He said he was there and that he saw it all."
Victor nodded. "That's true. He was."
"Well, then," the Captain continued, "I don't think that there will be a problem in the believing of it. But I need to know ..."
"... Of what happened between your daughter and I," Victor finished.
Captain Barrett nodded. "I got part of it from the Crier, but most of the story only you can tell."
"True enough," Victor agreed. "And I'd be happy to tell it to you ... for her sake."
"I'd appreciate that, Mr. Van Dort," said the Captain. "And likewise I could tell you a thing or two about her, if you'd like."
"Pardon me?" Walter asked.
"Victor. Please. Call me Victor. And where would you like me to start, Captain Barrett?"
"My own friends call me Walter," said the Captain, "And the beginning will do - if you don't mind ... "
Victor gathered his thoughts and then he began to talk. He told the older man about his wedding arrangements and laughed along with him as he recounted that long ago rehearsal gone dreadfully wrong...
When he got to the part about the vows in the woods, a strange look crossed his face, his mood sobered, and he paused.
"What's wrong?" the Captain asked.
Victor took a deep breath. "This part of the story is a bit gruesome and ... "
"Don't try to spare my feelings," Walter said. "I'm not a stupid man. Nor am I squeamish. I've seen my share of the dead in my day... "
"But ... your own daughter, sir."
"Aye," he answered, "and I'll be that way myself some day, as will you..."
Victor took another deep breath and then continued.
"After I had said my 'vows', I placed the ring over what I had thought was a tree branch low to the ground. But it turned out to be the hand of a dead girl reaching from out of her grave. Your daughter, sir."
"Aye," the Captain said, lowering his face. "The men I had hired did a poor job, and I left before they were done. And 'twas years before I returned..."
Victor nodded, and he continued. "At that point she came right out of the ground and, of course, not knowing her then, I was frightened and I bolted, running for my very life..."
"Go on," the old man prompted.
"I'd made it nearly to town before she caught up to me at the old stone bridge. And then, after that..."
Victor paused again and the Captain waited for him to continue.
"This is the part where it really gets hard to believe," the younger man said.
"Try me," Walter replied.
"Okay. Well - she moved forward to embrace me and I fainted there and then..."
Victor looked at his guest, and then he took another deep breath. "When I reawakened we were no longer in this world. It was not heaven, nor was it hell, nor purgatory - it was another place altogether. And to this day I don't honestly know if it was a vision or whether I was really there. It certainly wasn't the afterlife that I had been led to expect..."
"I've lived long enough to know that the world is a strange and surprising place," the Captain commented. "Who knows? And what does it matter? The good Lord doesn't always explain his workings to the likes of us."
"No, I suppose not," Victor agreed. "Like I was saying, this place was ... different. It was populated by the dead - both the recently departed and those who were but skeletons."
"And my daughter was one of these dead folk?"
"Please, Victor ... call me Walter," the Captain said.
"Yes, Walter. Emily was one of them. I can only guess that every one of them had a reason for tarrying between the two worlds. For example, do you remember Alfred? Dapper fellow with the big moustache? Married to a lady named Gertrude..."
The Captain smiled. "Ah, old Alfred... Yes, I remember him."
Victor continued. "I suppose that he was waiting for his wife to pass on. She did a year or so later, of course, and I'd guess that they crossed over to wherever it was they went together."
"A reasonable theory," Walter agreed.
"And Emily ... she was waiting for her true love to come along and marry her..."
The older man nodded. "That would be like her. Her dearest dream was to find and marry her true love, even from when she was a little girl."
"And when I came along..."
"You'd have been her second chance. And she took it - seeing how this Bart character didn't work out so well... "
The Captain narrowed his eyes and gave Victor a hard look. "Who do you think?"
"I'm sorry, Walter. We knew him by a different name."
"Well, Bart - or Barkis - or whatever he called himself, certainly wasn't the one. And I knew that from the moment I laid eyes on him, but couldn't convince her otherwise..."
Victor nodded, and then he picked up the conversation. "So ... as far as she was concerned we were married, and I've never seen anyone happier - living or dead. But all I could think of at that point was how to get home so that I could marry Victoria. So I came up with this story about wanting to introduce her to my parents."
"And she believed it?" Walter asked.
"She did. To this day I'm ashamed for the deception, but I needed to get home - to Victoria - again."
The Captain sighed again. "She always was a trusting soul. She was 18 when she died, you know, and even at that age she still had a bit of the child left in her. And that proved to be her undoing..."
Victor nodded. "So she and I returned to the 'Land of the Living' for what she thought was to be a short visit and I had her wait there in the forest while I sneaked back to see Victoria. Your daughter discovered the ruse, of course, and she found me and dragged me back to her own world."
"You didn't try to escape again?"
Victor stopped and looked off into the distance. He scratched his head and paused. "Things were ... different. After that."
"I remember how beautifully she danced in the moonlight. How happy she was to be in our world again. And the way she laughed when she saw the butterfly that night."
"Yes, she always did like butterflies," the old man recalled.
"And then there was the piano... "
"You heard her play, did you?" Walter asked.
Victor nodded. "I did. There was one down there - believe it or not - and, after I had abandoned her, she visited it - to take comfort in the sound of it, I suppose." He paused. "I went there to see where the music was coming from and it was her, of course. And we sat down together at it and played."
Walter nodded. "And that's when you fell in love with her - wasn't it?"
He read the answer in Victor's eyes.
The Captain smiled sadly. "I'm happy to know that she found love at last, even for such a short time," he said. "She deserved that much..."
"Please don't tell Victoria," Victor pleaded. "She's been through enough already..."
"Of course not. But I'm sure she already knows," the Captain replied. "Women tend to be wise that way..."
The two men fell silent.
"How was it that you and Emily arranged to be married?" the Captain asked at length. "You were betrothed to the Everglot girl - that's why you'd made your escape to begin with..."
"True," Victor replied. "But while I was gone, her parents found another suitor for her and I'd thought then that I had lost her."
"The other suitor. That would be our old acquaintance 'Lord' Whats-His-Name?"
The younger man nodded. "Yeah, him."
The Captain shook his head. "The Everglots never did have much sense..."
"Amen to that," Victor breathed.
The two men laughed.
Victor continued. "I could that see that Emily had feelings for me and I didn't want to hurt her any more than I had already. And she was a sweet girl."
"And by that time you had fallen for her?"
The younger man nodded. "The thing about her - as strange as it may seem with her being dead ... was that in all my life before that - and even to this day, I have never met anyone who was so alive."
"I know," Walter said quietly.
"So I agreed to marry her and we returned to the Land of the Living for the ceremony."
"And that's the point at which the Crier started when he told the tale to me," the Captain said. "The rest of the story I believe I know."
"I do have the one regret, though."
"What's that?" asked Victor.
Walter sighed. "I wish that I had been there that night."
"And why is that?" the younger man asked. "Wouldn't you rather remember her the way she was when you saw her last?"
"The way I saw her last was when she was lying stiff and pale and dead in her funeral shroud," growled the Captain. "No. There were things that I would have liked to have told her ... things that I will never have the chance to say..."
"Never is a long, long time," said Victor. "There is a next world after this one - perhaps you'll see her there. If there is anything that I learned from my adventures in the other world is that death is not the end of us."
"Aye," murmured the older man. "You're right, I suppose. But I still would've liked to 'ave gotten my hands on the animal that killed Emily..."
A grim look passed across Victor's face. "You'll not have to worry about justice for him - when the man died, the dead dragged him back to whatever world it was they came from. Your daughter was very well thought of down there and I have no doubt that they will have been very ... diligent ... in squaring that account."
"I guess that's true enough," the Captain conceded
The two men fell into a comfortable conversation and only when the morning light came did either of them realize that the entire night had come and gone.
There had been many more conversations and all-night visits since then and, after Victoria's death, the bond between him and the old man had tightened.
Their destination was a small wooden shelter placed just above the high-water mark halfway down the beach. The Captain had built it here so that he could spend his hours in comfortable solitude, listening to the crashing of the surf and keeping watch over the waves as they swept in to break themselves over the beach. Whatever time he didn't spend at the graveyard he spent here.
Victor brought out and shared the lunch and then chatted briefly with his friend before he made the long trip back to his own house.
The Captain watched him go, and then he made himself comfortable to resume his vigil by the seaside.