There once was a man who no one much liked. He was strange, he was dirty and his eyes were too close together. His hair was too long, he smelled of liquor and his beard always had crumbs in it. He snarled at dogs and children and sneered at ladies and gentleman, and when the police asked him what he was doing he said, “I’m only breathing, officer. A man has a right to breathe.” He was just fine with not being liked. He didn’t like anyone either. Not anyone living. He liked the dead. They were quiet and they minded their own business and, best of all, they never fussed when you took their things from them.
The man was a grave robber.
The dead didn’t mind if you moved their dirt from their graves. They didn’t mind if you slipped the rings off their fingers and the watches from their wrists. Not a one of them so much as twitched when he took the little bits of gold or pearls off their shoes and clothes and necks and coffins. The living screamed and kicked and set their dogs to biting and their sons and brothers and friends to fighting. The dead were dead. They were nothing to fear. He closed up the coffins and put the dirt back, no harm done.
But grave robbing isn’t nice. It’s stealing. The dead may not fuss, but the ones who love the dearly departed gave those things over to them out of affection and respect, and the things still belong to the passed on souls whether they can enjoy them in this world or not. Harm was still being done.
The man was not superstitious. He did not believe in ghosts or ghouls or devils or that the dead might rise or that the bad and mean things he did would come back to haunt him. He took what he wanted from the dead two or three times a week; always from the fresh graves so the dirt would be soft and easy to work. He sold his plunder in a neighboring town every Saturday night, and was found Sunday spending the money on ale and steak and laughing in big guffaws all alone at his table in the town’s only bar.
People were suspicious that he always seemed to spend a lot and never seemed to work, but no one saw him up to his tricks or suspected how wicked he could be. All he seemed to do was drink and eat and laugh and live in his shameless and foul way. He lived and, as he said, he was only breathing. He could not be arrested for breathing. No one could hold it against him if he breathed. “A man has a right to breathe.”
A man does not have a right to take what isn’t his. While the man did not believe in ghosts and ghouls and devils, the ghosts and ghouls and devils certainly believed in him. They didn’t like him any more than anyone else. He was trespassing. The dead were theirs to keep and the graves were theirs to play in. A graveyard is the natural home of those other worldly creatures, and among them a grave robber has no place. The dead may not mind if the man took their things, but the graveyard denizens certainly did. The man had to be stopped.
The ghosts and the ghouls and the devils waited until the night of a harvest moon All Hallows Eve (Halloween to you and me) when the sky was free of clouds and the moon was red and round and they were strongest because of the power of that night. When the man came to be about his grimy business, they were ready for him. He strolled in whistling with a hand in one pocket and a shovel over his shoulder certain that no one would be around. It was All Hallows Eve after all; the night when the dead can rise to meet the living. But the man did not believe they could and so he was not afraid to walk among their graves. He sauntered right up to a grave he knew was fresh, hung his hat and his coat on the grave marker labeled for Ira Goodman “Beloved brother and friend,” and got ready to dig.
The grave was already open.
“Someone’s beat me to it!” he cried. How dare someone take what he had claimed already! They hadn’t even cleaned up after like any self-respecting grave robber ought to. (Though, he was the only one he knew.)
And then he saw that the box the body goes in was even still open, and more, the body was nowhere to be found.
“They’ve stolen everything! They can’t have gotten far carrying a whole man away, then!” The grave robber dropped his shovel and began to search for footprints to follow. There were none. Since the thief could not be followed, the man resolved to move on to another grave and get there before this intruder. He picked up his shovel and hurried to the next headstone.
That grave was open, too.
And the next one.
And the next one.
And the rest in the graveyard, even ones he knew he’d visited other nights before, where open and completely empty except for open coffins.
By now the man was furious. He stomped back to where he’d left his hat and coat. They were gone. He howled and kicked at the dirt and threw his shovel. He jumped up and down and shook his fists until his face was blue and his eyes bulged and his own ears rang with his yelling. And then he stood and looked all around for someone to take his anger. There at the back edge of the cemetery was a little chapel with the lights on. If the lights were on, someone had to be in there. He marched toward it.
As he got closer he began to hear singing and laughing, but there was something strange about it. It sounded hollow, like voices heard through a tunnel. He began to see shapes dancing in the windows in jumpy, jerky movements. There were so many and he felt uncertain about going in then. Who were these people who would dance and sing oddly in a chapel in a graveyard where all the graves were empty?
He would soon find out. There was a cackling behind him and then a feeling of many small and clammy hands lifting him and rushing him toward the chapel. He shouted and he twisted and snarled, but could not seem to get away or see his captors, and then he was in the chapel and the singing and the dancing stopped as everyone turned to look at the man dropped in their midst.
The man saw faces smudged in dirt looking back at him that he never thought he’d see again. There was the young couple who had died of fever and whose wedding rings he’d used for gambling money. There was the old farmer whose horse had startled and taken him over a cliff and whose gold teeth fillings the grave robber had used to drink for two days straight. There was the woman and her baby girl who both had died in childbirth whose matching beaded dresses were devoid of beads and had holes where he’d been less than gentle in plucking the pearls free. There was Ira Goodman, still in all his finery amusing some ghastly pale children by sliding a candle holder through the cavity in his chest where a pipe had punched a hole in an accident.
They stared at him. He no longer felt like being angry.
“The ghosts and ghouls and devils have told us what you’ve done,” said one woman whose eyes had gone to the worms long ago.
“They brought us back for a night to let us speak to you,” said a little boy whose lips peeled back so he grinned all the time.
“We would like our things back,” said a tall man whom the grave robber had never known.
The grave robber screamed.
The people in the town were amazed to find different things left outside their doors the next morning. Little toys and tokens and sacks of money, presents some remembered expressing having wanted to someone whose company had been much enjoyed and whose dying had been greatly mourned. No one knew where the presents had come from.
Time went on and they slowly started commenting to one another that the man who no one much had liked hadn’t been seen lately. No one much was sorry for his leaving. They did, however, find his hat and coat and a shovel laid neatly in some bushes behind the graveyard chapel. No one knew where those had come from either.