Thrills and Chills

And now, the exciting conclusion to my first attempt at a ghost story.

When Death Grows Like a Tree (Part II)

After the mass burial, the town quieted once again. Rosanna took to the cemetery every night. Now, after visiting her family, she moved to her lover’s grave. She knew that although they had only moments together in life, he was the only man she’d ever love. He could have been life to her, could have been escape, but this dead town killed that. Now all she had was a clump of ground and a headstone that read, “Here lies a traitor.”

One night, Rosanna felt too tired to return home from the cemetery. It was too hot to make the long walk from the cemetery to her home and she had spent too much time with Julian. She fell asleep atop Julian’s grave. That night she dreamt of him. She remembered the damp rag warming against his skin as she cleaned his wound. She felt her embarrassment as he removed his shirt so she could bandage his back. She could taste his lips when he surprised her with a kiss. They were salty from the blood on his upper lip. She would never know that kisses weren’t meant to taste that way; now she craved that bitterness.

In her dream, Julian stayed with her that night in her bedroom and removed her nightgown. In this dream that was like living, more real than any life Rosanna had previously lived, Julian moved slowly inside her—slow out of acknowledgment of his body’s pain and slow out of respect for her body’s new experience. In this dream, Rosanna had squeezed her thighs around Julian, had pushed away the hair that clung to his sweaty forehead, had accepted him into her body like a casket into the ground. In this dream, they were alive in death.

When she woke in the morning, unwilling but forced by the heat of the rising sun, Rosanna felt wet between her legs. Her dream flooded her as she moved from bleary-eyed sleep into unfortunate consciousness.

The grass on top of Julian’s grave had grown overnight, at least a foot. It resembled a wild meadow rather than a well-kept cemetery lawn. The green shoots of grass crawled up Julian’s headstone like tendrils beckoning her home. Rosanna dug her fingers into the ground—cool dirt under fingernails—and checked the earth on her hands as she lifted them up. Deep brown and moist. She hurried home to bathe before her grandfather woke up.

Rosanna told no one about her encounter, but she began sleeping in the cemetery every night. She would wait until her grandfather closed the door to his bedroom, until the town had fallen into dreamless sleep, and she would move through the darkened town like she were sleepwalking.

Julian visited her each night, met her in the place between. She learned to laugh with him, to move with him, to take him in without pain. She learned sweet love and rough love and unruly love, love that makes flowers grow wild where they don’t belong. But Rosanna was not alone. When she rose with the sun one morning, she discovered that flowers had bloomed not only over Julian’s grave, but across the graves of the soldiers and nurses. She was not alone in creating life within death. The cemetery had become so overgrown with red poppies, Rosanna could not walk without crushing them.

As she moved through the town, still waking—shopkeepers standing in doorways, merchants stacking produce in the market, old men sipping cappuccinos—she discovered that the opposite effect had taken place outside of the cemetery. The green from the hills had disappeared. The trees in the orange grove had wilted. The wildflowers dotting the landscape seemed to retreat back into the earth. All over the town, the color had drained, except in the cemetery.

The rest of the townspeople quickly discovered the change to the cemetery. Mayor Cesare once again brought the town together amidst another crisis. The town with a cemetery too small to hold death now seemed too small to hold the overgrown life. The townspeople once again gathered in the square. Mayor Cesare stood to speak, but waved his hand at any official pretenses.

“Our town is dying,” he said simply, “but our cemetery seems to have come to life.”

“It’s the graves of the soldiers and nurses,” a voice from the crowd shouted. It came from Luigi, a doctor whose daughter had died in the first typhus wave.

“You never should have buried them together,” Tomas the barber added.

“It’s true. I went to visit my wife’s grave this morning and I swear I could hear giggling coming from the ground. It sounded like the wild laughter of sinners. It’s because of this ridiculous law. If you had focused on fixing the problem with the cemetery rather than avoiding it, we wouldn’t be here in the first place,” Giovanni complained.

Others joined in with shouts of agreement. Rosanna stood apart from the crowd, watching but unnoticed.

“I asked you what you wanted and gave it to you. We must look for an answer to our problem, not blame those no longer with us. I’d like to form a committee on irrigation,” Mayor Cesare started but was cut off.

“It’s not an irrigation problem. And they are still with us, Mayor Cesare. If you don’t believe it, come to the cemetery and see for yourself,” Giovanni challenged.

The group moved together, an angry mob that would never be able to reach its victims. The excited lovers were indulging in pleasures beyond the townspeople’s mortality. Giovanni led Mayor Cesare through the graveyard and to Julian’s grave. Rosanna stood sheepishly behind the crowd. Her grandfather hadn’t seen her walking in the distance. She hadn’t been able to face him since her discovery earlier that day. She could not explain to her grandfather that she felt movement inside her stomach, life as rich and full and living as what she had experienced in the cemetery at night. He would not understand, could not understand.

In the cemetery, Giovanni stood over his former gravesite. “Feel this earth. It throbs. It pulsates as if it has a heartbeat.” He dug his hand into the ground and motioned for Mayor Cesare to follow.

“Maybe it is the soldier,” Luigi said with a finger pointed toward Julian’s headstone. “Look at how the flowers seemed to have amassed on top of his grave. He brought the trouble to our town. You never should have buried him in your plot, Giovanni.”

“I had to, for Rosanna. You can’t leave the dead without a resting place. It causes trouble, causes wandering.”

“What about the young men and women buried together? Surely this ungodly act is responsible for killing our town,” said Tomas.

“It’s all of it,” Mayor Cesare said with a grand sweep of his arm. “It’s all cursed. It overflowed with death and we pushed it farther past the tipping point. Look at it now. It’s like they’re laughing at us, all of the dead.”

“We should burn it!” The shout came from the mob. Mayor Cesare thought it was Tomas who thought it came from Luigi who blamed it on Giovanni. Nobody knew for sure where the idea started, but they took to it immediately. All the angry men—angry at the losses their town faced and their country suffered—wanted someone or something to punish. They wanted to create loss out of their loss.

Rosanna wanted to yell, wanted to tell them they couldn’t burn it, but she feared their response. She feared they would blame her for her part in the cemetery’s rapid growth.

“We cannot burn our cemetery. We must respect the dead,” Mayor Cesare said.

“Even if they don’t respect us?” Tomas asked.

“Please, return to your homes and think of what you’re saying. These are our families, our loved ones. We cannot disturb their final resting place.”

The crowd disbanded, but a few of the men stayed behind. When Mayor Cesare had stepped out of earshot, they discussed their plan.

“Cesare has let this town fall apart. It is our responsibility to clean up after his mess,” Tomas said to the group. “We will meet back here at night and burn this whole place down. Only then will we be free of these ghosts.”

Rosanna returned home and climbed into her bed. She felt relieved that the cemetery was safe—she had already lost Julian once. But she felt nauseous and didn’t want to have to face her grandfather.

“Rosanna, are you in your room?” Giovanni called from the stairs.

“Yes, Grandfather. I feel ill and want to sleep.”

“What are your symptoms?” His voice moved closer to her bedroom, full of worry. The air smelled like rot.

“Nothing serious; do not worry. I’m simply tired and a bit lightheaded. I think it’s from the heat.”

“Alright. Don’t leave that bed. Sleep and call to me if you need anything. I will check on you later.”

Rosanna did fall asleep, but it didn’t last for long and it felt empty. When she awoke, the sky had darkened. She needed to return to the cemetery, to Julian’s grave, to try and find some peace amidst the chaos she feared she had caused. She made her bed in the poppies, afraid to crush them in her sleep, but also knowing they would return in the morning.

At the entrance to the cemetery, Tomas and the others gathered. They carried gasoline and old rags stuffed into bottles. “Spread out along the border. We have to make sure we clear it all,” he instructed.

“Just think,” Luigi said wistfully, “when this is over we can start fresh. We’ll redesign the cemetery and make it a proper resting place. I’m certain this is what our loved ones wanted all along.”

They wasted no more time. The dozen or so men each lit the ends of their rags and threw them. The balls of light rose and fell like firecrackers. The cemetery lit up like a celebration.

Across town, Giovanni woke from a restless sleep and walked to Rosanna’s room. He knocked gently on the door, but when she did not answer, he pushed it open forcefully. He hovered briefly over her empty bed and imagined her wandering feverishly through town. But the light outside the window pulled him from these worries. Giovanni could see the blaze of the cemetery from his home.

He hurried outside, not sure what he’d find in the cemetery or if Rosanna’s voice calling to him was his imagination. At the cemetery, the men had already scattered. But he could hear her. He could hear her calling to him.

“Grandfather, grandfather,” Rosanna called.

Giovanni limped through the cemetery, past the soldiers taken too soon, past the young nurses who died before they could bloom. His hip ached as he moved. It hadn’t ached like this since the night he found Rosanna with that soldier. Was that a month ago? A year? His memory had begun to fail him in his old age. How long had it been since he’d lost his Rosa?

He didn’t have time to think of who started the fire, to debate whether the original settlers of his village had properly spaced the graves, designed the cemetery with maximum efficiency. How long had it been here? His family had settled in the village fifty years ago. Had the cemetery been here that long?

Too many questions and his family’s graves seemed so far away. He slowed to a walk, began to choke on the thick smoke. He was so angry that night when he found that traitor in his granddaughter’s room. They had been naked, under the covers. Rosanna had cried out, but not in pain. She seemed so happy, so unlonely it made his loneliness feel heavier. Giovanni hadn’t meant to hit her. He only meant to make the soldier leave. But she had threatened to leave with that man once Giovanni had thrown him out.

Then he couldn’t stop.

Suddenly, she was gone like the rest of them. They had all left him, and she was the last. He had run out the door, through the streets, crying “Rape,” until the crowd of men had formed, angry that an outsider had violated one of the town’s last daughters. Giovanni had helped the men hang the soldier from the tree, let him take the guilt for Rosanna’s death.

Giovanni passed the tree now, so close to his granddaughter. He could see the soldier dangling like a pendulum, ticking away the hours of the night. And there was Rosanna, his beautiful Rosanna, dressed all in white, like the night he had said goodbye to her. Hadn’t he laid her body in one of the empty bedrooms, made it her tomb until they could find her a suitable grave? But she was so stubborn, she kept him up at night running to and from the cemetery. She refused to stay put in her rest.

Rosanna was a vision with her grandmother’s small frame and her mother’s brown eyes. She was waiting for him atop the grave. She was a white rose in a field of red poppies. And she held him while he lay on the ground, letting go of the last bits of air and replacing them with smoke. They were all waiting for him—his sons, his wife, his daughter-in-law, and granddaughters.

Rosanna drifted amongst the smoldering flowers, the ashen grass. Her grandfather was with her again. What would remain of the burning cemetery did not matter. This was their home now. They would beds out of caskets, home out of darkness.

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