Rated: ASR · Short Story · Contest Entry · #1946481
A young man finds his family touchstone
| A Little Bit of Magic-1998|
The sign read No Trespassing.
Jeremy smiled as he greeted that old friend, now rusting and chipped from the elements, but still foreboding. His old friend? Yeah, it’d been the first thing he’d seen when he first visited this old bit of overgrown property three years ago.
Each visit had allowed him deeper access into the brush and weed choked property, reputed to be full of ghosts and goblins, just waiting for an opportunity to gobble up unwary and foolhardy children. He wasn’t any of that, he thought. He even figured that he was entitled to enter this sanctuary of the dusty and forgotten.
His grandfather was reputed to have grown up on this land many years ago, long before he became a lawman for the adjacent town. He’d told Jeremy there was magic in these woods, and encouraged him to seek it out. He continued to show up here to find that magic each year, knowing that his time was running out.
Graduation from high school was just a few months off, and he’d be shipping off to the Police Academy to complete training on a legacy scholarship. There wasn’t much time to discover the magic, he figured.
Grandpa had been severely wounded by gunmen while rescuing eighteen hostages in an interrupted bank robbery years ago. His rescue was successful, but he paid for it with his career. He was gone now and enshrined in the Wisconsin Fire and Police Hall of Fame, but to Jeremy, he’d lost a close personal friend, and his father had been buried just 18 months before. A member of the county’s SWAT team, he’d been gunned down in a firefight defending a baby girl in a domestic hostage dispute. His body armor had been wrapped around the child after the distraught mother had tossed her to him, leaving him to deal with the gunfire unprotected.
The fact that both his grandfather and father were enshrined in the Hall of Fame gave him a sense of pride, but it did nothing to assuage his profound sense of loss of their companionship. Visiting this aging piece of property brought him closer to his legacy, he thought. Before he shipped out to the academy, he wanted to reach the old abandoned homestead where many of his ancestors had been buried. That, he thought, would be the touchstone to his past that he needed to carry on.
The sign had been at the edge of the property as long as he could remember, and his mother had explained that it protected the area from vagrants and other undesirables until she could afford to improve and restore it. It was his guardian now, he thought. Once he’d gotten past it, he figured it would now keep his exploration from being interrupted by anyone else. Simple, right?
Today he would reach the old house for sure he figured, then he could find the old cemetery his parents had told him about growing up. His great-grandparents were buried there, and theirs before them. He’d never been there that he could remember, but it had been abandoned when his grandmother passed away about the time he’d been born, when his grandpa moved into the city proper.
It’d belong to him one day, his mother promised him, but until then, he planned on exploring what he could of it, and see if he could find some of the magic that his grandpa and father told him it held. He also wanted to see if the family cemetery required cleaning, as his mother had expressed some concern that it had suffered neglect over the years.
The last few times he’d come to the property, he’d cut a path well into the depths of the overgrowth, and had finally reached an area that seemed to thin out with a promise of a clearing before becoming too dark to continue. Moving easily through the trimmed area, he soon reached the small clearing that he recognized from his last visit. Now that he could see clearly in the daylight this time, he spotted the roof and chimney of an old house between the taller trees.
As he stepped closer to the building, he could plainly see the years of neglect had taken their toll on it; broken windows, weathered paint exposing the wooden clapboards, and a style that disappeared at the turn of the century. The yard appeared to be remarkably well kept, and although it wasn’t pristine by modern standards it fit the generation in which it was built.
He recalled that the cemetery was located some distance to the rear of the building according to his mother, behind the old tool shed. He decided to leave his examination of the interior of the household until later, and check on the burial ground while there was still daylight. A strangely well-preserved pathway led around to the back of the house and past the tool shed where Jeremy expected to find what he was looking for.
The feel of the soft breeze slipping through the perimeter of trees surrounding the graveyard was comforting somehow. The area was fairly well kept, and the sunlight had little trouble penetrating the entire area. The peaceful aura in this place was accented by the rustling of the leaves, and the melodious conversations of birds playing about the profusion of wildflowers amongst the weathered gravestones. Most remarkable however, was the visage of an elderly lady, moving quietly between the gravestones, bending occasionally to clear an area of dead leaves, weeds and other debris.
As he stood at the edge of the cemetery, Jeremy tried to discover just where she’d entered the area, since he’d taken considerable time and effort to break through the overgrowth from the gravel road passing the front of the property to reach the homestead, but no access was visible. Perhaps he thought, there was a back way to reach the cemetery that he was unaware of.
She seemed awfully familiar to him, although he knew he’d never met her before, and he watched as she continued to perform her caretaker chores, moving amongst the headstones. He listened as she hummed a curiously familiar hymn, smiling from time to time as she caressed their weathered tops, stopping occasionally to whisper something, probably a prayer to two to comfort the deceased.
Entranced, Jeremy continued to puzzle over her presence, as his mother had indicated that the property had been abandoned for many years. The last of their family who’d been buried here was his grandfather, several years ago, but Jeremy had been unable to attend the funeral because of a severe case of pneumonia suffered at the time. That was when his parents had decided to let the property go until such time as they could properly restore it. That his grandfather had been buried next to his grandmother was the last grand gesture to their legacy, one that Jeremy was determined to resurrect.
Curiously, she was wearing an old fashioned black flowing dress, with sleeves to her wrists. Her bodice was also black, as was the frilly lace trim down the front. A small white apron protected the bottom half of her dress, and her hair was pulled up into a tidy bun. A handsome woman, almost regal in the way she carried herself, but she couldn’t have been more than about five feet tall. Why she’d be dressed so eloquently in black was a mystery, as she balanced it all with a bright, cheerful smile.
Just as he was about to step into the cemetery proper, the lady had reached a pair of exceptionally weathered gravestones near the back edge of the clearing, put her hand on one, and turned towards him. Surprised, all he could do was smile back at her and nod his head in greeting. It seemed that he’d spent quite a bit of time standing there, just soaking in the sense of peace and serenity of the plots, and hadn’t given a lot of thought of what he’d say when she became aware of his presence.
He waved at her and she continued to smile at him, but turned and pointed to the headstone next to her, then looked back at him. Jeremy decided that was an invitation to join her, so he approached the rickety fence that surrounded the cemetery, and climbed over it. He lost sight of her when he stood back up, but made his way back to the two ancient plots where she’d stood.
When he reached the two plots, he looked around to see where she’d gotten off to, but there seemed to be no one there. The only sounds continued to be those from the forest surrounding the graveyard. Remembering that she’d pointed to the headstone next to her, he glanced down and read the worn inscription.
The elements had been harsh on the stones, both of them, but he could faintly make out the names on each; Hosea Nichols – 18??-1?9? and Hannah Ni?chol? – 1?63-1922. Looking back up, he tried once more to locate the old lady, calling out to see if she were around. Getting no response, he decided to retrace his steps back out of the area and return home. It was getting dark now, and he could always explore the old house another time.
Just as he turned to leave, he noticed something bright sparkling in the grass against the Hosea headstone, and bent down to see what it was. Embedded in the soil next to the stone was a piece of metal, and Jeremy pried it out and cleaned it off.
It was old, and nature had tried it’s best to reduce it to its elemental state, but the six-pointed star had resisted. Jeremy recognized it as a badge, and after rubbing the dirt from it, he saw the single word etched on it; “Marshal”. Turning it over, scratched into the back of it, alongside the broken pin, were the words ‘Hosea Nichols.’
Arriving back home just before nightfall, Jeremy approached his mother with his experience at the old homestead. Showing her the star, he asked if she could tell him anything about its history. While she was turning it over in her hands, he described the condition of the cemetery, and the old lady that he’d seen there tidying up the area.
She’d begun telling him a bit about the old place when Jeremy suddenly noted that she’d gotten quiet. Looking at her, he noticed that she’d turned a bit pale, and had simply walked away.
He was about to ask her what was wrong, when she opened up a cabinet that contained their family memorabilia, taking out an old photo album. Leading him back to their kitchen table, she flipped through pages of antique pictures until she came to one she wanted. She motioned him to the table, and asked him if any seemed familiar.
Jeremy looked at the open album, and a chill began to run though his body. There were two very old, cracked pictures that stood out; one was a picture of a stern, bearded man with piercing eyes, looking out at him. On his chest was a bright, shiny star with a single word etched into it; Marshal. Next to him was the kindly looking old woman, wearing exactly the same clothing that he’d seen at the cemetery that day. Beneath the pictures were their names; Hosea and Hannah Nichols.
His mother went on to explain that they were his grandfather’s parents, and Hosea was simply another in a long line of lawmen in his family. Jeremy had chosen the Police Academy, and his mother suggested that perhaps Hannah had appeared to assure him that she approved. She wouldn’t have led him to the star if she didn’t.
With tears in her eyes, she pressed the badge into his hand and told him, “Hannah has given you a bit of magic from your past. Treasure it.”