|Credit: Library of Congress|
They say confession is good for the soul, and it is with great resolve to save my damaged soul that I finally tell this story that has haunted my every waking hour since I was 13 years old.
On that Halloween night, so many years ago, I was home alone reading a volume of Edgar Allan Poe while the other children roamed the streets dressed as ghosts, vampires, witches, and all sorts of monsters. I was a very sensitive boy, and the whole concept of trick or treat grated on my delicate conscience. Children were knocking on doors and basically saying, "Give us candy or else!" Houses where doors were not answered would be attacked and vandalized with hard kernals of corn, shaving cream and toilet paper. I could not be a part of such extortion.
Unfortunately, that night Poe disturbed my soul to a much deeper degree than trick or treat possibly could, and his words led me to commit the awful crime which I must now confess. I was reading Poe's essay "Premature Burial," in which he discusses the horrible yet not uncommon fate of being buried while still alive. Poe wrote:
To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?I set down the book, greatly agitated. As I mentioned, I was a very sensitive boy, and I was terribly upset after reading Poe's words because I had never before considered the existence, let alone the frequency, of such horror-invoking episodes. I wondered how many people, at this very moment, are buried inside a wooden box, having awoken from a supposed death but now, very much alive, are struggling and screaming in terror to no avail?
I went out back and grabbed a shovel, and then marched down the street past the ghosts, vampires, witches, and monsters. Some looked at me curiously; others appeared to believe I was in costume myself.
Once at the cemetery, I looked for freshly-dug graves. I figured that I would be too late for all but the most recent of burials. I found a plot of loose, unpacked earth with a temporary tombstone. I immediately began digging. The work was hard and I was soon covered with sweat despite the chilliness of the October night. Still, I was so determined -- a doctor trying to save his patient -- that in less than an hour I felt my shovel hitting upon the lid of a coffin.
The coffin easily opened without any need for prying. Inside I found a pale, gaunt man who did not appear to be breathing. Still, I had to be absolutely certain he was dead. But how?
I pulled him up as best I could (he was heavy) and shouted in his ear.
"SIR! WAKE UP! WAKE UP, SIR!"
When there was no response, I slapped him hard several times across his cold face. He did not even twitch.
I was beginning to feel satisfied that the man in the coffin was truly dead when I recalled Poe's statement that the "boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague." This man could indeed be dead, or perhaps he was in a deep coma or suffering from catalepsy. I would not be the one responsible for returning him to a premature grave, so I left him out in the fresh night air and climbed out of the pit in search of another fresh grave.
By now the moon was starting to set, and it was difficult to see the terrain of the graveyard. I felt for soft soil with my feet and eventually located another plot of recent vintage. Again, I set to work at freeing the poor soul who may be trapped in the box below. I was thirsty and I was tired, but I was so focused on the task at hand that I did not slow my pace.
I had dug maybe 2 or 3 feet when I heard a distant voice. I looked back and saw a figure approaching me from the first dug-out grave.
It was him! He was alive after all!
My elation soon turned to confusion, however, as the man began angrily cursing me. He walked stiffly, as would be expected, but moved purposefully in my direction with his arms waving about in a fury.
"YOU'RE OKAY NOW!" I shouted to him.
I could not even begin to imagine the turmoil he had been through. Had he been conscious while buried beneath the ground, only to slip back into a deep, oxygen-deprived sleep? I wondered if, even now, he knew where he was and what had happened to him.
When the man reached me, he grabbed me by the shoulders and began violently shaking me, still swearing at me as if I were the one who had put him beneath the ground. I took a step back and tumbled into the shallow pit I'd just dug. When I tried to get back on my feet, the man pushed me down again. Was he trying to kill me?
I crawled out of the other side of the pit and jumped to my feet before he could shove me down again. As he rushed me, I instinctively grabbed the shovel and swung it around, striking his left temple with the back of the scoop. The man's legs buckled and he fell face first into the shallow pit. I did not wait for him to recover, but dropped the shovel and ran all the way home.
Despite my exhaustion from the hard labor and the scare, I could not sleep when I got home. I could not stop thinking about the man I'd liberated from the premature grave. Why was he so angry? Why did he attack me?
In the absence of answers, I resolved that I would no longer try to save those who had been buried while alive. It was a terrible fate, to be sure, but I would try to put it out of my mind.
After school the next day, I went to the library to return my volume of Poe and to find something less macabre to read. I was standing there browsing the stacks when a boy came in and delivered the evening paper. I walked over to the table where he'd left it. When I saw the headline, I felt as if I was being swallowed alive by cold, wet earth.
CARETAKER MURDERED; GRAVES DESECRATED
For days on end, I could scarcely move, nor could I find my voice to speak. Although I was above ground, I felt as if I, myself, had somehow been buried alive, suffocating under the heavy truth of what I had done. Eventually I recovered enough to live a somewhat normal life, yet always I have carried this stifling burden. Now, as I finally confess my crime, I feel like I am emerging from a deep grave.