She gathered data from churchyards. This had not been her first choice. Requiring access to natural habitats, her research had stumbled. Park-keepers were loath to let her loose in their kingdoms.
Consulting city maps, regarding the spray of green spaces marked with crosses, she had the idea. In an instant, graveyards recast themselves as secret nature reserves.
The local diocese proved immediately amenable to the enterprise.
At an agreed-upon church, she had met with the parish priest. Her work intrigued him. She wished to investigate the range of species living in the cemetery. He talked of God’s creatures and she let it pass; now was not the time for Darwinian discourse.
She was not without beliefs. Evangelical about her field, she stressed the importance of the natural, of biodiversity in urban environments. She was possessed of a skyline idealism. She imagined future cities clad in shrubbery, workers fringed by living things, exteriors crawling with life. Her optimistic vistas replaced the grey, mirrored monotony with a maze of breathing skyscrapers.
Amid lichen-licked memorials, she concealed her equipment: a small tree of microphones, a green box recorder to camouflage in the undergrowth. Locked nightly, there was a security to churchyards. She did not wish to disrupt the indigenous, but simply to eavesdrop. She commenced a three-day trial.
By day, she observed the churchyard’s native creatures. Born into these island realms, grass patches within the urban splash, they had acclimatised. The birds could fly between green pockets of land; other inhabitants were not so lucky. She imagined newborn animals frolicking amid looming granite angels, their development atop the dead. What must it be like, she wondered, to live whole lives underscored by death? Memento mori meant nothing to animals, and she refused to lapse into anthropomorphic sentimentalities.
Some found her work morbid, but she felt safe in the warm melancholy of these peaceful regions. Around the perimeter, cast-iron railings penned the dead. Was this, she wondered, to deter grave-robbers? That blackest of markets had surely passed. She knew that medical students deconstructed only ethically sourced corpses.
In her room, wearing headphones, she listened intently to the previous evening’s recordings. They ran from six in the evening to six in the morning, free of the aural distractions of the day. Closing her eyes, she found all the sounds disconcerting, the creaks and stirrings, the rustles in the undergrowth. In rural equivalents, one could almost hear a beetle on a leaf.
One night, listening back, she heard the crunch of shovelling. Nothing to worry about, the priest said. Simply gravediggers. She had not realised the cemetery still bore room for fresh dead; she imagined dough cut to the shape of the cemetery and a coffin-shaped cookie cutter pressed into it to calibrate the number of remaining graves.
Gravediggers were not the only disturbance. Rainfall proved obliterative, its incessant beat drowning all other sounds. Even a midnight drizzle muffled noise, but such soundtracks were not wasted, and their white noise would lull her when she struggled to find sleep. She noted the way that the city infringed upon the churchyard’s inhabitants, birdcalls edging to ever-higher pitches to compete with the endless bustle of human activity, of streaming traffic.
The field recordings surpassed her expectations. She expanded the project to four weeks.
It was in the audio for three o’clock on a weekday morning, when she heard a distinct, persistent rat-a-tat-tat, drum-like, someone, something, rapping a tattoo. She discounted nocturnal woodpeckers, dismissed all manner of explanation. She was unable to shift the image of a man buried alive, dark, desperate, banging on a coffin lid from within.
This time, the priest could offer no explanation. He laughed at her fears of a man trapped buried alive. There had been no funeral for weeks, he said, and, if someone had been buried alive, they would have suffocated weeks ago.
This she failed to find reassuring.
A few nights later, another disturbance emerged from the noise.
She rewound it, turned it up, adjusted levels, tried to isolate the sound. Through the hiss, unmistakable, was the sound of a human voice, a repeating banshee wail, deep and sonorous. Rot in hell, it howled.
She played the recording to fellow students who squinted as they listened. With the volume cranked high, these slurred words failed to convince them. They heard something, certainly, but it was vague, fuzzy, open to interpretation. Inebriated rough sleepers, they suggested, a lugubrious parrot. They were not taking her seriously.
A few nights later, the voice came again, the same as before, unintelligible save for a few exact words. Miserable. Vengeance. Death. It did not strike her as the babble of drunks.
Once more, her fellow academics discounted her subjective analysis. Aloud, she pondered paranormal explanations, which she instantly regretted. They suggested turning her back on biology for parapsychology. She would not skulk in cemeteries for a botched doctorate. She had not recorded the dead, they said. They were scientists. They did not believe in such spirited hypotheses. Her research was descending into tales better suited to campfire recall than scientific study.
She lacked rational answers. As she listened, the voice spread to fill all the corners of her darkened room.
The disembodied voice would wrench her from her sleep, awaking, breathing heavily, hands already clasped to her ears to block the sound.
She struggled to recall the exact tones of those who had passed from her own life, to pull clarity from a murmured cacophony of voices. Relatives stirred. She thought of deleted messages, erased videos, voices and visions so temporary and easily disposed of. She uploaded ephemera, filed the impersonal, but had never thought to record her family and friends for posterity.
Her mother’s voice faded slowly.
She played her latest find to the priest, who could offer little consolation. He was not convinced that he heard a voice. The priest pursued the rational. Intruders, while unusual, were not unknown. He spoke of a distressed woman in another parish who, unable to cope with the loss of her husband, had, it seemed, returned to the churchyard to sleep upon his grave. She was discovered one morning above him, pillow propped against his headstone, limbs unshakable from sleep, dead from hypothermia and back within the week on the other side of the earth to take the place that he had reserved for her.
Friends began to wonder whether she had returned too soon to her studies. She was still grieving. Fellow students were unaware of her loss.
Listening intently, she tried to unravel what she had captured.
She logged the times of the bizarre interferences. There was no pattern to their scatter.
Each morning, at first light, she retrieved the previous night’s recordings. She played them immediately, ears bent to every second. She scribbled notes, paused, rewound. The twelve-hour sessions in real time took her through the night, sleeping in snatches, her eyelids growing heavy as she focused on the levels.
Why, she wondered, would a ghost haunt a graveyard?
Friends feared she was treating her findings as an audio Rorschach, interpreting the whispers of the wind. They believed she was seeking validation of an afterlife, following the death of her mother.
Uncertain, she continued.
At the risk of jeopardizing her study, she moved the recording equipment. She tried to unearth the source of the strange sounds.
As she listened in the dark to the next recording, her headphones blocking outside sounds, she spun at the sound of a voice, as though it had whispered in her ear. There is no escape, it said. I will haunt you forever. As shadows advanced, she played it, reduced it to a loop, replayed it.
Everyone she played it to failed to pick up the voice. Their reactions began to strike her as conspiratorial. Why could no one else hear what she heard?
She sought no volunteers to accompany her to visit the cemetery at night. She scaled the short wall, slalomed headstones, investigated the area around her hidden equipment. Her tiny torch cast giant shadows, angelic elongations.
She was not sure exactly what she had hoped to find.
His ex-wife had warned him that she would dance upon his grave.
She was determined to stay true to her word. As he lay dying, she spent her time deciding upon the dance best suited to the grave.
She lamented the fact that he had not died in another age, the stone lids of old making ideal platforms on which to dance. He would be buried beneath earth and grass, and so she would provide a dancefloor of her own.
She discounted the waltz, the foxtrot, those soft-shoed shuffles ill-suited to her needs. She needed something to disturb the dead, a dance she could do alone. She requested no accomplices in her act – for her friends to gather and support her was enough.
In the end, she opted for flamenco. The noise, the passion, the drama: it had everything she required. Her bequest to him was not a light undertaking. She took classes in order that she may see him off properly. As he weakened in his hospital bed, as the disease advanced and ravaged, she found herself in dance studios, perfecting a Mediterranean temperament.
With fleet footwork, she would mark his passing into hell.
She’d once felt that biology had turned against her, against them. Later, though, she was grateful. No children had bevelled their severance. His death had been lingering, fittingly painful.
With her closest friends, those who had sheltered her when marital communication switched from verbal to physical, she entered the cemetery. It was a stealth manoeuvre; there would be no waiting around to face the consequences. She lay down a board upon which to dance.
She did not wish for funeral corteges, the downcast eyes of the grieving, to turn in her direction.
She channelled into music and motion the thoughts of mornings confronting the mirror, foundation disguising his inflictions. It was behind her now.
For the years of their marriage, he had prevented her from attending dance classes. He had inclination to dance himself, but could not bear seeing her in the arms of other men. From his own drunken carousals, he could not comprehend such proximity not advancing, public physicality not becoming private.
Walk away, they said, but it was never as easy as that.
Her sisters applauded her bravery. Feet blistered, weeping, she was led from the scene.
Gone from his life, she was annoyed with herself for only finding the strength to confront him once he had weakened. She wanted time to punish him. She felt that death would cheat her of revenge, that it would be too easy an escape.
She was worried that she would weaken at his bedside, afraid that seeing him helpless would once more trigger forgiveness, but his eyes were the same eyes, despite being all that moved freely now. Her resolve did not waver, nor did her voice, as she leaned to his ear. I will dance on your grave.
Though planned as a one-off, she soon longed for a repeat performance. Still seeing his face in crowds, she felt better double-checking he was dead.
Waking from bad dreams, sweating in the night, she would dress and descend upon the cemetery and laugh and dance and wail.
Cemeteries held nothing to frighten her.
She would haunt him for the remainder of her days.