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A Long, Long, Time Ago
So he began the story.
“The graveyard was hidden, ancient. Moss grew in the cracks of the headstones and draped itself over broad, gnarled tree limbs. A sliver of a moon fell in and out of shadow, creating fleeting silhouettes that danced along the top of the hillside. Along the narrow path, taking slow, deliberate steps, trekked the mystical old crone, complete with a bag full of enticingly mysterious lumpy objects.
“The old crone—indeed, older than anyone could remember!—the old crone had two large, piercing jade eyes, and wrinkles on top of her wrinkles. Struggling up the path all alone, Helga (as was her name) appeared to belong with the specters and spirits.
“And she was on a mission. A few days ago, all the people of the little town had appeared on her doorstep, in the midst of an argument—was Old Sycamore dead, or alive, risen from the grave? Helga knew the patterns and paths of the spirits—yes, the very path trod in the underworld! So of course, she should settle the question.
“Who was Old Sycamore? Old Sycamore was the most feared haunting-ghost of the town. He was occasionally spotted up on the cemetery hill at dusk, silently disappearing into one neglected grave. But in the daytime, he was not so quiet.
Good children fell into fits, young and old were beset with visions, items were stolen from houses. Doors opened, wood creaked, lights flickered on in unused rooms. For these reasons, all suspected the lonesome, hulking, crotchety old man—who had gone to bed and never woken up a decade ago—to be risen from the grave. And it was this predicament that had led them to Helga.
“It was very late when at last she stumbled upon the humble circle of cracked headstones. The wind whipped her long, white hair in her face as Helga knelt to set up a ring of candles, special candles, the wax rounded to mere stubs. Thus Helga’s communication with the spirits began.
“ She made a strange sight, sitting on the hilltop with a dozen candles flickering, ringing her as the old woman spoke in strange tongues strange and soft...softer...oh so faint.
“And suddenly! Suddenly from the heart of the darkness came the moaning voice of one just woken. This voice, also, spoke in strange tongues as it—he?—conversed with Helga. Finally, the old woman stood and left.
“The next day, Helga’s doorstep was again crowded with townsfolk. The people were shouting, shouting—‘Old Sycamore lives? He is alive!?’ The quiet farmers, their plump wives swathed in bright cloths tied about their heads, the pious village leaders—they all swarmed about. ‘We must kill Sycamore!’
“So that night, when all had fallen quiet, the townsfolk snuck out with pitchforks and torches ablaze. Up, up, up, still up! the cemetery path they walked, preparing for a desperate battle—good versus evil. Spirits did not belong in their world. But none of them was expecting what they saw at the top. Helga stood with her skeletal arms crossed, looking ready to fight the world herself. The townspeople shifted, nervous, uneasy.
“‘Would you like to surrender now, or shall we fight?’ Her reedy voice seemed stronger than it ever had.
“‘Helga, you have done your part. Move aside!’ And the rough-and-tumble group began to advance again.
“‘Stop! I will not let you harm my old husband. He is not himself, in death. You do not know him!’ The old lady shrieked. This made the mob turn around and stare at the crone.
“‘Old Sycamore...was your husband?’ asked the leader, in blatant disbelief.
“‘He was my husband. You do not know him.’ Answered Helga, seemingly dazed, her voice growing fainter.
“‘Prove it,’ challenged the leader.
“Helga pulled her many candles from the bag, set them up, began to chant. Everyone held their breath as the guttural syllables became faster, louder, until a voice broke in, from the heart of the darkness. Then Helga and the unnamed voice conversed for a few minutes. Afterward, Helga turned back to the group.
“‘My husband wants me to go with him to the land of the dead. He will not haunt anymore. But do not kill him!’ And with that, she collapsed.”
The little bedroom was silent now, scared silent, silent like the inside of a tomb. Two daughters watched their father with wide eyes.
“Don’t be scared, kids. It’s only a legend from long ago,” he assured them.
“But Daddy—where did this happen?” One of the little girls asked, breathless at such a frightening bedtime story. She glanced out the window.
“In a village far away,” he lied, not wanting to further scare his kids. But long after the girls received their goodnight kisses, when all was silent throughout the house and the town, there was a hillside that was still lit with a dozen candles. And two voices, coming from the heart of the night, could be heard by any passerby. But one guy, walking among the graves, heard these voices especially clearly.
“Good evening, Grandfather,” he began, and joined their conversation.