The brittle fallen leaves whispered and cracked as Varjak Norst shuffled through, slowly making his way home. He was an old shell of a man, with a thin veil of skin stretched over a haggard face. Nothing was particularly enticing about Varjak Norst. He was one of those men that you walk quickly by in the streets, studiously ignoring him while drinking in his ghoulish appearance as best you can. From his saggy grey clothes to his pale vacant blue eyes, you could never really tell what Varjak was thinking, or even if he was thinking at all. Yet there was always something about him that made people look twice. Maybe it was his shoulders, hanging so limp that they really just seemed to be deadweights, not even functioning as limbs. Or maybe it was his eyes, so endlessly blue, with such empty depth that you felt nearly swallowed whole when he turned them on you. Or maybe, just maybe, it was his hands. They were no sight to behold, yet one glance and you couldn’t seem to tear your gaze away. They were the hands of a ghost. Almost translucent, they would seemingly glow in broad daylight, as if the only thing that kept them anchored to reality were the thin spidery veins snaking through them. His palms were those of a working man, worn almost to the bone and then some. You shivered at the sight of those corpselike hands, wanting nothing to do with them. But for Varjak, his hands were his greatest prize, for they enabled him to labor, night and day, at Darmock Cemetery.
The chilling November wind curled around him, yet Varjak didn’t seem to mind. He had other, more pressing matters at hand. Slowly opening his rotting wooden gate, Varjak was met by tangled ferocious weeds, coiling upon the almost nonexistent flagstones leading toward his crumbling cream-colored house.
Once inside the dank, musty house, Varjak sighed. He shuffled in the semi-darkness into his bedroom, where suddenly a light flicked on, blindingly bright.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” A voice sharply stabbed at the old man. He merely glanced in his wife’s direction before methodically unscrewing his pill bottle and tapping out one, two, three pale capsules onto the sticky mahogany surface of his dresser top. Again, her voice penetrated the suffocating silence.
“I said, Varjak, just what do you think you’re doing?” Varjak mumbled back a wordless noise and resumed his task.
“Answer me!” His wife practically shrieked. But none came. And suddenly, deep, desperate sobbing gasps emitted from her. She sunk into her pillows, tears messily streaking the pale floral linens. Varjak swallowed his last sip of water, set the filmy glass down, climbed into bed, turned out the light and fell soundly asleep to the muffled crying echoing through the room.
The next day shone weakly through the cloudy windows, trying desperately to penetrate the destitute house. When it finally managed to peek through the fraying curtains, not a soul was there to greet it. For Varjak had left hours ago, disappearing into the predawn fog, striding purposefully toward the gates of Darmock Cemetery.
The rusty iron hinges squealed in protest as he pushed through the archway. He took one step forward and breathed a sigh of relief. Yes. He was home. He had made it through yet another exhausting evening of an unwanted, vile interaction with his wife, and a collapsing home he would never repair. He would never deign to use his precious hands or his precious time, for that matter, on such a thing as where he slept. He had much more important affairs to attend to. Lifting his head and scanning the dark necropolis, he strained to hear anything. Using his voice for the first time since yesterday when he left the cemetery, he called, “Hello?”
The wind snaked through the leaves under his feet, rustling in response.
“Ah,” Varjak smiled. “I see. It’s because I left without saying goodbye last evening, isn’t it?” The cemetery was silent, and Varjak’s smile slowly slid from his face. Treading over to the old wooden gardening shed, he pulled a brass key from his pocket. Unlocking the careworn padlock, he opened the splintery doors reverently, acting as if this was a holy shrine, known only to himself. And, in many ways, it was. Darmock Cemetery was Varjak’s haven, his one refuge in a world of insanity.
A shiver ran through his bones, setting his usually placid demeanor on edge.
“I said I was sorry.” He called, this time louder, so the whole cemetery could hear. The rusty gates creaked loudly, swaying in the breeze. Varjak nervously glanced behind him, growing warier by the second.
“What can I do? Please, answer me!” The old man was crying now, tears pooling in his eyes and streaking down his face. He started to move, staggering in the now whipping wind, fighting his way to a secluded knoll far away in the northwestern part of the cemetery. He sunk to his knees, placing his hands upon the crumbling headstone.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He gasped through his sobs. The wind was howling now, ripping leaves off of trees, screaming, wailing, roaring.
Varjak did not come home that night.
It was early dawn when he finally awoke, exhausted and bewildered. What had happened yesterday? Why wasn’t he in his house? Varjak shook his head, slowly taking in his surroundings. The cemetery was silent. Yet it was a calm silence, not heavy and oppressive as it was the day before. Varjak sighed in relief. He was forgiven, all was well again. He went to stand up, placing his hands on the freshly turned soil, then started in surprise. His spindly fingers brushed a strange object, half buried in the earth below the tombstone. It was an old toy caboose, the vermilion lead paint peeling off in his hands as he cupped it in his pale palms. He blinked once, twice, and with only the slightest tremor in his hands, calmly set the train down, nestling it in the bed of dirt once more.
“Finn, what do you want?” Varjak whispered as he gently swept the dust off the headstone. It read;
Finnick Thornton Norst
Beloved son of Marid and Varjak Norst
Taken before his time
A tiny black spider scuttled across the worn granite and disappeared into the dewy grass sparkling in the rising sun’s glow. Varjak squinted, shielding his sensitive eyes from the light. A lone silhouette stood starkly on a weedy hill. Varjak turned away, then whipped his head around, doing a double take. No, that couldn’t be possible. He would never have let a single stalk of grass grow wild, let alone an entire hillside. He stood up, his stooped back now ramrod straight. Walking purposefully, Varjak approached the untamed mound, shocked that somehow he could have missed this whole area. The weeds barred his entrance, the twisted vines baring their thorns as a half-crazed lion would his fangs. Varjak was not deterred. He pushed on, making his way through the grasses, until he reached the summit.
There, in the center of a small wooden fence enclosure was a sagging cross. Tiny white flowers wove and curled themselves around it, encircling the stone. There was something wrong, terribly wrong about this. He could feel it deep in his bones. Not right, not right, the wind seemed to chant. Yet Varjak drew nearer, entranced by this humble grave. He glanced at the petals, Queen Anne’s Lace, he thought absentmindedly. He reached into his tool belt, looking for his shears. There was no way that he was letting this knoll grow wild anymore.
Varjak bent down. Snip, snip, snip. Three emerald blades fell to the ground. He whistled while he worked, although it was mostly just air and spittle that was flying from his lips.
He looked up at the headstone, wondering again how he could have missed this in his trimming and pruning. He was a horticulturist for God’s sake! The feeling was akin to completing a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle just to realize that you had forgotten 500 tiles that were absolutely crucial. The wind ruffled the stalks around his hands, brushing up against his papery skin. Their slim shadows fell across his wrists, creating delicate designs. The wind again persisted. Get up! Get away!
Varjak’s head lifted. It was wrong to come here, he knew that now. Telling himself not to panic, he stood up, or tried to. His bones creaked, his joints screamed in pain. He fell to the ground, panting. His vision swam in and out of focus. Varjak wheezed, his breaths becoming shorter and more labored. Holding his hand in front of his face, he saw sunlight filtering through. This is not what he wanted, no! He was human, made from flesh and blood, he refused to be taken now. His heart felt as if it was in a vise, the beats becoming shorter and shorter.
His eyes started to droop, his jaw slackened. Moaning softly, his head thudded to the damp earth. The wind lipped the edges of his coat, ruffled his white hair. It became insistent, get up now. It raised its voice to a rumble, then a shout. It was roaring, roaring at the man to get up!
A small hurricane engulfed the man, leaves and pebbles pelted him relentlessly. But Varjak didn’t stir. He never would.
The day wore on, and at dusk the roads once religiously walked by a ghost of a man were empty.
Months passed. Merid became hermitous, venturing out only when the setting sunlight filtered through those heavy drapes.
People talked, but never when they passed in front of the crumbling cream house. Children fancied it was haunted, and maybe they were right. It was bad luck to walk in front of the rusty picket fence, even worse if night was falling.
No one talked of Varjak Norst, no one dared. He was cloaked in mystery, his dark secrets swirling, obscuring the past. Darmock Cemetery was closed. The iron gates rusted shut, and the vines tangled so ferociously in the bars produced viciously sharp thorns. No one could get in. Not the tourists drawn to the mystery. Not the drunk college students out for some fun. Not even his own wife could broach the passageway.
They stood the test of time, those vines. Through bitter winters and scorching hot summers, they neither froze nor wilted. The walls around the cemetery became draped with moss, the dirt road became weedy and wild.
Still more years passed, and Merid grew old and haggard. The house was grey with grime and neglect.
It was the end of a crisp autumn day when the gates silently swung open. No one knows why, no one knows how. A small child of 9 was skipping along and came upon the cemetery. She cautiously stepped in, brimming with curiosity. Taking a couple of glances around, she trotted along, coming to a halt in front of a small knoll. Delicate white flowers wound their way along a path leading to the summit. The child walked up the path, her steps disappearing into the dense flora.
It was dusk. There, up on the hill were two graves. They were ringed with flowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, the girl identified. A sagging cross was on the left and the girl instinctively backed away, feeling the waves of wickedness threatening to consume her. Upon the other, two simple words: Varjak Norst.
The girl’s eyes grew wide. She had heard the stories, eavesdropped on her parents’ whispered conversations. Varjak Norst, the unspoken mystery. But the townspeople, they knew better. There was a reason why he entered that cemetery and never returned. There was a reason why the investigators never found a corpse, why the acres of exquisitely pruned mounds suddenly disappeared. It was like someone snatched it right out of thin air, leaving nothing behind.
Her mouth hung open, clouds of breath appearing at her lips. Trembling, she backed away, her cornflower blue eyes never leaving the weather worn tombstones. She ran and never looked back.