The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat took his time going through Kenilworth’s ancient burial ground, daring the ghosts to come out and talk with him. He looked confident to me, from where I was, tailing him from the shadows, until he tapped on the light on his phone. Then I could see how much it shook. He examined all the tombstones in turn, reading what he could of the moss-sown inscriptions, pulling up his head from time to time to listen to every sound coming from the darkness.
The tombstones by the entrance to the cemetery were upwards of four hundred years old. They possessed ghoulish visages, frightening in themselves, at the tops. Maelstroms, eddies, and spirals fell along the margins. The inscriptions proclaimed the more grim aspects of God, in keeping with Puritan sensibilities, quite out of touch the the kumbayas of the present. The weather had weathered away most of the etchings. The markers tipped this way and that; some had fallen to the ground, as if they, themselves, were going the way of their owners; proof that stone was scarcely more mortal than flesh and could not be counted on to provide immortality.
For all the trembling revealed by the light, any other man would have decided to return at day, to have a word with the ghosts on his own terms; but the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was determined to keep at it. He was made of stern stuff. He would face down his fears if it killed him.
His light seemed to linger over one longer than the rest. Later, when the encounter was finished, I returned to read the inscription.
There lieth the body of ye Revd Mr. Abrah. Pierson the first rector of Yale Colledge in Conecticut who deceased March ye 5th 1706/7 aged 61 years.
I couldn’t tell you why this one marker held more interest for the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat than the rest. It was no grander than the rest, although it might be supposed the Reverend Abraham Pierson was important in his day, being the rector of Yale, and all. In fact, the tombstone was far less grand than many others elsewhere in the cemetery, in newer parts, of merchants, financiers, and industrialists. Maybe it was the humility of the marker that interested the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat as much as its great age or anything the inscription proclaimed.
At any rate, in time, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat turned away to examine the other markers. It was then that he thought he heard a noise. Someone speaking King James English. Someone talking as if he had something important to say.
The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat whipped the light back to the Reverend Pierson’s stone, but there was no one there. He listened. My heart was beating so strong I was afraid he would hear me, so I can imagine how hard his heart might have been going and could not imagine how he could have heard anything over it. He stayed steady though, and scanned his light slowly around the grave till he was satisfied no one was there. He turned away, triumphant he had scared a ghost away.
That was when the voice spoke again, loud enough so I could hear it, too. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat was a brave, brave man and stood his ground. His phone, though, which was then functioning as his flashlight, took flight from his hand as he spun around, dashed itself upon a monument, and was smashed to bits. We were all three, the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, the apparition, and me, in complete darkness, for the moon had already gone to bed and the nearest streetlights were far beyond the spire of the Reverend Abraham Pierson’s old church.
“If ye seek a specter, ye may happen on an evil angel in its stead.”
“Say what?” said the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, with sincere surprise. Then, after remembering his purpose, he added, more deliberately, “Come on out and let me see you.”
Oddly enough, the man from whom the voice came could be seen more clearly in the dark than he could when he had the light. He stood behind the grave of Reverend Pierson, and might be supposed to be the spirit of the godly man, himself, for he placed his hand upon his tombstone as one would a pulpit, and paused, with no urgency to speak, as one finds with people of self assurance and authority. He was dressed queerly, like a pilgrim in a school play, in an archaic cap and cape. Although his expression was not full of kindness, it was not full of threat, either. He addressed the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat as he would any member of his congregation who he thought was becoming lost in the ways of sin.
“The Devil and his minions have been known to impose the shapes of innocent persons in their spectral exhibitions.”
“Speak plainly,” said the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, who had clearly lost patience with the dead and believed that fewer words said more. But the ghost was accustomed to his congregation devoting their entire Sunday mornings to him, back before kickoffs were invented and the need to get home before them. The ghost began a long dissertation on New England history.
“We people of God settled in what was once the Devil’s territory. The Devil was exceedingly disturbed, as he perceived the people accomplishing the promise of old made unto our blessed Jesus that He should have the utmost parts of the Earth for his possession. Thus irritated, the Devil hath tried all sorts of methods to overturn this plantation. Never were more satanical devices used for the unsettling of any people than have been employed towards the extirpation of the vine which God had here planted…”
“I don’t need a whole history lesson. I just want to know why you speak to me and what will make you go away.”
The ghost continued, as if he had what he was going to say all worked out and couldn’t read off the script.
“All those attempts of Hell have hitherto been abortive. Having obtained help from God, we continue to this day. The Devil is now making one attempt upon us through you, an attempt more difficult, more surprising, more snarled with unintelligible circumstances than any we have hitherto encountered, an attempt so critical, that, if we get well through, we shall soon enjoy halcyon days with all the vultures of Hell trodden under our feet…”
“So, you’re here to warn me of the Devil. Well, I thank you, rightly, sir, but I got it under control. You may go back into your grave and get some more of that, there, dirt sleep.”
“Thou poor afflicted neighbor. Thou art infested and infected with demons. If thou art provided by grace, thou may arrive at a capacity to discern the shape of thy troubler. The Devil stands ready to fall upon thee, and seize thee as his own, at what moment God shall permit him…”
“I get it. I’m fucked. Fire and brimstone and all that. I’ve heard that from plenty of preachers before you. I suppose you want me to stop swearing, stop drinking, come to church, and stop chasing after women.”
“In a bad way, the inclinations and resolutions of thy wickedness grow stronger and stronger. Thy sin gains strength by being persisted. At first, thy heart smites thee for a lesser transgression. Thou conquers, smothers, keeps under, and gets over, the reluctancies and goeth on to greater and greater degrees of impiety. At length, thou mocks at fear, and like an horse rushing into the battle, thou rushes upon the grossest abominations.”
“OK, so, I’m sorry. I repent.”
“Some uncommon dispensation of God, it may be, awakens ye to consider His ways. Now, thou begins to wish to lead a better Life! Thou bewail thy follies. Thou cry out of them as cursed follies. Thou resolve that thou will no more abandon thyself to such follies. Thou make vows to God, and say, I will no more transgress! But thy vices get head again. Thou quickly become as vicious as thou was before.”
The ghost was really getting into it. He pounded on the tombstone with his hand. He would’ve hurt himself had he been able to feel pain.
“So, what do you want from me? What am I supposed to do? You don’t want me to say I’m sorry. What do you want me to say?”
The ghost of Reverend Abraham Pierson, the first rector of Yale College in Connecticut, fell silent and scrutinized the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat till he seemed to know everything about him, including all the things the the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had not yet told us. I don’t know what powers gave this ghost the ability to do that; whether he was sent by God and had been thoroughly briefed, or whether, as the ghost, himself, warned, he was a representative of none other than Satan. It may be that the Reverend Abraham Pierson, in his life, had uncommon talents as a pastoral counselor, the therapist emeritus of his day, and could discern guilt, repression, and projection. It may be that the ghost just made a lucky guess. When he was done scrutinizing the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, the Reverend Abraham Pierson, delivered his message with all the power a puritan preacher, endowed with talents, and allied with supernatural powers of an unknown origin could command.
“Thou flatters thyself that thou can keep an secret eternal. But thy wicked crime is not concealed from God. The glorious God has astonishing ways to bring out the secret wickedness in which thou indulge thyself.”
Here the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat turned white, whiter than when he first saw the ghost; as white as a ghost when he heard the ghost proclaim:
”Be sure, thy secret Sin shall find ye out.”