by David Dunwoody
“The tenets of the Ministry of Grave Riders state that ‘You shall not ride unknown or unmarked graves; they must be marked and their occupants known by the Ministry. If you choose to go grave riding with an unknown, you do so at your own peril and without the blessing or protection of the Ministry’.”
“It’s your funeral, sister.”
“I always said I’d sing at my own funeral. Ain’t that the way.”
Tina, “Sassy T” to the very end, winked at her sibling and slid down the rail, down down down to the bottom of the steps and into the forested rows of the Groendrum Cemetery. She let a verse slip from her cherry lips as she came off the rail and lit onto a stone pathway which led into the darkest heart of the graveyard:
Ain’t that the way, sister?
Ain’t that the truth?
Got a no-good cheatin’ lyin’ man, understand,
An’ he put nothin’ under your roof.
The leaves overhead seemed to sway with the lyrics, a dark green canopy over gray stones, dotting an expanse of damp, decaying earth that had spread like a cancer across the whole of Groendrum Hill. The musk of an approaching rain was on the air and it made Tina all the more excited as she skipped down the rows to the grave she had chosen.
Her sister came along eventually, taking the steps instead of riding the rail, clip-clopping over every stone on the path in her church shoes. Vetta had her schoolbooks all wrapped up in a jacket that Kenny Goode had left in her passenger seat the night before. She glared through her eyeglass lenses at the darkening sky with its promise of rain and fat, unflattering drops of water clinging to her glasses, hiding her beautiful brown eyes from the world.
It was really dark now, and the sounds on the edge of Tina’s hearing could have been either the engines of cars going home or thunderclouds rumbling and getting ready to make rain-babies. She sat on the dirt mound and tossed her hair about her head. “Vetta, start reading from the Ministry book-”
“Now, am I supposed to read from the Ministry book if you’re on an unknown grave?”
“The chants are gonna have to be read one way or another,” Sassy T shot back, drumming her fists on the earth. “I just don’t get the Ministry’s blessing, I guess.”
“Or protection. You don’t forget that.”
“I didn’t! But I didn’t wanna say it.”
“I’ll read from the Ministry book.”
Tina closed her eyes and placed her palms flat against the dirt, taking in every sensation of every inch of textured earth.
We summon thee, if thou art able,
To light the lights and set the table,
Come up from your cool brown box
And take a ride with-
“Tina Fox!” the girl on the grave called.
The grave THUMP-THUMPED! underneath her. Tina squealed as bits of soil rolled down the sides and into the lining of her skirt. Then a spectral line rose up her spine and jacked into her brain and she was RIDING!!
RIGHT INTO HELL!!
Tina’s body flopped back on the grave as the soul beneath took possession.
Dropping the books, Vetta fell to her knees and tried to replace them in order while watching her sister’s eyes roll. She couldn’t tell if it was a good ride or not. Grave riding, swapping places with the dead if you had that ability, that extra little nugget in your brain — it was a blessing and a curse. Many truths could be told, many great things could be accomplished, but there was always, always a chance of running into a nasty soul that was not known to the Ministry and, if you were to take that chance for yourself, throwing caution to the wind, you could very well end up lying in a cold grave for a week or an eon.
Well, that’s what happened to Tina today.
Bye bye little Tina
I really like you and all but
The Tinabody sat up and growled, “Ain’t no refund on this ride, sister.”
Vetta screamed “I KNEW YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE DONE THIS!!” and all her books fell out of order again.
The Tinabody picked one up. “Essaying New Dimensions. What kinda crap are you kids into these days?”
“YOU’RE NOT TINA!!”
“And you ain’t Abraham Lincoln, but what am I gonna do about it?”
“I want my sister back, please PLEASEEEEEEE....” Vetta fell to the grass as a light rain began to patter down.
“Wanna bargain? I got me young blood, young skin, and I’m a woman! What’re you gonna sell me that ain’t better than living life as a gorgeous woman while Tina’s soul toils in my damp grave?”
Vetta was nonplussed. It was true; this guy was set for life. Why in the blue Hell had they ever considered a grave ride like this? Tina, oh God, Tina, she had to have an answer, an ace up her blessed sleeve... “Well, sir,” Vetta stammered, looking at her little sister’s body, “is there some task or vengeance that we can help you with?”
“Hmm. Lemme think on that one,” came the response, a voice like tired coffee breath whistling over gray whiskers, except in a little teenage girl’s body. “Know what? I could actually use some help with... tell you what. You want Sassy T back in her skinclothes, you help me right a wrong downtown.”
“Downtown? But our curfew is-”
“Her mortal soul, goddamn it!!”
* * *
The restaurant district was catching the last shaken fists of the piddling rainstorm that had dragged itself over the city. “Number one,” the Tinabody said, “you need to know it and you need to get over it — this is not cat country.”
She pointed to the skinned feline hanging from a streetlamp, its dead limbs like little socks sashaying in the breeze. “These people got a hate — not appetite — for cats not seen since the early days of Ulthar. The ferals are all gutted and skinned, hung out as voiceless banshees screaming to their sisters — stay away from here!”
“Now then,” the Tinabody went on, “my sister’s story takes place in this part of town, and it does involve a damn cat. See, she passed not too long ago and, unlike me, she is known by the Ministry — and she was laid to rest in that graveyard just off of Fifth Street, just east of here.
“Don’t ask me how I know all this when I’ve been sittin’ in my damp grave — I know. I love my sister more than anything and I know what’s been goin’ on with her.”
As Vetta listened to the raspy voice coming from Tina’s throat, she nodded in understanding. She started to think that maybe, just maybe, this all was meant to happen, that these siblings were meant to run across one another in such an unusual way. It tempered the fluttering of her heart, for sure.
“A few weeks ago,” said the Tinabody, “a mangy little cat walked over my sister’s grave and made some mewlin’ kind of cat sound. You know the weird things cats say when they don’t think anyone’s around. And dammit, whatever this cat said, it was what it took to rouse my sister from her grave and put her in that cat’s body!”
Vetta jammed her fist against her teeth, trying so so hard not to laugh. Tinabody struck a venomous pose and stared her down. “How do you like that? Sister’s trapped in a cat in a place where they flay the poor bastards and lay ‘em wide open!”
“I... I’m sorry,” Vetta stammered. The Tinabody stamped her size fives. “We have to find that cat ‘fore it’s slaughtered! If that happens, my darling sister’s soul is gonna be lost forever in one of those damn billion purgatories! And I know the Ministry won’t help me ‘cause I never registered, and...” The rain was letting up.
Tears started streaming down the Tinabody’s cheeks. Vetta wanted to hold her sister but she knew she couldn’t. Did she want to hold this ornery old man? The district lights were all glaring neon, painting the girls up like cartoon characters in some godforsaken back alley. Vetta looked down at the Tinabody. “How can we find the cat?”
“There’s a man. A man who knows cats, knows ‘em intimately, not in the sick way but in a spiritual sense. Irony has it that he lives right smack dab in the middle of town where the felines suffer day and night; he drinks down their pain and inks his books with it. They say he’s counted every cat since they ruled Egypt...
“His name is Chith. Just like that, chith. Name ain’t pleasant to say, but he’s a miracle worker. C’mon.”
The Tinabody led Vetta through a narrow field of shadowy buildings, all CLOSED all KEEP OUT all STAY AWAY. There was a red door that led into a tiny brick building sandwiched between the backsides of a couple of noodle houses. The Tinabody opened that door.
Mister Chith looked up from a small round table. His face was a yawning hole of scar tissue. There were no eyes to focus on, no slack jaw to avoid... it was a perfect hollow and it was alive.
Dressed in yellow robes, he bade them enter and they sat around the table. Vetta stacked her books at her side.
The Tinabody explained the situation that her, or his, sister was in, and Mister Chith sat motionless while the little girl spoke into the void of his face, that great hole like a phonograph that took in sound and wind and pain. When she was done, she sat back and waited quietly for his response.
Mister Chith raised a fountain pen in his right hand. It was a delicate instrument cut from bamboo and fixed with bits of silver and twine. This, he pressed to a thick sheet of parchment paper.
He wrote an address.
His payment was five dollars and a lock of Tina’s hair, which the Tinabody gave without hesitation but Vetta knew her little sis was gonna go nuts when she saw it.
The address wasn’t far, but they had to hurry. The cat was going to be used in a betting match, pitted against another stray; and the soul inside Tina knew that his sister would surely lose, and be torn apart and lost in the ether.
Vetta led the way because she was older (in appearance) and she paid for admission and made a bet on the match with money she would’ve used to get her prom dress. The room was a hot, stinking pit of screaming men with hay in the air, stinging eyes already laced with sweat. It was Hell, the sort of Hell that Vetta imagined Tina’s soul in at that very moment. This had to be done.
A fat old man bellowed and raised a cat into the air. It was black and its fur was matted with scab tissue and refuse. Its dark face was filled with a hateful fear because that was all it had ever known in its life. Truly it was a creature from Hell, Vetta thought, her eyes brimming with tears as Hell revealed its many awful faces all around her.
The other cat was presented — “That’s her!” cried the Tinabody. A short man groped her blossoming breasts. “Come outside. Come with me.”
“I’ll slit your satchel and tear the very roots out with my teeth, you creep,” she growled. The man drew away.
The other cat was thin and gray. Its bones showed through its hide and in its eyes Vetta saw the panic and misery of the lost soul trapped within. With the felines deposited in a cage at center, the fat man announced that betting was over, and the fight would begin.
In this Hell, raining sweat and hayseeds, with curses being shouted in foreign tongues and little hands groping at every exposed slice of flesh, Vetta felt teardrops pattering on her filthy hands and wished for a great big rain to come down and knock the glasses off her face and sweep her off this continent.
The Tinabody leapt into the cats’ cage. “You stop this!”
There was a stunned laughter. The little girl grabbing the gray cat and screaming bloody damnation at a room full of drunks drew a hideous applause. There were men there that immediately decided to rape her and began pushing through the crowds, eyes meeting across the room, understanding.
Vetta screamed, and the short man that had accosted the Tinabody ground himself against her, making threats.
It was hard to hear, above the din of the crowd, the cry that came from Mister Chith’s face. It was hard to hear not only because of the volume but because of the way he screamed: his entire face opened wide and unleashed a high-pitched whinny that sent rats scattering under the floorboards. It was such a high pitch that in fact, no one really heard it at all; they were only aware of the answer to this call, which they would have noted as the first event.
Which was one hundred cats crashing through the ceiling and driving every single little thin blade-like claw into the flesh of a wicked man’s face.
Then they sprang out and slashed and screamed and it was bloody pandemonium.
Mister Chith had pulled Vetta and the Tinabody underneath the stage upon which the cage and audience was set; it was a mere façade raised over a warehouse floor thick with sawdust and rats’ leavings. They moved quickly and quietly, each holding his breath, paying no mind to the syrupy rain that came through the floorboards and the collective, tornado-like scream that was tearing around overhead.
Eventually there was a door, and outside; fresh evening air, soft grass, a sky that looked kindly upon them.
Mister Chith took the thin gray cat into his arms. “Can you take care of her, then?” the Tinabody asked. Mister Chith nodded and set off down the street.
“It’s really late,” Vetta said.
“Yes it is.”
“I really wanna see my sister again.”
“So do I.”
“What do we do?”
The Tinabody smiled, “We’ll just walk back to Groendrum Cemetery, back to the grave of one William Stamp, and we’ll get things straightened out. And maybe I ought to get myself registered with the Ministry, so I can interact with people proper.”
Vetta’s big brown eyes studied the cracks in the road. “They won’t let you, after what happened back there.”
“I think some of those people are dead.”
“Hmm. I guess. I guess, I guess I just go back to lying in my cold grave, damp, dark, waitin’ for some dumb girl to hop on it. I guess that’s my story. Always been on the losing side.”
“I could come visit you sometime. We could. Tina and me. We know you’re not bad. It’s okay if the Ministry doesn’t know ya.”
“You say that, but...”
“Don’t promise,” the Tinabody said, hugging herself to keep from sobbing. “Don’t promise unless you mean it, swear to the Lord.”
Vetta took her little sister’s hand.
“I swear to the Lord.”
“And I want back in my grave.”
Copyright © 2008 by Dave Dunwoody