Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls


When the bell rang beside his ear he jerked straight up from his slumber against the tombstone. Maybe it was the wind? God, let it be the wind! His eyes flew to the cord that emerged from a copper tube in the freshly-turned earth. The cord was moving. He’d have to dig. He’d promised.

When Edwin’s mother finally died, his sorrow was tempered by a big dollop of relief. Mrs. Benjamin had had a lengthy last illness, a horror story of diminished mobility, dementia and bedsores. How she could continue to live in such a state was a puzzle, but live she did until she and everyone longed for the end. Although she seldom seemed to know who or where she was, one thought remained in her addled brain: fear of being buried alive. She’d discussed it with Edwin many times. As she drew her last breath, she locked eyes with him and whispered, “Promise.”

Edwin knew her fear wasn’t totally irrational. The pronouncement of death was an inexact science in the year of our Lord, 1816. When there was no response to the usual diagnostic tools –  a pinprick, a mirror held under the nose, an ear pressed to the chest – burial took place as soon as possible. Mistakes were rare, but they happened.

The well-off and especially fearful had escape coffins made to give themselves a fighting chance if revival happened underground. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick designed a coffin with a window, an air tube and a lock, with the key to repose in a special pocket of his shroud. Other coffins, like Mrs. Benjamin’s, were built with cords that rang a bell on the surface. That was the signal for someone topside to start digging.

Edwin had promised to keep watch above his mother’s grave for forty-eight hours so he’d be right there with his spade if needed. Now he stared at the gently swinging little bell, his body drenched in terror-sweat. Dig up his poor mother who had been needing to die for at least ten years? Not dig her up and let her die a second time alone and in panic? There was no good solution. Flinging off his cape, Edwin stuck the spade in the soft ground and began excavating. He dug to the gentle tinkling of the bell.

The spade hit the top of the coffin with a metallic clunk. Jumping down into the hole, he  pried open the lid, clamping his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. Inside his mother lay in peaceful repose, as dead as she could possibly be. Then what or who rang the bell?

Reemerging above ground, Edwin scanned the area around the grave carefully. His peripheral vision caught a dark figure darting behind the tombstone. Raising his lantern high, he peered around the marker. Two glowing yellow eyes caught the light.  A paw snaked out and flicked the bell, sending a ripple along the cord.

Ting-a-ling. Meow.

Edwin took that black cat home with him. He named it Dead Ringer.





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