by Jeanine Marie Vaughn
Sister Sentinel watched from atop her own grave-marker as they lowered her sister into the ground. There was no ceremony, just their mother, the undertaker, and two diggers. Their mother’s eyes were full of tears. But Sister Sentinel did not cry nor did she stay long.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as she departed.
As soon as the other living had performed their duties, they left too. Sister Sentinel stood alone. After a while, she picked up the shovel and held it upside down. She rubbed the dirt off of it until the gray surface was shiny. Staring into the the reflective metal, she saw only the grass and gravestone behind her.
“Hello, my friend.” The breath she exhaled frosted the concave surface. The shovel said nothing. “She has come back to us. Did you see?” The shovel stayed silent.
With her head tilted back, Sister Sentinel closed her eyes and inhaled the windy dusk. After hugging the shovel to her chest, she lay it gently on her sister’s grave.
Kiernan, the sister of Sister Sentinel, awoke inside her grave. She felt a weight upon her chest. It reminded her of her cat, Ginger. Such a tiny tabby, yet so weighty in sleep. She pushed against it, but it wouldn’t move.
“Not a cat,” she thought. “More like a rock, a stone, the earth…”
Sister Sentinel watched as Kiernan struggled beneath the dirt against the shovel resting six feet above her heart. After several hours, Kiernan’s ghost gave up and cried beneath the soil.
“Now we wait.” Sister Sentinel hopped off the tombstone. She sat cross legged beside the shovel, stroking its face. While she weighed nothing, her presence added a burden to her sister’s chest. Sister Sentinel closed her eyes as the remembering began.
The first remembering was of her death.
She’d only been nine years old for an hour when she fell down the icy steps leading into the backyard. The tumble shouldn’t have been fatal, but her mother’s skate had slipped from its hook the night before and lay blade up at the bottom of the steps. It sliced her throat and the pain of breathing in blood was something she remembered even in death.
Sister Sentinel shivered as she lay on the ground, her arms wrapped around the shovel. She didn’t want to remember how she died. She wanted to recall her life. But it had been so long that her own remembering had been lost. She didn’t even remember her own name. The only memory that stayed with her was the dying one. She needed her sister’s memories.
A moan drifted through the ground as the full moon set and the sky grew light. Sister Sentinel closed her eyes and smiled.
“It won’t be long, dear sister.” She rolled away from the shovel and pressed her face against the dirt as if it was glass she could see through. She blinked, her spectral eyelashes fluttering against the grass as thoughts drifted up through the dirt.
The second remembering was a vision of her mother.
The smell of sage and auburn hair streaming behind a narrow face much younger than the crone who had just buried her second daughter. In this memory, the woman knelt by the grave of her freshly buried first daughter. A young, very much alive Kiernan stood behind her, four years old and ashen. Her braids were knotted, but her black dress was well pressed as was her mother’s. The mother tossed back her head and let out a keening wail. She pounded her chest as tears streaked her dark face.
“Mi culpa! Mi culpa! Mi culpa!” She cried, letting out another wail. She threw herself forward onto the freshly turned earth.
The girl standing behind her mother rolled her eyes and crossed her arms.
Sister Sentinel sat up and wished it gone. These were not the memories she needed. No. She needed what came before and what came after. She needed the memories of the newly dead. She pressed her ear against the ground.
The next memory was not her own. It drifted up through the earth. Kiernan was even younger, three maybe? She was hiding in a closet watching their dad hurriedly pack a suitcase while their mother was out. When he saw her in the closet, he looked so sad.
“It’s not you, little one. Neither you nor your sister are to blame. Please be good for your mother. She’s going to need your help.”
He hugged her then picked up his bags and left.
Sister Sentinel blinked hard. She wasn’t going to cry. She hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to her father and always thought it was her fault. She had needed those words more than her sister had. It wasn’t fair.
The darkness rose with a sky full of clouds. The wind shrilled through the small spaces in the statuary, as if the praying saints and guardian angels were singing a discordant song. Sister Sentinel felt that this was evidence of the statues whispering and plotting against her.
“I can hear you,” she rasped. But instead of railing at them as she’d always done in the past, she smiled and stroked her shovel. To the shovel, she said, “they don’t know our secret, do they?”
The air stilled around her as moonlight bathed the cemetery. Instead of laying on the ground above her sister’s coffin, she sat upon her own gravestone. The earth beside her grave was unturned.
Frowning slightly, Sister Sentinel clutched her shovel. She didn’t know this memory. She squeezed her eyes shut remembering more as the thoughts floated up from under the earth.
Three kids that were almost teenagers were walking towards her grave. Her sister followed behind them. When they reached Sister Sentinel’s grave, Kiernan opened the bag she was carrying and handed out supplies. They set four candles around the grave, one at the foot, two on each side, and Kiernan set the last one on the gravemarker. Kiernan lit each candle with great ceremony, casting stern looks at the two boys and the girl who kept giggling. They smelled of decomposing lilacs. After three ties at lighting the candle on top of the gravemarker, Kiernan moved it to the base of the headstone and lit it.
Kiernan took four bottles out of her bag and handed three around, keeping one for herself. They each stood by a candle. Kiernan spoke and they each poured the contents of their vials into the earth above the Sentinel’s coffin with Kiernan pouring her bottle last. The wind blew and all the candles went out. The four almost teenagers watched the ground in great anticipation, but nothing happened. The Sentinel knew that deep below the earth her past self was beginning to wake. But humans have not the patience for the dead. Desperate, Kiernan lit all the candles again and said a garbled incantation. After another hour or so, her friends departed. Kiernan stood alone as dawn fell on her. Angry, she kicked the candles and left.
She was not there to see the fall leaves ignite. She was not there when the moon was truly full, though unseen through the dawn light. She was not there to see the trembling specter of her sister rise from her grave. She was not there to hear the keen that permeated the cemetery as the ghost blazed.
Sister Sentinel quaked. “You did this to me,” she hissed at the grave, touching the scars along her ethereal flesh. She hadn’t known that ghosts existed much less could burn before that night. Below her, Kiernan could not hear the words, but she felt the hatred. Sister Sentinel, satisfied with the scent of dread wafting from below, sat back and caressed her shovel. “Just one more memory before the moon is dark.”
It was several years later and she saw herself wandering the edges of her graveyard. Her graveyard was how she’d come to view it. She had great power here, even though it was her prison. She could not leave, but no ghost dared enter without her say and no human stayed long if she deemed their presence harmful. The ghosts called her the Sentinel while the humans made up all sorts of names for her – the Falling Fog, the Wail of Blood, Resurrección de Maria, the Gray Mother – and with each name came a story. She’d given up trying to find out who she was or had been and had just about forgotten everything of her living life when she saw Kiernan again.
“Kiernan, which of these lovely markers is your sister’s?” A boy, who was prettier than any girl Sister Sentinel had ever seen, swooped past the hooded figure of her sister to look at the grave markers. His charcoal lined eyes were greener than a hummingbird’s wing and his mouth was a richer red than a swallow’s tongue. The Sentinel frowned. Maybe it was the way he swooped his purple cloak that had her thinking in birds. “Is it this one here?” He stood before the largest monument in the cemetery. It was a crumbling statue of an angel whose mouth formed a reverent O to the sky. The boy fell to his knees and stared up in adulation. “She’s so beautiful!” He kneeled and touched his lips to the rotting stone of her toes.
Ignoring him, Kiernan went straight to Sister Sentinel’s grave. She crouched down and stroked the stone. “I will be buried here, alongside my sister.” Her words smelled of decaying bones.
Kiernan slipped the hood from her face. The boy’s birdlike beauty dulled in contrast to Kiernan’s auburn hair and crow black eyes. She once again set the candles all around her sister’s grave. Before lighting them, she crooked a finger at the bird boy and he came to her. He knelt in the center of the grave as Kiernan lit the candles and drew a circle with a knife then filled the shallow divot with salt. He crawled to be at Kiernan’s feet as she spoke words of incantation. The Sentinel understood that her sister trying to raise her from the grave. Kiernan, falling silent, stared at the boy. She pushed him onto his back with her boot causing his cloak to fall open. Underneath, he was naked and aroused. The Sentinel, still innocent, looked away. Kiernan threw open her cloak revealing that she was also naked. She sat on the gravestone and crooked her finger at the boy. Still on his knees he crawled to her and hugged her knees. Kiernan hummed and swayed as she spread her legs. He pressed his face between her thighs. Her song became more and more impassioned until she climaxed.
The boy smiled, smearing his black lipstick as he wiped his face. “Now me,” he panted. She petted his hair and shook her head. He glared at her, then grabbed her hand and pulled her towards him.
“No!” Kiernan slapped him, stumbled backwards, and extinguished one of the candles. “Now look what you’ve done.” She growled. With her back to him, she knelt and tried to relight the candle.
“Fine!” He snarled, jumping up. Jerking off, he spread his sticky slime all over the Sentinel’s headstone. Kiernan laughed.The boy swore at her and stormed out of the cemetery, kicking over two more candles. Kiernan howled, ran at him, and tackled him to the ground. They rolled around, knocked out another candle. He flipped her off of him, cracking her head against her sister’s grave stone.
“Oh shit!” He swore, scooting away from her. His head jerked all around. Seeing no one, he ran out of the cemetery.
“And now you are here,” said Sister Sentinel, petting the shovel then putting it on her sister’s grave. “When the moon finishes her cycle and is full, I will remove the shovel so you can rise from your grave as I did.” Sister Sentinel smiled up at the starless, moonless sky. “See you soon, sister.”