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The Gathering

in Spring Forest Cemetery

By Mary Ann CallahanPublished 3 years ago 15 min read
The Gathering
Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash

Spring Forest Cemetery was a lovely wooded resting place nestled in an aging neighborhood of middle-class homes. Its rolling hills reflected the landscape of Upstate New York. Along with the headstones placed there over so many years, the cemetery’s hills were also home to gigantic ancient oaks and maples. Their leaves created vibrant palettes as they changed each year before falling around those headstones, decorating the graves of those resting there with such beauty.

It was a cemetery, but it was also a historic treasure. Many of its graves dated back as far as the early 1700s, before New York was ever a part of the new country that century would produce. Among those many graves were those of the hometown soldiers who had fallen in the many conflicts the years had produced. The oldest were those who had fought with the British in the French and Indian Wars and then against them in the Revolutionary War. The newest was an Army private who lost his life on a road outside Kabul.

This is their story, and it is best told on the darkest nights of late October, when the falling leaves are shrouded by the mist that rises in the early morning hours and settles on the Great Pond near the iron gates that are closed every evening at dusk to keep out those who would do damage in the name of fun.

Spring Forest was also home to a community of woodland creatures whose antics among the trees were often the only noises to be heard in the quiet of the dead. Gray squirrels and chipmunks lived in harmony with fat little groundhogs and even the occasional deer family had been spotted by those who are quick enough to recognize the sight of their white tails receding between the trees. Local residents have long gauged the harshness of the coming winter by the size of the fluffy gray tails of the squirrels who make their home in the cemetery or the activity of the chipmunks who seemed to become bolder as they darted in and out of their underground homes seeking food for their winter larders.

And at the southern end of the Spring Forest Cemetery, where the street ran parallel to the great fence, was an old house. It was built about the time the second wave of souls were finding their homes there. It was a large, three-story Gothic with a sharply peaked roof and gray siding that seemed to be meant to match the tombstones that could be seen from every window on its southern side. Originally planned by Josiah Whitley to be part of a great estate of 100 acres in 1830, it ultimately settled for being the biggest house on a block of middle-class three-bedroom singles and duplexes of no great import. It had once been the proud home of four generations of Whitleys who were fond of large families and whose children found the cemetery a favorite place to play.

Now, its glory faded, it was inhabited by the last remaining Whitley, Gloriana. The octogenarian had never married and when her parents passed, she had retreated to the second floor of the huge house. She never left the house and neighbors speculated that she now spent much of her time reading and caring for several cats. Neighbors just smiled and nodded knowingly about the mysterious “Miss Gloriana”.

They stopped smiling, though, when Miss Gloriana began to stand by an open second-floor window that faced the cemetery in the early hours of the misty fall mornings of late October. She could be heard for blocks, her shrill screams making even the toughest heart skip a beat. Some said they heard snatches of what seemed to be Gloriana in conversation with an unknown figure. Others said it was just the most terrible moaning they ever heard. Whatever it was, it was clear that Gloriana Whitely was losing what was left of her mind.

Soon, wild stories began to spread about why she was behaving so strangely. Some said that as she descended into dementia, she was recollecting a lost love, perhaps someone who might have been buried in the cemetery. Rumors flew that Miss Gloriana had killed him in a fit of jealous rage and her father had secretly buried him along the cemetery fence line to avoid a scandal. Others said that Gloriana had been left at the altar and the culprit was now in plain view of her window, buried next to the wife he left her there to marry.

But even as the rumors were circulating about why she was acting out, the plain truth was that she was getting worse as the days grew shorter. The early morning fits were getting worse, and the neighbors said it could no longer be endured, but what could anyone really do?

Eventually, the frustration over what to do about Miss Gloriana in the wee hours resulted in a tip that was sent to the last local newspaper. It hit the desk of its last local reporter in the form of a little yellow sticky note that had been attached to his laptop screen. It had the name of the cemetery and a phone number with “anonymous” in parenthesis. But as soon as Jonathan Anders saw the cemetery reference, he dismissed it as just another prank. It was, after all, normal for late October. Anyway, who calls in an anonymous tip and then leaves a phone number? He crumpled it and tossed it in the bin beside his desk and forgot about it until his editor stood beside his desk, arms crossed.

“Have you done anything about the crazy Whitley woman by the cemetery?”

Anders’ puzzled look gave the editor his answer.

“Did you check out the story of the screamer by the cemetery? I left a sticky note on your computer the other day”.

Anders pushed back from the desk and stood. “Oh, that was you?” he asked as he scratched his head. “Ah, actually I haven’t had the time”.

The editor’s eyebrows raised in response. Everyone knew that the paper was hanging by a thread because there just wasn’t enough of the kind of news that anyone wanted to read. The excuse didn’t fly.

Okay, okay,” Anders said as he grabbed his jacket and notebook. “I’m going.”

As he pulled up onto the street the Whitely house faced and got out of the car, he felt a bit foolish. What kinds of questions could he ask? And who could he ask them of? The whole street looked empty.

He walked to the wide front porch and used the large knocker that hung from the mouth of a huge brass lion head. He waited. No answer. He knocked again.

After about ten minutes, he turned and left the porch and was on his way to the car when a young man approached from across the street.

You from the paper? Were you trying to see old lady Whitley? She won't answer the door.” He smiled. “She never has, you know. People say she’s crazy as hell, that one.”

Anders took his hand off the car door handle and turned to shake the young man's outstretched hand. “My name’s Brian. I live over there,” He pointed to a house kitty-corner from the old Whitley place. “You here about the old lady and the Gathering?”

Anders leaned up against his car, a puzzled look on his face. “I’m here because of the early morning disturbing of the peace complaints.”

“But that’s not the story man. I told your editor…the truth is she’s not crazy. She’s talking to the soldiers. Trying to get their attention. She sees them and hears them and their stories make her sad. You wanna know what's really going on? You got time? Come with me, man. I’ll walk ya through it." ”

The young man led Anders around the corner, past the tall wrought iron fence enclosing the cemetery to the wide ornate gates. They walked on the broad tar road until they reached the pond on their left. Brian stopped. “Here’s where they gather.” He pointed to the far side of the glassy water. "They all seem to like that side better. Probably a military thing…farther away from possible attack from the road.”

Anders looked askance at his companion. Yeah, right, he thought. But he played along and went with Brin to survey the area.

On his right was the larger part of the cemetery filled with headstones. And on his left, where the young man was pointing, the pond filled the lower ground. There were few graves there. Instead, low-growing lilac bushes grew near the fence. Past the bushes and fences, he could clearly see the north side of the gray Whitley house and the windows that faced the cemetery.

“She stands in that upstairs window, there.” The young man pointed at the second window.

“Who does? Gloriana Whitley? Why?”

“ Yeah, man. Try to keep up, ok? She stands there, looking spooky with that wild white hair and her bony hands waving around as she screams at the top of her lungs."

“ Why?”

“It’s a long story. Wanna go for coffee? You can buy.”

Three hours later, Anders dropped off his new acquaintance and returned to the office. His editor, who was just leaving the office, stopped him. “Where have you been? Had a nice afternoon? “

Anders could only sigh as he pushed past, the pages of his open notebook fluttering. “You are not going to believe the story I got”, he called over his shoulder. It’ll be on your desk the morning.”

The story the editor found the next morning was unique and unexpected. It turned out the original interpretation of the situation with the elderly Miss Whitley was not quite accurate. In fact, it was far more complex. And, in the end, it took far more of Jon Anders’ time than he expected.

For several days following his first report on the world of Gloriana Whitley and the cemetery, Anders divided his time between the archives of the local library during the day and early mornings at, or around, the cemetery.

In the two weeks leading up to Halloween, he published three parts of what he hoped would be a four-part series. The first was a historic view of the old cemetery, with a focus on the lives of the soldiers buried there from the sources he uncovered. The second was the history of the Whitley family from their arrival in the valley in 1820 to the present. And the third was the unveiling of the mysterious stories of the “Gathering” and its ghostly military attendees and the antics of the last of the Whitleys, who now screamed at the cemetery every night from her second-floor window in the wee hours of the morning.

He planned to write the fourth article the day after Halloween. He would camp out near the pond with the paper’s photographer, who was asked to purchase special night vision equipment for the occasion. What they experienced during their stakeout could not be printed, unless, that is, they wanted to seriously damage their journalistic reputations and their claims to sanity.

About eleven o’clock on Halloween night, long after the din of trick or treating had died away, Anders and the photographer scaled the huge wrought iron gates into the cemetery that were now closed and locked. They set up their “observation post” under an old hydrangea bush that stood near the pond. The photographer, a tall man named Russ Hanover, had just moved to the paper from a portrait studio and was visibly nervous. He hadn’t signed on for this.

They moved quietly, crouching down for some unknown reason as they set up their positions. The draping branches of the bush provided cover while still allowing for a clear line of sight. They settled in, using their backpacks as support. They opened their thermoses and waited.

What came next was the stuff of discussions for years to come in the Anders and Hanover families.

Anders was the first to hear it. He turned so quickly that he almost rolled out from under the bush. He put his hand to his lips before Hanover could speak and the two crouched down as low as they could under the branches of the bush.

From all around them came sounds that chilled them to the bone. There was the sound of creaking, as if a hundred hinges long left to rust were being forced open. And he thought he also heard the deep sounds of earth and shovels and the grunts of men straining against heavy loads.

Anders then felt a cold breeze against his cheek. He heard the steady sound of approaching footsteps behind him. His head involuntarily turned toward the noise but his eyes refuse to see what was there. Three men, gray and wispy, in military dress were walking past the bush. He could tell that they were soldiers from long ago because of their high leather boots, the three buttons on their trousers right above the boots, and the long guns they dragged behind them. He peeked out as they passed and saw the parted tails of their coats. But the tri-corner hats were the clincher.

Anders felt a chill that started at his hair and ended in his toes. Wait…were they just some idiots in costumes from the Revolutionary War? Was this a joke? Did Brian set them up?

He turned to his colleague. Hanover’s face was visibly pale in the wispy light of the full moon. He tilted his head as if to say, “what the hell is going on here?”

The living then saw more men, ghostly men, gather from all corners of the cemetery around the pond. Some marched crisply, their rifles slung over their shoulders proudly. Others walked slowly, their guns dragging behind them. Some were in full dress uniforms while others were in uniforms stained with blood and caked with mud. Anders could tell that some of the clothes and the gear the figures carried came from at least two centuries. As the mist began to cover the water, two of the youngest, dressed in camouflage, lighted a fire that did not burn with wood, and many began to warm their thin hands over it.

The living watched with gaping mouths as the figures became clearer. While some of the uniforms were so dirty or tattered that they could not be recognized and dated, several figures were distinctive. Even in the dim light of the harvest moon, the white hair and beard of a Union solider stood out against his dark uniform. To those familiar with such things, his broad-brimmed hat trimmed with a tied cord indicated that he had been an officer, ostensibly one used to authority by the way he walked up and down among the men as they settled around the fire.

The Union officer eventually managed to get everyone settled around the fire. Some used old, tattered knapsacks or blanket rolls as seats if they had them. Most of the men did not, however. They sat on the ground, arms hugging bended knees as they gazed into the flames. Soon, a harmonica began to softly play a slow, sad, rendition of “Over There” as some seemed to be brushing away tears from ghostly eyes. The men under the hydrangea could not see who played the tune, but soon they thought they could catch snatches of conversations that began gently, sometimes punctuated by eerie laughter that accompanied the music. But most of the talk seemed to be the serious talk of men who had experienced serious, horrific things.

Anders also thought he heard several deep, muffled sobs, but he could not be sure. Through it all, though, he could clearly hear the shrill voice of Gloriana Whitley screaming franticly for someone named “Joe”.

The Union officer moved slowly to the front of the group, the heels of his boots almost touching the edge of the pond. He held up his hand and then saluted. The soldiers immediately stood up and returned the salute. He seemed to be making a speech, but his back was to the living and he could not be heard clearly. But the men seemed to be listening carefully and at the end of the speech, they sent eerie shouts of “huzzah” or “hooray” into the misty air.

Anders noticed that as the men resumed their places on the ground, the officer called to two of the men and spoke quickly to them. The men saluted and moved quickly to the place where the living men were hiding. They walked around the hydrangea, and Hanover swore he saw the tip of a shiny bayonet ruffle the branch nearest to his right shoulder. He later said that the hair that stood on his neck was the only thing that was mobile at that moment. Anders remembered that a mud-covered boot came so close to him that he almost fainted.

The soldiers walked around the bush a couple of times, bending down and peering past the branches with watery eyes that met those of the living. They did not seem to have sight, however, because they made no further moves toward the two quivering men hiding there. Finally, they returned to the group, saluted the officer, and spoke quickly to him. He nodded and motioned for them to sit down again.

Reassured now that they were not being spied upon, the gathering became more animated. Soon there was laughter and some playful wrestling next to a raucous card game and what seemed to be and kind of dart game played with bayonets.

Anders motioned to Hanover and pointed to a group of what seemed to be World War II-era GIs from their helmets, khaki jackets and boots. They were a small distance from the rest of the gathering. They were smoking cigarettes and held what looked like beer bottles. One of them had a pencil in his ear which he took out from time to time to mark a white paper. They could hear what sounded like laughter as bets were being made.

“Yo, I make it four to one to go.” one voice could be heard saying.

“Nah, man, he’s not goin’. He’s staying. You don’t know nothing.”

The group was oblivious to the others, seemingly caught up in their bets. But one of them seemed not to be taking part in the fun. Instead, he turned often in the direction of the Whitley house, only to be brought back every time to face the group and their jibes. The living heard phrases such as “Come on, Joe, it won’t do any good to look back. She’s not a part of you anymore, man. So, whadda ya say? You goin' or not?” The soldier they called Joe seemed to hang his head sadly.

But a loud noise from the larger group turned the attention of the living toward it. The ghostly men stood and were performing a strange ritual of twirling their rifles in unison that produced a sound like angry thunder. And after it, the ghostly soldier men shook the hands of those closest to them. Then, they slowly turned and began to leave. They went, each in his own direction, many looking back at least once to wave at their retreating companions.

Anders and Hanover remained frozen long after the last ghostly figure had disappeared. They later claimed it was the cold that made them stiff, but they knew they were lying.

“Whoa…man..” Hanover began when he could speak.

Anders put his hand up to stop him There was nothing that could be said, not now. He struggled to his feet and forced himself to move toward the pond. As he approached the site where the fire had been, he found no traces of ashes. As he grew closer, he did not even find places where the knapsacks or bedrolls might have pressed down the grass. And then he saw it, a small white corner of what seemed to be paper sticking out from under a dandelion leaf.

As Hanover staggered toward him, Anders picked up what seemed to be a dog-eared photograph. It was the black and white, slightly faded, figure of a dark-haired woman in a peplum suit with a floppy brimmed hat and platform high-heeled shoes with ankle straps. She was sitting on a stone wall with a bottle of coke in her right hand and a cigarette in her left. She was smiling broadly, looking at the camera, her head cocked slightly toward the cigarette.

Anders turned the photo over and read the inscription on the back before handing it to Hanover. It read:

“For you, dearest Joe, with all my love…Gloriana”

Short Story

About the Creator

Mary Ann Callahan

I live in Upstate New York, one of the most beautiful places in the United States. But I also have spent many years working in some of the most broken places on Earth.

My hope is that those expereinces will produce great stories .

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    Mary Ann CallahanWritten by Mary Ann Callahan

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