Dead Reckoning

October 13, 1990|By Helen Chappell

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland.---MIGHTY WHITE HUNTER Nimrod Hooper and I have been on the outs all summer about how tight he is, especially when it comes to sharing his fresh tuna with his best female buddy. But that is a whole other story. When he called last week and asked did I want to drop by and pick up a packet of fresh froze tuna, I knew he was ready to sign the treaty.

Hunting season is upon us, and that generally puts him in a good mood. You can tell he's in a good mood; he starts clearing his freezer of the summer's fish to make room for the impending waterfowl he's so sure he's going to get. This boy is tighter than last winter's jeans.

''Well,'' Nimrod said, when I was seated in his kitchen, holding my packet of fresh-frozen tuna. ''It's been like this.'' He removed his cap to run a hand over his thick, chestnut hair. A large bag of rock salt sat beside him.

I leaned back and got comfortable, knowing there was a story coming.

''Nothing good ever comes of disturbing the dead,'' he began.

''No argument there. You can educate 'em till they're blue in the face, but the dead always comes out in them.'' I replied. He grunted to show he was not amused.

He yawned, pushing his cap back down over his eyes. ''I was called out to a fire late last night. Didn't get much sleep, and I doubt anyone else did either. Not after what happened. I ain't figured it out yet, and I'm thinking that I don't intend to.'' He shifted, still glaring beneath his hat as if I would not believe what he had to say.

''Reason you ain't seen much of me all summer is that we been remodeling a house for a woman over to Presque Isle. A right artsy-craftsy type, the sort that builds little painted wooded pigs and hangs gravevine wreaths all over the door. Had them bendover things with the polka-dot behinds all over the yard. House fulla that female bric-a-brac that makes you scared to turn around, little china frogs and decoys with flowers -- flowers! -- on them.''

''We made her cathedral ceilings and skylights and whatnot, but my partner and I drew the line when it came to making the floor she wanted. There are some things I will not do. Not much, but some things.'' He crossed his arms, as if daring me to make a smart crack.

''You know how you can go out in the fields and woods around old farms and find old graveyards, all grown over and half forgotten?''

''I grew up on a farm on Ross Neck with two or three of them. We used to play in them when we were little,'' I said.

Nimrod nodded. ''Play in 'em, that's one thing, but this crazy woman decided she didn't much like the old graveyard on her property. She wanted to plant her bendovers on the spot. So she went out with a crowbar and started to pry up all those all headstones off the graves. She decided she was going to lay them into her kitchen floor, like flagstones! Said it was quaint and charming!''

''Quaint and charming to her, maybe, but we told her we were not about to mess with any old headstones in any way shape or fashion. Well, she pouted and she fumed, but in the end, she laid 'em in herself, set 'em down on her kitchen floor in cement. Must have been rough cold walking, but I told her no good would come of it.

''She don't listen, these foreigners from the Western Shore never do. So we finished that job up right quick, got paid and got out of there fast. There was something too damn weird for me about people's headstones set in the floor.''

He drew a hand across his mouth. ''I didn't think too much more about it till the fire whistle blew last night and the call was over to her house. When we got there, the whole place was ablaze, but it wasn't like your regular house fire, it was this sort of sickly, bluish fire like marsh gas.''

I nodded, to show that I knew what he was saying, even if I wasn't sure I believed it.

He pressed on, determined. ''The whole house went to ashes before we could even get the pumper going,'' he said slowly. ''I remodeled that place, and I know that it was as fireproof as you could get on a new frame house. It shouldn't have burned like that. And not that bright, blue flame. I never saw anything like that flame in all my years on the V.F.D.

''But the worst thing was when we found her. Hal'n. I swear afore Gawd she was laying on the kitchen floor, a crispy critter and no sight to see, either. Hell, I saw plenty in 'Nam that I don't like to think to much about, but this was worse than that. But the worse thing was this.''

''Was what?'' I asked. Small cold chills were going down my spine.

Nimrod pulled his cap down over his eyes. ''Alla them tombstones was gone, just the outlines left in the floor where she'd laid 'em into cement. they were all gone. Damn it, I know and you know that cold stone don't get up and walk! But . . .''

''But what,'' I croaked.

''On the way back, in the dawn. I rode past that old cemetery, and all them stones were back up where they'd always been, as white and clean as the day they were put up there, no moss, no overgrowth, nothing.''

From the counter, he picked his bag of salt. ''So, couple of the boys and me, we're goin over there to salt the ashes. Just to keep anything else from walking away, if you get my meaning,'' He punched my shoulder affectionately.

''So I got to get going. Enjoy your tuna fish.''

''Right,'' I said.

*Helen Chappell, a novelist, spins yarns on the Eastern Shore.

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