The Caretaker’s Tale
A short story by Michael R. Lockridge
Thomas Cranston made his way carefully among the stones in his garden. He knew the way well. He had been tending this particular garden for over twenty years. Though the night was moonless, he did not stumble. He knew the location of every tombstone by heart. He was soon at the backdoor of the caretaker’s cottage. His home.
Once inside he put down his burden. He looked proudly at the large dining room table he had assembled in his living room. It dominated the limited space. It was old and worn, and well past its prime. He had recovered it from a nearby restaurant that was undergoing demolition. It seemed so very appropriate.
The table had been set with great care. Every cracked plate, each chipped cup had been collected with much thought. Mismatched silverware, old and tarnished, was laid out with the aged china. Things that had see the end of their days, culled from trashcans and dumpsters. Each selected because they were just right.
Recycled tablecloth, seventeen place settings, various resurrected serving dishes. One place setting for each of the guests that had inspired him. Sixteen novels written in the last twenty years. Not bad, for a humble cemetery caretaker.
The thought of the feast brought him back to the burden he had so recently been carrying. From the large sack he drew forth an old can. He held the can over one of the serving dishes, and poured the contents into the dish. Though nothing appeared to come from the can, he took great care to spill none of it.
From discarded cans, jars and bottles he poured nothing onto plate after plate. Creamed corn, stewed tomatoes, string beans, and winter peas. The containers were all empty, but the labels still decried the former contents. A feast long gone, being prepared with care.
Last of all, Thomas extracted from the bag the bony carcass of what might once have been a good-sized turkey. This he placed on the large serving platter that occupied the center of the table. Oh, and lest he forget, he brought from a side cupboard several empty wine bottles.
His preparations were complete. Thomas gathered the twice-emptied cans and other containers, and put them back in the sack. This he stowed in a garbage can just outside the back door of his little cottage.
Thomas then went to his dresser, and laid out the fine clothing he had gathered for this event. He had worn the fine suit only once, after the publication of his first book. He had been given an award, and his publisher encouraged him to dress well for the gala event at which he was to receive the token of his success. The press of humanity was almost too much for him to take, and he vowed to never attend another such event.
His publisher’s admonitions to promote his books fell on deaf ears. Finally, their marketing department played up Thomas Cranston’s eccentricity. Whatever the case, all of his books had done well. Now he would wear this suit to honor those who inspired his writing.
Dressed, with his remaining hair put in place, he was ready. Thomas went to the front door, and opened it wide. The cool darkness outside was inviting. He breathed deeply, and then went back to the table. On the way he turned out all of the lights. He sat at the head of the table, and waited.
Slowly, the darkness began to slip inside the room. Though the room was already dark, the darkness began to take on a depth. Darkness upon darkness. Tendrils of darkness. Strange fingers reaching into the room, caressing everything. Engulfing everything.
The darkness engulfed the table. It slipped around Thomas’ feet, and gathered itself to envelope him. Still he waited. Thomas began to smile.
Points of light appeared above the table. The darkness withdrew from the points of light. They were flames, candle flames. The stubs of candles in the holders on the table were kindled. Now they were fat, tall candles in beautifully matched candelabras. They cast a warm glow on a fabulous feast.
The table was laden with dish after fabulous dish of the most wonderful foods. They smoked and steamed, and filled the small cottage with wondrous aromas. Presiding over all of the delicacies was a plump brown roasted turkey. The humble cottage had never hosted such a feast.
Though the darkness had withdrawn from the light, it had gathered into pools around the room. One pool seemed to sharpen, to coalesce. A man stepped from the gathered darkness, and stepped toward the man at the head of the table.
“Ah, Thomas. So good to see you. What a magnificent dinner! So kind of you to have invited me!” Said the man. “My stone looks marvelous! Thank you for such wonderful care! My rest is untroubled, knowing you are attending to things up here!”
Thomas stood, and offered his hand. His guest shook it warmly.
“Clive Sinclair. So good of you to come.” Said Thomas. “I see the others are arriving.”
The darkness gathered into fifteen pools of endless night. From each pool stepped another guest. Thomas greeted each of them warmly.
“Ladies, Gentlemen. Please, be seated. I present to you the feast!”
For an hour it was knives and forks. Plates passing up and down the table. Soon, the venerable turkey once again looked like the cadaver Thomas had pulled from his sack.
Plates and glasses were emptied, filled, and emptied again.
At long last, Clive Sinclair stood up from the table. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” He said, “Please, fill your glasses once again.”
Fine vintage poured from once empty bottles. Several were once again emptied.
Clive raised his glass, and nodded toward Thomas. “A toast to Thomas Cranston. The man who gave us each a second chance at life, through his written words. To Thomas!”
He drained his glass.
“To Thomas!” came the chorus. All glasses were drained.
Thomas stood and shook Clive’s hand. Clive was once again seated. Thomas continued standing.
“My dear friends.” He began. “It is you who gave me new life. I had so very little, when I found this job. I had lost my family, lost my purpose. I was empty. I took this job simply to keep myself alive, probably more out of habit than anything. I was dead, inside.”
There was a general murmuring around the table.
“Then, one by one, you came to me. You told me the tales of your lives, and I wrote them down. Fortune smiled upon me, for the tales were published. I have no need of wealth, but it allowed me to provide for those I had previously failed.” Thomas continued. “By that I was able to purchase as much happiness as I am warranted.”
More murmurs of gentle encouragement and sympathy.
“The last tale is told. The books are selling. I have made provision for the money to go out into the world, and do good.” Said Thomas. “I am as content as ever I have been. More so than I deserve. Thank you, my friends.”
Gentle applause. Glasses once again filled and drained. Eyes turned, as one, toward their host. Then upward they looked, at the noose affixed to the rafters above his head.
Thomas turned, and with some effort stood upon his chair. He turned again, and placed the loop of rope around his neck.
“My friends, I join you!”
Thomas kicked backward. His chair toppled. The light of the candles winked out.
The darkness was complete. No light found its way into the room. There was no sound, except for the creak of a rope against the beam. Then another sound. The sound of the chair being set upright.
The candles rekindled, their light slowly growing. The darkness pushed back, to reveal the party in their seats.
Thomas sat once again in his chair. He appeared younger, more vital. His friends raised their glasses in silent salute. They all drained their glasses, and then rose as one. Thomas rose with them. The darkness gathered around them all, rising like a vapor. After a moment it collapsed, spilling across the floor and out the open door.
The chairs were empty. A gentle breeze blew in through the open door. One by one, the candles surrendered to the darkness. The creak of the rope continued into the long night. Thomas Cranston had written his final chapter.