Six feet under the Gainsbrook Cemetery, Doddy Lean awoke to a nightmare.
He opened his eyes in darkness. Disoriented, he tried to turn to his left to see the time on his bedside clock. His right shoulder bumped against a hard piece of wood. His mattress felt odd—it was too solid, and it had thin satin padding over it.
He sat up and banged his head sharply against a massive wooden plank. Had there been an earthquake and the house had collapsed around him? He felt around in the darkness. He was surrounded by solid construction. He reached above him but couldn’t hold his arms straight because the bedroom ceiling had apparently fallen down on top of him.
He called out for his manservant, but Courtland didn’t respond. And Doddy’s voice didn’t carry very far; it sounded muffled and tight and warm. He took a breath and the air wasn’t fresh; there was an earthy, musky scent about it. He coughed violently to expel it.
It wasn’t until he began to pound against the thick planks of wood that surrounded him that he realized he was in a coffin and had been buried alive. I must be dreaming, he thought, and frantically tried to wake himself up by sheer will, but the reality of his confinement remained solidly in place.
But what had happened? He strained at his thoughts, trying not to panic but wanting the answer immediately. He thought backwards. He remembered the country was in the middle of what had been called the Dust Bowl heat wave. It was June and the temperature was at 100 degrees; he recalled reading that in the Chicago Tribune. Many townspeople had been experiencing heat stroke and exhaustion, and some had even died. They had been quickly buried because the bodies would not keep, and decay and disease were setting in quickly. It had been horrific, the accounts he had read about.
He remembered reading the newspaper.
Only Jessica, Doddy’s fiancé, Mason, his brother, and Father O’Brien remained at the Gainsbrook Cemetery. It was just after 11:00 a.m. The funeral had been over for fifteen minutes, and everyone had drifted away from the gravesite.
“Thank you, Father, for what you said about Doddy,” Mason said, grasping the priest’s surprisingly thick, rough hands in his own. “It meant a lot to me since you’ve known our family for so long.”
“Of course, Mason, of course. You and your family have been a part of this parsonage since before I was assigned, so of course I’d be here.” He turned his kind eyes to Jessica, who was frail and appeared ready to collapse. “How are you holding up, my dear?”
Lost in her own black thoughts of grief, Jessica didn’t respond. Mason touched her elbow. “Jessica?”
Tears spilled out of her eyes and she buried her face in his shoulder. He embraced her, and he and the Father exchanged a look of pity over her distraught emotional state. Overhead, the heavy clouds continued to bear down on them, threatening rain and another gray and gloomy day.
While Jessica wept and Mason comforted her, Father O’Brien said, “Don’t forget the words of our Lord: ‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.’”
Jessica took a moment to compose herself. Mason provided her with a handkerchief and she dabbed at her eyes. She turned to O’Brien and said, “Do you believe that, Father? Really, really believe it? In the resurrection? A life after this one?”
He smiled gently at her. “Oh course I do! And so did Doddy, you know. Right now he has a resurrected body. The Scripture says ‘to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.’”
“You mean…right now he’s with God?” she asked with wonder. “Right at this moment?”
“Yes, Jessica. He shook off this mortal coil and has a brand new, resurrected body that is now worshipping at the throne of grace in God’s almighty and perfect presence.”
“And I’ll see him again?” she asked, as if the thought was too good to be true. Her eyes were wide now, the tears gone, filled instead with hope and expectation.
Father O’Brien nodded and smiled. “Yes, you’ll see him again, Jessica. I promise you so.”
Six feet under the Gainsbrook Cemetery, Doddy Lean tried to slow his breathing. He wasn’t sure how long he could survive; maybe an hour, maybe longer, maybe less. He was a large man and was tight in the coffin; there wasn’t a surplus of space or air. He was sweaty, and the moisture rolled down from his forehead and stung his eyes.
He had shouted and pounded at the paneling that enclosed him, and that was when he discovered the cord next to his right hand. He would have missed it in the darkness if he hadn’t thrashed around a bit. He had heard about safety coffins and how they included a cord attached to a bell that the interred person could ring should he or she need to be rescued.
Thanking God for his good fortune, Doddy grasped the cord and yanked at it hard, imagining the sounds of the pealing bell alerting everyone to his desperate need.
Jessica felt a great calm envelope her after her discussion with Father O’Brien. Her grief still pressed down on her, a great weight, yet she could see a day sometime in the future when it would be lessened and not all consuming. Until then, she would focus on the reality of the resurrection and the promise of seeing her dear Doddy again in the kingdom of Heaven.
Behind her, the Father and Mason were finishing their conversation and Jessica stepped closer to Doddy’s tombstone to tell him a final goodbye. She placed her hands on the damp, cold stone. At the same moment, she was startled to hear the bell at the foot of the freshly dug grave sharply ring out.
Six feet under the Gainsbrook Cemetery, Doddy Lean felt the cord immediately yield after he had pulled it taunt. With a whisper soft thud, the cord landed next to him in the coffin.
It had broken. With only one use, just one tug, the cord had torn free from the bell and had now joined him, uselessly, in his burial chamber.
“But Jessica, there’s no reason for the bell to have sounded,” Mason had tried to reason with the now-hysterical woman. She had screamed out to both men and they had rushed over.
“The bell rang! I heard it!” She pointed at the sheltered item, which was still and unmoving in the late morning gloom. If it had rung, surely it would still be swinging back and forth for the men to see. And if Doddy had pulled the rope, he certainly would tug it again and again and again to prove he was alive.
Jessica insisted she had heard it and so, to calm her, the two men stood with her, the three of them intently watching the bell. The wind rose and the promised rain began to clatter down on them, rattling off the roof of Mason’s Standard Little Nine automobile that he had parked nearby.
“I heard it,” Jessica maintained, willing the two men to stay with her as the rain increased and thoroughly drenched them. The housing over the bell prevented rainwater from running down the tube and netting was attached to prevent insects from entering the coffin. But there was no shelter for the three of them as the storm soaked the earth and the brisk wind chilled the air.
It was Mason who finally called an end to it. They couldn’t even see the bell through the deluge.
“Jessica, I think, in your grief…”
She turned to him, her faced covered in tears and rain, her voice angry. “In my grief, I imagined he is signaling us that he is still alive down there? Is that what you think?”
Father O’Brien stepped closer to them and spoke loudly over the storm. “He’s in God’s hands now, Jessica. You will see Doddy again, but he’s not down there. Remember what I said earlier about the resurrection? Hold that hope close to your heart.”
The wind rose and seemed intent on pushing them out of the cemetery. Mason put a protective arm around Jessica; her shoulders were stiff, but she allowed herself to be led out of the cordoned off gravesite area. The three of them slipped on the muddy grass and dirt and held on to one another as the rain and wind rushed about them, escorting them out of the cemetery.
Once they were in the car and Mason had started the engine, Jessica took one last look back at the bell and the grave of her beloved.
Six feet under the Gainsbrook Cemetery, Doddy Lean had shouted himself hoarse and blooded his hands and fingernails, pounding and scraping on the interior of the sealed coffin lid.
The lack of fresh oxygen was like a tremendous weight on his chest, squeezing his lungs tightly; he gasped and struggled to breathe. The carbon dioxide built up and filled the coffin space. Doddy began to become sleepy. His breathing was slow, ragged, and raspy.
His mind become unmoored and drifted, memories surfacing and disappearing in rapid succession. Thoughts tried to grasp something, to anchor and hold on to consciousness. He remembered reading the newspaper and collapsing on the floor. Was that what had happened to him?
Soon he drifted deep into a coma, a muffled place of darkness and numbing comfort. No thoughts, no memories, and no awareness of the airless box he was in.
His heart stopped, and then the rest of his body.
At the exact instant that Doddy took his last breath, the sun pushed its way through the thick mass of gray clouds, illuminating the area with bright noonday sunlight, creating and casting long, bold shadows.
It was going to be a magnificent day after all.
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