the First of May

It was nearly half eleven before she noticed the time; the house still echoed as if empty, despite the piles of boxes. Maybe it was because most of them were still unpacked, she thought with dismay. Faux dismay, it turned out. Real dismay set in when she noticed Benji was missing. Cautious callings accompanied a genteel stroll around her new house became firmer shouts, punctuated now and then with ‘come on, you silly dog.’
It was nearly midnight when she finally accepted that Benji as no longer in the house. Missing. Outside somewhere, she had dragged a city dog out to a countryside village and let him loose. Her dismay was a shard of ice in her chest, sharp and precise, it altered her breathing, made her dizzy. Running from the warm, lit house out into the cold, dark night only had her head swim more. But it also shocked her. She was panicking, and that wasn’t going to help. Pause, focus, think. She took in the scene from the end of her cottage path. A surge of wooziness swept her. the village looked so different. no street lights, and a genuine darkness. The village she’d fallen in love with just six months ago look horrid and unusual. She was out of her depth. But her eyes adjusted to the darkness faster than she expected, and she caught a glimpse, a dash of movement, across the road. Something dog shaped had just ran along the wall and into the church grounds.
She dashed recklessly across the road, almost falling with her sudden acceleration. She stopped short of entering, her hand on the cold stone of the litch gate, and its ominous shadow. Blacker than the black night. the yew tree lined path beyond still a grey fuzzy outline. Had it even been Benji, she doubted. She looked down the road. The main high street for the village. It was quiet. the shops, punctuated with cottages, all were dark. Everyone seemed to be sleeping. Everyone in the world, it felt like. She shivered. There was nothing moving, to either side of her, but something, probably Benji, had run into the church yard. Why didn’t she want to go in? She called him, tentatively, from the gate. Nothing but a soft sweep of wind that moved the yews. You’re being silly, she thought. The churchyard -well, graveyard- she interrupted herself. Right, that’s it. Anger at her fear and reluctance made her step, nay, stride into the grave CHURCH yard. The yews bowed to brush her hair, but she didn’t notice, Benji was sat, bobbing as he wagged his tail, on the steps of the church door.
“Benji” She said, relived and excited. A she got to him, before she could reach down and stroke him, grab his collar, keep him safe, the old woman ran into her.
“No! Not you!” She yelled, and rammed her so hard she fell to the ground, the damp, cold grass. The Church had just struck twelve, and the twelfth bong sounded, low and resonating as her head cleared. Benji had gone. The old woman was stood over her, at the door of the church. And there were people. People lining up to come into the graveyard. They huddled with solemn faces, under the litch gate.
“No. No. No” said the old woman. “I can’t see them. You. You. You, interloper. Can you see them?”
She wanted to shout, to fight back, hit the old woman, but, well, she was a woman. And old. And the scene before her was surreal, and mesmerizing.
The people started to slowly walk up the path. Single file, perfectly in step with one another, a perfect distance of respect between them. They were all dressed as if for church. presentable. Sunday best, without a doubt. Suits, perfectly cut and trim. Immaculate. Dresses neatly pressed and ironed smooth. A man, a woman, a child, another woman, a man. Then an old woman. The old woman who had pushed her. She wore what seemed to be a white robe, almost a night dress, but one made of heavy, thick cotton. it swayed as she walked, so thick it had its own momentum, it’s own weight.
Then the old woman who wasn’t wearing white Grabbed her, a hand on each side of her head, and screeched in a voice that cracked and broke
“TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE! WHO ARE THEY?”
She meant to say ‘they’re right there!’ as they were almost at the old woman now. Could she not see them? But as they approached, as the closed in, all she could managed was a weak click sound from her throat. As the first, the precession leader, a tubby short man with an oddly flamboyant tie, walked past. He didn’t look at them, the old woman, furious and clinging to the village newbie. When he got to the church door, he simply put one hand up, as if to open it, then vanished, a swirl of vaguely blue smoke dispersing as if it had only ever been the memory of a man, never a man itself. Then the woman, the girl. The other woman. The other man. All did the same. Then the old woman. The same, only peaceful. Not like the old woman holding her, yelling at her (When had she stopped hearing her?) The old woman in the white dress didn’t disappear at the door, she turned, came over, and leant in close. The woman’s vision was filled with a bizarre mirror image. One shouting and angry, the other serene and calm. The calm one raised a finger to her lips, and whispered
“Don’t tell her you saw me, saw her. Don’t.” And then stood straight and faced the church door. She reached out for it, turning one final time.
“I’m sorry about your dog.” She said as she faded to smoke.
The old woman, the other, angry one, started shaking her. That and Benji’s barking snapped her out of whatever odd perceptive mode she had been in. She shrugged the old woman off, Benji her priority. She grabbed his collar, pulled him tight, hugged him.
“Thought I’d lost you boy.”
The old woman seemed humbled by this display of compassion, of love. She calmed, her whole body seeming to change, a stoop appearing, a fragility that wasn’t here before.
“Forgive me. I had worked had, waiting for the first of May.”
She coughed into the cold night.
“Tell me, of the people who walked into the church, was I among them?”
The woman still held Benji, and thought of the other, calmer old woman telling her to shush.
“No.” She lied.
“Well. That’s something. Did you know any of them?”
“No. two women, two men, and a girl. What was that?”
“A girl. that is sad. It’s a shame you’re new to the village.”
The old woman moved to help her up, but she stayed sat awkwardly, holding Benji.
“If you meet any of the people you saw tonight, you should find me, tell me. I might be able to help.”
“What was that? Were they ghosts?”
“No. Well, ghosts of the living. Of the soon called. It is said, in the lore, that a person stood on the steps of the church at midnight on the first of May will see everyone from the village who will die in the coming year. That they walk the path of their coffin. I waited for this. Needed to know. Why were you here?”
“My dog – he got out. He was sat on the steps.”
“Before midnight, or at midnight?”
“I don’t know, I just… I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“Shame” the old woman said, leaving her on the wet grass of the graveyard, hugging Benji in the cold dark night.

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