One of the largest graveyards in the United States sits on Indianapolis’s near northside. Crown Hill Cemetery is home to birds, deer, and countless headstones and mausoleums, each with its own tale to tell. One particular tomb, however, has more than just one story to share; indeed, the grave of James Whitcomb Riley has a brand-new tale each and every year.
James was born in 1849 in Greenfield, Indiana, but grew to fame as the “Children’s Poet” while living in Indy—this despite the fact that he never had any children of his own and (according to some) didn’t particularly like them. He wrote poems, drank too much, caused a few scandals, and eventually died in 1916 at age sixty-six, which is when he found his way to Crown Hill.
James’ grave is perched atop one of the tallest points in the city, so visitors make the climb to his final resting place not only to pay their respects to a great writer but to get a good view of the trees and gravestones of Crown Hill stretching out before them. In the summer, the cemetery is a sea of green grass and leaves dotted with white markers. In the fall, it’s an explosion of color. And in winter, it’s all snow-covered graves and branches. The spring brings a rebirth…but also another visitor, unseen by most.
Death was quite a surprise to James. There was no heaven, no freedom. Instead, he found himself rooted to the cemetery, free to travel within its bounds, but always ending up at the same place. There were other ghosts around him—dignitaries, actors, even criminals—but James found his grave brought the most visitors, most likely for the view.
One day as James sat watching the spring flowers open, he heard a soft voice behind him, a whisper combined with a hiss. It wasn’t uncommon for visitors to speak to the graves, but this voice wasn’t just an echo of the real world. It was unnerving. Despite being dead and buried, James felt the hairs on his spectral neck rise when he heard it.
Turning around he saw what he presumed to be a man sitting at the edge of his tomb. He found that no matter how hard he tried to look at the man, he could not make eye contact with him. The man was like his voice, a whisper at the edge of reality.
“Helloooooo,” the thing called.
Finding the voice he had not used for months, James spoke. “What are you?”
“I hear that you tell stories. I would like to hear one.”
This rather irked James because it was the first time since his death that something, anything had communicated with him—and it immediately wanted something from him. “Why should I tell you one?” This was a legitimate question, but also a stalling technique; the truth is, James no longer knew if he could tell a story. His poems and stories had come from his heart, his living heart. Now that his heart no longer beat, how could he spin a tale?
The thing stared at him and drifted closer to his face. For the first time, James got a brief glimpse of its eyes, and he was frightened.
“You have a year,” the creature hissed. “Think of one!” And then it disappeared.
All that year, James racked his brain. The days and weeks passed as he tried to find the old spark he used to have. Summer, fall, and winter seemed to rush by. Once again, spring arrived, bringing James’ mysterious visitor with it.
“I want my story,” the thing said. Even after a year, its voice sent chills down James’s spine.
“You shall have it,” James began. He started off tentatively, but soon found his voice. He composed a verse about a boy, a warm summer day, and a litter of rabbits that found a home. He knew it wasn’t his best, but he hoped it would do.
The creature sat wordless throughout the poem. “It will suffice,” it said at last. “I expect a better one in a year’s time.”
The next year passed quickly, and James found more and more ideas springing to mind.
For his second tale, he told the creature about a sick little girl and her best friend, a yellow rosebush.
The thing grinned and declared the story a triumph.
Each year the creature returned in the spring, demanding a story. For his part, James began to enjoy—and even look forward to—the annual visit.
Until 1945, that is. A war had been going on for several years, and the cemetery was bustling with the spirits of young men—not to mention their mourning mothers and wives. James did not feel like telling a story that year.
“Tell me my story,” the creature hissed as it crouched behind a spray of lilies.
“I have no story for you,” James sighed. “There are more important things than stories now. Death is all around us thanks to this war. I just want to rest.” In reality, the war was only part of his depression; the people who had known him in life were becoming fewer. Occasionally he would recognize the ghosts of people who had been young when he was old. Time was passing him by.
“I must have my story,” the creature warned.
“What happens if I refuse?”
“Bad things. Very bad things.”
James snorted. “We’ll see.”
In a puff of smoke, the creature disappeared.
In August of that year, two atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Irrationally, James felt somehow responsible.
The next spring, James had a new poem ready for the creature. After completing his recitation, he worked up the nerve to ask if the atomic bombs had been the “very bad things.”
The beast grinned. “The war’s over, isn’t it? And you’re in the mood to be creative again, aren’t you?”
From then on, James never refused to tell the creature a story. Most years the beast seemed pleased with his tale, but occasionally it would grow disinterested or even become angry. On those years, other large-scale disasters would take place, claiming more human lives. James had the sinking feeling that his stories were somehow deciding the fate of the world.
One year, James decided he had to know. He still could not look at the creature. Its eyes burned deep into him if he tried. “What are you?” he blurted when the beast appeared. “And do you only come to visit me?”
The creature leered at him. “I think you know exactly who and what I am.”
“The Devil,” James said.
“If you wish.”
The thing looked perplexed by this question, as if it didn’t know the answer itself. “Just tell me my story.”
That next spring the creature didn’t return—and James found himself strangely sad. Although he feared the beast, the chance to be a storyteller again had given him hope. Plus, he’d been crafting poems and tales in death that were much better than anything he’d managed in life. He was just hitting his creative stride. James spent the entire day waiting for the creature’s words to come, but night fell, and he remained alone.
One year later, however the familiar refrain of “Tell me my story!” returned.
James smiled, despite himself. “Where were you last year?”
“I was … busy,” the creature muttered.
“Nothing terribly bad happened in the world,” James said. “No great tragedies.”
“But nothing fantastic, either,” the thing quickly added. “So you better make this year’s story a great one.”
And the story was a great one—a tale of distant worlds and ancient civilizations, something James would have never produced while he was alive.
As the creature vanished, grinning from ear to ear, James suddenly realized that an unlikely friendship had developed between the two of them. It may have originally formed out of curiosity on the part of the creature and fear on the part of James, but now it meant something greater to them both.
Next time you’re in Crown Hill Cemetery on a cool spring day and you think you catch something out of the corner of your eye—a shimmer or an old man—and you feel a chill down your spine, remain calm. Just lie back on the grass, look at the world around you, and know that you are safe in the hands of a master storyteller. Close your eyes and listen closely and perhaps you’ll even get to hear a story whispered on the wind that could charm the Devil.
Jason Roscoe is a native Hoosier who operates BasementRejects.com, where you can read his reviews and pop culture musings. Follow him on Twitter at @JPRoscoe76.
Photo by Midnightdreary (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.