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  • John M Donovan

The Cemetery Flute



Colby County 911—what’s your emergency?

Somebody is playing a flute in Pinefield Cemetery.

I beg your pardon, ma’am?

I’m hearing a flute in the cemetery.

Are you in the cemetery, ma’am?

No, I’m at home. I live across the street.

Is anyone hurt, ma’am?

Well, I wouldn’t think so. I just don’t think it should be happening.

And you said Pinefield Cemetery, ma’am?

Yes, in Colby City.

I see. As long as nobody’s being hurt or nothing is on fire, I’m going to let the town marshal know about the flute player and he can take care of it. Could I get your name, ma’am?

* * *

Fred Hobson remembered when he was a kid how weird it was to learn that “new moon” meant that no moon was actually visible. That phase should have just been called “no moon.” Now he had just a few months to go until retirement and he still thought it was weird.

Though not as weird as getting a 1 a.m. call about someone playing a flute in Pinefield Cemetery. The 911 dispatcher didn’t have any details beyond that, just that the caller was Mildred Danks and she seemed quite concerned about the lack of decorum and respect. As Hobson drove up that way he tried to figure out why someone would be playing the flute in a cemetery. Probably liked the way it sounded. Maybe doing it on a dare. He couldn’t blame Mrs Danks for being concerned—it’d be pretty damn eerie to hear flute music coming from a place known for being silent. He also had to admit that if the flute player were going for eeriness, the night of the new moon would be the eeriest choice.

Pinefield covered about ten acres of shady rolling ground on the north side of Colby City; its headstones were a mix of old statuary, massive granite blocks, simple beveled stones, and flush markers. The newer sections to the west were much more uniform than the older sections, which still had a number of plots with wrought-iron fences. Hobson rolled down his window and switched over to parking lights as he entered the cemetery gates. He turned to the right because the east section had more trees for a flute player to hide in, and because it was closer to Mrs Danks’ house.

Beautiful night, he thought. No flute music yet. He drank in the thick cool scent of springtime grass and peered into the darkness, then parked by a 19th-century obelisk and cut the motor and listened closer. “Anyone there?” The treetops whuffled in the wind but there was no other response. He listened for another minute before firing up the truck and making a lap around the whole cemetery. Whoever it is is gone, he thought—but just in case he parked down the street where he could see the cemetery gates and stayed there till 2:30. No one came out.

When he got home his wife Diana woke up and said “Did I hear you correctly when you left?”

“If you heard me say I was going to look for a flute player in the cemetery, then yes.”

* * *

Mildred Danks fixed Hobson a glass of lemonade and said she hoped he hadn’t gone to any trouble the night before. “No trouble,” he said. “I came by and checked it out. Didn’t hear anything or see anyone.”

“It was so odd,” she said. They were sitting in rockers on her front porch on North Avenue, looking across the street at Pinefield Cemetery. “I love to sleep with my windows open in springtime, even if it’s cool. But I won’t be able to enjoy it if that sad music continues.”

“Did you recognize the song?”

“No, no. It was mostly the same notes—da da DAAA da da, da da DAAA de do—over and over. I could pick it out for you on piano, I think. It was in a minor key. Very mournful.”

“What bothered you most about it?”

Mrs Danks drew her head back and scowled. “Well, who plays the flute in a cemetery in the middle of the night?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Was it just one flute?”

“I’m pretty sure it was just one.”

“Maybe he was serenading a loved one.”

“There’s a time and place for that.”

Hobson conceded that point and asked Mrs Danks if she knew any flute players who lived nearby. She thought maybe the Livingston girl at North and Taylor. “She’s in seventh grade, I think.”

Hobson knew the Livingstons pretty well and doubted if the seventh-grader was the kind to slip out after hours and play the flute in a cemetery. He didn’t know what kind of person did that, and if he hadn’t wanted to put Mrs Danks at ease he wouldn’t have cared in the least.

* * *

Hobson’s sister-in-law once suggested that his time as a town cop would make an interesting memoir. He told her nobody would want to read it and that he sure didn’t want to write it. He’d busted up a few underage beer parties and run off a few vagrants over the years. He’d ticketed speeders and once tracked down the kid who spray-painted the word “tits” on the water tower. He’d found a handful of dead bodies—old age, accidents, suicide. But by and large it had been a pretty stress-free job and he hadn’t made any enemies.

There didn’t seem to be much of a memoir there.

Finding the cemetery flute player wasn’t going to change that, but he had some time on his hands so he drove through Pinefield around lunchtime to look for the newest graves. Had to be someone who recently lost a loved one—it had to be. The only graves with dirt still visible belonged to a farmer named Hans Schotzle and an elderly widow named Maxine Befferts. Hobson didn’t know offhand if they had any musicians among their survivors but figured Chuck Kelso might know. Chuck managed the lumber yard and claimed to have encyclopedic knowledge of the town and its residents. This was a stretch, but Hobson knew that his classmate from the Colby Central class of ’73 was right more often than wrong.

“Bubby Schotzle was an only child,” said Chuck, leaning on the counter. “Graduated a couple years after us. Played football, but I don’t think he was in band. Plus, he works 25 hours a day so I can’t see him taking time to play the piccolo at his dad’s gravesite.”

“No, that doesn’t sound like Bubby.”

“Maxine Befferts, now—all her kids moved east and south. St Louis, most of them. They were all older than us but if I remember the ’67 yearbook correctly one girl was the drum majorette. Don’t know if she played an instrument, but hell she’d be almost 70 so I don’t imagine she’s your flute player. What sort of music was this character playing, anyway? Jethro Tull?”

“Nah, it was more like ‘da da DAAA de do’ or something. Mildred just said it sounded too mournful so she called 911—cause obviously, that’s what 911 is for. I told her if she heard it again to call me directly. But I hope it gets warm enough for her to shut her windows and kick the air on so I don’t have to mess with it.”

* * *

For the next couple of nights Fred Hobson made one lap around the cemetery at midnight and one an hour later, listening for the flute but hearing only wind and the occasional locust. He was curious, but only two nights’ worth of curious. He put the whole thing out of his mind and focused instead on pressing the town board about stepping up their search for his replacement. He put it so far out of his mind that when a clue came in the mail the next week he didn’t immediately connect it with the flute caper (as Chuck Kelso was now calling it). The envelope was slightly crumpled and there was no return address; the plain sheet of paper inside had two words in small tight pencil: It’s Doris. There was a filled-in circle on the next line.

He turned the paper over but there was nothing else on it.

Just “It’s Doris” and the filled-in circle.

He’d read about criminals who taunted police with mysterious and challenging messages, but those were big cases, big crimes. Sociopaths. Serial killers. This, he thought, is someone trying to be funny, someone just wasting my time. It’s Doris, indeed. He knew of three ladies named Doris in Colby City, all 60 and up. Check that—make it two. Doris Young, 82, had just moved into an assisted-living facility in Spalding.

“It’s Doris” was the answer but Hobson didn’t know the question, so he put the note in a file folder and set it on the credenza on a stack of Police Chief magazines. He put it even farther out of his mind than the flute caper.

But then at 12:15 on the night of the new moon in June, Mildred Danks called him up.

“Marshal? There’s music in the cemetery again. You told me to call you—”

“Yes. Yes, I did.” Hobson found his glasses on the nightstand. “I’ll go check it out.”

Beside him his wife murmured. “Beer party?”

“Flute player.”

He wanted to hear what Mrs Danks was hearing before busting up the concert, so he parked his truck and walked up to the corner of North Avenue and School Street, a couple of houses east of Mrs Danks’ place. He walked westward, staying in the shadows, until he heard it: long notes, minor, mournful but beautiful, as if the flute player were crying through the music. Not repetitive, though, and not da da DAAA whatever—this was like a song that had no beginning or end, no direction other than out into the world. Hobson wished he knew more about music. This string of notes seemed like the perfect accompaniment for a cool wet night in a graveyard—

Cool and wet. There’d been a thunderstorm that afternoon and the temp had dropped from the 70s to the high 50s. So naturally, Mrs Danks had her window open. Hobson thought she must be the only octogenarian in the world who wasn’t freezing all the time. He started back to the truck but then thought driving in might spook the flute player. Two of the three streetlights were out so he jogged across the street at its darkest spot, holding his hand against his pocket to keep his keys and coins from jingling. He stopped at the cemetery gates and listened, and as he soft-stepped his way up the lane into the old section the music got louder. At the tall white obelisk where he’d parked and listened in May, he stood quietly and turned a slow circle. The tiny bit of streetlight silhouetted only a couple of headstones and the branches of a weeping willow. He took two steps forward and the music stopped.

“Hello?”

No answer. But no sounds like running away either.

“I’m Fred Hobson, the town marshal. You’re not under arrest or anything, but—”

“I know who you are.”

A woman’s voice. Soft and kind of low. Indeterminate age. Hobson realized he hadn’t thought of the flute player as male or female either one, but just as “the flute player.” The voice was coming from the marshal’s right, from among the oldest of the old stones. He turned in that direction and started to leave the path.

“Please don’t come any closer,” said the flute player.

“Why not?”

“I’m naked.”

Hobson hadn’t expected that answer. He didn’t know if it were true or not and didn’t figure he needed to know just yet. “Little chilly out here for that.”

“Maybe. But maybe this is one of those druidic fertility rites where nubile virgins dance naked and play the flute under the new moon.”

The idea of interrupting a naked woman in the middle of a fertility rite gave the marshal a low-grade decadent thrill. But he had a job to do, so he said “I don’t know if that’s something we want to happen in the cemetery.”

“It was a joke. And I’m not nubile anyway.”

Hobson felt a slight twinge of disappointment. “Look, I’m just here because we had a complaint—last month and again tonight—about the music. There’s a lady lives over there who doesn’t really like hearing flute music in the cemetery in the middle of the night. Or, probably, truth be told, any other time. I guess I’m just here to tell you to move it along.”

“Is it illegal to play the flute in the cemetery?”

“It would be disturbing the peace, if it comes to that.”

“That doesn’t seem right. All these people, all these souls—I’m celebrating their lives and mourning their absence. Most of them are forgotten and the ones that aren’t only get visited once a year. They deserve some attention.”

“Couldn’t you play in the daytime?”

“I don’t want anyone to see me. It’s not about me, it’s about the music.”

Hobson thought he understood. He wanted to know more, and wanted to give Mildred Danks time to go back to sleep. “That song you were doing just now—I thought it was really nice. What was it?”

“It doesn’t have a name. I just made it up.”

“You’ve got a good talent.”

“Thank you.”

“Could I ask you your name?”

There was a pause. The wind picked up and blew a weak note through the woman’s flute. “Didn’t you get my letter?”

“You sent me a letter?”

“Maybe you didn’t get it.”

“I don’t remember it.”

“It had the new moon on it.”

“How could it—?” And then Hobson remembered the letter and the filled-in circle and thought it was a good thing nobody was sending him clues about serious crimes. “Aw, damn it. You’re Doris?”

“That’s not my name, but that’s what kids decided to call me. Your son. Buddy Kelso. The cheerleaders. Pretty much everyone in the class of ’99. ‘She looks like a Doris,’ they said. ‘Let’s call her Doris.’ There’s nothing wrong with the name, but it wasn’t a compliment.”

“Wait—you were in Fred Jr’s class?”

She replied as if speaking to a child. “Yes. I was in Fred Jr’s class.”

“If you’d drawn a flute instead of the new moon, I might have got it. So were you in band at CC?”

“I didn’t take up flute until a couple years ago.”

Hobson’s mind raced, thinking of his son’s graduating class and who among them still lived in the area and who might have been an easy target for a bunch of smart-ass kids who thought it’d be hilarious to pin an unwanted nickname on someone. Nobody came to mind but it didn’t matter right now anyway. “I’m definitely sorry if Fred Jr ever treated you bad,” he said. “But right now I just want to figure out what I can do to keep you and me and sleepless old ladies happy. I thought your song was beautiful. Only one person had a problem with it, and if it hadn’t cooled off so much from the storm today she wouldn’t hav even heard it. Is there any way you can, I don’t know—play softer?”

Pianissimo?”

“Maybe.”

“I’m just playing whatever’s in my heart, whatever I think might comfort all these souls. Sometimes it’s loud, sometimes it’s soft. I try to make sure it’s always respectful and soothing—for them, for me, and I thought for whomever might happen to be listening. I’m sorry it upset somebody but after six or seven months I thought either nobody could hear it or everybody liked it.”

“You’ve been doing this six or seven months?”

“Maybe more. I started last fall, so—seven, eight, yeah, nine.”

“Every new moon?”

“Actually I missed once for that snowstorm.”

“I’ll be damn.”

There was another pause and it seemed like she’d moved a little closer to the lane. “Mr Hobson, we all have our ways of dealing with things. Death, life, loneliness, depression. Bitterness. Hope. I love the people out here, especially the ones here in this section, the really old forgotten ones. I might be disturbing one person’s peace but I think I’m enhancing theirs—and mine. I’d prefer not to stop playing. Would you mind if I talked to Mrs Danks?”

“How’d you know it was her?”

“Who else would it be?”

* * *

Doris agreed to pack it in for the night so Mrs Danks could fall asleep to springtime breezes without being disturbed by flute improvisations.

With air conditioning season in full swing, Mrs Danks wasn’t likely to hear the music. But after two hours of lemonade and conversation with Doris she said that if she heard it again she would listen close and try to understand.

Fred Hobson checked in with his son and learned that Doris was the name his classmates had given a shy stout girl named Mary Odle. He didn’t remember ever seeing or even hearing about her during his time as marshal, but learned from Chuck Kelso that she lived by herself and worked at a flower shop in Greenetown. In July he took his wife with him to sit in the truck on North Avenue and listen to the flute, and while she agreed it was lovely she said she didn’t need to hear it again. In August Hobson sat in the truck by himself and thought that night’s concert had a strange exotic quality like it was originating from the other side of the planet. She kept sliding one note up into the next one in a way that gave him goosebumps.

Someone else must have been listening too. In September the new moon came on the 19th and as Hobson listened with his window down he heard the gentle plucking of a classical guitar underneath the flute.

And the duet was even more beautiful.

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