The old Columbarium stood innocuously grotesque in plain view of the old cemetery that was hidden away in plain view in the northern district of the city. It was an aging withering thing of stone. A remnant of a bygone century shuffled one before the last that was wholly ignored for the fact of an even more mundane intransient sense of decades past. A strange place that only one’s grandfather might have heard about during boyhood and only in passing. An empty block of acreage somewhere upon a ward map that developers and aldermen wished to sequester for their grander schemes in more avaricious moments. Yet it remained safe from most eyes as the family and neighbors or its cemeteries residents had provided for well and carefully for that human mental construct of the notion of perpetuity. The occasional visitor who out of desperate boredom might cruise its abandoned lanes would possible chuckle at the porcelain cameos affixed to raw stone that served to identify many of those now long past. The stark contrast of a proclivity of absurdly tousled whiskers with accompanying hollow stares all overbearing a unilateral somber dress code typical within these portraits evoking no response whatsoever from a casual viewer, beyond that perhaps of an appreciation of their stylistic differences from current times. This was after al simply a city of the dead built only for effective contemplation of another now bygone era.
A moderate plan, the building within the cemeteries’ crux formed the expected offset crisscross of Christian piety that might be expected of any structure of European heritage. Yet there was a curious verticality that left one with a curious set of impressions that bordered upon optical distortion depending upon the angle of viewing with which one made their approach. The architects, wherever they had originally hailed from had employed local limestone as their default and like many other edifices attributed to that era, caught the brilliance of the passing sun at dawn and dusk in a manner suggesting a romantic setting. Yet the weathering of so many successive generations combined with increasing neglect had formed a patina that in these current times seemed to absorb the rays of the dying sun in shadowy rusty hues rather than cast it back towards the eye.
The ribbed cupola had an equal astigmatic feel that again brought one back to some unspecified origins that were in reach of the Volga. A comparison with the lid of a Samovar or Oriental teapot might have easily sufficed as an appropriate metaphor. Perhaps wrought in some bronze color it had dulled to an encrusted unhealthy looking patina that shared more qualities with a tenement wall encrusted with too many layers of paint. Together, the oblong shapes and bisecting sphere formed a sort of impression of an unsuspected primal mystery that successively led one to believe that a hint to same might be sought within the ensemble of large double wooden doors that stood leveraged high up upon the perpendicularly terraced steps at the major assemblage’s vertical center of gravity. Whether the solution might be found in something as fundamental as a less encountered style of a now extinct Eastern European duchy or similarly arcane religious sect, its vague familiarity once experienced seemed to nag subtly at the more refined sensibilities.
The stair-stepped ramps up to this summit is what had attracted his attention as he was passing from the furthest extent of the funeral reservation where he upon a whim had finally tracked down an oft recalled but rarely discussed branch of his extended family. His left arm trailing a small consumer digital camera raking in shot after shot from the passing stone gardens along the roadside his other guiding his large rusty sedan at processional speeds down the return path to the main boulevard, the overall impression of this architectural oddity had left its impression as he passed by it. His first impulse was to toss it off as something worthy only of another entry of stops to make on a future ‘to-do’ list. But a short self inspired conversation of two-sentences found him turning the sedan’s steering wheel around to the right in a direction away from the main exit to return to the same small manicured court where this edifice held sway. The vicinity seemed utterly forlorn of human presence as he detrained and walked across the lane to approach to the right branch of the wide limestone staircase. As he neared the battery of heavy doors a quick tug upon each of the corroded oversized brass handles made it apparent that all were locked tight and immobile. Entry was impossible or so it seemed and their was no immediate evidence of any other fissure or portal that might offer entrance of the world outside. But to his surprise a ragged looking fellow in old clothes frayed at both pants cuffs and sleeves dashed up to meet him. The man presented a hulking overbuilt frame suggesting one who was long accustomed to lugging oversize loads without assistance. His hair was black, greasy and unkempt and his gaze focused with an intensity that instantly commanded a response in return.
A firmly planted halloo greeted the unwary visitor and he found himself at a loss for sufficient words to provide a reason for his detour outside of what seemed an insubstantial cause of simple nosiness. His nature chose a politely mendacious course as he answered that he had been looking for a relative that had long ago been cremated. The large attendant indentified himself as the caretaker in kind and commenced without missing a beat to lead the snoop back up the stairs rattling a large set of keys awake to the task of pulling open one of the massive portals and sweeping the man inside. As light tight as the façade had been outside light poured forth from the rotunda ahead through the midst of a tall shadow bound entrance hall. Two steps in the senses were assaulted with an offensive aroma that in some ways resembled a a urinal yet seemed associated with another substance much worse. Te two impressions as juxtaposed seemed to conflict each other in a particularly upsetting way to one’s animal instincts. As the eyes adjusted as best they could to a disparity of light a third incongruity confronted the casual ‘menteur’. The hallway was lined on either side with a rectangular honeycomb of small glass panels behind which lay all manner of tiny faces snapshot born in equally small frames. Though no visage could have been said to resemble those of other adjacent cells the combined affect had a vague impression of a small town or village posed graphically in a cross section.
The caretaker broke into the practiced rhyme of a well polished monologue noting the well-documented peculiarities of some of the more notable occupants and groupings of same. Additional wings were pointed out as his presentation seemed persuasive enough to keep his visitor in tow despite one unsettling tunnel shaped passage that like an open throat wound down into the bowels of the chambers below. “Toilet”, a rudely fashioned sign proclaimed. The man could imagine that rank odor which seemed to pervade every square inch of the structure as emanating from this hellish looking portal. The thought of yielding to a quick sojourn in relief of his now aching bladder seemed unthinkable for what he might have to encounter below as the source of that debilitating pungency. The next wing offered yet another brass wrought grid of glass protected niches whose contents seemed overtaxed with a proclivity of long forgotten deceased relatives ranging over several generations. Had one considered this ornate construction as an unorthodox mechanism of conveyance to some great communally attended event, it would not also have been too radically hard to conjure up the notion that this collective instrument had very persuasively powerful effect upon the viewer that seemed to bridge the other worldly. An unexpectedly strongly seductive sense of connection in this sense was immediately apparent to him as he felt an increasing desire to postulate what exactly was to be found in the darkly imagined catacombs below.
By this time his guide had reached his stride in his pre-canned lecture and was obviously waiting attentively for him to respond. The mans wide strong angular jaw presented a wide rather distressing looking smile composed of completely rotten twisted teeth. Though the visitor only seemed to catch focus for an instant, he was taken aback by how truly ghastly this unexpected anomaly seemed. It was too easy to consider that this person before him was but a loose masquerade for the specter of death. His tanned yellow jaundiced colored skin but a loose disguise to conceal the final watchman of human existence. The smaller man tried to hide his disgust and resultant embarrassment at the lecturer’s appearance. It was unfair to judge one who had taken up the unorthodox lifestyle of a manager of a necropolis. There was no doubt an eccentric bent to the preferred personality traits that one would expect in a good caretaker. If some qualities that might be considered objectionable in the world outside came along as part of the bargain then they could be easily overlooked. Besides one was immediately a butt of overnight Cub scout tales of tunneling rats and waiting graveyard ghouls in such a career as this.
The attendant had asked the man a question as to his relative’s particulars. The time was growing late he said and the office staff at the front building had by now departed or were certainly preparing to. Still embarrassed and increasingly on edge that his ruse for entry might be easily exposed he went through an intensified ritual rescanning short groupings of vertical phalanx of clear faced crypts. There was no possible way that this little act could come to fruition in discovering some kernel of a new excuse to forgive what by now must seem so obviously a poorly performed act on his part. His head seemed overly thick and numb as if the pissey fumes that continued to assault his nasal cavities seemed to infiltrate his clothes and skin. He could easily imagine his return home and stripping his garments off in the shower to be bagged and fumigated. The caretaker continued as before now covering some additional ancillary minutia about the building’s intended renovation. The outside light now becoming increasingly sparse and rapidly fading within the confines of the hollow echo of footsteps echoing from the side corridors into the cracking plaster frescos of the overbearing dome. Strange symbols with vague associations to what might have been ancient spells began to meld with the spokes of the vault’s ribs.
An urgency to promptly turn tail and retrace his steps to the exit now began to vie with the hypnotic desire to delve further into the unsettled riddle of the building’s unfolding maze. The guide still seemed detached in his assumed responsibilities to conduct this tour as long as the stamina of his client held out. If one’s pulse could be detected in one’s own temples than the man could feel his own coursing in the cotton candy of his draining senses. An unexpected lethargy had crept up on him while engaged in his own protracted frenzy of sorting out contradictory impulses as to whether to continue to fool or just instantly flee. His feet seemed like ingots of manganese barely dragging each leg forward after the other. Still the droning of the caretaker introducing new names who he found it impossible to cognate in any intelligible fashion. His head seemed to swoon and he felt as if the very air within this large mausoleum had been transformed from gas to a syrupy liquor that was now beginning to choke off his oxygen to the point of wooziness. He wasn’t sure if the constant droning that he was noticing was a human voice of evidence of the quickly mounting storm of a migraine. The intense musk now seemed to be exuded directly from his own person and it made him consider the possibility that he had perhaps after all surrendered to wetting himself without realizing it? The exit seemed impossible as he was being passively led further into this shadowy maze by the waning drone. A bolt of adrenalin struck his chest as he realized he was in freefall passing out. His hands clawed empty space and all was black.
The scrape of his shoes and a muted hollow echo brought him forth stirring incrementally slow to consciousness. He opened his eyes but could register a dense gray but readjusted them and found the grayness was just an illusion standing in for near pitch black. Only his peripheral vision suggested some tiny hint of over-refracted exterior illumination. A star? A streetlamp somewhere? The only direct verification of his return to consciousness beyond the coldness of stone upon his skin was the indirect vastness of his own hollow sounding movements. How many minutes or hours had he been out? Where had that caretaker gone off to? And why was he still somewhere within? That retched odor still assailed him. Whatever could smell so utterly rancid and corrupt? He felt his heart take an unexpected leap. Human flesh long deposed to potter’s soil then subsequently un-interred! But his was a columbarium. The dead resting in their subdivisions within this Necropolis all shared the common distinction of having been initially reduced to ash before inducted into this exclusive community.
The silence seemed deafening in counterpoint to his own hesitant scratching’s. What should he do? He was currently caught in some unexpected form of Stygian night. Was this some form of ironic punishment enacted by that trickster of a cemetery watchman? A gag? Or perhaps something more malign? To wait here unmoving within the Columbarium seemed unbearable and he felt the desperate urge to scramble forward even though it was impossible to judge any obstacles. Inching forward on hands and knees seemed the most logical course of action but his fearfully discordant heartbeat demonstrated his lurking dread of encountering something unpleasantly unexpected. His arms and legs chilled to ice for half an instant. A slow distant scrape sharply announced another undetected presence. Was there someone else here with him in this giant enclosure? The possibility of it brought his limbs to a jelly-like state. He reached up instinctively and felt the smoothness of paneled glass and tried to hoist himself up as quietly as possible. A second scratch came from the near vicinity behind. The cords of his opposing leg muscles tightened simultaneously to steel cable. He yanked himself along pressed hard upon the scallops of glass inset metal. The intervals of cool brass chilly to the flat of his palm as he pressed hard against it like someone many stories above the pavement attempting to stay upon a ledge. How in the Hell had he let his dumb curiosity lead him into this mess? The initial scratching sound seemed to redouble as if more than one entity was beginning to slowly meander towards his direction. His left had found the bend of the end of a corridor and he could now detect the bare outline of architectural forms within the dun. The grayness of the night’s sky glimpsed through high above from the small narrow windows of the cylinder on top of the rotunda’s vault. His memory seemed to jog back to the fact that the main exit was further around some fifteen or twenty feet perpendicular to the passage that he had sidestepped through. His mind also froze upon the archway of the entrance of the subterranean chamber whose calligraphic introduction now seemed more than simply innocuous. Yeah he was in a toilet all right. But what exactly was following him? Was this some sick game of cat and mouse that his former guide was playing with him. What would the prize be if he were caught? How could he escape unscathed?
One thing was for certain, he was barely able to contain his animal fear. He seemed to rhythmically shake without and ability to suppress it. His left hand bumped into the hard edge of a table and he pushed on around it allowing his fingers to feel out a forward path as instructed by the table edge. The scratching was now become a scrabble. The need to maintain quiet seemed less important. It was evident that whatever was here in the dark with him was heading steadily in his general direction. His mind flashed the mental image of a creature composed of a patchwork of decaying human flesh stitched together in such a manner as to defy any semblance of humanity. A thing that had only one purpose in the universe to drive it forth. A rendezvous with him! His left hand reached around the wall’s edge at another juncture. This was the main entry hall by the building’s main entrance. A sliver of his unconsumed remaining intellect told him that he was another thirty feet from the heavy wooden entrance doors. Would they not be locked? The table that her had just passed now let out with a scrape of its own Something heavy had bumped it! “Shit” he whispered, unable to suppress the outburst. All caution now evaporated he sprang forth back into total darkness both hands out grasping desperately for what he hoped was a doorknob. His feet rang flatfooted upon the ceramic tile. A corresponding scratch of dried hardened flesh seemed to heavily impact unwavering in their fearful pursuit just behind. “Oooohhgargh”, he unconsciously choked, all control of his intellect past the edge of surrendering to an out in out flight further forward. Two steps, three steps, four, five! A loud thump as his body impacts the rough wooden surface of what must be the door. His hands crabbing the midsection to hook on to the ring of the handle and then yanking furiously at it. The inevitable heavy sound of accompanying dry footfalls now just behind him.
The Police report noted that an abandoned sedan was found in the vicinity of the cemeteries’ central square just across from the Columbarium building which has been locked and secure for over a last year and half undergoing restoration. The regular caretaker had been away on errands and had returned just around dusk to check that all entrances to buildings and the perimeter were secure. As the parked vehicle discovered was similar to that of one of the grounds keepers he didn’t realize that it was left by an unspecified visitor to the grounds. Attempts were subsequently made but the registered owner of the vehicle never subsequently appeared to claim the vehicle and it was taken to the city pound where after a number of months it was surrendered to a contract salvage firm and recycled into scrap. The conclusion of the responding officer making this report after subsequent interviews of cemetery staff was that the vehicle being older and more vulnerable to theft had most probably been taken by teenaged for a joy ride and then subsequently abandoned. No further inquiries are to be made.