Far away in the deep heart of a lonely country, there was an old solitary churchyard. People were no longer buried there, for it had fulfilled its mission long, long ago. Its rank grass now fed a few vagrant goats that clambered over its ruined wall and roamed through the sad wilderness of graves. It was bordered all round with willows and gloomy cypresses; and the rusty iron gate, seldom if ever opened, shrieked when the wind stirred it on its hinges as if some lost soul, condemned to wander in that desolate place forever, was shaking its bars and wailing at the terrible imprisonment.
In this churchyard, there was one unique grave. The stone which stood at the head bore no name, but instead, a crudely sculptured sun rising out of the sea. The grave was very small and covered with a thick growth of dock and nettle, and one might tell by its size that it was the grave of a young child.
Not far from the old churchyard, a young boy lived with his parents in a dreary cottage. He was a spacy, dark-eyed boy, who never played with the children of the neighborhood, but loved to wander in the fields and lie by the banks of rivers, watching leaves fall and the waters ripple, and lilies sway their white heads on the wind of the current. It was no wonder that his life was solitary and sad, for his parents were horrid people that drank and fought all day and night, and the noises of their quarrels were heard in calm Summer nights by the neighbors that lived in the village past the hill.
The boy was terrified of all this hideous strife and his young soul would shrink within him when he heard the oaths and the blows echoing through that dreary little cottage, so he used to rush out into the fields where everything looked so calm and pure, and talk with the lilies in a low voice as if they were his friends.
In this way, he came to frequent the old churchyard, roaming through its half-buried tombstones, and spelling out upon them the names of people that had gone from the earth years and years ago. The little grave, nameless and neglected, however, attracted him more than all the others. The strange image of the sun rising out of the sea was a perpetual source of mystery and wonder; and so, whether by day or by night, when the fury of his parents drove him from his home, he used to wander there and lie amidst the thick grass and wonder who was buried beneath it.
In time, his love for the little grave grew so that he adorned it after his childish fashion. He cleared away the docks and nettles that grew so somberly above it and clipped the grass until it grew thick and soft as the carpet of heaven. Then he brought primroses from the green banks, red poppies from the cornfields, and bluebells from the shadowy heart of the forest, and planted them all around the grave. With supple twigs, he hedged around with a simple little fence. He scraped the creeping mosses from the grey head-stone until the little grave looked as if it might have been the grave of a particularly good little fairy.
Then he was content. All the long summer days he would lie upon it with his arms clasping its swelling mound, while the soft wind would timidly play around him, occasionally lifting little pieces of his hair. From the hillside, he heard the shouts of village boys at play, and sometimes, one of them would come and ask him to join in their games; but he would look at them with his calm, dark eyes and gently answer no; and the boy, awed and hushed, would steal back to his companions and speak in whispers about the child who loved a grave.
In truth, he loved the little graveyard better than all play. The stillness of the churchyard, the scent of the wildflowers, the golden rays of sunlight falling through the trees and playing over the grass were all delights to him. He would lie on his back for hours; gazing up at the summer sky and watching all the white clouds sail across it, and wonder if they were the souls of good people sailing home to heaven. But when the black thunder-clouds came up bulging with passionate tears, and bursting with the deafening roar, he would think of his bad parents at home, and turning to the grave, lay his little cheek against it as if it were a brother.
So the summer went passing into autumn. The trees grew sad and shivered as the time approached when the fierce wind would strip them of their cloaks, and the rains and the storms would batter their naked limbs. The primroses grew pale and withered, but in their last moments seemed to look up at the child smilingly, as if to say ‘Do not weep for us. We will come again next year.’ But the sadness of the season came over him as winter approached, and he often wet the little grave with his tears and kissed the grey tombstone, as one kisses a friend that is to depart for years.
One evening towards the close of autumn, when the woods looked brown and grim, and the wind as it came over the hills had an ominous growl, the child heard, as he was sitting by the grave, the shriek of the old gate swinging open on its rusty hinges, and looking up, he saw a strange procession enter. There were five men. Two bore between them what seemed to be a long box covered with black cloth, two more carried spades in their hands, while the fifth, a tall stern-faced man in a long cloak, walked at their head. As the child saw these men pass to and fro through the graveyard, stumbling over half-buried tombstones, or stooping down and examining the eroded inscriptions, his little heart almost ceased to beat, and he shrank behind the grey stone in mortal terror.
The men walked back and forth, with the tall one at their head, searching steadily in the long grass, and occasionally pausing to consult. At last, the leader turned and walked towards the little grave, and stooped down to gaze at the stone. The moon had just risen and its light fell on the quaint sculpture of the sun rising out of the sea. The tall man then beckoned to his companions. “I have found it,” he said, “it is here.” With that, the four men came along, and all five of them stood by the grave. The child behind the grave could hardly breathe.
The two men bearing the long box laid it down in the grass, and taking off the black cloth, the child saw a little coffin of shining ebony covered with silver ornaments, and on the lid, wrought in silver, was a familiar image of a sun rising out of the sea.
“Now to work!” The tall man demanded, and right away, the two that held the spades plunged them into the little grave. The child thought his heart would break; and, no longer able to restrain himself, he flung his body across the mound and cried out to the strange leader.
“Oh, Sir!” he cried, sobbing, “Do not touch my little grave! It is all I have to love in the world. Do not touch it; for all day long I lie here with my arms around it, and it seems like my brother. I tend it, and keep the grass short and thick, and I promise you, if you will leave it to me, that next year I will plant about it the finest flowers in the meadows.”
“Child, you are a fool!” answered the stern-faced man. “This is a sacred duty I have to perform. He who is buried here was a child like you; but he was of royal blood, and his ancestors dwelt in palaces. It is not proper that bones like his should rest in common soil. Across the sea a grand mausoleum awaits them and I have come to take them with me and lay them in vaults of marble. Take him away, men, and to your work.”
So the men dragged the child from the grave by main force, and laid him nearby in the grass, sobbing as if his heart would break; and dug up the grave. Through his tears, he saw the small white bones gathered up and put in the ebony coffin, and heard the lid shut down. The men shoveled the earth back into the hole left by the raided grave and felt as if they were robbers. The ebon coffin was then taken away by the men. The gate wailed once more and the child was alone.
He returned home silent, and tearless, as white as any ghost. When he went to his little bed, he called his father, and told him he was going to die, and made the simple request of being buried in the little grave that had a grey headstone with a sun rising out of the sea carved upon it. The father laughed, and told him to go to sleep; but when the morning came, the child was dead!
They buried him where he wished; and when the sod was patted smooth, and the funeral procession departed, that night, a new star came forth from the heavens and watched above the grave.