Hermes Ruiz never had a really relevant problem in his rather placid life, other than an extremely intense and annoying arachnophobia; nor was he a man with exceptional quality, or prone to adventures.
He was a very good and quiet man, no doubt about it, a confirmed bachelor, a strong drinker, nevertheless nothing remarkable about him personally could be told until his death. However, he became very famous in the little town where he was born and lived his whole life, and in the neighboring villages.
His story was told to me, and several times as it often happens in all the families, by my grandfather, who was the doctor in charge of the last medical exam which the protagonist of this bizarre story had to undergo.
My grandfather was in fact a forensic pathologist, but he was also used to visiting and helping some families there in the valley, families who lived in rather isolated places, and this is the reason why he had met Hermes, and knew him pretty well.
To be completely honest my grandfather, as a doctor, was known mostly by everyone who lived by and near those mountain places. He was a jovial man, very popular, and quite often the villagers, warm people and generous as they usually are around there, wanted him to stay for dinner.
Sometimes they insisted that he stayed to the point of standing in front of the door of their houses just to prevent him from leaving. Then they put on the table roasted chickens with potatoes, cooked in wood-fired ovens, handmade pasta with traditional giblets sauce, rabbit, salamis, trifles, homemade wine and anisette, the typical things of their greasy and energetic country kitchens.
Hermes had worked for years as a municipal gardener, and he had extra money by doing the same job privately in several of the mansions near where he resided. They are not few, by the way.
In consideration of his work and its tasks, his problem with arachnids was quite annoying, intrusive, but he created a series of “defenses”, the kind of measures that you put on more than anything else to be reassured psychologically. Little rituals, caps, palliatives.
For example: he only worked when harnessed teeth and nails, covered with gloves closed by duct tape on his wrists, and ditto high neck vest, cap with ear flaps, and so on. He was very alert, and so it was unlikely that he had problems outdoors, and he was pulling along quite well.
At the age of (about) forty-five years old, handsome and jovial (he was a real jolly fellow), he was moved, rising in rank and being better paid, to the Municipal Cemetery. He became the person in charge of the maintenance of both the plants and the graves.
The most usual work in the maintenance of the cemetery was to dig up corpses buried decades earlier, reclaiming the graves that had accepted them, clean them up, and make them viable for reuse, accommodating there the newcomers.
Since it was not at all uncommon to find in the graves big spiders, tarantulas exactly, the creatures that terrorized him most, he had been even about to resign the job and start his own business as a gardener, or even better opening a flower shop, such it was the discomfort.
It occurred to him, however, to talk with my grandfather first, who, being a respected doctor, perhaps might have been able to recommend a way to scientifically solve that problem and save his job. He asked him though being aware, despite being a simple person, that that was not his medical specialization.
My grandfather perhaps was an “old-fashioned” doctor, and the studies of psychology and such therapies fascinated him (who was a curious person and a big reader), but he had some perplexity about them and their effectiveness.
However, he knew very good psychiatrists, and he also knew for sure that they had very good results with the modern treatment of some phobias, especially those related to flight or sea.
After several insistences, thinking that it was a pity that the good man was forced to leave a steady job and a sure gain for such a stupid reason, he gave him a name together with a presentation letter, and helped him to try that way for a solution.
After a few months, cheerful and joyful, the grave digger-gardener, came back to him with a couple of boxes of beautiful fruit, and between hugs and greetings, he expressed all his gratitude and contentment. He had changed his life! In just a few sessions his phobia was lessened, then it disappeared completely! Something not to believe in! Incredible! Now it was completely cured!
He had been immediately able to remove all those ridiculous tricks and palliatives that he had to take before in order to be able to work and which, believe it or not, took a long time to set up; he realized the absurdity and inconvenience of all these acts only when he got rid of them. Then he had also been able to pick up some small spiders, which would have been simply in-con-cei-va-ble a little time before. He was used to jumping when he saw one of them in the house, and then sweating, pale, became paralyzed, unable to sleep through the all night.
Telling his story, he used to specify often how he was literally paralyzed! Completely unable to move, and as hard as a stone, a statue!
Enthusiastically, he was telling the story of his therapy, he was speaking in profusion, non stop, for the great joy, irrepressible! Ah! If just he had known before that it would have took so little time and effort! A whole life influenced by his fear, when it would be enough to spend a bit of money and consult a good professional to fix everything in a few sessions! Ah, modern medicine! It was the best spent money of his life! And all without use of drugs, eh! Only words! A monument he would have erected for the doctor! And even for the one who had recommended him!
Well, my grandfather was happy with the result and glad to have been helpful! He did not even comment on the story, but maybe he was wrong not to give the deserved credit to new therapies and their effectiveness. Maybe, I knew him, he was a little upset with himself and his unjustified whims; was he getting older?
Hermes began to work with the rhythm of a powerful train! He was digging, opening crypts and family graves, coming in and out, in the meanwhile happily whistling for the confidence, climbing wherever it was necessary, afraid of nothing! No more! Nevermore!
It is superfluous to mention that under the intense heat of the summer, he no longer needed to wear sweaters out of season, which made him choke! Now in the summertime he was working as anyone else, in short sleeves, in shorts, flip-flops. A liberation.
Since he had a kind of ironic and intelligent wit, he had noticed the silly vanity of human beings, and when my grandfather appeared by his neighborhood for some work reason, they chatted a lot, him being in tune with the cynicism and simplicity of the other.
They laughed together at those grand, splendid tombs, made of marble or travertine, not too many indeed in an area which harbored representatives of small but ancient noble families, or notables ones. My grandfather had started as a mason, he could not stand blue blooded idiots!
One of the marble tombs in particular stood out in the cemetery where he worked, a small but charming one. The visible part of the tomb was quite big, but nobody knew it existed, in fact there was a basement that was quite deep.
In addition to the graves of the big mausoleum, it was equipped with a large underground crypt, where there were moved the mortal remains of all who once were above, not following the fate of simple people that ended in a single mass grave.
That family had the privilege of not mixing with the others bodies in saecula saeculorum! Amen! Or … at least to resist a little more in the confusion that the inevitable oblivion carries with itself. That is what the two companions used to say with their macabre irony.
An old, well known and prolific noble family owned that place, and Hermes had not had the chance to get down there still, but he had a great curiosity, he confessed.
What he did know until then, he knew just by hearsay. His predecessor had, in fact, spoken to him about that place, and, moreover, it was listed by him as the only really creepy one that he had visited in the cemetery. Something really gruesome and disturbing was present down there, but the elder grave digger had refused to go into details.
This was strange because the old guardian was a big talker, and a braggart, in general, and maintained (with a straight face!) to have seen all kinds of strangeness and horror during his career at the cemetery: wisps, people mummified in inexplicable ways, freaks, even ghosts, spirits, and to have become used to any sort of fear, and no longer afraid of anything.
Sometimes he was nonetheless able to speak the truth.
One story in particular my grandfather confirmed as authentic, him having been a eyewitness, but perhaps it was the only authentic one, nobody knows.
It was about a mass grave dating back to the first world war, which was uncovered at his presence by the above mentioned man in charge of the cemetery.
He (the old grave digger) was called to oversee the removal of the slab of stone that covered it, as an “expert” (of tombs). After all that mass grave was outside his workplace (the cemetery) and that earned him a good commission paid for separately by the Major of the small mountain town.
When the huge stone that blocked the entrance was lifted, they found a skeleton out of place and with a very strange turban wrapped around the skull. All the others were crowded into lines. That thing did not make any sense at first!
In that occasion my grandfather, who was a young doctor at the time, was the one who explained the “mystery”. Unfortunately, the poor man had been buried alive; perhaps he was unconscious when it happened, or maybe he had pretended to be dead to escape war, counting to get out of the pit once the audience was gone. Or, the last and more creepy hypothesis, someone had wanted to bury him alive intentionally.
The fact is anyway that once there and conscious, he tried to get out, but there was no chance of success. Alone, he had not been able to move one inch the heavy slab of granite placed by who knows how many men working together; he had failed even with the help of his head on which, to help the push, he had placed rounds and rounds of torn clothes: a turban made in the dark with dead men’s uniforms.
Hermes spoke about this story, which had greatly impressed him, just to my grandfather, not knowing he was the doctor in charge of the exhumation and present during the finding of the body.
He also added that, if his phobia of spiders disappeared at all, the second one always had been to end his life like that: buried alive! And after all, it had now certainly become the first fear dwelling in his chest, in consideration of the excellent results of his now cured arachnophobia.
He explained: not only did he consider it scary to be buried alive, but just the thought of having to be forced to remain a long time inside a tomb, for whatever reason, it was something that bothered and distressed him deeply. He could not think of a more horrible end that to die in a cemetery; it would have been better to be killed instead!
Taphophobia, my grandfather explained to me and perhaps even to him, it is called; it is one of the most common phobias of mankind. In history there were even some inventions designed to avert it: strange bells operated by someone in apparent death, buried in error, and other very weird inventions and tricks like that. He assured him, he had this fear not in a particularly developed way; he could tell it from the way he was speaking about it, and of course, going ahead with the practice of his work, he would have been immune to it.
Unfortunately he never had the chance to get rid of it.
Some time later, in fact, the terrified municipal official was found dead in the center of the crypt of the important family tomb, which he finally had the opportunity to visit for the first and only time. As usual, being the only doctor in the area, my grandfather was called to examine the corpse and the situation, and he reconstructed the events in a short time, and in a such sad, consistent and convincing way.
At a late hour, before quitting with the day’s labors, the diligent worker, knowing that the next day he would have to transfer some remains into the deep old fashioned and rich tomb, he had the idea to open it up to be aired. The stench of rot and death of those places is immediately perceptible and persistent, and annoys even those who are accustomed to it.
Probably because of the light conditions, considering the fact that the season did end the workday just on the edge of dusk, he had bumped the strong electric light that he always carried with him to visit such places, and it had fallen into the crypt.
He could have leave it there where it was and come back to pick it up the next day, but for some reason, however, he had taken the decision to go and retrieve it immediately! Maybe it was on, and he did not want to waste batteries. Who knows?!
Probably, acting too rapidly and instinctively, he had not thought about what he had been warned about the place, and its out of the ordinary depth, or maybe he tripped. Maybe he even had drunk a few glasses and he underestimated the situation.
The fact is that once inside there, whether he stumbled and fell, whether he jumped in spontaneously without a ladder (there was one just outside the opening, as if a sad joke of fortune was staged), he was no longer able to reach the opening, pull himself up, and exit.
Carefully examining the available data in the reconstruction, my grandfather was induced to think as a more likely outcome that the man jumped down voluntarily, because his body had not reported bruises of any kind, which would otherwise have been inevitable in such a deep tumble, even in the most lucky fall. From this height, approximately three-meters, you could even lose your life with relative ease.
The body, however, was found in a position similar to that of yoga, sitting cross-legged with his arms folded and his hands clutched convulsively and inset each under the opposite armpits.
The facial expression that the victim had maintained, in addition to the posture assumed, suggested the explanation of the horrible death (suffered by cardiac arrest).
The face was distorted into a kind of sinister grin, similar to that which formerly was attributed as the effect of the ingestion of “sardonia”, the famous “ranunculus sceleratus” on which derives the latin based word “sardonic”; my grandfather wrote this in his report.
This was a symptom, in spite of the similarity of the grin to a laugh, of the fact that the subject must have suffered a lot and felt an uncontrollable, convulsive fear, or other similar and equally strong and horrible feeling; and that feeling then unleashed the event of the deadly bursting of an artery.
The body was as hard as stone for the rigor mortis, the fingers, moreover, confirmed the explanation of death by panic heart attack, which occurred about four o’clock in the morning. In fact, they were almost stuck under the skin and the muscle that seized, which had been damaged by the grip and visibly swollen.
Visiting the place it was not difficult to clarify in a fairly accurate way the whole situation. The walls of the crypt were full of scorpions and tarantulas! The poor man went down there, he had lit the lamp, maybe at first he tried to jump in order to reach the opening and rise to the surface, but, seeing that he could not achieve it, he had started to inspect the place, possibly to find some useful tool.
That must have been the way he became horribly aware of the presence of the multitude of spiders, and without finding anything useful to flee away from there.
At first, perhaps his old phobia could have remained under control, but probably when some of those beasts had fallen, or had jumped on him, the panic must have invaded and dominated him completely.
Unable to get out, he had found no other better solution than to position himself as far as possible from the walls, in the center of the crypt, just below the opening where he was found, curled and stiff in the darkness of the progressing night. Waiting!
Perhaps if someone had been there, from about seven in the evening and for a few hours, he would have heard horrible cries and convulsive hysterical screams. This was deduced by the state of the trachea. But once his strength and his voice were exhausted, no more noises, perhaps only convulsive tears. No one had been there; everyone of the shocked and affected small population said so. Not one of the now horrified locals had heard anything that night.
The prolonged state of panic, the terror of having to spend a whole night trapped in there, the massive presence of his old enemies, who he felt or imagined coming closer and closer to him, and maybe threatening to crawl, unseen sooner or later, after the inevitable shutdown of the only available light, all mixed together lead to his death, and perhaps before to madness.
They ultimately caused a horrible and painful heart attack, which came after hours of unspeakable suffering, occurring in the silent darkness of a lonely obnoxious and unhealthy place.
We know that the mind cannot free itself from its obsessions in such situations, and it is quite impossible that the poor grave digger had managed to calm down even for a second, or to divert the mind form his phobias, thinking of something different but spiders and being buried alive.
Yes! A figure confirmed the resurgence of the old phobia, the unmistakable sign of two chelicerae on the neck. The bite had occurred before death, no doubt, seeing the state of the wound left.
It is sadly curious this story: the poor man had died in the place and in the way that frightened him the most, such a course and bad fate! Unifying his two phobias, the taphophobia, and while mobbed by his old arachnophobia that he thought he had finally defeated, with the (this time) useless help of science.