. . .Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. . .Hamlet, Act III, scene 1
. . .especially if, as in this case from North Carolina, conscience gets a little push from folklore.
We joke, in the hill country, about people so mean that they have to hire pallbearers when they die, but it’s a fact of life. (I can think of two such, right off the top of my head, both of whom died within a mile–opposite directions–of where I sit typing.) Asa Meters was such a man: greedy, grasping, a thorough rascal.
Communities can overlook, to some degree, greed and even a reasonable amount of rascality. At murder, though, they draw the line.
Asa Meters had a brother, younger and altogether a more pleasant character than Asa. He held, in the natural course of things, half the property the Meters family had owned from time immemorial. He was unmarried, and had no heirs save his older brother.
Knowing Asa’s meanness, then, the hillfolk knew that the brother’s death could not have been the accident Asa claimed it was. They had been out shearing sheep, so said Asa, and the brother had fallen off a mountain sled and–oh, it was such a sad thing!–landed on a pair of upturned shears; went right through him and pierced his heart.
Well, we all know that old story, arguably the oldest tale of murder in the world: Cain and Abel and how the murdered Abel’s blood cried out from the ground.
There were some who said they could hear Asa’s brother’s blood crying from Asa’s very hands.
Trouble was, they had no proof that would stand up in court.
Now Asa had, with his usual–ahem–thriftiness made the cheapest burial for his dead brother that he could make–a pine box thrust into a hasty, shallow pit on a slight slope behind the house, with not even so much as a cedar sapling planted to mark its place.
Maybe Asa knew that other superstition, that you never plant a cedar tree, because once it’s tall enough to shade your grave, you’ll die. Or maybe he just wanted people to forget altogether that that grave was there.
Time went on and Asa’s greed reached a new pitch of meanness. He decided to have that hillside cleared off to plant rye–not even sparing his brother’s grave.
And that was where he messed up, once and for all.
He hired a man named Henry Holt to come plow up the hillside for him. Now Henry Holt was as appalled as everyone else about Asa Meters’ planned destruction of his brother’s resting place, but Henry had a plan; he was going to make Asa Meters confess to his brother’s murder. Holt knew the old folk ways, and knew that he could take the brother’s skull, set it above Asa’s head, out of reach of water–
and that skull would bind Asa to tell the truth, at long last.
It took Henry Holt only a day to plow up the hillside. He set the sad bones of Asa’s brother aside to be reburied elsewhere, and, just about dark, sneaked the skull into the house and set it in the loft, above the fireplace.
Asa Meters had been away from home that day. When he came in, Henry Holt was waiting for him.
Asa went over and stirred up the fire–which movement placed him immediately below the loft, where his brother’s grinning skull waited.
Henry Holt said, That was all a lie, warn’t it, Asa Meters? You kilt yore own brother out there.
Asa never said a word, but he began to tremble from head to foot.
The skull’s dark magic was working.
Asa completely lost his appetite, couldn’t take a mouthful to eat. The neighbors said it was because, when he tried, the dead brother’s ghost swooped down from the loft and yanked the food away and threw it in the fire before Asa could take a bite.
Asa complained, to the few who came to check on him, that he couldn’t sleep at night, either–an insomnia the hill people attributed to the dead brother’s shade sitting on his chest, trying to smother him.
Asa took to sitting up all night by the fireplace. Sometimes, according to the neighbors, he would grab a hickory stick and slap at the air around him. Beatin’ off that ghost, they said knowingly.
They still had no proof of murder that they could take to the law, but they could see, before their eyes, that Asa Meters was dying–
and of the dark power of that skull in the loft.
Finally Asa passed on.
And most probably, they did have to hire pallbearers.
The story of Asa Meters and his brother’s skull comes from John Harden’s great 1954 collection of North Carolina ghost tales, Tar Heel Ghosts.