In October our daughter died. The plague. It swept away entire families. Like leaves caught in the wind. An awful sickness. Stout men and robust women it ran roughshod on, trampled underfoot. But the very young and very old it lurked in. It drew their existence like a leech. Perhaps they fought it harder? Stubbornly refusing to relinquish life having had so little, or having so little left, of it? Our daughter was very young. I remember her, being read to by her mother after dark. The candlelight dancing in her eyes, as clear as spring water. Those cheeks flushing as red as rose hips when she caught her mother smiling at her. The memories are delicate. Her lying in our bed. Towards the end. Handing me her cloth doll, Lucy. Asking me to take care of her whilst she was sick. How small that doll looked in my rough hands. Her mother singing to her, even after the candle by the bedside had sputtered out. Singing to her in the dark. Long after it had all ended.
We buried her under the apple tree just outside the house. I dug the grave and carried her out. I buried her with her doll. Life carried on. The plague carried on. People said it was sent by God. I knew then why, as a soldier, my prayers had gone unanswered. Why, when I finally fell to my knees and beseeched him;
“Father, I am tired, take me away from all this death”.
He had ignored me. He never becomes sick of death.
I continued to hunt in the forest and fish in the stream. I spent longer there than before. Spring was being born again in the woods. All that had hidden under the cold ground from the wind and frost once more slid up from the earth and exploded into verdant life.
My wife continued to tend her garden. It had been her idea to bury our daughter under the tree. The flowers she planted thrived and almost buried the trunk of it.
I had always loved my wife in a quiet way. That was not to say my love for her was insignificant. Slow waters run deep and the way I felt for her was as clear and powerful as the day I had first met her. But now, afterwards, that silence became a prison. I should have told her how I felt. How my heart boomed a tattoo of wretched admonishment that, for all my strength, I had not been able to save our little girl. How, in nightmares, I fought monstrous swarms of rats and insects that overwhelmed me and woke me slick with sweat and holding in screams. How my blood ran cold each morning and evening as I passed that unbowing tree. I think, perhaps, she thought me cold. Indifferent to our loss. Between us there grew a distance. Distance became a chasm. You could have run a river through it.
In October she lost her life. She had to put up twice the fight our daughter did but it took her in half the time. Maybe the plague had learned, in that year, slithering from victim to victim, ever more elegant ways to seek out pinhole weakness in their hearts and wreak its terrible hatred upon them? Within it worked its damage quickly, but without it had all the slow, unstoppable terror of a fever dream. As days counted down to the anniversary of losing our child it became a hideous vaudeville. As each morning she woke a little worse, possessing less of that light in those large, green eyes she had gifted our daughter, fate seemed to laugh and clap along to the unfolding tragedy, And, of course, came the day, came the hour, she slipped away into eternal sleep, leaving only her hand in mine.
I buried her under the tree along with our daughter. It was a hard winter coming and the ground was coarse and unyielding. I hacked at the soil with my spade, my back running with sweat. I lay her in the earth. I stood a while and looked down on her. It was a bitter cold day and clear. There was a winter moon barely visible against the pale, grey sky I filled in the grave and went to the forest.
Life carried on. The plague carried on. People said it was sent by God. I prayed each night that he would appear before me in my dreams that I might allow him to anoint me with his sickness. Or else close my hands around his throat.
I was gathering my axe and tools to chop wood in the forest when the priest came. I stood in the doorway with the axe in my hand as he headed down the path through the field and up to the house.
“I heard about Sarah, I am so sorry. You have lost so much” he said.
“Everything. I have lost everything”.
“These times are sent to try us, my son”.
I said nothing and shifted the axe in my hand.
“Has the body…?” he started.
His eyes were as hard and dry as small stones. I looked towards the tree.
“It’s where she chose for Abigail”.
His voice was like dust in a riverbed. He knew because he had had this conversation with my wife almost a year ago, to the day.
“I know your wife had her own… ideas. But she’s gone now, God rest her, and I remember you from the church in your youth. You must do what is right. I believe I can still arrange for their bodies to be properly interred. For their sake”.
I looked over his shoulder to the tree and garden. The earth was bare. The flowers hiding beneath the soil from the frosts of winter. I looked him in the eye.
“I have to go to the forest. I need wood for the fire”.
“I know it pricks your conscience, John. I can take care of everything. People in the village are talking”.
I shifted the axe to my shoulder and grabbed my bag of tools. I stepped out of the doorway and the priest stepped aside.
“I know they talk. They say it was sent by God”.
I walked off towards the forest. I could feel his eyes on my back. A cold rain began to fall.
I was laying in my bed, awake, when I first heard it. The night was cold and still and the noise carried easily. A scratching, scraping sound. Earth being flung. Rock grinding against rock. I thought, perhaps, a fox or badger was in the garden but the noise was too loud for that. And then I heard a moan. I got out of bed and went to the window, squinting my eyes against the bright light of the moon in that clear sky.
There was a hunched figure kneeling beneath the tree. Its hands were in the dirt. It was digging up the earth. I squeezed my eyes tight but when I opened them the figure remained. As clear in the chill light of the moon as if the noonday sun was shining. For a mad second I thought it was that dessicated priest, coming to inflict his funerary rights. But, no, he was too holy and pure to be digging in the dirt at night and the figure was dressed in ragged clothing, its hair a wild mess of patchy, white strands. I watched it digging. It seemed weak and clumsy, driven only by a desperation. At moments it moaned in its efforts, a hideous mournful sound that raised the hackles on my arms. One of the pathetic, chattering villagers probably. Come to set right a perceived wrong. Anger flared up inside me. What right did anyone have to be desecrating graves by the moonlight, wherever they lay!? I stepped out of the bedroom and headed to the front door, grabbing a hammer from my toolbag as I went. I threw open the door and stepped outside the house. The figure was gone. I scanned the garden for a thick moonlit shadow that might betray them. There was no sign. I thought for a moment I had perhaps imagined the whole thing. My sleep had been uneasy of late. But as I walked over to the tree I saw the earth disturbed. Long troughs of dirt dug out, several feet deep. Fingermarks in the cold soil. I looked around for tracks. None led to, or left, the tree. I considered going back to fetch a shovel. I looked up at the bare moon. I got to my knees and started to fill in the earth with my hands.
Life went on, as it must, but what passed for life changed. The garden went untended and, by spring, the flowers never reappeared as I thought they would. Sarah must have planted them afresh each year. I knew nothing of flowers. I kept the house as best I knew how but it did not come naturally. Why clean what will only become dirty again? Why bother?
I spent a lot of time in the forest and by the stream. Leaving each morning at dawn and returning at dusk. Once my trapping and fishing was done I would wander into the deeper reaches of the forest. Places I had not ventured before. One day I found a small ruined building, deep within a thicket. The stone was ancient and crumbling, strangled by moss and lichen. I wondered who had lived here? How long ago? There were no other signs to communicate the age of what remained of the building, or what purpose it had ever stood. Just stones, crumbling and alone, hidden in the depths of the wood.
The priest came to visit me again. I presumed he must have come several times before to find me away in the forest because he was there at dawn one morning, before I had left the house.
“John, how are you?”.
“I’m fine, thank you”.
“I hear you haven’t been to the market in weeks?”.
A small sneer flickered across his face and was promptly suppressed. It pleased me to see it and it pleased me that he had to conceal it.
“Come to the service this Sunday. You need to be around people”.
I remembered the figure digging beneath the tree on that winter night.
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard from your people about them making midnight visits to this house, have you?”.
“I don’t understand how you mean?”.
“No attempts to ‘do God’s work’?”.
“John, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s happened?”.
“Of course not. Nothing comes out of that confessional, does it? When you’re in the pulpit this Sunday, you tell them from me; I catch anyone else on my land, I’ll be burying them on it!”.
I grabbed my axe and pushed past him, heading for the forest.
At dusk I came home and sat in Sarah’s rocking chair. It had laid empty since she passed. I don’t know why I did it, but I sat there. I picked up a book she used to read to our daughter. I dusted off the cover and opened it. The story was about two children who are abandoned by their parents in the woods and get kidnapped by a witch. I had heard the story a hundred times or more. At some point I fell asleep in the chair. I dreamt of the ruined house I had found deep in the forest.
I was awoken by the sound of digging in the garden. I sat for some time, rocking in the chair, listening. The light thrown through the window by the moon waxed and waned as clouds passed in front of it. I heard dirt being dredged up, punctuated by the strange forlorn sounds from last time. Eventually I stood and went to the door. I stepped out into the crisp spring night. The moon was shrouded in clouds as grey and gaunt as cobwebs. I looked over to the tree expecting the figure to have already disappeared but it was still crouched there, frantically digging in the earth. The smell hit me as the light April breeze came blowing from the direction of the woods. The stench of decay. My stomach turned with the reek of blood and gas. Wet soil and putrefaction. My mind turned when I imagined its source. I called out;
“Hey! What the hell are you doing!?”.
My fists were clenched, but the figure continued to dig. I shouted again;
“Get away from there!”
Still, the figure dug at the soil, grey in the moonlight. I screamed;
And stepped towards it. No sooner had I placed my first foot forward then it turned towards me and my heart stopped beating in my chest. I knew now where the stench of death came from. The figure, clothed in rags, its black fingernails at the end of pale, wasted hands still held aloft to be thrust into the ground, stared at me with the sunken, bloody remnants of its eyes from within withered sockets. I stood, motionless, in its gaze. The stink stung my eyes. I fancied I could smell the foul breath from its panting. It stared at me and I stared straight back into those hollow eyes, as deep as any pit in Hell. Yellow, crumbling bone poked out wherever the flesh was sufficiently flayed to show it. It tilted its head slightly to observe me and what was left of its nose twitched. A bloated and cracked black tongue rolled out of its mouth, tasting the air. Slowly it turned back to the disturbed earth beneath the tree. I took another step and it continued to turn and stood and stumbled off, almost loping like a wolf, in the direction of the forest. I stood and watched it go. A thick cloud moved in front of the moon. I went to the tree and started to repack the earth. A single tear fell and was buried. I had not cried since I was a child.
It would not be the last night that I found the ghoul digging in the earth. Sometimes it would not appear for weeks. Sometimes it would appear several nights in a row. Some nights it would wake me from sleep, the sound of its longs ebony nails scratching on stone. Some nights I would catch the sound on the wind, either lying awake in my bed or rocking in Sarah’s chair. But come the night, in one form or another, it would always be there. Digging. I would go out and face it, the fetid smell of the crypt hitting me in waves. It’s gross and withered form haunting the moonlight as it frantically scrabbled in the soil.
Some nights I would stand and watch it in despair until it noticed me and fixed me with that sad and malicious gaze before it slunk off into the forest. Other nights my rage would boil over and I would scream and curse it;
“Go back to the pit! Leave them! Let them rest in peace!”
And it would growl and moan like a beast threatened before it sank away into shadows.
I thought to call the priest. Perhaps to bless, anoint and exorcise the ground, to send it back to its rest. But I feared, what if they take me for a madman? Lock me in the asylum on the hill? Who then would stop the figure from its infernal work? And so I left the priest alone.
One day in the forest I found myself within the thicket, amongst the ruins of that old, abandoned building. I had been seized by a madness that this was where the ghoul hauled itself from beneath the ground when it came to haunt my nights. I took a spade and dug all about in a mania, the sweat running down my brow. But there was nothing there. A few clay shards of a broken pot. The hilt of a knife. Forgotten things. Nothing.
Autumn came and the nocturnal visits of the lich became more frequent. I had no way to keep the date by this point. My ever less frequent visits to the village and market had stopped entirely by then. But I knew by the cycles of the moon and a feeling in my bones and blood why its torment was so regular. October was coming. My wife. My child. It had become so that October brought death. And this year it brought it manifest. So it was that, one year to the day since I dug in that cold, grey soil to bury my wife, the revenant appeared on the stroke of midnight under a pallid and eery moon.
Something in me was afire that night. A passion I had long since thought lost. I aimed to slaughter the ghoul. To rain down blow after blow with my axe ‘til I was showered in its blood. To murder it. To annihilate it. To bury it beneath the tree.
I sat in Sarah’s chair, the axe by my side. Still, like a preying wolf, gazing at the moon through the frosted pane. As soon as I heard the first scrabbling at the earth I was up! The axe haft, heavy in my grasp, comforted me and sured my beating heart. I stepped out into the moonlight and looked to the tree. There it was, hunched over and clawing at the soil. I pointed the axe head at it and roared;
“God damn you! I’ll send you straight back to Hell!”
It stopped and looked over its shoulder and pinned me with its hollow, malignant gaze. And it smiled. What was left of its wasted lips curling back to reveal black, receded gums and yellow, pin-like teeth in a cruel sneer. It stood and jerkily raised an arm that hung loose inside its ragged clothing and beckoned to me with one sallow finger. Fury clouded my vision and I raced towards it. It turned and fled towards the the forest in huge strides and with unnatural quickness. I followed it across the edge of the trees and deep into the woods, the wind roaring at my back.
It moved like quicksilver, somehow sliding through the dense branches that swung in the fierce wind and gouged my face and arms. Sometimes I thought I had lost its trail but then I almost fancied I heard it laughing, a dry vicious cackle, and I would look in that direction and catch the reflection of moonlight off sick, yellow bone. As the trees started to thin I gained ground on it. My hands tightened in readiness to wrap around its skinny throat, the axe had long since been knocked from my hands by the whipping of a branch. As it came into a large clearing I was close enough to taste the nauseating stench of its being on my tongue. It stumbled and fell and, as it turned onto its back I was on top of it! My hands clasped around its throat. My fingers sank into greasy, waxy skin and touched bone beneath. Insects crawled across my fingers as I throttled it. I stared down into its glassy sunken eyes as it writhed beneath me. A single word rattled in its loathsome throat;
My hands lost their grip. It stared up at me piteously. And what stared back was not some emissary of sin and fire. It was me. Rent and melted by death, wasted by the grave. But me. It was as if I stared down into the water of the River Styx and saw there a reflection of my own oblivion. My hands fell away. Hate and repulsion poured from the essence of me. It smiled. It mouthed the name again but the only sound was the branches blowing in the wind and leaves skittering on the soil. It put its head back and looked above us. I followed its gaze. From the thick branch of a tree arcing above us hung a noose, swaying sick and silent in the breeze. I went again to strangle the ghoul. My hands thrust out to grasp its neck. But it was gone. I was alone in the clearing. On my knees. My hands in the dirt. I looked up to see the noose still there. The bright full moon sat perfectly in its coil.