3,581 words – approx. 12 minutes
The light that George Hepworth held up to the window was close to extinction. His eyesight was good, but even with this advantage and the aid of the forceful moon overhead he could barely make out the figures against the horizon. Four men, each with a spade and a belief. In the half-light George fancied that he could see them, creeping in the night as though it were an ambush, moving closer to the copse that he knew to be there even though it was too dark to see. Moving closer to the graveyard.
Closer to Elizabeth.
A wind snuck through the wooden beams of his cabin, causing the frame to creak and the flame encased in the glass of the lamp to flicker nervously. A sudden darkness overcame the room, one that at first George attributed to the candle’s demise at the hands of the same gust that licked at his fingers and turned his arms to goose-flesh. He looked at his light in anger, and was surprised to see it still glowing, albeit softly; then returning to the window he saw that the source of this gloom was in fact a cloud, smothering the moon and snuffing out its light.
It passed quickly. When the moon again lit his view there was no sign, real or imagined, of the four. Perhaps they had not left the tavern yet. Perhaps it was not too late to talk them out of this nonsense. But even as he thought to throw his coat over his night-clothes and start out of the door, a ragged cheer came up from the distance, as if in response to his intention.
“Come, men!” That was Dr John Coleman – George recognised his low, hearty voice. There was no roll-call he could hear, only the heavy crump of boots in step as they set off on their short expedition.
The sound of their marching came nearer, nearer than he had expected. Did they pass this way to show deference? Or defiance? At the sound’s loudest – George could not bring himself to look from the window now – he was surprised not to hear an accompanying babble, the dissociating chatter of soldiers. The thought occurred to him, without pleasure, that they might be afraid. He saw them now in his mind, gripping their spades, teeth clenched, men with the certainty that by the time the night was out they would be marked by common experience. Even now, at this late stage, he considered action. Might they take him to be possessed if he did? Possessed or drunken. He was fit, but against four young men with iron spades it would be no contest, and enough sense remained in him to dismiss the suggestion. Yet even as his body and rational mind remained inside, some treasonous shadow of himself stepped out to face the four. As he repeated his excuses to himself – and with each successive rehearsal they sounded more persuasive – he felt a shame that he could not follow this spectre outside.
It was twelve days since they had buried Elizabeth. It had snowed that day, not heavily, but enough that each spadeful of earth heaved onto her crude wooden coffin had entombed several flakes with her. There had been no ceremony, only the labour of George himself and Sam Brown – the same Sam who now brought up the rear of the procession steadily making its way towards the copse. The soil had frozen the previous night – a final cruelty, or so George had thought before this one.
Twelve days in the ground and now they would exhume her.
For a moment George had started at the intruder, until he saw whose figure filled his doorway.
“George,” said the visitor.
“Sam,” came the reply. He gave no invitation to enter, and so Sam stayed in the doorway, his frame blocking most of the light from outside.
“I was sorry for your loss,” said Sam. When George said nothing, he continued. “Elizabeth was a fine girl, and would she have lived-”
“But perhaps she does live?” said George. Sam exhaled and touched his forehead.
“It is not living, my friend.”
“So you believe it too.”
It was now that Sam stepped into the room, taking off his cap as he did so. He was a large man, fat in the way that even those who must feed off scraps in summer and go without in winter can be. The authority he exuded was simple, and heightened by the fact that the man he visited had the stale breath of one who has been drinking.
He did not speak at first, but crossed the room to the opposite window, aware the whole time that his host’s eyes watched him.
“If it would put the people’s minds at rest. Lord knows we cannot survive more leaving – why, just last week Jeremiah’s boy fled!”
“He did not flee, he went looking for work.”
“And why was there no work here, in Shrewsbury? You cannot contend that this has not changed to a desperate situation. This town is draining, it is losing the young and the fit, and soon it will be left with just the old and the sick, and this disease will take them quickly. Even before the sickness came we were dying.”
It was true. The population now stood at less than a third of that three summers earlier.
“And the answer – the answer to this superstition is to assuage such impossible fears? Unless,” George added slyly, “Unless you share them.”
Sam sighed again and turned to face his host, fixing eyes on his. It was the first time he had done so that evening.
“You must consider the facts. Prior to Elizabeth’s passing, but three of our number fell victim to the disease. Yet since, there are a dozen sick or dead also. Is it not worth every method of investigation at our disposal to uncover a reason, and so prevent the destruction of Shrewsbury from this plague? Lord knows we cannot continue as we are.”
The appeal was simple. The force of Sam’s logic, the sheer brutal rationality of it, could not be challenged. George’s tired mind strained, searching for a crack through which he might still find a route to a conclusion that would not be the defilement of his daughter’s dead body.
Sensing if not a triumph then at least a resolution, Sam went on. “It is also the opinion of Dr John Coleman that Shrewsbury would benefit from this.” He spoke the town’s name as though it were a living thing. “I will not repeat his offer here, but know that it still stands. When you have rested, perhaps we can talk again. We leave tomorrow at ten.”
With that, he tugged the cap back onto his head and left George in his house. Crossing the threshold, he made the sign of the cross on himself. It had not been an easy visit, but his determination was unshaken. It had had to be done.
Elizabeth had sickened quickly. That was sometimes the way. In five days her cough had deepened from a minor inflection of her breathing to an all-consuming heave, as though her body sought to pull itself inside-out.
These efforts, which so quickly developed an astonishing regularity, made her unable to sleep, and this in turn gave rise to an exhaustion that spread through her. She thrashed in her sheets so much that it appeared impossible she could be so weak, unable even to bring a cup to her lips – or perhaps these exertions were the cause of her strengthless body. Not asleep but not awake, in the swirling landscape of illness, sometimes nearing the borders of lucidity before the world shifted below her feet and all maps out of that country were useless.
Had it been a slower descent, George thought, would he be now trapped in the cabin he had shared with her, while outside men neared her resting place? He banished the thought from his mind – he would not have wished upon her another day of that suffering.
She died in the night. George had wept, but it was not in the unrelenting helpless way he had when Caroline died four months earlier, starved and so feverish that by the end she did not recognise him or feel his touch as he minutely adjusted the sheets thrown over her for comfort. This time he was prepared, he had the tools with which to shape his grief; tools he had hoped never to need, but tools nonetheless.
John Coleman, the physician, had visited that first time, sat a small distance away from the bed. George had watched with anger – the man did not dare near his wife, yet presumed to venture his opinions while he, George Hepworth, would wipe her slicked forehead and was riven anew by every eruption from within her chest. With Elizabeth there had been no pretence that John Coleman’s presence could have made any difference, and he had remained outside, whether through terror or respect.
Throughout the short illness George had sat with his daughter. He alone seemed not to fear catching it, and there was talk that perhaps he wanted to, that perhaps loss had sent him mad, as it could, although he did not hear it. He had and sought no help from anyone. The remaining inhabitants of the town had stayed away; only John Coleman had even come near. And Billy lay wretched and feeble as ever, his malformed body and slow wits no more use to his father than if he too had been dead. It shamed George to think it, but it would have been a lesser loss had Billy, not the strong and lively Elizabeth, who had passed.
But Elizabeth it was, and within a week of her death there had been five more. George had attended to his duty as a townsman as best he could, comforting the grieving as a distraction from his own losses and ensuring they had plentiful supplies of meat and wine. He was aware of the murmurs of some of his more excitable neighbours, but paid them no heed; in a small New England town such gossip was inevitable.
This changed one frost-bitten morning, when a knock roused George from his bed. Outside stood ten or so men from the village, and at their head stood Sam, flanked by John Coleman and Jacob Phillips.
“We apologise for so early an interruption, George,” said Sam. He gave a small bow. George said nothing. “Last night the townsfolk met, and we wished to inform you as soon as possible of the outcome.”
“I was not told of any meeting,” said George, finding his voice.
“We thought it best that you were not there. We have no desire to cause you any further pain.” This was Jacob, a sallow man whose cheekbones cast shadows down the side of his face.
“What do you mean?”
“The recent deaths have come quickly, moreso than before. We believe them to be the work of… something unknown.” In the crowd behind him there was a general nodding and murmuring of agreement. “But there are rumours. It is said that one who dies can sustain themselves on the life of others. This is a wasting illness, and we cannot discount any possibility.”
Realisation dawned sickly on George. He thought of Elizabeth, the cold blue of her lips when the last breath shuddered from her. What Jacob were suggesting was absurd – that his daughter, his Elizabeth, was somehow bleeding the townsfolk dry. “And John, you believe this?”
“There was a vote last night.”
“A vote on what?”
“We will set off tomorrow to the graveyard,” said Sam. “If there is indeed a creature sickening the town we must put a stop to it as soon as we can. I assure you, George, that we would not contemplate such an action except in the direst of circumstances. And it says nothing of you nor Elizabeth if our fears are true – it is some demon, not her living soul.” He paused.
“We would be honoured to have you join us,” broke in John Coleman.
A small, weak laugh escaped George’s lips as he took this information in.
“I venture that it would ease your suffering too,” said Sam.
“My suffering!” George exploded. “What do you know of my suffering? To have lost a wife and a daughter, and to have only Billy, a cripple?” He gestured at the second bed in the room where Billy slept, rasping hoarsely. Sam and John looked downwards respectfully, but Jacob held his gaze.
“Nevertheless, at the meeting the vote was unanimous. We must-”
“To hell with your meetings! It is a poor reflection on you all that you would approach me with a decision without having requested my presence, and seek to enlist me in such a scheme. And more discreditable still that this decision should be predicated on such superstition. Talk of the dead rising, and feasting on the living. What exactly do you intend to do? You would disgrace Elizabeth, yourselves, and this town!”
He seemed to lose all sense of himself during this astonishing diatribe, and towards its accusatory climax he found himself turned to face the window. Outside the morning’s grey light softened the darkness.
“See reason, George!” appealed John Coleman. “Many of us have lost family to this consuming sickness. It is in all our interests to see that it is ended.”
“What will you do?” shouted George. On the last word he slammed his palm into the wall of the house.
“We will take and burn the heart,” said Jacob calmly. George remembered him, years past, frightening the chickens that scrabbled in the loose dirt. He would chase them and not seem to tire in spite of the futility of his efforts, his eyes lit with certainty. There had never been a question of him leaving; this was his town. George felt something unnameable and uncontrollable rise within him at this memory, which seemed to also contain the present and the future. The men watched as George’s defeated body shook with heavy sobs. Then they left, quietly closing the door behind them, keeping out the cold morning.
George sat restlessly. His fingers drummed on the writing-desk and from time to time they reached for the jug to make the time pass a little quicker. But even as he sought to speed the evening’s passage he knew that every quickened moment brought the men ever nearer to the place he had buried Elizabeth not two weeks earlier.
They had offered to have him join them. An offer! To look once more upon Elizabeth’s pointed face was unthinkable. And to go for any other reason, to go for the assurance of what he already knew, would be so much an insult as what was planned for her in any case. He could not do it, and instead was trapped not by fear he would be attacked if he left his house, but by the knowledge that he could do nothing, and so it was as well to stay here and do nothing as to go outside and do nothing and peer down as the dirt thinned over his daughter’s head.
These men with their fear of night-ghouls, and their God, and their superstitions, he thought with scorn. They were afraid because they did not understand. And how much there was to fear!
Yet, in spite of his anger and certainty, doubt crept at the dark perimeter of his thoughts. Perhaps she was clouding his judgement too. Who knew the wrongs the dead could inflict upon the living? And if they found she was indeed responsible for these deaths; if they found fresh blood in her heart, what then? And if not? He was not a religious man. He did not believe in a life after this, nor that an ‘investigation’, as Sam had so reasonably put it, would disturb the soul of his daughter. George Hepworth was a deeply practical man, yet he felt an unease. For the possibility could not be entirely dismissed that there was some evil occurring, and at Sam’s visit only hours ago he had felt himself yielding to unreasoned arguments that he was powerless to repel.
He had by now become quite drunk, and did not feel ashamed, nursing his anger and sadness. If he slept it would soon be over, but he knew he could not sleep. A letter lay half-written on the surface in front of him and for a moment he took up the quill as if to continue it, but the words were not there. He was blinded as one lost in thought, whose attention has turned inward, can be.
Whatever the disease and its reason for spreading now, it struck George that his daughter had been doubly unfortunate: first, to die; and second, to have done so, for this certainly was the impetus behind the residents’ crazed actions, as the first in a worse outbreak of the disease than had been known before.
He stepped heavily the three paces over to his bed, suddenly tired. The creak of a floorboard startled him, and as he turned, he was confronted with a terrible thing looming towards him from where it seemed before there had been nothing, with blank parchment stretched taught for a face.
“Billy!” he cried in fear, and it would have been the last thing he cried before the thing exacted whatever punishment it had in mind, but as the word left his lips the monstrous, grasping ghoul revealed itself to be Billy himself, hair matted and stuck with the sweat of the night to pallid skin. He had stolen – so quietly! – from his bed and now stood, arms outstretched in front of his father.
For a drunken instant the thought occurred to George that he should strike him, but instead as Billy began to retch and cough he touched his clammy arm and guided him without resistance back to bed. There were nights when the moans from his son kept him awake. This was not one such night. George lay on the narrow bed with him, pulling the sheet over them both as best he could. And, weary with drink and the day, slept.
The grass had not yet regrown over the mound, and its edges were clearly visible even in the pale light that poured down upon it. Sam pushed the shovel down with the heel of his boot and levered a clump of earth from the top of the grave. It came away easily; it had not been tightly packed. He shivered – was it loose from the oversight of the men who had shovelled it on, or because this pit’s inhabitant nightly repacked it?
Neither had seen a corpse before, and it adhered to the entirely opposed expectations of neither. To Sam it seemed obscenely life-like, while to Jacob to his right, it seemed that its few days buried beneath the earth had visited terrible degradation upon the body of Elizabeth Hepworth. Her skin seemed scraped back, and he would not be surprised if, upon turning the body, they were to find it bunched at the back, so tightly was it now drawn over her skull.
But both could see her bloated stomach, and a collective gasp stole from the four of them.
“May God have mercy,” whispered one.
“Here,” said John Coleman calmly as he stepped forwards holding a small, sharp knife. Jacob looked in horror at the instrument and held his hands as if to ward it off.
“It looks like her still,” was all he could say.
“But it is not her.” There was a harshness to the physician’s voice. No-one spoke as he looked around at their unwilling eyes. “Very well, I shall do it myself.”
He crouched down next to the grave. More than one of the men around him considered leaving at this point, for a cold fear spread among them. But they stood firm as John Coleman pulled the thin shirt in which she had been buried aside and slid in the blade, puncturing the skin in the way he had done when he had cut a careless bullet from Mary Bellingham’s breastbone three months earlier.
There was a terrible hiss as he did this that stiffened the standing men, although John Coleman did not flinch. In their retellings and, over time, their memories, this occurred at precisely the point that the moon’s light was extinguished by a heavy cloud; in fact there was a gap of several seconds between the two, and it was shortly thereafter that the lamplight illuminated the blue-grey heart as it was held out to them.
No discussion was necessary. Their fears confirmed, Daniel lay down the kindling he had brought, some way from the grave less Elizabeth attempt to thwart their efforts. Within moments the fire had been lit and the organ placed atop it, and they stayed until only ash remained.
There was a light wind and, blessedly, it blew away from them, sparing them the stench of the smoke as they walked home in silence. Slowly the yellow blaze of the lamp swung from the scene, throwing shadows then light over the path, shadows then light, shadows then light. Until all that was left was shadows, and they were not true shadows, for they were indistinguishable from the black of the ground in the night.
It began to rain.
Inspired, and no doubt with all sorts of historical liberties taken, by this article about the New England vampire panic. It was too fascinating a topic to ignore – and let me indulge my slightly old-fashioned voice, which is always nice to do.