Howard Street Cemetery,
As I dug into the damp soil with fervour, the neighbouring air clung onto my shoulders like a damp, musty blanket. Or could it be my guilt feeding on itself and getting heavier every minute?
“Honesty is a luxury an impoverished father cannot afford!” My darker side berated and I paused to catch my breath, inside a waist-deep illegal grave that I had been digging.
The blood-splattered body covered in a shabby shroud lay by my side. It had been unceremoniously dragged at the cemetery gates by two prominent men of the town. Though their faces were covered, I recognised their burnished gold finger rings that bore their family heirloom. Could they already sense my avarice? Or maybe my derisory presence did not threaten them! In muffled tones, one of them asked me to bury the corpse and the other threw a bag of money at me. Then off they went, as I set out to do their dirty work.
As a rule, an unidentified or unclaimed body would not escape the paperwork by the sexton and the sheriff’s inspection, but these were the dark times. For the last few months, the witch trials were in full swing and the body count was piling up. With the so-called vessels-of-evil meeting their maker every day, the sheriff, the Church and the sexton were overworked. They had sat me down and instructed me in a jargony talk to bury the bodies without much ado. The bodies could go putrid and spread disease. These were, the ‘scarlet women’ and ‘jezebels’ and it was imperative to bury them as soon as possible. For my time and efforts, I was given the sanction to bury their remains with minimal paperwork. This, as per the men of rectitude, was an act of faith that would earn me heavenly graces. Of course, paying a destitute grave digger better for doing triple the duties he usually did never crossed their holy minds.
Hitherto, I had stayed loyal to the church tenets, despite being a non-believer. But recently, things had changed. I had an ailing daughter afflicted with a near-fatal blood condition who needed regular medicines and three hearty meals so that she could recuperate. Mary’s draughts and this money were all that stood between her and imminent death. With more and more herbalists being burnt at stake, Mary had warned me that the medicines would get costlier.
I sighed and decided to think brighter thoughts. I could already see some colour on Susy’s otherwise pale cheeks and her appetite was almost back to normal. Just a few more doses of Mary’s ‘famous’ draught and Susy would be able to walk and play like other kids. This money, unholy as it was, would go a long way for Susy and me. Maybe I should get Mary a little token of appreciation too. After all, she never hustled me for money if I couldn’t pay her immediately.
Climbing out of the ditch, I pushed the corpse into the pit. Then I put a slab of granite over to construct a small, unmarked grave.
Drained and sweaty, I turned back to walk away as a loud crack resonated in the hushed cemetery like a clasp of thunder.
All my years at the job, never had I ever seen or felt anything even remotely eerie. Today, however, I turned back and saw her. In dawning horror, I realised it was Mary, my daughter’s healer.
She stood over her own grave, looking as pale as death. Her usually round face was bashed at the temple and blood gushed from her stab wounds like a watering pot. It fell over the granite in clots as large as a fist. My hands trembling, I looked at her torn bodice and teeth marks over her face and neck. By Jove, had they violated and murdered her?
The air smelled acrid and as I drew in my chest felt tight, I buckled over and vomited, disgusted at myself. “Mary.” I looked up, but she was gone.
At her gravestone, lay a bed of newly hatched scorpions. Then, an ebony pincer emerged from within and climbed out the crack in the granite. I watched horrified as an enormous scorpion stretched its pincers and started to devour the meat of its own freshly hatched litter in relish. The crunching sounds continued as I half-ran-half-crawled out of the cemetery fearing for my soul for the first time in my life.
“Father, is Mary back? My medicine vial is almost empty.” Susy spoke from her bed.
It had been two days since that night. I looked at my child, who had finally started hoping she could play with her friends. How do I tell her that I had helped bury her only chance at life? And that now my sins were haunting me?
Pretending to change her sheets, I averted my eyes. Without Mary, who would treat Susy? Where would I get her medicine? Last night, she had a high fever and had developed such rigours, I was afraid she was going to have fits again. If the word got out, that I had a child who got convulsions, the church would step in. Would they go so far as to accuse a fourteen-year-old Susy of being possessed by the Devil and hang her? The thought dropped like a lead block in the pit of my stomach.
Abruptly, Susy went rigid. “Release a scorpion among gravestones. Paint a red circle around it. Burn a blue pyre to set the red on fire. The scorpion ran all around it, to its misery it was tied.” She mumbled with unblinking eyes.
“The scorpion finally stung itself and died.” Susy seized.
It had been six days since Susy took her last draught. Her bone pains were insidious but stark.
The situation grew desperate every minute.
“Mary’s draughts and poultices were helping her recover. She is a sick child, not possessed.” I spoke to Abigail, our old neighbour.
“I believe you, but will they? Did you hear that they prosecuted Amelia, Joseph’s seventeen-year-old today? She will be pressed to death at the dawn. If I were you, I would go either looking for Mary or run away somewhere with Susy!”
“I have searched far and wide.” My panic returned. “Most healers have gone into hiding.”
“Don’t blame them. I heard whispers that Mary has gone into hiding because she was, you know, one of them witches.” Abigail put poultices on Susy’s burning forehead.
“She was one of the most gentle and generous souls I have ever known.” I hollered at Abigail. And yet you wronged her. My conscience cackled.
It was raining cats and dogs when I broke into Mary’s home that night. She practised out of a small room in her basement and had always marked her vials with patient names. If she had set something aside for Susy, before she was… a man could only hope.
Carrying a candle, I approached her cluttered table. A few broken vials lay there, none bore Susy’s name. I opened a drawer underneath and pushed my hand to the deep end to feel for more vials.
An excruciating pain shot up my arm as I saw, with dawning horror, a large black scorpion crawling out the drawer. Doubled over in pain and sweating profusely despite the cool room, I fell to the floor. My heart fluttered like the wings of a butterfly and the corners of my vision grew hazy. Just as I was convinced that I would at that moment meet my maker, Mary’s spirit came to me again and hovered around. Then, she took my stung finger in her bloody hand, took a tiny flask out of her tattered pocket and poured two drops of a red liquid over the bite.
The pain in my hand reached a crescendo and I passed out.
When I came to my senses, the floor next to me was covered in fresh blood spatters. As I got up to run away, I slipped in her blood. It was then that I saw it. A dagger covered in blood lay hidden just under her table. Was this her murder weapon?
The next day was equally dreary and humid. I sat by Susy’s bed holding her bony hand as she writhed in pain. Was Susy paying for my sins? I made a decision then and there. For sake of Susy’s soul as well as mine, I had decided to approach the church and the sexton and tell them of her body.
“…and this is the truth. Mary did not go into hiding because she was afraid of being prosecuted. She was killed by two of the Town’s dignitaries. I was paid to keep my mouth shut and bury her body. Here is the additional evidence.” I laid before the church and the sheriff the murder weapon hoping, they would recover fingerprints.
The parish had gone silent. Those who I had accused were Mary’s distant cousins, a reputed family. I took the authorities all to the grave I had dug and exhumed her body. Then the local sheriff took over. My fate still hung in the balance, but I had worse concerns as my only daughter lay on her death bed.
At a distance I saw Abigail running at me, gesticulating frantically. My heart stopped. Did Susy breathe her last on her lonely bed? Was that my retribution? Pushing every person that came my way, without even waiting to listen to what Abigail was trying to say, I ran towards my shanty howling like a kicked dog.
Susy was sitting up in her bed, having a loaf of bread. “Hello, father!”
Abigail arrived panting behind me, clutching her sides. “I was…sitting…beside her…the room…went..all hot. I…think I…passed out. When I came to my senses, she was sitting up on the bed, sweating buckets, asking for water in a clear and steady voice. I ran…to…fetch..you.”
After some jibber-jabber and a lot of gratitude aimed at the Almighty, Abigail left and Susy smiled at me with large brown eyes.
“What happened Susy?” I asked her warily.
“Mary came to me father! The room went all bright and pink at the edges. For a moment, I thought I was floating in the air. Then I saw Mary and she took my face in her hands and fed me some draught from…this.”
On my trembling palm, Susy placed a large vial full of golden liquid with her name neatly written on the top. It seemed to contain enough drug to last her for a month. It would suffice. Beneath Susy’s name, I saw a tiny hieroglyph. As I squinted to read the symbol, Susy quipped. “It’s a scorpion. It’s the venom that the draught is made up of.”
“What? How do you know?” I asked her horrified as things started to slowly fall in place.
“Mary had told me once. She reared a cyclone of scorpions in her house for medicinal purposes.”
“A colony of scorpions father, it’s called a cyclone. She had told me and then swore me to secrecy. Said their venom had magical properties that would heal my blood condition. She told me today, that I could tell you so.”
And with that Susy yawned, turned on her side and went to sleep.
That night, I sat on my threshold and looked at the heavens. It was quiet today, but not the eerie kind. This week, there would be no witch trials, as the sheriff was busy with the Mary Collins murder case.
I closed my eyes and rubbed my finger at the spot where the scorpion had stung me and prayed after a long time.
Perhaps there was a God.
- Name: Grave digger
- Place: Cemetery
- Animal: Scorpion
- Thing: Blood spatter