The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Bone-Fire

bonfire at night

Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.

Tonight is the night of the bone-fire.

When the days shorten and sharpen, and the nights go long and hard, we slaughter our cows and pigs and sheep, and salt the meat to dry, and tan the hides to wear.

But the animal bones we burn in a bone-fire, to feed our fields so that next year’s crops grow tall.

That’s how we did when I were a walker-baby. That bone-fire were a happy time, save for the one or two foolish childs all sad for the pig or lamb he named and loved.

I were that child, once.

But now I have nine years, so that counts six years since the Death has been on our people, since God has grown to hate and murder us. He hates the most the poorest ones, for we have the most suffered, and the most died. But in every house lies one or two or more whose flesh is turning in on itself and sprouting fiery wounds.

In every house or hut or hole, are piles of the dead.

In our hut, I have my own dear pile. My pa who went first, who is now stretched straight and rigid on his straw, and the rats run over him. My baby sister, who on the last day no longer looked a human creature, her flesh twisted by the swollen sores.

Now she lies still in the arms of my ma, who died the day after, holding her close.

The smell of our hut, now, the smell of it. I have slept with the cow three nights now, in the cold shed, on the dirty straw.

I am not dead. I think I am not dead.

Maybe I am part dead; maybe have caught some of the deadness from my pile.

I wait in the road until the men with the dead-cart come. I point to our house. They toss my small pile onto their huge one, three more purple bodies bloated and broken. My ma, my pa, the baby.

And I walk behind the groaning cart and the staggering horses. We wind through the village, doubling like a snake, twisting and turning, to confuse the spirits of the dead, so that they won’t come back.

We know the dead are angry to be dead, and we do not want them to find their way home.

On the other side of the village, just away from the houses, is the bone-fire.

I saw my pa die with eyes and mouth open in pain. I saw my ma die in madness, singing to my dead sister in her arms. I saw my pile of dead turn to fearful colors and sick smells.

But even for my eyes, this new kind of bone-fire, this towering blaze of hair and curling fingers and wide eyes, is a terrible thing to see.

But I stay, for the fire is warm, and I have not felt warm since my pa died and our fire went out. And the village is here, and men are drunk and singing, and women are shouting and weeping, and someone may drop a crust or bit of cheese or meat. They might.

And too I stay for to say goodbye to my dear pile of dead. I sit on the ground, my cold feet pulled up under some sacking, and watch them throw the bodies on the wild and roaring flames.

A little ways from me stands a girl who is not not shouting, not weeping. Not drunk.

Her face and dress are dirt-caked, her brown hair wild as a madwoman’s, but I know her. It’s Alice Button. Her father keeps pigs and her mother sells remedies. She’s 13, almost grown, and she was to marry apple-cheeked Oliver Molehouse at Christmas.

Oh: but it’s Oliver Molehouse they’re unloading from the cart right now.

Alice walks straight up to the fire, where Oliver lies, upside down, right up to his hanging face and its still-dripping sores. Her face is pale and strange in the wild orange light, and her eyes as mad as her hair.

Still Alice does not weep or shout.

She reaches under her apron and pulls out a little cloth remedy bag. She opens the bag, takes out a handful of something.

What are you doing, Alice Button?

She throws her handful — powders, I think, and dried herbs, and maybe some worse things, things that seem still half-alive and writhing—she throws them onto Oliver’s body.

At least, I think, I think she meant to throw the remedy on Oliver. But the wind is hot and wild around a bone-fire, hotter and wilder the bigger the fire, and this is the biggest of all.

So the powders and herbs and writhers are caught in an updraft, and blown high up into the air above the bone-fire.

Ah now she screams, now she is wild, as the powders and herbs and worse are held in night above the bone-fire for three moments, four, five.

Then Alice’s remedy falls, falls, falls, scattering all across the bone-fire.

For a moment, it’s as if the flames pause, hold just still, but for scattered sparks.

Then the roaring flames, taller than two men—somehow, in the next moment, the flames disappear. It’s as if some great breath below has sucked the fire into itself.

And then I see. It is the bodies themselves have sucked in the flames. Instead of devouring the bones, the flames now live inside the bones, and give them life, and make them move.

For now the great pile stirs. The bodies are moving.

Oliver is among the first to free himself. He slips down and staggers to his feet. His flesh is burnt and bubbling, and one eye is hanging down, but he sees Alice, where she stands shaking, and from his peeling lips comes a terrible hoarse sound.

The dead are angry, so angry.

He reaches for her, and she should run, why does she not run? But she sees what she loved, not what he is, and the sight holds her fast until he snaps her neck with one blow.

The whole pile seethes like a nest of maggots. An arm thrusts out, and reaches, and grabs. A leg kicks towards me.

And the sound, the sound of rage from the torn and burnt and diseased throats, from every throat, as they come for their revenge.

All is havoc around me, a few running away, but most like fools running toward their angry dead with their fire-for-bones.

And now I see my pa, the fire has loosened his limbs, but his eyes and mouth are still wide open in pain, he staggers toward me.

I am not a fool. And I am no more than part dead.

I run.

Running, I see Oliver walking past, dragging Alice by her broken neck, his bones glowing with fire from within.

Running, I see other bright-boned dead staggering, limping, leaping toward the ones they loved and lived with in this life.

Running, I hear my pa’s feet behind me, and hear the baby’s tiny hoarse cry of rage.

Now the villagers are fighting back. They run at their dead with hatchets or burning brands, but these don’t help, I could have said they would not work, for fire does not put out fire, and the anger of the dead is the bone-fire’s endless fuel.

So I run, I run, to the center of the village, in the black night lit only by the fiery bones of our raging dead.
But even in the dark, I find it. I stagger in, knee deep, waist deep. The icy water of the village pond freezes my thin and living bones.

Are they coming?

I open my mouth for the softest call, a whisper-call, which is all the breath I have. Ma, I call. Mama. Pa.

I must have got some water on my face, for my face is wet now, and my voice shakes, but that must be with the cold.

They heard. At the edge of the pond, I hear that tiny, raging cry. They are here.

Now they stagger in, splashing. I can smell their terrible, ruined flesh. My pile, my dear dead pile, my family.

Their hoarse cries change, become high and keening. Their bone-fires are going out.

They stagger. They sink. They sink deep beneath the black water.

My sister’s tiny arms reaching for me.

My mother’s wet face.

They are gone. The water has put out the fire that gave them life.

I stand alone in the black and freezing water, listening to the distant screams of the angry dead.

Fire People

Mama always told me not to speak to the people in the fire.

 

“Leave them be,” she said, as I sat on the hearthrug and watched. Faces and flames, bodies that crackled orange and vanished, only to reappear again, dancing along another burning log.

 

Mama told me not everyone could see them, but that our family had always been able to.

 

She told me not to tell anyone I could see them.

 

The colder it was outside, the more the fire people gathered. Sometimes, when frost glittered along the branches of the trees that tap-tap-tapped against the windows in the wind, there were so many of the fire people that I could scarcely make out each one. They were a mass of waving arms and flickering tongues, sparks flying up when they opened their mouths.

 

To sing, or scream, I could never tell.

 

Did it hurt them? Or could they not be burned, because they were made of the fire itself? I longed to ask, to lean in close until the heat scorched my cheeks, but of course I didn’t. Because Mama always said to leave them be.

 

The first snowflakes hissed against the glass in my bedroom window. I couldn’t say what woke me, or even if I was awake, for certain. The night certainly felt like a dream. A dream with darkness in it. A dream simply waiting to become a nightmare.

 

It was quite completely dark. Not even a tiny amber glow came from the hearth, the fire burned down to positively nothing. No whisper of heat. No cackle-crackle of light. And I missed them, I missed the company of the fire people, but only the folk up in the grand manor house had fires that blazed all through the night. Us as were in the smaller cottages, we made do with enough to cook our dinner on, and keep us warm until bedtime.

 

We weren’t starving, I want to make that very clear. Mama scrubbed and scrubbed to put food on the table, and there was always enough of it. Trouble is, there wasn’t overmuch of anything else. When Maise and Harriet at school had new hair ribbons or dresses that had only belonged to one of their sisters, I made do with my old ones. And I had no sisters; my dresses came from everyone else’s sisters.

 

But we did alright, Mama and me. Summers, I’d help her with the vegetables and I was always the best at getting the chickens to give up their eggs.

 

Anyways, I was shivering in my bed, thinking about the chickens. I hoped they were warm in their coop. The floor was terribly cold on my toes as I crept from bed, down the stairs of the tiny cottage to the room where Mama and me did everything but sleep. And oh, it was cold. The coldest night of the year by a long ways. I shivered in my nightdress, toes so chilled they hurt. I was sure if there was enough light to see by, I’d see they was blue. I tried to pour a cup of water from the jug, only it was frozen solid.

 

One lonely log sat by the hearth, and I wouldn’t normally—you have to know I wouldn’t—but it was so very cold, and I knew Mister Lavender would be by in the morning, carving tracks up through the snow to bring Mama and me extra firewood for the cold spell.

 

Mama kept a bowl of matches on the mantel. The fire caught with a snap.

 

“Hello.”

 

I wasn’t sure I’d heard it, not at first. Fires, you see, can make all kinds of strange sounds.

 

Hello.”

 

I saw its mouth move, right at the exact moment it spoke.

 

“Hello,” I said back. This couldn’t be disobeying Mama. I hadn’t spoken to the fire person, it had spoken to me. There was, curiously, only one, despite the chill outside. But it had the full length of our last log to dance upon.

 

“You are cold,” said the fire. I wondered how it knew, and then decided it probably knew of such things better than anyone, having the leisure to sit back and witness them from afar.

 

I nodded. It had long legs and log arms and wild, spiky, sparky hair and I held out my hand before I could think what I was doing. And before it could think what it was doing—or perhaps not—it leaped into my outstretched palm.

 

My yelp drew a loud snore from Mama above. The fire jhopped back into the hearth. The bed creaked as Mama rolled over. Two tiny foot-shapes blistered on my hand.

 

I wasn’t cold anymore.

 

“What else can you do?” I asked. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps warmth was the fire’s only trick.

 

It raised its arms and an enormous, searing ball of flame flew up the chimney. It spread them, and my face appeared, shimmering red and orange. It jumped from the grate again and ran around the room, laughing as my heart rose into my throat, moving too quickly to damage much of anything.

 

And we didn’t have much of anything to damage, so I suppose that worked out just fine. A few bits of furniture, and Mama’s old chest filled with books and papers. Sometimes, when the light stretched out just a little longer, she’d read them to me.

 

The fire person still hadn’t answered my question. “What else can you do?” I asked it again. It grinned a wide, red grin, its hair twisted and curled.

 

“Follow me, Mary,” it hissed.

 

“How do you know my name?”

 

“We watch you. And now, it is time for you to watch us. It is time to learn.”

 

Sparks flew from the floorboards as it ran to the door and slipped through the crack beneath it. I fumbled with the latch, my fingers numb and cold again now that the fire was gone. An inch of snow lay over all the ground, perfect and untouched except where the fire person stood. In the snow, he—and I will always think of it as a he—was almost blinding, such a bright and flashing flame. A circle had melted around him, the grass below too sodden from the snow to catch fire.

 

“Where are we going?”

 

He smiled. Flicker, flicker. “Come close. Stay warm. And now we go make everyone else warm, too.”

 

I should have been shivering, my teeth should have been chattering as I stood there, all in my nightdress and bare feet. He ran ahead, not so far that the cold came rushing back to me, but far enough that I had no choice but to follow. How could I not follow this dancing, running, skipping creature of crackle and flame as it led me deeper into the village?

 

“Now,” he said, stopping outside a grand house. Not the grandest, but larger than the little cottage Mama and I shared. “Come, friends!”

 

And there they were, all at once. All the fire people who hadn’t come inside when I lit the last log. They jumped and twirled and crackle-cackled, and the grass might have been too wet to burn, but the old, dry wood of the houses was not.

 

A half-dozen were alight before I realized what was happening. My screams were lost to the roaring fire.

 

All I could do was turn and run. Run back up to the cottage, chased by the fire that had spread to every house in the village. Every house except our little cottage, where Mama was outside the door, holding my coat and my shoes, her old trunk by her feet.

 

“We have to help them!” I said.

 

She did not look angry, but she did look sad. “Put those on, Mary,” she answered, pointing at my things. I still wasn’t cold, but I did as she told me. From the chest, she pulled a square of folded paper, and from her pocket, a match.

 

“I told you not to speak to the fire people,” she said, unfurling the paper on the lid of the trunk. It was covered in tiny holes with ragged, scorched edges. Mama flicked the match with her thumb and touched the flame to the tiny spot where the name of our village was marked. Sparks popped as she blew out the tiny flames and studied the map for one more moment.

 

“This way,” she said, taking my hand and pulling the trunk along behind us, over to the road that led north. “In the next place, we leave the fire people be.”

The Queen of Tarts

 

Every Wednesday, shortly before midnight, Jedediah Blacktop went to the graveyard in the north of the town to empty the coffins. He was not a grave-robber. He would not have been pleased had you called him one. In fact, he would have punched out all your teeth and sold them. No, Jedidiah considered himself a recycler.

Wednesday would arrive without fail, and would tick steadily past, and midnight would approach, and then, as if it were part of Wednesday’s inner workings, Jedidiah would open his door and stump down out of his attic like some sort of bedraggled bird from a cuckoo-clock. He would drag his cart out from under the stairs and pull it, softly creaking, through the cobbled lanes and dirt ruts toward the north of the town. He would go to Fenningham Street, where the houses were built with their backs pressed against the bend of the river, and where there was an old church and a graveyard. He would pull his cart into the graveyard, past the good, rich graves in the front. He would slink along in the deep shadows of the church wall, and reemerge on the other side. He would find the freshest, newest graves, where the wooden crosses were still oozing sap and the ground was freshly turned. And he would proceed to dig them up.

He always started with a stick to measure how deep the coffin had been laid (never more than three feet for a poor grave). Then he would graduate to a spade and dig, careful not to scratch the coffin’s top very badly. The body inside would be laid out, and Jedidiah would go on like this until there was a neat row of  corpses, all pale and cold in the grass. The coffins would then be stacked on the cart. When Jedidiah had a full load, he would throw the bodies over the graveyard wall into the river, and take all the coffins to the coffin-shop.

Twice-used coffins went for barely a penny, thrice-used not even a groat, so Jedidiah didn’t get very much, but he always received his handful of coins and returned to his attic quite satisfied.

It was unpleasant occupation, and Jedidiah was an unpleasant person, so it suited him well.

* * *

This particular Wednesday was a bleak, black night in Fenningham Street. The clouds were thick, and the moon hung low in the sky like a dull candle, and Jedidiah sauntered into the graveyard, sucking his long thin cigarette. It was the only spot of color, that glowing tip. Everything else was ink-blue and cat-black, and a deep, unsettling sort of green that comes when shadows are soaked in the leaves of trees.

Jedidiah pulled his cart past the good graves up front. He pulled it along the church wall. He began poking about the pauper’s lots with his stick.

It would be a good week, he suspected. There had been an outbreak of the influenza in the north part of the town and so the graveyard would likely have been blessed with many new arrivals.

Sure enough, Jedidiah got a long row of bodies, some tall, some short, bare feet poking out from under their burial shrouds. He even found a few charms around the pale necks, and some of the older bodies had coins over their eyes, which of course he pocketed. The coins were put there to pay Death, because it was said he would not take you across an imagined river and into the Summer Lands otherwise, but the coins really only payed Jedidiah and he didn’t take the dead people across any rivers; he simply threw them in.

He came to the last grave. There had been eighteen today, a very great number. Jedidiah was already looking forward to the road home, a good rattling handful of coins, enough for tobacco and bread. He started to dig, the spade biting into the earth, tossing the dirt. He uncovered the coffin. It was a small one. A child’s coffin, very fine. Child’s coffins were more expensive than the adult coffins, so Jedidiah whistled through his crooked teeth when he saw it. He pried it out of the wet, damp earth. He lifted it higher, and a few earth worms dangled from its new, sharp corners. The earthworms lost their grip and fell. Jedidiah laid the coffin down on the grass and hooked his iron bar under the lid. He popped it off. And then he started, and his cigarette dropped right out of his mouth. Because inside the coffin, nestled in linens and lace, was a child, bald and paper-pale, its eyes closed as if in sleep. And clutched in the baby’s little hands, tight against its chest, was a long, iron knife.

Jedidiah stared, unmoving. His breath stopped clouding the cold night.

The knife was butcher’s knife. It was wickedly sharp, and curved for slicing hams, and it glinted softly in the moonlight. The child’s hands were so tight around it, clenching it, a tiny knight in snowy dress.

Jedidiah blew out a puff of smoke. He contemplated putting the lid back on the coffin. He contemplated putting it back into the earth and hurrying off. But if he did that he wouldn’t make a profit. He would get 10d 6 shillings, and he still had rent to pay, and so he would have to go without cigarettes and ale and it would be dreadful. But the same time, he did not want to disturb the child. Something in Jedidiah”s cold, toothy heart quailed at the sight of it, so calm and cold in its little bed.

And the knife. Who would bury a child with a knife? If the coins were for Death, who was the knife for?

Jedidiah put the lid back on and stood back, chewing his cigarette and contemplating. He could ask the priest. Or the undertaker. Of course they would want to know why he was digging up coffins, and he would go to jail perhaps, and the coffin-seller with him.

In the end Jedidiah took the coffin back home with him and left it in the cart under the stairs, contents still intact.

And that was where it stayed for five days. When he opened it again he expected to find rot and decay and stench, and the snow-white linens soaked with fluids. But he didn’t, because the child was gone, and there were little scratch marks along the edges of the coffin, and splinters, as if little fingers had torn it up. The knife was gone, too.

* * *

“Marsh?” Jedidiah asked, in the coffin-makers shop. “Marsh, who ordered that child’s coffin you sent out, on the first of last week?”

Marsh spat tobacco onto the floor. “Eech. I’d have to look in the books. Why?”

“Look, then.” Jedidiah turned a circle, glancing around.

Marsh went around the back of his work-table and found a great dusty ledger, and began paging through it. Then he set it down with a snap.

“A family in Winterton.”

“Winterton? What’s a family in Winterton doing at your shop?”

“I beg your pardon?” demanded Marsh, indignant.

Jedidiah left, and went to Winterton.

 

* * *

“We did order a coffin,” said the maid, whispering, half-hidden behind the flapping clothes-line. “For Miss Jenny, the baby.  And yes, she had a knife in her hands.”

“Why? Oh, go on,” said Jedidiah, pulling at his cigarette and glancing around, which is what he did often in the company of other people.

“The mistress wanted it,” the maid said. “She said kept saying, ‘Why, why?’ and cried and screamed, and said, ‘Why did Death take Jenny, when it could have a taken another little girl or another little boy, or no one at all?’ And in the end she gave the baby a knife, and whispered to her the whole night long, though Baby was already dead and cold by then.”

“That’s the daftest thing. What was the child supposed to do with the knife?”

“I don’t know!” said the maid, clipping and un-clipping clothes-pins for no reason at all. And then she said: “Well, little Jenny was not the first to die. There was the influenza. Her brother went, only two days before. And then, as Mistress was sitting down by the river, crying into it, he came back. He floated up to her in the water, and his eyes were open and milky, and he was dead, but he wasn’t. He stared at her and his mouth was opening and closing and Mistress leaped up and screamed, but the boy floated right against the shore. And when the Master came back with a rifle the boy seemed to be trying to flop up the bank, and his eyes were rolling, and his tongue was black. I didn’t see it, but I heard, and it sounded dreadful.”

“That’s the daftest thing,” said Jedidiah again.

“I don’t know,” replied the maid softly, her eyes wide. “All I know is that Death isn’t the end right now. The dead, they’re not staying dead. It’s as if they don’t know, as if they’re lost.”

Jedidiah left in a huff, rolling himself another cigarette and scowling. He went up the streets to his attic. Tomorrow was Wednesday. He wondered what if would be a good one, or poor.

 

* * *

 

Midnight struck. Jedidiah left his attic  He dragged out his cart. He pulled it through the lanes, wheels creaking, just as he always did. He was a bit slower at everything that night, though. Deep in thought. The words of the maid were still loud in his head, ringing like a bell: “It’s as if they’re lost.

He came to the pauper’s lots and began poking with the stick. He began digging.

The first body out was an old woman. He lay her on the grass. Then he went to the next new grave. He dug that one up to. And when he came back with the second body, the old woman was gone. Jedidiah dropped his corpse. He stared at the grave and at the ground. The grass was trampled. There were sliding marks in the mud. But no body.

Jedidiah spun. The graveyard was dark and silent. His hands tightened around the handle of his spade.

“If this is a joke, it ain’t one sort of funny,” he snapped. He wondered if perhaps it was a constable, or a local mourner who, disapproving of his line of work, had decided to get revenge on him. Jedidiah walked a few steps across the graveyard. And then he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. The old-woman-body was on the wall, the graveyard wall, and she was trying to scramble over it with reckless haste.

Jedidiah’s heart leaped. She was not making it over. She seemed strong enough, but she was desperately uncoordinated. He went to her. He stared up.

She did not see him, or if she did, she did not care. She struggled, scraping her hands on the stone, staring frantically forward into the dark, as if her whole life and fortune were lying wait on the other side of the wall.

I want to go home,” she was whispering. “I want to go home. Markist! Markist! Wait for me, Markist!

Jedidiah dragged her struggling and put her back in the coffin and slammed the lid down and buried it again.

Then he dragged his empty cart back to his house and stayed up very late, smoking and wondering.

 

* * *

Jedidiah did not return to the graveyard for three Wednesdays. He ran out of bread, but he still didn’t go. Then he ran out of cigarettes. He went.

He took his cart out, pulled it to Fenningham Street. The graveyard would be so full. And there were reports now, newspaper articles. People were glimpsing their deceased relatives at the windows, staring in, deceased relatives who had been dead  a day, a week, staring with cold eyes at the firelight and the life. Thew news was printed everywhere, headlines all over the country and in large cities:

The Dead Walk!

Death is on Holiday!

Rising Panic as Loved Ones Come Home

No one understood.

But Jedidiah needed to bring a load of coffins in or he would starve, and so he decided not to care.

He began digging quickly in the churchyard, and instead of laying the bodies on the grass so they could wriggle away, he tipped them straight over the wall into the river. They could be the river’s problem. They could be the problem of whomever lived downstream.

He did the rich graves, too. He threw a great big opera singer over the wall after taking all her jewels. He could still hear her singing Puccini, gurgling and weak as she bobbed away down the river. He threw the mayor over. The mayor was still giving orders under his breath, his cold dead breath:

I forbid it. I allow it. I forbid it. Yes. No. They mustn’t. Because I said so.

Jedidiah went behind to work on the pauper’s lots.

And then, when he was almost finished, someone stepped from around the gravestone and stared at him. At first, Jedidiah thought it was a corpse again. He thought he would have to tackle it if it came any closer and hurl it into the river the way he had done with the rest. But it was not a corpse. It was a woman, and she was bizarre. She wore wide, lacy bloomers and red shoes, and she had orange hair in tight curls. Little baubles – birds and cages and mice – hung from it. Under the frizz of hair was a pasty face and a red mouth and blue-striped gloves, and a puffy coat like for a ballgown. When the woman saw Jedidiah she said: “Oh, well then,” in a very low, lazy, slightly scratchy voice.

“Who are you?” Jedidiah barked, and though it sounded very rough he was in particular awe. She was so out of place in the dark graveyard. Like a great colorful bird, and all around shadows and darkness.

“I don’t know,” replied the woman, still very deep, and she began to wander toward him, inspecting him lazily and then moving on to do the same to a nearby tree. “I ask myself it often, but I never get an answer. It’s rude, really. Someone should do something about it.”

Jedidiah stared.

“Rude,” she said again. “You, too. Everyone’s rude.”

She was most likely a dreadful person from the slums, thought Jedidiah. They went mad from diseases sometimes.

“Well?” said the woman. “Where am I?”

Jedidiah regained a bit of his composure. “Look, what’s a tart like you doing around so late in a graveyard?” He glared at her. “Off you go, back to wherever you came from.”

“Tart!” exclaimed the woman, and began to laugh very boisterously. And then she became very serious, and said: “Gooseberries.”

“What?” asked Jedidiah.

“Gooseberry tarts. They’re the cat’s pajamas, quite.”

Jedidiah shook his head. “Go away. I have work to do.”

“Oh, that makes two of us. We should form a company.” She picked up a bit of flower from a grave and tossed it back.

“What work have you got? Nothing honest by the looks of them spotless gloves.”

“Oh, surely not as honest as your work,” she said drily. “But. . . Well, I believe I’ve forgotten. I’m certain it was something.”

Jedidiah peered at her. “You don’t hold with the police, do you?” His eyes went sharp, glittering. Then faded. “I suppose not. Fine then, I will ignore you and go about my business.” He began to dig again. “Good night.”

“Is it?” asked the tart, and peered skeptically up at the pitch-black sky. “I seem to recall the last few nights being dismal and horrid, but everyone said good night anyway.”

Jedidiah dug in silence.

The tart began to wander across the yard, looking at things, picking little bits of mortar from the gravestones and crumbling them between her fingers.

“Have you remembered?” asked Jedidiah after a while. “Your business here?”

The tart sat down on a tree stump. “No. I suppose something went very wrong. I forgot.”

“You’re likely mad, is how I suppose it.”

“Well, perhaps if you told me what I had forgotten I would remember,” snapped the tart, and it was a ridiculous thing to say, but she snapped it with such conviction that it made Jedidiah a little bit ashamed that he hadn’t thought to do so himself. He kept digging, becoming flustered. Then he paused. Lifted a coffin out, and dumped its contents on the grass.

“Well,” he said slowly. “If you hang about in these parts, perhaps you know why the corpses are all strange. Perhaps- ”

“Corpses?” said the woman, and licked her lips. “Where are corpses?”

And then she saw it. On the ground. Pale face.

“Oh,” she said. And then again, “Ooh.” Very deep and scratchy, like from the belly of a cat.

And when Jedidiah looked over his shoulder at her he nearly dropped his spade. The air around her was shifting, snapping, like it couldn’t decide whether it was town-air, or the air of some vast dead country of flame and ash, and with every snap, the lady, for a brief second, seemed to be someone else entirely.

Jedidiah caught a glimpse of inky feathers, a great black cape. A pale face, no, not pale, a face with no skin at all. A face that was a grinning skull, and a bony hand gripping a scythe.

“Yes,” said the woman, and her voice was a dry clack now. “I’ve remembered now.”

Jedidiah stood transfixed. His mouth opened and closed over his coffee-colored teeth. “But-” he said. “But it isn’t! No, it isn’t!”

“It is,” said the tart, who was in fact the queen of all tarts, and Death herself. “I’ve been confused. Several weeks ago I went to an inn because it looked bright and cheery, and I thought I’d kill some people there, but it seems I was waylaid. Goodness, what a headache.”

She put a bony hand to her skinless head. “Ah well. It was a pleasant diversion.- Now to business.”

And she took the scythe and swung it at Jedidiah. It did not touch him, but Jedidiah clutched his jacket over his chest. His eyes went wide. He began to cough. He coughed so loudly it sounded as if his lungs where ripping, ripping. Death swung the scythe again, at a crawling little boy, and a screaming girl, and they fell down, too, though they kept watching Jedidiah with wise, blank eyes.

Jedidiah coughed and coughed until his lungs heaved. And then he fell.

“You know, it’s funny people think themselves so clever.” The queen of tarts moved languidly back toward Jedidiah, whose eyes were rolling, rolling up into his head. “You don’t know a thing about me. And you never will, not until it’s too late.”

The air around her had stopped crackling. She was the tart again, frilly bloomers, and dangles clinking in her orange hair. She stepped over Jedidiah’s prostrate body. She looked down at him. The glowing end of his cigarette was still fizzling weakly in the grass. She put it out with the toe of her shoe.

And then she tucked her scythe under her arm and put her hands in the pockets of her bloomers. She went away down Fenningham Street, and though she peered for a second into the inn she did not go inside.

Bernie Blythe

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes
lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread
’cause the ones that do, they end up dead

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
was once a kid like you or I
’til one black night he fell and drowned,
his teeth the only things they found

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
a lonely boy with a half-dead mind
If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

*

 

“Shhh!”

“I can’t help it. This is so incredibly stupid.”

“Stop it!”

“Oh my god, seriously. Stop laughing.”

“Why am I even friends with you guys? You’re a bunch of infants.”

“Lucas, shut up right now.”

“He’ll hear you.”

But Lucas didn’t want to shut up. He wanted everyone to understand how brave he was for coming to the Grasshook Swamp—on Halloween, no less. After sundown, too—and not being scared, not even a little bit.

He especially wanted Rhonda to understand. Her Queen of the Undead costume was nothing short of mind-blowing, what with that crown and that ratty ballgown and the zombie make-up and the fake blood. She even had the lurching zombie walk down, and just the right amount of slobbering, groaning noises to be authentic but not obnoxious.

Rhonda was cool, is what it came down to. So cool that Lucas wasn’t sure how he and his friends had ended up trick-or-treating with her and her friends, but he wasn’t going to complain about it or anything.

No, he was going to march right into Grasshook Swamp with his head held high, and not be afraid even a little bit.

Well. Maybe a little bit. But he wasn’t going to show it.

“So how’d he drown again?” said one of Rhonda’s friends, Amy, who was dressed up like a cat. How original.

“Who?” said Lucas, breezily, like he didn’t know who she was talking about. Like he hadn’t been surreptitiously scanning the swamp this whole time for signs of him.
“Bernie,” Amy said. “Bernie Blythe. Don’t be dumb, Lucas.”

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe, has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes,” Rhonda sang cheerfully.

“Oh. That.” Lucas waved his hand. “That’s just a story.”

“No way, man,” said Sam, who had been compulsively eating candy since they stepped over the bridge onto the swamp path. “I’ve heard him.”

Amy and Rhonda’s other friend, Carrie, squealed.

Rhonda just laughed. Lucas laughed, too, even though he didn’t think anything was funny.

“You’ve heard him?” said Dean. He was shuffling along the path, kicking pebbles into the murky water. At each impact, the water gurgled and shifted, like it was this huge beast disguised as water, and the pebbles were in danger of waking it up.

Lucas wished Dean would stop doing that, but he wasn’t going to say so.

He also wished Dean would take off his scarecrow mask. It was this burlap sack contraption with the grinning face scribbled on in black marker, and it was unnerving. Dean’s hands were gloved in ratty gloves, and he was wearing crusty farmer’s clothes and had his neck wrapped in cloth strips stained red.

It was a great costume, really. Lucas wished he’d thought of something like that, because Rhonda had been gushing over how creepy Dean’s costume was all night. Lucas’s debonair vampire costume seemed beyond lame in comparison. As Carrie had scornfully pointed out earlier that night, vampires were so over.

“Yeah, I’ve heard him,” Sam was saying. “I live right on Cedar Crest, you know?

And out my window I can see the swamp, and some nights . . . some nights, I hear him.”

Rhonda was wide-eyed, breathless. “What does he sound like?”

Sam swallowed a particularly large mouthful of chocolate. “He cries.”

“He cries?”

“He cries, and sometimes he howls like he’s hurting.”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “How do you even know it’s him? That could be anyone.”

“Oh,” said Amy, “because people hang out in the swamp all the time.”

“To trick people into thinking they’re Bernie Blythe, they might.”

“I know it’s him,” Sam continued, “because he yells, too. He screams. He says, ‘Not my teeth, don’t take my teeth, stop, stop!’” Then Sam jumped at the girls and shouted, wiggling his fingers.

Carrie and Amy screamed and giggled, and Sam looked pretty pleased with himself, but Rhonda just crossed her arms and stared out at the swamp.

“Poor kid,” she said quietly. “I wonder what happened to him.”

That was when Lucas noticed they’d reached the bridge. The bridge.

He stepped closer to Rhonda. Together they stood at the bridge’s railing.

“This is where they say it happened,” Lucas whispered. “Where he drowned.”

Rhonda nodded.

“Poor kid,” Lucas added, a little too eagerly. He glanced at Rhonda to gauge her reaction. “It’s terrible. Just terrible. Tragic.”

“That’s what I don’t get, though,” said Rhonda, frowning at the water. “The railing here is pretty high. He couldn’t have just tripped and fallen in. The railing would have stopped him.”

Dean walked over to stand beside them. Instead of looking out at the water, he looked right at them. Right at Lucas, it felt like, but of course it was impossible to tell, what with that mask on. That smiling, uneven, sack-and-marker mask; those blood-stained strips of cloth around Dean’s neck.

Lucas looked away, irritated. What gave Dean the idea for such a costume, anyway? Didn’t Dean know Lucas liked Rhonda? Didn’t Dean know that Rhonda liked scary things? Why would he have tried to out-scary Lucas’s costume? Dean didn’t even like Halloween. He scared too easy.

“They say,” Dean said, “that he was pushed. Or dragged under, maybe.”

“Ooo.” Carrie grabbed Amy’s hand. “Who pushed him? Who dragged him? And why?

“Don’t know why. Some people say his friends did it, that it was some trick they were playing that went wrong. Some people say it was this hermit living in the swamp who collected human bones, except for teeth. He didn’t like teeth.”

Amy shivered. Sam ran his tongue along his teeth as if to make sure they were still intact.

“And some people say that there are just places in the world where bad things happen. Places darkness is drawn to. Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.”

“Whatever.” Lucas tapped his fingers on the railing. “I’m so sick of these made-up stories.” He was getting tired of this whole situation. The air in this swamp was heavy and quiet, and had gotten more so since they’d entered it. At the edge of the swamp, they’d heard crickets and airplanes overhead and other people out trick-or-treating—kids laughing and parents talking and the high schoolers on Pine Drive rolling the Johnson house with toilet paper.

Now, he couldn’t hear anything. Nothing except Dean talking, and a sense of something in the air that felt like a great presence holding its breath, waiting.

It made Lucas nervous.

“Bernie Blythe.” Lucas wiped his palms on his vampire cape, trying not to freak out. “What kind of a loser name is that, anyway?”

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Rhonda admonished him. “It’s disrespectful.”

“Dispectful toward . . .?”

“The dead.” Dean was watching Lucas, his head tilted to the side. “Or the mostly dead. Or the kind of dead.” Then Dean laughed—quickly, quietly. Then he stopped and was silent again.

Sam shook his head and popped another chocolate into his mouth. “Dude, Dean, you’re taking the creepy scarecrow thing a little too seriously.”

“The half-dead,” whispered Rhonda. “That’s what the song says. A lonely boy with a half-dead mind. Can you imagine being stuck in this swamp, half-alive, with no one to talk to?”

“Ew, Rhonda, stop being so weird,” said Carrie. “No one wants to imagine that.”

“I can,” said Dean. He stepped toward Rhonda and took her hand in his. “I can imagine it.”

Something overcame Lucas then, as everyone stared at Dean and Rhonda, and Carrie and Amy laughed nervously, and Sam looked at Lucas and then away, because he knew Lucas wanted to ask Rhonda to the seventh grade social next month, and now Dean was holding Rhonda’s hand in this weird way, and the air on the bridge suddenly reeked of awkward.

“Hey,” Lucas bit out, and marched toward Dean. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know—”

And that’s when it happened. Because Lucas grabbed Dean’s hand and pulled it away from Rhonda’s, and the glove got caught on Lucas’s long pointy vampire fingernails, and the glove came away—to reveal a hand bloated with swamp water and covered in puckered old blisters.

A hand that was not Dean’s hand.

A hand attached to a Dean that wasn’t Dean.

Amy and Carrie shrieked. Sam dropped his bag of candy, and it rolled down the sloping bridge into the mud.

Rhonda stared.

And Lucas . . . Lucas wanted to know. So he ignored the screaming instinct to run—and fast—and ripped the mask off of whatever not-Dean face lay beneath.

What Lucas saw shouldn’t have surprised him. Not after how strange Dean had been acting, not after considering the new meaning of the weird, sweet-sour stench that had been coming from Dean’s mask all evening, and certainly not after seeing the hand—Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes—but it surprised him anyway. No amount of strangeness could have prepared Lucas for this sight:

A scalp, dotted with chunks of matted hair and skin sloughing off in slimy chunks.

A toothless mouth, leaking sludge and blood and swamp water.

Two eyes, sewn shut.

Lucas tried to scream—his friends, all around him, were screaming—but he couldn’t. Maybe what he was looking at was a mask. Maybe it was legitimate, high-quality movie make-up.

The others tried to run—Carrie, Amy, Sam—but the swamp took them. There was no other way to describe it. Lucas watched, frozen, as something—something, how was this possible?—reached up to grab their ankles and drag them under. Something in the shape of hands. Something in the shape of claws. Something dark.

Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.

If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

Lucas stood crying, listening to his friends scream, watching them dragged under by a greedy, gurgling force that made his skin crawl and grated against his bones like a knife would have—scrape and scratch, bone dust flaking away with the wind.

“Lucas,” Rhonda cried, from behind him.

He turned, even though he didn’t want to. And he saw Bernie Blythe, his arms around Rhonda, dragging her down into the swamp.

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe,” sang Bernie, his voice now distinctly not Dean’s, and rattling in his chest like teeth in a bowl, “has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes. Lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread, ’cause the ones that do, they end up dead.

“Rhonda!” Lucas threw himself down on the bridge and reached for her. She clutched the railing with all her might, her fingernails scraping, her palms bloody and splintered. He grabbed her arms.

“I’m not letting go,” he cried, but she was sinking down anyway, into the water. Darkness crawled up her legs like vines, and where it touched her skin, it sent up thin curls of smoke. Lucas heard something sizzling, and Rhonda’s choked screams, and even though Bernie’s head was underwater now, Lucas could still hear his song.

He would always hear Bernie’s song. He would never be able to block it out.

Rhonda was almost gone, she was nearly submerged. “Go,” she gasped, crying. Her crown fell back into the water. In an instant, it burned down to thin lines of ash. Queen of the Undead. It was terribly, awfully funny. Lucas wanted to laugh. He was becoming hysterical.

“Go, Lucas,” Rhonda gasped, “while he’s distracted. And tell them it’s true. Tell everyone. Make them stay away.”

“It’s not made up,” Lucas whispered. He was crying. How had everything gone so wrong? There was a social next month in the cafeteria. He was going to ask Rhonda. They would go out for ice cream afterward. Maybe he could even convince his parents to sit at the other end of the restaurant.

“Run, Lucas,” Rhonda screamed, and then her body jerked because Bernie was pulling, pulling, and her arms were slipping, slipping from Lucas’s hands, and then she was up to her chin in the black, black swamp.

And Lucas did. He ran. He hated himself, and he hated Rhonda for getting caught instead of him, and he hated Bernie for doing this. Why? Why?

And some people say that there are just places in the world where bad things happen. Places where darkness is drawn to. Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.

And the trees were laughing at Lucas, he was sure of it—as were the creatures of the swamp, and the water of the swamp, and whatever lay within it. Bernie was laughing too, and his fingers wrapped around Rhonda’s mouth, silencing her voice, and the last thing Lucas saw was Rhonda’s head slipping into darkness.

He ran, and Bernie’s song rang in his head. It would always ring.

And he would tell them. He would tell everyone, even if they didn’t listen. Especially when they wouldn’t listen. He would tell them and they would laugh, and eventually they’d stop laughing and start whispering:

Have you heard about the weird kid who went into Grasshook Swamp with five friends and came out with none?

Yeah, that crazy old man who thinks Bernie Blythe is real. He has for years. They say he lost his mind.

Seriously—Bernie Blythe! You know, that stupid Halloween campfire tale?

*

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes
lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread
’cause the ones that do, they end up dead

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
was once a kid like you or I
’til one black night he fell and drowned,
his teeth the only things they found

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
a lonely boy with a half-dead mind
If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

What the Mask Wants

That’s a good mask you’ve got on. Scary.

But you want to be careful with scary masks. Just saying. Not that it makes much difference to you now, but still.

You think it’s just a piece of plastic, or something your dad helped you make with cloth and glue. But once it’s on you, it’s almost like a mask is alive. You know what I mean? Like it has its own ideas what to do.

Especially the scary ones, the masks that are practically snarling in rage or fear or hunger. They’re bad that way.

halfmaskYou look at a scary mask and think that’s not you, right? You’re a nice kid! Not like that mask, it’s horrible and hideous and awesome.

But snarling rage and fear and bloody-teeth hunger—you’ve got all those, of course you do. You just locked them up, way deep inside you, in a little closet. ‘Cause you’re such a nice kid.

But the right mask knows how to whisper through the keyhole of that closet. It stirs those feelings up, till you hear them banging on the doors down there, the hunger and fear and rage. Banging and banging and banging down there.

It can drive you a little crazy.

Let me tell you a story. Imagine it’s Halloween night—well, and it is Halloween tonight, of course. So imagine a Halloween like tonight.

A black-dark, chilly, leaf-skittering night.

And you go out, wearing your mask. A mask like mine.

First thing, near the end of your street, you see a low white creature, holy crap, a ghost, flying down the street, just impossibly fast, impossibly smooth. And your heart stops and starts, and you feel scared right down to the ground, because—could that be real?

But as the ghost flies past, you see running behind it is a dad, all dressed in black. He’s pushing a wheelbarrow, and some little kid in a long white sheet is sitting inside, flying down the road.

Okay, good one, you think, and your heart settles down.

Now the dark has wandering lights in it, and voices shouting, laughing. But because it’s so dark, you feel alone until the others are really close. Then suddenly the lights and colors are bobbing around you.

And when they see your mask, some little kids look scared, and grab their moms’ hands, and you feel great.

You see three Spidermen and two princesses. You see Iron Men and fairies. You see vampires and witches and cats.

You see a small girl in a long gray wig and long white dress, running through yards, crying “Dónde están mis hijos?”

You think, Pretty cool. Good Halloween.

You see a really little kid, like four or five, standing on the sidewalk, sobbing. His big sister is trying to get him to put his mask over his face, but he won’t do it. He stands there in his yellow nylon suit, the Frankenstein mask sitting on his head, its stretchy string cutting into the soft flesh of his throat. He’s terrified, crying, “Not on! No, not on my face!”

You don’t realize it, but that kid is smart.

Because you still haven’t learned: you gotta be careful with masks.

I was the one walking around, seeing all that, that Halloween night. I was only a little older than you are now, almost too old to go trick or treating.

And I was wearing this mask, that night. Wow, when I first saw it in the store. It made my heart stop-and-start, that feeling. Its awful mouth. The way the whole face is so horribly twisted, and frozen there, stuck in one moment of terrible time.

It felt like something that had escaped from that little locked-door room inside me, right? It still gives me that start-and-stop heart feeling, whenever I see it, after all these years.

Anyway. That first Halloween with this mask, I felt so alive. I walked through the black-dark night, loving every leaf-skitter, every distant shout and bobbing light.

But then when it got late, and the night sank into silence, things changed.

Because the thing is, I didn’t want to take the mask off.

Or it didn’t want to be taken off. One of those.

I still felt so powerful. I still felt so alive. And the mask told me I should walk through people’s backyards, so I did. It was super, super late. I checked out the toys and tricycles. I stole a swing on a tire. I pushed over a barbecue grill: bang, clatter. Charcoal and ash spilled across the grass. Lights came on inside the house. I ran.

It was fantastic.

This mask wanted me to move, wanted me to break things. It made me ring 3am doorbells, smash eggs against cars, trash people’s lawns.

Well, those are Halloween pranks, right? Not very nice, not very nice kid things to do. But not so bad.

But as the night wore on, as the dark got deeper, the mask made me to do much worse than that. Much, much worse. Things with fire. And things with blood.

I didn’t want to do those things. The mask wanted to.

And after a while, this little part of me said, No. No more blood. No more fire. I have to take this thing off and go home, and go to sleep, and forget this night, forget it ever happened.

Too late, though. Too late for that. Because the mask wasn’t on board with that. The mask was having too much fun. The rage and fear and hunger that mask had freed? They didn’t want to go back into their little closets.

And the mask wouldn’t come off.

It’s wasn’t stuck, exactly. Only without my noticing, it had started to fit my face so well, that .  . . well. It had become my face.

The mask was alive now. And the mask was me.

So the next time you choose a Halloween mask— you won’t, but let’s pretend—be careful. Because that’s what happened to me. You think this is a mask I’m wearing. But this is my face, now. Go ahead. You can touch it if you want, I don’t care.

And I’m not the only one. You wouldn’t believe how many of us there are, with our terrible mask-faces: the blood-dripping teeth, the mad twisted mouths, one eye bulging or dripping down the cheek.

People like us, we can only come out on Halloween, when everyone thinks our terrible faces are only masks.

Man, I love Halloween for that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone thinks that this axe I’m holding is just a prop, a costume prop.

Just like you thought that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone will believe that this old cellar is a haunted house, and it might be fun to visit.

Just like you thought it might be fun.

But you were wrong.

I’m sorry. Don’t cry. This isn’t what I want, you know. I don’t want this. The mask wants it.

Sorry. But that’s how it is.

This isn’t a haunted house, it’s an old cellar, and you will never leave.

And this axe is a real axe, ready to cut through your soft flesh.

And this mask, what you thought was this terrible mask: this is my real face.

And this twisted, raging, mad face: it’s the last face that you will ever see.