The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

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. 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 graves in the front where the rich folk were buried. 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 an 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 candle-flame, 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 have been soaked in the leaves of trees.

Jedidiah pulled his cart past the good graves up front, where the rich people had been buried. He went along the church wall and then began poking about in 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 town and that meant the graveyard had likely been blessed with many new arrivals.

Sure enough, Jedidiah excavated a long row of bodies, some tall, some short, bare feet poking out from under their shrouds. He found a few charms around the necks, and some of the more elderly 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 the river Styx and on to greener pastures otherwise, but the coins really only payed Jedidiah and he didn’t take the dead people across any rivers; he simply threw them in.

By two in the morning, Jedidiah had come to the last grave. There had been eighteen that night, 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 was pleased, whistling through his crooked teeth when he saw it. He pried it out of the wet, damp earth, 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 out of his mouth . . . Inside the coffin, nestled in a bed of linen 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 in the cold night air.

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 breath. He contemplated putting the lid back on the coffin, shoving the whole thing back into the earth and hurrying off. But if he did that he would have dug it up for nothing. He would get only 10d 6 shillings, instead of 10d 7shillings, 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, squelching 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, its contents still intact.

That was where it stayed for five days. When Jedidiah 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 when she was buried.”

“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 if it 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 still rang in his head, loud as a church-bell: “It’s as if they’re lost.

He came to the pauper’s lots and began poking about with the stick. Then he began to dig.

The first body was that of an old woman. He laid her out on the grass and went to the next new grave. He dug that one up, too. 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 any one of the funny ones,” he snapped. He wondered if perhaps it was a watchman interfering, or a local mourner who, disapproving of his line of work, had decided to get revenge. 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 pulled her, struggling, from the wall 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 what to do.

* * *

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 full, he knew, from the influenza. But would it? There were reports now, newspaper articles. People were glimpsing their deceased relatives at the windows, staring in, relatives who had been dead a day, a week, pressing cold eyes to the glass and staring at the firelight and the life. The news was printed everywhere, headlines all over the country and in large cities:

The Dead Walk!

Death is on Holiday! Corpses Not Staying Dead

Rising Panic as Loved Ones Come Home

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 cold dead breath:

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

And then, when Jedidiah 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 her frizz of hair, a pasty face looked out, 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 awe. She was so out of place in the graveyard, like a great colourful bird in a well.

“I don’t know,” replied the woman, her voice still very deep, and she began to wander toward him, inspecting him superciliously 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. “If we can’t find out who I am, perhaps we can discover where I am. 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 to their usual, glum grey. “I suppose not. Fine then. I’ll ignore you and go about my business.” He began to dig again. “Good night.”

“Is it?” asked the woman 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 woman 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 woman sat down on a tree stump. “No. I’ve forgotten entirely. I suppose something went very wrong.”

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

“Well, perhaps if you told me what I had forgotten I would remember,” the woman snapped, and it was a ridiculous thing to say, but she snapped it with such conviction that it made Jedidiah a little bit ashamed of himself. He kept digging, becoming flustered. Then he paused. He 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, the blue-grey face and swollen hands.

“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 become 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, Death herself. “I’ve been confused. Several weeks ago I went to a tavern because it looked bright and cheery, and I thought I’d kill some people there, but it seems I was waylaid. Too much to drink, I’d say. Goodness, what a headache.”

She put a bony hand to her skinless head. “Ah well. A pleasant diversion. But 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 themselves from his chest. Death swung the scythe again, this time at the corpse on the ground, which had begun to wriggle and croak. It fell still.

Jedidiah coughed and coughed until his lungs heaved. And then he toppled, sideways, like a tree.

“You know, it’s funny: people think themselves soooo clever.” Death moved languidly toward Jedidiah, whose eyes were rolling up into his head. “But 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, glancing down at him. The glowing end of his cigarette was still fizzling weakly in the grass and she put it out with the toe of her shoe.

Then she tucked her scythe under her arm and placed her hands in the pockets of her bloomers. She went away down Fenningham Street, and though she paused for a moment to peer in at the window of the tavern, she did not go inside.

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2 Responses to “The Queen of Tarts”

  1. Lucia says:

    I really liked that one. It was very descriptive, and I liked how you portrayed Death as a woman. Who said the Grim Reaper was a man anyway? ; )

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