September Stories (9/3)

So continues my September Stories project. If you missed any of them, go here for a running list at the bottom.

9-3

Burnt Heart, Bound Feet
By Danielle Davis

They knocked on his door at ten of ten. He’d been told by the clergyman yesterday, at mid-day mass, the time intended to give the small group of volunteers a few hours to achieve their purpose before the witching hours of the night. Indeed the monsters—if any certainly existed—were said to come out then, and surely would to prevent them from succeeding at their grim work.

Thomas wanted nothing to do with the rest of them or their work. It meant little to him–the townsfolk’s stories of creatures and vampires. All he wanted was to be alone with his grief and his memories, not traipsing around the family cemetery looking for ghosts in the night.

The only ghost he saw now was the lingering shade of his wife’s presence that sat like a layer of dust over their small home. When she’d been alive–back before the wasting sickness set its hooks into her chest and lungs—her light and laughter had lit up all areas she visited like a lamp in a dark room. Whether at the barn, tending to the few cows, sheep, and chickens that sustained their tiny farm, or indoors or weeding the vegetable patch behind the northeastern corner of the house…she was like a sun, not reflecting the rays from the sky but generating them from herself. Her voice, the tinkling peal of her laughter, the playful glint of her eyes lit everything around her.

It certainly lit him. He basked in the glow of her like a snake on a rock, reluctant to ever move from the warmth of her.

When she died, a chill settled into the place. It slumbered in the wood of the house like a sickness and sucked the air from your lungs when you walked across the land. Candles couldn’t make the rooms bright enough, nor the daylight to make the garden as green as when she’d been there. She was the beating heart of the farm, and when she left, a part of it died, too.

“Mr. Chambers, open up.” He recognized Matthew Carolson’s voice, muffled as it was through the thick front door. But he remained slumped in the old chair near the empty fireplace, staring into the empty hearth. The shovel he was supposed to bring on their excursion hung loosely in his hands.

There was another set of pounding knocks and then a new voice, timid and reedy. “Mr. Chambers? Thomas? It’s time, son. Let’s not draw this out longer than we have to.”

At that, he glanced toward the door as if he’d notice the gaunt, sagging face of Father Albert peering back. Didn’t they understand it had already gone on long enough?

When he opened the door, seven anxious faces peered back at him. There was Father Albert and Matt Carolson, the butcher, and behind them William and James Murdock, the tailor brothers; Josiah Scott, who owned the neighboring farm to the east; young Jeremiah Johnson, who helped Josiah with the farm chores in the summer; and Benjamin Henley, who managed the town bank.

Thomas grunted as his eyes passed over their faces. “Didn’t expect to see you here, Benjamin,” he said softly. His voice sounded hoarse and ill-used.

The banker’s round face flushed in the lamplight and his chest swelled visibly. “I have a family, too, you know Thomas. Any one of them could be taken by this…thing. Up to us to put a stop to it.” Benjamin nodded, once, as if congratulating himself on a speech well-said. He tried to meet Thomas’s gaze but it fell under the farmer’s tired, sad eyes.

Thomas leaned toward Father Albert, acutely aware that the other men also leaned slightly forward to hear, too. “I’m not so sure I’m up to this, Father,” he whispered. “I–”

“I know how much you miss her, Thomas,” Father Albert said. He laid a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “We all do. Alice was as fine a woman as they come. But you must realize that she went to be with our Lord God. Her spirit is in a place of light and beauty unimaginable to the minds of mortals such as us. What you put into the ground was just the shell of the body she left behind.” He leaned farther forward so that their foreheads almost touched. “That’s not Alice anymore. What has taken possession of her body is most horrid and demonic. It must be stopped before someone else gets hurt.”

Thomas remembered when she first got sick. The tiny, dainty coughs that soon turned into hacking roars of breath. Alice hadn’t wanted to see a doctor—it was just a touch of a summer cold and fever, she insisted—but when he noticed the spatters of blood on her handkerchiefs, he called Doc Hammond straightaway. Consumption was the diagnosis, and all he’d been able to do was try to keep from catching it as he watched her fade away.

It was too soon to face her grave again, which was probably only just covered with a fine green stubble of late summer grass. It was too soon for any of this foolishness he’d been roped into.

But he found he was too tired to say the words. So he just nodded sadly and pulled on his wool coat. Alice had made it for him two winters ago. On the inner left breast, she’d stitched a small red cross over where the jacket rested against his heart. He was acutely aware of how that area felt warmer against him than the rest of the coat.

The group trudged silently over the rolling pastureland and squeezed through the thin fence rails that separated his property from Josiah’s. The only sound was a gentle clinking noise from a burlap sack Josiah carried slung over one shoulder. The men moved with the labored steps of men who had traveled a great distance and still had further to go, though they weren’t but a few miles from the main town. The purpose of their trip laid heavy over them, like a storm cloud, as their leather shoes soaked up the dew collecting on the night-chilled grass.

When they got to cemetery and approached the grave of Alice Chambers, they paused in a circle around it. The flickering light of their oil lamps cast caricatures of their shadows across the slight mound of packed dirt and in the grass behind them. The shadows leapt and danced like demons around the fires of Hell. In the darkness beyond the light, the tombstones stood like rounded teeth poking up from the earth.

Though the men cast uneasy glances at the shadows and features of the other men around the circle, Thomas had eyes only for the grave. His eyes feasted on the gentle curving letters carved into the tombstone that read Alice Chambers, beloved wife and daughter.

How he had wanted a daughter! It had been on his mind a great deal in the lonely, endless nights since Alice’s funeral. How badly she’d wanted a baby, too, and how he’d sell his very soul just to see a glimpse of Alice’s beautiful features again, even in the chubby face of an infant. Though they’d loved each other long and tirelessly in their seven years of marriage, God had never blessed them so.

And now this.

Thomas felt like he was suspended over a precipice, dangling, wondering when the rope would snap and he’d fall to the black pit waiting below. It was a common feeling for him since Alice died. He’d long since become comfortable with the understanding that the black pit may be the grave. If only to see her again.

And now this.

“Well, let’s get to it, lads,” Benjamin Henley said in a too-loud voice. But his pickaxe remained at his side and the light from James’s lamp showed the nervous way his eyes darted around at each man in the circle. Though it was obvious he was a child whistling in the dark, nobody laughed or made to pick up their shovels or pickaxes. They all merely stood there, staring like Thomas, down at the gentle brown mound in front of them.

With a sigh, Jeremiah plunged his shovel deep into the dirt and stepped on it, driving the blade in to its shoulder. Without sparing a glance to see if the other men were joining in, he tossed the load of dirt to the side and drove the shovel back in again.

Jeremiah was a young man barely into his twenties. Though he primarily worked the Scott farm, he’d come over to help with calving once or twice on Thomas’s farm. Alice would bring the two men lemonade and tease Jeremiah about his inability to grow a full beard. She said the patchiness of it reminded her of a piebald pony. Despite having shoulders to rival a breeding bull’s, Jeremiah was a soft-spoken fellow who blushed easily and worked harder than a mule.

But in that moment, Thomas hated him. Seething and sad, he made a vow that Jeremiah would never again set foot on his property. At least not as long as he was alive.

After a few long moments where they all stood watching Jeremiah shovel by himself, Josiah barked, “Well! Get to it then!” and they all lifted their tools. Thomas, however, stood back and watched as the lamplight made each divot seem like its own small grave and turned the digging men into hunchback horrors leaning over them.

He dropped his shovel and hugged his arms around himself. He could picture Alice, laying peacefully in her coffin below them all, hearing the digging and grumbled swears going on above her. Each scrape of dirt on metal grated across his ears. He finally closed his eyes and waited, hugging his arms to his sides while he concentrated on her face turned golden by the firelight the last time they made love. They hadn’t known it would be the last.

It seemed years passed before someone gave a startled shout as his tool hit wood. The noise roused Thomas from his memories and made him aware of the deep ache in his joints where the cold had seeped in. The night chill had turned him to stone in his inactivity and he had to shake himself, not unlike a wet dog, before he could move forward to see what they’d unearthed.

There was the simple pine panel he’d carved himself for her. Its beautiful cover had been scratched and splintered in the middle—the first strike of Jeremiah’s shovel–and around the edges from where the digging tools had struggled to scrape the dirt away around the lid, but otherwise, it was untouched.

Someone had thought to bring a crowbar and it was passed now into the hands of William. He offered it with a silent gesture to his brother, but James shook his head quickly. Looking doubtful, William shrugged and clambered into the hole. He worked clockwise, prying each nail up as he shuffled around hunched over. When he was through, he held up his hand and James slung him back out.

As one, the men all turned to Thomas. “Come on, Tom.” Matt’s voice at his shoulder startled him. He looked back but they stood far enough back that the lamplight didn’t quite reach them. The shadows obscured most of Matt’s face and turned his eyes into gaping, black sockets.

Like an old man, Thomas shuffled to the edge of the grave and used his shovel to flip one side of the casket over. They all gagged at the stench that billowed out. William and James turned together to vomit on the grass behind them. Benjamin uttered a shocked curse and whipped out a silk handkerchief from his pocket, which he used to cover his nose and mouth. Everyone else looked away, except for Josiah. When Thomas averted his face away from the sudden cloud of rot, he saw Josiah staring at him, not Alice, with a mixture of pity and resignation on his face.

Thomas covered his nose with his wrist, using the linen of his shirt to filter. He opened his mouth, took a deep breath, and looked back.

She was unrecognizable except for her gown. The beautiful purple one he’d bought her for their fifth anniversary. She’d loved that dress like no other and it hadn’t seemed proper for her to be in anything else. At her breast still lay the wrinkled remnants of the bouquet he’d placed in before they closed it up—lilies. The same flowers he’d brought the first day he courted her.

There were strange stains that spotted the bodice and gown, like there had been leaks in the casket and she’d been dripped on. But the cracks in her skin were crusted with something like pale scabs from whatever had built up enough to split the skin and then pour out. Her cheeks, chest, and arms looked like hardpan dirt that had cracked from too long in the sun.  He couldn’t bring himself to examine her face—that wasn’t the image of her he wanted stuck in his head long after this was over.

None of this was.

“Now I will say a prayer,” Father Albert intoned. He could have been reciting mass for all the emotion his voice held. “I will invoke the spirit of our Lord and Savior to take the foulness from this poor woman’s corpse and to free her soul from its unnatural bondage.” He placed his palms together and closed his eyes.

Thomas barely heard the words the priest said. He was too busy trying to slow his breaths against the wail that threatened to break forth. He could feel it rising, a hysterical sort of sob that made his stomach clench and his lungs quiver with the effort of holding it all in.

“It’s time,” Father Albert finally said.

Thomas merely looked at him. “What are you going to do?” he ground out.

“Not me, son. You have to do it.”

Thomas shook his head. He didn’t realize he’d tried to back away until Benjamin and James locked their hands like manacles on his upper arms and thrust him firmly toward the open grave. “You cannot ask this of me, Father. You cannot. Have I not been through enough already?”

“Hasn’t this town already been through enough?” Benjamin exclaimed in an indignant voice. “Should we have to suffer and watch our own families fall to the predations of this creature–”

“That creature was my wife!” Thomas shouted as he thrust his face close to Benjamin’s. The banker recoiled as if Thomas were a rabid dog lunging for his throat, but he tightened his grip around Thomas’s arm just the same.

“Not anymore she’s not. What’s in that hole is a vampire. We all know it.” Josiah’s voice was quiet but it carried to all of their ears. The words seemed to hang in the air over the grave.

As Josiah crouched to dig into the bag he’d been carrying, Benjamin muttered, “Besides you can still see the blood crusted around her mouth. Wonder who the unfortunate victim was?” This time, Thomas ignored him.

Josiah removed a small hatchet and a pair of gloves. After donning the gloves, he reached back into the bag and pulled out a twisted, tangled mass of thorny vines.

“What in God’s name is that mess?” William murmured but Josiah ignored him.

“What have we to do, Father?” Constraining Thomas seemed to have emboldened Benjamin for now he stood tall with his chin nobly raised. His voice rang with the authority of a man used to being obeyed without question.

“Burn the heart. Bind the feet with thorns. I will say the appropriate prayers that will usher this poor woman to her eternal resting place at the feet of the Sovereign. This should end the vampire threat that has blighted our town.”

Thomas sagged. It took the combined efforts of Benjamin and James to hold him upright.

Father Albert gave Thomas a grave look. “Son, you’ll have to–”

“I’ll get the heart,” Josiah interrupted, with a surreptitious glance at Thomas. “I’ll do it.”

He snatched up the axe and lowered himself carefully so that he stood with one foot on either side of the body. He gave Thomas a long, unreadable look. Then he bent to his work. The hatchet flashed like quicksilver in the lamp light as it rose and fell, rose and fell to the pattern of Josiah’s even breaths and the sharp, brittle crack as the axe struck quickly to the bone. There were several sharp cracks as the ribcage gave way, then a wet crunch.

Finally Josiah stood. In one gloved hand, a blackened gob the size of a fist.

Thomas put his feet underneath him carefully and stood. He moved forward to take the heart. It squished in his hand, spilling dark, coagulated goo over his hand to drip down his wrist. He barely felt it. His head was filled with the screaming he’d managed to hold back.

And in his hand he held his dead wife’s heart.

“Burn it,” intoned the priest. Like a man in a dream, Thomas turned and opened the glass hatch of the nearest oil lamp. After placing the heart carefully, oh so carefully on the grass, he tipped some of the oil from the side and then touched the lamp flame to it.

The heart caught immediately.

For a moment he was transfixed by the sight. He watched the blue and gold flames lick and dance over the slick oil that covered the dark mass of his love’s heart. It was a tenacious sort of fire. The kind that continued to blaze and glide instead of dwindling as its fuel turned to ash. It seemed so very alive as it burned its way through to the inside chambers. Small holes appeared, so that the heart seemed to glow with a light of its own.

Then the gloves were thrust into his hand and he turned and gazed blankly at Josiah. Josiah assessed him with a grim look, then began pulling the glove over Thomas’s limp hand. Thomas turned away and continued to watch the heart burn. When Josiah finished the one hand, he moved to glove the other.

Hands, finally, turning his shoulders so that he pivoted and faced the grave. Something like cords were thrust into one hand. When he glanced down, he saw it was the thorny vines someone had tried to tame into a coil like rope.

He stepped forward and lowered himself into the grave, standing on either side of Alice like Josiah had.

The purple of her dress, turned near black in the dark, called to him. He pulled the gloves off one at a time and ran his hands through the thick mass of the fabric. The coil of thorns in his hands immediately dug like small needles into his hand as he clenched his fists into the purple material, feeling its weight, savoring the bite of the pain.

He deserved this, he knew. He deserved it all.

He lifted the bulk of her legs and began to wrap the vines around the swollen, cracked skin of her ankles. Through the dress material, he felt some of the skin give and slide. But he just pulled the vines as tight as he dared so they wouldn’t snap.

The whole time, as the priest droned prayers over his head, he prayed too. That this would bring someone peace. That this whole ordeal didn’t damn his soul to hell. That he would get to see his Alice once again. That it would be soon.

All at once it was done. Father Albert pronounced her body “clean” and a few of the men reached down hands to help Thomas out of the grave. Some of them, like Benjamin, were even smiling slightly, as if glad it was over or proud of themselves for sticking it out.

But Thomas didn’t take their hands. Instead he turned and looked directly at his wife’s face for the first time that night. His eyes showed him the face he’d gone to sleep next to for the last seven years of his life. The radiant skin that glowed with its own light. Her silky, brown hair that tumbled like silk into his hands. Her eyes were closed, but he knew that beneath them were the lovely brown eyes that had captured his attention at the barn dance years ago. The eyes that always seemed to hold a glint of mischief, like she knew a secret nobody else did. He thought he saw the clear skin of her breast rise with a slight breath, as if she were merely asleep, and then he understood.

He smiled tenderly. He knew how to fix it. She had shown him how.

Carefully, he leaned forward. His hands braced themselves against the sides of the coffin as he stretched his body over hers, not touching but only just barely. His ears registered a slight commotion behind him, those of shouts coming from some long distance away.

Still he smiled at his wife.

They told him how careful he had to be with his wife down with tuberculosis. How quickly it spread and how deadly. The very air she breathed was tainted, they said. So he cared for her with a handkerchief held carefully to his mouth. This she insisted on. She could not bear it if he fell ill, too, she said. He did it for her. Everything he ever did, really, he did for her.

He lowered his head until his face was within kissing distance of hers. That beautiful face. Those soft, pink lips.

The air of the coffin was very still here. It gave Thomas the feeling that time had stopped. Whatever was left of her soul, tainted or otherwise, it almost felt like she was still there—whatever had made her her—suspended forever.

He inhaled.

He inhaled.

He inhaled.

Total Writing Time: 4 hr., 2 min.
Source: The Great New England Vampire Panic of the 1800s

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