The Coffin’s Occupant
They all wiped quiet tears from their eyes,
Wishing the old lord had not died,
And sent for a coffin with teak sides
From India, no cost they shied,
The casket had a trail of flies.
A maid, without family ties,
Found the coffin was occupied.
They all wiped quiet tears from their eyes,
Wishing the old lord had not died,
And sent for a coffin with teak sides
From India, no cost they shied,
The casket had a trail of flies.
A maid, without family ties,
Found the coffin was occupied.
When the encased fellow opened his eyes, he was staring into the face of a freckled and frightened young woman crowned with blond hair, wearing a black and white maid uniform. Before he could speak, she ran shrieking from the room, leaving the man staring up at the ceiling, contemplating it. He could only see a small part of the room from where he lay, which was covered with detailed painted tiles that created a porcelain forest. This appeared to be a waiting room of some sort, part of an old and wealthy mansion.
Soon she came huffing and puffing back with two young men. They peered down into the man’s face and laughed. The one with blond hair said, “No wonder it was such a bleeding weight!”
The man tried to join in their laughter, but it dissolved into hoarse coughs. The two men jumped back. “Let’s find the butler, he ought to know what to do,” muttered the brown haired one, running from the room.
The butler of the Clarford Estate had enough good sense to fetch the closest version of doctor they had on hand: the mortician who had come to care for the dearly departed lord. Many of the other servants came to observe this bizarre event, and noted that the mortician, being a slightly wide fellow, was barely able to squeeze through the door. His multitudes of years at various medical schools studying the science of autopsy were no use for this case, because the poor encased fellow smiled at him and rasped out of his poor vocal chords, “Water?”
His frail, ghostly hands with immensely long fingernails grasped the wooden sides, and the man pulled himself into a sitting position. For an instant they had a glimpse of his skeletal face and skin so transparent the veins beneath were visible. He flopped back down, surprising the maid, causing her to hyperventilate. The mortician sent her off to fetch water as the noise grated against his nerves.
“So,” he said, heaving himself onto a chair arranged by the coffin so he could peer at the odd man without straining to see over his gut. “How did you find your way there?”
“I doubt I found anything. What’s the date? Where am I?”
“It is February the fifth. You are in the Clarford Estate, Yorkshire.” The mortician rested his hands on his great girth. "I agree that you didn’t find anything, but you said 'I doubt', and when people say that they doubt, they rarely know the actuality. Are you saying that you can't remember the event that put you there?"
“Nothing. But,” he replied, grinning. “That’s good. It sounds unpleasant. What year?”
The mortician’s eyebrows rose. “Year of our Lord, 1896.”
The little man ignored his confusion. “Please, get me out?”
No one stepped forward. The mortician, demonstrating that he was fearless of death or those near it, stuck his large arm in the coffin and plucked the little man from the box with ease. “Someone catch his legs!” he called. The maid with the water returned then and gingerly lifted the little man’s legs out by his shoes with the mortician’s quick instructions. They propped him up, and for a fleeting moment, he stood.
He was small and slender for a grown man, barely reaching the maid’s chin. His hair was a long, matted, black braid that hung to his ankles. He smiled up at the maid, and his knees buckled when their eyes met. The maid caught him and looped his arm around her neck. He looked like a creature of the night who was weary of his mischievous deeds.
He winced. “Perhaps I can try walking later?”
The crowd about the door suddenly stirred. Philip Clarford, the new lord of the estate, burst in. “Let me see this!” he shouted, grinning from ear to ear. “God in heaven you look awful. How in Hell’s orchards did you get in there?”
“Amazing! And in my father’s coffin too! What’s your name?”
The little man stared at him for a moment. “Don’t know that either,” he said finally.
“If only my father had seen this! This,” the young lord lifted his arms to heaven, “this is nothing short of a miracle! You’re alive?”
“Are you certain? If Marianne weren’t holding you up, would you be moving at all?”
“Yes, towards the water!” He grabbed the pitcher from Marianne.
The entire room had silenced. Every eye was on the pitcher in the little man’s hands, watching it tip farther and farther back, hearing the tiny slurping noises, refusing to breathe until he did. At last it lowered.
He glanced at the amazed faces around him. “Is there something wrong?” Now they could hear that he had a trace of an Indian accent, which he seemed to be fighting to hide.
“What should we call you? Lord Ruthven or Earl of Marsden?” asked Lord Clarford, gaping at him.
“No, none of that novel nonsense,” said the mortician. “Find him a bed, and make certain,” he heaved himself onto his own feet, “he stays in it. He hasn’t got long.” With that, he pushed his way through the crowd, leaving a gap wide enough for the little man, being half escorted, half carried by Marianne, to pass through without trouble.
“Not in my house!” Lord Clarford called after them, following them out into the hallway. “I don’t want a Lord Ruthven in my house!”
“Where should I take him, my lord?” she answered, hesitating.
“I’m tired,” the little man whispered. “I must sit.” She carefully sat him down and turned to the young lord.
“I don’t know! Take him to the stables.”
“Take pity,” the mortician snapped. “He’s dying.”
Marianne looked at the little man, who was pulling at his chest and gasping like a fish. He was pitiful. Then, before her eyes, he flopped onto his back, panting. His arms were flung perpendicular to his body, his legs spread apart. “Stay with me,” he gasped. There was something familiar about the way he laid, Marianne realized. She had spent days watching that exact pose.
She crouched besides him and picked up his hand, trying to make herself feel a little more useful. It was cold and slick with sweat. Suddenly his hand clenched, and the other grabbed at his chest. His breathing became short and shallow. It was startlingly similar to the way her brother, Brian, had looked when dying.
She started to stand up, but his grip tightened. “Stay! With! Me!” His other hand was beating at his chest.
“I need to get help.”
“Yes!” he rasped. His face was an odd yellow hue, as though all of the blood had drained from it. Only sinew and bone were left. “Stay! Stay!”
“Help! He’s collapsed!”
The mortician waddled down the hall to the little man’s side. “For God’s sake! Put him in a bed!”
Marianne studied the wide-eyed gaze that the little man wore. Was he glimpsing heaven? She had seen this gaze before. Her father and brother had had an illness that weakened their hearts. They both had died the same way – gazing into the wonder of death. “I’ll give him a bed!” she said suddenly. “I’ll take him home.”
When the little man next opened his eyes, he was surrounded by faces in a room with plain white walls. The air moved freely here, he could smell the moors creeping in through the cracks in the walls. His foul clothes had been stripped from him, revealing his emaciated body carefully lain out on a small bed. The women shielded their eyes. Marianne was there too, leaning against the wall, chewing her lips raw. She still wore her maid uniform, but it was disheveled and wrinkled, having just survived a hasty journey.
The overweight mortician was gone. The local physician leaned over the little man with a new-fangled instrument for listening to the chest. “Good afternoon,” he greeted. “Welcome to the land of the living.”
The little man blinked. “Where am I?”
The physician smiled warmly. “Miss Marianne Addison’s family decided to take you in till you recover your memory.”
“I thank them one thousand times.” He absentmindedly rubbed his chest.
“You’re welcome, one thousand times,” muttered an old woman with a weather-beaten face.
“They named you too. You arrived in Lord Alexander Clarford’s coffin, so they elected to call you Alex for the nonce.” The physician chuckled. “Well, we now know something more about you. You have a weak heart, and you were in that coffin for a very long time.”
“Oh,” the newly named Alex whispered. “How do you know?”
“You have bed sores and calluses on your back, legs, and arms where they rubbed the coffin. You should be very grateful you cannot remember the ordeal.”
He nodded weakly. “I am.”
“Moreover, it has weakened your heart, in the same way that a person released from an oubliette dies when walking from the dungeon.”
Alex flinched. “They wanted to forget me?” He paused because his breath came in short gasps. Suddenly he stopped and grasped at his chest.
The doctor shook his head sadly, and took Mrs. Addison and Marianne aside. “I don’t think he’ll live much longer, or through the night. The best you can do is keep him comfortable; fill his last days kindness after such hardship.”
Alex’s wheezing increased. “I’m glad for… your confidence… in me, but I… will not die!” Marianne couldn’t look at his face, but instead watched his fluttering chest and pallid, sweaty skin.
The odd little man did live through the night, and the next night as well, though only by pure determination. Several times he stopped breathing. His hand would fall limp in Marianne’s grasp. Each time she would feel for a pulse, her own racing, and he’d take a tedious, shuddering breath and clutch her hand, too tired to speak. Each time Alex awoke again, she whispered a prayer to him, and chatter about her brother and father and how well he was doing compared to them.
By the third day he managed to sleep and breathe at the same time. Marianne and her mother were able to put some soup down his throat while he sat upright. That morning he watched the sunrise through the window sitting like Marianne did as a child on her mother’s lap.
Later that morning, Alex finally fell into a normal sleep. Marianne and Mrs. Addison sat in the kitchen, resting their minds. “It’s foolish, but I feel like a new mother again,” Mrs. Addison whispered. “He’s so small, so weak…” her voice trailed off as she looked about the kitchen. “Brian didn’t last this long after collapsing.”
“Mummy, he’s a grown man. Brian was only twelve.”
Mrs. Addison shook her head. “Alex looked no older than 20, only a few years your senior, to my eyes. He could almost be Brian if he were blond.”
“I doubt I could ever be so tall.”
They spun around to see him propped up by the doorway. The nightshirt they had found for him had belonged to Marianne’s father, and it was massively too big for him. It dragged on the ground behind him with his unbraided hair. He had walked from the bed to the door on his own.
It was as though he was a baby that had taken his first step, the way Marianne and Mrs. Addison carried on. Marianne rode into town to tell the doctor while Mrs. Addison made Alex presentable. She found her husband’s old clothes, pinned them up to fit, and combed out his tangled hair, for he refused to let her cut it to a more civilized length.
When the doctor knocked on the door, Alex greeted him standing up. “Still alive,” he told the doctor, and gave Marianne an enormous grin when the doctor had to sit down from surprise. With clean skin, clothes, and combed hair, he looked like a budding sapling in early spring, as though his withered appearance was only to protect him from the winter.
Glowing from the encounter, Marianne took the doctor back to the village, and she returned to a very loud argument taking place in the kitchen.
“Madam Addison, please!” Alex pleaded. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his head bowed. Mrs. Addison wielded a soupspoon like an army commander wielding a sword.
“Go to bed! You’ve done enough for one day!”
“I can’t be idle!”
“Go to bed, now.” Her soupspoon was dangerously close to his chin.
“Good evening, Mother, Alex.”
They jumped. Alex clutched his chest. Mrs. Addison snatched the opportunity to say, “Don’t you agree with me, that he ought to go back to bed before he hurts himself?”
“No,” he muttered, but his hand started to shake.
“Yes,” Marianne answered. She marched over to him and looped his left arm around her neck.
“No…” he growled as Marianne dragged him away. His knees gave out, and a strangled yelp escaped his throat.
“Mum! Help! He fell!”
Her mother scurried to help them, muttering, “I knew he was too weak to leave bed.” She lifted Alex as though he was a small boy and dropped him onto the makeshift straw mattress.
“We need to keep him here. Sit on his legs if you have to! I’ll get a damp rag.”
“Stay! Stay! Stay!” Alex whimpered. Small streams of sweat slid off his forehead, dampening the pillow. His dark eyes were locked on some invisible object high in the air before him. His withered appearance returned, as though he had aged fifty years in seconds.
Marianne and her mother sat by the bed for hours, bathing his forehead. The quarter moon lit his face like a death mask. Only his eyes had any color, but the moonlight reflected a poisonous green glow. When the “Stay! Stay! Stay!” chant finally ceased, he breathed slowly for a few minutes before rolling onto his side. His head lolled and his eyes blinked lethargically.
“Brian and Father must be watching over you, filling you with breath every time you falter,” Marianne whispered and hugged his arm.
“You are too kind,” he whispered. “My debt is too great.” She stretched her aching knees. “I only wished to help her make dinner,” he whispered. “I was going to cook curry.”
“You’re being reckless,” she muttered. “My father died from a weak heart as well. Insisted to go out and herd the sheep in and died out in the field. You’re weak too, like Brian. Brian couldn’t do anything tiring without falling ill.”
“Oh.” His voice was caught between a moan and understanding. “I see why you would worry, but I’m not your father or brother. I’m stronger than most.”
The wind picked up suddenly, shaking the roof. “Not at the moment. You couldn’t fight the wind and win right now.”
“But I’m frightened. I don’t want to fight anymore.” Alex laid back, listening to the wind howl against the rough stone walls of the cottage. “I’m glad that you’re here with me. You can do the fighting for me.”
For the bare remainder of the night, Marianne was haunted with a strange dream. She was in a smoky hut with a low ceiling. A great slab of stone was before her, and on it, blanketed with a brilliant red cloth, lay Alex. He was different, younger. His skin was dark, as though he had spent all of his days laboring under the southern sun, and he had muscles, not bones, showing through his skin. Death lingered about him. His breath came in short, ragged gasps. As he turned to see her, he screamed something in a foreign tongue and tried to lift his hands to protect himself, but he was tied down. Then Marianne realized she was clutching a knife in her right hand, but it wasn’t her right that he gazed at. He looked to her left. Something warm, slimy, and twitching was in her left hand. She awoke, gasping like Alex had, but told no one about the dream.
Despite the setback, Alex blossomed with health as the months passed. It was as though someone was turning time around for him. As the days passed, he looked younger and stronger. His fainting spells stopped. When the spring breezes thawed the ground, he and Marianne spent afternoons exploring the fields around the cottage the way Brian had never been able to. He didn’t even begin panting when the ram chased him out of the sheep pen, though he didn’t come very close to the sheep after that, and Mrs. Addison was never told. When Marianne returned to the mansion to work as a maid, Alex convinced Mrs. Addison to let him do small, household chores that didn’t involve hard labor.
April arrived with a long, gentle rainstorm. It was time to strip the sheep of their heavy wool coats. The evening before the event, Alex stood in front of Mrs. Addison and Marianne to ask to be allowed to help, his head bowed and hands clasped behind his back. Mrs. Addison flatly refused and manhandled him into bed.
The next morning, Marianne woke to the scent of a feast. She wandered into the kitchen, still in her nightgown. “Mum, what-” She stopped.
Alex was dressed in her father’s work clothes, which ballooned around his body comically as he stirred something in the frying pan. His hair had been brushed and braided into a very thick, stiff braid that quivered as he moved.
“Good morning, dear.” Her mother sat at the table, scowling. “I couldn’t stop him.”
He cackled. “And I am making curry, though it isn’t proper curry; you don’t have the right spices.”
“Alex, do you have your memory back?” Marianne seated herself at the table. “How do you remember the spices?”
The ring of platters hitting the counter drowned her out, and Alex started humming loudly, apparently not having heard her.
“Bon appétit!” he shouted, delivering the platters to the table with flourish. “This is payment for letting me help you today.”
“Close your mouth, dear,” her mother muttered. “He begged me this morning, so I told him if he managed to cook breakfast without collapsing I’d let him go.”
“And,” he added, “I am quite healthy today.” He thumped his chest as he sat down, but winced.
“Still have bruises there?” Mrs. Addison’s eyes narrowed.
Shrugging, he picked up his spoon. Breakfast began. Alex had used ingredients Marianne was familiar with: potatoes, wrinkled onions, rosemary, and old ewe, but Marianne had never tasted a soup with this much flavor before. All her life, food had been something to give energy, to fill her stomach and move on to the next task. This gave her the strange sensation that her tongue was thinking. From the comfortable silence that had fallen over the table, she guessed that her mother was discovering the same thing. The rest of the meal passed quietly; their mouths too busy with the food to be bothered with talking.
As Alex finally gathered the empty platters, skipping about like a sprite or elf from fairy tales, Mrs. Addison grabbed his arm and pulled him down to inspect his face while he balanced the dirty dishes in the other. “He looks flushed.”
“Madam,” he whispered, “have I faltered once during this meal?”
She released him, sighing. “I guess not. You may help.” As he stepped lightly away, she added, “You can help skirting the fleeces.”
When they arrived, Alex discovered what skirting fleeces meant. A little group of old ladies sat around a table with a wire mesh top and gossiped. They were picking the ruined wool from the fleeces before tying them up for storage. Alex sat down at the end of the table, and their chatter stopped. They all looked away from Alex.
Marianne carried fleeces to them and kept watch on Alex’s progress. He made himself small on the end of the bench, as far away from the rest of them as possible. The gossips’ old fingers moved deftly over the fleeces, every once and a while commenting on the quality of one of them in hushed tones, as though to exclude Alex from the conversation.
“This ewe that Addison brought in has good crimp to her, look at that!” the oldest gossip glanced at Alex suspiciously, and stopped talking.
“She is a very generous woman,” Alex said quietly.
Eyebrows arched around the circle, but no one responded to Alex.
The next fleece came with someone else’s gossip attached, and Marianne pulled him away from the circle. “Come help me carry fleeces; Mummy is catching sheep in the pen. She won’t know.”
“Thank-you,” Alex said. “I don’t think they like me much.”
They carried the fleece between them to the wagon. No one else near. “This is perfect!” Marianne whispered. “Climb on top of the wagon seat!”
“What is perfect?” Alex asked as he obeyed.
Marianne climbed up with him. “We can jump into the wool from here. It’s like falling into a cloud.”
He looked uncertain and began to climb down. Marianne snatched his waistband and tossed him into the pile of wool fleeces. He landed on his feet, cat-like.
“No, that’s wrong. Like this!” Marianne spread her arms dramatically and turned around. “Are you watching?” She jumped backwards, flopping into the wool with a small shriek and a hail of frenzied giggles. “Go on, try it!”
“Are you certain this is wise?” Alex carefully stepped out of the pile. “Won’t the fleeces felt?”
“Only a little. If we don’t do this all day, no harm will come.” She rolled off the pile and grabbed Alex’s hand. “It’s scariest to do it backwards, we can do it forwards for your first time.”
He climbed onto the seat with her and held up his arms the way that she did. “Now!” They launched face first into the fleeces. The wool kidnapped them in a prison of comfort. Their hands still clutched each other. The silence was too fluffy to break.
“I could sleep a year in this spot,” Alex whispered, at last.
“Do you think the next fleece is ready?” Marianne rolled to his side. Their hips touched for an instant.
He sat up quickly and pulled her with him. “Most likely.” They carefully climbed off the wagon.
Just as Alex turned to fetch the next fleece, Marianne caught his arm as her mother had that morning, and studied his face. “When your memory returns, will you tell me?”
Alex looked away. “It depends on the memory that returns.”
That evening, the wind carried the deliciously heavy scent of melting snow as they walked the small herd of sheep home. The full moon lit the pastures and field as though it was still day. They were so content and tired with the day’s work that they didn’t speak much, until Alex fell in stride with Mrs. Addison. The sheep sped up to distance themselves from Alex. “The night is very nice. Very warm.”
She hummed her agreement.
“I wanted to know…”
Mrs. Addison turned sharply to look at him. “You’re bowing again. You want to do something that I will disagree with?”
He straightened his neck. “I hope not. I…” he paused, looking for the right words. “The night is very nice, and I want to walk through it.”
She didn’t answer right away, so he continued.
“When following the road, we walk in a great half-circle. I could go through Mr. Hildman’s winter field, across the moor, over the river and through your spring pasture and be home before you.” For a good measure, he added, “I will use stars to guide me.”
She frowned. “What about your heart?”
“I haven’t collapsed this month.” He bowed his head again. “And, when you were catching ewes for sheering, I carried fleeces with Marianne.”
Mrs. Addison finally nodded. “But Marianne will go…” She turned. Alex was already over the fence and jogging into the darkness. She tapped the naked butt of a ewe who nibbled at some tender dandelion shoots by the wagon tracks
A few hours later, after loosing the sheep in the spring pasture, they came home to a dark house. They couldn’t find Alex. Before they could go out to search for him, Mr. Hildman came galloping up the road with a rifle under his arm. Horse and rider panted to a stop. “Lock up yer sheep, and stay inside!” He paused to catch his breath. “A huge black beast is in the moors!”
“What?” Mrs. Addison almost dropped her lantern.
Mr. Hildman took off his cap. “I shot it.” He stopped to wipe the sweat off his hands on his pants. “It was close too. I reckon only as far as yer barn there. I caught it right through the shoulder, but it didn’t fall. Just limped off, growling and panting. I could hear it. It was headed this way across the moor; I had to warn you.”
“Thank-you, Mr. Hildman, for warning us.”
“Wait!” Marianne yelled. “Alex! We need to find him! He hasn’t gotten back!”
Mr. Hildman shifted in his seat, nervously pulling on his coat collar. “I heard someone yellin’. That’s why,” he hefted his gun, “I brought this.” Marianne looked ready to bolt into the moors, so he added, “Please, don’t go out there, Marianne. If he met the monster, he most likely is already dead. We’ll look in the morning.”
That night was miserable. When Alex had been lying in the bedroom, his heart struggling to work through the night, they could watch his progress. Now they had nothing to watch; they could only wait for sunrise. Mrs. Addison forced Marianne to go to bed, where she lay, staring at the dark ceiling, remembering all of the sleepless nights she had spent nursing him back to health. Whenever she did sleep, she saw Alex on the heathen altar, screaming as she approached with the knife and beating heart. Mrs. Addison sat in the kitchen, staring at the door.
The moment the sun illuminated the horizon; they both were up and dressed. The ground was wet, and squelched beneath their old moor-pony’s feet as they rode to Mr. Hildman’s property. It didn’t take long to find where Mr. Hildman had shot the beast. Marianne leapt off the horse to the bloody ground and shrieked, “Alex! Where are you?”
No answer came, but raw blood made an easy trail to follow, even with tear-brimmed eyes. The trail pointed straight for the river. She stumbled down it ‘til she reached a tree, where she stopped to pant and dry her face. Then she spotted something in the grass. Alex’s coat was shredded and bloody. Buttons lay all over the ground, as though it had been ripped off of him. She picked up the coat and sat down in the trail unable to quiet her sobs.
It wasn’t long before Mrs. Addison and Mr. Hildman with his three boys came running down the trail. She held the tattered coat up for them as they approached.
“There’s still more trail,” Mr. Hildman whispered. “And that’s only his coat.”
“Father!” one of the boys hollered. “Look! Bootprints!”
They ran as though the monster was on their heels. The trail, blood and boots, was easy to follow, and it went into the river. That was where the trail stopped: at the flooded banks of the river. No bootprints churned the ground on the other side, and the water itself was moving far too fast for anyone to swim. The end. They stood at the bank and shouted his name. No one answered.
“He must have run into the river to escape the beast,” Mr. Hildman said at last. “He only could have gone down river from here.”
Walking down the river was slow and arduous. Thick brambles clogged the riverbank, and because the river flooded, they drowned in the water and made it almost impossible to look for Alex by the shore. Marianne was halfway through a thorn bush when she heard Mr. Hildman’s eldest son, shouting, “I found him! He’s stuck!”
The thorns drew blood from her as she fought to the voice.
She found the others gathered on a game trail that cut a hole through the bushes barely wide enough for anyone to pass through. Mr. Hildman’s eldest son stood in the waist deep water, holding Alex’s head up. Weak coughs echoed up the path. “He’s still alive!” he shouted, sawing at something under the water with his pocket knife. “His hair stuck in the branches here!” With a jerk, Alex’s head was free of the brambles. The boy pocketed the knife and pulled Alex upright.
As he had that first day, he stood only a moment, then plunged face first into the water.
Marianne leapt forward into the icy river, but Mr. Hildman’s son was quicker. He flipped Alex over and lifted his head above the water. Marianne waded to his side, and he took two slow, haggard breaths.
“Alex, we’ve found you!” she embraced him by encircling her arms under his and around his chest.
As she picked him up, he whispered, “Throw me back, send me away on the current.”
“Shush! We’re taking you back home.”
Alex lolled his head back and forth in an awkward shake. “Este, let me die. I should have died long ago.”
She shook her head as she pulled him up the shore. “God wants you alive, and so do I.”
“Get those icy rags off of him!” Mr. Hildman pulled off his own coat. “He’ll die of cold!” They all followed his example, and soon a bed of coats was lying on top of the grass. “One for Marianne too; she didn’t have the sense to tuck up her skirts before going in the water.”
Marianne ignored him and carefully stripped the tattered shirt off his cold skin. She gasped. The cloth revealed evidence of the monster’s brutal attack. Water had leached the blood from the deep cuts in his chest, coloring the flesh yellow. In addition the claw marks, there was a hole in his left shoulder, as though a branch had speared him there. As she gaped at the wounds, Alex turned to her and whispered, “Let me die, Este!”
She leaned in close, staring at his injuries. “Who’s Este?”
Alex blinked, his eyes dilated and unfocussed. “You are Grandmother Este, the god-thief.” He began to babble in another language, the tone in his voice telling her that he was explaining something.
“He’s delirious,” she said worriedly. “He thinks I’m someone I’m not. He’s calling me Grandmother Este.” Marianne stopped. He remembered his grandmother. He had his memory back. He’d be leaving soon.
Her stomach squirmed. She wanted to drop Alex and run to a private place to cry, but she didn’t. She stood there with a glassy expression on her face, while Mrs. Addison wrapped Alex up in her coat.
The trip home was blurry and unfocussed; as though her memory had been smudged while its artist drew. What little she did remember was her outer skirt stiffening in the cold as she walked beside the old mare with Alex draped on top. Her mother held her shoulders.
The rest of the morning, Alex and Marianne sat wrapped in blankets before the fire. Alex was covered in so many yards of bandaging Marianne wondered if he would faint like Lady Clarford did when tightening her corset, but he didn’t. Even though his hair hug about his shoulders in three uneven lengths, he refused Mrs. Addison’s offers to cut it properly. As he stared into the fire, he didn’t say anything, but sat as though he were one of the empty dolls given often as presents to Lord Clarford’s daughters. At noon, his silence broke.
“I do remember. I never lost my memory.” He looked her in the eye for the first time since that morning.
Marianne leaned forward; a great weight lifted from her chest, and anger burning in its place. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I didn’t want to remember.” His hand strayed to his chest. “It’s a very long, painful journey. I couldn’t tell you all of it in your lifetime.” He set aside his soup.
“Alex, your name,” Marianne glared at him. “What is your right name?”
He shrugged. “It’s Alex now.” Glancing at her reddened face, he added, “They called me Anant in India.”
“So, Anant, how did you travel from India to Lord Clarford’s coffin?”
He turned away from her. “About a ten years ago, I was living in India, and a British explorer found me, and took me with him. A few months ago he tried to kill me – he must have thought he succeeded and tried to dispose of my body. He was an importer of goods from the far east, so that’s likely how I ended up in Alexander Clarford’s teak coffin.”
“And Este, what about her?”
“Este was the shaman of our village. She used to treat me for my illness, but she died before she could finish.” His face lost some color, and he stood up. “This discussion needs walking.”
They pulled on coats and boots and snuck out of the house while Marianne’s mother spread hay for the sheep in the field.
“I am sorry for deceiving you,” Alex said as they reached the back wall. “I will tell you everything you need to know.” He patted the wall. “How high? Six feet?” Like a barn cat, he crouched and leapt, soaring to the top of the wall. Marianne gaped up at him. “I’ll help you up.” He kneeled and hung his hands down. “Hold my hands, and jump.” She did as he ordered, and he lifted her easily to the top of the wall. The wild moor lay before them, severed by the river.
“It’s quite lovely,” she said.
“It is.” He offered her his hands, and helped her down from the wall before leaping gracefully to the ground beside her. “Let’s go to the bridge.”
She nodded, and they started walking, arms linked.
“Este wasn’t my grandmother, we just called all old women that. She was the holy woman of our village. She commanded all of the spirits and deities in our valley, so that we always had plentiful food and mild weather.” He leapt easily over the puddle at the base of the bridge, lifting her with him. “When I was young, I became ill very easily. Eventually, I got a sickness that I couldn’t recover from. She wanted to save my life.”
“Wait,” Marianne said, holding him back. “I had a dream about you and her. She was about to kill you. You were tied to an altar, covered in red cloth.”
“You saw that?” Alex’s eyes widened in disbelief. Suddenly he grinned. “Then it is true. You are Este.”
“But Este is dead!” Marianne protested.
“Souls are immortal; surely you believe that?”
“Souls can be reborn. You are Este’s reincarnation.”
“But, we are almost the same age!” Marianne backed away.
Alex laughed. “Este tricked a god, named Bagira, into taking a physical form and put the god’s heart in my chest. She meant to save me,” he added, sadly. “But she made me unable to die instead. I have lived for thousands of years,” he added with a new light in his eyes.
The swollen river roared beneath the bridge where they stood. Nothing made sense. Alex’s story sounded impossible. She stared at the water, wishing it would stop moving so fast. It sped up.
“You could kill me.”
Marianne spun around.
“I have tried to kill myself many times; I’ve had others kill me; I’ve been burned, beaten, drowned, stabbed, strangled, poisoned, crushed, buried…everything.” He raced from her side, and returned a few seconds later with a sharp branch pulled from a tree and fell to his knees before her. “Please push it into my heart. If you were to undo what you did, perhaps I could die.” He placed the stick before her and began unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ve gone by so many names I don’t recall my own name. I’ve known so many faces I can’t recall my father’s face. I have learned so many languages I can’t recall my mother’s voice.” He pulled the bandages away from his chest.
Marianne picked the stick up and advanced the way she had in her dreams. This time, Alex’s face greeted her with a smile. She could see the long white scar running down the middle of his chest. Her hand posed over him, and her muscles tensed for the act.
“No.” She hurled the stick into the river. “I don’t believe it. I won’t. You’re delusional. I need to bring you home.”
A low groan escaped Alex’s lips. “Do it for pity. That’s why you took me, correct? Do it for pity then.”
“No.” She crouched beside him and pulled him upright.
He turned to her suddenly; his eyes open wide, bulging from his face. They were brilliant green, with pupils shaped like spearheads. “If not for pity, for fear?” he hissed. “I am an abomination!” He pushed her hands away and fell back to the ground. “There was no beast in the moors! There was only Bagira and I!” He twisted on the ground like a headless snake, screaming involuntarily as his back lengthened and thick black fur sprouted all over his body. Marianne held her hands over her ears, gaping at the monstrous black cat that grew before her eyes.
At last the screaming stopped, and the huge panther stood up. Shreds of Alex’s clothes were still on the beast, but all of the buttons had sprung loose and the seams torn apart. The panther’s paws were as wide as great oak trunks, and her head barely reached its shoulder. Bagira stood before her, a mighty god of the forgotten past. He bowed his head the way she had seen Alex do on many occasions.
“Alex?” she whispered.
The god shook his head, his luminous eyes following her face.
He bowed all the way to the ground and licked the one of the bridge planks and a simple dagger materialized from the wood.
“I can’t,” Marianne sobbed. “I want Alex to live.”
Bagira sat on his haunches, revealing the scar on his chest.
Suddenly his chest exploded, showering her with blood, and a gunshot echoed across the moor. The beast slumped forward and fell to the ground at her feet. The huge body shrunk away, leaving Alex motionless on the ground. His eyes were open wide, gazing into death.
Mr. Hildman jogged toward her, yelling, “Marianne! Where did the monster go?” He stopped, staring at the blood on her face, then at Alex on the ground before her. “Oh God! I thought I saw a great beast. I didn’t mean to… It must have been his hair…”
Marianne couldn’t answer him. She dropped to the ground and lay next to Alex. His eyes moved to her, then to the dagger that lay between them.
“I can’t,” Marianne whispered. She reached out to touch his face and saw tears sliding out of the corners of his eyes. “Stay with me a little longer.”
He closed his eyes.
Alex opened his eyes. He could hear voices and picks a short distance above. New accents. How much time had passed? He lifted his hand to touch the ceiling of his wooden box. The resistance in his muscles meant more than a year. Many years. He had never been asleep this long before. He tried his voice. “Marianne.” It was harsh, but clear. Would she still be alive? The rotting lid suddenly split open, a pick lodged in it.
“Hey, hey! I found sommut!”
A hail of feet drummed above him. Then scratching and wrenching at the lid to open it. The smell of sweat and a summer afternoon greeted Alex as the crowd of curious workmen peered down at his face. “What is the date?” he asked, his voice cracking.
The workmen gasped. Finally one found his scattered brain long enough to say, “June 3rd, 1967.”
“Blast. I was hoping to rot for everlasting love.”
They stared at him, their eyes open so wide they forgot to blink.
He smiled. “Water?”