You Bury Me
Our entire village lost … for a wedding …
The old woman came to us many years back. This was only a few months before the terrible winter that saw too many people freeze to death in their beds.
She arrived from the west with only a small packed kerchief and a blue-black walking stick upon which she leaned the entirety of her thin body. Her back was painfully hunched and her grasping fingers were like pale twigs upon the knob of her cane. She was sadly old then, the kind of age that makes one watch where they place their feet lest they step into their own grave. She understood this, for she moved carefully, dim eyes ever trained on the lay of the path before her.
Her residence became an abandoned cabin at the end of the long-ignored Creek Road. The creek had been dry for a decade or more—just a dusty cut through the woods—and the road was really nothing more than a few buried stones and high grass. The shack was rotting slats and a poor roof that was bowed with years of wind and rain. How she survived that first winter is a mystery.
There she kept mostly to herself, wandering the village streets infrequently, and only when it was required. At home she would fashion the most beautiful trinkets: necklaces and anklets and chains that could be woven into hair. These she would carry in her kerchief to the village to trade for necessities. She often boasted that her creations would bring the wearer love or wealth or luck. Goodtime charms, she called them. Looking back now, we do not doubt her. Unfortunately many of us turned up our noses and ridiculed her for such outlandish proclamations. We called her charlatan and witch, and small children were encouraged to throw stones her way. We believed in the grace of the good God, and His fortunes couldn’t be locked away within metals and bartered for bread or cloth.
There was a daughter of the village, Molly, a bright child, always laughing and running and quick to make a game of anything she came upon. She wore dresses of white, and her golden hair was always curled atop her head, bouncing as she twirled or bobbed a playful curtsey. You could find her in the fields picking wildflowers for a crown of daisies and petunias and forget-me-nots, or atop the high hill beneath the great oak reading a book of fairy stories. She was a lovely child, adored by all the village, and no trader passing through could avoid the hours it took to satiate her curiosity of the wide world. That’s why, some years later, when Molly had blossomed into a woman of hips and comely smiles, we worried. It was summer and, as young girls are so inclined, Molly fell in love.
This was the same summer war sprouted up in the distant east, a terrible struggle that came to us on the lips of fleeing refugees, speaking of black-skinned barbarians and babes put to the slaughter. The unnatural summer heat had seen our complaints, but now we had solid reason for the angst settling upon our hearts. We clutched our sons tightly to our breasts in those early days, hoping that blood and steel wouldn’t take them from us, that the call of honor and glory wouldn’t lead them off to strange lands where they’d find their shoveled beds of earth in foreign soil.
And yet, we were helpless when the soldiers came, clad in their pristine violet capes and finely trimmed and oiled beards, looking like heroes out of stories. They were men who’d never known the field of battle and the detritus that falls there, yet were swift to speak of its virtues, and were eager to lure men to war so they wouldn’t be the ones who had to fight and die.
Molly had fallen in love with the fisherboy Ben, and it was the soaked-in-each-other kind of love that made for short summer days and restless nights. She would sit often on the banks of the river while he fished the waters with his father and uncle, whistling in time with the orioles and warblers, half-heartedly reading her books. When together they were arm in arm, doing their best to make up for the moments they’d been denied. Rumors lifted of a wedding. But with the soldiers went Ben.
He had to go, he’d told Molly, for it was his duty to serve our king across strange borders. So he left, along with all the other men of age, leaving the village in the care of women and men too old to die upon a blade.
There would be no weddings that summer, no swift combining of hearts. Ben told Molly they could wait for his safe return, as it would prove a blessing from the good God. Many of us knew the truth of his delay: he was afraid to leave her widowed so young if he were to fall in battle. It was mentioned in passing once, and Molly overheard. But she just laughed and smiled and blew it off as a silly thing that only old mothers worry about. Of course he would come back. He had, after all, promised.
Not even a year passed before news of our fallen reached us, coming swiftly on the lips of persons far too eager to bear grim tidings. Winter was fading and yet the mood of the village remained lethargic, degenerating into a funereal sentiment as women found themselves without husbands or sons. The old men took to their work with monotonous intent, filling their bodies with activity so their hearts would not consume them. Women stood more often at their open doors, staring off at the eastern sky. It was a sober time, replacing the whimsical days that had once given such liveliness to the streets. Few children laughed now, and more ladies could be heard weeping behind closed doors.
Yet none of us grieved like Molly. She fell ill in those first days, the sickness of a broken heart. Her beautifully pale skin lost all its vitality, and her golden hair lost its fair luster. She found small solace in sleep and would lie abed for days at a time, her covers shielding her from the light of the world. Food went shunned and she thinned down from the buxom young lass who’d stolen men’s hearts a short year prior to a hollow figure that looked ready for burial.
When she first emerged from her mother’s home, sorry eyes drifted towards her and frowns deepened. She was a husk of a woman, eyes barren and lips a stringent, colorless line. Where mothers would ponder the east and far fields of battle, Molly kept her gaze on the ground. She shuffled about in those early days of her awakening, down to the river where she would sit, murmuring gently to the waters riding the bank. She did not whistle with the birds. It was there her waking hours were spent. Entire days would see her seated in the dirt, plucking rocks from the ground to toss into the brown river.
That lasted until the old woman came to her.
Few had reached out to Molly, failing to understand the enormity of her loss. Mothers whose sons would never return placed their hands upon her shoulders, or wept openly as they talked of all they would miss. Widowed by the war, women sought to connect with her. But Molly hardly acknowledged them, brushing off their gestures with ill-timed scowls, preferring her private mourning. Her heart desired mending, yet she was content to leave it broken, determined to suffer long and deep. Then, somehow, the old woman gained Molly’s confidences.
They grew close quickly. Molly sought, as it seemed, a friend as near to death as that of her fallen love. Sometimes the two would vanish into the forest, just walk off one morning and not reemerge for days. We all waited at our windows during those absences, hoping to see our daughter return without the old woman, with that once effervescent smile we’d come to know and love again giving life. But the nights would come and the forest felt dangerous and distant. Many of us complained at the closeness of the black tree trunks. And when green leaves fell from the branches we were quick to rake them and put them to fire.
Our worry over Molly and the old woman was suddenly replaced when we learned that a few of our men were coming home to us, so to find their proper burial. We were not surprised to learn that one of the returning sons was Ben. It was in our nature, then, to fret over what this would do to poor Molly. It was not long before we discovered.
That very day Molly met with the village Green Mother beneath gray clouds that refused to rain. Her face was the portrait of calm confidence, but her posture was stiff and straight as she spoke, and she seldom lifted her hands from her sides. The Green Mother shook her head often and cast disbelieving eyes away from Molly. But Molly stood steadfast, as resolute as any woman of marriageable age. It was then agreed upon that Molly would marry Ben.
Until that day we never really knew terror. We’d thought fear was a stretching winter, when the food disappeared and the babes cried with empty stomachs. We thought fear was ravenous wolves descending upon our homes and tearing the throats from our stock and the men defending us. But what was truly horrifying was a broken heart that convinced a woman to wed a corpse.
It was wrong, we knew. It was an abomination before the good God. And many of us found our way to the church to dirty our knees and steeple our fingers in prayer, desperately trying to save Molly’s soul. Men who had not spoken to the good God since they were children talked to Him like an old friend returned from a long journey, sharing their concerns regarding Molly. And those women who never missed an opportunity to speak to the good God were cautious as they whispered, fearing some offense as they pled for Molly’s deliverance. We were fighting some unholy war, in the church and by our glances and with disparaging shakes of our heads. Gossip was our strongest weapon, as it pulled us together, keeping Molly and the wedding close. The old woman was on our lips as well. She was the catalyst for the upcoming profanity, we knew, but we never approached her or spoke to her. It seemed more important that we push our brooms across floors or took the flocks out to graze while sharing our latest observations. “She pointed north and Molly nodded,” we would say. “They baked honeycakes last night,” we would tell. “Molly had a basket of lilies and dandelions,” we would whisper. They sounded like such mundane things, but we were aware of a terrible undertone to their actions, some dark meaning shared between Molly and the old woman.
It was an unusually chilly morning when the cart rumbled in, bearing the lifeless bodies of our men of war. The driver was a gnarled old crofter with a single glaring eye who kept himself tucked within a stinking cloak. We gathered around the bodies, looking at the four who’d made the journey home. Four of the twenty-seven who had departed.
They were wrapped in canvas sacks from foot to neck, leaving only their heads bare. It was a difficult thing to take in, and many a throat surrounded a heart as the faces we looked upon weren’t the faces we remembered.
The preservation attempts had been commendable, but those men arranged in the bed of that wagon weren’t familiar to us, a year having stolen their true shape. The skin was an odd color, like the bellies of fish. They were not the sun-tanned men we remembered, and their flesh didn’t settle properly upon the bones. A few wore horrific scars, proving exactly how they’d been cut down. Ben’s body was one of the disfigured. The entire right side of his face carried a long gash that had been clumsily tended and stitched. His features had shifted to the left.
The reunion wasn’t for the light-hearted and many of us dropped to our knees in agony, both for the returned and the unreturned.
Women wailed and men fought tears with hard-knuckled fists, but Molly’s appearance brought the lamenting to a choking standstill. She went to Ben’s body, carefully pushing her way past his sniffling father. For a long moment she simply stared at him, her face expressionless. Then she leaned down and kissed his forehead, her pale lips pressing into his doughy white skin. “You kept your promise.” When she smiled, a chill ran through every breast watching.
Molly was to have her wedding the next afternoon. She had waited a year and would wait no more.
That night the village held its breath behind chattering teeth. We sat too close at firesides and gathered blankets about our shoulders, fending off the incongruous summer cold filling every corner of our little part of the world. Yet for all the apprehension of the night there was energy in the air, one that belied the uneasy expectation of the coming day. It was an impossible thing to ignore, that festival-like anticipation riding all of our hearts, that morbid desire to see things unholy that proves the good God has his enemies.
We slept and dreamed unhappy dreams of dead men dancing and young women braiding flowers into the limp hair of corpses.
They dressed Ben in his finest clothing so that he looked a man ready for the start of a married life. The pallor of his skin was stark against the scarlet of his tunic but it aided in giving the illusion of life. His corpse they seated in a wooden chair, arms and legs strapped down with leather bands. He looked part puppet, part feral animal. They shoved a rod down the back of his shirt and tied twine around his head. We came and went while they worked, sometimes pausing long enough to inspect the body, other times turning away our noses as the scent of him repulsed us. In his lap was placed a basket of wildflowers and spices, but it was little good in blunting the stench of decay.
The grounds for the wedding were resplendent, exactly what we would expect for Molly. The chairs were dressed in white sheets tied with red sashes. Lining the aisle between the seats, alongside a runner of soft white satin, were vases of coral lilies. The archway of braided willow was threaded with yellow-dyed linen and a lively bouquet of wildflowers. Yet, through all the trappings and beauty Ben’s corpse sat before the Green Mother like rotted fruit in a salad, breaking the otherwise charming spell. No one could take their eyes from him long enough to appreciate the white streamers clinging to the boughs overhead, or to admire the wash of pink rose petals that tumbled across the green grass as a soft wind moved through the clearing.
We looked but found no sign of the old woman.
We sat far too stiffly, as though relaxing might speak for our acceptance, would provide the day a semblance of normalcy that spoke nothing of its true macabre reality. The tension in many of our bodies was simple readiness, so that we could bolt at the slightest sign of danger. It was an illogical caution inside our breasts. The situation, unusual as it was, was nothing to be frightened of. Still, we remained on edge, and tolerated the sickness brewing in our hearts because Molly was one of us.
Looking back, that apathetic approval haunts us all. Our curiosity allowed such blasphemy to occur. And we failed to find anger with the good God’s lack of sympathy.
She came down the aisle between us with a ridiculous smile upon her face. It was not a joyous thing but a thing of madness, outlined by her jagged cheekbones and sunken eyes. Molly, sweet Molly, of long pigtails and dirtied bare feet, stepped heavily in her ivory dress as she moved to wed a dead man. In her lank hair trailed chains of silver and gold.
The slenderness of her frame was startling, sharp at the hips and ribs and shoulders where her bones had little flesh to hide behind. The flowing trail of her dress was like that of crawling apparitions, struggling to keep up with a living skeleton.
The Green Mother looked unsettled, perched there beneath the archway, just a small span from where Ben sat. A breeze came in, fluttering the cloth and flowers above her, mussing the stringy black hair upon Ben’s head. She glanced between Molly and Ben, her eyes going wide at each. When she spoke, she stumbled over her words, words we’d heard her recite flawlessly a hundred times or more. But ever Molly stood straight. Her smile never left, a thing that displayed too much teeth.
The addition of “Even a rose is gray at night” by the Green Mother summed up what we all were experiencing. This was a thing of beauty and affection darkened. What should have been a celebration of love had become an acknowledgment of insanity.
When the ceremony was complete, and after Molly had placed the wreath upon Ben’s head, the Green Mother announced that Molly had something she wished to say to her husband. Silence covered the gathering entirely. A bird chirped once, somewhere behind us, but even its song cut off abruptly. We strained to hear the spoken words.
Molly dropped to one knew before him and placed a wiry hand upon his knee, squeezing. She looked tenderly into his gray, sagging face, her eyes searching him with misplaced excitement. It was almost a whisper, and had we all not been hushed we probably wouldn’t have heard her say, “You bury me.”
No one moved. No one so much as breathed. Something was going to happen, we knew, and not a soul among us wanted to be the one to miss it. But as the minutes dragged and Molly remained knelt before him we could see the disappointment rework her features. Then the dead man lurched.
Molly stumbled back, shocked, and toppled to her rump. He twitched again, the straps pinning him to the chair proving their worth. His head quivered, as though trying to roll, but the rod shoved down his back held him in place. Then his mouth opened and the most awful guttural cry lifted from his throat. He roared again and shook in his bindings, seeking to break himself free.
Molly leapt from the ground and went to him, cooing softly as she reached out to caress the hard lines of his face. Someone ran and grabbed hold of her, pulling her back. She kicked and screamed to be released but the man only held tighter, fighting her mad gyrations.
Ben grew angrier and frantic, desperate to break his bonds. The time of interest had ended. The women were out of their seats, fleeing in their aprons and dresses and bonnets. The old men were hesitant, but stood their ground. Some had found weapons and armed themselves. Axes and staffs and chairs were in hand. They waited for the body to free itself before attacking, maintaining a smart wariness.
Inevitably, the chair broke beneath the weight of Ben’s struggle. The snapping of wood sounded like the cracks of thunder. He stood, the shattered remains of the wooden seat still strapped to him. Despite the wound upon his face, despite the lack of color in his flesh, he stood like a man alive.
The man holding Molly screamed as she bit him, his blood drawn into her mouth. Free, she sprinted to Ben and threw her arms around him, embracing him as though he were warm of body. He did not hug her back. He stood there, arms hanging motionless at his sides, stock-still and horrified. His lifeless eyes turned to take in the scene, and although he appeared content, there was an obvious hunger within him. It was painful to watch as his mouth opened and closed, nothing coming out but grunts and growls.
Molly pulled back from him, looking him over, laughing into the small space separating their lips. The pure elation on her face was enough to make even the staunchest headsman recoil. She kissed him, over and over, perhaps thinking the taste of her would remind him that he was alive.
Finally, he looked to her. For a moment it seemed he didn’t recognize her as his watery eyes jumped all about her face. Then, suddenly, as though all the unspoken fears of the village had been on point, he grabbed Molly and lifted her over his shoulder. The men did not hesitate then. They raced forward.
Ben turned and fled, carrying Molly off into the woods, the village men in swift pursuit. The women waited patiently for their return with dear Molly. Some few even hoped for Ben’s corpse. But the days came and went and not a single body returned from the woods, dead or alive. Soon, the women began to despair that all was lost, that the demon corpse had stolen Molly and murdered their husbands and brothers. Some few held out hope, a hope that faded quickly as the days ran into months and the months to years.
Eventually the women departed the village, traveling in every direction opposite those cursed woods.
We blamed the old woman, knowing she had devised to destroy the lives of those who’d ridiculed her for her trinkets. After the first days when the men did not return from the woods we went to her shack armed with rakes and shovels and knives, ready to bestow a grieving justice. But we found her home empty, with nothing inside but a hard wooden cot sprinkled with old straw and a floor littered with shards of clay.
We believed then in the old woman’s boasts of the power of her necklaces and anklets and chains, and those who had traded with her were quick to dispense of their jewelry.
A few of us came to learn the meaning of Molly’s words spoken at her wedding. They had not made sense to us then but slowly we came to understand. “You bury me,” she had said. It was her way of letting Ben know it pained her too much to be alone. She would rather he outlive her so she wouldn’t have to suffer his loss. That he bury her instead of her bury him. They might have been part of the old woman’s plan, a curse to draw the dead back to the world of the living and there enact her vengeance. Or they could have been heartfelt, a genuine token of warmth from a woman in love. But they were words that haunted us all as we carried ourselves to new places of the world, trying our damnedest to forget sweet Molly and her wedding day.