There was something delicious about my new life starting in a graveyard.
I don’t mean to be macabre, but then again, until a week ago I did gather leeches for a living. One might say the macabre is in my blood.
Everybody knows and remembers the day that they were born. Not the day that you emerged screaming from the womb, but the day that you emerged screaming from yourself. The day that opened not your outward eyes, but your inward, and you saw at last not the world, but your world.
For myself, that day was the eve of October 6th, when my great uncle lost his life and I found mine. The key to that life lay inside my coat-pocket, given to me by a man who now resided inside a chest that no key could open.
“You’re late,” said the porter to me. He was far too portly for someone purported to have taken a vow of poverty. He probably only found time to pray in between gulps of gravy.
“Impossible,” I said, my lips curling. “To be late would imply expectance, and the only thing my dead uncle will be expecting now are long nights and worms for company.”
The porter’s eyes boggled, and his face turned red.
“I b-beg your pardon,” bristled the portly door-keeper. “You are in the company of barons and lords at this funeral! Your uncle—”
“—will at least have company who will enjoy his presence,” I said. Then flashing my eyes, I swept past the foaming doorman and into the lichyard of the church.
As I passed through the grey-green grounds, I looked up at the spiked, dark steeple and saw the gargantuan iron bell. From deep inside its throat a groan was drawn that boomed and thrummed over the entire hillside, heralding the approach of both living and dead.
From its tone, I knew that I was quite late—something that annoys me—especially in the case of funeral services. I believe that there is only one funeral in every person’s life that they have any right to be late to.
To my left I saw the ancient, overgrown graveyard. The cracked headstones stood like grim sentinels on an eternal watch, leering at the freshly opened pit that disturbed the placidity of their grounds. Seeing that yawning hole, and the dirt-sodden and solemn gravediggers standing nearby, I was suddenly struck by the oddity that is burial.
How bizarre and mad it is that we humans like to keep our dearly beloveds in boxes below us! Since the moment we could claw, we’ve been carving out and cramming the poor earth full of our bones. Our Mother Nature is bestrewn with fields of corpses, to later be marked, forgotten, buried once more, and finally carved out again for the next generation of bones.
But then again, what else can we do?
In the case of my dead uncle, I was more than willing—cheerful, even—to give him to the maggots; they’ll certainly enjoy him more than I ever did. Perhaps odious relations are the reason for this wide-spread practice. Or perhaps it is because we are afraid of decay.
But what harm such a practice has led to, surely! Is there a single tale of horror or ghost story which doesn’t in some way owe its existence to the grave? Every story of disease, of the dead rising, of ghosts and ghouls and nightmares reborn, of pits and haunted tombs and unquiet coffins, of moaning skulls and yawning lich-pits, of monsters and skeletons and witches and necromancers—all because we humans don’t have the stomach to do away completely. We’d rather keep them forever close, just beneath the surface; just a scrape and a scream away.
The bell grew louder, and higher in tone. I felt my heart racing in my chest, not for the sound of the bell, nor the thought of the funeral and the graveyard, but for the mere unreality towards which I was racing. I seemed caught up in a delicious dream, spiriting through Olympic landscape to where a new life awaited. Quickly, I ran through the small oak door of the church.
I took my place among a small group of theatrical mourners—it wouldn’t surprise me if many of this throng were secretly gratified and simply putting on their best mask of tears and sorrow. I knew that I was.
I sat on a long, wooden bench with perhaps ten others. Including the three rows ahead of me, I counted maybe thirty people total. None of their faces were familiar to me, and by their expressions they seemed either unaware of my existence, or very inconvenienced by it. I said nothing, but watched intently, and listened to the current mourner sob out his tragedy.
The church was quite exquisite; Gothic, to be sure: flying buttresses and arches and crenellations abounded, many adorned with roses, flitting cherubs, and gaping gargoyles. There were key-hole shaped windows all along the sides, and down the very center aisle leading up to the altar. At the church’s head was a magnificent stain-glass of the Crucifixion, an appropriate statue, and a small host of fiery-headed candles.
In the midst of that dimly flickering ocean, reposed the great, black coffin—already closed, and it seemed to me that the body inside was nearly as warm as the letter in my pocket that he had penned to me only days before. I wonder if he knew that some of his last breaths, last sights, last twitchings of demented life would be spent writing away his entire fortune and heritage to a forgotten nephew whom he utterly despised. What a miserable death-bed repentance.
For a while I tried to pay all respects and attention to those who were testifying of my great uncle’s generosity and greatness, and lamenting on what a loss he was to the world—yet I soon grew inexorably bored, and instead entertained myself with imaginings of the gargoyles coming alive, or of small bats chasing shadows in the rafters. Eventually, I pulled out my uncle’s letter from inside my coat-pocket to re-read.
It was written on rich, thick paper with jet-black ink. The writing was frenetic, scrawling, chaotic—like an inked spider had danced across the page.
This is what it said:
Baron Sebastian Edgar Lemar—6th October 1896
Wadsworth Law Office: H-180
This is the last Will and Testament of Baron Sebastian Edgar Lemar of Amesbury made on this the sixth day of October in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and ninety-six.
I am losing my mind.
Even as I write this, I can feel that characteristic slip, that strange feeling of falling from vast skies and one’s own eyeballs into the body of a glass doll. And it is with what might be my last burst of sanity that I set out all of my affairs, and the details of my estate and the Lemar inheritance. All would be lost already, if not for the valiant and tireless efforts of my beautiful daughter Emmeline, who shall stand as witness to this final will. But whose efforts yet I fear, shall be in vain…
To my affairs—wills! Yes! My affairs! My thoughts run upon the yellow parchment like ink, drizzling long black fingers warm down my skull. Watch me Emmeline, see how cleverly I have lain them out—oh wit—oh hear it and marvel at my foresight and intelligence!
I gift everything, all Properties, Possessions, Estates, Credit, Investitures, and all other allowances to my great nephew, Vincent Sylus Lemar of Colmar, France for his use. The total banking value of such Securities and Wealth is one million pounds, half of which are thus locked in Estates and Investments. All this I bequeath to him, and though in the course of my short, hard life I’ve only met him twice, I have never been surer of any decision than the one that I am making thusly.
Oh God the sounds!—the SOUNDS are yes bursting from the walls! From where? FROM WHERE? Emmeline—dear daughter, dear Emmy!
The last Will and Testament, this is to be, in the year of our Dark Lord thirteen hundred and forty six, made in the house of our corpses, in the year forty million innocents were slain and butchered and rotting and eaten. In the year of corpses! The year of our black circles and shadows spots.
Merciful God! Where are they coming from? Why won’t they let me be? Let them out let them out let them out
they are in my head. they are inside and I can hear them and they are clawing clawing clawing on my eyes, and in my head on my bones they are scratching—scratching to get out and be free—noise like gnawing on wood ick ick ick ick ick ick gnawing at my ears, the rats the rats the rats…
You’ll be all right. It’ll be all right. You’ll be here.
…and itt t will be here ttooo. it comes at night when stars are black and feeds upon the stone veins of the eternal dreamers god help us all god almighty of devil’s eye and power—he is there, he is watching, he is waiting.
NO! NOT the devil. Not himself not that infernal goat of Mendes, yet devil be not he nor thine, but let Banebdjedet restore thee and sew thine pieces together even as thine soul is scattered across the Nile ick ick ick ick ick ick
Please Vincent—I implore you, I beg you—though the family heart is born with a throbbing vein of black blood, it is not that which controls you—nay, it is not an abomination in and of itself—though they would have you believe it is so. It is not! Only through the darkness can you understand.
Take care of my house, take care of my beloved daughter, my heart of hearts, the jewel of mine eye, the only thing I ever cared for. Take care of Emmeline. This, and only this, is what I ask of you, in return for everything that I’m giving you. She is pure, and virtuous, and the most blessed and kind soul ever to walk the Earth. She reminds me of my wife…as, dear nephew, do you.
Sebastian wants you to look after them, but you can’t because you cannot see, and blindness is only a word for darkness, and darkness is only a word for that which lies beyond your grasp, and my darling daughter and foolish husband are thus so.
Want to come and play? ick ick ick oh so slick, mighty thick, soul so sick, walls so sick, blood-sucking tick, drooling nick, ick oh ick my head is burning all my mind is turning to ash my brain is boiling, poisoned wound festering, flames licking at my ears, burning flesh and smell so sweet and crisp and raw.
Vincent—Vincent! Watch over my dear Emmeline! She is fragile as a flower in the throes of December frost! Watch her! S-save her! All of it is yours, Emmeline agrees, she is just a child, and you will watch over it in trust, and then give to her as you see fit. Herein lies the only stipulation upon which I grant you my entire fortune.
God my eyes are bleeding—Hell’s Lord do stop them, Holy Ghost of Flesh and the Son of Bone and Daughter of the Blood-Drinker save me and mine. Save me and mine. Save them. Save them from death, use my Ravenwriter’s Enigma.
Do not let it find her. Do not let it get her.
Sebastian Edgar Lemar
Signed, sealed, published, and declared by the above named Sebastian Edgar Lemar the testator as and for his last Will and Testament in the presence of us who have hereunto subscribed our names as witnesses thereto in the presence of the testator and in the presence of each other:
Emmeline Victoria Lemar, daughter of testator
Agnes Hickleby, Housekeeper of Lemar Castle, Amesbury, Great Britain
Proved on the 6th of October 1896 before the John Baker, Clerk, a surrogate on the oath of Timothy Wadsworth, the sole executor to whom administration was granted.
I’ll never forget the night that I received that letter, nor how the dying, autumnal world was stirred to rustling, shambling life!
In equal parts I was amused, startled, and above all, mortified by that letter. Utterly unsure if it were real, or an elaborate prank. All the same, I could not deny the throb of my heart, which quaked as if to say real. It was too mad, too fantastic, too terrible to be faked.
Surely the lawyers, or his daughter, or some other responsible person would have snatched it up and torn it to pieces the moment they saw it? After all, old men age into senility all the time—why not Uncle Sebastian? But they didn’t, and they hadn’t, and they had signed it, and witnessed it, and sent it to me. They made it very clear: as of October 6th, I was the sole inheritor of one of the largest fortunes in the Western world—and yet he may as well have picked a random beggar halfway around the globe! Such was the status of my relationship with my late great-uncle. I had despised him, and he had forgotten me.
Of one thing I was sure though, from the moment I read that dreadful letter—I would have gone to Amesbury, even if I had not inherited a single penny.
Oh yes—I’m not too proper and cowardly to admit that I was certainly—what’s the word—fascinated by what I had read? Yes, fascinated; that’s exactly right. The demented scrawling of ink, the syllables of madness—I would have gone for their sake alone.
By now the pall-bearers, gaunt and stoic as lifeless gargoyles, were rising, and the final howlings were now in motion. Replacing the letter, I looked once more around the room. That was when my eye fell upon the front row, and a most singular occupant there.
She was wreathed in pearly black, a dress so silken it shimmered like gloss. Over her countenance was a webbed veil, but it could not conceal her lustrous skin and the radiance of the personality within. To me, she looked like a ghost swathed in shadows. For the rest of the hour, I could hardly look at anything else, so strange, so surreal was the sight.
When the pathetic sermon was finished, the multitude of the miserable arose and began paying their last, tear-stained respects to the closed coffin, passing it in near silent, near hysteric solemnity. I quickly strode over to where the young, ghostly female waited in passage, and said:
“You are Emmeline Lemar, are you not?” It had been the thought or feeling of an instant that prompted this answer to me.
She looked startled, and great dewy tears hung in her eyes like icicles.
“I am,” she said.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, smiling my most genuine yet frugal smile, “allow me to introduce myself. I am Vincent Lemar. And please allow me,” I continued, taking her delicate hand—oh how fragile it felt! Like a wisp of smoke—and kissing it gently, “to express my most profound and heartfelt condolences at your loss. It is…a monstrous tragedy.”
Her face lit up for an instant at the mention of my name. “Vincent!” she said, and I could see that she was excited, but such gave way almost immediately to the overwhelming burden of her grief. The look in her eyes—wonderful eyes, light green like blades of grass—was dull and dim. Broken.
“Oh thank you so much Vincent,” she said, trying to smile, “it means so much to me that you’re here. You’ll have to forgive me presently if I’m not much of a conversationalist, but, well…” Here her eyes gushed freshly.
My heart went out to her. “Not at all, not at all my dear,” I assured her, holding her hand tightly and caressing it, “he was a loss to the world, for most of us; but far worse is it for you, who has seemingly lost your world. Your grief is great, as it should be. It is I that must beg your forgiveness for imposing here upon you so…”
“…and let me assure you that,” I said, trying as best I could to cheer her up, to take her mind off the dreadful occasion, “if there is anything you need, anything you wish at all—you will find in me no person more capable of fulfilling your wants. I am here to help, after all.” I wore an expression of sincerest appeasement, and it was only half a lie. I was here to help—and upon seeing how dangerously disturbed her temperament was, I knew that she would need it most of all.
She smiled wanly, but gratefully—her eyes whispered all the thanks her tongue could not.
“What a lovely gentleman,” beamed a plump, old woman by Emmeline’s side.
I returned the look. “Ah, I’m afraid we haven’t met…”
“Oh I’m dreadfully sorry,” said Emmeline, “so rude of me not to introduce you! Vincent, this is my housekeeper…well, I suppose it’s our housekeeper, Agnes Hickleby. Agnes, this is my long-lost cousin, Vincent.” Emmeline smiled, and Agnes offered me her pudgy, little hand.
I took it endearingly, and kissed it softly. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Hickleby.”
“Ooh,” she giggled, covering her mouth her other hand, “please, call me Agnes.” She reminded me quite of a dressed-up mouse, with stumpy little arms and grey hair curled into a cupcake-looking shape on her head. And she sounded exactly like a cross between a mouse and a giddy, embarrassed grandmother. I found myself immediately liking her.
“If you insist,” I arched my eyebrows wickedly, and she giggled again, her chubby, wrinkly cheeks jiggling.
“Oh enough of that,” said Emmeline chuckling, “I’ve only just met him—you can’t have him Agnes! But,” and here I knew she was trying to be cheery and forget her misery. She dabbed at her tears, and said forcibly, “when did you arrive, dear cousin? How long have you been here?”
I shushed her, and then patted her hand, “There’ll be time enough for all of that later. I’m so sorry to have disturbed the service with my uncouth appearance. For now, let us remember dear Sebastian,” I said, taking her arm, and she looked at me gratefully, “and pray he has found the sweet rest he deserves—taken into Heaven on the wings of angels, asleep in the clouds.”
Sweet Emmeline looked ready to break down once more, and I prepared myself to comfort her—for shoulders and breasts make the best handkerchiefs. She nodded at me, her eyes writ with amazement to have found a stranger so understanding and comforting—someone half a world away that she hadn’t known even existed.
“Oh Vincent,” she said, nearly at a loss, “you’re—you’re too kind. How absolutely divine it is to have you here, now, when I most needed someone. It means so much to me. Yes, let us think on father, let us remember…” She could not finish, but burst into tears anew.
Amidst her weeping I led her to the wooden cask, and held her hand as her tears watered its surface. Agnes patted her on the back, said there-there, and wept some fat old tears of her own. “He was very loved,” said the housekeeper. “He will be sorely missed.”
“He is at rest,” I whispered to her. “Come, let’s get you home.”
For several moments longer she stood sobbing, and when the reservoir of her grief was finally spent, she turned away, nodding slightly, letting Agnes and myself hold her.
“Yes,” she said, nodding still, “yes—you’re right. He’s at rest.”
It was then that, just as we were turning down the aisle for the oaken doors, a loud scratching sound suddenly erupted behind us. Emmeline and I spun around to see who was disfiguring the coffin so vulgarly…and both my heart and hers stopped for an instant… for we saw that no one was there.
The scratching is coming from the coffin.
But for a mere moment it ceased, and I thought it nothing. I turned to Emmeline and saw her eyes wide with trepidation, her hand resting upon her heaving bosom, her mouth opened in waiting shock. No sound came from the coffin for several seconds.
Just as I was about to dismiss it, the coffin suddenly erupted into a cacophony, furious and frantic. Like the sound of a hundred claws raking up and down the wooden lid.
“Dear Lord,” she murmured. Those light eyes flooded with horror. Before I could do anything she sprang forward and started pounding on the lid, shrieking, “He’s alive! He’s alive! Get him out! GET HIM OUT!”
It took all of my strength and Agnes’s to pull her away, and then support her as she started failing.
“You heard her,” I cried, pointing at a dirty looking man near the back of the cathedral, “get him out! NOW!”
The man sprang to his feet, his expression dumbstruck, and he produced a hammer from his belt that he immediately set against the lip of the coffin. Two more men advanced in a fanaticism to help, their momentary disbelief expelled. It took them only three heaves to wrench the damned thing off.
The moment it was Emmeline leapt to the edge of the coffin and grasped it with white knuckles, staring inward at the corpse. “Father?” she said, begging him to answer. And then, seeing what was with within…
…she screamed—a sound like nails on glass—and fell backwards as if electrified, and the three men that had removed the lid did the same. One of them caught Emmeline right as she fainted.
“What is it? What’s inside?” I demanded. The scratching was hellishly determined, never faltering or lowering volume.
The other two men crossed themselves, and one repeated Emmeline’s cry, “Dear Lord.”
Along with the priest I walked forward, hesitant, and yet so insatiably curious not a thing—not even Emmeline fainting and in need—could have kept me away.
Inside lay uncle Sebastian, far more hideous that I ever remembered seeing him, but still recognizable for being dead so long. The embalming fluids had worked, but left his entire body sagging, as if most of the muscles had been removed, leaving only the bones beneath. His skin was sallow and ghastly, and his gnarled hands like claws upon his breast. But they did not move, nor make the scratching.
It was then that I noticed small, black drops of blood coming from his ear. And, daring closer, I stooped down to see what was happening.
I could hear the scratching noise now as if it were scraping against my own skull: desperate and sawing. I waited, and watching the ear, gradually I saw something pink beginning to emerge from the hole. I nearly jumped back, but could not take my enthralled eyes from the corpse.
Small, grey hairs sprouted after the small, bulbous pink thing. And still the scratching was frenetic, and Sebastian’s head knocking against the side as if in ghostly animation. Bit by bit, the thing appeared, and I could see that it was a long snout, studded with bloody whiskers, bits of pulpy flesh dripping from the ear…and at long last, there surfaced the creature.
It was a rat.
And it was lodged, unfathomably, inside the skull of my uncle. The scratching had been the sound of the rat clawing and eating the bone, gnawing its way out through his ear. It scraped and devoured like a thing possessed, consuming its way through the upper jaw, lower temple, and inner ear with a fury and savagery like no rat at all—like nothing of this world—like a damned soul escaping from hell. In seconds it had a hole big enough to poke its grotesque head through.
Strips of skin dangled from its head, and flakes of grey bone stuck from its jagged, red teeth. It hissed and opened its scarlet jaws wide, gloating over its freedom from its fleshly womb. With bloody claws it began to kick and squirm and wriggle out of the enormous hole it had chewed in the side of Baron Sebastian Lemar’s head.
Those present were so shocked and horrified they merely stood around the coffin in disbelief. All except myself—I believed it, of course.
“Wha—what do we do?” one of the men muttered finally, pulling at his collar and gulping.
“We destroy the infernal thing,” I said, my eyes shining, “and we rip it from its unholy nest.”
I didn’t have a chance to reply. At that moment, the rat escaped from its cavity, pulled its slick fat body free, and rolled its head and hissed. Tail quivering, it jumped straight atop the coffin edge, perched like a malevolent bat, and hissed once more. The air reeked with the smell of rotten meat.
Then the rat seemed to spy something, for its head stopped lolling, and it stared affixed in one direction. I followed its gaze—and it landed straight upon Emmeline. Those vermin eyes glimmered, and the tongue licked the dripping blood from its snout. It poised its legs, stood rigid—perfectly tensed.
“Kill it!” I cried.
The rat jumped.
At once I saw the yellow fangs gleaming, the black eyes burning, Emmeline screaming and the monster hurtling towards her—and my heart leapt, and I snapped to intercept…when suddenly there was a deafening blast—a flash of fire and smoke—
—and the rat was hurled back against the coffin, splattering in a mass of guts. It was blown in half, oozing yellow and black, eyes still aflame, jaws still quivering, twitching, twitching…
“Bloody rat,” came a voice from behind me.