Tales from the Golden Goose: Back to Life
Magic. Enchanted islands. Hm. Well, I’ve seen real magic, and it isn’t pretty. It isn’t nice.
I used to work as a gravedigger. This was in a time of plague, and so work was steady, though the pay was terrible. One time I’d just finished burying a fellow who’d been hung for robbery and murder when this shifty-looking old codger comes sidling up to me. Says he’ll pay me plenty to come back with him to the graveyard at midnight and dig up the body. “I just plant them,” I say to the geezer. “I don’t dig them up.”
He looks around all furtively and then hands me a fat pouch. More in it than I make in a month.
“If we’re caught,” I say, “we could both end up planted ourselves.” (Of course I’m wondering what he wants the body for, but I figure the less I know the better).
“If we get away with it,” he says, “there’ll be more of what’s in that purse for you. A lot more.”
Well, I don’t like the look of this fellow. Ice in his eyes and skin like he’s just been dug up himself. But I agree to meet him at midnight. Had a young wife and a child to feed in those days. Before I lost them to the drink.
So that evening after supper I tell the wife I’m off to the tavern, which was usually the truth anyhow, so my leaving isn’t anything out of the ordinary. And in fact I do stop in for a few pints, to fortify myself for what lies ahead. Near midnight I retrieve my spade from where I stashed it behind the tavern's woodshed and I head for the graveyard.
The old one’s already there, waiting in the shadows. The moon’s nearly full so we don’t need a lantern. That’s one bit of luck. Less chance of being seen out here.
The murderer’s buried in a low patch at the far end of the graveyard, on the other side of a wall from the respectable corpses. He's lucky he's been stashed in the graveyard at all. Connections, I guess.
We find the fresh grave and I get to work.
You’d think a gravedigger would be the last person to get spooked in a graveyard. But I only ever come out to this place in the daytime. Like everyone else I avoid it at night. So even with the drink in me I’m starting to get the creeps. There’s a big wind tonight, which is good because it’s hiding the noise of my spade, but it’s making the trees bend and creak and thrash around like a coven of mad old witches dancing to raise the Evil One. Every little sound makes me jump. The old fellow seems unmoved, like this is nothing new or scary to him. Again I wonder what he wants this body for.
I reach the corpse and clear the earth away from it. He wasn’t buried in a box. Just a sack. I haul the sack up and out, tear it open. The dead man hasn’t started to smell yet. One small blessing. The noose is still around his neck. Face the colour of a turnip that’s been in the cellar too many winters. Tongue swollen and hanging out of his mouth all blue. Strange to think this thing was breathing the air and thinking his thoughts, just like me, only a few hours ago.
“There you go,” I say to the old fellow. “My work is done.”
By now I’m nearly sober and I just want to get the hell out of here at the earliest possible opportunity. I hold out my hand to give him the hint I want the rest of my pay.
“Wait,” he says. “There’s more to do.”
“Not for me there isn’t.”
“He was hung for killing a rich old widow,” the old one says. “Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right. Nearly finished off her servant, too, but he survived and that’s how they caught this fool. The servant knew him. He was some relation of the widow’s. Disgraced nephew, I think. In the old lady’s black books.”
“So they caught him,” the old one says. “But they didn’t find the widow’s gold.”
“He wouldn’t talk. They tried to beat it out of him but he never said a word. Must’ve figured he was going to be hung either way, I guess.”
“I’m going to make him talk,” the old fellow says to me, cool as you please. “He’ll lead us right to the gold.”
That sobers me up completely. I realize now I’m out here in the dark with a raving lunatic. I keep a good grip on my spade and I say, “In case it’s escaped your notice, friend, this lump of wormbait I just dug up isn’t likely to be too articulate.”
The old fellow doesn’t seem to be listening. He’s rummaging in his cloak and brings out a big glass bottle filled with some liquid that in the moonlight looks as black as pitch. He swirls it around, then uncorks it. I stand there, wondering if I should just run, but something’s keeping me rooted to the spot. The old fellow isn’t behaving like a madman. He’s calm. Sure of himself.
“What are you?” I ask, trying to put a sneer in my voice. “Some kind of sorcerer?”
He nods. Just a nod, as if it’s not worth the trouble trying to convince me. And well, that convinces me.
“If you help me now,” he says, “this will be the last grave you’ll ever have to dig. I know you have a pretty young wife, and a child at home. How’d you like to be able to go into business for yourself? I understand the tavernkeeper is retiring, looking for someone to buy his place. That someone could be you.”
He knows a lot about me, that’s clear. Too much. I’d thought it enough times, to be sure, that if only I had a little money, if only this rotten miserly world would give me a bit of luck for once, I’d be on the other side of that bar, filling the glasses instead of emptying them. Maybe the dead man thought something like that too, when he lay awake nights imagining the old lady's gold.
“What do you want me to do?” I hear myself asking.
“Sit him up and hold open his mouth, while I pour this in.”
[to be continued]