Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gravely Good



The gravedigger Mr. Good had little good to say to the living.  On days when he needed food or supplies, he strolled through the village streets, paid his money, and went back to the graveyard without a word passing through his lips unless someone spoke to him.  The words returned from Mr. Good weren’t kind.
“Good morning, sir,” the baker said when Mr. Good came for bread.
“It will be a good morning when I take your measurements.”
“Getting yourself something to eat?” the butcher’s wife asked when Mr. Good had his food in hand.
“That’s plain to see, unless your body’s rotted so greatly that your eyes fell out of their sockets.”
“In a bad mood again, sir?” a young boy asked.
“Hardly any other kind is appropriate in this village.”
Mr. Good eventually reached the graveyard and sighed with relief.  After a short meal, he went to work with the people whose company he preferred—the dead.  He dug graves, selected wooden coffins, and set to work putting people in them.  Wakes and funerals were held in the church, for no one in mourning would benefit from Mr. Good’s presence, and he liked to put the bodies in the ground with his own personal care.
“There now, sweet one,” he said to a silent man, dead three days from a knife wound in the gut.  “All is taken care of, all set to lie still, and all’s well for you in the earth.”
He finished three graves that day and felt he’d done a proper day’s work by evening as he sat down at his table for supper, when suddenly the wind picked up, blowing out his candles.  Then a harsh knock echoed from his front door.  “Has someone died?” he called, standing from his table.  “Someone had better have died, because I’m in no mood for the living at this moment.”
Someone had indeed died—many, in fact, on different days, in different months, and in different years.  The ghosts of the graveyard lingered at Mr. Good’s doorway, arisen from all the graves he’d cared for in all his many years of service.
“Good evening, Mr. Good,” the throng of spirits said, their voices echoing through the house and on the wind, through tree branches and over headstones.  “We’re happy to see you’re well.  Together, we’ve devoted a lot of thought to you, as you’ve devoted care and kindness to us, and we’ve decided you belong with us.”
“I belong with you?” Mr. Good asked, surprisingly unafraid for having seen a ghost or two hundred.  “You mean—”
“In death, Mr. Good.”
The fear found Mr. Good at last and he slammed his front door shut, as if that could keep the ghosts out.  A few slid through the cracks in the door’s wood, while others emerged from beneath the door, and still more appeared at the windows, smiling their ghastly smiles and waving their sheet-white hands.
“Come now, Mr. Good,” the ghosts said.  “You’ve treated us well for all these years, but the living have suffered your presence and you have only suffered from theirs.  No one benefits from your continued living.”
“I should have a say in this,” Mr. Good said.  “I bury the dead and that’s a help to both the dead and the living.  I must be the caretaker.  Many people appreciate me.”
“Is that so?”  The cluster of ghosts grew dense, as if the spirits were all pressing against each other to share their thoughts and feelings.  “We’ll give you a chance to show us, Mr. Good.  Tomorrow, you may go out, still one of the living, and find one living person to vouch for you that their life has been better because of you.  If you’ve found no one by the time the sun sets, we’ll take you with us, where you belong.”  The ghosts then parted like leaves blown in the wind and slunk away from the house, back to their graves.
Mr. Good scarcely slept at all that night, worried over the ghosts’ demand.  He didn’t want to die, as is the case with most living things, especially not for the sake of accompanying the dead.  He liked them for being quiet, for not asking him inane questions, for being put in the ground peacefully.  “Who would vouch for me when they’re too busy pestering me?” he asked himself.
In the morning he went into the village, in need of a miracle rather than supplies.  He found the baker at his shop and approached the storefront with a bowed head.  The baker said nothing, as if he didn’t notice Mr. Good, and the gravedigger coughed out a greeting.  “Sir, I’m in a predicament.  I need someone to vouch for my good use in this world before sunset, or else the dead will claim me as one of theirs.   Would you come to the graveyard and tell them I’m a good man?”
The baker roared with laughter.  “You’ve been spending too much time in your graves, Mr. Good,” he said once he’d calmed down.  “Besides, how could I vouch for the quality of a man so indignant and cross that he can’t wish his fellow man a good morning?”
Not to waste his precious remaining hours, Mr. Good stormed away from the baker without a word and soon came to the butcher’s shop, where he found the butcher’s wife.  “Madam, I’m in a predicament.  I need someone to vouch for my good use in this world before sunset, or else the dead will claim me as one of theirs.   Would you come to the graveyard and tell them I’m a good man?”
The butcher’s wife chortled.  “You’ve been spending too much time in your graves, Mr. Good,” she said, still chuckling.  “Besides, how could I vouch for the quality of a man so stern and unapproachable to his fellows that he can’t answer a simple question?”
Refusing to give up, Mr. Good blustered away and ended up running into the child he’d met yesterday.  “Little one, I’m in a predicament.  I need someone to vouch for my good use in this world before sunset, or else the dead will claim me as one of theirs.   Would you come to the graveyard and tell them I’m a good man?”
The child snickered.  “You’ve been spending too much time out there, Mr. Good,” he said, giggling.  “And I’m supposed to vouch for a man so angry that he doesn’t even know how he feels?”  Mr. Good was about to run off and find someone else when the child spoke up again.  “I suppose I could vouch for you, if you’ll do me some favors.”
Spiteful words clambered over Mr. Good’s tongue, ready to spring like poisoned arrows into the little boy’s ears, but then Mr. Good glanced back down the road he’d walked and saw the distant gates of the graveyard.  The dead would only wait until sundown.  “Very well, child,” Mr. Good grumbled.  “What can I do for you?”
“First, get me a meat pie,” the child said.  “And you’ll address me as sir.”
“Yes.  Sir.”  Mr. Good led the child back to the butchery, where the butcher’s wife was busy making meat pies.  “One meat pie for the boy.”
“What’s this, Mr. Good?” the butcher’s wife asked.  “Doing kindnesses for children all of a sudden?”
“It’s an agreement,” Mr. Good said with a tired voice.  He paid for the pie and handed it to the child.  “There is your pie.  Now, come with me to the graveyard.”
“This one’s crust is too blackened,” the boy said, tossing the pie on the ground.  “Get another—a better one.”
Mr. Good’s fists shook, wishing to box the boy’s ears, but the boy smiled and the gravedigger remembered their deal.  He bought the boy another meat pie and strode off with him before he could demand a different one.  The boy ate the pie in a flash and at the moment they passed the bakery, he said, “Now I want a sweet pie.”
“You’ve already had one, you bottomless brat,” Mr. Good said with a hiss.
“You don’t seem to want to see tomorrow.”
Grinding his teeth and muttering under his breath, Mr. Good approached the baker.  “One sweet pie for the boy.”
“What’s this, Mr. Good?” the baker asked.  “Doing kindnesses for children all of a sudden?”
“I am a slave to my good nature,” Mr. Good grumbled.  He paid for the pie and handed it to the child.  “There is your pie.  Now, come with me to the graveyard.”
“This one’s a blueberry pie,” the boy, tossing the pie on the ground.  “I wanted apple.”
Mr. Good’s feet twitched, wishing to kick the boy’s rump, but the boy smiled and the gravedigger remembered their deal.  He bought the boy another sweet pie, this one made with apples, and strode off with him before he could demand a different one.  The boy ate the pie in a flash, but by then they’d arrived at the graveyard’s gates.
“Enough stalling,” Mr. Good said, leading the child inside.  “Tell the dead that I should be kept alive.  I’ve done your favors.”
“Just one more thing,” the boy said.  “I want money.  Then I can buy my own pies.”
Mr. Good rolled his eyes and emptied his pockets, handing the boy several coins of different metals.
“No, no, this isn’t enough.  Surely you have more coins than this.”
“All I have left are my savings.”
“Then let’s fetch them.”
Mr. Good’s heart quaked, grateful that he’d never had children.  He fetched a shovel, led the boy to an unmarked grave, and dug through the dirt until he found a small, iron box.  Inside were all the coins Mr. Good had put aside over the years.  His heart sinking heavily, he handed the box to the boy.
“This is wonderful,” the boy said dully.  “Still, it’s not enough.”
“It’s all I have!” Mr. Good cried.
“Don’t you have wages?”
“I receive my wages from the lord, several miles from here.”
The boy smiled.  “Then we’d best start out riding or I won’t be here in time to vouch for you.”
Mr. Good’s entire body shuddered with anger and suddenly his arms swung the shovel down, clonking the boy on the head.  He dropped instantly, spilling his body and Mr. Good’s coins over the dirt.  “Of all the tricks, of all the hells, of all the horrors,” he growled, gathering up his savings into the box again.  “Of all the people I’ve known, you are the worst, you despicable little boy!”
The boy didn’t move.  Mr. Good crept close and touched the boy’s wrist and neck, but he felt no pulse.  The frown on the gravedigger’s face softened, the hatred ebbed from his heart, and his arms gently lifted the dead boy into his arms.  “Don’t worry now,” he said soothingly.  “No worries now, child.  That terrible hunger of yours will cease forever.”  Bending carefully, he laid the boy into the grave where his money had been buried and picked up his shovel.  “All is taken care of, all set to lie still, and all’s well for you in the earth.”  He was about to toss the first shovel’s worth of dirt onto the body when he heard voices.
“Mr. Good, are you in?” the baker called.  “We’ve come to pay a visit.”
“We felt sorry for turning you away earlier,” the butcher’s wife said, approaching the gravedigger and the grave.  “It’s not right to say you should be kinder and then not show kindness ourselves when you need it.”
The two stopped short when they saw the body of child who’d accompanied Mr. Good earlier to their shops.  He dropped the shovel and his mouth searched desperately for an explanation, but all he said was, “You would’ve done the same.”
The baker and the butcher’s wife ran shouting back into the town and soon a mob came rushing into the graveyard.  The men seized Mr. Good, while the women lifted the child from his shallow grave, and then others took to Mr. Good’s shovel.  The gravedigger was dragged first to his home, where the coffins were held, and then he was put inside one.  The mob nailed the wooden box shut and then carried it back into the graveyard, where the hole for Mr. Good’s savings had grown much, much deeper.  The gravedigger pounded the box and shrieked for help, but the mob was full of anger and wouldn’t listen.
“I always knew he was no good, despite his family name,” said one man.
“Never thought he was a murderer though,” said one woman.
“Especially not of children,” said a small voice.
Mr. Good went on banging on the lid of the coffin, even as it thumped back from the dirt being dropped from above.  The gravedigger had nothing left to say but to shout for help, until at last the dirt had covered the coffin and he was left alone in the dark.
But even the loneliness was temporary, and Mr. Good guessed that if he was still above the ground, he would’ve seen the sun disappear below the horizon.  The stench of rot seeped over him and while the coffin’s lid remained solid, the coffin’s sides seemed to have melted into the soil, and then into the other coffins resting in the graveyard.  Cold fingers stretched through these openings, grasping his hands and creeping across his face.  Damp bodies slid against his and he shrieked, banging fists and head against the coffin lid until the foreign hands held him down.
“We told you, Mr. Good,” said many voices.  “You belong with us.  All is taken care of, all set to lie still, and all’s well for you in the earth.”
Mr. Good began screaming, and screaming, as more of the dead joined him, touching him, lying with him, but you wouldn’t have heard a sound unless you stood atop his grave in the gloom of dusk.

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