"Do not even think of backing out on me now, Claire," Julian said, brushing the dirt away from the top of the coffin lid. "I didn't dig this damn hole for the last four hours so you can all the sudden free yourself from responsibility."
Claire flipped her dark hair to the side and sighed. The reality of what they were doing was beginning to sink in. She thought she had worshipped everything about Julian. She had changed considerably over the course of the year. "Too many strange things have been happening in this cemetery. Dark Hallow is not a good place, Julian. What if she is well preserved?"
"As opposed to being a decayed hunk of tightly pulled dead flesh?" Julian said, removing the bowler hat from his sweaty head and scratching his dark hair. He held out his scrawny arm. "It's so damn hot! Can you toss me the rod, please?"
Claire could remember a time when Julian was a dream come true, a time that she referred to as "the childhood years". She had known Julian since they were five years old. There was never a time when she did not doubt that they would be married. Lately, he had changed so much that it almost seemed like demonic possession. Of course, she was no angel, she had spent six months on the street as a prostitute, but she had begun to grow up this year. When her best friend Mina O'Conner had been murdered it had been a profound awakening. She wanted a normal life now.
She threw the rod down into the hole where it landed with a soft thud. Julian had a dimly lit lantern to the right of the coffin, providing a much-needed light against the darkness that surrounded them. The humid heat of the summer evening was beginning to get to her as well, and she wished she were home lying naked before her open window.
Getting the corpse of Harriet Kain was a revenge Julian had been planning all year. It was all he had talked about to Claire. It had been Lionel Kain's fault that he had spent the hellish year in the prison. The old man had testified as a witness to his guilt as a horse thief.
The plan was to dig the corpse up and put it in Lionel Kain's yard. Julian had called it "beautifully macabre".
After a little trouble, he managed to get the rod lodged into the lid of the coffin. It came open surprisingly easy. A wave of foul, rancid air exploded into his nostrils, and he fought the urge to gag. It was so pungent it physically knocked him backwards a fewsteps.
Harriet Kain was especially well preserved for someone who had been dead for the last two years. Her skin was dried out and parched, but one could still get a good impression of what she looked like when alive. Her long white hair hung down onto her shoulders from where it was still attached to her skull. Her eyes had sunken in considerably, along with her lips. Grey teeth poked out from her slightly open mouth. A large centipede crawled across the front of her white wedding dress and down into the coffin.
"For the love of God," Claire said from her position at the side of the hole, shaking her delicate hands back and forth rapidly. "That is positively repulsive. Are you actually going to touch her?"
"No, I dug her up so I can stand in this hole and gaze at her," Julian said, reaching under the corpse and trying to remove it gently from where it lay without breaking it.
There was a little bit of an illusion that she was attached to the bottom of the wood with horse glue as he pulled it from the coffin with a repulsive ripping sound. He put the nearly weightless body over his shoulder and climbed from the grave.
Julian looked very creepy to Claire in the dim light--his face half in shadows like some crazed grave robber from an old novel.
"Will you grab the shovel and the lantern, please?" Julian asked, trying not to breathe the foul air that emanated from Harriet Kain. When he got to the wagon he laid the body on the ground. The mare whinnied nervously as soon as it inhaled the stench, snorting and stomping its hoof into the dirt road. He put Harriet in the back and coughed, gagging as he covered her with a sheet. He waited until Claire showed up with the shovel and tossed it into the back as well.
Julian grimaced and put his sleeve over his nose. "Dear God, one would think that she would have gotten rid of some of that stench by now."
Claire just nodded weakly and got into the front seat of the wagon. Julian sat down beside her angrily. The horses neighed, getting the scent of death on the wind.
"You have not been very supportive, Claire," Julian said.
She offered a fake smile and then turned her face towards the arched gateway of Dark Hallow. The twin angels that guarded the gate of the cemetery seemed to stare at her accusingly. "I know. Somehow seeing her corpse makes me realize that we are talking about a human being here."
"What about me?" Julian asked. "I spent a year of my life in a labor camp because of this man. It was either kill him, or punish him." He smiled weakly. "Besides, I like the cleverness this plan has to offer. No one will cross my path after this."
Claire nodded and put her hand on his knee. "Can we just get this over with?"
He slapped her hand away angrily. "Why do you speak to me this way?"
"I'm sorry, it is just that what did she do to anybody?" She gestured to the back of the wagon. "If I was dead and buried, I would not want someone digging me up to put me on display somewhere."
By the time they got to Lionel Kain's house it was already near midnight. The houses were very dark, giving the illusion that Carverton had become a ghost town. "You're coming with me. This will not be as fun unless I have company."
She sighed and got out of the wagon, saying nothing. Julian pulled the collar of his shirt over his nose and opened went to the back. He removed the corpse and began walking down the side street towards the Kain residence. Harriet was light enough for him to carry underneath his arm.
Julian draped Harriet over the wooden fence that ran around Lionel Kain's yard and turned to face Claire, an ugly smile on his face. "This is going to be positively entertaining. You have no idea how good this is going to feel." He climbed over the fence gracefully and then helped Claire across as well. "Okay, I'm going to put the old witch there on his front doorstep and then knock. We can hide in those bushes there."
Claire went into the thick bushes as Julian crept quietly up to the front door. She felt like she was going to vomit, her stomach lurching violently.
Julian sat the corpse against a column, adjusting her arms to look as lifelike as possible without breaking them off. Nodding, he fixed Harriet's long hair so that it hung down over her shoulders and stepped back to get a better look. Pleased with himself, he knocked loudly and quickly retreated into the bush.
After a minute, they noticed the curtains move slightly. Lionel's face appeared, peering out into the darkness. A few moments later and the old man opened the door, his lantern illuminating the porch in a soft otherworldly glow.
Claire shuddered as the corpse came into clear view in the light. The hollow holes of Harriet's eyes seemed to devour the light, throwing large parts of her face in slicing shadows.
With a harsh intake of air, Lionel Kain ventured slowly outside. He walked towards the body sluggishly, almost like a sleepwalker, his breath escaping in a soft hiss as he moved. His mouth was open slightly, a pained expression in his eyes. Stopping when he was only a few feet in front of Harriet, he stared down, placing the lantern weakly on the floorboard beside the corpse. He said nothing, his wrinkled hands curling up into tight fists. The old man stared out toward where they hid; his face consumed by his rage, teeth grinding so loudly it sounded as if he was crunching gravel. The look of profound anguish in Lionel's eyes stabbed into Claire like a blistering knife, and she had to fight the urge to flee lest she be seen.
A sob escaped from Lionel's lips and he seemed to weaken, his body struggling to stay upright. Suddenly, he broke down into tears, falling to his knees. His shoulders shook violently and he leaned forward and buried his face in Harriet's chest. "Oh my god," he began to whisper like a mantra, running his hands through her coarse hair. Some of the hair came out in his hands and he held a clump out and looked at it. He made a pitiful sound as he let the strands of hair fall slowly to the ground.
Claire looked over at Julian and was appalled to see that he was laughing so hard that he could barely breathe. She was witnessing the most profoundly dreadful and disturbing thing she had ever seen and Julian found it delightful. Any feelings she had ever had for him instantly disappeared, burning away her psyche in a painful burst. In that moment, Claire was so ashamed of herself that she felt like dying.
The old man bent down and lovingly picked up his dead wife. He was weeping as he entered the house. The lantern flickered softly on the porch, moths fluttering around in the murky light.
"That was priceless!" Julian hissed, squeezing her arm and giggling.
That night Claire was unable to sleep. The pain of what she had taken part in was agony.
They had forced a man to relive through what was possibly the most torturous experience in his entire life. Every time she saw the wrenching image of the old man crying over his dead wife's corpse, she felt nauseous.
The next evening, after a full day of soul searching, she found herself on Lionel Kain's doorstep. It was a modest house, located a bit away from the major parts of the city. Paint peeled from the wood of the porch, the lower step nearly destroyed by termites.
She knocked quietly on the rotting door as if some part of her was hoping that Lionel would not answer at all. Less than a minute later, she was looking into the old man's haunted eyes.
"Can I help you?" Lionel asked. His voice was hoarse as if he had been screaming.
"May I come in, Mr. Kain?" she asked, fighting to speak above a whisper. "I really need to talk to you."
He stepped aside. "Sure, come in. We were just about to sit down for dinner."
Claire followed him into the kitchen, stopping suddenly as she tried to chase a scream back down her throat. She wasn't completely successful and a tiny moan fell from her lips.
Harriet Kain was sitting upright at the table.
Lionel pulled out a chair right across from the corpse. "Please sit down."
"I am so sorry," Claire whispered, her eyes filling with tears.
He put a wrinkled hand on her shoulder. "Don't cry. Why are you upset?"
"I helped him do this," she said, her voice quivering. "And now you are sick."
He guided her into the chair. The sight of the corpse hit her like a clenched fist, and she closed her eyes. It was then that she noticed the smell, a sharp pungent odor of decaying flesh and dirt.
"Well, you're right about one thing, Miss," the old man rasped, a line of sweat above his top lip. "I am sick." She opened her eyes when the sensation of cold metal touched the flesh on her neck. A warm teardrop hit her wrist and she saw that the old man was silently crying. "Have you ever been in love, my dear?"
She tried to speak, but the only sound that came out was soft, trembling hiss of air. Her eyes followed the old man's mottled arm to the knife he held in his hand.
"I wouldn't answer that question with a nod," Lionel said, offering her a slow, creepy smile. "I'll just assume that you haven't been in love, because no one who knew what love was would do what you have done to me." He looked over at the decaying corpse, swallowed heavily, and then wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his other hand. "Harriet didn't deserve this. It's bad enough she suffered so brutally by a slow death, but to be dug out of the ground like this is vile."
"I'm sorry," she said again, feeling a line of blood run down from where the knife was embedded slightly into her flesh.
"What you have done can never be forgiven," he whispered, but he released some of the pressure on the knife. "She's been dead only a few years and it feels like she was just alive. She sat in the same chair every day."
He smiled, his eyes lost in old memories. "I remember in the last six months all she would eat vegetables and fruit because she heard somewhere that it helped fight illness. She was funny like that. Believed everything she heard, God love her. Before she died, she told me what I meant to her. I felt like nothing, almost like I wasn't worthy of her."
He looked back down into the empty eye sockets of his dead wife. "She deserved better than me. All I was able to offer her were broken promises and lost dreams. When she died that horrible night, I begged the Lord to take me as well."
He paused for a moment, struggling with his pain as he tried to bring himself to composure. "I've visited Dark Hallow every day since she died. I've missed her so much. I sit down in the grass and tell her how lonely I am, how much I miss her. Sometimes, I can almost see her smiling. One day I ran into a younger woman in the market. She was the spitting image of my Harriet when we met: blonde hair -these striking blue eyes. She looked over at me and our eyes locked for the briefest of moments. She smiled at me, and I felt myself melt. It felt like Harriet had visited me. That one smile brought back so many memories of her it hit me like a gunshot. I felt like she was telling me it was fine to move on. Fine to think about other things than her."
Claire had nothing to say. She listened to the old man talk and saw Harriet Kain go from corpse to person in her mind. She stared at Harriet as he talked, putting a face to the dried, mottled skin.
"I was finally coming to terms with her death, finally accepting how terribly unfair life could be," the old man continued. "Then one night, I open my door and this . . . "
He stared at the corpse and started to shake, his eyes brimming with fiery anger. "This violation is outside. I lost myself last night, went totally insane." He stared down at Claire, hiseyes dancing with barely controlled rage. "Do you know what I did last night in that insanity? I took her to bed and held her. When I woke up in the morning, I was holding this godforsaken corpse. Julian Thompson did this, didn't he?" his voice dropped to a low whisper, his face pale. "He did this to my Harriet. Paying me back for his own sins."
She nodded as his eyes narrowed. He increased the pressure of the knife on her neck. "I want you to bring him to me. Tell him he has to finish what he started."
"He will not come," Claire said. "I know him too well."
Lionel pushed the knife in deeper, seeming to enjoy the painful gasp it caused. "You say you are sorry, young lady. You want to make things right? Get Julian to come to me. I deserve this from you."
"I will try."
"You will make him come here," Lionel said, removing the knife and watching her silently as she walked away.
She looked at the body of Harriet Kain and tried not to vomit. The corpse stared at her through empty eye sockets, its dirty teeth seeming to grin mockingly. As she watched, a tiny black spider crawled from its mouth and fell to the mud stained wedding dress before crawling away. At that moment, she was so deeply ashamed of herself she did not care if the old man ended her life. As far as she was concerned, the punishment fit the crime.
Getting Julian to come to the Kain house was not easy. It was only when she threatened to go to the police that she got him leave. Julian did nothing but call her a whore and a traitor during the whole walk, only strengthening her feeling that she had done the right thing. She had to smile to herself as they stood before Lionel's front door - Julian seemed genuinely terrified at what the old man wanted from him.
"It's open!" they heard the old man shout through the decaying door.
Julian opened the door carefully, his eyes wide on his feral face. They entered the dark hallway, the kitchen lamplight ahead like a beacon. Claire did not fight the old man when he pulled her to him fiercely, returning the knife to her throat.
Julian's eyes widened when he saw the corpse at the kitchen table. By chance, Harriet's neck gave a little and her chin dropped a few inches, her mouth opening a little wider.
Another spider crawled from her teeth and fell to the floor below. A blast of air blew out of Julian's astonished mouth and he stood there drunkenly, seeming to be mesmerized by the macabre sight.
Julian's gaze locked onto Lionel and the knife held to Claire's throat. "You've gone mad, old man," he said, shaking his head as a sick smile erupted on his arrogant face. "Go ahead and cut her throat. See if I give one good damn about it."
Claire felt Lionel's hand tremble slightly on her shoulder. She watched in numb fascination as Julian moved over to a chair right next to the corpse and sat down.
"Was it worth it?" the old man rasped weakly. "Did I really deserve to be destroyed?"
Julian never lost his grin--he did not even flinch. He reached over and patted Harriet's stiff arm. "Dear God, get to your senses, old man. She is already dead. You are lucky I didn't come after you instead." He studied the knife. "You may as well take that away from her throat, because I do not care if she dies. She is nothing but a traitorous whore."
The old man let the knife fall away from Claire's neck and stared over at Julian weakly, his body slack. "You know, I had hoped to punish you for what you did to me. I wanted to show you how profoundly you have hurt me. Harriet did not deserve this. You are, without a doubt, the most evil person I have ever known."
Julian reached over and grabbed Harriet's corpse by the hair. Pulling it to him violently, he wrenched the head from the shoulders with a sickening snap. The headless corpse balanced precariously for a few seconds, the spinal column sticking out grotesquely, and then fell to the floor with a sound like a bag of dried leaves.
Dust filled the air around him as Julian looked up and grinned wickedly, the head held by the hair in his hand. He stared at the old man defiantly and held the rotted desecration in front of him, a psychotic grin erupting underneath his icy eyes. Lionel reacted as if he had been stabbed in the stomach, doubling over, his eyes tearing up. "Oh my God."
"Julian, stop this!" Claire shrieked.
Julian shook his head and widened his smile. Thick veins stood out on his neck as he watched Lionel's moment of weakness. It almost seemed as if he derived power from the old man's frailty.
"You want me to stop," he said, moving forward. "You call me down here and put a knife to my fiance's throat in the hope it would hurt me."
Julian hurled the head into the kitchen cabinet where it seemed to implode into tiny pieces of skull fragments, teeth, and insects.
The old man's shoulders heaved as he sobbed. "Stop," he whispered.
Julian moved over to the rest of the corpse and ripped the wedding gown away as if it were made of paper.
Claire did not even know what she was doing until the knife was embedded deeply in Julian's neck and the hot blood was spraying into the side of her face. All sound seemed to cease as Julian looked into her eyes; his blood filled mouth hung slack. He fell into her and dropped almost delicately, his hands leaving red trails down her shirt as he moved towards the floor.
Claire fell to her knees, sobbing violently. She felt something leave her body like a breezy whisper and she dropped the knife weakly.
As Claire kneeled on the floor, she was accosted by images of Lionel and Harriet Kain. An image of the old man praying before his sickly wife filled her mind. She saw Julian climb out of the hole, the body thrown over his shoulders. His face, half in shadow, was grinning like a demon's.
She opened her eyes to the sensation of someone rubbing her shoulders gently. Lionel sat on the floor, his eyes seeming to study something, stained hair blowing in the summer wind, she was smiling. She thought of Lionel and Harriet and of all the things she had been told about them. As painful as the last two days had been for her, she felt that she had gained something from them.
For the first time in her life, she felt she knew what love was.
WHAT LOVE WAS is Copyright 2000 by David
Whitman and is published at feoamante.com and Feo Amante's Story
Time with the author's permission.