by Georgia Cook
The bridge marked eight miles to Arkengarthedale; down winding paths and up lonely dales, feet scrabbling, boots caked in mud, kept at all times hidden from the main road. Not for fear of being seen, but for the dignity of those who might see him.
Albert paused on the lane to catch his breath, listening to the invisible rush of water.
The road here sloped steeply, becoming first dirt, then rocks, then mud, all the way down to the riverbank. The bridge itself arched low over a stream that was rushing black in winter, demure and trickling in summer.
No livestock here, no cart tracks. There was only one purpose to this path, home to nothing but mourners and undertakers. Only one reason to be here at all.
Albert had carried the coffin twelve miles already, guiding his tiny wooden cart carefully across the fields. He would carry it twelve more miles tomorrow, all the way to St Mary’s Church in Arkengarthedale.
Albert was accustomed to corpses — he’d been apprenticed to his master for six months, and in that time had seen more of death than the Vicar himself — but he’d avoided looking at the coffin all the way from Swaledale. Although he knew the road well, this was the first time he’d been entrusted to walk it alone. The silence here was an entity unto itself; the path felt longer, the night darker, the air colder.
There was a shallow groove in the rock next to the bridge, worn smooth by generations of undertakers and coffins. Albert dropped the cart handles and set it carefully against the dip. Then he stepped back to examine his handiwork.
The coffin sat still in the moonlight, a block silhouette against the rustling trees. It would spend the night there, and then he would move on.
Carefully, Albert walked to the opposite side of the path and laid down with his back to the coffin, trying not to picture his travelling companion, trying not to picture the lonely road with its wall of trees. Eventually, he slept.
Albert awoke some time later to the sound of gentle shuffling. He opened his eyes. There was a girl perched on the low wall of the bridge, gazing down into the water. She was dressed in a long winding sheet, her hair trailing around her shoulders. The coffin next to Albert lay empty.
Mary Warner had been dead all of five days. In the darkness, the blasted ruin of her face glimmered grey and ragged.
“It’s a funny thing,” she murmured, in a voice as soft as sheep’s wool. “I was always frightened of the Corpse Bridge. My mother would threaten to walk me down here if I misbehaved. Isn’t that silly?”
Albert stared up at her, his heart pounding.
In life, Mary Warner had captivated him with her laughter and her wit. Now, in the darkness, cold and grey and pale-eyed, she seemed to glow with something more than life.
“I-I was always frightened of it, too,” he heard his mouth say. “E-even now, I think.”
Mary leaned down over the bridge to touch the water with a desiccated hand, her hair glinting in the moonlight.
“I don’t think I’m frightened now,” she said.
Albert swallowed. Excuse me, you’re dead, didn’t seem the right thing to say. Neither did, Can you get back inside your coffin, please?
Instead, he managed, “We’re burying you tomorrow,” then, because it felt appropriate, “Sorry.”
Mary was silent for a long moment, staring into the rushing stream. Finally, she sighed, lifting her head as if to catch a drop of rain. “It’s so lonely in there. I never liked to be alone. And now I shall be alone forever. That doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
Albert swallowed. “I-I suppose…nobody’s ever complained before…”
“And I suppose you would know.”
Mary smiled at him. She wasn’t frightening, Albert realized, just sad. Profoundly sad.
“What…what would you prefer?” he asked.
Mary leaned forward. This close she smelt of dampness and cold, of grave dirt and mud, but not of decay.
“I wish to choose where I rest,” she said. “No graveyard, no tomb. No clammy earth. Do you understand?” her hand slid gently into his. Colder than cold. “Carry me,” she whispered. “Carry me over the bridge. To whatever comes next. That’s your job, isn’t it?”
It was, Albert realized. It really was.
She was as light as a baby bird, her hands wound tightly around Albert’s neck as he walked with her over the Corpse Bridge, away from the coffin, up into the hills: the boy and the dead girl, heading to whatever came next.
Just round the next bend. Just over the hill.
All the way there.
Georgia Cook is an illustrator and writer from London, specializing in folklore and ghost stories. She is the winner of the LISP 2020 Flash Fiction Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, Staunch Book Prize and Reflex Fiction Award, among others. She can be found on twitter at @georgiacooked and on her website.