by Lucy Stone
I’m not afraid of the dead, because we do things properly in our parish. Dr. Bixby does his checks, Parson says the last rites over the body, and I ring the passing bell.
The others have had more education, but I think it’s the passing bell that really makes the difference. It bespeaks the prayers of all good folk for the soul just departing, and scares away any spirits or goblins waiting at the foot of the bed to take up residence in the newly vacated body. Demons of all kinds hate the sound of church bells — or so I’d always been led to believe.
The passing bell is a special rhythm. I’m the only one who knows all its twists and turns. But it ends with a sort of code — a number of distinct knells to tell the age and sex of the deceased. With newborn babes, I pull the cord lightly, enough to tilt the bell but not to strike it, and let it fall back with a rush of air almost like a sigh, to signify that they had life but not quite enough of it for one strike of the bell. I doubt any of the parishioners appreciate my subtlety. But then, it’s not something I’m known for, in other walks of life.
We do have ghosts, of course, but they’re sort of teaching ghosts — death omens, like the banshee in Ireland., the Gabriel Hounds (though Parson says they’re just migrating geese), the Skriker, the Padfoot, and the headless boggart — they’re all walkers, but they don’t walk on their own account, just to warn us of impending disasters.
There’s only one exception – the pilgrim. Nobody knows why he walks, only that he does it very fast and purposefully.
He’s not at all spectral. He walks through the cliff paths and the fishing hamlets that border our town, his jaw set, and his straggly black hair clinging to his forehead as if he’s interminably late. And just ahead of him, sometimes scampering back and jumping into his pocket if it’s startled, is a bright white hare.
I was terrified when he came to me first; when I felt a hot, prickly presence at my back, as though the wall of the bell tower had caught fire. I didn’t turn round because I was facing the only door; I knew nobody could have got in unless they could walk through walls. And then I saw the little white creature skitter across the floor, like a dead leaf. I could hear its claws clicking on the tiles. And I didn’t know which to be more afraid of, the white dobbie or the man who was always with him, who must have been standing right behind my back.
He spoke in my ear, but it was a while before I could decode the words, not just because I was idiotic with terror, but because he slurred them into a kind of impatient hiss, as if his speech had to be as hurried as his walking.
“Who isss it tonight?”
Suddenly, the hare scampered around behind me, and I couldn’t help following its motion with my eyes. I turned helplessly, like a door creaking open, and saw him standing there. He was even smiling a bit as if all the round eyes and petrified expressions amused him. I suppose he had seen thousands of them.
“Who isss it tonight?” he repeated, slower but just as sibilant.
I didn’t know how to tell him. I didn’t know how to force sound through my constricted windpipe. Eventually, I think he stepped back, tutting but pleased to have startled me. The motion coincided with a bolt-rattling bang on the tower door.
“I counted only twelve bells, Mistress Alice,” called the parson. “The dear departed was forty-two.”
When I looked back to the pilgrim, he was gone. The parson rattled the hinges again, meaningfully, and I took a deep breath and got back to my bell ringing.
I didn’t tell anyone. That’s the good thing about working nights — no one thinks anything of it if you’re pale, if your face gets haggard and wan. Night-faces are haggard. It’s something to do with the way shadows collect in them.
He accosted me again, the next time I was ringing the passing bell in the middle of the night, and that time I was able to give him an answer, though it was delivered in a strangled squeak. “Jenny Hackett. Seamstress. Twenty-six.”
He listened and then shook his head slightly as if I’d exasperated him twice as much by giving him an answer. But he went away without harming me — as he did the next time, and the next. I began to get comfortable, and once I get comfortable, there’s no help for it. I prod you, coax you and tease you like a friend, no matter how many short answers I receive.
“Is there someone particular whose death you’re waiting for?” I said, on the fifth or sixth time he visited my crumbling bell tower. “Are you cursed to walk the earth until the nine hundredth generation of your family is dead and buried?”
He stiffened and gave me a strange look, as if he was torn between contempt and wonder at my audacity. “No,” he said at last.
“Why do you want to know who I’m ringing the bell for, then?”
He gave a stiff-shouldered shrug. “It’s just a way of marking time. Out here.”
I gasped, as an irresistible idea struck me. “Are you one of the good folk?”
He didn’t like that. His jaw tightened as if he’d clenched his teeth behind his lips. “I suppose so. In the same way that a slave is technically one of his master’s household.”
I had a thousand questions after that, but he turned and left without another word, walking through the door rather than the wall this time. I had to wait another three months for someone in the parish to die before I had a chance of questioning him again.
“When you’re hurrying through the countryside,” I said, as soon as I felt his blazing presence at my back, “are you hurrying to get here? To my bell tower? Or is this just a stop-over?”
“I’d feel sorry for anyone for whom this was their final destination,” he said dryly.
I didn’t turn to look at him, although the dobbie loped into my eye-line, as if it was anxious to be seen. I wondered if the dobbie was part of him, and he could send it questing after the attention he craved while he hung back and pretended to be aloof.
“There’s tea brewing,” I said, nodding towards the closed door of the vestry, where the parson and Dr. Bixby were sharing a box of cigars. I could see the smoke oozing around the door in its ill-fitting frame. “Parkin too, if you’d care for some?”
“No, thank you.”
“What about him?” I said, pointing at the dobbie. “Will he have anything to eat?”
“You wouldn’t like it if he did.”
I did turn to look at him then, my hand halfway to my gaping mouth. “Does he eat people?”
The pilgrim raised an eyebrow. It was the closest thing I’d ever seen to a smile on his face. “Keep turning your back on him like that and you’ll find out.”
I whipped round again, but the hare was still a hare, still sniffing out the cigar smoke under the door. I heard a sort of snort behind me, which I suppose was the pilgrim laughing, but I didn’t begrudge him that. I had too many questions.
“Why do you come here, then, if it’s not your ‘final destination’?”
“Perhaps I’m curious to see how many dull-witted questions you can ask before you get tired of it.”
“Oh, hundreds,” I said breezily.
“You’ve already asked hundreds.”
“Thousands, then. Millions.”
“Well, fortunately, you won’t live that long.”
I looked at him, round-eyed. “Do you know when people are going to die? Did the good folk teach you?”
He put his fingertips to his forehead and shut his eyes. “Oh, god.”
He was silent for another moment, watching his dobbie snuffle at the smoke under the vestry door.
“They do know when people are going to die,” he said, half to himself. “They’re fascinated by death, because it doesn’t apply to them. They act out death-bed scenes, and try to counterfeit the tears and wails of the mourners. It’s stomach-churning.”
I tried not to say anything. He seemed to have decided on principle to never give me answers when I asked them of him. The way to draw out information was to hold my tongue and let him take his time to unburden himself. Which was unfortunate, because that was the one thing I couldn’t do.
The dobbie put its forepaws on his leg, like a cat anxious to be petted, and he stooped to pick it up. As he did so, I caught the briefest, silvery glimmer of chains beneath his shirt.
He didn’t realize I’d seen, and I didn’t know how to ask about them. I think I asked him something else instead, some half-baked theory about the dobbie being the outward manifestation of his soul. My cheeks were glowing red, not just because I’d seen his chains, but because I’d seen his chest. Still, he didn’t notice. He put the dobbie carefully into his pocket and walked out as if he thought my theory too half-baked to merit a response. I suppose it was. For all the care he took with the white hare, for all that his eyes were always on it, I’d never seen him treat it with anything approaching tenderness.
I saw him twice in the next month, because of the scarlet fever. I told him my theory that he must have been from Pendle or Bolton, or a neighbouring county, where they don’t take so much care of their dead, and he confirmed it, in his riddling, sarcastic way. “I’m certainly fortunate not to count myself a native of your dreary backwater.”
“There,” I said, nodding proudly, in spite of the ‘dreary backwater’. “There was no Alice Hawker to ring the passing bell for you.”
“It would have been very strange if she had, since I didn’t actually die.”
I gawped at him. And then, irrepressibly, I started to laugh. “All this passing back and forth without ever actually passing?”
He stayed stiff-backed and motionless for a while, but it was the funniest thing I’d heard in years, and it took me a while to laugh it out of my system. By the time my giggles had subsided, he had folded his arms and narrowed his eyes. He was tapping one bone-white finger repeatedly against his sleeve.
“Has anyone ever told you, you have a very distinctive laugh?”
“Parson says my laugh brightens up the dark hours,” I said, with a touch of defiance. In truth, I hadn’t believed the parson when he’d told me that. I laugh like a shrieking banshee, only merrier — which I think is part of the reason I’ve never married. It’d be a brave man who’d risk provoking a laugh like that on his wedding night.
The pilgrim gave me a thin-lipped smile. “What a diplomatic man he is, your parson.”
It was the most painstaking friendship I’d ever built up and, in the end, I didn’t know if I was building anything. He kept coming back, perhaps because he had to. I didn’t know if I liked him. He was just there, the way the doctor and the parson were just there: nice enough to talk to, but nowhere near as reliable as my old, stolid self.
Sometimes, when I was leaving my cottage late to ring the passing bell, I’d see him on the road, marching fast with his eyes fixed on the horizon, pacing the floor of the valley as if it was his cage. Sometimes, I even felt brave enough to give him a wave. And on the nights when he didn’t fry me alive with his glare, he unbent enough to return this courtesy with a little, tight-lipped nod.
Once, when I was feeling really brave, I prodded him in the ribs to see if he was lying about not being dead. The heat of him singed my finger, but he was solid enough. “I thought I’d pass right through you,” I said, laughing at my own daring as much as his indignant expression. “Aren’t you insubstantial?”
“Only when it matters,” he growled.
I stopped, uncomfortably aware that I knew nothing of the sort of situations where it might matter to be able to touch someone. I didn’t ask about that again.
It was a night in early November, after the combined chaos of Mischief Night and Bonfire Night when I saw him again. He didn’t slow — he never slowed — to walk with me. I had to skip along beside him, which I’m sure diminished the dignity of his pilgrimage, but he didn’t say anything about it.
The night was clear and bright, and the branches cast snake-shadows onto the ground at our feet. The pilgrim had discarded his necktie, and I could see the chains more clearly now, dozens of them, criss-crossing his torso like tinsel on a Christmas tree. They were fine, but they cut deep. I could see the red marks they left in his skin whenever they shifted.
But I tried not to stare. Whether I was feeling horror or hunger, it was rude to stare at him.
He wouldn’t speak, not on the road. When we passed cottages, I could hear dogs whining in the white dobbie’s wake, straining at their chains in an effort to get away. But out on the open road, the only thing I could hear besides my own breathing was the muted roar of the sea.
Somewhere down in the valley, a bell began to toll. The pilgrim stopped in his tracks, his back stiff, his hands suddenly clenched at his sides. I couldn’t understand it at first. I’d never seen him stop before, in all his restless, nighttime wanderings. But then it dawned on me that the bell was my bell, from my tower, tolling the passing rhythm.
I felt a shiver as if something very cold and clingy had clambered onto my back. It was me down there, ringing the passing bell. I knew my rhythms and my inflections, my timing.
He turned to look at me, slowly. Even the dobbie had turned its quivering nose in my direction, as if in expectation. But I didn’t stop to look at either of them. I hurried down the road into the valley, until I came to the familiar lych-gate at the entrance to the churchyard. I didn’t have to climb over it. The gate swung open of its own accord, without a sound, and I staggered backwards, catching myself on the dry-stone wall before I fell.
Someone was walking down the path from the church — not quite a man, but not a child either. He looked like a being of a different scale, built along smaller, lighter, daintier lines, and of completely different materials. He was muttering to himself in a low, musical voice. There was a crooning quality to it, a warbling treble, which made me suspect he was singing a requiem. He stopped at the gate and turned around, his eyes sweeping over me as though I were invisible.
And there was the funeral procession, drifting sedately down the path from the church: a crowd of feeorin, all bright-skinned and beautiful, just like the first. Some of them were sniffling into lace-bordered handkerchiefs. Some had fine, silvery tear tracks running down their cheeks. But there was none of the mess and snot and swollen faces you’d get from real, flesh and blood grief.
They were also singing, and after a while I realized that the fairy who’d paused next to me at the gate had stopped singing the verse of the song, and sang only the refrain. It was as though he was directing everything, pulling the mourners along, binding them together.
The song was beautiful, but I understood, without quite knowing how, that it was garbled nonsense even in the fairy tongue. There was something too perfect about it, too suited to the atmosphere, as if they had picked out the most dolorous sounds without a thought for their meaning.
It was the same with all of this — the whole procession, the whole process. They were trying to capture the feel of an earthly funeral, but not the substance. They hadn’t stirred a foot to understand us. They were just playing dress-up.
The coffin was being carried on the shoulders of six fairy boys, all marching in doleful unison. The rhythm of it slowed my heartbeat. I half-closed my eyes, caught between wonder and thick-headed calm. Or maybe the two went hand-in-hand.
I was captivated. I’d never seen the feeorin before. They all had flawlessly symmetrical, sharp-featured faces, and the moonlight did wonderful things to their skin. I just wanted to look at them. I don’t think I even wanted to breathe as much as I wanted to look at them. I hadn’t seen prettiness — particularly not in my looking-glass – for a very long time.
I don’t know how long I stood there, watching their lovely performance of grief. Time only came back to me when the fairy boys carrying the coffin passed through the church gate, and I was able to look inside it.
I gasped, but the pilgrim hissed at me to be quiet. He must have crept up behind me while I’d been transfixed by the feeorin. I was past marvelling at his quietness, or even caring for his opinion. The horror of it was rising up in my throat — the sheer, screaming wrongness of seeing myself dead, seeing myself from the outside. I had always known, in an abstract way, that my death would come someday, but that it might be now, that I might be looking on from a distance without the ability to do anything about it, that was a thought I had never entertained.
“It’s me,” I choked out, as the funeral procession drifted away.
“And is it also you ringing the passing bell?” said the pilgrim. “And you standing here speaking to me? Don’t talk nonsense.”
“It’s got to be a warning,” I whispered, thinking of the Padfoot and the Skriker and the Gabriel hounds. “I have to ask how long I’ve got.”
I desperately wanted it to seem less terrible, and I thought maybe if they told me it was a year away, five, twenty, it wouldn’t feel so awfully, claustrophobically close. Time worked differently for the fairies, didn’t it? It might seem very soon to them, and a whole lifetime to me.
I started forwards, barely even registering that the pilgrim had reached out a hand to stop me. I launched into a desperate curtsy, and pitched my voice too loud, too high. “If you please, Sir? Madam? How long until I-? Until this-?” I gestured miserably at the coffin, but it was gone. All the mourners had evaporated. Only the first man — the one I had thought of as the director — was still standing there, looking at me. His eyes were bright brown, almost amber, and they were glazed with the same affected tears I’d seen slipping down the cheeks of the other mourners. They weren’t real. I wondered madly if they would taste sweet.
“Too soon, mortal maiden,” he crooned. I could tell he was enjoying the sound of the words. “But then mortal lives are all so short. I could show you more, if you would but look with my eyes.”
He held out a hand to me, and for one horrible moment, I thought he was offering up a pair of fairy eyes, expecting me to screw them into my own sockets. But he only wanted to lead me somewhere, I suppose. I was fascinated by the shape of his silver palm in the moonlight, so perfectly formed, so much smaller and daintier than my own. I half-wanted to reach out just so I could compare them.
But I didn’t like those sticky brown eyes, with their glaze of tears like iced buns on market day. And he had called me a ‘maiden’, which was technically true, but not the sort of word an honest creature would use to describe me. It was as though he understood the word, but none of its nuances.
I looked back at the pilgrim and found him staring at me, his jaw set, his hands balled up into fists. The leaves were drifting through him as if he were made of clouds. And I thought, he caught my arm, didn’t he, before I stepped forwards? His hand passed straight through me. He had said he was only insubstantial when it mattered.
Then I noticed something else — the last nail in the coffin lid, in more ways than one. The white dobbie wasn’t with him, wasn’t crouched in his shadow, or sheltering in his pocket, or peering out from behind the dry-stone wall.
I hadn’t seen the dobbie and the moon-white fairy together in the same place at the same time, and suddenly I knew that that was because they were one and the same.
So I straightened myself up and blinked my eyes clear, even though it felt like they were full of splinters. “No, thank you. I’ll ‘wait when it comes, same as everybody else.” I curtsied again, though it’s difficult to bend your knees when they’re trembling. “I’m sorry to have troubled you.”
I couldn’t tell whether he was angry or amused. His nostrils flared a bit — the first I’d seen of anything approaching ugliness on his moon-bright face — but he might have just been trying to suppress a laugh.
He turned as if to walk away, and then vanished, just as the mourners had. And the breeze came back, soft but staggering, icy on my sweat-soaked skin.
I walked back to the pilgrim, feeling curiously light, as if I was halfway to being a ghost already. He hadn’t moved or even unclenched his fists, and he was lividly pale.
We walked on together, dreamily, up the path to the church, and around to my bell tower. The door was standing open, but there was no one inside. No doppelgänger resting against the wall, or rubbing her back after ringing the passing bell.
“Am I going to die?” I said, in a voice that was squeakier than I would have liked.
“Everyone is going to die,” said the pilgrim, “except me.”
He clenched and unclenched his fists several times, and then looked around, as if searching for his absent dobbie. “You wanted to know why I hurry when I’m walking the roads at night. It isn’t to get anywhere. It’s because I can almost taste it — the sea breeze, the fresh air — just ahead of me. It seems as though, if I could run, I might reach it. But I won’t run for anybody, so I strain my steps into the fastest walk my muscles will permit, and it gets away.”
“The air?” I said, bewildered.
“I’m not really here,” he muttered. His lips seemed to be trying to clamp down on the words. “I’m allowed to walk the roads where I should have been living, and taste the air I should have been breathing. Sometimes, I’m even permitted to touch, but only when it’s of no consequence.”
I looked at him and realized that, on all the stormy nights I’d seen him out wandering, the wind had never once stirred his hair. I had always assumed it was just plastered in place with sweat, but now I saw that he was in his own invisible bubble, close as a second skin, and that not a breath of air could get through to him.
He was a captive still, walking around, apparently at liberty, but wearing fairyland like a stifling suit of clothes, like a sack he’d just been shoved in.
I pitied him. And he could see it. And he hated it.
“How did the good–?” I stopped. I couldn’t bring myself to call them the ‘good folk’. “How did the feeorin capture you?”
“I gave myself to them,” he said. “Like you almost did. They don’t understand,” he went on. “They think they’re saving us. He said it would be criminal to lose a mind like mine through mortal death, and I–” he tightened his lips, “I agreed with him. No doubt he would have said something similar to you if you’d let him – ‘Oh, Mistress Alice, you’ve too much wit, too much merriment, to die a mortal death. The moon wouldn’t seem half so bright without you‘.” He stopped as if annoyed with himself for saying so much.
I breathed out, watching my breath steam on the air, and noticing, again, that his didn’t.
Dying had always seemed so claustrophobic to me — oh, not the grave, the coffin, the fact of being buried under the earth. I’d seen too many funerals to be bothered much by that. It was just the simple fact that you didn’t breathe anymore; that you came to a point where you either couldn’t or wouldn’t take another breath. Did it feel like drowning, that moment? I had shuddered to think of it, although I hadn’t thought of it much, not even when I was watching Dr. Bixby check his patients for a non-existent pulse, or listening to the parson say the last rites.
But now I thought that even death couldn’t be as claustrophobic as what the pilgrim was describing: to walk around in a bubble, tasting the air you couldn’t breathe, to feel the sweat prickling on your forehead and know that nothing, not even your own motion, could cool you. To wear your prison as close as a second skin.
I put out my hand, and he did the same, lining up his palm with mine, as if he understood the impulse. There was no pressure there; only heat. I knew that my fingers would slide right through his if I pushed forward. He was only insubstantial when it mattered, and suddenly I could see how much it mattered to him. I could see that he would have given all the sea breezes in the world for a touch of my hand right then.
“You’ll get out,” I said, trying to smile. “Nothing lasts forever, not even the feeorin. Parson says they’re dwindling every year as more and more folk move to the cities and cease to think of them.”
He sighed and I could almost persuade myself that I felt the touch of his breath against my cheek.
“What a diplomatic man he is, your parson.”
Lucy Stone is a freelance writer, lexicographer, and mother of one. Her stories have appeared in many speculative journals, including Dreamforge Magazine, Electric Spec, House of Zolo, and Bards and Sages Quarterly. Most recently, she was published in an anthology of feminist fantasy called Predators in Petticoats. She can be found online on her website.
Her major preoccupations are folklore, romance, and mental illness. Her stories contain many villains, but the ultimate one is usually despair, and she will fight it with every word she writes – even prepositions.