They hired some of the village men, including Waxy and me, to help dig the holes. It was hard work, mostly, but in a time when money’s tight, hard work will do. When the university men came to Barlow, the mine had been shut tight for nearly six months, and the old farms in Kennswick had been sitting idle for ten times as long. I didn’t mind a bit of sweat and dirt, and I still don’t mind the sting of a burst blister to buy my angels some bread. Waxy worked hard, too, but mostly for the liquor to poison his gut.
We dug without expectation, without any cause or will but to dig and find our pay at the bottom of the hole. We pushed our shovel blades in the earth around old maker stones on the hill — grey, oblong, and worn to crooked nubs after years in the heartless onslaught of rain and snow. The university men told us where to put our backs into the searing work, how deep to carve the holes, and when we struck stone, they told us to stop. We cleared dirt away from buried stones flecked with shiny specks — more like granite than local stone. The cold press of earth had preserved the carvings on those buried artifacts. The university men spoke in quick, excited tones. They scribbled notes. One peered at us with chilled contempt spilling over the half-moon lenses of his spectacles like we were beasts. That’s how we felt it, anyway. Contempt. But their pounds spent like anyone’s.
They found bodies beneath the stones. Strange, contorted things. Human faces peeked out from skin browned near black and withered. Human faces, pinched and broken, slightly wrong. They looked like the bog people, the mummies from the swamps farther north. But we’ve no bogs in Barlow, and the university men muttered their speculations as to why these were so well preserved. They found three dozen — men and women, children, a little girl about Ellen’s size with her hair still caught in a braid. Each body wore a gash on its throat, a slit across the neck, like a black cloak carried across a moonless night.
I remember them laid out, one next to the other, tiny white tags on each, their dark forms drunk and rich from the heavy loam. They smelled of rich, fertile earth, pungent and wholesome. But those slashes. Those cut throats. I knew they’d been cut. I didn’t need university papers to imagine the spill of blood and rude burial of the dead.
In the Stone Lion that night, Waxy bought a round for all the shovel men.
“Drink up boys,” he said, blue eyes finding each of ours like the first frost snaps the world in the fall. “Drink up, for tomorrow we die.”
The others muttered with the ghosts of smiles hanging from their lips.
The barmaid who served our table, plump and shapely, wore a long braid of deep brown trailing down her back. I closed my eyes and the living braid wove with the coal black hair from the corpse. Even with my eyes open, she seemed an echo of a woman with throat slit in a black line from one corner of her chops to the other. Waxy battered my shoulder and nodded toward the waitress. “Wouldn’t mind a roll with that one, eh?”
I felt it then, a sudden rush in my stomach — not from the pint of lager, but from the thoughts of those dead and buried at least a millennia ago, life spilled for what unholy ritual or crime I wouldn’t know. None of us would, not even those university men with their scowls and scribbles. I rose and started for the door, muttering thanks to Waxy and my goodbyes to the rest of the men.
“Hell, Noonan. I wasn’t trying to make yeh sick,” Waxy called to my retreating back.
Outside, under the wheel of stars, I staggered to the ditch near roadside and pissed at least a stray pint into the whispering grass. The air bit cold, laying an icy palm on the recent heat of my neck and chest. The rush in my gut washed away under the blue-black night, under the stars, under the impersonal burning shadow of the moon. Something colder replaced the feeling in my stomach. A hollow space. I glanced at the hillside where the university men had barked at our stiff backs. I started for home, imagining the crates of the dead, neatly labeled and stripped of the silent dignity of the grave.
Molly held a finger to her lips as I came in, but Ellen, my little angel, was sitting up with her, awake. Both had rich auburn hair and faces littered with freckles. They offered a smile for my tired bones. Ellen’s hair was pulled back into a long braid. The emptiness inside moved, shifted space with a cadaver’s touch, and reminded me of its presence.
“Look what Mum showed me how to do,” she said, holding her braided hair.
“Take it out,” I said. “Take it out at once.”
How poor Ellen cried.
The university men are gone now, having pulled their lifeless charge from the earth and left the village with a hollow space. They took their nightmare crates and the monstrous things inside, but I still lie awake nights. I can’t shake the sight of a blackened corpse, especially the tiny girl, dead at seven or eight, with a clear deep slash across her throat. I lie awake and touch my hand to my throat, feeling for a deep cut, like I’d been slashed open and left to wait in the earth. When the sweat cools and my heart shrinks to normal size, I muster strength to slip out of bed to my little girl’s room, kiss her gently, and try to ignore the shadows black like empty graves outside our windows.
Aaron Polson lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, half dozen children, and the first half of the Benjamin/Franklin dog duo. Aaron’s stories have been listed as a recommended read by Tangent Online, received honorable mention in the storySouth Million Writers Award and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. Aaron prefers ketchup with his beans and enjoys musical theater.
This story is sponsored by
Adamar, book one of The Hennion Chronicles — Adamar and his friends race to save an alien world, humanity’s future and the woman he loves. They must unlock a secret from the dawn of creation, now used by an emperor to enslave his people, so they can stop his sadistic rule and open a portal to home.