A short piece of fiction

Some years ago, I wrote this little ghost story based on a some burial mounds near Cambridge. I sold it to a horror podcast who did a reading of it, but they went off the air years ago so I reckon it’s fine to put up online now. It’s just a thing I had lying around that was inspired by history; it’s a little rough in places but I’m mostly happy with it.

Let Him Lie in Foulness

The day was cool and rain was falling lightly, almost hesitantly, as I set out to bury my father. The old man had died in the night, closing his eyes almost with relief that something, anything, was putting an end to the pain in his belly. I had been watching in the dim light from the hearth, and I heard his last breath crawl its way out of his tight throat. I looked into his face and saw nothing there to recognize, so I covered him and went to bed.

There is a church at Heahtun, on a low ridge that looks down over the pastures, but it has no burying-rights, so in the morning we had to take the body to the minster-priests. A short enough journey, but my father slowed me down. Wrapped in a white cloth stitched closed around him, he lay in the back of the wagon next to what we could spare: some jugs of beer, a cheese, loaves of bread, gifts for the priests to buy him his place.

So we walked, slowed by the cart and the ox and the body, my sister’s son and I. We talked little. The rain dripped from the front of my hood, one drop every now and again, and the wool cloak became gradually heavier and the trees and hills inched past. Now and again we saw someone coming, but they withdrew off the path or seemingly chose another direction, for it is ill luck to meet a dead man on the road.

Ill luck to receive one into your house, as well, and although there were farms where we could claim guest-right, it would be a cruel thing to make a host choose between breaking hospitality and taking my father under his roof. Instead we went to a place we knew, where in the old days they had held the meetings. Three high mounds, tallest to shortest along the broken old road, built by no one knows whom long ago. They were covered with grass, and there was a little hut there for people who had travelled a long way to the rites. No one used it now. We made our shelter there and ate the bread and cheese and apples we had brought; the apples were old but sweet.

The boy fell asleep as the young do, as eager to sleep as they are to wake. But I could not, so I sat with my back to the wall, looking out on the night and the mounds and the stars bright above the black woods beyond. And my father in the cart before them. I thought of the flesh yellowing under the white cloth, of what foulness would leak from the body that had seemed so unchangeable when I was small. I thought of the few pennies I carried for the prayers and the unmarked hump that would be his long home, so far from our hearth. I felt a tiny curl within myself, as if my own death, sensing his, were writhing in sympathy and warning. I looked away, to the slumbering mounds.

And as I looked I saw a light, like the glow of a fire, just beyond the central mound. The light itself was hidden from me, but I could see how it turned the grey slopes yellow on the other two. Almost unconsciously I rose and headed toward it. Who would have come here after dark, and without offering us any greeting? I walked clumsily in the dark, fighting my unwilling limbs.

Beyond the mound there was a little camp such as men make when they are travelling, and a fire. The rain had abated, and in the footprint of yellow light I could see that clothes had been set by the fire to dry – a white cloak, a pair of shoes, a linen cloth for the hair. But there was no one in sight, no horse, no packs, no sign of a man. A tiny curl of steam rose from the cloak and vanished in the black air.

I kept my eyes on the fire, not wanting to look up, knowing what I would see, and when I finally did I almost missed it because of the blue and green flames that danced in my vision. There was a door in the mound. It had not been there before, and nor was it freshly opened. Moss grew on the stones of the lintel and the firelight danced off worn and wet slabs that lined the passage.

There was a man in the passage, and then there was not, and then there was. He stood far back enough in the grey dimness that I could only see his eyes glinting with the reflected flames. He said nothing, nor moved, but just looked at me with those wet, bright burning eyes. His face was shaven smooth and he stood slightly hunched because of the low roof of the passage. I could see the dark line of his nose and the shadow of a chin, but whether he smiled or spoke I never knew.

I reached down to the fire and took the end of a burning piece of wood. Though the flame licked only a short way from my hand I was not burned. I looked back toward the shed and the sleeping bodies there, then stepped toward the door, holding the brand before me. The firelight caught the man and in it I saw the pale, dry bone, the shadow instead of a nose, that cold smile that shows no mirth. Again I stepped forward and saw the rotted finery, the pathetic strands of gold thread woven through corruption and the black, limitless emptiness behind.

Turning, I flung the burning wood away from me. Over and over it spun, scrawling loops of fire across the dark until it bounced, sparking, once and then lay guttering. I watched its struggle for a moment, then turned and followed the old man into the lightless mound.

A short piece of fiction