“You’re too close,” Mary warned as the dirt under my hand started to slip.
“Just a little further,” I begged lightly, stretching my hand further into the hole. Mary pulled at the bottom of my shirt.
“Be careful, Sam. You might fall.”
A hint of a smile crossed my lips, “why? You scared?”
Just as the words left my lips the ground beneath me moved, and I tumbled over the edge onto the wooden coffin with a dull thud.
“Now you’ve done it stupid,” Mary’s half smile played on her lips as she tucked a strand of auburn hair behind one ear. But – even though she was at that moment breathtakingly beautiful – the hollow thud of the coffin held my attention. I didn’t know what sound a coffin should make, but the empty noise wasn’t it.
“Why this one anyway? It’s like, ancient.” I squinted up at Mary in the twilight, her slender frame outlined by a backdrop of stars through the trees of the cemetery.
She chewed her lip and looked away when she turned back her eyes burnt with something I couldn’t detect. “It’s this one, trust me,” she said.
I could taste the nervous tension between us that came perilously close to fear. It crept up my neck and gripped my throat as I sat up and moved the dirt off a brass label on the coffin lid.
“What’s a Mórrígan?”
“Don’t worry about that, just open the lid.” The tension in her voice lay thick in the night air. Thankfully no one was around to catch us as I’m sure grave digging wouldn’t be looked upon too fondly in this neck of woods.
I shifted my position and gripped the side of the coffin lid and pulled. I was expecting some resistance, but when it opened as easily as a regular door would, I fell against the dirt wall. Mary scrambled over the edge just as I righted myself. A glow diffused over her face lighting it from below.
“Wow, the Mórrígan sure is bright.” My chuckled died in my throat as Mary disappeared into the coffin.
“Mórrígan isn’t a what,” she called, “it’s a who.” I glanced over the lid to see Mary descending metals steps to an illuminated dirt tunnel. “Are you coming or just gonna
stand up there catching flies?”
The hollow earth was cold, far colder than I would have thought. Tree roots broke the side of the walls and poked through like skeletal fingers feeding off our fear. Something wasn’t right. I knew that the moment I opened the coffin. I didn’t realise it fully until my foot touched the tunnel floor, but I knew it now watching the slight rise of Mary’s shoulders as we rounded a corner.
“What is it?” I hissed.
“Shhh.” She motioned me to look and turned sideways.
The tunnel opened up into a stone crypt, moss and linch clung to the walls between the stones and in the centre of the tomb stood a mound or rocks and boulders. The thick sides piled up and levelled out to an opening, whatever had been in there before wasn’t any more.
“Wh…” I began.
“Shh!” Mary pointed to a part of the wall that bunched out. I didn’t see what she meant, and waved my hands to say, “huh?”
Then it moved. It wasn’t a quick movement but a slow debilitating, earth moving change. My hackles rose as the grate of stone on stone lifted to my ears. Mary stepped fully into the crypt and the movement of the wall quicken.
The mound turned, shifted and metamorphosed. Three figures now stood where the mound had been. The first ladies was breathtakingly beautiful with strawberry blond hair flew back in luscious waves from a ghostly breeze. A shimmering white cloth draped over her ample frame. As my gaze slid to her legs, I noticed that one was joined with the others at the shin.
My gaze went up a leg wrinkled with time. Blemishes puckered the skin below the knee, and when I transverse the moth ridden cloth, it continued up over breasts that sagged like deflated balloons, up a flabby throat to an equally saggy face. Eyes with a depth I couldn’t fathom look upon us, like time itself poured from them or more precisely sucked into them.
A cracking noise made me turn to the third. She was more skeleton than person. Stooped and crooked, her skin clung to bones in clumps of sinewy and dried muscle, and parts of her grey skull showed through jagged holes in her face. The line of partial teeth chattered as she looked at me with sightless eyes clouded by greens and blues.
As I followed her raggedy cloth down her skeletal frame, her right leg ended with the middle crone in a burst of gangrenous skin. The three Mórrígans interlocked in an eternal four-legged race. Mary moved once again and bowed before the crones three.
“Badb, Macha, Nemain, you know why I’ve come.”
“One,” spoke the first.
“For,” continued the second.
“One,” finished the last.
Even though the voices were the same, each aged like their host until the third’s scratchy whisper was more felt than heard. Mary glanced at me in the doorway, and bit her lip again, then nodded.
“So be it.” She said.
“Matthew Hendershot,” Mary said, then bowed.
My voice caught in my throat, Mary’s dad died two years ago, I knew she missed him terribly, and his battle with cancer had been a hard pill to swallow, but I thought Mary had come to terms with it.
Suddenly the walls shook, flakes of dirt crumbled from the walls. Mary fell flat on the floor. I dropped to my knees. Something was happening. Not only in the room but me. I felt weak, weaker than I had ever felt, and thirsty. Like no amount of water would ever quell my thirst. Pain coursed up my spine as it cracked and twisted, forcing my body to stoop. I watched as my hands withered. Blemishes like the crone’s popped into existence on the backs and wrinkles sagged the skin between my knuckles. The crones were draining my life.
The first crone sucked at the air, and my genitals blazed with fire as my fertility was drawn from my body in violet rays. One.
The second crone eagerly lapped at the air through cracked-yellow teeth, my mind and memories poured from my head to mingle and twist with the violet mist on its course to her cracked lips. For.
The third – although no lips laid on her face – gulped at the yellow vapour that streamed from my mouth and deteriorated my body. One.
Through milky eyes, I saw a man’s outline on the dirt wall, faint like a pencil drawing. Then thicker, more pronounced. Until the lines bulged, and a person in a black suit stepped through with greying hair. Mary rose from the floor as the crones twisted back and became part of the tomb once again.
She sprang up as the man looked at his hands, and touched his face. Mary flew at his chest and hugged him tightly. Matthew Hendershot looked at his daughter in shock and then hugged her back.
“Mary? What am I doing here, why aren’t we in Saint Phillips?”
“It’s ok dad; you’re back now.” Tears fell from her cheeks and splashed on the dusty floor. She took his arm and turned to leave, then spotted me.
The heaviness hung between us. I didn’t need to see Mary’s reactions to know that I had changed. I felt it in my bones. One for one, a tribute to each for the life of another. My memories, my fertility, my life.
“Oh Sam, I’m sorry. I had to.” She steered her father around me, I reached out and grabbed her arm. Forced her to look into my cataractous eyes.
“She’s taken more than…,” my breath caught, and Mary took the advantage to peel my gnarly fingers from her wrist.
“One part for each crone Sam. That was the price.” She smiled at me with a pitying look and left me in the crypt.
I lay there for sometime fading, as my life slowly drained, listening to the earth shift, and talk, not knowing if I could move. My old legs, more bone than skin. Could they bare my weight? I shift around, back to the pile of rocks, back to the crones at the far wall.
Maybe a deal could be brokered. I forced the words passed my parched throat.
The shift of the wall answered my call and soon the crones three looked upon me with their eternal gaze.
“No, but I can give more.”
I dragged myself forward. Determined for them to see that I wanted to live. Revenge proved a powerful motive.
I had made it to the mound, and I pulled myself up over them scraping my skin, drawing blood that smeared the ancient stones.
“Give me back my strength, and I will bring one person for each of you.”
I didn’t hear them as I fell forwards into the deep hole of the mound. A grave, their grave. I don’t know how long my dreams were plagued with their memories, but when I came to, I moved more freely. The blemishes and puckered skin had vanished to a degree from my hands and face, and my strength had returned.
I climbed from the hole, one purpose burning in my mind as I bowed before the crones three. Then turned and walked back to the grave and the outside world.
Mary was my first; I dragged her back screaming. She didn’t know who I was, not with my deteriorated skin. But, she did recognise the old guy pulling her by the hair when we reached the gravesite. She begged all the way to the Mórrígan, and I enjoyed watching her beg for another deal.
“One,” spoke the first.
“For,” continued the second.
“One,” finished the last.
“What…I don’t understand?” Mary’s scared face looked around at me, and I smiled wide. I knew.
“One deal for one person, Mary. That means you’ve had your one and only deal.”
The Mórrígan sucked at the air with lips, teeth and bone, and soon Mary was no more.
With my youth back I went for Matthew. Again an easy choice. He had had his time. It was remarkably simple to get him to the grave as well.
“Mr Hendershot, it’s Mary, she’s fallen into a hole at the cemetery!”
He even drove us there in his old family car. The crones gave back my memories for his exchange, and I felt whole again. I covered the grave after I climbed out of the coffin, and craved the unmarked tombstone with a small X. Just one thing remains for me to collect. My fertility. But I’m young, and why would I waste that on a frivolous victim.
I think I’ll keep that one, for now.