Exeter Wilhelm III died on the 23 of March in the year of our Lord 1881. A wealthy man, his funeral a few days later sported the finest amenities that the death industry could offer, from a coffin of polished mahogany to a score of professional mourners. Since he was the richest person I ever had the privilege to bury—up until that point, anyway—I experienced the ways of the wealthy for the first time at his services.
My father was a gravedigger. My grandfather was a gravedigger. I was third-generation, and heir to the Habakkuk Henry and Sons Professional Burying Co., established 1826: “you ‘hail Mary’ them, we bury them.” By the time I was seventeen, I’d put hundreds of bodies six feet under all across the county. Men, women, children, none of them were safe from the spiteful old death angel. She reaped their souls. I took care of the empty husks they left behind with my pa. Each time, we took a moment to learn the stories of the dearly departed: who they were, what they accomplished in their brief existence, and—most importantly—how they died. I feasted on the torrid details. One woman drowned, swallowing seaweed in the process. They had to pull it right from her throat! Another person contracted a foreign plague. Horrible yellow pustules covered his body and burst in an explosive finale. The death of one Clarence Worthington fascinated me in particular. He was mauled by a bear; the beast ripped his spine clean out of his body, leaving a bloody sort of two-torsos-but-not-quite effect. I adored it.
Murder victims only rarely joined my ever-expanding clientele, but it always caught my attention when they came along. I’d open their casket, take a forbidden peek at those unfortunates and their sunken cadaver visages. I learned to recognize the cause of death from only a cursory glance. Sometimes they had a barely concealed stab wound in their side. Boring. Others had strangulation marks on their necks under a layer of mortician’s make-up, or perhaps the physical manifestations of this poison or that. Better. If the local undertaker wasn’t the gossiping type, the newspapers usually fed me the information I hungered for. Who killed them? Why? I noted when the murderer remained a mystery and dreamed of catching killers in my spare time.
All of which brings us to the matter at hand. Aside from the ostentatious wealth put on display for the funeral of Exeter Wilhelm III, there was little to keep me entertained during his funeral. He, like far too many in my line of work, died of natural causes. I found myself yawning behind my hand through all the weary speeches and rote prayers. When at last the bearers lowered old Exeter and his mahogany box into the grave, the closest family members gathered with handfuls of soil to drop on the tomb that would hold him until doomsday.
That is when I saw her, my magnificent Persephone. She stood there dressed in mourning black, her face partially obscured by a boisterous ebony hat and veil. As her gloved fingers released the handful of earth into Exeter Wilhelm III’s grave, I felt an impure attraction to the grace of her movement. She was the most beautiful creature I’d ever beheld. I assumed (rightly, I’d later learn) that she was Wilhelm’s daughter. I watched her for the short remainder of the service. With her expensive clothing and regal bearing, she seemed the very picture of dignity in bereavement. She wept without wailing. She spoke with only the faintest tremble. She allowed her mother to cry on her shoulder while a young man, no doubt Exeter Wilhelm IV, thanked everyone for graciously attending in this truly tragic time for their family. A sharp gust of wind threw back the girl’s veil as he spoke, and I could see that her pale face was flawless and lovely, a touch of divine amidst the filth of temporality. I longed to know her better, this sorrowful princess. I dared to ask a random mourner (not one of the paid performers, but a real one, ancient enough to be needing her own professional criers soon enough) her name.
“That is none of your concern,” the rich hag said in a huff, the ermine furs at her neck framing her like a grizzled buzzard. “Keep to your unclean profession. Leave your betters to their grief.”
After that rude reception, I didn’t dare approach anyone else about the beautiful girl. My worried heart skipped important beats. She’d leave the churchyard soon enough, and I would never see her again.
And that is just what happened. My eyes followed as she entered an ornate coach drawn by proud horses. She faded down the road into the north even as bright summer fades into desolate autumn, my nameless goddess, my idol of utmost devotion. Later that night, I thought of her as I lay in bed. I wondered if she’d noticed me at all, or if I’d been merely one of two nondescript gravediggers, only appreciated for manual labor.
Just before sleep began to shut my sad eyes, I bolted up. There was a way to see her again. There was a way to bring my nameless princess back in my sight. I had the knowledge. I knew what I had to do.
I was so, so devastated to learn of the unfortunate death of Ariana Wilhelm, 1827-1881, and so dreadfully soon after the passing of her husband. Her death (such a tragedy) was ruled a murder by the constables, and the maid of the house soon stood trial and was later imprisoned for the crime. But that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that my princess attended sweet Ariana’s funeral. Just as I suspected, my victim was her mother. As soon as I finished my burial duties, I rushed to her side to introduce myself.
Florence. That was her name. When she said it between tears for her dead mother, it was like a song. I learned so many thrilling details about her in the precious minutes we spent together.
“My family’s from Germany,” she said when I asked. “Several generations back.”
“Given the choice, I suppose I prefer daffodils over most flowers,” she said.
“Heavens, no. I do enjoy romance novels, though,” she said.
I can’t recall if she learned my name that time, but it mattered not. After such titillating conversation, I knew she was mine.
But when her mother’s funeral came to its end, she was gone, and I was left to wonder how I would see her again.
Before long, Exeter Wilhelm IV, 1853-1881 joined Exeter Wilhelm III in the afterlife. How unfortunate to lose someone so young with so bright a future, especially to a terrible hunting accident. My Florence was there for the sad service, for we were pieces in a repetitive game, cogs in a deathly machine. I arrived early to do my work and caught her looking into the open casket, gazing at her brother’s remains in icy silence. Impure attraction coursed through me as she considered a corpse, perhaps much in the same way as I swear she had become desensitized to the loss of loved ones. Her fairy eyes barely cried at her brother’s closed casket service (young Exeter Wilhelm IV had been too savagely torn by some wild beast to have a proper viewing, you see). My father had another funeral to dig for in another town, so I handled this one myself. I approached beloved Florence alone.
After the casket had been lowered but before I had buried it, I asked her how she was feeling.
“Cold,” Florence said. “And sad.”
“It’s a dreadful thing, what happened to your dear brother,” I said. I idly wondered if his juices were already sloshing around inside the coffin.
“Yes,” she said. “It is a sin in my heart, but my brother’s body almost reminds me of a murder I read about.” My ears perked up. “A man was ripped to pieces by a bear a decade or so back. His spine got torn out. His name was Clarence—”
“Worthington,” I said. “That’s my favorite death ever!”
Florence’s eyes lit up. “Mine, too! I…” she trailed off. “Forgive me. It is indelicate for a lady of my station to express interest in such an untoward subject.”
I took her hand. She didn’t pull away. “I think you can be interested in whatever you want. I like this side of you.”
“Thank you,” Florence said. “I so need a friend. Everyone here wants my money. It’s so peculiar, but I almost feel you’re my only friend in the world…What was your name again?”
I, her only friend in the world. She said that to me. It was true. From then on, I was her companion and confidante. She invited me to her home for tea and other activities that occupy the rich. I wasn’t good at any of it, not the croquet or the conversation or the cricket, but she was patient. She taught me all of it. We visited her family’s graves together every now and then. We counted her money and went on picnics in the hills. She told me about her romance novels. She loved the acts of devotion performed by gallant gentlemen for their ladies fair. I grew to love her as a human being, alive with beating pulse. She did the same for me. I knew her to her core, every secret, every thought and doubt and desire.
There were whispers and rumors, spearheaded by the same stuffy hag that silenced me when I first asked after Florence. She said that our budding romance was a scandal and that I was not worthy of my Florence’s affections. The rich like to gossip, but they betray each other. That’s how the old crone’s words came to me: one friend told another friend, who told another, all the way back to me and my sweetheart. Florence cursed the woman upon learning of the hearsay, using words I’d never heard from her pure tongue. I could not disagree, though. That hag’s poisonous words sat rather poorly in my mind.
She drowned in her bathtub a week or so later, the sweet pea, 1797-1882. But who could be surprised, given her age? The elderly often pose a risk to themselves. Her service was well-attended, much like the others. The pale and sanctimonious rich feigned at lamentation for her, but I was not deceived. They tore each other apart for her money and property, destroyed each other for material gain. I was numbered among those penny-pinchers and misers in the cemetery; my digging days were coming to an end as I ingratiated myself among the powerful. I thought about greeting my father, the gravedigger for the service, but decided against it. I couldn’t deal with common men anymore. It did not befit my station.
My Florence and I sneaked away as the priest gave his sermon. We found an ancient tree to hide behind, where we laughed together at the miserable harpy’s demise and cackled over our hypocritical friends and their false grief. We kissed, and nothing was more fascinating to me than a stolen kiss among the tombstones. I proposed to her on the spot, there behind the tree, mocking tears still glistening on our faces. She said yes.
As her lips met mine again and again, though, a haunting thought occurred to me. Not a soul mattered to me in all my life, not their feelings nor their experiences nor their suffering. But I cared for my Florence with such an adulation. Florence mattered, mattered far too much to lie to her, to conceal what my hands had done to win her. She needed to know. If I could not bare my soul in honesty to her, then to whom?
I kept my peace through the entire engagement. I was a coward. We endured parties, hunts, galas, and excruciating, boring conversations together, now as a couple. I felt so, so, so blessed to have her as my own and to be hers in return, but an eating fear gnawed at my heart that she might recoil at me, her future husband, a murderer who would happily kill a thousand men for her love, if only she knew.
The day of our wedding, I found the strength for which I’d prayed. I’ll always remember the great and terrible day. Minutes before the ceremony, I searched and found her by the old tree where we kissed and delighted in the horrible hag’s demise. She was a gleaming goddess in her wedding dress.
I took her in my arms and told her everything.
I wanted her to know, but I was afraid. I’d worshipped her from the moment my mortal frame laid eyes on her goddess. I loved her with the might and power of gods. I’d killed her mother just to get another glimpse of her face. I’d killed her brother to bring us together. I’d killed the old harpy to preserve our courtship. She watched me with unreadable eyes as I laid my sins at her feet.
“I know,” Florence said, a wicked smile on her face. “And I love it.”
Jack Bylund is an editor and ghostwriter based out of Utah. He is teaching English while pursuing a masters degree at Utah State University. He loves Panda Express, bad movies, and writing stories about the end of the world. His writing is published in Nightlight, The Dangling Modifier, Sink Hollow, and Blind Corner.