She set the lantern on the sill, a beacon to light her lover’s way home. It would shine bright from the cottage window, a fallen star in the ink-black night. Though the path to her door was uncertain, she trusted the lantern-trusted the candle, its steady flame, and the yearning of her heart.
Stepping over the chalk circle in the center of the floor, she walked to the sink. Her reflection hovered like a ghost in the age-mottled mirror as she unbuttoned her dress and let it slither into a heap around her ankles.
The room’s musty atmosphere was an unwelcome embrace, running cold, damp fingers down her spine. She shivered and twisted on the tap. Water sputtered rust brown for a moment, then ran clear. She cupped her palms beneath the lukewarm stream and splashed her face and neck. She filled her palms again and doused her abdomen, sliding one hand between her legs and letting the water run down her inner thighs. Wet tendrils of dark hair curled and clung like tentacles as the warm water cooled on her skin.
Shivering uncontrollably now, she fumbled with the small bottle she had balanced on the sink. After several failed attempts to pry the cap loose, she used her teeth. The bottle’s contents were dark and oily, spiced with a sweetness on the edge of festering. She dabbed a few drops onto her fingertips and drew a line down her body from breastbone to crotch, then another horizontally across her lower rib cage. Where the lines intersected, she traced the same symbol she had chalked onto the cottage’s worn floorboards. The black liquid glistened in stark contrast against pale flesh, cutting her body into neat quarters like a butcher’s chart.
Anointment complete, she lifted the bottle to her lips and forced herself to swallow the rest. It tasted of corrupted fruit and charred bones, and left a thick, greasy coating on her tongue. The urge to vomit was almost overwhelming. She clutched the edge of the basin and gasped, biting back a moan of disgust. When at last the sensation faded, she was left with a burning throat.
A glance over her shoulder confirmed that the lantern still burned bright as ever. She closed her eyes and pictured herself outside, walking the moor, feet sinking deep into moist, mossy earth; autumn wind tugging at her hair, whispering secrets; the night close and soft, a velvety second skin. In her mind’s eye, she saw the light glimmer, cut-diamond sharp in the gloom. She reached for it–reached across darkness and distance, to grasp her own beating heart.
When her eyes opened again, she no longer trembled. A few quick steps brought her within the chalk circle. She knelt and placed both palms flat on the aged wood. There was a name on her lips, its fullness curving her tongue, sweet enough to chase away the bottle’s bitter tang. She whispered it aloud in the cold, empty room. She repeated it over and over, until it name echoed off the walls. She called to him, called out to the wind-torn, twisted night–called her lost love back from his grave.
When her final utterance had faded into silence, she lay down in the chalk circle and curled her body into itself like a fetus within a womb. She lay in waiting, in the endless breath between hope and despair, for an eternity of hours.
At last, she heard a sound. A soft, urgent scraping of fingernails against wood. Something at the door.
Her heart stilled, then quickened as the scraping became rough, irregular knocking. She uncurled herself and stood. One step, then another, until she reached the door. Her shaking fingers found the knob, turned it, and pulled.
Cold October night poured into the room, and with it, a figure shambled forth. Tall and thin, a scarecrow of flesh and bone. He stank of rot and a freshly turned grave. Soil clung to him, clotted his clothes and crusted his skin, matting hair and distorting features. If it had not been for his eyes, painfully bright and alert in the hollows of his skull, she would not have recognized the man she loved.
He entered the cottage on creaking legs and stood before her, swaying like a tree in a gale. His gray lips parted. Beetles and dirt tumbled from his mouth as he spoke. “Laura…”
She grasped his cold, clammy hand and held it against her chest so that he might feel her heart dance. “Yes, Thomas. It’s me.”
He blinked slowly. “I… I was…”
The hand she was not holding crept up to his throat, fingering the deep gash the knife had carved into his flesh. Stitched shut with mortician’s thread, it had sealed into a thin purple line across his trachea.
She lifted his palm to her mouth and kissed it. He tasted of earth and rain. “Forget that. Forget it all. You’re home now, Tomas. I’ve brought you back, just as I promised.”
His fingers bent to cup her chin, lifting her face until their eyes met. “Laura,” he said again, exhaling the word in one long breath. A tear slid down his cheek. “My Laura.”
She smiled. “My Thomas.”
Still holding his hand, she led him to the bathtub that stood behind a curtain in one corner of the room. “Here,” she said, and began unbuttoning his filthy shirt. He stood, passive as a small child, and watched her hands move down one button at a time. He allowed her to peel the garment off and stuff it into a waiting garbage bag hooked over the back of a chair. Next, she knelt to open his fly. The trousers were stiff with dirt and did not slide down easily. His underwear had practically adhered to his skin and needed to be gently cut away with scissors.
When Thomas was naked, she helped him into the large tub. She stoppered the drain, turned the water on and adjusted it until the flow was hot but not scalding. Thomas groaned as the heat soaked into his stiff limbs.
“Too hot?” she asked.
He shook his head.
Humming softly, she opened bottles of oil and drizzled them into the swirling water. Fragrant steam rose around them as she knelt and began rubbing a cloth in slow circles across his back. The water grew filthy as she washed him, and needed to be changed several times. With each fresh bath and scour, his skin lost not only its coating of dirt but its pallor, until at last he resembled more a living, breathing man than an animated corpse. When he was finally clean and the water clear, she climbed into the tub with him.
Some time later, wrapped in towels and each other, they lay down on the bed that dominated the cottage’s small back room. She traced a hand across his chest, fingers gliding easily along the silken residue left by the bath oils. She was tired–so very, very tired–but did not want to sleep.
Head resting on the pillow next to hers, his eyelids were already drooping. “Laura?” His voice was no longer the rattle of dead leaves, the hollow mutter of autumn wind. It was strong, and warm, and familiar.
She pulled herself closer, nuzzling into the crook of his chin. “Yes?”
“What was the price?”
She stilled in his embrace.
“Hush. Sleep.” She kissed the now pale scar on his throat. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
He fell silent, though she could almost hear the words lingering unspoken on his lips. She feared he would press the question, force an answer from her–but when she dared look again, his eyes had fallen closed.
She watched his sleeping face for a time. Studied the sharp tilt of his jaw, the bridge of his nose, the slight crease between his brows. Not handsome–too lean, too odd and angular to be handsome–but, to her, beautiful.
Once again, she drew herself close and lay listening to the soothing rhythm of his heart. It had grown strong, like his voice, and just as familiar. As time passed, her own heart seemed to flutter, to leap and stutter, becoming fainter as his grew ever steadier.
Her breathing was shallow now, coming in short gasps. She tried to lift her head, to relieve the pressure on her ribs, to breathe–but she had no strength. With a low moan, she pressed her forehead against her beloved’s solid warmth, closed her eyes, and let the world slip away.
When Thomas woke with the dawn, he found Laura still curled against him. Her skin was dry as parchment, drawn tight across a frame of brittle bones. Though he called her name until his voice cracked and cradled her crumbling body close, she would not wake.
And he knew, then, that this was the price she had agreed to pay. For what can be the cost of a life, but a life given in return?
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this short story. Let me know what you thought in the comments!