The Orphan of Cemetery Hill – Hester Fox

TABBY’S LEGS ACHED and the wind had long since snatched her flimsy bonnet away, but she kept running through the night, her thin leather shoes pounding the cobbled Boston streets. She didn’t know where she was going, only that she had to get somewhere safe, somewhere away from the bustling theaters and crowds of the city. Every time someone shouted at her to watch where she was going, or ask if she was lost, she was sure that they were one of her aunt and uncle’s friends. Would they drag her kicking and screaming back to Amherst? Tabby shuddered. She wouldn’t go back. She couldn’t. Her weary feet carried her up a hill lined with narrow houses, and gradually she left behind the streets choked with theatergoers and artificially brightened with gas lamps. After cresting the hill, she paused just long enough to catch her breath and survey her unfamiliar surroundings. It was quieter here, the only sounds the groaning of ships in the harbor and the distant call of a fruit hawker trying to sell off the last of the day’s soft apples. Going back down into the heart of the city wasn’t an option, yet a wrought-iron gate blocked her way any farther, forbidding pikes piercing the night sky. Pale headstones glowed faintly in the moonlight beyond the gate. A cemetery. Tabby stood teetering, her heart still pounding. Dry weeds rustled in the thin night breeze, whispering what might have been a welcome, or a warning. Behind her was the land of the living with house windows glowing smugly yellow, the promise of families tucked safe inside.

In front of her lay the land of the dead. One of those worlds was as familiar to her as the back of her hand, the other was only a distant fairy tale. Taking a deep breath, she shimmied through the gap in the gate. She waded through the overgrown grass and weeds, thorny branches snagging at her thin dimity dress and scratching her. Panic gripped her as she heard the hem tear clean away; what would Aunt Bellefonte say if she found that Tabby had ruined her only frock? Would she smack her across her cheek? Would Uncle lock her in the little cupboard in the eaves? Aunt Bellefonte isn’t here. You’re safe, she reminded herself. As she pulled away to free herself, her foot caught in a tangle of roots in a sunken grave bed and she went sprawling into the dirt. Her lip wobbled and tears threatened to overflow. She was almost twelve years old, yet she felt as small and adrift as the day she’d learned that her parents had perished in a carriage accident and would never step through the front door again. This wasn’t how her first day of freedom was supposed to be.

Her sister, Alice, had planned their escape from Amherst last week, promising Tabby that they would get a little room in a boarding house in the city. Alice would get a job at a laundry and Tabby would take in mending to contribute to their room and board. They would be their own little family, and they would put behind them the trauma that their aunt and uncle had wrought, making a new life for themselves. That had been the plan, anyway. When she and Alice had arrived in the city earlier that day, her older sister had sat her down on the steps of a church and told her to wait while she went and inquired about lodgings. Tabby had dutifully waited for what had felt like hours, but Alice never returned. The September evening had turned dark and cold, and Tabby had resolved to simply wrap her shawl tighter and wait. But then a man with red-rimmed eyes and a foul-smelling old coat had stumbled up the steps, heading right toward her. Tabby had taken one look at him and bolted, sure that he had dark designs on her. She had soon become lost and, in a city jumbled with old churches, hadn’t been able to find the right one again.

Another thorn snagged her, pricking her finger and drawing blood. She should have taken shelter in the church; at least then she would have a roof over her head. At least then Alice would know where to find her when she came back. If she came back. Tabby stopped short. Toward the back of the cemetery, amongst the crooked graves of Revolutionary heroes, stood a row of crypts built into the earth. Most of them were sealed up with iron doors and bolts, but one had a gate that stood just enough ajar for a small, malnourished girl to wriggle through. Holding her breath against the damp musk, Tabby plunged inside. Without any sort of light, she had to painstakingly feel her way down the crude stone steps. Lower into the earth she descended until she reached the burial chamber.

Don’t invite them in. As she groped around in the dark for a resting place, Tabby tried to remember what her mother had always told her. Memories of her mother were few and far between, but her words concerning Tabby’s ability remained as sharp in her mind as words etched with a diamond upon glass. The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission, if you don’t make yourself a willing receptacle for their messages. At least, that was how it was supposed to work. The only other thing she had learned regarding her gift was that she should never, ever tell anyone of it, and the lesson had been a hard one. She couldn’t have been more than six, because her parents had still been alive and had sent her out to the orchard to collect the fallen apples for cider. Their neighbor, little Beth Bunn, had been there, picking wild asters, but she hadn’t been alone; there was a little boy Tabby had never seen before, watching the girls with serious eyes from a branch in an apple tree. Tabby had asked Beth who he was, but Beth insisted she didn’t know what Tabby was talking about. Certain that Beth was playing some sort of trick on her, Tabby grew upset and nearly started crying as she described the little boy with blond hair and big green eyes.

“Oh,” Beth said, looking at her askance. “Do you mean to say you see Ollie Pickett? He used to live here, but he’s been dead for three years.” That was how Tabby learned that not everyone saw the people she saw around her. A week later she had been playing in the churchyard and noticed that all the other children were clustered at the far end, whispering and pointing at her. “Curious Tabby,” they had called her. And that was how Tabby learned that she could never tell a soul about her strange and frightening ability. But even in a place so filled with death, the dead did not bother Tabby that night. With a dirt floor for her bed and the skittering of insects for her lullaby, Tabby pulled her knees up to her chest and allowed the tears she’d held in all day to finally pour out. She was lost, scared, and without her sister, utterly alone in the world. After the first night, it was too dreadful to sleep in the tomb once the sun had gone down.

Bugs crawled over her and rats gnawed on the rotten wood of coffins, and on the bones inside them. The shadow of a spirit, thin and almost entirely transparent, had drifted by her in a cloud of incoherent moans and laments. But Tabby had held her breath, watching it pass by, and it had taken no heed of her. Now she slept during the day, coming out at night to look for the church, and to forage amongst the shuttered stalls of the market for dropped vegetables and crumbs. She had lost count of the days since Alice had left her, and the gnawing thought that she had forsaken Tabby on the church steps on purpose was never far from the surface of her mind. Had that been Alice’s plan all along, to abandon Tabby? In her twelve years Tabby had learned that you couldn’t trust people, even family. But Alice was different. Alice had taken care of her, looked out for her after their parents died and their aunt and uncle took them in. Alice had suffered alongside Tabby from the interest their relatives showed in the sisters’ rare abilities. No, Alice would not leave Tabby, not unless something terrible had happened.

One night, as dusk fell thick and dreary, Tabby watched as the caretaker shuffled about the grounds, picking up the rotted bouquets left on the graves. A tall, lean, dark-skinned man with graying hair and a pronounced limp, he made an appearance every few days to pluck at some of the more aggressive weeds and ensure that the gates were padlocked at night. It didn’t seem to be a very active cemetery, with only the newer section at the other end being used for the occasional burial. Even with the harbor on one side of the hill and narrow brick houses on the other, the cemetery felt remote, safe. She wondered what the caretaker did when he was not collecting old flowers and pulling weeds. He looked like a nice enough man, and more than once Tabby was tempted to show herself, to ask if he could help her find her sister, but she knew that while adults might look kind, they could be cruel and ruthless if you had something they wanted. When she was satisfied that he had gone for the night, and the cemetery was empty of the living, Tabby stole out of the crypt. It was a brisk, damp night, probably one of the last before the frosts came. She tried not to think about how cold she would be down in the damp stone crypt soon without a blanket or a warm cloak. But those things cost money, and she didn’t have a penny to her name.

If only there was some way for her to earn money. There was a way, but it was her aunt and uncle’s way. It was sitting in a dark room full of the bereaved, the curious, the skeptical. It was opening her mind to terrible specters. It was a waking nightmare. Tabby shuddered; she would rather beg or steal. Just as she was preparing to slip out into the city night to scavenge for food, a rustling in the weeds stopped her. Ducking behind a grave, she held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut. Please, don’t be a spirit or the caretaker come back. It took her several long, drawn-out moments to understand what she was seeing, and when she did, she wished it had been a spirit.

The man was impossibly large and might have been Death himself, with his caped overcoat and black hood. But instead of a scythe, he carried a shovel and a bundle of cloth under one arm. He might not have been the grim reaper, but his presence struck Tabby with no less dread. She watched in horror as the man plunged his shovel into the soft dirt of a grave. He gave a low whistle and a moment later another man appeared, this one carrying some sort of iron bar. After what seemed an eternity, there was a dull thud, and then the splintering of wood. Between the two of them, they hefted the shrouded corpse out of the grave and carried it to a waiting cart just outside the gates. She had heard of such men before, whispered about by adults when she was little. Robbers whose quarry was the dead, men who had no scruples when it came to the sanctity of eternal rest. She waited until the uneven sound of wheels on cobbles had faded into the night, hardly daring to breathe.

Tabby sat crouched, motionless, until the first traces of dawn were just visible in the sky. She thought of the caretaker and wondered what he would do come morning. Though he didn’t know she existed, she had come to see the older man as an ally, a living friend amongst the dead. Maybe she could pat the earth back down, and at least tidy things up so it didn’t look as bad. She was just about to uncurl her cramped legs when the rustle of movement stopped her. Her breath caught in her throat; had the men come back? But it was not the men, nor yet a spirit, but a boy of flesh and blood. No, not a boy. A young man. For a home of the dead, the cemetery was well trafficked by the living that night. What was he doing here? Over the last week, the cemetery had become a sort of home, her home, and he was trespassing.

Though he wasn’t much taller than Alice, he must have been at least sixteen, and was lean with fair hair that fell over his temples. If Tabby hadn’t been so stricken with fright, she might have thought him terribly dashing. Had he crossed paths with the grave robbers? A tear ran down the length of his breeches, and an angry bruise was blossoming across his cheekbone. He was leaning against a large column dedicated to the memory of those lost at sea, eyes squeezed shut as he gripped his right leg. He must have been fighting hard not to let out any noise, though she could see his throat working convulsively. She should have gone back to the crypt and left him alone. He was part of the world of the living, and she was all but a spirit herself now, a being that lived in shadows and forgotten memories. But he had such a kind face, and she was so starved for kindness, for human contact. Besides, he wasn’t an adult, not like her aunt and uncle and the others. “Are y-you hurt?” It had been so long since she had used her voice that the words came out thin and cracked.

The boy’s eyes flew open, but he did not so much as move a muscle as he studied her. Then a slow, brilliant grin crept across his face. It did something to her, that grin, warming her all the way from her empty stomach to her frozen toes. It made her feel as if someone had seen her for the first time after being invisible for her entire life. “Be a love and help me, would you?” He gestured at his torn breeches, revealing an angry red gash that ran the length of his thigh. “It’s not much more than a scratch but damned if I can stand on it. Must have grazed the spikes scaling over the fence.” She blinked at the exposed skin and swallowed. She’d never touched someone like him before. Once upon a time her mother must have bounced her on her knee, and her father must have playfully tugged on her braids.

But since those forgotten days, the only touch Tabby knew was Alice pressed tight against her at night to keep warm, and the clammy hands of clients she was forced to hold in her aunt and uncle’s parlor. When she realized that he was staring at her expectantly, she finally sprang into action, commandeering his neckcloth and tearing it into strips of bandaging. There was something in his smile, the easy openness of his demeanor that made Tabby absurdly eager to please him. He could have asked her to cut off her thick red hair, and she would have asked him how much he would have. Her head told her that she couldn’t trust him, not completely, but her heart wanted more than anything to earn another smile from him. As she dabbed at the wound, the question of how he’d come by his black eye burned on the tip her tongue. As if reading her mind, he said, “Found myself a bit down on my luck after a night of cards, and without the snuff to pay my debt.” Then he cleared his throat and carefully shifted his gaze away. “There, uh, might also have been the matter of a kiss stolen from Big Jack Corden’s sister.” Card debts! Stolen kisses! This boy—no, this young man—brought a sense of worldly danger and excitement into the cemetery with him.

Tabby pressed her lips together, knowing that anything she might say would only give her away as a country bumpkin in his eyes. Yet there was something in the way he kept clearing his throat, the downward shift of his gaze, that made her wonder if there wasn’t another explanation, something not nearly so dashing, that he wasn’t telling her. Tabby was well versed in the language of violence, and how adults visited it on the small bodies of children. She did not for one moment believe that his injuries were the result of an overprotective brother. Tabby was silent as she wrapped the bandage around the cleaned cut, the shadowy images of the grave robbers receding in her mind as the sky continued to lighten. “Didn’t think I would meet an angel in the graveyard when I stumbled in here,” he said, giving her another grin. Heat rushed to Tabby’s cheeks and she ducked her head, concentrating on tying off the knot. She should have been frightened of him, frightened that he might somehow know her aunt and uncle and toss her over his shoulder and deliver her back up to them, or tell the caretaker that there was a filthy girl living in the graveyard. But there was a warmth in his soft brown eyes and she felt a camaraderie with him. “Well,” he said, inspecting her rather sloppy handiwork, “that will have to do.

” He tested his weight on the leg, grunting a little as he righted himself. He cast a reluctant look at the brightening horizon and sighed. “I suppose I should be going.” But he made no move to leave. He was gazing hard into the distance, as if he was determined to stop the sun from rising by sheer force of will. When he spoke again his voice was so soft, so different from his previous bluster. “Do you…do you ever feel as if you don’t matter? That your life is already mapped out for you, and your wishes are inconsequential? And that even if you accept your lot, bow down and take it gladly, it’s still not enough. Just by virtue of being you you’re a disappointment, with no hope of redemption.” It was a rather grown-up speech, and though Tabby didn’t know the source from which it sprang, she did know what it felt like to not matter. She might have told him as much, but he was already smoothing back his curls and clearing his throat.

“Well, I should be going back,” he repeated with resigned conviction. “I won’t ask what a little thing like you is doing all alone at night in a graveyard, if you forget that you ever saw me.” Then he gave her a heart-melting wink, and was gone. Tabby stood in the cool night air, her blood pounding fast and hot. It stung that he referred to her as “a little thing,” but one thing was for certain: Tabby would never, ever forget the dashing young man with kind eyes. Every night for the next week, Tabby crept out into the cemetery, waiting with her heart in her throat to see if the young man would return. She knew it was foolish, knew that it was dangerous, but she couldn’t help herself. Even just to catch a glimpse of him would help staunch the flow of loneliness that threatened to drain her completely. As far as she knew, Alice had never returned for her, and whatever little flame of hope had flickered in her heart was well and truly extinguished now. So on the eighth night when Tabby heard the rustle of weeds, she hardly thought twice before stealing behind the column and waiting for the young man to appear, her lips already curving into a smile in anticipation.

But her smile faded as a sinister figure dressed all in black materialized out of the gloom. A sinister figure whom she had seen before. The next day, Tabby watched as the caretaker stood by the empty grave and rubbed a weary hand over his face. After the robbery the previous week, he had walked the perimeter of the cemetery, repairing the fencing and checking the locks on the gate, but had not summoned the police. But it seemed that fences and locks could not stop the grave robbers. She had developed a sort of affinity from afar for the gentle man with the long, careworn face, and it made her bruised heart hurt to see him brought so low. She had known that there was evil in the world, had seen the darkness and greed that had driven her aunt and uncle, had felt the devastating injustice of being robbed of her parents. But she had never known the depth of depravity that could lead men to steal the bodies of the dead. The trials of this world were bearable because of the promise of divine rest, of reuniting with loved ones on the other side; how could anyone endure life otherwise? As she watched the caretaker heave a sigh and get to his knees to clean the gravesite, Tabby vowed that someday she would see the men that did such vile deeds brought to justice.

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