St. Jude’s Cathedral at Northik
By: Date: July 26, 2020 Categories: Short Stories Tags: , , ,

Lawrence Drog was awakened by the sound of a ringing bell.  He was not quite ready to get up.  Still wrapped snugly in his cot, he could feel the chill air around him cooling his uncovered face.  He did not much fancy swinging his legs out from under his heavy blanket and exposing them to the chill as well.  Without even opening his eyes, Lawrence Drog could tell that the sun was not yet in the sky.  There was some light peeking through his window, shining through his eyelids, but it was not enough light to warrant the term morning.  

The bell had not ceased ringing.  Lawrence Drog appreciated that the man who gave the town’s wakeup call had developed a more pleasant means of making himself heard.  The softly ringing bell was much more calming than the harried shouting that usually drew the slumbering citizens of Northik, but the early hour simply was not worth the exchange.  

Lawrence Drog rolled onto his side, pulling the blanket up to cover his face.  This muffled the ringing a bit, allowing him a moment to think away from its frantic ringing.  That idea gave him pause: the ringing was truly frantic.  Though the man who woke the town was prone to yelling, he did so in a languid way.  He, who had been up all night, was in no rush.  Northik was a quiet town whose affairs impacted merely its residents.  It rose on its own schedule to begin its own work.  

The ringing continued.  Normally the man would have stopped by now.  It had been a good two minutes of unceasing noise.  The sound had also not moved.  The man who woke the town tended to walk up and down the main street, his voice fading in and out of clarity.  This bell had remained stationary.  It was a tinny ring with an inelegant pattern.  It seemed like a plea for attention, a ringing that wanted to be noticed.

For the first time since he had been jarred awake, Lawrence Drog questioned whether or not the ringing was actually the town’s wake-up call.  He had not heard previously that the sound was going to change.  That seemed like the sort of thing that would come up at a town meeting.  Surely there were some members of the community that, upon hearing an unfamiliar sound, would assume this was not the morning call and simply go back to sleep.  

This bell, Lawrence Drog decided, was not the town’s wake up call.  This bell was something else.  Coming to this conclusion, Lawrence Drog finally sat up in bed and opened his eyes fully.  Through his uncovered window, he could see the barely illuminated churchyard below.  It was early enough that the rows of headstones and mausoleums had not yet begun to cast shadows.  Mist swirled between them, making them almost look like little bobbing boats on a gently rocking see.  

Looking out at the graveyard Lawrence Drog came to his second realization of the morning.  He had been right.  The ringing bell was not the town’s wake up call.  It was the ringing of a bell from a safety coffin.  For just an instant, Lawrence Drog relaxed.  He had come to a resolution and was no longer curious.  He had settled the issue.  Then, in a whirl of stripped off blankets and scrabbling limbs, Lawrence Drog was out of bed and tearing down the hall.  

How had he not realized sooner?  Northik’s own St. Jude’s Cathedral was known for its use of safety coffins.  The town was so small and isolated that a single news story would circulate for weeks, developing only through the sensation additions that came from such a long chain of retellings.  About six years ago Northik had heard of a case from Old Annishville of a woman’s body that had been exhumed after some suspicion about foul play surrounding her death had been raised.  When the coroner had cracked open her casket there were claw marks on the underside of the lid and the woman had dried blood on her decomposing fingertips. 

This had, of course, spawned a panic within Northik.  Everyone had asked for their loved ones to be exhumed, to be checked, for verification that their family had not been interred before their time.  Many of these requests were honored and the graveyard outside of St. Jude’s Cathedral had been all but overturned.  Nearly every plot was checked.  None had revealed the same tragic evidence that the woman from Old Annishville, but that barely quelled the panic.  From that point forward, it became standard practice to provide safety coffins for the dead of Northik.  No longer did safety coffins go simply to the wealthy or the paranoid, they were given to everyone buried in the churchyard.  It was a simple installation.  Just a bell hung from a post with a cord that ran down to the buried coffin below, allowing the not-yet-deceased to indicate their status.

In the six years since the incident of the Old Annishvill woman, not a single bell had rung in the yard.  Once or twice, a particularly fierce storm had set the herd of bells chiming, an ominous cacophony on top of the raging storm.  But the close examination of the cords revealed the natural truth of the matter.  This ringing, the incessant ringing that launched Lawrence Drog out of bed before the sun had fully risen, was the first earnest ringing that St. Jude’s Catherdral had ever heard.  As he raced towards the transept, he threw his outer cassock on, knowing that the chill inside the cathedral would only become worse in the misty yard.  

On the outer steps, he took up the gardening shovel and rushed into the yard.  The ringing only became louder as he ran.  He did not know what was guiding his feet.  The churchyard was vast, vast especially for the minuscule size of the town.  The mist swirled about him, obscuring the But somehow he could track the sound.  At last, he could see it.  The tinny ringing could be matched to the faint motion of a bell hanging from a post driven into the recently covered grave of Marrion Dorsey, aged nine years old.  

Instantly, Lawrence Drog threw himself into digging.  He heaved shovelful after shovelful of soft dirt over his shoulder.  The bell continued to ring as he dug.  It clattered in his ear, every beat of silence between its rings pushing him to dig faster, to ignore the burning in his arms.  

When he finally had to step into the plot to reach the dig site, the sun was fully up in the sky.  He was aided by the looseness of the soil from the fresh grave, but the work of digging a grave should not be relegated to one person.  When Lawrence Drog finally had to pause to take a gasping breath, the ringing bell faltered.  For a horrifying moment, he felt the strain his arms.  He felt like he could not pick up the shovel.  He considered laying down in the soft earth and resting to regain his strength.  But then a sudden rush of motion to his left napped him out of his trance.  Arthur Tace had come sprinting to join him, a second shovel in hand.  He had not bothered to cover his pajamas and stood in the mist with his pale legs covered in gooseflesh.  Without any hesitation, Arther jumped down into the pit with Lawrence Drog.  

Together, the two men dug furiously.  Arthur’s shaking made his shovelfuls of thrown dirt sloppy.  Clumps of dirt flew at random, some striking the little hanging bell making it jump wildly.  Then Arthur’s shovel hit something hard.  Without a word, both men scrapped away the last few inches of dirt.  Crouching, Arthur set to work wedging his shovel between the lid and base of the coffin.  With considerable effort, he pried the lid of the coffin up and hurled it to the side.  

Marrion Dorsey was tiny when he died.  He was tiny when he had been alive.  According to the Foundling Hospital that housed him, Marrion Dorsey had been tiny when he was dumped on their doorstep, just a sack of freezing bones barely bundled against the snow.  Pinned to the front of his thin cotton blanket was a bracelet.  It had a thin silver chain with a small garnet charm dipping from it.  It did not look like usual tokens that destitute mothers left with their children.  The usual fare included tin pins and small coins.  The occasional handwritten note was included and recopied onto thick, lasting paper.  This bracelet seemed like the sort of item that belonged to a wealthy family, or at least an heirloom that could have been exchanged for enough money to consider keeping the child.  

Madame Syd, the matron in charge of Northik’s Foundling Hospital frowned upon the practices of other orphanages that took the tokens left behind.  She thought it best for the children to be allowed to keep their tokens.  It gave them a sense of ownership, she thought.  It gave them a single piece of personal property in an environment of little autonomy.  

For this reason, Marrion Dorsey was allowed to keep the bracelet with him.  As a toddler, he wore it as a necklace as it was far too big for his wrist.  As he moved into childhood, the bracelet migrated to his ankle.  Marrion preferred this location.  It stoped the other children from asking about it and stopped greedy eyes from tracking the stone.  His ankle had the benefit of protection.  A sock and a boot kept the bracelet out or sight but pressed tightly against his skin.  The ridged red lines and indentations that it left hurt at first but soon developed into a comforting texture.  Marrion hoped that when he was finally able to move the bracelet to his wrist to be hidden under a sleeve that the marks would not fade.  He did not want to lose the feeling that he had now.  

Many grown-ups seemed to have forgotten the logic that came from youth.  Why, they asked, would you want to hide something nice?  Something that means you were loved?  Marrion had no patience for this line of questioning.  Love was private, he knew this.  It was valuable therefore it could be taken away.  Why would you allow for that?

Marrion never had to worry about whether or not the marks on his ankle lasted.  Laid flat in his undersized coffin, the little silver chain with the little garnet charm was still on his ankle, nestled below the layers of his boot and sock.  He was buried in the clothes that he died in.  They were the nicest he had.  Madame Syd had washed them before he was buried.  The blood had not quite come out of his collar and the sleeves of his shirt, but their faded stain was far better in her opinion than the dark, oozing splotches that they had started out as.  She took great care to arrange him exactly as he would have styled himself.  She did not understand his logic, but she knew that the rituals of children were vital to them, and that is what mattered.  

Madame Syd had spent a lot of time talking to Marrion as he lay in bed, away from the other children.  His desperate, wet coughing kept the other children awake and none raised an issue when Marrion was transferred to his own private room.  Under more favorable circumstances Marrion would have given anything to have his own room away from the other boys.  Even those several years his junior stood several inches taller.  And height plays a large part in intimidation, this Marrion knew well.  But his stay in a private room was not a happy one.

The coughing had made his throat raw.  Every fit made his chest ache, his lungs straining, trying fruitlessly to fill with air.  The blood that spattered out of his mouth, dripping down his chin and staining his shirt was dark.  He remembered a doctor telling him that the reason the blood was so dark had to do with his breathing.  Deoxygenated.  That was the word.  He liked that word.  It was long and descriptive.  He wished the word was not applied to his health, but he liked it nonetheless.  

He was only in bed for two weeks.  Marrion knew these were the worst days of his life so far.  But he did not think they would still seem that way when he was an old man looking back with a red line around his ankle.  He knew very well that life was hard and only got harder as you got older.  The pain he was in was terrible, but Madame Syd was kind.  The other women that worked at the Foundling Hospital did not pay as much attention to the children as she did, but they were never cruel.  They all were very concerned with the well being of the children in their care.  Marrion had heard some of the older boys complain about being coddled, but he could not sympathize.  Love, even overbearing love, was better than neglect.  

So his time in the sickbed was not all bad.  Madame Syd sat beside him.  And when she could not another caretaker did.  They read him stories and they brought him broth.  They listened to his weakened voice and they helped him sit up when the blood built up in his throat.  Marrion knew his sickness was bad but he saw no reason he would not recover.  Madame Syd never seemed panic, nor did the other caretakers.  They always spoke to him evenly and thoughtfully.  They were never rushed.  And they always brought up the future.  They asked him if he was looking forward to the snow that seemed just around the corner and they told him about excursions that the Foundling Hospital had planned.  

Marrion knew with certainty that he would recover.  His recovery was so inevitable that he did not register that his coughing fits were becoming longer and that less time passed between them.  On the thirteenth day, he stopped sleeping.  His fits were too long and too close together.  When he dozed he was quickly jerked awake by the coughing and the blood.  Unbeknownst to Marrion, this was the day the doctor began sleeping on the living room sofa, waiting.  

On the fourteenth day, a particularly bad fit rocked his body.  Every time he managed a haggard breath he was overtaken again.  The blood spewing from his mouth was almost black at this point.  Through his disjointed thoughts, Marrion registered this.  It seemed to be the only thing he could think of.  This blood is deoxygenated, he thought.  He did not see the doctor beside him, feeling his wrist for a pulse.  

He was still thinking about his deoxygenated blood when he flopped suddenly back against his pillow.  He seized once, his hands twitching violently.  He seized a second time, the blood vessels in his eyes starting to strain and break.  He seized a third and final time and the blood vessels burst, so roughly that the blood actually sprang forth, a stark, bright red against his pale and freckled face.

With this last motion, Marrion lay still.  He was not thinking about his deoxygenated blood anymore.  He was not thinking about anything.  Marrion Dorsey was dead.  The doctor declared it two minutes after he stopped moving with his head lolled grossly to one side.  

The body stayed in the bed, away from the other children.  Madame Syd stripped him of his clothes to wash them and sponged off his frail little body so caked in dried sweat and blood.  She never removed his bracelet.  He never had and she would not do that to him in death.  She knew it was worth quite a lot of money and several of the other caretakers had quietly discussed selling it to gather funds for the Foundling Hospital.  But Madame Syd would not let them.  

“The bracelet,” she had said, “is his.  It’s his only possession in the world. And I won’t take that from him.  He’s a boy, not a possession.”

She tucked the bracelet under his sock and under his boot as she had seen him do a thousand times.  She herself placed him into his coffin, barely more than a cheap cedar box.  But she put nice linen into it to give him a little dignity.  He did not get a lot of it in life but she decided he should at least be remembered with it.  

So she cleaned up him and his clothes and she tucked him in neatly.  She would not let the coroner embalm Marrion.  Madame Syd did not think much of embalming.  She thought that there was something not right about preserving the dead.  A corpse should decay.  A body should return to the earth.  If it were not required by St. Jude’s Catedral she would not have allowed even the coffin.  But she did appreciate how it made Marrion look.  He looked like however had pinned the bracelet to his thin cotton blanket had tucked this new linen one around him to send him off again.  

Madame Syd also did not let the coroner put makeup on Marrion.  She had been told that most people who wanted to host a viewing applied makeup to the body to give the illusion of life.  There was not much point to this in her eyes.  Marrion hardly looked paler and thinner in death than he had in life.  And in any case, she wanted the boys to see that he was dead.  Some of the younger kids had never seen a dead body before.  At Marrion’s expense, she wanted to use his passing to explain what that meant to the kids in the Foundling Hospital.  He would not have minded.  Madame Syd knew that.  Marrion was kind and careful.  He would have been happy to help the little kids, who were always nice to him, learn.  

So Marrion Dorsey went into his coffin barefaced and fresh.  The other kids looked at him curiously when he was laid out in the Cathedral.  They all stared at him from their pews.  When they were allowed to walk past him, a few prodded him lightly, feeling his cold skin.  None of the caretakers stopped them.  The kids were all very careful and no one wanted to punish curiosity.  The older kids acted as pallbearers.  There were only seven of them that were big enough so Scotty, the youngest of them stayed with the other kids.  They carried him outside and place him.  Madame Syd said a few words after Father Arthur Tace had finished giving his sermon.  And with that, it was over.  Marrion was lowered into the ground and Lawrence Drog started filling in his grave, making sure to wind the cord of the safety coffin neatly into the cedar box.

Lawrence Drog thought about that day as he hauled Marrion Dorsey out of his grave.  Somehow, he was even tinier than he remembered.  He pulled him up onto the grass and then clambered after him, cradling his little body in his lap.  He had expected to hear crying and to see the boy shaking.  He’s awful calm, he thought.  If I’d just clawed my way out of my grave I’d be a wreck.  But the boy lay still in his arms.  Lawrence Drog did not try to move or speak to the boy, he just held him.  Arthur climbed up beside him.

“How is he?” He asked, gently resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.  Met with no response, Arthur tilted the boy away from Lawrence Drog’s chest.  His head moved grotesquely on his neck.  It fell back with dead eyes.  

“No,” horrorstruck, Lawrence Drog rolled him onto the grass to inspect him.  “No no no,”.

The boy was so calm because he was not moving.  

“But, the bell-”

“I heard it too, Arthur I-”

The boy was limp, far more limp than a corpse should have been.  His skin was a little warm to the touch.  And his face had splotches of color on it, the faint color of life and exertion.  More horrible than the color on his face was the color on his hands.  His fingers were bloody, the nails splintered and broken.  Steeling himself, Lawrence Drog glanced at the discarded lid of the coffin and sure enough, there were deep scratches gouged into it, streaked with dark red blood.  

Marrion Dorsey had been alive at one point since the lin had been nailed shut.  He had been alive and he had desperately clawed at his coffin and he had rung that bell.  He had pulled insistently on the cord.  It was anxious but not terrified.  Lawrence Drog had heard it, Arthur Tace had heard it.  They had come running and they had dug as fast as they could and they had listened to the bell falter and they had scooped him out and that had not made it.  They had been too late.  That was the problem.  They had been too late.  Marrion’s time had run out underground.  He must have heard them.  Mustn’t he?  How long, Lawrence Drog wondered, how long had he been awake?  How long did he last?  Did he know they tried to save him?  

The two men sat with the body between them for a long time.  Neither one wanted to face the inevitable.  Neither one wanted to acknowledge that at some point they would need to put the boy back into the coffin and cover it again.  Neither one wanted to make the first move.  As they sat they listened to the quiet morning, and, as if to save them, they heard a yell in the distance.  It was the yell of the man who woke up the town.  Lawrence Drog took this as solemn a cue and rose to his feet, lifting Marrion with him.  He carried the boy back to the mouth of the grave.

“I’ve got him,” Lawrence dRog said.  “You open up the church.  And, Arthur,” he fixed him with a serious look.  “Better not mention this to anybody.  It will start another panic.  I don’t think anyone else heard the bell, but if they did-”

“I’ll say it was the wind.,” said Arthur simply.  “I’ll try not to let anyone in the yard until- until you’re done.”

He gripped Lawrence Drog’s shoulder firmly for a moment.  And then he turned away and made his way back to the Cathedral, his pale legs brushing moist out of the way as he went.  

Lawrence Drog turned back to his task and took a breath.  Better, he then supposed, to do it quickly.  He placed the boy back into his coffin, tucking the linen sheet around him.  He lingered for a moment before placing the lid back in place.  Then, on an impulse he could not describe, he bent forward and kissed Marrion’s forehead.  He registered it as a vague gesture, a farewell of sorts.  He did not know this was the first time anyone had kissed Marrion’s forehead.  That knowledge probably would not have changed the situation, but it stood as a fact, heavy in the air as he used the flat side of his shovel to hammer the nails back into place.  Just before he hammered the last nail he fed the bell cord back through the crack.  Like the kiss, he could not identify why he did it.  But he just had to.  It felt wrong somehow not to.  

He started to push the newly overturned dirt back into place, but he did it slowly.  So aerated, the dirt took up more space, filling the cavity quickly.  There were leftover piles to the sides and Lawrence Drog could not bring himself to layer more weight on top of the boy.  He would check on the grave later to make sure it was still level.  But he could not bring himself to move it in the moment.  In the moment all he could do was shoulder both shovels and trudge his way back to the Cathedral, the sun now high in the sky.

Lawrence Drog spent the rest of his day attending to the Catherdral.  He focused on his work, much more intensely than he usually did.  Sweeping the nave and cleaning the wax-covered sconces could usually be done while carrying a conversation with the young ministers or the congregation that milled about even on a Tuesday.  He normally whistled or sang hymns to pass the time.  But today he did not.  He worked silently.  When he went to gather wood for the fire in the meal hall he walked all the way around the outskirts of the churchyard.  This route was inefficient, he knew it, but the extra walk was worth the concealment it provided.  He could not see into the graveyard from the path.  

He noted every bird that hopped across the path.  He tried to guess how old they were.  Were the small ones just small?  Or were they younger?  The big red ones, were they meant to be shaped that way?  Or did they keep a monopoly on the dwindling availability of seed?  Lawrence Drog was not interested in the birds.  He wished they would stop getting under his feet as he tried to carry freshly chopped logs.  But thinking about the birds ensured that he was only thinking about the birds.  

On this day, he worked later than he normally would have.  He scoured the Cathedral for things to do, spending time on insignificant tasks like ensuring that all the books sat upright in their holders.  By the time he made it into the meal hall for dinner, he was one of only two people there.  The other person, of course, was Arthur Tace.  They sat beside each other so that they would not need to look at one another.  They would not need to watch their own expressions.  Arthur ate quickly and spoke only to bid Lawrence Drog good night.  For the second time that day, Lawrence Drog watched Arthur walk away, lingering over his own hardly touched meal.  

For several minutes he considered his plate but then gave it up as a bad job.  He wrapped his roll in his napkin and decided to take it upstairs to his room in case he wanted it later.

From the outside of St. Jude’s Cathedral you could see that there were only two lights still on when Lawrence Drog went up to bed.  As he turned down his sheets and placed his roll on his bedside table, the other light went out.  He did know this as a fact, but he had the distinct feeling of a lone person in an open space.  He was the only person stirring in the Cathedral.  The other residents that were not asleep were trying to be, and even Arthur was starting to drift.  Lawrence Drog lay down and stretched out his hand to extinguish his candle.  But then he paused.  If he shut out the light and plunged the room into the dark, then really really would be alone.  With the light on he could make out the shape of his dresser and the broken-down old armchair in the corner.  He could wonder about who had originally placed them here and how they had managed to get them up the narrow twisting steps.  So he left the light on and he let himself wonder.  He forced himself to wonder.  He did let his eyes unfocus, but he never closed them.  

He did not realize he had fallen asleep until he woke up.  When he did, it was with a start.  He sat straight up in bed and realized that his light had gone out.  Breathing heavily he did not hear it at first.  But as he calmed himself he was able to make it out.  Resonating against his window was the faint ringing of a bell.  There was no faltering this time.  He was out of bed in an instant.  He ran down the stairs without a thought about shoes or cold.  At the door, he took up his shovel and again let his feet guide him.  

He found himself standing again at the foot of a new grave.  This grave was so new that there were still some piles of unused dirt on either side of it.  As he thrust his shovel into the soft earth he offered up thanks for how soft the soil was.  It was easy to move.  He dug at a speed unprecedented.  He barely believed it when he struck the lid of the coffin.  It was so soon.  Scrapping off the dirt, he froze.  This was the same small coffin he had uncovered this morning.  It was the same small coffin that he had dug the grave for just two days ago.  Staring at the smudged pine lid Lawrence Drog registered that the bell was still jangling wildly.  With a sharp blow, he wedged the shovel between the lid and the base and pried it open.  He heaved the lid out of the way and looked into the cavity. 

This time the little body in the cavity was shaking and sputtering.  One hand was still raised in a clawed shape, scrabbling with open air.  The other was gripped firmly around the cord, still yanking it desperately.  Lawrence Drog scooped the boy out of the coffin and carried him up onto the grass, cradling his freezing body against himself.  The boy gripped at his shirt and coughed, but it was a dry cough.  It was a living cough.

“It’s ok, you’re ok,” Lawrence Drog muttered.  “I’ve got you.  You’re gonna be fine.”

He tilted Marrion back gently to make sure his neck was not bent awkwardly and the boy met his eyes.  They were cloudy and unfocused, grey almost.  But they were open, and the boy grinned.  

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