“There’s no need for this,” Morgan said, glancing over to his right shoulder, where a heavy hand lay on him, holding him in place. “I came willingly.”
He was in the living room of the woman who had introduced herself as A.J. The woman whom he suspected was responsible for the “resurrections.” Morgan hadn’t quite figured out what term he would use for it in his story.
He sat across from A.J. She was perched at the edge of a large ornate chair made of some dark wood. Between them was the coffee table, supporting a tray with a coffee decanter, two mugs, still steaming, both untouched, and three sugar cookies, also untouched.
Morgan glanced over at the fireplace. There was a small but steady fire burning there, making the room just comfortable enough to sit in without a jacket on. But he was more interested in the poker that was leaned against the wall just beside the fireplace.
She had asked to see his notebook, the one he’d pulled out after they sat down, readying himself for the interview. He hadn’t seen any harm in letting her. He’d handed it over.
But as soon as he did, he’d felt a strange tickle in the back of his mind. A warning?
A.J. flipped through his notebook, and as she did, Morgan glanced around the rest of the living room. It felt familiar to him, though he hadn’t managed to come inside the last time he knocked on her door. A sweet flowery scent drifted in from the crack in the window that opened to the wild garden in the back yard. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it smelled like jasmine.
He glanced over at the banister of the stairs leading to the second floor and realized why the house seemed familiar. The interior design was exactly like that of the houses that were originally built when the town was established. The only other such houses in town—that he had been in anyway—were mostly public buildings now. An adjunct library, which he’d visited once or twice (it didn’t have too much of the resources he was looking for). The town council meeting house. A law firm he’d once visited when following up on what he thought was a lead (at least the receptionist had been cute).
“Morgan, I invited you here because I don’t want you to write this story,” A.J. said, still gazing down at his notebook.
Morgan inhaled a breath. Moment of truth, he thought. “Why is that?”
“I don’t suppose you’d leave off just because I asked nicely.”
Morgan gulped. “Is it because you’re concerned about being exposed?”
“It’s because publishing your article will makes things worse.”
She looked up and pointed a finger at him. “You don’t have to believe me. You just have to listen to me.”
Morgan was ready to listen. He’d come there for the express purpose of listening, getting her side of the story.
She returned her gaze to his journal and began reading aloud. He understood. She wanted to know what he knew, to see the beginning and progression of his investigation. And as she was reading, Morgan once again felt that sense of familiarity. She read the first words he wrote in the notebook. He remembered writing them as he sat in a café by a window that was dripping with rivulets of rain. He smelled that rain every time someone opened the door.
The phrase “maugre death we walk” is found at various locations where the dead are found: cemeteries, morgues, funeral homes. And where a body is missing. There is no evidence of theft. As the old cliché goes, it’s as if the bodies simply got up and walked away. And the note seems to imply that’s exactly what happened. Especially since a few days after they disappear, the bodies each reappear, only they’re wearing different clothes and accessories, and sometimes are found with shopping bags full of purchases, snacks or sundries.
So is it a sick prank by a skilled thief?
Or is someone reanimating the dead?
A.J. continued reading aloud his summaries of what was already known, including what had already been reported, various theories and leads that the police had over the years, and a few citizen-on-the-street interviews that Morgan had conducted.
The crime was one that had been repeated, every sixteen years for the past fifty years over the months of September and October. Corpses went missing, then showed up days later none the worse for wear. There was no evidence of any desecration. No malicious messages. The message “maugre death we walk” was found close to where the corpse were before disappearing. Sometimes it was scrawled in dirt. Sometimes it was written with some nearby implement of convenience, everything from a grease pencil to a tube of lip gloss. Handwriting experts said it was as if a different person wrote the message each time.
Witnesses reported seeing people who looked like some of the corpses walking around about town doing normal activities. The corpses appeared almost normal, if somewhat ashen and distracted. Considering the varying levels of credibility of the witnesses, it seemed unlikely that all of them were just out for attention or glory.
No theories were really confirmed, but the foremost among them was the prank theory. Someone was making some kind of statement about society. Maybe that person stole the corpses and then hired actors who resembled those corpses, applied some movie quality make-up to transform those actors into living corpses, and then had them walk around running errands.
There were two instances in which a police officer claimed to have seen one of the corpses and confirmed it was a corpse. In one case, the officer recanted his statement. But in the other, the officer insisted he’d seen what he’d seen. It wasn’t an actor in face paint. It wasn’t some trick of the light. He’d seen a walking corpse. It shook him to the core to believe such a thing was possible. He was the one who figured out that sixteen-year interval, because by the time he was on the case, it was the third time it had happened. And he was the one who took a closer look at the message, specifically the use of the word “maugre,” which was a very old-fashioned way of saying “in spite of.” So the message read, “in spite of death we walk.” It almost sounded like a declaration of triumph, as if the corpses were expressing “corpse pride” or something.
That officer became obsessed with the case, but had the presence of mind to realize that’s what was happening. So he moved out of town, leaving all of his case notes with the department.
The bodies were unequivocally those that had died of disease or natural causes. No foul play suspected. And it seemed that if this was a prankster, he was dedicated and twisted enough to keep doing it every anniversary, but wasn’t twisted enough to escalate to harming the living—including stealing corpses that had family and friends waiting to mourn them. Because there were no specific victims and no urgency from any other authority, the case remained on the back burner, and it would cool over the years, until a new batch of corpses vanished at the sixteen-year mark.
One year, the town even tried to be more vigilant and keep an eye out for the corpse thief. But the only thing witnesses ever witnessed were the corpses themselves. And one year, maybe because there had been so much turnover in the local government, police department, and newspaper, it was almost as if the town forgot the phenomenon was happening.
Morgan had managed to establish enough rapport and credibility with the local police department to get the pictures and identities of the people whose corpses had been stolen during the recent round of thefts. The police department no longer shared that information with the public, out of concern that attention-seekers would call in with false leads, or try to mimic the crimes, or come up with some other sensational and potentially criminal way of gumming up the investigation.
That was why he recognized the woman.
One night, and not very late at night, Morgan took a detour on his way home after deciding pick up some ice cream, when he spotted a woman going into the convenience store he was headed toward, and he realized she was one of the missing corpses. He couldn’t recall her name, only her face. He watched from outside as she appeared to be making small talk with the cashier. He planned to follow her in, introduce himself, and ask for an interview as a ruse to talk to her, maybe a citizen-on-the-street interview regarding the recent story of the missing corpses. But he found himself just staring at her, wondering if he’d made a mistake. The woman he was looking at was very pale, but she was clutching her coat as if holding it closed over her chest. Maybe she was just sick.
He decided he would catch her on the way out of the convenience store. But as she left and walked past him, he didn’t stop her.
What would he say? How would he raise the issue of her condition without alarming her? He couldn’t just utter the words, “Are you aware that you’re dead?” That sounded somewhat threatening.
He decided to follow her from afar, just so he could confirm she was who he thought she was, and hoping that if she was a walking corpse, she would lead him to whoever brought her back to life. But she didn’t. Having shopped, she sat down at a park bench. Morgan sat at some picnic tables, pulling out his computer, and pretending to work while he kept an eye on here. And as he watched, he could see her starting to fade. She was winding down, like someone who was getting tired and sleepy. But unlike a living person, whose head would nod, and occasionally jerk up as they woke themselves, this woman’s head just tilted to the side, and it stopped moving. She stopped moving.
He walked up to her then, and called her name. He had looked it up when he pulled out his computer. A couple of joggers happened by, and asked him if everything was okay. They checked her pulse and found none. Her body felt cold already, stiff. They called an ambulance. But Morgan showed them her picture as he explained that he was a reporter investigating the corpse thefts.
He investigated further. After seeing the woman die before him, even knowing that she had already been dead, he was driven to find out who was taking those corpses. A.J. was one of a handful of recluses living in town whose homes Morgan had visited. Maybe suspecting a recluse was obvious and unfair, but he wanted to make sure he peered under every stone.
He knocked on her door the night before he found himself in her living room. She hadn’t answered that night, and Morgan left, but not before making a circle around the house just to make sure no one was home. He remembered catching the sweet scent of flowers.
So Morgan left, but the next day, after he finished his shift at work, he noticed a strange man following him.
The man approached. He said nothing, but handed Morgan a card. On the card was a handwritten dinner invitation to the very house he’d knocked at the day before.
Morgan thought it would be wiser to go there on his own terms. He tried to decline and counter with the offer of a breakfast meeting. But as he spoke, the man reached out and gripped his wrist. The man wasn’t much taller than Morgan. He was broader, but that grip was still far stronger than Morgan expected. Despite himself, Morgan peered at the man’s face. His face was strangely immobile, as if he’d had bad plastic surgery. Morgan frowned and leaned in a bit to get a closer look. He didn’t recognize the man, but he had a hunch that this was another walking corpse.
“All right. I’ll come with you,” Morgan had said, “but only if you let go of me.”
“And he brought you to the very house that you were trying to get into last night,” A.J. said, closing his notebook. She sighed. “All right. I’ve listened to your part of the story. Now listen to mine.”
Morgan felt an itch tickling his mind, an instinct that warned him that he was in some kind of danger. He didn’t know if it was imminent danger or just existential danger. He glanced over at his backpack, which he’d set beside the first chair he’d sat in. But he hadn’t moved it when he shifted seats at his host’s request. The corner of his phone peeked from a side pocket, just under an unfastened flap. He felt the urge to lunge over, get his phone out, call the police, and report that the woman and her crony were holding him hostage. Something smelled wrong about the situation. Maybe it was that sickly sweet jasmine permeating the room.
“In your research,” she asked, “did you ever come across the names Rebecca and Henry?”
Morgan shook his head. “The names don’t sound familiar.”
“In any other town, their story would be well-known.” She drew in a long breath. “They were two sixteen-year old lovers from long ago. One of them, the boy, got very sick. It was apparent he would die. The girl prayed and prayed that his soul be snatched back from the threshold to death. Her intention, of course, was that the boy would heal, and they could be together and get married.”
A.J.’s brow darkened into a frown. “There are many forces in the world who heard her prayers,” she said, “but only one answered. It wasn’t the good one.” She glanced upward then back to Morgan. “And it wasn’t the bad one.” Now she glanced down at the ground, as if her gaze was boring past the floorboards and the earth below. She looked back to Morgan. “It was another one. A spirit of mischief, they say. They’re always around people. Gods of mischief abound.”
This spirit thought it would be funny to answer the girl’s prayer in a twisted way.
The boy died. He was mourned by those who loved him. The girl foresaw a life of loneliness. But then, the boy came back. It had only been two days. His family was elated. They deemed it a miracle. But the girl was troubled. She could see the paleness of the grave clinging to his skin. He had obviously died, truly died. The family praised and blessed the girl, because they believed her had prayers worked.
“The boy got himself cleaned up, and asked to take a walk alone.” A.J. shook her head slightly. “He was awkward, but there didn’t seem to be anything wicked about him. A few days later, he seemed to be winding down. He wasn’t in pain or anything. He just slowed down and then stopped. It was if he died all over again.”
Morgan frowned at her, wondering if she was toying with him. “A spirit of mischief? That’s it?”
“Well, this spirit found the whole ordeal enjoyable while the boy was alive. It was tickled by the notion that all these living folks were fooled, and that they were prepared to live out their lives with a corpse. But after he died again, and his loved ones went back into mourning, the spirit was bothered. It didn’t feel any remorse, mind you, or compassion. It was just not amused by all the wailing and carrying on.”
The corner of Morgan’s right eye twitched. “Really? So you’ve spoken to this spirit then? Did you have a séance or—“
“Not me. Her. The girl.” A.J. folded her hands together on top of Morgan’s notebook, which still lay on her lap. “She wrote a poem, this girl. When her love was sick, and she had no one else to talk to, because she didn’t want to upset his mother and sisters, she wrote a poem for him, and for herself. The poem in modern language is called ‘In Spite of Death Love Lives,’ and the last line of the poem is ‘In spite of Death we live.’ Of course, her original poem used slightly different language.”
“Maugre,” Morgan said.
A.J. nodded. “And can you guess why she would have used such different language?”
“It’s an old word.”
“How old? Is that a true story? Or are you making it up to throw me off? When did that happen? With the two kids?”
“About two hundred years ago.”
Morgan shook his head. It was too neat and convenient an explanation. It answered too many of the major questions that everyone had had over the years.
Why the sixteen-year interval? What did the message mean? Who was doing it and why?
But Morgan, for one, was not satisfied with those answers. His right knee began to bob up and down. He became aware of a ticking noise and his eye glanced over to a grandfather clock beside the door leading into the kitchen. He remembered that he was supposed to have been offered dinner.
“The spirit tried again when the girl was thirty-two,” A.J. said. “It learned from its mistakes and it animated corpses that had no families or loved ones to claim them. But it made another mistake. It animated mangled corpses that caused terror. People fled from what they thought were monstrosities. And the spirit didn’t seem any more interested in that particular kind of terror than it had been in deep grief and tragic mourning.”
“Then what was it interested in?”
“It seemed to be tickled by the thought that the living were interacting with walking corpses without even knowing it. And it was tickled by the thought of tormenting that poor girl, as she grew up into a young woman, and then an old woman. She tried. She tried to find some way to drive it away. And so did those who came after her. The ones who believed her. She had no heirs of her own. Sure enough she never married, never had children. But her sisters had children, and among them were a brother and sister who believed their aunt and took up her mantle even before she died. And many others did too over the years, including me.”
Morgan raised his brows. “So you’re claiming that you’re working against the person—or entity—who’s stealing these corpses. Why? I get why the girl did it, why her niece and nephew did it. But what’s your connection? Are you a descendant of theirs?”
A.J. sighed. “Not a descendant. Not by blood anyway. More like a successor.”
“Why? What did this spirit ever do to you?”
“Nothing personal actually. At least, not until after I picked up where my predecessor left off.” Her gaze flicked up and over Morgan’s head.
“My husband and I were about fifty, fifty-one, when he died. He had a congenital thing. Something that ran in his family. Anyway, both our kids were out of the house by then—they were about your age, maybe a bit younger. They came for the funeral, stayed a while to look after their mom, but then I insisted they both get back to their lives. My son had just started a family of his own. My daughter had college classes to return to. She wanted to take the rest of that semester off, for herself as well—she and her dad were close. But I knew that school was the best place for her to be so she could see a future of happiness despite losing her dad. She could be around friends who could cheer her up, instead of around her crying mom in an empty house.” She pressed her lips together and they began to quiver.
“When their dad rose from the grave,” she said, “I was all the more thankful I’d sent my kids back to their lives.”
“The next sixteen year marker didn’t come the year he died,” A.J. said. “It came a year after. The spirit never did that before. It always animated fresh corpses. So my husband’s corpse was in pretty bad shape. But I got him fixed up as best I could.” She was now looking up at the man standing behind Morgan. The man who had his heavy hand on Morgan’s shoulder.
“That can’t be,” Morgan said, glancing again at the hand. “You’re—that was the last cycle. He should have stopped a few days later.”
“That’s right,” A.J. said. “He should have.”
Morgan shook his head. That itch, that scratching at the back of his mind, intensified. “Wait—no, there’s no spirit. You’re…you’re distracting me. It’s you. You’re the one who’s doing this somehow.”
“Raising the dead? No human being can do that, kid.”
“Then how are you involved? Why don’t you want me to write this story?”
“Because you’ll get it wrong and you’ll make it angry, and it’ll do to you what it did to others who went after it.”
“So…you’re claiming to try and protect me?”
“Listen to me. The stories told about these stolen corpses make it sound mostly harmless. They got up, had a few last days of life, and then went right back to death again. But that’s not what’s really happening. You see, when a person dies, their spirit, their essence, their soul—call it what you will—instinctively leaves their body. The body decays. But the soul endures. That’s what’s supposed to happen. But it doesn’t with these corpses. And do you want to know why?” She paused and peered at him, as if making sure that he was listening. “Because the souls that inhabit those corpses after they died are not the ones that inhabited those bodies when they lived.”
Morgan shook his head again. “What—you lost me.”
“This is not a spirit of mischief. It’s a spirit of malice, of reckless malice. Death is an absolute. Only a great cosmic power can breach an absolute. Great cosmic powers don’t typically hang around small towns, recalling spirits from the afterlife just for kicks. But there are beings, other spirits, strong enough to knock a living soul out of its body and cast it into another body, even a dead body. Souls are strong, but they are vulnerable in certain situations. It’s kind of like knocking someone off their feet. Even a big strong person can be knocked off their feet if they’re taken by surprise. The primal force of a human soul is strong enough to animate a dead body for a few days, until that soul experiences some kind of…confusion.”
A.J. furrowed her brow.
“Like a conflict or disharmony.”
“Yes, something like that. Wrong combination of body and soul. This soul’s original body dies. The confusion of being in another body keeps the soul from seeking out help or their loved ones. Before long, they die a second death. The soul starts to try and leave. But it gets trapped, tangled. Now a soul that escapes a body that has just died, that soul can endure. But a soul that gets trapped in a body, that soul will decay as the body decays.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that this spirit is murdering people, making it look like sudden strokes or collapses, or in the case of elderly people, maybe even natural death. Then, to make it worse, it’s murdering their souls, by leaving them to rot.” A.J. leaned forward. “And that’s where I and my predecessors come in. We’ve never been able to rid our town of this spirit. And we haven’t been able to save many people from it. But we have come to the corpses after they are found and performed rites and rituals to release the soul trapped within.”
Morgan’s right eye twitched again. He cleared his throat. “This all sounds…well its sounds pretty fantastical.”
“Preposterous, you mean to say?”
“So, you or whoever takes your place, are just going to be locked in eternal combat with this thing?”
“The goal is still to try and get rid of it, but until we can do that, we keep just trying to save lives and save souls.”
“We? So, you’re not working alone? You have a trainee or apprentice or something?”
A.J.’s gaze flicked back up to the man behind Morgan. Despite the heavy hand on his shoulder, Morgan had momentarily forgotten about the man.
“And—assuming for the moment what you’ve told me is true—you’ve tried things over the years, like spells and cleansing rituals, burning sage, that kind of thing.”
A.J. huffed out a laugh.
“What about finding out its name? Or does it have a name? A shape? A form? What is it doing in between the sixteen years?”
A.J. looked at him. She shook her head slightly and smiled as if she’d been assessing him and had observed something interesting.
“Curiosity is a natural human trait,” she said. “But a lot of people suppress. Not knowing is less frightening.”
Morgan gulped. He felt that hand upon his shoulder, the heavy hand of a dead man. The muscles at the backs of his thighs twitched in an effort to leap out of the chair. He tried to calm them.
“Others have asked the questions you’ve asked. And still others have found the answers. Others have made plans. The time for questions and answers and plans is over.”
“What—what time is it then?” Morgan heard the ticking of the grandfather clock.
“It’s time to put it all to a stop.” She rose, and Morgan flinched where he sat. He felt the hand on his shoulder pressing more firmly.
“How?” he asked. He felt a sudden burning itch on his chest. He winced as he inhaled.
“Why, with your help, of course,” A.J. said. “But you’ve done your part, kid. It’s time for me to do mine.”
In a single motion, she reached over to the fireplace, grabbed the fire poker, and swung it forward.
Morgan gasped. She was going to brand him.
But suddenly, there were hands around his throat. Thick fingers pushed his jaw up, tilting his head back so he was looking up at the corpse of A.J.’s husband. The corpse lowered his head toward Morgan and opened his mouth wide, wider than should have been humanly possible—at least for a living human.
Morgan saw a single puff of air escape. It was warm in the room. He shouldn’t have been able to see that. He breathed out a breath of his own, and as he did, he felt a sickening pulse rack his body. He had a single thought, before he saw the fire poker strike the corpse’s chest with a thud and a hiss.
And that single thought was, Now!
“Get up! Get up, kid!”
Morgan pressed his eyes together. He was on his back, but not on the ground. The chair he’d been sitting in had tipped over. The burning sensation in his chest was abiding, but his back hurt from the impact of falling.
Memories flooded into his mind, through a gate that was now open.
Memories of meeting Abigail. Abigail Jordan. A.J. Memories of interviewing her, of sharing his information with her, and receiving information from her. Memories of skepticism, of mundane fears about chasing a ridiculous story, of greater and deeper fears about the story being true.
Memories of making a plan.
He struggled to rise from the chair. A.J. handed him something. His notebook. It was not the notebook he’d walked into her place with that night. It was his other notebook, his first one, the one he’d given her for safe-keeping.
“Let’s make sure you’re you,” she said.
Morgan understood. He recited his name, the details of his life. As he did, he checked them in his notebook.
As he spoke, A.J. too was nodding. She’d had his notebook for a while now. She’d probably memorized a few details. He knew who he was. That meant he was who he was. His soul was still in his body.
“Now, let’s make sure it’s in there,” A.J. said. She had the poker pressed against the figure lying on the ground, the corpse of the man who used to be her husband. He had risen from his grave sixteen years prior, but a different soul inhabited his body, the soul of another man who had a family he loved and wished he could return to.
A.J. had told that man everything and promised him that she would not rest until her dying day to bring him and others like him the justice they deserved. But that man said he wished he could help her, that he wished he did not have to leave. And somehow, his will had been enough, enough to keep the body he inhabited animated (along with some help from A.J. and her expertise in potions). A.J. told him she could perform the proper rites any time to send him to his rest, but he insisted on helping her for as long as he could. And that was when A.J. first devised the plan. A dangerous plan where she would have played the role that Morgan had just played.
The role of the carrier.
It was possible for more than one spirit to inhabit a body. But in all commonly known cases of such possession, the new spirit—typically some demonic thing—dominated over the native spirit, the true soul.
But Morgan had been prepared. He had been prepared for almost a year.
He had drawn the spirit of malice to him, and then into him, and he had carried it into A.J.’s house without knowing he was walking it into a trap. She had taught him the memory tricks that would help him hide his purpose from the spirit. For as soon as it entered his body, it would see what his conscious mind could see. It would have known their plan, and it would have known that Morgan knew its name. A.J. had taught him the tricks. But just in case, she had also brewed him a potion to fog his memories, one that would take time to wear off.
Morgan spoke the spirit’s name now. And the corpse writhed and sneered.
But it did not speak. The body could not speak, so the spirit within it could not speak either.
“Did George make it out?” A.J. asked, her words clipped as if they were passing through a tightened throat.
George. That was the name of the soul inhabiting her husband’s corpse. The soul who vowed to help her.
Morgan remembered seeing the breath escape from the corpse. “Yes, I think so. I think I saw him go.”
“That’s good. I’ve never done the ritual this way, coordinating the timing like this.” She glanced at him. Then she looked back at the corpse and called it names, all if its many names that they had uncovered. And it writhed and flopped in response to every one.
“Then we did it?” Morgan said. “Now what? Will it stop after a few days, like the others?”
“I have no idea. I’ve removed all the preservation spells on the corpse. And if you hold on to this poker, I’ve got some phone calls to make.” She peered down at the still corpse whose rheumy eyes wandered as if trying to focus.
Then she looked at Morgan. She put a hand on his shoulder, his right shoulder. Her hand was warm and light.
“You’re a brave man, kid.”
Morgan shook his head as he received the poker from her. He found he could smile a little. “Which one am I?” he said. “A man or a kid?”
“Let me rephrase,” she said. She squeezed his shoulder and still her hand felt light. “You’re a brave soul.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel