by Elena Clark

A young medical student returns home to a consumptive fiancee and rumors that the Devil is abroad and stealing bodies.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



Anabel had faded even faster than expected.

Her father had ridden all day to tell Ned to come before the end. Ned had wanted to set out immediately.

"Riding at night might not be so wise," Anabel's father had said.

"Why?" Ned had asked.

"They say the Devil is abroad these days. People have seen signs."

"What signs?"

"Graves dug up, and cloven prints in the fresh dirt."

"I am a man of science," Ned had said. "I don't believe in the Devil. I'm setting out at once."

Anabel's father had followed Ned reluctantly out into the night. Ned's impatience had driven him on ahead, carrying him to Anabel's house by the first rays of dawn.

He found her propped up on a pile of pillows, coughing and looking around feverishly. Her skin had sunk into her skull, making her seem all eyes and teeth.

"Go (cough) away (cough)," she said when he came into the room. "All you doctors smell (cough) of death and dirt." She broke into a prolonged coughing fit that left her too weak to speak for several minutes.

"Go away (cough)," she repeated when she had regained her strength. "When I get better, I don't ever want to see you again!" She collapsed back onto her pillows, unable even to cough. Ned saw the look on Anabel's mother's face, and left.

Dr. Smith came down from the bedroom and met Ned in the sitting room a little bit later. Ned was looking at the sketch Anabel had made of him the day of their engagement, the day before he had gone off to become a doctor. The likeness was very good, although he had protested at the time that she had drawn his eyes too sharp.

"But you have sharp eyes," she had told him, laughing. "And soon they'll be sharper. Soon you'll know what's inside of people, as well as outside." She had wrinkled her nose. "I think I would faint," she had said. "And is it true that they… that they… what they say about the bodies? That they steal them?"

"Of course not," Ned had told her. "I'll tell you all about it when I come home for the holidays."

Ned had never gotten to tell her about medical school. When he had come home for the holidays, she had been bright-eyed and flushed. Ned had thought it was happiness, and been flattered.

After dinner Dr. Smith had pulled him aside and asked if he had noticed the signs of galloping consumption. Ned had refused to believe him, but when he had come back in the summer, it had been impossible to deny. Now the leaves were falling, and it seemed that Anabel was going with them.

"She says she will get better," said Ned as soon as Dr. Smith came into the room.

"They all say that right before the end," said Dr. Smith. "Their false hope is God's final mercy. I doubt she will last the night." He coughed, as if clearing his throat of suppressed emotion.

"And has everything been tried?" Ned asked. "Is there truly nothing to be done? Some new course of treatment to be tried?"

"Young doctors are always so optimistic," said Dr. Smith. "But consumption is the great humbler of man's pride. How do your studies go?"

"Well enough."

"Did you faint during your first dissection?"

"No. But many others did."

"Well, they'll toughen up with time. I myself could hardly overcome my revulsion for the science the first few years, but now I have taken a great interest in it. The body can reveal so many secrets to us. I have been doing my own researches, in my spare time."

"Oh." Ned didn't know what to say. Anabel was upstairs dying, and Dr. Smith was coughing from the brandy he had helped himself to and talking about cutting up corpses. Ned stared at his sketch and tried not to hear what Dr. Smith was saying.

"Dr. Smith! Dr. Smith!"

The sound of Anabel's mother's voice made the hair on the back of Ned's neck rise, and he didn't need Dr. Smith to say, "That sounds like the crisis." He tried to follow Dr. Smith up the stairs, but was relieved to be told, "Stay down here, son. You'll only get in the way."

* * *

Anabel suffered her fatal hemorrhage while Ned and Dr. Smith were talking downstairs. Ned was not allowed to come up and see her until she had been laid out. He was glad, although he would not have admitted it to Dr. Smith. The dead bodies they cut up at the lectures were merely dead bodies, but he couldn't imagine Anabel without a soul. This way he could pretend she was just sleeping. He briefly squeezed her cold hand and then fled outside.

* * *

Her funeral was on a cold wet fall day. He stood next to her mother and helped support her. Anabel's father muttered about the Devil the whole time. Another grave had been disturbed the night before, and the body was gone.

After the service was over, he pulled Ned aside and said, "We've decided to mount a guard over the grave. Consumption may have taken Anabel away from us, but at least she can rest in peace." He led Ned over to a group of men who had hung back from the mourners walking out the churchyard. The only person Ned recognized was Dr. Smith. So many people had come pouring in in recent years. Ned wondered which one of them had brought consumption with him.

"You gentlemen having nothing to worry about on Anabel's account," Dr. Smith was saying. "Most grave robbers are only looking for valuables, and Anabel went to her final resting place in nothing but a simple white dress."

"These aren't most grave robbers," said one of the men.

"It's the Devil!" said another.

"Or Dracula!" said one of the others. "My son was telling me about him."

"Surely you gentlemen don't believe in fairy tales?" said Dr. Smith, looking amused. "This is the age of science!"

"Maybe it's not the Devil," conceded one of the men. "Maybe it's those scientists."

"Like Frankenstein," suggested someone.

Everyone looked at Dr. Smith meaningfully.

"Frankenstein is just as much a fairy tale as… as… Dracula!" he said. He made a choking sound that could have been a laugh or a cough.

"Dead people don't normally get up and walk off on their own," said one of the men. "Something is taking them."

"The Devil!" shouted the man next to him, who had obviously already taken something to ward off the cold. "We've all seen his footprints!"

"Well, he won't be touching my Anabel!" said her father. "Right, men?"

"Right!" everyone shouted together.

"In that case, let me make a suggestion, gentlemen," said Dr. Smith. "Let us do our guard duty in shifts. That way we won't be standing out in the cold all night."

A cold wind gusted up just then, making everyone agree with alacrity. A mourning dove called out, "Who, who! Who, who?" and several of the men jumped. The others laughed at them, but hurried to draw twigs for the shifts. Ned drew the first shift, followed by Anabel's father. Dr. Smith drew the dawn shift.

* * *

Ned arrived at the churchyard just before dusk. He was almost looking forward to his shift. It seemed right that he should be taking care of Anabel, even after her life was over. He sat against a tree by her grave and talked to her as the sun set. He told her about medical school and how much he had to study, and how the other students either fainted at the lectures or told coarse jokes, but that he did neither of those things because he knew he was serving Science and that one day a cure for consumption would be found and no one would have to suffer like she had ever again. Maybe one day, he told her, they would find themselves together in the bright new future that was being built, because miracles were happening every day now and someday Death Itself would bow before the might of Science. But meanwhile she should rest in peace, because he was watching over her.

An owl flew suddenly down from the tree, making him jump. The churchyard was outside of town, on the edge of the woods. Ned noticed for the first time how dark it had become. He quickly lit his lantern. It cast a small sphere of artificial brilliance around him, surrounded by blackness. He could hear things moving in the woods beyond his sight, and it seemed to him that primitive eyes were lurking just outside his circle of light, waiting for it to grow dim.

Ned tried to turn away from them, and stepped in the soft earth on top of Anabel's grave. He jerked his foot out in horror and backed up against the tree. He felt that Death Itself, whom he had just promised to conquer, was standing on the other side of the tree, exhaling Its icy breath and waiting for him to take his arrogant little lantern away so It could gather Anabel's soul in peace. A long dark shadow moved across the grave. Ned tried to back up even more, scraped himself on the tree, and saw that the shadow was his own.

When Anabel's father arrived to take his turn, Ned tried to say something to him, but the words wouldn't come out. He fled the churchyard and ran back to Anabel's house, his teeth chattering all the way.

* * *

Ned was packing his things under the bright light of noon when he heard raised voices downstairs. He ran down and found Anabel's father and several of last night's guards shouting, but the only words he could make out were "Impossible! Impossible!" Anabel's mother was sitting on the horsehair sofa and crying quietly.

"What is it?" Ned asked her.

"She's gone!" she said. "They've taken her!"

Ned ran out of the house and back to the churchyard. Dr. Smith was standing over the hole where Anabel's grave had been, staring at it thoughtfully.

"How did it happen?" demanded Ned.

"Didn't you hear? The Devil took her at dawn," said Dr. Smith. "It must have been right after I left." He pointed at marks in the fresh dirt. They looked like cow hoofprints, but they were scattered here and there, pointing in different directions and at different depths.

"Those are false," said Ned. "Even if I believed in the Devil, I would expect him to walk like a man."

"Maybe so," agreed Dr. Smith. "But she is indubitably gone."

"Why? You said yourself that she had nothing of value on her."

"Except her body. In life she was keeping herself only for you, Ned, but in death she might not have that choice." Dr. Smith made a choking sound that might have been either a laugh or a cough. Ned stared at him.

"Come now, boy, don't be so stupid. You of all people should know that Science demands more human bodies than the stupid and superstitious are willing to supply. So It must finds Its fodder where It can."

"The school is miles and miles away! No one needs bodies here!"

"Don't they?" Dr. Smith coughed significantly. "Apparently the Devil does." He pointed at the hoofmarks.

Ned stared at Dr. Smith again. This time he saw the dirt on his hands.

"It seems you were out digging the same night as the Devil," he said. "And you got dirty."

"I was at a fresh grave."

"Yes, you were."

"You might be able to get Anabel back, you know." Dr. Smith coughed significantly. "It would be fitting. She meant to give herself to you, after all."

"Not like that. Let her rest in peace!"

"Why are you saying this to me? The Devil took her." Dr. Smith's eyes flashed a mocking gleam at Ned, and his shoulders shook silently.

"She died of consumption! She isn't a fit subject for… for… It's too dangerous!"

Dr. Smith coughed again and spat into his handkerchief. He held it up for Ned to see. Red flecks stood out on the white linen.

"You see," he said, "I have nothing to fear from Anabel. The Devil marked me as his own a long time ago, and sooner than you think, he will come to collect my soul."

"Was it you?" Ned asked. "Did Anabel die because of you?"

"Who knows? Consumption has spread like wildfire since they opened the factory. It is the original sin of our time. More than likely, you are carrying it inside you as we speak."

"At least give back Anabel," said Ned.

"The Devil took her, didn't you see?" Dr. Smith coughed again. "Go back to school, Ned, and maybe one day you will discover a cure for Him, if He doesn't get you first. Just remember, He lurks in every glass of water, every bite of food, every particle of air you inhale. I know it is too late to save me, but maybe there is still time to save others. Maybe Anabel can help do that. Think of it as a kind of intercession. Like the Virgin Mary, she has gone down into Hell to help the sinners." Dr. Smith turned his head towards the churchyard gate. Shouts were coming down the road.

"I believe a rescue party may have drunk up its courage and is now heading this way, anyway," he said. "You should leave."

"The Devil doesn't exist," said Ned as he backed away.

"Doesn't He?" Dr. Smith called after him.

The midday sun warmed Ned's back as he rode away from Anabel's house and back to school. As it sank in the sky, a long shadow stretched out before him. He could see that it was his own.





Copyright © 2008 Elena Clark

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Elena Clark: I am a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I am currently sinking ever deeper into the treacherous morass that is South Slavic studies. I am also, along with some of my fellow University Fellows, involved in a radical pedagogical experiment known as the interdisciplinary seminar "Cheating Death, Chasing Immortality." In my ever-shrinking spare time I quarrel with my cat and try to write fiction, which I justify as field work. My stories have appeared most recently in Aphelion and Brave Blue Mice.

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