The grave-robbing began with Gwen Menken’s great grandfather. News of it rippled through our small town faster than the bakery runs out of cookies at recess. They locked the cemetery gates but half the town still gathered around, climbing up the stone walls to peek at the upturned earth. People looked at Gwen’s family with suspicious, disapproving looks and they gossiped about what valuable heirlooms had been buried away. But Gwen told us the real secret; there were no jewels or antiques, no map to hidden treasure or deep, dark family secrets to be discovered in her great grandfather’s grave. The only thing stolen was the man himself.
Three days later, the grave-robber struck again. This time, it was one of the oldest graves. It had a timeworn headstone with no discernible name, no one left with any memory of who it belonged to, and nothing left beneath it but dirt.
There was another three days after that.
And three days after that.
And three days after that.
And on, and on, and on.
They bolted, fenced, padlocked, and guarded the cemetery, but every three days the town was left baffled by another deep, empty pit.
Rumours and theories spread, rewards were offered, and friends were blamed. Tourists and journalists trickled into town, and then flooded in, and our ghoulish little town in the middle of nowhere became a must-see for the curious, morbid traveller.
Then, it stopped.
We waited for the grave-robber. Bets were made over which grave would be hit next. The cemetery had to have been raided of half of its inhabitants, and that, it seemed, had satisfied the grave-robber at last.
We started to get back to normal
Then, a year later, the bookshop opened.
Gwen and I walked by the empty building every day on the way to school. It used to be a sweet shop, until it became a DVD rental store, and then a florist, and finally it was boarded up and abandoned. We used to imagine breaking in and making it our secret hideout, or starting our own business, the nature of which changed with each passing obsession. We envisioned our own Mystery Inc. headquarters, a dance studio, a laboratory, or an animal sanctuary. Whatever we decided to do with the place, it was unquestionably ours.
The day we discovered that it had been filled with light and warmth and books, we were indignant. Everything had been freshly painted; I could still smell the fumes under the intoxicating scent of leather, paper, and herbs. The storefront was shiny black, and there was a creaking, copper sign sticking out above our heads showing an hourglass on top of a stack of books. Elegant gold letters spelled out the name of the shop; Graveside Books. It looked mesmerizing and magical and we loved books and we wanted to get lost between those new, overflowing, mahogany shelves. But it was our place, and we were prepared to hate whoever had seized it.
Towers of books blocked the window and Gwen and I pressed our noses against the glass trying to get a glimpse inside.
‘We don’t have time,’ Gwen sighed, rubbing at the condensation from her breath on the glass, and straining her neck to try and see over the stacks.
‘Yeah,’ I agreed, my hands cupped around my squinting eyes, ‘We should probably go. Bell will be ringing any minute now.’
Still, we lingered.
The door opened with a melodic chime and we tore ourselves from the window, stomach butterflies aflutter. We must have been wearing the outrage, resentment, and greed on our expressions like face paint. I didn’t feel like we were two bookish twelve-year-olds; we were spies, and we’d been caught.
A child stood in the doorway. She was paler than paper, with long, feathery hair, and bony limbs. She smiled with chapped lips, and eyes that almost seemed familiar. She flipped the sign on the door from CLOSED to OPEN and disappeared inside, leaving the door gaping.
Gwen and I glanced at one another, a silent agreement that school could wait.
Walking through a bookshop was, to me, like being in an airport terminal; surrounded by possibilities and destinations, wondering where each ink and paper plane would take me. This bookshop felt like a new world already. The walls were covered in books, a wooden ladder leaning up against the shelves. Beams stretched across the ceiling, and from them hung dried flowers, crystals, and stars made from cut up pages. There was a maze of tall selves, all laden with books, spilling over onto the floor. A brick archway led to another book-filled room where three cushioned armchairs circled around a wooden table and the embers of a fire.
An embroidered curtain in the far corner was swept to the side as the bookseller stepped out. She looked about thirty, with curly brown hair thrown on top of her head and tied with string. She wore a ragged black vest, a long blood red skirt, and two or three gem-stone rings on every finger. She was carrying a tall stack of books and she sat them on the desk in front of the curtain with a thud.
I thought that she hadn’t spotted us until she cleared her throat and, without looking up, said, ‘I’m not open yet, but if you see something you like I’ll pop it aside.’
‘Oh,’ Gwen took a hesitant step towards her, ‘Your…the girl let us in. She turned the sign on the door?’
The bookseller glanced at us, a small crease on her forehead, ‘You’re the only girls in here, dear. And the sign says closed.’
She nodded towards the door in the other room and we turned. The OPEN sign stared back at us, the CLOSED side facing out.
‘It’s no problem,’ she carried on, a smile twitching at her lips, ‘a bookstore is hard to resist. I just haven’t set up my till yet so, as I said, anything you want I’ll put to the side.’
I opened my mouth to speak but Gwen wrapped a hand around my arm, ‘We’ll just come back when you’re open, then.’
Gwen tugged at me, pulling me away and back outside. We paused, both staring as the words CLOSED screamed at us from the door.
Gwen gave an exaggerated shiver as she turned to me, ‘Weird vibe, right? Come on, Fee.’
She turned away, picking up her pace towards the school, and I hesitated, looking back with the skin-prickling sensation of being watched.
It didn’t take long for us to get over our first impression of Graveside Books. After all, we lived in a place where there was more cemetery than town, with a secret grave-robber hiding among us, not to mention a history of hauntings and witchcraft so, by that point, ‘weird’ had become a distant concept.
Gwen and I took our friend, Heath Shore, to the bookshop every day after school. The shelves started to look comfortably full, rather than swamped. The town had welcomed the new store with open arms, although Gwen’s parents did go in once to complain that the book recommended to her grandmother was giving her nightmares.
The bookseller, whose name was Lythia, always gave us a plate of biscuits and mugs of mint and nettle tea and allowed the three of us to curl up in the armchairs and disappear between pages.
We went in again, and again, and again, until it became as much a part of our normal routine as brushing our teeth, and once more that place began to feel like our own.
Heath loved it. He had been our friend since we were five years old and his family had moved into town. There had been four of us back then; me, Gwen, Heath, and his twin sister Delilah. The graveyard was our playground; we learned to read by tracing the engraved letters on the headstones and played hide and seek in the cobwebbed mausoleums. When we got rashes on our skin from the overgrowing nettles and thorns, we played at being nurses, using dock leaves to heal each other and we picked wild blackberries to snack on.
There were times when I felt memories of Delilah blurring away, and I clung to the slightest reminder. When I brushed my hair, I remembered that I was jealous of her long white-blonde curls. I remembered that she once spilled milk over my stuffed bear because it still had a rough patch of fur and smelled like yogurt. I remembered that I cried myself to sleep on the night she died and while she had only been in my life for two years, Heath lost a whole piece of himself. All that pain resurfaced when the grave-robber dug her up and stole her away. Heath grew up a solemn, grave boy with the softest, rarest smile.
But as soon as he stepped through the door of the bookshop, his grief and fear fell away. He had a toothy grin, and he laughed, and joked. Sometimes, when he was distracted, I would slip over to the clock on the fireplace and set it back, so he could be happy for a few minutes longer.
One day, Lythia stepped out from behind the embroidered curtain with a thin, pale tan leather-bound book in her hand. Crude stitching held it together and there was no title or author anywhere on the cover. She gave it to Heath, no charge, his cheeks flushing pink in delight as he zipped it into his bag.
Gwen and I couldn’t entirely shake off the jealousy, but if anyone needed a sanctuary of stories, it was Heath.
Before Graveside Books opened, the Witch Pond was my favourite place in town. It was at the far end of the graveyard, down the hill and shadowed by the old, brick wall. It had been fenced off years before the grave-robbing had begun. It was eerie and peaceful in the way only a grave can be.
I don’t know where we first heard the story of the Witch Pond; it was just one of those things that everyone knew. Perhaps our teacher had told us with the intention of warning us off, but if that was the case, she seriously underestimated our ability to twist horror and tragedy into magic and romance.
It happened back when midwives and healers and outcasts and girls in the wrong place at the wrong time were being burned at stakes or hung from trees. A young apprentice came to town to work in the church. His name was Benjamin, and he was handsome and pious and he caught the eye of every girl in town. Among them, a witch. Any girl that expressed an interest in the young man would suddenly fall ill or suffer a terrible accident. Many of the girls had taken to spying on him as he walked the church grounds, only to be scared off by a demonic, gargoyle-like creature, or a sudden torrential downpour summoned by the jealous witch. The town noticed that Benjamin himself began to behave strangely. He missed morning services at the church and was constantly disappearing for hours at a time. He had dark circles under his eyes and was heard speaking blasphemous things. Then, one fateful morning, the church minister revealed that Benjamin had been seduced and enchanted by the witch. Rosamund, the blacksmith’s daughter, had been entrancing him to meet her by the church pond, secluded as it was. She had cursed poor Benjamin to harbour the spirit of the devil.
No one listened as she cried out her innocence.
No one listened as the cursed Benjamin insisted that he loved the witch.
The enraged crowds dragged Rosamund to the pond, tightening ropes over her wrists and ankles and filling her dress pockets with stones. The minister held Benjamin back as she was thrown into the pond and sank into its depths, but he was stronger than the old man and he jumped into the water to save her.
Neither of them ever emerged.
The grounds around the pond began to wither. Nothing grew, no flowers bloomed. The witch’s death spread out from the pond and devastated everything that had once flourished. People said that it was haunted and claimed to have seen two ghosts locked in an embrace by the edge of the pond, while others said that they could hear the screams of the witch.
Gwen, Heath, Delilah, and I used to slide down the grassy hill and explore the decaying pond. The water was thick and congealed, surrounded by frail, overgrown branches that stretched out from the dry ground like a skeleton’s fingers. It should have been an ugly place, and perhaps it was, but we loved it. We used to imagine that we could heal it; like the mere presence of our youth would resurrect the earth. That if we pressed our skin against the soil, or eased our fingertips into the dead water, everything would awaken. It was cursed to sleep as if dead, and if we loved it enough, we could break it.
Even though it had never worked, even after they fenced it off because of what happened to Delilah, I still felt drawn to sit and peer through the iron thorns, to worm my fingers through the fence and touch the dirt on the other side, just in case. I told my secrets to the lost friend slipping from my memory and to the dead witch and her lover, whispering to insect-bitten bones deep in the water, and with the slightest shiver of a yellowed leaf in the wind, I felt as if they were speaking back.
Curiosity is a peculiar thing.
Some people, like my mother and Heath, say that curiosity only leads to trouble. Curiosity means snooping in business that isn’t yours and finding out things you shouldn’t. Curiosity kills cats and lures children into gingerbread traps. Delilah was curious and look what happened to her.
Then there are others, like me and Gwen. Like the grave-robber too, I expect. We like being curious, we can’t help it. How else can we learn? How can we let a question go unanswered? And when Lythia steps outside to unload a delivery van of boxed up books, how are we supposed to resist sneaking a look into the mysterious room behind the embroidered curtain?
Gwen and I watched as Heath walked outside to help Lythia. We glanced at each other, and then to the curtain. I stood first, pulling out an old receipt from my pocket and placing it between the pages of the book I was reading. Gwen tossed hers on the table, mouthing her page number a few times to remember. She kept her eyes on the door as I peeled back the heavy curtain.
I slipped into the dark, narrow room. There were a number of colourful rugs overlapping each other on the floor, and a desk littered with paper and folders. Bright post-it notes were spread on the wall, scribbled with reminders to order more local history books and pay bills. A scratched up scarlet safe sat beneath the desk with a dull gold keyhole. On the wall to the left was a single bookcase covered in spare copies of the books out in the shop. I took in the magic-less room with a little disappointment, but still with the heart-fluttering thrill of being where I shouldn’t be. I was about to turn away when I noticed the folded-up corner of the rug by the bookcase. I felt along the edges of the shelves, noting the way they stuck out just a little too far. It took a few hesitant but determined tries, pulling with all my strength, and the bookcase shuddered towards me, swinging on a creaking hinge. I cringed as several books crashed to the ground, stuffing them back onto the shelves before daring to look beyond the secret door.
I almost laughed at the ridiculous sight; a shelf of books hidden behind a shelf of books.
Then I looked closer.
Each nameless book was bound in the same style but differed ever so slightly; all had a leather cover in various shades of beige and brown, some thick and others slim, stitched with different dull colours of frail thread or held together with a hard bone-like spine. I realized that the book Lythia had given to Heath came from this collection, and I was sure I’d seen Gwen’s grandmother reading something similar, a book that gave her nightmares.
I slipped a volume from the shelf, running my hands over the soft leather. The dark stitching was fraying, it looked almost like hair. It had a damp, rotten kind of smell.
‘Lythia! Can you get this book down for me? I can’t reach it.’
My stomach lurched as I heard Gwen calling out, distracting Lythia so I could escape. I didn’t pause to think about what I was doing when I tucked the book under my cardigan and eased the bookshelf back into position. I slipped through the curtain, making sure that Lythia’s back was to me as I tip-toed back to my chair and slid the stolen book into my schoolbag. My heart was thrashing like a moth trapped in a jar and blood blossomed under my cheeks as I sat and picked up the book I left on the table. I realized I had opened it upside down and dropped it in my rush to turn it as Lythia’s footsteps approached.
She smiled at me, noticing nothing.
Unlike Heath who was watching me from a shadow in the corner.
Gwen and I went to the one place Heath wouldn’t follow with his sombre, interrogative eyes; the Witch Pond. Since the grave-robber’s sudden retirement, the cemetery gates were locked but unguarded and it took little effort to climb the old oak tree, drop from the branch onto the top of the wall and climb down the other side. We sat by the pond’s fence and I took the stolen book from my bag.
We sat with it between us for a few long moments, neither of us daring to open the pages first.
There was something about it, some profound and grim presence. We wanted its forbidden secrets, and we were afraid of them.
‘Do you think it’s the same book Heath has?’ Gwen asked me, not tearing her eyes away from the book.
‘No, his is a lot thinner.’
Gwen frowned, ‘And my Grandmother’s book is much bigger…maybe it’s a series? Has Heath ever told you what it’s about?’
‘Never,’ I shook my head, ‘Just like with your Grandmother; anytime I ask he gets all weird and says it’s nothing and changes the subject.’
Gwen bit her lip as I reached over and turned the cover.
She turned her head to the side to read the handwritten title page, ‘“The Book of Rosamund Black”. Rosamund Black… why does that sound familiar?’
Before I could tell her that I didn’t know, a breeze shuddered through the gaps in the bare branches above us and swept a scattering of dead leaves into the water of the Witch Pond, reminding me of the answer, ‘The witch,’ I said softly, ‘that was the name of the witch.’
Gwen twisted a loose thread from her jumper around her fingers, as if to stop herself from grabbing the book and throwing it away. It was easier to act fearless when I knew she was afraid. I ignored her uneasy fidgeting, straightening my spine, and turned the pages with steady, unflinching hands.
I paused, the thin paper between my finger and thumb, my heart shuddering to a frozen stop, as I looked into the eyes of the stranger behind Gwen’s shoulder.
She had black hair, wet and tangled, shadows like amethyst crescent moons under her eyes and a smile on her pale lips. Her eyes were grey-blue and kind and I breathed out my fear as I returned her smile. When she stood, I rose with her and watched as a young girl slipped a hand into hers and waved at me. It was the same white-haired, white-skinned girl who had let us into Graveside Books when it opened. There was something so familiar about her, her name was on the tip of my tongue, and when she stretched a hand out towards me I stepped forward to take it. She led me to the fence, gesturing for me to climb over.
I fell to the ground, someone’s weight crushing me into the dirt and I woke as if from a dream. I looked up at Heath and his wide eyes, more furious and fearful and alive than I had ever seen them. He released my pinned down arms from his grasp and pushed away from me, shaking his head and pacing. Gwen knelt at my side and helped me to sit up. I winced and looked down at my hands, blood dripping down my palms from cuts where I had gripped the barbed fence.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ Heath stopped abruptly and stared at me, ‘You shouldn’t come here again.’
‘And put that book back, or I’ll tell Lythia that you’ve been stealing from her.’
‘No, Felicity, you listen,’ Heath’s usually low, soft voice reverberated through the graveyard, stirring birds from their perches as Gwen’s fingers dug into my arm, ‘You don’t need to know about this book, or the one Lythia gave me, or any of the others you found on that shelf. You always have to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong and it’s only going to get you in trouble, or killed.’
Gwen stood in front of me, shielding me, as she levelled a glare at Heath, ‘You’re the one who was spying on us.’
‘And thank god I did, or Felicity would be at the bottom of the pond!’ spit sprayed from Heath’s mouth as he shouted and Gwen grimaced at him. He shoved her aside and grabbed my bloodied hands, hoisting me to my feet, ‘Put the book back and forget about it, Fee. Please.’
His voice cracked and I looked, really looked, at him; at the tears clinging to his lashes and the sick paling of his cheeks and the sweat-plastered hair on his temples. I wrapped my arms around him until he relaxed, his head falling heavy on my shoulder.
‘Tell us what’s going on,’ I said as I pulled away and Gwen took hold of our hands, linking us together, ‘You’re our best friend. That means we stick our noses into your business… so you don’t have to carry anything alone.’
Heath wiped his tears away with a balled up fist and nodded with a resigned sigh. He led us away from the Witch Pond and we sat cross-legged on a gravestone slab as he told us about his book; The Book of Delilah Shore.
The next morning, we marched to Graveside Books like soldiers heading for war. The shop was not open for another hour, but we knew Lythia would be there; just as she knew that we were coming. She opened the door as Gwen raised a fist to knock and ushered us inside where three cups of steaming mint and nettle tea were waiting on the table.
We settled into the armchairs while Lythia sat on the floor with her back to the smouldering fire and looked at Heath, ‘You told them about the book.’
He nodded, raising a defiant chin as though to hide the guilty glisten in his eyes.
‘And you,’ Lythia turned to me, ‘took a book that wasn’t yours.’
‘You took a few corpses that weren’t yours,’ I shot back before clamping my lips.
Gwen shifted in her seat, ‘It’s true, isn’t it? You’re the grave-robber? Why?’
Lythia nodded, meeting each of our disconcerted gazes, ‘Did you read the book? Rosamund’s?’
I took the stolen book from my bag and passed it to her with a shake of my head.
‘Then I’ll tell you the story, from the beginning.’
‘It’s your story we want,’ said Gwen, ‘we all know about the witch.’
‘Not quite,’ Lythia sighed, ‘her story, the true story, is where mine begins. Rosamund Black was not a witch, but I am. I come from a long line of witches that can be traced back to the family of the man Rosamund loved; Benjamin.’
‘Are you saying that Benjamin was the witch?’
Lythia nodded, ‘He was, but he did not want to be. He tried to reject the magic that ran through his veins. He joined the church and ran away, hoping to live a normal life. But some spells slip out like instinct; it was he who inadvertently sent creatures and storms to chase away the girls who followed him. He only had eyes for one. He and Rosamund met in secret, their relationship forbidden by the vows he had taken when he joined the church. When she was killed and Benjamin jumped into the river to die with her, he cast one last spell, a vengeful curse; that no one in this town would find the peace that was denied to them. The graveyard has been haunted by restless souls for so long, too long. I knew I had to fix it. Those who were not born in this town were not affected by the curse, but I could sense the others, the ones who needed help, and those are the graves that I dug up.’
‘But Delilah wasn’t born here,’ I interrupt, ‘So, why her?’
Lythia gave me a patient nod, ‘I didn’t know that at the time, I only sensed that she was not at peace. With the bodies and the remains that I salvaged, and a little magic, I bound these books and their lives -their stories – filled the blank pages. It is a very complicated process, especially for those bodies that had decomposed to nothing.’
Gwen looked at Delilah’s book in Heath’s hand, her skin blanching, ‘You…you mean that…the book is actually made from…’
Lythia inclined her head with pursed lips and the book fell from Heath’s hand as Gwen retched into her teacup.
‘I passed the books to the closest living relatives in the town,’ Lythia continued, ‘I had hoped that if their families were able to read their stories and communicate with the ghosts that haunted them, they would be able to move on.’
‘Has it worked?’ I asked.
Lythia looked down, twisting the rings on her fingers, ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t think any of them will be able to rest until Rosamund and Benjamin are at peace.’
‘Which is where Delilah comes into the story,’ Heath swallowed, looking at me ruefully, ‘I told you that the book brought Delilah to me and that I’ve spoken to her. But, I didn’t tell you everything she told me. She used to have dreams of Rosamund and Benjamin, it’s why she kept asking to hear their story and bringing us to the Witch Pond. They wanted a child, to have a family… so they took her.’
I edged closer to the fire with a shiver, ‘they took her?’
Heath hugged his arms around himself, ‘She was under some kind of enchantment, just like you were yesterday… they brought her to the Witch Pond so… so she could be with them forever.’
Gwen reached for my hand, squeezing it tight, as if no ghost or witch could tear me from her grasp.
‘What did you say? Felicity was enchanted yesterday?’ Lythia asked with a frown.
‘I saw her; Delilah,’ I replied, ‘I didn’t realize it was her at first…and I saw Rosamund too…they seemed so happy and…I don’t know, I just…they wanted me to climb the fence…’
‘Rosamund and Benjamin wanted a child,’ said Heath, looking away and scuffing his toes on the carpet, ‘and now Delilah wants a sister. Not me, not her own brother. She chose you, Fee, because she says you’re the only one that still visits her and talks to her.’
I stared at him, my skin prickling and my blood turning to ice, ‘Delilah wants to kill me?’
‘She doesn’t see it that way, she doesn’t understand,’ Heath looked at me with misty eyes, ‘She’s still a child, she’s only seven years old…she just doesn’t want to be alone anymore.’
All the days I had spent sneaking into the graveyard to sit by the Witch Pond and whisper to the dead, I had no idea that they really were listening.
‘I think…’ Heath hesitated, glancing at Lythia, ‘I think Benjamin and Rosamund would have found peace with Delilah, but she wasn’t happy…Which means it’ll never end; they take one person, and that person needs something else.’
Lythia rubbed her temples, her mouth a thin, grim line.
‘We have talk to Delilah,’ Gwen glanced at the book abandoned on the floor, ‘I’m sure we can help her.’
Heath leaned back in his chair and shook his head, ‘I’ve tried, I keep trying… She doesn’t listen.’
‘Well let me try then, since I’m the one she wants to talk to,’ I reached for Delilah’s book and Heath slapped my hand away.
‘Absolutely not,’ Lythia stood and gathered the books into her arms, ‘this has been a terrible mistake and I will find a way to fix it for good. You two,’ she pointed at Gwen and Heath, ‘keep Felicity away from the graveyard. If you see Delilah or Rosamund; do not try to speak with them, do not listen to them or follow them.’
‘We can’t just ignore-’
‘You will,’ Lythia raised her voice, ‘You will ignore them both. I want you to forget about all of this. I am trusting you to keep this secret. Now, please, go to school and forget everything. This is not your problem to solve.’
She disappeared behind the curtain and, even though we only separated by a length of fabric, it felt as though she had slammed and locked a door of steel. We didn’t look at each other as we picked up our bags and left the bookshop, walking towards the school side by side and feeling miles apart.
The moon was waning, grey and cold, and clouds smothered the stars as I slid out of bed at midnight. I walked down the empty road with slippered feet and a woollen blanket around my shoulders. I shrugged it away as I climbed the oak tree, letting it fall into the mud. I scraped my knee against the wall as I dropped down, a trickle of blood slithering down my shin as I walked through the graveyard. Delilah met me at the top of the hill, waving and grinning, her white-blonde hair shivering in the breeze. She rolled down the hill with a gleeful laugh, just as we used to do together, and I smiled as I followed her down to the Witch Pond.
Rosamund and Benjamin were waiting at the edge of the pond, his arm around her waist and her head on his shoulder. They had the loveliest smiles. Delilah slid through the barbed fence and took Benjamin’s hand, turning to me with an outstretched hand. They looked perfect, like the too-beautiful families in store-bought photo frames, if not for the water dripping from their hair and the mud encrusting their clothes. I gripped the fence, thorns piercing into my hands as I pulled myself up. My clothes shredded and my skin tore as I slid down the other side. Rosamund lifted my hands to her mouth and kissed the blood from my palms. I took Delilah’s hand, my other still in Rosamund’s, completing the circle. I stepped into the water, glistening and blue and not dead at all. It wrapped me up like a cool blanket, from my ankles to my knees to my waist to my neck. Delilah held my gaze with a smile as my mouth filled with water and I sunk deep into the Witch Pond.
Here ends the book of Felicity Williams.