Merry Christmas, Mary
In the dark, the white snow fell gently, flashing like flares through the pathway of the streetlamps. The snow piled on the sides of roads, turning to black slush as inexhaustible cars came and went. Bundled in a heavy black coat, her breath streaming from her lips like smoke from some inhuman factory, she passed into the graveyard.
The moment that she passed from the street with its traffic and its cars and its lights to the graveyard, the sounds hushed, muted. Few lights illuminated the crumbling stone of the graves, packed into this small plot of city land. The old church beside the graveyard existed now only as a relic, as a museum piece for the quaint and foolish beliefs of stupid primitive man. No services took place within it these days. Disparate caretakers moved in and out, no one staying for very long as the church and its accompanying graveyard fell deeper and deeper into disrepair.
She often wondered what would become of the church and its cemetery when the world stopped with even the pretense of concern for human dignity and the dignity of the dead. The church would be bulldozed, the cemetery with its dead churned amidst the steel teeth of mighty man’s mighty machine-dogs. In their place, a new church would be erected, a church of business perhaps, a mall or a soaring skyscraper to be populated by various and sundry enterprises. And soon, all would be forgotten with the church and its graves.
But for now, she remembered.
For now, the name etched into the stone, worn down by the continual current of seconds and minutes, remained alive within her.
The name belonged to a woman. The woman had been called Mary Corey. Perhaps there had once been a set of dates below that name, but time had taken them long ago.
The woman in the cemetery bent down and wiped cold snow from the stone, feeling the wet through the cotton of her gloves.
She spared a glance for the road, and then she stood up again. Moving neither casually nor quickly, she strode across the graveyard to the church. Into the mouth of the door, she inserted a key. The lock gave way, and inside, she found the unheated space nearly as cold. Her fingers found the switch that she sought, and she flipped it.
The few lights left on in the graveyard went out.
She stood for a moment in the doorway of the cold church, letting her eyes adjust to darkness. The spell of the old church and its graveyard deepened then. Without the staccato interruption of the electric lights, an older time reared its head with all its ghosts and glories. Although she could still see the street lights beyond and, if she strained, hear the rumbling growl of the city’s traffic, it was beyond the bounds of the enchantment. It could neither break the enchantment, nor penetrate it.
From beside the door, she took the shovel. It belonged to the gardener. There was no gardener these days. For many years, years that sound unending to a modern American ear, maybe even a hundred or two hundred years, there had been flowers on these graves, and a gardener to tend the beds of the dead.
But now, there was no gardener. The grass, so close to dead in the height of summer, was either long or gone beneath the snow.
The woman returned to Mary Corey’s grave.
The winter is not the best time for digging, but some things are worth the effort. This was a truth that everyone who intends to survive in a vacuum must learn. And this particular woman had longed survived a vacuum.
The earth gave way after much effort, and she began to make headway into the ground.
At times, she felt the stir of eyes upon her neck, but she was a grown-up woman. She knew that the fears and imaginings of childhood never quite leave us, that such intuitions and feelings are merely the vestigial remains of a past state from which she’d evolved. Such things were best ignored.
And so she went on digging until the end of the shovel rang out against the side of a wooden casket.
The woman exhaled a breath of smoke.
Her pace increasing now, sweat mingling with the sop of snow, she redoubled her efforts until she could see enough of the wood to do what needed doing.
She stared at what lay at her sodden black snow boots. The wood of the casket was very old and very frail, but within the dirt, it had lasted all these many years. It had been here when there was only a church of stone nestled far away from the noise and clatter of the nearest large town. It had been here below the earth as the town became a city, as the city became the City, as the City became a Concrete Jungle of steel and spires and blood that soaked the earth from end to end. This wood had laid over Mary Corey’s head.
And now, the woman lifted her shovel high and brought it stabbing down, down, down. It splintered through the aged wood, and the entire casket lurched. She stumbled, but she kept herself upright.
Kneeling down, she cleared the wood and ignited the end of a flashlight. Turning the light into the shadows, Mary Corey stared up at her.
“Hello, Mary,” she said.
The desiccated skull looked up at her with her eyeless sockets. There was so little of the human left about Mary Corey now.
Tenderly, gently, the woman reached down and pulled off the head. There was a little snap as the head detached from the spinal column. The head was all the woman wanted. She stood up, placed the head next to the hole, and then she set about her task of restoring the dirt. This was accomplished more quickly than she’d expected.
When she was done, she picked up the head, and she placed it in the case she’d brought for just this purpose.
Next, she restored the shovel to its place, turned on the three meager lights above the graveyard, sending the past skittering back into the past.
She relocked the church door and strode across the graveyard to the gate.
As she passed out of the graveyard, she passed beyond the enchantment back into the roar and the blaze of modernity with all its dashing lights and carnivorous, hungry roars of cars.
As the woman strode down the concrete, she thought longingly of a hot shower. She thought very little, in fact, about the graveyard and even less about the head of Mary Corey. All she really felt was a vague sort of satisfaction with a job well done.
On the corner of the street, standing in a bold spray of light, she got into a cab. The driver talked about his life and asked her a few questions to which she gave polite replies.
At one point, the driver went so far as to ask, “What’s in the case?”
“A Christmas gift,” she said, “for a very, very old friend.”
“Lovely,” he said before regaling her with what he was buying for his own friends and family for Christmas.
When she arrived in her apartment, she knew she wasn’t alone. Standing silhouetted in the neon bath of city light that poured in from the floor to ceiling windows of her penthouse apartment, she recognized the back of him.
“Couldn’t wait?” she asked as she shut and locked the door behind her.
“You got it, then?” asked the man.
“I got her, yes,” she said, unzipping her wet boots and placing them beside the door.
The man still looked out the window.
“Anyone see?” he asked.
She unbuttoned her coat and hung it on the coat stand. “No,” she said. “No one saw.”
The woman picked up the case from where she’d set it down when she first walked in. Then she strode across the apartment to the man, placing her hand upon his back as she offered him the case.
“Merry Christmas, John,” she said, looking up at the face that she knew so well and so deeply, those dark brown irises in whose dark pathways she’d spent years walking. The light from the City beyond cast a green mask over his pale face as he took the case from her, his hands trembling.
He walked with the case to a glass table and set it down.
Then he leaned over, the long fingers of both hands sprawling outward from where he placed them on the glass. They would leave the print of his hands so clearly that a good palm reader could tell him that his long days were about to come short and that a woman was to blame as women always were for John Corey.
The woman watched him, a look of pain upon her face. It was a pain that a stranger would find difficult to read. The look upon her face spoke of longing, of desire, and of concern. And of fear. A strange medley of emotions all rendered clear the slim dimples around her mouth and the tight set of her pale jaw.
“I’ll give you a moment,” she said.
And with that, the woman went to take that hot shower she’d dreamed about all the way back from the graveyard.
The woman thought little as she showered and dressed.
She blew her hair dry, and when she was done, she went out to see if John Corey was still in her apartment.
He was exactly as she’d left him, bent over the case, still closed.
She poured herself a glass of champagne.
Then she walked over to him, placing her hand on his shoulder. “John,” she said. “I thought this was what you needed?”
“It is,” he said, his voice full of rock and dirt.
“Then why not open the case?” she asked.
He looked at her then. He really looked at her for the first time that night. He took in the woman who had robbed a grave for him. This woman of money and means with her blonde hair and her noose of diamonds around her neck. The dark gown she wore showed little of her skin, but it had a certain way of provoking the question: what lay beneath?
But here tonight, the question didn’t seem as safe as it once had. And although he kissed the question onto the ruby of her lips, she knew that those lips were not hers.
“It’s okay, John,” she said. “I don’t expect anything from you. Especially not your love. Just open my present, John. It’s just what you asked for.”
Her voice bore that tender inflection of Golden age starlets, a siren’s voice. And even as he turned away, he wondered if he were about to be dashed upon the rocks.
She removed her hand from his shoulder, gave the scruff of his face a delicate touch, and then stepped back.
John took a deep breath, and he stood up, his hands coming away from the glass of the table.
Bumbling in a way those fingers never bumbled, he unclasped the latches of the case.
The woman took her drink.
And John Corey opened the case.
The skull of Mary Corey gazed up at him insensibly. A tiny sob escaped the grown man’s lips.
A funny thing happened then to the woman turned grave robber. A funny thing indeed.
At the back of her neck, exposed as she wore her hair pulled up on top of her head, she felt those tiny hairs stand on end. And the sense that eyes were boring into the back of her seized her with the same rigor as when she’d stood in that grave.
In the grave, she had expected such a feeling. She’d been ready, and she dismissed it for the foolishness she knew it to be.
Such a feeling did not belong in the penthouse of a skyscraper with a view of the greatest city on earth. Such a feeling did not belong here.
And the woman, Emma Donaghue, shuddered. What remained of the champagne in her glass she downed in one.
“Oh, Mary,” John Corey said.
“John,” Emma began. She cast her gaze around the apartment, unable to dismiss the feeling. “John, I think…”
“Mary,” he sobbed, and he went down on his knees, his arms clasping the case, his head resting against the glass table.
Emma bit her lip.
The next several things happened in quick succession.
“Mary,” John cried one final time, and he made to bring his hands down to his face so that he could bury it.
As he did, he knocked the case from the glass table. The case landed on its side, and the skull rolled out onto the hardwood floor.
And as it rolled, Emma saw the reflection in the glass windows.
Standing where she now saw the skull, she saw a woman. The woman had dark hair and fine features, but her eyes. Her eyes wore all the darkness of those empty sockets.
John Corey looked first to Emma, and then to the glass.
“Mary!” he yelled.
Emma’s hands found the pistol where she’d left it in the pocket of her coat.
She aimed it steadily at the glass. Mary Corey smirked.
John Corey rose to his feet and stumbled toward his wife. As he did, he stepped on the skull. It smashed beneath his leather shoe.
And as it smashed, the reflection of Mary Corey vanished.
Where the skull lay in pieces, a cold wind blew up from the floor. A wind that took the broken shards of bone and danced with them and a green smoke into the air.
Emma fired her pistol.
The shot shattered the glass of her windows, and a great torrent of snow and cold swept into the apartment. But along with the sound of shattering glass, there came the wicked laugh of a wicked witch.
And there she stood.
Mary Corey. In the flesh.
Emma’s apartment lay embedded in snow, and Mary Corey stood there, her pale skin alight with some ghastly light.
John Corey staggered to her.
“John, no!” Emma said.
“My wife,” he said.
And Mary Corey, dead woman that she was, kissed John Corey’s lips for the first time in two hundred years.
Emma Donaghue’s pistol remained pointed at the dead woman.
“Put that thing down, you silly thing,” said Mary Corey.
Emma did not.
Mary stepped out of John’s rapturous arms and walked briskly toward Emma. Blood ran cold.
She did not hesitate. She put a bullet in Mary’s brain. In Mary’s heart. In Mary’s stomach. And when none of those bullets had an effect. When those bullets simply disappeared, showing no signs of damage, she poured the rest wherever they might strike until Mary Corey stood with her forehead pressed to the end of the barrel.
Emma pulled the trigger one last time. It clicked. Empty.
Mary grabbed the gun, yanked it out of the other woman’s hands, and turned it on Emma.
Mary smiled. “I should thank you, Grave Robber,” she said, “for reuniting me with my dear husband.”
“But your ancient,” she said. “You’re…you’re his ancestor. You were hanged as a witch.”
“I am a witch,” she said. “And I did hang. And I gave my dear John eternal life. And what did he do with it? You.”
And Mary pulled the trigger.
Emma Donaghue had time to think that there were no bullets in that gun. She knew that for a fact. But then a bullet went through her brain after all. And Emma Donaghue was dead.
Mary Corey turned and ran over to her husband. She kissed him passionately, reverently, joyously.
And he kissed her back.
He threw himself wholly into that kiss until he was unaware of anything else.
John Corey did not realize how close they were to the broken glass that looked out upon the skyline, that great cliff hundreds of feet in the air.
No, John Corey was not aware of how close they were into Mary Corey pushed him off it.
It was a long way down, and he had time to hear her speak.
“That’s what you get, John Corey,” she said. “It was you turned me in, and when you regretted it, you got some harlot you bedded who didn’t believe in anything to dig me up. Go to Hell, John Corey, and meet the master you’ve been so long in avoiding.”
And then John Corey landed.
That left Mary Corey.
She stood at the top of that skyscraper, looking out over a Concrete Jungle of neon flame and roaring machines.
“My, my,” she said to herself. “I feel as if I’m home.”
And Mary Corey smiled wildly.
“Merry Christmas, Mary,” she said to herself softly. “Merry Christmas, indeed.”
By Josh Dygert
Josh Dygert grew up amid the cornfields of Indiana, went to college amid the cornfields of Michigan, tried life amid the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and now teaches middle school English back amid the original cornfields.He writes fantasy novels and short stories.