Alone in a crumbling manor, an aging undertaker recounts a horrifying episode from the early days of his career. When an unspeakable monster trespasses the border between life and death, the undertaker finds himself in a struggle to save the village he has sworn to serve -- even if it means sacrificing his own family and faith in the process.
T.M. Camp is also author of Assam & Darjeeling.
There are few trees in my country. The low rolling hills of the region are shrouded in tall, pale grass. At night, thick mists seep into the valleys, spreading out between the high hills to smear the evening with a damp grayness.
I live outside the village in my family’s ancestral home. The house sits, squat and massive, on the rise of a high hill at the end of a lonely rutted lane that bears our name. The house was built from pale gray stone that has gone dark over the years, like something from a Gothic novel. Three stories tall it stands, crowned with a broad slate roof. My grandfather’s grandfather built this house the year the village was founded, the year my family received our charter from the guild.
People bring me their dead. By heritage, training, and perhaps even inclination, I am an undertaker. It is the family tradition, profession and homestead passed on from father to son down through the generations.
I mention my family but I am not married nor do I have children. At my age it is not likely that the former condition will be corrected in time to accomplish the latter.
Gazing down the short stretch of road ahead of me in this life, I hobble towards a day when this heritage and home will be abandoned, forgotten. And I despair for myself and the family I have betrayed.
Such was not always the case. Looking back, the enthusiasm I enjoyed in the early days of my service bafﬂes me even now. With the passing of my father, I came into my own and embraced the full weight of the ofﬁce with a conviction that served me well, in so much that it provided some measure of relief from the sorrow I felt over his passing — to say nothing of the pain of my own exile. So I shouldered his mantle and thereby accepted a life in service to the dead, forever separated from the living.
I had already said goodbye to my mother and sister when I began my apprenticeship ﬁve years prior, of course. But it wasn’t until the formal acceptance of my commission that . . . well, sufﬁce it to say that, with my father gone, I was truly alone for the ﬁrst time in my life.
The night after I buried him, I wandered through the empty rooms of the manor — my manor — realizing for the ﬁrst time how distant the mufﬂed voices and footfalls sounded from the ﬂoors above. Separated by tradition and heritage, I could not (and would not ever) ascend the stairs to comfort my mother in her grief.
Death took her son and husband, both. Like my father, I do not regret this. But I sometimes dreamt of her, even long after she too was gone.
Those were more traditional and, in many ways, simpler times. The controversies that have fractured the guild beyond repair in recent years were decades away from conception when I came into my full ofﬁce. As such, I started my life of service free from schism or debate and neither would distract me from matters of mortology.
Free from the chaos of the more fashionable causes of these modern times, my younger self let the natural order shape my life and service. Spring and summer brought new life into the world, while the cold months were traditionally busy ones for my caste, when Mother Death would walk in her orchards, collecting the windfall of winter. Of course, this was long before
the ambitions and advances of modern medicine erected that arrogant, pharmaceutical fence to keep her out.
There was a time, early in my years of service (I will not, as so many of my contemporaries do, refer to it as my “career”), there was a time when I found myself in circumstances which forced me to question these natural rhythms, to even doubt my own faith in the boundaries of life and death itself.
I’m writing of the past, of course — just another old man wandering near the boundary of this life, looking back.
I’m writing of that time when I lost my faith.