The Barrow Lover

chasing inspiration here – a ghost story popped into my head. here’s the start

***
THE BARROW LOVER
Part One – The White Lady’s Headstone

“The dead are patient,” my mother used to say. “They can’t come back to us but they know in their bones we all go to them, sooner or later.”
It wasn’t true, what my mother said. Not that we don’t all die; we do. No escaping that. It was the dead she was wrong about: they can come back.

And not all of them are patient.

***

Padraig O’Doule was a Dowser. Which was good, except when it wasn’t.

You see the problem with Paddy – or his dowsing, depending on how you looked at it – was that he tended to find stuff people had hid on purpose, stuff they didn’t want found.

Dirty things. Dark things.

And digging up secrets – ugly or otherwise – had a way of getting people mad. And mad people – depending on who they were – were dangerous. Dangerous to Paddy. Dangerous to me, his best mate, Declan Flood.

Dangerous to a whole lot of folk, as it turned out.

But it’s not like them mad, dangerous people plant markers saying “Leave this one be, ya daft bastard!” So I ask you, how could we have known?

It started a fair enough day. The snow was weeks gone. An earnest sun was peeking through the trees, pledging yet another summer. The birds were larking away and the air was all snappy with new green and hawthorn. I was along for the shoveling and Paddy was just doing what he always did, that morning in the woods: dowsing.

Which is how we found a locket atop a little hill.

I had turned the spade maybe three times before Paddy bent over and plucked it from the dirt.

“Shit me,” I said. “That looks old.”

“Fookin yeah it does,” Paddy answered. “Worth a bit, you think?”

“Two silver, if it’s olden.”

Paddy spit, rubbed with his thumb. It gleamed through the smeary mud. “Fookin flash, is what it is, Dec. Two for sure.”

“Lemme see,” I cried, and he tossed it my way.

Round, heavy, flat as a river stone, it fit nice in my palm. I hefted it for show, then winked at Paddy for good luck before scrutinizing the finding.
Saliva and tobacco juice had cleared the loam, revealing that dull yellow we were so keen on. I hawked my own sauce and rubbed more.

Indeed, indeedy do, gold is what it was.

But even curiouser was the engraving; tiny, twisty script coiling around the edge, spiraling in to the center. Or spiraling out from the center, depending on how you looked at it.

I had stayed in school ’til my secondaries, but these weren’t like any letters I’d ever seen. “Gold, yes. Olden, maybe. Foreign, sure as sure,” I murmured.

“Three silver!” Paddy shouted with a wild, happy grin. “Done for the day, I say. We hit Fade’s on the way back to town. Cash up, then it’s Teagan’s best in my cup for lunch.”

“And dinner.”

“And dinner,” Paddy admitted.

Teagan Cooney ran the local watering hole, and she was good for plenty, including leaving you to sleep at the tables, providing you’d tipped back enough of her cider. She was the easy part of the plan. Fade was another matter.

Meechum Fade was a purveyor of ‘Curiosities and Antiques’, which mostly meant busted old farm furniture and oddments scrounged from the town dump. A thick boar of a man, he was a notorious skinflint, and the only pawn for twenty miles in any direction.

Local wag had Fade being somebody of mention in his younger days, most popular story painting him a fancy-pants banker who fell afoul of his patron for skimming too much cream off the action. Tale went he barely escaped the guillotine, and fled the ireful gentry in the wee hours with naught but the clothes on his back and purse full of silver crowns. When he finally ran out of steam, he found himself in Carn, County Crae, so he changed his moniker, hung a shingle, and set to fleecing us locals in a vain attempt to regain his fortune. Meechum Fade traded his silk and big head pomp for a life of homespun anonymity with his head still attached.

Whoever Fade used to be, he’d been heaped behind his counter like a sack of unwashed laundry, haggling over knickknacks day in and day out for the better part of two decades. He had scowly, jowly baby face, two tufts of wire brush hair at odds with his dome, and a jeweler’s loupe ‘petually screwed in one eye. Grunts and numbers being the extent of his conversations, to say Fade was a man with a tight fist and few words would be generous indeed.

At the very back of Fade’s, under a long and battered brass piano lamp, stood a small glass case of assorted shiny bits: ancient pocket watches leashed to tarnished chains, jilted nuptial bands, loops of spindly silver necklaces, Grannies’ old broach … two shelves of mothy velvet lined with memories bartered away for a handful of copper. Paddy was sure ole Fade would nudge a space for this pretty dollop of mislaid bygones, easy as pie. Then the two of us could enjoy the rewards of our labor for a pair of days, at least.

Cupping it like a scoop of water on one hand, I lifted the locket close and traced the swirly script with my other finger. I squinted in case it’d help with ciphering. Paddy leaned in to watch me, the both of us bent over, breathing all nosey and hush-like. But it was no use. Any reading off that spider scratch needed a big city preceptor with a tonsure and halitosis.

Just then, the sky dropped like a wool tarp and the light drained right out of the woods. The air turned with a nip. A bank of clouds had rolled in. My finger must have hit the latch in that same instant, because the face popped up like a cricket.

Paddy jumped back. “Fook Dec, ya startled me.”

A chill bit my thumb where I was holding the rim, but I squeezed out a laugh. “Near widdled my knickers too.” I smirked. “Look at us, all scardy at some skirt’s old trinket.”

Paddy jutted his chin. “So open it then, you’re so plucky.”

I teased the lid back with my finger… and there she was. The saddest, prettiest girl I’d ever laid eyes on.

There are plenty of lookers in County Crae, the Sweeney Triplets being at the top of my To Do list. But this one… this girl was near holy as an angel; fancy dress, dark hair bundled up, long neck, fine, high cheeks. A mouth sweet as a plum and made for kisses. She was the kind of woman you go to war in distant lands for, fair as a summer’s eve, eternal as the moon.

Loveliness drew your gaze, but it was her loneliness that threw the bolt. Made me want to cry, the sadness seeping off that tiny face. It was like every love ever lost and every promise ever broken, a stain deeper than the sepia she was colored in.

Strangest of all was her eyes were shut.

Not screwed tight in a pique or playing coy, but like the daguerreotype had caught her sleeping, charmed like some princess in a fairy tale. All that beauty frozen still as the grave.

“Fook me, if she ain’t the queen of somewhere,” Paddy whispered.

All I could do was nod.

Winds kicked up, heavy with the iron scent of a brewing storm. The day went dusky and hunched. I shivered, snapped the face of the locket shut.

“Come on,” Paddy said. “Let’s go.”

***

We left the woods and cut across the fields straight for town. Neither of us spoke much. I slipped the locket in my jacket pocket. It was heavy for such a small thing, tugging down almost like it needed burying again. I actually shifted the shovel on my other shoulder to balance it out. My mind was churning like a mill, ruminating whos and hows and whys. All I got was froth for my trouble.

County Crae had a rugged beauty, but it was too poor, too north, with too many boulders and brambles for the titled to fancy our hills for their halls. And there’d been no tell of reivers or brigands for half a century. Pondering the sleeping queen’s pedigree was like wrestling a sainted mystery.

Paddy might have been brooding the same, but most likely he was arithmeticing coins with tankards, adding a good tuck, and maybe a tart for ‘dessert’. Vicar Duffy always says mortals can only carry so much; when the Lords gives thither, He has to take yon. Paddy had the touch, sure as sure, but his idea of history was a fortnight past. Like a duck, he wasn’t the type to perplex over much.

Unlike me, the weather made up its mind. A wall of thunderheads had piled up and were scudding our way like a giant, dark castle, rumbleous with lightning. I spied rain curtains looming across the fields, so Paddy and I jogged through the barley and made the crossroad just as the first fat drops pelted down. Fades’ establishment was in sight.

Hollering, we bounded through the door and paused under the lintel to drip off a bit and let our eyes adjust.

The place was like a root cellar. Or a badger’s den. What I imagine a badger’s den to be like, anyway. Low ceilings, dim light, crammed with vaguely felonious articles stored against an impending lean season. It had a distinct blend of smells: old wood, damp soil, and pipe tobacco. An avalanche of chairs was froze in one corner, a buttress of cupboards and canning shelves lined one wall. A thicket of unlit lamps bristled along the other. A dozen clocks told a dozen times. Cairns of books were raised on every flat surface, monumenting the demise of some poor sod’s literacy. Some reached to the rafters, their gilded titles glistened like pyrite veins in granite.

And at the back, past all the various and sundry, in a pool of oily yellow light, sat Meechum Fade.

He barely glanced up when were entered. “Shut it tight,” he barked.

Paddy nudged me. Three words was a good sign. Fade was downright hearty today.

Paddy took the lead, navigating through the mess like a dancer across a crowded floor. “You’re gonna be keen on this one, Mr. Fade.”

I set my shovel down and followed in his wake. “Genuine heirloom, this is.”

Meechum Fade waved us back, grunting disbelief and consent in the same breath. You have to admire eloquence like that.

There was some debate in town as to whether Fade had feet: no one could remember ever seeing him walk. Resulting from a torturous parenthesis during his alleged pilfering and flight, the footless crowd went so far as to assert Fade weren’t on a stool at all, but a fancy privy chair on wheels. That way, they said, he could make mud without stopping his coin fondling. Someone always knew someone who swore they’d seen him rolling about his place after dark, poling the floorboards with his ankle stubbies.

Not that anyone could corroborate that bit of tosh, but it was a captivating controversy once you got a few drinks in you.

Paddy was at the counter antsy as a puppy, grinning like a fool. He could taste his share already. I fished the locket out and pressed it into Fade’s outstretched palm careful as a communion wafer.

Fade harumphed, shifted his bulk and bent over our finding.

The storm was in full swing; lightning flickering, thunder booming like cannon, hoofbeats of gusty rain tearing across the slate roof. Maybe the sky did shiver, maybe I just blinked, but the second Fade spotted the locket, I swore he went still as a field mouse in front of a snake.

He sniffed a heartbeat later. “Could be cleaner, but it’s not bad.”

“It’s gold, right?” I asked.

Fade nodded, staring at it.

Paddy practically giggled. “So what’s the ‘Praisal?”

Fade tore his gaze away, the sheeny loupe and bright blue eye glued on me instead. “Where’d ya find this?” A hard question with a light touch.

“What? You think there’s more?” Paddy asked. “I felt the place brimming with something.”

“East. In the woods over the creek,” I answered.

Fade’s bald head bobbed once.

Paddy leaned over. “Open it,” he said helpfully. “Catch is on the edge. The lass innit is pretty as May.”

The big man ran a hesitant finger around the rim. Twice. Nothing happened.

“Here,” Paddy grabbed for it. “Let Dec try. He did it afore –”

“I believe you,” Fade said quickly, and the locket disappeared into the folds of his apron like a magic trick.

“So you’ll take it?” Paddy queried.

“Six silver,” Fade pronounced.

My mouth dropped open. Paddy yipped with glee.

Two stacks of tarnished copper slid our way.”Three in pennies now. The rest tomorrow.”

Paddy’s hand swept in like a hawk, scooped up the coins. “Done.”

The blue eye fixed me again, the merchant’s words soft as sand over gravel. “And you won’t be noising this about.” Old Fade wasn’t requesting; it was a condition of the sale.

“So you do think there’s more…” Paddy said. “We’ll head back–”

“I think you needs keep your cheese pipe shut,” Fade bit off each word.

I stared. The dumpy man had turned sharp around the edges. I had a sudden worry how deep it went.

Paddy didn’t notice. He was clinking coins one hand into the other like drops off a spigot, already down the road in Teagans. “Don’t you worry about us, Mr. Fade. We’ll be otherwise occupied.”

Our audience concluded, Meechum Fade waved us off with a stare that held me responsible.

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