Experiment #17 – Gravedigger 1500 words

2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, Final Round
Assignment: 1500 words in 24 hours
Genre: open
Subject: side effect(s)
Character: a gravedigger

“The Caulbearer” by S.C. Jensen

Rain shrouded the classroom window in ghostly lace. Winnie stared through the veil to the grey world beyond. Her fingers worried at the leather pouch nestled against her neck. Ms. Lafleur’s voice droned on in the background but Winnie couldn’t focus on the words. Rena hadn’t shown up for school. Again.

Winnie had half made up her mind to talk to Ms. Lafleur when, just after lunch, Rena slipped into the classroom and took her seat behind Winnie. The girls didn’t say anything to one another; Rena didn’t like to draw attention to her absences. Winnie reached over and squeezed her friend’s hand. Rena squeezed back weakly with fingers like ice. Ms. Lafleur’s eyes glossed over her truant student and she kept on talking.

When the bell rang at the end of the day, Annette leaned across the aisle and whispered, “Let’s go home past Cliffside.”

Rena gave Winnie’s hair a sharp tug.

“That’s the long way,” Winnie protested and waved Rena away. “It’s pouring out there.”

“Exactly.” Annette grinned. “Perfect ghost-watching weather.”

Winnie rolled her eyes. Annette bounced out of the classroom and Rena followed, but her eyes lingered over her shoulder. Winnie slung on her backpack and trudged out the door. As she stepped into the hallway, Rena beckoned her urgently and disappeared around the corner. Winnie jogged to catch up.

The girls hovered at the edge of the school grounds in their black rain jackets, hoods up, waiting. Through the downpour they looked like spectres. Were there two or three? The hazy forms solidified into girl-shapes as Winnie approached. Annette, Rena, and another girl between them.

Annette’s dark eyes flashed. “Ready?”

“We’re going to drown out here,” Winnie grumbled.

“That’s our problem,” Annette laughed. “Not yours.”

Winnie’s hand went to the leather pouch at her throat.

“Is it true?” The moon-faced girl between Annette and Rena blinked at Winnie through horn-rimmed spectacles. “You were born with a caul?”

“It’s true, Gin!” Annette put an arm around her little sister’s shoulders and whispered dramatically. “As long as she wears that talisman she is immune to drowning—”

“Doesn’t stop me from getting cold and wet,” Winnie said.

“—and she can see ghosts!”

The colour washed out of Gin’s face with the rain. “Really?”

Winnie shrugged. That’s what Mama had always told her. Winnie didn’t believe any of it; far as she could tell the supernatural effects of a caul-birth were superstitious nonsense. But Mama made her wear the brittle, dried out membrane in the pouch around her neck always. Last time Mama caught her without the talisman she made such a fuss about it that Winnie had decided it was easier just to play along.

“I’ve never seen a ghost,” Winnie said and rolled her eyes again. Rena frowned and peered through the rain toward the harbour as if she wasn’t so sure. She said nothing.

“Not yet,” Annette said. “But today’s the day, I just know it. To Cliffside!”

Annette spun on her heels and marched up the road toward the cemetery. The girls followed her, ghost-like themselves, slowly and silently. The others seemed excited but anxiety dragged at Winnie, like a stone pulling her underwater. She hoped Annette was wrong. Rena grabbed her hand again. Freezing fingers laced between Winnie’s and tugged her along.

Cliffside Memorial Gardens was a desolate place at the eastern edge of town. Grey tombstones scattered like teeth among the basalt rock and black earth. It seemed the wind never stopped moaning up here. Mama said it was because of caves at the bottom of the cliff where the Atlantic beat against the coast and tried to knock the whole town into the ocean. Winnie had never dared get close enough to the edge to see them, though. The wailing of the caves tickled the nerves on her scalp and made her shiver. Annette grinned her mischievous grin.

There was another sound, too. An electric-blue tarp snapped and cracked in the wind, fighting against the heavy stones that held it down. A beacon of colour peeking through the torrent, it beckoned. A man leaned on his shovel next to the tarp, perhaps to make sure it didn’t fly away. The way the rain was coming down the open grave might fill with water before they could get the casket in the ground. Winnie’s chest tightened like she’d inhaled a lungful of that wet black soil. Maybe she couldn’t drown, but she felt like she was suffocating.

It wasn’t the usual groundskeeper. In fact, the man looked a little like Rena’s daddy but that couldn’t be. Rena’s old man hadn’t done an honest day’s work in his life. A mean drunk, angry at the world, he didn’t lift a hand unless it was to hit something. Most often, Rena.

Winnie glanced at her friend. For once, her complexion was even. No bruises mottled her cheekbones or the skin on her neck. But her eyes were terrified. Rena stared fixedly at the gravedigger, her expression frozen in a rictus mask. The man leered viciously and crooked his finger at her. He dug his shovel into the pile of dirt beside the grave and waited. Rena stepped behind Winnie to shield herself from his gaze.

Annette and Gin leaned on the white fence and looked across the graveyard. Annette narrowed her black eyes. She said, “Well?”

“I wonder who died.”

Annette laughed, “All of them, silly. That’s the point of cemeteries.”

“I mean the fresh one,” Winnie said. “Where the gravedigger is standing.”

Annette and Gin turned their black-hooded faces to stare at Winnie. Gin’s eyes doubled in size behind her glasses. Rena pulled on Winnie’s arm, trembling.

“There’s no one out there, Winnie.” Excitement danced across Annette’s face.

“Don’t kid me, Net.” Winnie watched the gravedigger pry up one of the bigger rocks. The tarp flapped violently. “Rena can see him, too.”

Annette’s eyes widened and the smile fell from her face. “But Rena’s not here.”

“She was just—” Winnie’s stomach twisted and she spun around. Her friend wasn’t there. Just the muddy road winding back down the hill where a black shape disappeared into the rain.

“I haven’t seen her since Thursday.” All the playfulness had disappeared from Annette’s expression. Gin’s face crumpled and she began to cry.

Winnie looked back at the gravedigger. Rena’s daddy stared right back at her, hatred oozing from him so thick it rippled in the rain. Winnie felt her lungs filling up.

“Go get the Constable.” Winnie wrapped her hand around the caul at her throat. She said, “Rena’s in trouble.”

And she ran.

Her friend’s house was little more than a shack at the bottom of the hill. A shabby harbour separated the shanty village from the rest of the town. Winnie ran through the muddy streets, barely able to see through the downpour. She didn’t knock when she got there, just burst through the door screaming, “Rena!”

The smell of the place hit her in the face like a slab of rotten meat. Something thick and dark seeped out of the tiny kitchen on her left. Rena’s old man slumped over the dinette table with a revolver in his hand. Clots of red and white splattered the wall behind him.

“Rena!” Winnie’s throat tore at the word. She stumbled into the living room, expecting the worst.

But Rena stood next to the woodstove, completely unharmed. Winnie rushed to her. “Thank God you’re okay!”

Rena said nothing. Dread ran down Winnie’s spine like ice water. Another body lay crumpled at Rena’s feet.

“No.” Winnie crouched next to the body. Rena’s body. She was so broken and battered, Winnie almost didn’t recognize her. One side of her face collapsed inward and blood pooled under her thick black hair. Winnie reached out to push the hair back, her hand shaking. Rena’s skin was icy cold. Winnie looked up at the other, unbroken Rena. She gazed sadly down at Winnie, impossibly silent.

Winnie took her friend’s hand and squeezed. The hand didn’t squeeze back. Other Rena lay down next to the broken body. Winnie grabbed her arm and shook her. “No!”

Other Rena was fading. Winnie gasped and heaved but she couldn’t get any air. She was drowning, after all. Not knowing what to do, Winnie ripped the talisman from her throat and pressed it into Rena’s hands. Ethereal eyes lingered on Winnie and the ghost slipped back into her damaged shell, smiling.

Rena’s fingers twitched. Air rushed into Winnie’s lungs like a tidal wave. Rena’s skin was cold, but not icy. Was that…? Yes. A pulse fluttered erratically under the thin flesh of her wrist. The girl’s eyes flickered open and she smiled.

The front door crashed open.

“In here!” Winnie’s voice wailed like the sea-caves. “We need an ambulance!”

She leaned over Rena’s broken body, the talisman pressed between them. Winnie squeezed Rena’s hand. Her friend squeezed back weakly, her fingers just warm enough.

Judges Feedback

“The Caulbearer” placed 12th out of 90 stories in the final round.

What The Judges Liked About Your Story

{1686}  The friendship between the girls is really well developed, and the supernatural elements are woven in very naturally.

{1955}  I was relieved when Winnie was able to save Rena by placing her talisman into her hands. I wasn’t expecting that, and it was a nice surprise. I didn’t want poor Rena to die.

You did a great job of weaving the ghostly Rena character into the story and making her seem like another living girl. Nice job! 

{1788}  Winnie’s caul made for an inventive plot point, allowing her to be an active protagonist with compassionate instincts. Her personal sacrifice was exceptional and the resolution was quite enthralling.

The girls’ interactions were full of enjoyable, child-like moments. Mischievous Annette and Gin were nice additions to the group, adding a bit of levity before the tragic discovery. 

{1846}  This creepy and frightening story begins with an intriguing (and worrisome) statement that Rena’s not shown up for school—again—followed by the compelling promise of an adventure about to be had by a spooked group of teenage girls. I loved the concept of the caul! Great plot development on page 5 when Winnie realizes Rena isn’t really there in the cemetery with them. Likewise, I felt riveted by the part in the plot where “Dread ran down Winnie’s spine like ice water” because “another body lay crumpled at Rena’s feet.” I loved the metaphors and beautiful descriptions in this story; for example, the “Grey tombstones scattered like teeth among the basalt rock and black earth” and how “The colour washed out of Gin’s face with the rain.” 

{1832}  Your visual and tactile imagery lends a sombre moodiness to the story that enhances the foreboding, suspenseful atmosphere. Your choices of what to reveal, and what to conceal, are well balanced and maintain the suspense to the end. 

{1825}  Perfect foreshadowing here– I didn’t expect the twist from the hints early in the story, but when I reread the beginning it made perfect sense.

The portrayal of the group of young, adventurous girls was also a joy to read. Stories rarely show young girls going on adventures such as ghost-watching, and it was refreshing to see that here. 

{1789}  This was a great, very creative piece!  Excellent use of dialogue and creation of a young adult world. Definitely fodder for a longer YA novel!

What the Judges Feel Needs Work

{1686}  These are small details to consider. “Net” seems like an unlikely nickname for Annette that (more common ones would be Anne or Nettie), and if the gravedigger is in fact the ghost of her friend’s father, the description of him looking “a little” like him is odd; perhaps something more like, “she could swear he looked like her friend’s father, but that couldn’t be, since he’d never worked…”

{1955}  I didn’t understand why Rena “gave Winnie’s hair a sharp tug.”

Rena’s “fingers like ice” stood out to me as suspicious (in other words, it tipped me off that maybe she was a ghost). But it wasn’t until Winnie noted her clear complexion that I felt more sure she was a ghost. If you want to continue to throw the reader off at this point, consider adding further details such as pointing out Rena seems to be under-dressed for the cold weather.

From the dialogue when the girls talk about going past Cliffside, I wondered how old they are. Consider adding a bit more character information to help orient the reader earlier. This would also help with another small issue I had.

The description of Rena’s dad as “Rena’s old man” felt a bit out of place coming from the  young Winnie character. These girls seem to me to be anywhere from ten to fourteen years old. If they are older, that description might feel more genuine. I’m just not sure of their age.

Consider introducing the relationship (of being sisters) between Annette and Winnie earlier. That threw me off a bit.

I’m not exactly sure when or where the story takes place. However, because it felt to me to be sometime in the past and in a country setting, the mention of an ambulance seemed a bit out of place. Consider adding further setting and period details to help orient the reader.

{1788}  Rena’s physical abuse would profit from further attention. The reader assumes certain things about the scenario — that her mother’s out of the picture, that it’s been going on for several years, that the school’s not looking into it — but it would be more gratifying if the author touched on all of these matters. This would answer any lingering questions the reader might have about Rena’s situation. Winnie would most likely know all of the facts, especially anything about her friend’s mother. This can be addressed without deviating from the plot; instead, it will enhance the plot point and tell the reader more about Rena’s family.

“The Caulbearer” displays wonderful originality and works particularly well due to its child protagonist. Once the author answers certain questions about Rena’s abuse, it will be that much stronger.

{1846}  In terms of revision, there are some optional avenues you might choose to explore should they appeal to you. One option is to begin the story quicker, and then thread in pertinent information as the action progresses; so—it is possible, for example, the story could start with the following line: “’Is it true?’ The moon-faced girl between Annette and Rena blinked at Winnie through horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘You were born with a caul?’” Another option is to include in the story some sort of memory Winnie has of Rena that shows that, for example, perhaps they’d played together as little girls…so her loss is even more deeply felt. Another option is to allow Rena to die rather than have the supernatural ending. Personally, I would have preferred a harsher ending than the reanimation, and somehow, the visions Winnie gets because of her caul seems believable, but the coming back to life does not (to me). This might be purely subjective of course.

{1832}  The primary opportunities I see for improvement are in some phrasing: for example, “Other Rena” is awkward, and, “Were there two or three?,” while understandable in purpose, is more effective in soeing a seed of confusion, rather than the seed of disquiet which you are hoping for. It stretches credibility a bit that Winnie does not at first see the body at Other Rena’s feet; similarly, your depiction of Real Rena is so battered that it introduces a challenge to readers’ willingness to accept what happens next. 

{1825}  I really enjoy this story, but it feels more like a part of a longer story than a self-contained short story. The main thing I think is missing here is the depth of Rena and Winnie’s friendship.  I can tell that Winnie cares about Rena, but since Rena is a ghost through most of the story and the two barely interact, it’s difficult to understand their friendship on a more emotional level. Would it be possible to work in dialogue or a memory that shows Winnie and Rena acting like best friends?

{1789}  Overall, try to watch the language used to describe the interior thoughts of the characters. As young girls, they would likely think in terms much less linguistically advanced than are used here. Using more “young girl” language would just add more authenticity to the piece and to the characters.

More Feedback

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