Samuel Coffin be my name, Old Sam they call me or Coffin Sam and I reckon no man has ever been so aptly named given their occupation. A bone man I am by trade and have been for nigh on twenty years and suspect I’ll go on being one until I’m naught but bones my own self.
Sudbury to Barnsley all the way down to Salisbury is my route, scavenging whatever I think might turn a pence or two. Most blokes in my business tend to be unsavory types, tossers and lay-a-bouts rooting through other folk’s leavings, an old sack pitched o’er their shoulders to collect their pickings, low men with lower expectations. Now, I consider myself more a merchant. I own me own horse and wagon and I’m more likely to pay for your odds and sods than to sort through your rubbish. I’d rather pay a farthing for a pound of rags that I can resale in London than clamber about in someone else’s filth.
Rags though, by and large, are of minor importance to me. I am, first and foremost as I believe I’ve said, a bone man and that is my preferred commodity; animal bones, domestic or wild, make fine fertilizer and grind up into an excellent glue. Even human bones can be put to better use than rotting away in ground. Not doing anyone any good like that now are they? But strip ‘em of their flesh, bleach ‘em all white and lovely and they make fine knife handles and ornaments, even toys for the tots.
Though my own preference is to grind them up into a nice, fine powder, mix them with my own special combination of herbs and voila, thar ye have it – Old Sam’s Restorative Elixir. Just two pence a bottle and guaranteed to cure most common ailments, and a few not so common or your money back.
It might seem a gruesome occupation, one fit only for vultures and muck snipes but I’ve always had a way with bones. I simply parlayed my skills into a profitable line ‘o work same as any other bloke. My customers are privy to my, admittedly, morbid interests and are apt to save up their best ivory until my route brings me past their doors. So I was not a wee bit surprised when I came upon old Maggie Thistlewaite waving at me from the side of the road.
I was just south of Amesbury and had hopes of making town before dark set in but the old dame looked so much like a squat, dumpy toad hopping up and down and flailing her arms that I thought she might just launch herself to the moon.
Sighing, I pulled up aside her, tugging gently on Charlotte’s reigns to bring her to a halt and tipped my hat like a proper gentleman. “Hullo, Mrs. Thistlewaite! Fine evening innit?”
“Bah, tis ‘nother hot one ‘tis is. Whole bleeding summer’s been a scorcher. I for one will be happy to see cooler days come around.”
That was Maggie alright, never an optimistic word.
“Well, it has been a mite hot I s’pose. Now, is there something I could do ye for? Some more of those fine clay pots for trade?” I replied as politely as I could muster.
“Naw. Got some old bones I’d like to unload. Roy found ‘em when he was turning the field last Spring.”
“Ahh! And how is Mr. Thistlewaite fairing? As fit as ever I hope?”
“How the bollocks should I know? The old duffer done run off with that trollop Molly from down at The Wolf’s Head right after the planting.”
“Eh…sorry to hear that Maggie,” I said.
“Why? I’m not. Good riddance to bad rubbish I say. Better off without him.” She spit on the ground as way of accenting her disgust. “Well, come on then. ‘Aven’t got all day to be spinning the story of me life, now do I?”
The Thistlewaite homestead was a squalid, little shack that sat just off the road. It was mostly sod and stone with a thatched roof that was always leaking. Inside was two little rooms filled with bric-a-brac and fitted out in Roy Thistlewaite’s shoddy homemade furniture. An ancient, iron pot hung over an open hearth, boiling a foul smelling soup that would turn Old Scratches stomach. Atop a lopsided, makeshift dining table, spread out on a swath of ratty burlap were a pile of bones I immediately recognized as human.
“Well, there ye be. Two full sets of skeletons as far as I can make it. Good, for a shilling or two I reckon?” Maggie said.
“Well, now. These look to be in right fine condition. Ye say Roy pulled ‘em out of the field?”
“Yessir. Pulled ‘em right out. Raised quite a fuss he did, yelling and going on about uncovering a forgotten cemetery or some such rot. But all he found was the two, weren’t even buried in a proper box. Just tossed in a hole with some dirt shoveled o’er ‘em”
I pretended to carefully study each skeleton, picking up each bone and inspecting it, occasionally making a worrisome clicking sound just to sell my ruse. Secretly, I was delighted.
The skeletons were in immaculate condition and I doubted if Roy had dug these straight out of the ground. I rather suspected Old Magpie of doing a little grave robbing. Not that it mattered to me; times were hard and with her husband gone and run off, why I suppose she was doing what she needed to get along. Good Lord knows she couldn’t make it as a sporting gal, not with her age and loathsome, craggy face. Personally, I could understand why Roy would run off with Molly. Though Molly herself were no prize, she was a damn sight more pleasing to look at than Maggie.
“Well on with ye now Sam. Standing there tsking and grumbling like an old goat, are ye interested or not?” She said.
“Now, Maggie I have to be careful ye know. Got to make sure they’s all there and whatnot. Can’t hardly make an offer if I don’t know what I’m purchasing.”
“Just don’t take all night about it. It’s already dusk and I got my chores to finish up.”
I sighed, pretended to study a bit more then said, “How does a shilling sound for the lot?”
Maggie put her doughy fists on her ample hips and nearly spat. “A shilling? One shilling? I’ll have ye know I spent hours cleaning those up special for you. Got rid of all the meat and gristle just the way ye like. Make it two and I’ll even throw in a bowl of yonder soup I’m cooking up.”
Suddenly, it occurred to me just what Maggie might be boiling in her soup. “Pardon Maggie, didn’t know ye went to so much trouble. I reckon two shillings won’t send me to the poorhouse but I’ll decline the soup, thank ye kindly.” I rubbed my stomach for effect. “Have a touch of the grippe right at the moment.”
“Been drinking yer own elixir, have you? Last bottle Roy bought, he was in the privy for a week. Howling and carrying on about his ring being ripped out. Cured his head pain though.”
“Well there ye go then,” I replied, sheepishly. As hastily as possible I pressed 2 shillings into Maggie’s doughy palm, bundled up my new acquisitions and Bob’s your uncle I was back on my wagon headed east.
It was full dark by the time I reached the turn that would take me near the old Druid runes. I had no great fear of traveling by night, I’d spent many a night camped out with only the stars and old Charlotte for company, but ‘twas rumored that a nasty bunch of highwaymen had been preying on unwary travelers here abouts. ‘Sides those old ruins always gave me the creeps. Once, I swear on me nana’s grave, I saw a troop of fairy folk dancing and singing around those old stones beneath the light of a blood moon. It scared Charlotte something fierce and I near loss control of the wagon when she bolted, we were quite a ways past the ruins before I could calm her down. And to be honest, I was a mite scairt myself.
I decided rather than risk my meager wares I would stop for the night at a local inn I knew nearby, where I might get a hot meal, warm bed and quaff the road dust with a few pints or seven.
It was with these happy visions dancing about my head that, at first, caused me to dismiss the murmurings I was hearing. I figured they was a conversation from a passing farmhouse carried by an errant breeze. Such acoustic anomalies were not unheard of, nevertheless I hied Charlotte to quicken her pace just in case a robber was lurking nearby, ready to deprive an honest merchant of his merchandise or his life. Then another snippet of conversation came to me, this time very clear and audible.
“Can’t believe she really did it.”
“And why not? She was always a daft old bird.”
The voices were low, one male, one female, though I did not have to strain to make out the words.
“Just ye wait ‘til I get me hands on her…” The male voice said.
“And just how are ye supposed to do that? ‘Tis a bit too late to get yer ‘ands on anything,” the female replied.
“Well, just sayin’…”
“Yer bloody well dead now, so might as well get used to it. She did us good and proper.”
“Can’t believe she sold us off to the bone man. Not even given the dignity of a proper burial. He’ll probably grind us into glue and then where will be? Holding together some old bugger’s shoe soles most likely.”
“Glue? That’s Coffin Sam, he’d rather turn us into that foul elixir he peddles.”
“Oy!” the male exclaimed, “Not that shite. Bought a bottle once. Swore it would cure me of me megrims but only gave me the trots something awful. Thought I was going to tear me ring right out.”
I relaxed when I realized what I was hearing. “Twas no desperate band of cutthroats planning murder at all, just a couple of skeletons moaning on about their demise.
I believe I mentioned I had a way with bones? Well, part of that is the ability to converse with them. Normally, it required a good amount of concentration to communicate with the dead, but this pair seemed especially chatty.
“Eh, pipe down back there ‘fores you spook Charlotte here,” I said, figuring to take the piss out of them a bit.
“Is he talking to us?” asked the male.
“Now how could he hear us?”
“’Course I’m talkin’ to ye. Don’t hear no other bones rattling on now, do ya’?”
“Sam, if ye can hear us, this is Roy Thistlewaite and Molly Evans. My Maggie has done murder on us, boiled off our flesh and sold us off for bone meal.”
I admit t’was a thought I had turned over in my mind for a brief moment. I never had taken much of a cotton to Maggie Thistlewaite and while I didn’t put murder past her, I was hesitant to queer the deal, so quickly dismissed the idea. Now it looked like my transaction was headed south anyway. I was also quite grateful to have passed on Maggie’s soup.
“Sorry to hear that Roy but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it…” I paused before adding, “Given yer present condition that is.”
“What do ye mean by that? Our present condition is exactly what should be of concern.”
Molly piped in; at least she had sense enough to see their predicament. “He means there ain’t no telling who we are. Maggie made sure of that when she boiled us away.”
“Molly’s right Roy. I could take your remains to the High Sheriff but with no way to support yer story, he likely won’t have no reason to pursue the case. After all, it’s not like he can hear ye.”
“Piss all! That daft munter is going to skate right by this. Must be some way to get her to confess…” Roy’s voice trailed off, lost and uncertain.
I shook my head, though I knew they had no way of seeing me. “Don’t reckon Maggie’s the confessing type. A woman able to do cold murder is most likely not easily rattled.”
We rode along in silence for a few miles, serenaded by a choir of crickets and the faint lowing of cattle from a distant farm. I only hoped once they saw there was really nothing to do about their situation, they would give up the ghost, so to speak, and move on to Heaven or Purgatory or wherever the souls of the dead go when they been murdered by a murderous, cuckolded wife. Alas, it wasn’t long before Roy tried again.
“Sam, ye don’t suppose ye might be willing to see, like…maybe Maggie has a bit of an accident of a fatal nature?”
“Roy!” Molly exclaimed in shock.
I hauled back on Charlotte’s reigns, pulling her to a hard stop and looked back towards the bag of bones.
“Are ye suggesting I do Maggie for ye Roy?”
“Well, maybe just give ‘er a little shove into the well or something like that. Maybe accidentally pour some of the poison she used on Molly and me in her tea.”
“Afraid I can’t help ye there Roy. I’m not averse to a bit of larceny in hard times but I don’t reckon I have murder in me.” I flicked Charlotte’s reigns and got her back up to a trot.
“I could make it worth yer while. I have a goodly sum of coin squirreled away. Even Maggie didn’t know about it.”
I laughed. “Roy, I’ve seen yer place. I dare say you’ve not two crowns to rub together.”
“I DO SO!” He protested, “Been saving up so’s Molly and me could run off. Got near 60 pounds buried out behind the shed.”
Once again, I brought Charlotte to such a sudden halt, I near went flying off the wagon’s rickety wooden seat and right onto Charlotte’s back.
“Now how did the likes ‘o you go about earning such a princely sum?” I asked, trying to sound disbelieving, but Roy had protested so hard that I was fairly positive he was telling the truth.
“Oh dear,” Molly sighed.
“Wot? Not bleeding likely to be arrested now, am I? Might as well tell him.”
“Tell me what Roy?”
“Well…normally, I’m as honest as any feller but I really wanted us to get away. Maybe even go to America. So I embarked on a small enterprise…a not entirely legal enterprise.”
“And just what sort of enterprise was that?”
“I take it ye heard the stories about the band of highwaymen who been prowling the road hereabouts?”
I acknowledged that such tales had indeed reached my ears, as such stories invariably do, and he admitted that this vicious band was just him and Molly in disguise. Sometimes Tom Woolston, a neighbor, accompanied them. Tom was a touch on the slow side but eager to assist for a small percentage.
Still, even the lure of 60 pounds wasn’t enough for me to consider murder. Then Molly spoke up.
“Sam just where are we right now? And the hour? What time do ye reckon it is?”
“Why we’re on the old Stonehenge Road, not too far from the old Druid runes. It’s just a little after dusk. I hope to make the inn before then. Don’t much like the idea of riding past those evil rocks after dark.”
“And the moon? Is it full?”
“Full as a young lasses bosom.”
“I ‘ave an idea. Ye might not like it though.”
And she was right, I hated it. But persuaded by the thought of those 60 pounds waiting for me, I agreed to her plan.
As we approached those accursed ruins, a shiver rippled through my spine; the proverbial goose prancing over my grave. Even from the road, in the dark I could clearly make out those daunting stone monoliths, standing alone on the plains. When we were within walking distance to the ruins, I halted Charlotte and climbed off my wagon. Filled with a hefty dose of misgiving, I circled to the back and hauled out the bag containing the remains of poor Roy and Molly, ignoring their complaints of ‘be careful man’ and ‘stop jostling so’.
“Hush! It’s spooky enough out here without yer incessant prattling,” I growled, adding a spade to my load.
The moon, like a grinning, malignant skull, hung full and low over the bleak ruins. The night air had turned decidedly chill and silent, not even the usual accompaniment of insects dared disturb the uneasy quiet. Under these unnerving conditions, the stones appeared hostile sentinels from some ancient time, a black age when men worshipped foul gods and performed blood rites in their honor.
Such was the effect on my psyche, a vision began to take shape before my unbelieving eyes; a waking dream of a primal, savage people, acolytes of an unspeakable deity, dancing a mad, swirling dervish by the light of a blazing bonfire, their guttural voices raised in a cacophonous, perverse song.
Then the high priest appeared, wearing a stag head-dress and a wolf skin tunic. He lifted his arms over his head and in his hands he held the tiny, squealing body of a wee infant. At the sight of the child, the worshippers turned even more vicious and uncontrolled, ripping at their own flesh, gnashing and snarling at each other. And just when their blood lust reached a fevered crescendo, The High Priest suddenly slung the infant’s crying body against one of the huge, sarsen stones. The child’s brains exploded in a spray of blood and bone that dripped black and ivory in the moonlight.
My mind, numb with shock, tried to make sense of what I was seeing. I attempted to cry out in protest against the travesty unfolding on those accursed plains, but my words stuck in my craw and all I could manage was a weak, ineffectual moan. Tears welled in my eyes. Though I knew this to be only a mere phantasm, a ghostly echo from olden days, I also knew such atrocities had been perpetuated on this spot many hundreds of times.
Ceremoniously, the High Priest held up the child’s shattered corpse by one leg and shouted a name in some profane, forgotten language, a name that I did not recognize but one that filled me with the blackest dread I had ever known. Fearing my sanity was about to be irrevocably broken, I dropped to my knees and shut tight my eyes, muttering a silent prayer for my soul.
Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the vision was gone and there was only me, kneeling beside my wagon looking out across the plains at those hateful, demonic relics of the dead past.
Aye, there was magic here alright. Dark magicks, far beyond anything a simple bone-man should be mucking with, but I had promised Roy and Molly. And then there was the promised fortune to spur me on. Still weeping, I noticed the bones of Roy and Molly spilled out all over the ground. Cursing myself for a clumsy fool, I gathered up their bones and shoved them back into the bag. All the while they continued to plague me with insults and their officious prattling.
Grunting, I slung the bag over my shoulder and began trudging heavily towards the site where I had witnessed that obscene hallucination. Something told me this was the focal point of the place’s dark magic, the very spot where the ancient ley lines converged to create a powerful fulcrum of supernatural energy. This is where I needed to plant my two bony friends, though it terrified me all the way to my bowels to think of going any nearer that black place.
Trembling, I reached the circle of fallen and leaning stones and dropped my bundle on the ground. Picking up my spade, I glanced around nervously one more time, feeling naked and exposed in the open and began turning the earth as fast as I could manage.
I made quick work of the shallow holes, being sure to get both sets of bones firmly in place before filling it back in. Giving the makeshift grave a final pat with the back of my spade, I stretched my back, rubbing my spine with one hand. Out of the corner of my eyes, I caught a glimpse of the stone upon which the High Priest had bashed the poor infant’s brains. Though I knew my vision had been a depiction of an event from millennia ago, I thought I could still see the black stain of the infant’s blood.
Digging a pair of shiny gold coins out my purse, I placed them atop the grave. Though it pained me to part with so precious a possession, the fairy folk coveted gold above all else and Roy had promised my reward would repaid a hundred times over. Hastily, I grabbed my spade and hurried back across the plains towards Charlotte and my wagon.
Charlotte whinnied gratefully at my return, looking hopeful that we would soon be on our way. I whispered soft assurances that it would not be much longer, but for now, we would have to wait. Wait for whatever dark spell to manifest that would allow Roy and Molly to exact their revenge. It was an old legend, the way Molly explained it; bury their bones within the sacred circle, present a tempting offer and the little people might fulfill a boon.
I climbed up on my wagon, wrapped myself in an old blanket and settled down to wait. It was not long before I drifted off to a troubled sleep, tormented by uneasy dreams where it was I lying upon the cold, sacrificial stone as the people of the circle writhed in their hysterical, ceremonial dance. The High Priest approached, a cruel smile carved on his leering face, a crude dagger of bone raised above his head. I struggled to rise but was held fast by some unseen force I could not see. No matter how I fought and tossed my body, I could break free and just as he plunged the dagger toward my heart…
I awoke, sweat beading on my brow and a hand clutched to my chest. After ascertaining I was still among the living, the first thing I noticed was how high the moon had risen in the sky. From its current position, I took it to be not long after midnight. The second thing I noticed was the air felt charged with electricity, like the precursor to an impending storm.
A cold, mist crawled over the plains, bathing the ruins in an eerie, translucent glow. Inside the mist, dark figures appeared to be moving, swaying and turning to and fro, right in the place I had buried Roy and Molly. I rubbed the sleep from my bleary eyes, squinting hard to make out more clearly the forms I was seeing. As my eyes adjusted, I was not surprised to see that these shapes indeed belonged to a troop of the Little People, called to the sacred circle by the bones and gold coins I had left behind.
Mayhap it was just the play of light off the mist, but the longer I stared the clearer my vision became until I could see the tiny figures as plain as the hand in front of my face. There were perhaps two dozen of the Wee Folk, reeling around in an odd, circular dance that recalled my earlier vision.
No sprite, fairytale pixies were these, with firefly wings and gossamer tresses; nae these were squat, ugly wee men and women, turned out in rough, handmade leather jerkins and ragged patchwork dresses. Their wrinkled and deep-lined faces were as brown and leathery as the old boots they wore on their feet. Their lumpy, misshapen torsos appeared twice the length of their stubby, bowlegs. I judged not one to be more than two and a half feet in height.
I sat watching them for some time, fascinated yet sickened, before I realized I could hear the steady pounding of drums, beating a devil’s cantata that echoed across the plains. Then these nasty, loathsome trolls began singing to the music in strident, unmelodic voices that sounded like the caterwauling of demon-possessed cats. The longer the dance went, the louder the drums and singing became, growing fiercer and more clamorous until I clamped my hands to my ears to drown them out. Quaking, I curled up in a ball, feeling my body vibrate from sheer force of the drumbeats.
Just when I thought I could bear it no more, the drums ceased and the singing faded away. Reluctantly, I uncovered my ears and peeped through cautious, half-opened eyes.
The Wee Folk had slipped back into the mist from whence they came, leaving in their wake two full grown figures standing in the midst of the stone circle. My heart fluttered in my chest, warbling like a weak bird trying to escape its cage. There was no doubt, though my mind wanted to deny the truth of my eyes, that I was looking at the reanimated corpses of Roy Thistlewaite and Molly Evans. Haltingly, they stumbled towards me, as clumsy as babes on their reconstituted legs.
As they came nearer, I offered a silent prayer that they weren’t hungry for human flesh. They certainly appeared ravenous. The little people’s magic was powerful but not so strong to make them as they were before. Indeed, both appeared to only partially restored; rotten, ragged flesh flapped from their bodies, much of the bones still visible and their faces were like leering death heads with only the thinnest layer of bare muscle stretched taut over their skulls. They resembled nothing so much as a drawing from some depraved physician’s anatomy text. It was also apparent by the worms and grubs crawling through their flesh, the fairies had used the earth itself to fashion their improvised skin-suits.
“Well? Wot ye gawking at Sam? Molly’s plan worked.” Roy said when they reached the wagon, spitting out a few teeth for his effort.
“No piss it worked. But pardon me Roy if I say, you look a bit worse for the wear.”
“Shut yer bone box, man. Not pleasant being in his fake skin either. Itches like the dickens.”
“And I got maggots crawling through me minge.” Molly piped in, appalled.
“Cor! Molly don’t be disgusting.”
“Now what Roy? Not planning on maybe offing me first?” I asked, trying to sound glib, though not succeeding in my own ears.
Roy looked rather put-off by such a disparagement upon his honor.
“Course not,” he replied with such vigor that one of his bulging eyes popped right out of its worm infested socket, forcing him to fumble it back in. “Course not Sam. Just come along about dawn and ye’ll find yer money waiting. Well, Molly let’s be off. Gotta pay a visit to the missus.”
“Oh won’t she be surprised?” Molly replied as the pair shuffled off, heading back towards the Thistlewaite farm.
As the pair faded, I heard Roy complaining that he hoped he didn’t slough off his skin before they got there. In the meantime, I wasted no time getting back on the wagon and putting some distance between me and those blasted stones.
I didn’t make the inn and settled for a makeshift bed in the back of the wagon, not that I actually slept any. Just tossed and turned until the sun poked its red eye out over the horizon. Breakfast was a hasty bit of jerky as I turned Charlotte around and headed towards the farm, uneasy and wary of what horrors I might find waiting there for me.
Even in the brightness of a lovely dawn, the farm looked depressing; more like the abandoned lair of some wild beast than the home of a middle-aged married couple. There was no sign of disturbance from the outside; the place was just a ramshackle hut of muted colors, leaky roof and dangling shutters.
I approached the door, hesitantly, and gave it a good rap. “Maggie? Maggie Thistlewaite you up and about? It’s Sam Coffin, Old Sam.”
When no one answered I tried again. “Roy you in there? You done with your business yet?”
I reached down, gave the knob a turn. The door opened easily if not a little too loudly for my liking.
Inside, the place resembled an abattoir. Maggie’s corpse decorated every square inch of the tiny house. Her body had been hacked into dozens of pieces and spread from floor to ceiling. The walls were painted in blood and viscera. Scattered on the floor was a pile of jumbled bones. Roy and Molly I suspected, rendered back to their previous skeletal state now that their revenge was complete.
Swallowing, I fought to keep my rising gorge in check. Only the weakness in my knees kept me from immediately turning and fleeing the charnel house. Then my eyes alit upon the dining table where Maggie’s head sat propped up on the gristle and muscled remains of her neck, her eyes and mouth gaped open in unbelieving horror. Beside her was a small wooden box.
It took every ounce of fortitude I had to approach that grotesque nightmare and with a quaking hand open the box. Inside was a sizable number of pound notes, coins and even a few odd bits of jewelry that I knew I would have no problem fencing in London. I slammed the lid shut, shoved the box beneath my coat and lumbered for the door as fast as my legs would carry me.
As I opened the door I heard Roy’s voice. “Thank ye Sam. We can rest now.”
“Oh yes, thank ye so much. And have a lovely day Sam,” Molly rang out cheerily as I slammed the door shut behind me.
Silently, I promised myself to avoid Salisbury at all cost from now on and that’s one promise I plan on keeping.