Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring

There was something more civilized about a town that could bury its dead, if they stayed dead, and so Folkvarder Gray put out the notice for a gravedigger.

***

John the gravedigger was the best in the Nyr Nord Territory. He dug them narrow and he dug them deep, and when he came to Konstan Spring he provided references from Nyr Odin, where he had been called in to exercise his craft after the second English War for the Territory.

Folkvarder Gray looked over the letters, and then he shook John’s hand and took the “Gravedigger Wanted” sign out of the window, and felt very satisfied.

***

The water in Konstan Spring was warm all year, and it ran clear and pure, and once you drank it all your cuts and aches and pains vanished from you as if they were caught up in the current.

The town was young (everything in that country was young) and did no great business. The land around the spring had to be worked to coax any crops from the dirt, and it was so far from the sea or the railroad or the Nations tribal gatherings that there was no profit in hotels or in trading.

The general store and the saloon, the chemist and the town lodge, the blacksmith and the whorehouse, tended to those who lived there; there was little other need. The folkvarder’s office, with its little jail cell, stayed empty. There was no trouble to be had; people only found Kostan Spring by accident, and often hurried through on their way to someplace greater.

All the same, some lonesome souls had found their way to Konstan Spring.

It was a town that suited painstaking people, and when the town gathered for meetings to decide if newcomers should be given the water, the votes were orderly, and there was hardly a raised voice in the lodge.

(Mrs. Domar was sometimes louder than most people cared for, but the town was loyal to its own—where else could someone go, who had tasted the water in Konstan Spring?—and no fuss was made about her.)

***

The only man to bring the water out of Konstan Spring had been Hosiah Frode, the old chemist. Two years back he had written “KONSTAN’S ALE—MIRACLE TONIC” on his wagon and taken three barrels, early one morning before Folkvarder Gray could stop him.

Everyone waited to see what would happen. No one said it, but they all worried—if the gunslingers and the gamblers and the ill-living folk got wind of Konstan’s Ale and came looking for the spring, the town might be overrun with greedy sorts, and they would never be rid of them.

It was a dark winter.

But Konstan Spring was a practical town, and even under the shadow of trouble, they all made do. Kit down at the whorehouse hired a few new girls all the way from Odal in case city men had finer tastes, and she taught Anni the blacksmith’s daughter how to cook sturdy food so she could work the kitchen when all the rich, sickly gentlemen came looking for the water.

But the water must not have been such good luck to Hosiah Frode, because he never came back, and no rush of travelers ever appeared.

Secretly, Folkvarder Gray suspected Frode had angered a higher power with his thieving, and been struck down by stronger hands than theirs—the water was a great gift, and Frode should have known better than to abuse it.

It was a shame, Gray thought; Frode was a liar and a thief, but he had been a fine chemist, and Gray respected a man who was able with his work.

Frode never returned.

By spring, the men in town had developed fine enough taste to call on the new whorehouse girls from Odal (Kit had chosen the very best), and Kit sent Anni the blacksmith’s daughter over to the chemist’s.

No one complained about the change; Anni had been a terrible cook.

***

When he came into town, John the gravedigger took the room above the chemist shop. Anni lived in back of the shop, so the upstairs had been sitting empty.

The best the room had to offer was the view of the fenced-in graveyard past the new-painted lodge.

The flat, empty ground had never been touched; as yet, no one who lived in Konstan Spring had died.

The room above the chemist was small and Anni was an indifferent hostess, but John didn’t move quarters. People figured he was sweet on Anni, or that the view of the graveyard was as close as a gravedigger could come to living above his store like an honest man.

No one minded his reasons. Anni needed the money. In Konstan Spring the chemist never did much business.

***

The first man John buried was Samuel Ness, who got himself on the losing end of a fight with his horse.

The grave appeared one shovel at a time, sharp-edged and deep as a well. There was no denying John was an artist. The priest thanked John for the grave even before he asked God to commend Samuel’s soul.

“Won’t work,” muttered Mrs. Domar.

Mrs. Domar was Samuel’s nearest neighbor. She had come to Konstan Spring already a widow; her husband had fallen ill on the road, and died in an Inuit town just twenty miles from the Spring. She persevered, but the stroke of bad luck had turned her into a pessimist.

Samuel had a young orchard at the edge of his property line, and Mrs. Domar knew that if there was a way Nature could work against her inheriting that little grove of apple trees, it would.

It was the usual funeral, except that the priest, after the service, suggested that John fill in a little of the ground before the body went inside it.

John obeyed. He wasn’t one to argue with the clergy.

Two days later, Samuel Ness wriggled his way out of the shallow grave and came home to his farm and his orchard.

“I knew it,” muttered Mrs. Domar as soon as she saw him coming.

John, if he was surprised, said nothing. He smoothed down the earth after the priest had taken back the headstone, and for a few nights, if you walked all the way from the outlying farms to the chemist’s, you could see John sitting at his window, looking out over the sparse graveyard as if deciding what to do.

Everyone worried. They’d feared a gravedigger would lose the will for it in Konstan Spring, and they worried that if he went out into the world there would be questions about his hardiness. They had been lucky with Frode, but luck gave out any time.

People suggested that the folkvarder meet with him and point out the hundred-year contract John had signed. They suggested the priest give him counsel. Some suggested Anni should. If he was sweet on her, her kind face would do some good.

Philip Prain, who minded the general store, was the brave one who finally asked John what his plans might be, now that everything was in the open and John knew that the water wasn’t just for one’s health.

John said, “Try harder, I reckon.” After a moment he asked, “We see a lot of travelers?”

***

Folkvarder Gray and Prain and Kit down at the whorehouse held a Town Council meeting to discuss the problem.

They spoke for a long time, and made up their minds on the subject. They planned to put it to a vote before the town, since the town was very strict about having a say, but none of them would object. John was a treasure they couldn’t lose, and there were bound to be some drifters coming by sooner or later.

In the normal way of things, strangers would have a drink at the saloon and a girl at the whorehouse and ride out the next day, but there was no record of travelers once they were this far into the wild; not everyone can be missed.

***

The first drifter came on horseback a few weeks later, before there had been a formal vote.

He ordered liquor all night, and went to bed with one of Kit’s girls, and fell asleep without ever having tasted the water from Konstan Spring.

He suffered a horrible attack in his sleep. Some nightmare had troubled him so that he’d twisted his neck up in his blankets and broken it.

Anni brought John the good news.

***

This time John had a little audience: Folkvarder Gray and Anni came, and Mrs. Domar, who wanted to see how to get that sharp edge in her own flowerbeds.

“You cut the ground so clean,” Anni said after a time. “Where’d you learn?”

“Started young,” he said. “Buried my ma and pa when I was twelve. Practice.”

Anni nodded, and after he was finished they walked home side by side.

She was a quiet sort of girl, and John kept to himself, but Konstan Spring began to lay wagers for the month they’d be married. Anni’s father, the old blacksmith, wanted it at once—the gravedigger got a hundred dollars a year. Samuel Ness thought it was too soon for a man to be sure he wanted a wife; he said no one should rightly marry until the spring, when the flowers were out.

Kit at the whorehouse swore they’d never get married, but everyone said it was only because John had never given her any business; she had sour grapes, that was all.

***

For the whole winter it went on that way. The town welcomed four men, each traveling alone, bound for New Freya or Odin’s Lake, and one as far south as Iroquois country. Each one had gotten lost in the dark cold, in the snow or the freezing rain, and found themselves outside the saloon in Konstan Spring.

Each one spent the night at the whorehouse—Kit insisted—and of course it was much better to have a hot mug of mead to burn off the frost of a long ride, so there was no occasion to drink the spring-water.

The next morning John got a knock on his door from the Gerder boy who worked at the post office, or Mary the redhead from the whorehouse, to let him know he had a job to be getting on with.

Four travelers was less than it should be, even in winter, and they all worried that a gravedigger of John’s skill would tire of having nothing to do. John, however, seemed happy to dig only one perfect grave a month for that whole winter; each one straight as a ruler, crisp edges, ground as smooth as God had ever made it.

People in Konstan Spring began to warm to him. For all they were patient, they were proud, and it was a comfort that the gravedigger of Konstan Spring knew the importance of a job done right.

***

Finn and Ivar Halfred were clerks who stumbled into Konstan Spring just before the thaw—the last spoils of winter for John the gravedigger.

They were from Portstown, Ivar told the Gerder boy, who took their horses. The Gerder boy didn’t have the sense to ask where they were going (he didn’t have the sense God gave an apple), so Gerder the father, who tended the saloon, asked instead.

Most of the people in Konstan Spring came out when strangers came into town. It was always interesting to see new people, no matter how briefly they’d be staying.

Anni and John sat at a little table in a corner, set apart from the crowd and noise of the saloon. At the other tables the wagers about their courtship went up and up and up, even in the midst of looking at the strangers; there was always a place for a friendly bet.

At last, old Gerder asked the brothers, “What brings you to Konstan Spring?”

By that time Ivar was already drunk, and he laughed loudly and said, “We were supposed to head south for Bruntofte, but we turned right instead of left!” which was an old joke that no one paid any mind. It was never hard to tell which of two brothers was the fool.

“Bruntofte isn’t very welcoming,” Gerder said. “Hope you boys plan to do some trade; they don’t like people showing up with empty hands. We all saw what happened to the English, before they got driven out.”

After a little pause, Finn sighed and said, “Haven’t thought that far ahead. We’re just looking to start over in a place that has enough room to be lonely in.”

You didn’t get as far as Konstan Spring unless you were putting something behind you, so no one was surprised to hear it. But the way he spoke must have struck Anni something awful, because she got up from her seat and took a place next to Finn at the bar.

She’d never been pretty (not compared to whorehouse girls from Odal), but the way she looked at him would have charmed a much less lonely man than Finn Halfred.

They talked until late, until everyone had gone home but Kit from the whorehouse, whose girls were working to bring Ivar back and lighten his pockets. They tried to hook Finn, too, but Anni put her hand on his arm, and the girls respected her claim.

Anni brought Finn home with her when she left that night, his arm linked with hers. The girls from the whorehouse thought it was a scandal, but Kit told them to mind their own business and tend to their customer.

Kit was no fool; she knew how slowly time moved in Konstan Spring, and a girl shouldn’t be a bad cook and an indifferent chemist year in and year out without anything else happening inside of her. Anni could have a night with a young clerk if she wanted. (It was the first thing Anni had managed well in a long time. Kit was glad to see something worthy from Anni at last.)

The next morning Anni brought Finn out on the little promenade. She told Kit in passing, “He got thirsty—I gave him some water.”

Kit told the town.

They held a meeting (in the lodge, safely away from Anni) to discuss what to tell Finn about his brother’s sad accident the night before.

Philip Prain said right off that it was a shame about the wagering pool, but Folkvarder Gray called them back to order; all things in their time, gambling had no place in the lodge. They had to decide what would happen now, with their gravedigger.

John was a steady man, but now they weren’t sure who would do for him but old Mrs. Domar, who was a widow and too old to be suitable.

“As if I would,” sniffed Mrs. Domar.

The only other girl in town was Gerder’s daughter Sue, who was only fourteen and couldn’t yet go courting. If she got a little older, then perhaps they could consider, but none of them had been in Konstan Spring long enough to really know if the young ever grew older, or if the grown slowly grew old.

(Konstan Spring hadn’t been an early settlement by the Longboaters. It hadn’t even been in the eyes of the railroad men. It was a town by accident, because the water was of value; a town because the people in it were slow to want change; a town because it was better to live among the same kind forever than to risk going into the wide new country full of strangers.)

The town was like the Ness orchard, whose little apple trees (always saplings and never older) bent their young branches nearly to snapping just to bear their fruit.

It would be the same with Sue, if they let her go courting too early.

Outside, John had turned his hand to his art for poor Ivar Halfred, and one shovelful of dirt after another bloomed from the ground as he worked.

***

Folkvarder Gray went himself to break the news.

He told Finn that Ivar had drunk himself to death, and his whorehouse girl hadn’t been able to wake him no matter what they did. Finn was sorely grieved, and Folkvarder Gray thought it was best to wait for some other day to explain about the water.

On his way out, the folkvarder tipped his hat to John, who was sharpening the edge of his shovel on a boulder that sat beside a wide grave, sharp-edged and deep as a well. John looked as quiet and calm as ever, but Folkvarder Gray had been disappointed in a woman himself, many years back, on his home shores, and he knew the look of a heartbroken man doing a chore just to keep his hands busy.

“No need for all this, John,” Folkvarder Gray said. “It’ll be weeks yet before the thaw opens the roads, and no knowing when the next one will come.”

Folkvarder Gray looked carefully into the thick dark of the grave. “A little steep, my boy,” he said after a moment. The warm damp rose up from the ground, sharp-smelling, and he stepped back. That was no smell for the living.

“It’s just for practice,” said John, turned the shovel on its edge, slid a slender finger along it until he began to bleed.

***

After the service on Sunday, Anni and Finn went out walking.

Inside the lodge, Samuel Ness started a new wager that they’d come back that same day and ask the priest to marry them. Mrs. Domar, who didn’t approve of such suggestions, went to the window and pretended to be deaf.

From the window Mrs. Domar could see Anni and Finn walking on the lawn behind the lodge, hand in hand toward the chemist’s, and John’s silhouette in the upper window, looking out toward the graveyard to admire his work.

“Finn will come sniffing around after a job,” said Philip Prain. “I could make use of him in the store maybe a month out of the year, but he’ll have to make his money some other way, and I don’t see much need for a clerk in Konstan Spring.”

“We have need for him if he does good work,” said Folkvarder Gray. “And who will be the chemist if he takes Anni out to some farm instead of staying in town? We can’t do without a chemist. It’s not civilized.”

“They’ll find some way to scrape by,” said Kit. “Young fools like that always do.”

“It’s no good,” said Mrs. Domar, watching John look over at the cemetery.

No one answered her; Mrs. Domar never saw good in anything.

***

The wager, sadly for Samuel, came to nothing.

That evening, Finn and Anni disappeared from Konstan Spring, and if Folkvarder Gray noticed that the chemist’s house was quiet, that the boulder in the yard was gone and the wide deep grave was smoothed over, he said nothing to John about it.

No town was run well without some sacrifices. Artists had their ways, and another chemist would be easier to come by than a gravedigger of so much patience and skill.

The question of Anni and Finn trapped in the grave made the folkvarder sorry for Anni’s sake, but it was what came sometimes of breaking a good man’s heart.

(Not everyone can be missed.)

It was for the best. Anni had never been a good chemist; Konstan Spring deserved better, he knew.

***

Samuel Ness paid Kit from the whorehouse two dollars, having been wrong about both Anni and John, and Anni and Finn.

Mrs. Domar didn’t approve of Kit, but she had never forgiven Samuel for taking back his orchard, and was happy to see him lose a little money.

Kit kept the money in an envelope, for a wedding present in case Anni should ever come home. (She knew Anni must; she wasn’t the type to disappear on her own.)

After a month of no word, Kit sent redheaded Mary from Odal over to the shop at the edge of the graveyard.

Mary knew a little about the chemist’s, and a little about coaxing the hearts of quiet men, and it would be best, Kit figured, to have the gravedigger of Konstan Spring soon settled with a pretty young wife.

Others did not quite agree; against Kit’s complaints, Folkvarder Gray put a CHEMIST WANTED sign in the window of his office, and sent young Gerder to town on horseback with another advertisement for the train station wall.

Folkvarder Gray was confident that sooner or later a wonderful chemist would come across the advertisement, when the time was right. The country was still rough and unknown, and brave artists were hard to come by, but he was prepared—he would take nothing but the best.

Konstan Spring could afford to wait, and Folkvarder Gray knew the importance of a job done right.

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Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, won the Crawford Award; her second novel, Glad Rags, is forthcoming from Atria in 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Fantasy MagazineClarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod, and in anthologies including ArmoredUnder the Moons of Mars, Running with the Pack, The Living Dead 2, Federations, After, Teeth, and The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, among others. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog at genevievevalentine.com.

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