“A Corpse and a Ghost Flower” is the story I am submitting for my “Start Writing Fiction” course at FutureLearn. The story I’m sending or critique ended up being exactly 1 000 words long. You can read previous versions and character sketches by clicking on the links. This third draft doesn’t differ that much from the second draft, but I did tighten the prose a bit in line edits.
Now to see what the other students think of the story…
A Corpse and a Ghost Flower (Draft 3)
Beneath the full moon the muted sounds and earthy smell of the graveyard were more visceral than in the brightness of the day. Aidan picked his way through the rows of graves and sentinel-like tombstones. An owl hooted and Aidan swung to look at the ancient elm tree. Widened brown eyes relaxed and he ran a hand through his short hair when he realised that the owl had only taken fright at the spectral figure that was always waiting by the tree when the moon was full. He lifted a hand in greeting. So did she.
Like his uncle before him, Aidan had started to grow fond of some of them. At the very least they helped him to find the elusive ghost flowers that were sought after and was said to be able to heal a thousand maladies. And in a large city like this, there were always more than enough maladies to go around.
He reached the oldest part of the cemetery. Here, most of the lichen- and moss-covered graves had been long forgotten. They had been here long before all the factories, machines, and smoke drenched the city and its masses in black fog. The lantern he carried spluttered and he took a moment to check it before moving on.
The only spirit that still remained in this part of the cemetery was that of a girl no older than five, dressed in her best white dress. She was sitting idly on one of the tombstones now, legs dangling down as if it was a garden bench.
“I found a ghost flower,” she said when he spotted her. Her grin showed two missing front teeth.
“You did?” Aidan asked. “Where?” He held out his hand to her, as if she was a flesh-and-blood child. She jumped down from the tombstone and skipped over to him. The hand that slipped into his was deathly cold.
Aidan’s dark eyes roved over the grass and dead leaves until he spotted the sage-like plant with moonlight-white seven-petalled flowers that had sprung up during the night. He knelt down, placing the lantern carefully beside him. Hands that may in a different life have been suited to play the piano, had been hardened by work; the soil of the graveyard worked into his pores so that he felt as if he could never quite be rid of it. As a gravedigger and groundsman he was as much a part of the graveyard as it was of him.
He took a knife from the pocket of his hand-me-down coat and cut one of the three flowers from the plant. Aidan grimaced as the ghost flower stained his fingers with red, blood-like sap. He carefully wrapped the flower in a clean cloth and slipped it into his pocket after the knife. When he straightened, the spirit girl had once again disappeared and he started his walk back to the newer graves alone. He patted his pocket. The flower – and the health it would return to his neighbour’s daughter – would serve as penance for the other job he had tonight. The long breath he let out misted in the air in front of him. He had to pay his debts somehow.
He fetched a shovel and length of canvas and headed to the newest grave.
“They tell me you were an awful miser,” Aidan said to the grave. “That some of the biggest buildings in the slums belong to you,” his voice trailed off. “Yet I am still sorry that I cannot leave you undisturbed. But I am not taking the woman who died in childbirth. And that is the only other grave new enough. Perhaps this will be some payback for all the suffering you have caused. All I know is I’ll be dead before I see a ghost flower bloom on your grave.”
Once the top of the casket was revealed, Aidan broke it open and heaved the man from his resting place. It did not take long to strip him of his clothes and wrap him in canvas. He put the clothes back and filled the grave once more before leaving the damp soil of the cemetery behind him.
Aidan shifted the heavy canvas into a more comfortable position on his shoulder and shuddered. For all the times he had done this, he still gagged at the idea – and smell – of carrying a dead body through the misty streets of the city after the witching hour. He struggled down the putrid night-black alleys as fast as his limp would take him, an old handkerchief bound over the lower part of his face to try and keep the smells at bay.
When at last he reached the school’s door, he carefully placed the corpse on the ground and knocked twice. Muffled footsteps sounded within and a man not much older than Aidan, and clutching a lantern, opened the whitewashed door. The light shone into Aidan’s eyes, making him squint and lift a dirt-covered hand in front of his face.
“Good evening, Master Gregory,” Aidan said in a low voice. “I brought him.”
“Put it inside.”
“Aidan heaved the body into his arms and carried the miser’s corpse to one of the tables. His hand lingered on the dead man’s brow for a moment, a silent prayer sounding in his mind.
“I’ll need a new one next week,” Gregory’s voice broke through the holy words Aidan were reciting.
Aidan nodded. He knew his fate all too well; the freedom he had sacrificed for Gregory’s medical help.
“Mister Wright, I do believe you have forgotten something.”
“I —”Aidan checked the canvas before he realised what Gregory referred to. “Thank you for your help,” he stuttered and headed back out into the early morning cold, making for home. He wrapped his patched coat around him as the wind tousled his hair and stung his nose and ears. In the distance a bell tolled.