A Little Something for the Dead
The small garden was full of flames and fabric. Lizzy’s Mother had made the lanterns herself. They had started out as twigs and bits of the clothes that Lizzy had grown out of. They didn’t have vegetables to spare for lanterns. The washing her mother had had to take in hung in the garden too. White sheets, floating like ghosts, glowed in the lantern’s soft, warm light. Lizzy watched a tiny flame dance dangerously behind her old nightdress. She knew that they could ill afford the candles too. She blew them out. Her Daddy had always pinched out the flames. She'd tried to do it once and burnt her fingers so she always blew. Then she ran off to see the mummers and the guisers.
Lizzy followed the sound of revelry and caught up with the guisers outside the blacksmith’s. She kept her distance to watch the large group of young men dressed in dark burial robes with their faces painted deathly white. Many of them held torches and lanterns. Some carried effigies made of sticks and straw that would feed the bonfires late in the night. Lizzy could tell that much ale had already been taken, the mood was rowdy. She recognised some of the voices as they shouted and yelled for offerings.
‘A little something for the dead,’ one of them shouted over the others. It was her brother’s friend John, the farmhand. He’d called to the blacksmith and the other young men cheered and shouted their approval. The blacksmith appeared in his doorway, brandishing a grin and a bottle. Lizzy wondered where her brother was in the crowd. He’d married the year before and he and his wife had their own cottage. Lizzy saw him around the village but he rarely visited. Tonight he'd drink and dance and watch the bonfires burn long into the night and well into the next day. Her Daddy would have been among the guisers once, when he was a young man. Lizzy backed away, fearful of their rowdiness. If her Daddy were there, he'd have taken her little hand in his big calloused hand and he'd have told her that no one there would hurt her, that it was all just a game. Just boys having a bit of fun.
She sought out the mummers instead and found them in the high street. They were some way in to their act and it took a while until Lizzy understood the story well enough. A veil was central to the action, it was long and the colour of moonlight. Two young mummers held it at either end and it rippled in the evening’s gentle breeze. It reminded Lizzy of smoke, the way it would waft and billow. On one side of the veil the mummers were dressed brightly, their cheeks made up rosy like dolls. On the other side the mummers were dressed as the guisers had been. Dark burial cloaks and faces painted pale. The veil separated the living from the dead. But it was Samhain of course. Tonight the dead could pass through the veil. The players, in their dark cloaks dancing back and forth under the veil, passing to and fro between the world of the dead and the world of the living. They danced around the living and sometimes reached out for them. One of the living seemed central to the play, a mummer dressed in a long pale blue dress, like a wedding gown. Lizzy guessed that the story was of lovers separated by the veil and reunited on Samhain. It made her think of her mother at home, busily preparing a humble meal she called a feast. The thought of her mother pained Lizzy. The anguish of her Daddy's passing had showed on her Mother's face every day since. Lizzy felt a wave of guilt. She'd be late for the feast, she knew her mother would be hurt by that. She made her way back towards the cottage.
The lanterns had been relit. She'd begun to blow them out again when the door opened. Her mother’s face was streaked with tears.
‘You blew those lanterns out?’ she asked. Lizzy could hear the distress in her voice. Anger would be easier dealt with.
‘I'm sorry,’ Lizzy said.
‘Why, Elizabeth? You’re so late home too.’ Her mother stifled a sob. ‘Why did you blow out the lanterns? What were you thinking? Don't you want your Daddy to find his way home?’
‘I'm sorry,’ was all Lizzy managed to say.
Lizzy’s mother had her wash while she relit the lanterns. There were three places set at the small kitchen table and three plates of food waiting. One was for Lizzy, one for her mother and the other to welcome her Daddy home. It was a simple rabbit stew with thick chunks of bread. Better than they’d eaten in a long time. Lizzy’s mother was already seated when Lizzy came in from washing. She was sniffing and wiping her face. Lizzy walked around to her seat. As she passed her Daddy's place she knocked into the table. Two bowls of stew sloshed a little but the nearest, her Daddy's, spilt over the table so that the plate was almost empty. Lizzy looked at her mother who was too choked to speak at first. Fresh tears welled in her eyes.
‘Are you doing this on purpose?’ Her mother’s voice was high and her words broke like trampled frost.
Lizzy shook her head.
‘Why? Why tonight?’ her mother groaned. Lizzy went for a cloth to clean the spilt stew but her mother got there first. She couldn’t look at her daughter.
‘Just go to bed,’ she said. She placed Lizzy’s bowl in her father’s place. ‘He’ll have to have yours. You've broken my heart tonight, Lizzy.’
Lizzy couldn't help but cry to see her mother so distraught. She listened to the faint sounds of revelry in the distance and to her mother weeping downstairs. She lay in the dark, since her candle was in the garden, and she wept long and hard into her pillow while the lanterns burned outside to guide her Daddy home and the meal sat waiting at the table to welcome him.
Long after her mother had gone to sleep she heard his familiar tread on the stairs. The slow, careful footsteps that didn’t wake her mother. Lizzy clenched her eyes shut and shrank beneath her blanket. She heard the footsteps pause outside her door and then a soft creak as it swung open. Her Daddy's touch was colder than before.
Jess Doyle is a writer from North Wales. She writes short stories and flash fiction and is currently working on her debut novel. Jess’s stories have been published by Idle Ink and Horror Scribes, she is a Zeroflash winner and has stories forthcoming with Coffin Bell. You can find Jess on Twitter as @jcdoyley