Mr. Weaver lost his hat. He felt it tumble backwards down his cranium and disappear into the dark. “Must have been an owl,” he muttered.
Motley grunted and drove the horse on. The reins jingled in his pale hands.
Mr. Weaver’s head felt cool. A harsh, autumn wind with an early hint of winter’s chill rushed his hair. He feared the worst for his appearance. He squinted at the night’s impenetrable black veil, thinking he saw little shapes flitting about in the corners of his vision. Mr. Weaver cleared his throat. “How much further?”
Motley mumbled something. He covered his eyes with a ragged hand, his lips moving inaudibly. His head swayed from shoulder to shoulder with each bump of the carriage. “Ten minutes more, I should think,” he said. He tugged at his collar.
Mr. Weaver nodded. He thought of his parents, and a sensation of excitement and fear tickled his neck.
The lantern screeched to and fro by his ear. The metallic grating quickly irritated him. He reached up a trembling hand to fix it better to its hinge. The wrought iron frame felt warm to the touch.
Something squeaked and fluttered by his shoulder. Swift wings took off into the night. Mr. Weaver flinched and struggled to keep his hands on the lantern. He lost control, and the whole assemblage crumbled to the dirt. Darkness enveloped them in an instant.
“Whoa,” Motley said as he pulled on the reins. The carriage slowed to a halt.
“My apologies, Motley, it slipped from my grasp.”
“First time in the woods, Mr. Weaver?”
“Since boyhood,” Mr. Weaver admitted.
“Hold these, if you please.” Motley passed him the reins.
“Yes, of course.” The reins were fraying on the sides.
“Do not move until I get another light fired up.” The carriage groaned as Motley splashed into the road, still damp from yesterday’s shower. He moved to the carriage’s rear storage compartment and threw it open.
A damp wind blew past. To Mr. Weaver, it felt like the night’s icy, cold fingers had taken firm hold of his neck. He hunched his shoulders, and an insensible fear burned in his gut and agitated his frigid limbs. He caught a whiff of the decaying rot of a bog nearby and thought he saw a swirl of fog pass across the road.
“Where did I put that thinger?” Motley said.
“Could you hurry on with it?” Mr. Weaver said. “I fear we’ve stopped near a miasma.” He glanced up at the blanket of dark clouds shrouding the stars. He placed his hands over his stomach to steady himself.
“Miasma or no,” Motley answered, “I cannot lead old Potter without a light. Aha! Found ‘er!”
“Splendid, now let’s be on our way,” Mr. Weaver said. He grasped the lantern post hard.
“Are we in a hurry, Mr. Weaver?” Motley asked as he ignited the new lamp. The light fought off the darkness in a halo around them.
“I’d simply rather us not linger is all,” Mr. Weaver said. “There will be much to do once the night is concluded.”
Motley stepped back into the carriage. “I’ll drive old Potter quick as he can go.” He slapped the reins, and the wheels spattered on through the muck.
It was not long after that Mr. Weaver perceived a little light at the end of the dirt road. At first, he thought the faint glow was another haunt of his mind, but when it did not disappear—no matter how many times he blinked—he knew they had arrived. “Must be Gunther’s light,” Mr. Weaver said relieved, yet feeling a new anxiety.
Motley grunted an affirmative and pressed old Potter on a little harder. Mr. Weaver made as if to stand, to breathe in the fullness of the moment, but the pitted, dirt road forced him back on his rear.
The carriage clinked to a halt by Gunther’s light. The path narrowed and was now composed of an ancient cobblestone. Mr. Weaver turned to Motley, who stared down at the reins. “You will wait here then?”
Motley nodded. “Cannot leave old Potter out here by himself for long. He gets jumpy. Take the lamp, Mr. Weaver. I’ll light up another for myself.” He hopped out of the carriage and proceeded to the rear compartment.
Mr. Weaver carefully unhooked the lantern from the post and climbed out onto the old cobblestone path leading up to the crypt. A biting wind nipped at his exposed flesh. “I’ll return for you once I’ve made all the proper arrangements,” Mr. Weaver said.
Motley continued smacking about behind the carriage. Mr. Weaver turned to go, but stopped when he heard Motley call out to him. “Ah, Mr. Weaver, give my regards to your parents. They were kind to me, yes, and to Gunther too. Yes, they were kind.” He trailed off into silence.
Mr. Weaver could only make out the faint lantern light glowing in Motley’s eyes. “Of course, I assure you.” Then for a second time, he turned and proceeded along the dark, cobblestone path towards the obscure outline of the stone crypt. He kept his coat wrapped tightly around his cold body, but if truth be told, it was the gleaming gold at the fore of his mind’s eye that comforted and warmed him.
Like a spear, he penetrated the space separating him from his goal, his gold. He rehearsed to himself the tragedies of the past few years: the workers departing for steady-paying factory jobs, the un-harvested crops, the shingles falling off the roof of the manor house, and the dried up savings. He didn’t need to invent details; it was all true. Most days felt like they had come and gone to no effect, as if he were desperately trying to turn back the colossal gears that advanced the sun across the sky and ground on with terminal indifference.
“Eh? Who goes?” cried a scraggly voice.
Mr. Weaver froze and strained his eyes. He looked back and saw Motley—now just a little, hunched figure down the road—setting up his new light.
“My eyes are not what they once were, but my ears and wits are still sharp as the wind,” continued the voice. “Let me find a lamp. Oh, where did I put it?”
“Is that you, Gunther?”
Gunther gasped. “Mr. Weaver!”
“In the flesh.” Mr. Weaver drew closer as Gunther lit up a rusted lantern hanging from a cracked stone column. He saw the shadowy wrinkles lining Gunther’s cheeks before the rest: the hollowed eyes, the sagging nose, the swollen lips, and a chaotic tussle of flimsy gray hairs atop his head. “Gunther, you look…changed.”
“Do I?” Gunther’s voice was a wispy fog that hung on the air. “I haven’t looked upon my own face since your parents left us. And how is the Weaver Estate these days?”
“In due time.”
Gunther’s eyes flitted to the dark behind him. “Of course, of course,” he said. He sighed and rubbed his eyes with a gnarled hand. “I expect you will want to have a look inside the catacombs. I daresay, though, it is a devilish late hour for you to visit.”
“It could not wait.”
Gunther leaned forward and squinted. “My, Mr. Weaver, you are the mirror image of your father.”
“How kind of you, Gunther.” They stared at each other, watching how the flames danced across each other’s faces—the rhythmic sallies and bouncing contortions. “Shall we?”
Gunther covered his thin lips and let out a raspy cough that shook his whole frame. “Follow me.” He grabbed the creaking lantern off its hinge on the stone column and shuffled into the cool, gray confines of the crypt. They approached a spiral staircase that led down into a cold, black abyss from which a musty scent trailed to the surface. “It was your great, great, great grandfather who first built these halls. From the hands of slaves, black slaves from the coast down south a-ways. He brought them over from the estate, gave them the tools, and let the whips do the rest. He knew how to get things done, your great—or however so many—grandfather. It is amazing what one forgets over the years.”
“Yes, he was a remarkable man from what I remember hearing as a child,” Mr. Weaver said. They reached the bottom of the stairs, which opened up into a narrow chamber with the family’s ancestral coat of arms carved into the far wall, the Weaver Escutcheon. Divided into quadrants, it contained a torch, a scepter, three sovereigns, and a sickle.
At this depth, the air felt even cooler against Mr. Weaver’s face. Gunther hobbled on. At the end of the chamber, the passage opened up into an arch on the left and the right. “Your parents lie in the South Wing,” Gunther said.
A sharp gust of wind screeched through the glowing hall. Mr. Weaver jolted upright, trembling. He stood high on his toes.
Gunther looked back with a raised eyebrow. “Yes, it happens every now and again. Follow me.” He took the passage on the left. Mr. Weaver kept close behind. He continued to remind himself why he had come: the gold, the gold.
They passed several corridors leading off to distant chambers of the Weaver mausoleum, all shrouded in the cold dark. Their damp steps echoed off the stone walls. “Ah, here we are at last,” said Gunther. They entered a small cavity surrounded on all sides by smooth rock. Two stone tombs, engraved with the Weaver Escutcheon and the names James Weaver and Betty Weaver respectively, occupied most of the space. A fresh bouquet of daisies and roses adorned each slab. “I come in here every day to keep the flowers fresh,” Gunther said. “They were so dear, your parents. If you do not mind me saying, Mr. Weaver, I’m surprised you waited this long to pay your respects.”
“Well, better now than not at all,” Mr. Weaver said as he knelt at his father’s side.
He did not remember much, but he did recall that his father always stood upright. Other details he learned later, like when he found the old copy of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in the library with his father’s gold-encrusted monocle placed neatly on top. Gold, Mr. Weaver’s mind turned to the blocks of gold. He knew they were here, buried in this very chamber, perhaps in the cold walls somewhere or the tombs themselves…
“Terrible shame to lose them so early,” Gunther said after a long moment. “To think, the things they could have done. They had only just begun making a name for themselves. It was always a sunny day over Weaver Manor.”
Mr. Weaver glanced at Gunther smiling to himself. He must know where they stashed the gold. His parents were vain to die with their money holed up somewhere in this forgotten vault, as if it would do them any good wherever their spirits resided. He stood mechanically and knelt by his mother’s tomb, head bowed. He recalled her soft hands coddling him and sweeping back the hair on his head, but he knew the nursemaid, Charlotte, better. In reality, she had raised him since his early boyhood, until he properly took control over the estate’s affairs. She had been the one who cooked his every meal, who brought in his tutors, who advised him in negotiating the aristocratic social circles. “Nothing is ever handed to us, son,” she used to say. “We press on, even if only on a narrow path.” Her words lived with him, but she was gone. No lavish tomb preserved her memory. She had no descendants, and she now existed only in his remembrances, in his heart, in his dreams.
She had told him of the gold as he sat by her deathbed.
Mr. Weaver sighed. “Gunther,” he began slowly, “these are dark days for the Weaver Estate. The workers want jobs in factories that pay them by their hours of work. I have no one to tend my fields. Every day, I walk outside and see crops whither un-harvested. I have borrowed money to keep the place going, but I will lose my family’s property without a miracle.” He looked away from Gunther, who furrowed his brow darkly. “Gunther, I need the gold that was buried with my parents.”
Gunther shifted from one side to the other. “Your father would not approve.”
“My father, Gunther, lies dead in that tomb right there. I, on the other hand, live yet. The gold is my birthright.” Mr. Weaver felt his face grow hot despite the cold. His hands trembled.
The caretaker sighed. “Most disappointing, Mr. Weaver. I will not stop you, but before anything, I will remind you that there were crises in your parents’ time as well. They had no gold to call up from the depths to save them. They persevered.”
“Regular habits, Gunther, are a luxury,” Mr. Weaver responded. “Now, where is the gold?”
“In dear Mrs. Weaver’s coffin.”
“Oh my, I had best go get Motley.” Mr. Weaver stared at the block of stone in front of him with sickening anticipation. He stood abruptly with his lantern, passed Gunther—who stared into the nondescript stone wall—and hurried out of the crypt. He flinched at every mysterious opening in the hall, leading to other, unknown pairs of ancestors laid to rest. He ascended the spiral stairs, and a breath of fresh air greeted him. That his mother’s coffin would need to be defiled came as a surprise, but it had to be done. The creditors would be arriving again in the morning. “Motley!” he called to the little figure by the lighted carriage.
“It’s time, come!”
Motley patted old Potter’s matted, brown mane and jogged up the hoary path to the crypt. “Have you found it?” Motley asked. His breath showed prominently on the air with every huff. It had grown colder.
Mr. Weaver nodded. He wished to be done with the damned thing and leave as quickly as possible. “It was buried with my mother. I will require your help to carry it up to the surface.”
“God, inside the tomb?” Motley asked, startled.
“Yes, with the body. The quicker we do it, the better for all.” Mr. Weaver began to lead the way to the staircase, but Motley had not budged. “Well are you coming?”
“Now Mr. Weaver, I had not a’ wagered on disturbing your dear mother’s slumber. She was so kind to me and to Gunther.”
Mr. Weaver took Motley by the wrist. “But the gold, Motley. It buys the food you eat and the roof over your head. It pays for the upkeep of the carriage and old Potter. We both need it, man. We can pay our respects once we have finished.” Mr. Weaver led the way down into the stifling dark. A screeching wind came quickly on their heels, and Motley let out a cry. “It happens every now and then,” Mr. Weaver said. “Nothing to cause any alarm.”
Motley took a moment to steady himself. “Is Gunther nearby?”
“I imagine he is still in my parents’ chamber,” said Mr. Weaver. Indeed, as he approached the Escutcheon, he saw Gunther’s lantern still at the end of the South Wing. “This way,” Mr. Weaver instructed. He kept his eyes focused on the light at the end of the hall and approached with a handful of long strides.
Gunther remained just as Mr. Weaver had left him. “Mr. Weaver,” Gunther said, “I respect your troubles, but I cannot in good conscience allow you to desecrate the grave of your mother.”
“There is no choice, Gunther. Either I take the gold, or I lose the property, which cannot happen.”
Gunther turned to Motley. “What about you? You knew the Weavers. They would be horrified at these occurrences.”
Motley looked down to his worn boots. “Rightly so, I imagine, but I agree with Mr. Weaver. It has to be done.”
“Come, Motley,” Mr. Weaver said. “The quicker we do this, the faster we can be out of this rock hell.” He brushed past Gunther and placed his hands authoritatively over his mother’s grave.
“Be reasonable, Mr. Weaver!” cried Gunther.
Motley took his place by his employer.
“Let’s do this quickly, Motley,” said Mr. Weaver. “Are you prepared?”
Motley looked down and nodded. Gunther tugged at Mr. Weaver’s coat sleeve but was shaken off like a pest.
“1…2…3…” counted Mr. Weaver, and with a heave, he and Motley slid the stone slab, uncovering a foot of the grave. Immediately a putrid stench filled the chamber, and the three startled men coughed incessantly. Mr. Weaver covered his mouth with his sleeve as the coughing rattled his body. The air stank of horrible filth: of rotting eggs, and milk gone sour.
“Oh God,” Gunther whimpered, who had collapsed to the stone floor.
“Hello, mother,” Mr. Weaver muttered to himself when he could finally speak.
The lantern light cast a long shadow over Mrs. Weaver’s partially decomposed abdomen, seen clearly through her thin, white dress. A sickly pair of ribs protruded through the sunken stomach and gleamed in the light under the fabric. Her skin had turned a dull green, dotted with dark blotches and sores. Yet, underneath her rotting flesh, a glint of gold caught Mr. Weaver’s eye. Yes, there were several gleaming gold bars beneath Mrs. Weaver’s spoiled torso.
Motley had backed against the stone wall, gagging. His face turned a pale blue, and his eyes widened thick as cherries.
“Come, Motley,” Mr. Weaver said from behind the sleeve of his coat. “I can see the gold lying beneath her body!”
But as soon as Motley saw the decaying Mrs. Weaver, he sank to the floor.
Mr. Weaver growled and extended his hands into the opening. He grabbed onto a gold block and tugged at it, but it would not budge. He exerted more effort, beginning to sweat now at his forehead, and finally pulled it away with a sickly splish. The gold bar dripped with goo when exhumed, the stinking remains of his mother’s stomach stuck to the block. Despite himself, he felt sick in his gut and let the gold clatter to the floor. A gust of wind howled through the entry chamber. He wiped his hands furiously on his coat.
“Close it, Motley,” Mr. Weaver gasped. “For God’s sake, close the cursed thing.”
Motley, with a supreme effort, raised himself and gave the stone slab a forceful heave. “I need you, Mr. Weaver. It requires the two of us.”
Mr. Weaver doubled over with another bout of coughing, but even so, he staggered to the stone slab, breathing hard, and seeing bright shapes cloud the corners of his vision. He strained his shoulders like they had never been strained before, and with extreme effort, Motley and Mr. Weaver managed to cover the body once more. Mr. Weaver caught a final look at his mother, her sunken face, cheek bones poking through the skin. When the task was finished, he leaned against the cold wall. He closed his eyes and breathed, but he still felt the revolting paste of his mother’s corpse on his fingers. The sensation made him want to wriggle out of his own skin. He shivered. It had grown colder.
“Motley,” Mr. Weaver said as he grabbed his lantern, “would you bring the recovered gold to the carriage? I must be out of here.”
Motley groaned and held his stomach. “It will be a moment, Mr. Weaver.”
Gunther had since stumbled to his feet. “Sacrilege,” he whispered, eyes vacant. “Bloody sacrilege.”
Mr. Weaver staggered through the dark hall and into the whistling chamber, up the spiral steps to the surface, and out of that cursed, stone mausoleum. The night air relieved him from the burden of the crypt’s miasma. He inhaled, slowly. At least one bar could be recovered. He saw the light down the old cobblestone path. Old Potter stood still, head bowed. Mr. Weaver despised that rickety carriage. Why not a proper coach? The gold bar Motley would be bringing up could more than cover the debt and a coach. He imagined smooth, leather seats and a looking glass from which he could descry the world.
Then he thought, how much more lay buried down in the crypt? He had now extracted gold from the tomb once; perhaps he could do it again.
Mr. Weaver, for the first time on that terrible and great night, grinned to himself. There was a spring to his step, a giddiness that conquered his control. His mind extended beyond that black night. He was already back on the estate, in the central parlor, gazing out into the fields that would be prosperous once again. He imagined the parlor filled with velvet draperies and new tapestries to cover the walls. He would have the finest porcelain dinner service, rugs from Persia, the choicest cuts of steak and venison and snapper. His smile stretched wider now. He held tight to the carriage and leapt in. He sat upright, hands spaced evenly on his thighs, staring straight ahead into the black night, but seeing a beaming future, gilded in gold, exhumed by the work of his two capable hands.
A biting wind chilled him back into the present. He shivered, then gazed up at the dark outline of the crypt, enclosing an entity of utter blackness, now filled with the random images and shapes of his mind’s eye.
For Diego, writing is a handheld fan that blows raw story goop into elaborate shapes with impeccable detail. He owns no cats.