The Connecticut countryside, 1849
The grave was dug. Carefully, Lucas Whitaker hammered small metal tacks into the top of the coffin lid to form his mother's initials: H.W., for Hannah Whitaker. Then he stood up to straighten his tired back. All that was left was to lower the pine box into the cold, hard ground and cover it with dirt.
But Lucas didn't move. He stared blindly at the double line of grave markers in the little family burial ground. There were the graves of two infants, his brother and sister, each of whom had died so soon after birth that Lucas could scarcely remember anything about them except the sight of their tiny, red fists waving in the air and the sound of their feeble crying. Their graves were so small that the fieldstones stuck in the ground to mark their heads and feet were no farther apart than the length of Lucas's arm.
Next were the stones marking the place where Lucas's Uncle Asa was buried. Asa had died of consumption two years before. Soon after, Lucas's sister Lizy, just four years old, had fallen to the same dread disease.
When they'd buried Lizy, Lucas and his father had worked together in stunned silence, afraid to think about, much less speak about, the mysterious way in which the sickness could sweep through a household, taking one family member after another.
That night Lucas's mother had clasped him to her, weeping. "How long shall I be allowed to keep you?" she'd whispered.
But the next to be afflicted had not been Lucas. He shuddered as he remembered the way the large, powerful man who had been his father had turned slowly into a thin, pale stranger, too weak to stand. Until at last Lucas, working alone on a hot August day, tears mingling with the sweat of his labor, had buried his father, too.
Now, standing on the rocky hillside by his mother's grave, with the raw wind of late February tearing at his hair and clothing, Lucas felt nothing but a dull, gray weariness. Since the death of his father and Asa, it had taken every bit of strength he had just to make it from day to day. He'd learned to push his sorrow deep inside somewhere in order to get on with the hard work that was always waiting to be done on the farm.
When his mother's cheeks grew first flushed and red, then gray and gaunt, when she began to be taken by fits of coughing that left her clutching her chest in pain, Lucas gave up trying to keep the farm going. He spent his days by his mother's bedside, watching her waste away just as Lizy, and Pa, and Asa had done. He coaxed her to take spoonsful of tea and wheat porridge. Holding her thin shoulders as her body was racked with coughing, he thought helplessly that it was as if something—or someone—were draining the very life from her.
Desperately, he tried the only remedy he knew, filling a pipe with dried cow dung and begging his mother to smoke it. The coughing only grew worse.
One day, a neighbor by the name of Oliver Rood rode out to the farm and offered to take care of the animals. "I hear your mother's real bad sick, Lucas. I'll take the creatures off your hands for the present, and come back in a few days to see how you're getting on."
"I'd be grateful to you, sir," said Lucas.
Finally, the time came when he could no longer pretend that his mother would live. There was nothing to do but stay by her until death came. When she was gone, he felt something rise in his throat, a mixture of terror and anger and grief so strong that he was afraid to give voice to it.
Summoning all the strength of his will, he pushed the feeling down and down ... until he'd felt the way he did now, his insides as numb and cold as the rough red hands that grasped the shovel.
Quickly, he finished the job. Then, opening his mother's Bible, he tried to read, but the words sounded stiff and hollow and held no comfort. He closed the book. There were people who had told him to accept the deaths in his family as "God's will." But, hard as Lucas tried, he couldn't understand why God would want such things to happen.
Other folks had told him disease was the work of the devil. Still others believed it was witches who caused illness. He shook his head, baffled by it all. People got sick. They died. That he knew.
There were no friends or family to join him in mourning. The closest neighbors, the Hapgoods, had sold their farm and gone west, where the land was supposed to be cheap and plentiful. Lucas hadn't carried word to the Roods, or to any others. Their farms were far away. They had their own work and their own problems.
Lucas was alone.
Lucas stood inside the doorway of the cold, quiet, empty house. Hours passed, or maybe minutes; he was indifferent to the passing of time. He, too, felt still and cold and empty.
Vaguely, he became aware of the sound of approaching hoofbeats, followed by loud knocking at the door.
"Lucas? You there? Anybody home?"
Dully, Lucas walked to the door and opened it. Oliver Rood was standing on the granite step with a kettle in his hands.
"Hello, Lucas. Mrs. Rood sent me over with some soup. You and your mama have to keep your strength up, and Mary claims this is just the thing. How is Hannah faring, son?"
"She—" Lucas tried to tell Mr. Rood what had happened, but the words got caught in his throat. He swallowed and looked down at the rough plank flooring without answering.
"Still doing poorly, eh?" said Mr. Rood sympathetically. "Well, Lucas, the fact is, the soup isn't the only reason for my visit. May I come in?"
They were standing at the door, with the winter wind blowing into the house. Some part of Lucas's mind knew that it was rude to keep a guest standing at the door, but he seemed to be having difficulty summoning even the most common courtesy. He stepped back, allowing Mr. Rood to enter.
After closing the door and setting the kettle on the table, Mr. Rood cleared his throat and said, "Lucas, you know what we've been going through these past months, with the consumption taking first Mercy, then Frances and Gurdon and Phoebe."
"Then Enoch came down sick, you know. But we cured him."
Lucas stared, uncomprehending, at his neighbor.
"Mrs. Rood heard tell of the remedy while visiting her kinfolk in Rhode Island."
Lucas listened, first with puzzlement, then with fascinated horror, as Oliver Rood explained. "What Mrs. Rood learned is that the first in the family to die is sometimes, in truth, undead."
"Undead?" Lucas repeated.
"Yes," said Mr. Rood. "And, this being so, that person will then rise up from the grave and return to commit mischief on the living."
"Wh-what kind of mischief?" Lucas asked.
Mr. Rood shifted uncomfortably. "They say he—or she—being desirous of sustenance, comes back to feed upon the living. To drain the very life from others in order to live himself."
An image of Mama, slowly wasting away, filled Lucas's mind. It was followed by the memory of his Uncle Asa, who had been the first to die. In Lucas's imagination, Asa rose from his grave and returned to the house, to take first Lizy, then Pa, then Mama—but no! Asa wouldn't hurt Mama. She was his sister! Quickly, Lucas shook his head to make the terrible thoughts go away.
Mr. Rood seemed to know what was in Lucas's mind. "It struck me as peculiar at first. Ghoulish, even. But, Lucas, Mrs. Rood heard the accounts herself. Two families who were afflicted in the way ours was, and yours, did unearth the body of the first dead. They did as they'd been told to put the mischievous one to rest, thereby saving the remaining family members from sickness and death."
Mr. Rood went on. "Persuaded by these successes, we dug up the coffin of daughter Mercy. She was the first to die, you see."
Lucas shivered. Mr. Rood stared piercingly at him. "Enoch was bad sick, Lucas, and going fast. You understand, we were willing to try—anything—by then."
"Yes," said Lucas. And he did understand. He remembered, too well, the helpless feeling of watching someone slip away, and the desire to do something, anything, to stop the course of the disease.
"Daughter Mercy did live in the grave, Lucas. We saw the signs."
"What signs?" Lucas whispered.
Mr. Rood spoke slowly, his eyes intent. "I shall never forget it as long as I live: there, on the face of she who had for long weeks been the tenant of a grave, I saw the look of youthful health. Her body was fresh, her cheeks full and dimpled, her hair as rich and curly as it had been in life. Her eye had barely lost its brilliancy. Why, her fingernails had grown!"
Mr. Rood shook his head at the memory. "We had been told to look for these things, Lucas. And to discover if there was fresh, living blood. And, by God, round about her mouth, there was."
For a moment Lucas and Mr. Rood stared at each other in silence, Mr. Rood remembering what he had seen, Lucas trying to take in what he had heard.
"So we did as we'd been instructed. We put Mercy to rest. And now the sickness has stopped. Enoch is cured!"
"I'm glad," Lucas managed to say. Mr. Rood's son Enoch was a year older than Lucas, and the two boys got on well when their families helped each other at haying time.
"Have you considered," Mr. Rood went on, "that your Uncle Asa might be the mischievous one?"
"Asa? I—no," said Lucas.
"He was the first to die, wasn't he?"
"He's likely the one, then. He made the others sick and now he's bothering Hannah."
But Asa was dead! thought Lucas.
Mr. Rood continued speaking. "It might not be too late to save your mother, son. Fact is, I stopped by two days ago to tell you about this. I knocked and hollered, but I couldn't rouse anyone."
Lucas recalled, as if through a fog, sitting by his mother's bedside two days before and hearing the knock. But he'd felt too dejected to answer the door, unable to face the well-meaning kindness of a neighbor.
"Well, so I'm here again to tell you," Mr. Rood was saying, "that if you want me to help unearth your Uncle Asa and show you what needs to be done, I'm willing."
Lucas stood dumbly, staring at his neighbor. Mr. Rood was being kind. He was offering to help Lucas perform a cure, a cure that would save Mama. But it was too late.
"It's no use!" Lucas cried. "Mama's dead."
"Dead?" It was Mr. Rood's turn to look stunned. "When—?"
"This morning," whispered Lucas.
"Oh, Lord," said Mr. Rood sadly. "Here I am, prattling on about Enoch's cure, and you still raw with your grief."
There was an awkward silence. "I'm sorry, son," said Mr. Rood. "If I'd known ... well, I'd not have mentioned a word of it."
He reached out to touch Lucas's shoulder. "Your mama was real bad sick," he said. "It was most likely too late to save her, even if you had known what to do."
Lucas knew he should say something, but his mind was a whirl of confusion and pain as it slowly absorbed the full meaning of Mr. Rood's visit. Just two days before, when Mama was still alive, there had been a way to cure her!
"You come on home with me now, Lucas," Mr. Rood said. "Mrs. Rood will welcome any son of Hannah's as her own, and you and Enoch have always been companionable."
A terrible storm was gathering in Lucas's belly and rising through his chest. Mr. Rood's kind face, creased with concern, seemed to float before him. His insides were churning, and he felt sick with regret.
"Come, son," urged Mr. Rood gently. "We'll return tomorrow to take care of affairs here.
Things will look better in the morning."
"No," said Lucas in a choked voice.
"Come now, Lucas," said Mr. Rood. "You can't stay here by yourself."
"Yes," said Lucas. "I—" He wanted to be alone, to sort out his chaotic thoughts. Why didn't Mr. Rood go away?
With effort, Lucas gathered his wits to reassure Mr. Rood and send him on his way. "I'll be fine, sir. Really. I thank you for coming and for trying to help. But there's things I need to do."
"All that can wait—"
"Thank you, sir, kindly. But I'll stay. For now."
Mr. Rood made several more attempts to talk Lucas into leaving with him, but Lucas remained firm. Finally, with a worried frown, Mr. Rood stepped to the door, saying, "I'll be back in the morning, Lucas, bright and early, and we'll see what's what. You try and get some sleep now."
Lucas sat at the table in the darkening room, thinking about the startling news Mr. Rood had brought. Enoch was alive, cured of consumption! The cause of the awful disease, which killed with agonizing slowness, was a mystery no longer. The dead returned to steadily drain life from the living. Yes, thought Lucas. That was just how it had seemed.
He knew he'd never be able to forget the way Lizy, Pa, Asa, and Mama had all weakened gradually, growing thinner and paler, and how nothing he did could stop it. He remembered Asa, with his easygoing ways, his good-natured grin made crooked by missing teeth. What dark urge would make Asa return to harm the people he loved? It was a mystery from the other side of the grave, beyond Lucas's understanding.
But, strange as Mr. Rood's story had seemed at first, Lucas did not doubt that it was true. Wasn't Enoch alive and well? And the others in—where was it?—Rhode Island?
How he wished he could turn back the clock just two days! He imagined himself answering the door and listening joyfully to Mr. Rood's news of a cure. He pictured the two of them digging up Asa's grave and—he didn't want to think about the rest. He didn't want to imagine the "signs" showing that Asa still "lived" after death. He hadn't asked how the "mischievous" dead were "put to rest."
It didn't matter now, anyway, he thought wearily. If only he'd made himself answer Mr. Rood's knock, Mama would be alive, as Enoch was. But whatever it was that the Roods had done to save Enoch, it was too late for Mama. He had failed her, he thought miserably.
Against his will, Lucas's mind filled with the image of Asa rising from his wooden coffin and returning to draw life from the living ... Now only Lucas was left. In horror, he looked around the barren room, once filled with the sounds and smells of life. He saw only ghosts and shadows—and worse, the specter of Uncle Asa.
For a long while, Lucas sat in the cold, unlit house, considering remaining where he was and letting Asa come for him, to put an end to the sadness that seemed to be all that remained in his life. What right had he, after all, to be alive when everyone else in his family was gone? When, because of him, Mama was dead, too? If he'd answered Mr. Rood's first knock ... If he'd learned of the cure then ... If he hadn't been so tired and scared and ignorant!
He felt that he, too, deserved to die, but, with disgust, he realized that he didn't have the courage for that. To stay where Asa still lingered between the world and the grave, to be visited by Asa, to suffer the same slow painful death as the others and to suffer it alone—no! Nor could he bear to accept the pity and kindness of the Roods, to be the poor orphan boy living on the charity of others. He had to get away.
And so, wanting only to leave that place of sickness and sorrow, he struck off into the chill of the wintry night, not knowing where he was going, or caring.
For two days Lucas wandered about the countryside, creeping into barns to sleep at night, finding heat and comfort from the warm bodies and breath of cows and horses and oxen. At last, dazed and dizzy with hunger, he came to a town. As he walked down the main street, his attention was caught by a sign posted outside a large house. The words wavered before his eyes as he read: HELP WANTED—INQUIRE WITHIN. Tentatively, he reached up to tap on the door.
A woman as tall and skinny as a sapling answered his knock. She stood before Lucas holding a rolling pin, her hands and the front of her apron dusted with flour. Peering at him with narrowed eyes, she said, "Well?"
"I—" His voice sounded hoarse and strange to his ears. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I saw your sign," he said.
"It's no sign of mine," the woman replied brusquely.
Confused, Lucas looked back at the sign. Maybe he'd imagined it. He turned to go.
"Wait!" the woman commanded. She stood at the door, looking him over. Finally, with a snort of disdain, she disappeared into the house, saying, "Stay there."