Dead Ringer

Scent Notes: Powdery violets, myrrh smoke drifting through a crumbling cathedral, red musk, candle wax, black roses.

John was thrilled to be getting married to Elizabeth. True, they had only known each other for a short time, less than a month, after he had moved to the country to hopefully avoid the cholera epidemic that had been breaking out so suddenly and violently in the city. It had taken only two dances for him to fall in love with her. And it was also true that she had a bit of a strange reputation around her small town, but as an outsider, he assumed that his own reputation around town would be less than kind. She was incredibly beautiful, with pale skin, long black curls, and eyes that lit up with such sparkle when she was excited, you could’ve sworn they would pop out of her skull.

But her life also contained such tragedy, John’s heart broke for her. After a recent trip to the city, her whole family had come down with cholera, and were in the long, slow process of dying at their large manor estate. Luckily, their wealth had afforded them the best in-home care possible, and while nobody in town had seen anyone but Elizabeth for several months, nobody wanted to become infected with cholera, either. Since two people in their town had been accidentally buried alive, poles had been installed in the graveyard. Bells were attached to the poles, and lines of string from the bell’s clappers down into freshly-dug graves could be seen scattered throughout the cemetery.

The thought of accidentally being buried alive… well, it was John’s absolute greatest fear. To awake from sickness in that box, deep under the earth, with a string to pull to notify the world that it’d all been a mistake, he was alive, dammit, was too much to think about. He’d told Elizabeth as such the first night he met her, after he’d learned about her family’s slow descent into death. He would avoid meeting her family until they either miraculously recovered, or he’d sadly visit their graves, supporting Elizabeth through such a terrible occasion. To have your father, mother, two sisters, and little brother all dying at once! His heart broke for her daily, when she would secret out to see him in the field between her house and the churchyard, the graves looking silently at them from a distance. But, of course, as the only surviving heir, she would inherit the entire estate, along with a considerable amount of money, which would soften the blow of losing her family. Plus, he had proposed, and their nuptials were mere days away. He wasn’t short of money, either, with a decent inheritance of his own that he’d barely had time to put a dent in before he hastened away from the city. They could start a new life, a new family, together, in this beautiful countryside, with no worries.

One morning, John was shocked to come downstairs for his morning coffee, only to find Elizabeth, sobbing, waiting in his parlor. “My family…” she started to say, but couldn’t get further without weeping hysterically. “They’re gone!” she managed through shakes and tears. He held her close, and let her cry, soaking through his dressing shirt with her tears and snot. When she finally pulled her head away, though, her eyes were dry and curiously sparkling. “Oh, my husband, we must bury them at once and have our wedding! I cannot stand to not have a family for even a moment longer!” He wasn’t sure if it was the grief, the anxiety, or something else at play, but her face looked … strange. She was still beautiful, of course, but her pale skin looked ashen; her eyes looked almost dead. Her voice was full of emotion, but none of it seemed to reach her face. 

He must have looked at her curiously, because she quickly started sobbing again, and threw her face into his chest. “We must! We must! We must!” she yelled, until John pulled her up and looked at her again. Now she looked proper grief-stricken, with watery eyes and a dour countenance. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light, earlier. How strange.

“Yes, my love; we shall marry after we have properly laid to rest your poor, dear family. I shall fetch the priest; we must have them buried at once so as to stop the spread of disease.”

She looked down. “The priest has come to my house yet early this morning; they’re set to be buried this afternoon.” He looked shocked, almost stricken. She looked back up. “We had much time to prepare; they’d been sick with this disease for many weeks now. All is taken care of. Meet me at the cemetery this afternoon, and tomorrow, we shall be wed.”

With those words, she turned and left the house. John was in a state of shock. What a turn of events! To think, her family has passed and she cannot stand to be without him for even one more day. He quickly broke his fast and had coffee, and put on his best black suit for the occasion.

As he was getting ready, a terrible storm rolled in. Gigantic black clouds filled the sky, making it feel more like midnight than midday, combined with incredible claps of thunder and bolts of lightning striking every inch of ground, it seemed to him. But the worst part was the wind. The squalls and gusts were shaking every house, person, and plant in sight, and causing the cemetery bells to clang without end. It seemed as if the whole cemetery was awake and screaming. By the time it had calmed down enough that he felt safe to go outside, he walked across the fields to find his bride-to-be.

She was standing at the foot of her father’s grave, completely soaked and covered in mud. She looked like she’d been wallowing on top of the graves in the midst of a terrible storm. Her grief must be so strong! He felt such love, then, for his compassionate, tender Elizabeth. She looked up at him. “You’ve missed it; they’re dead and buried. The priest wasn’t here for long; he couldn’t stand the weather.” He hugged her tightly to him, weather and dirt be damned. “Come, my love. Let us escape these endlessly clanging bells. You shall sleep with me tonight.” Her face brightened in that nearly frightening way again. “I would like nothing more, dear almost-husband.” Together, they ran back through the storm to his house, his last night in the small house he was renting until he went from bachelor to husband the next day. What a joyous occasion!

And it was wonderful, for a few hours. After an early marriage consummation (or two, maybe three), the young couple tried to sleep. Elizabeth fell right asleep, but the storm outside kept raging, and the bells kept clanging, and John couldn’t sleep. 

“These damn bells! I cannot stand it! My beautiful bride,” he said, turning to her and shaking her awake. “I am getting rid of these bells. I cannot sleep, and I can’t stand the constant noise.” With that, he turned, picked up a pair of scissors, put on his boots and overcoat and marched into the storm. She smiled, and fell straight back to sleep.

Angry and tired, he marched through the storm to the cemetery. Stopping at the first cluster of bells he found, he snipped off their strings, and threw them from the pole down onto the ground. It already sounded so much quieter. He went around to each pole, cutting down the bells and throwing them with all his might into the muddy, sloppy earth. He was soaked to his core; he’d surely catch cold for doing this, but the bells were stopping, and that’s what mattered to him: ending this awful noise that kept him awake and was driving him to madness.

He ended up back where his soon-to-be in-laws were buried. He couldn’t bring himself to cut their bells. By now, the storm was quieting, and the incessant clanging had calmed down into slight clangs. It was almost pleasant. He dropped the scissors and walked home, past the church at the front of the cemetery where he would soon be wed, and back into his house, where he promptly fell asleep in bed next to Elizabeth.

He awoke several hours later with a start; Elizabeth was already dressed in a simple white gown, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring into his face. “Good morning, husband; let us go be wed.” He smiled through his surprise, and got up to dress.

The day was beautiful: warm with sunny blue skies, nary a cloud nor gust of wind passed through as they walked to the church. Only the priest saw them wed in a quick ceremony that lasted not even two minutes, and he hurried back to his rectory across the street, as if he were afraid he would catch cholera or something more sinister.

She asked if they could go back to her family’s graves, so they could pay respects properly as a married couple. As they strolled, she gleefully looked up at John. “I think I might be with child,” she said, “after last night.” In that moment, he had never been happier. He kissed his beautiful wife just as they reached her mother’s grave. 

And the bells began to ring in horrible, deadening clangs. He stared with shock up at the pole, and then looked down at Elizabeth. Her face had changed. Her dead eyes sparkled maniacally; her face glowed with a terrible malice he just now recognized as something evil, not charming; and in her hand were his scissors. 

“Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “Another bell will join them soon.”

Scent Notes: Powdery violets, myrrh smoke drifting through a crumbling cathedral, red musk, candle wax, black roses.