The Caretaker's Clairvoyant Daughter
Mariana peered into other people’s lives. They were faraway, these people, but distance made no difference. Reclined against the steps of a mausoleum, she looked across green fields, past the modest house where she and her caretaker father resided, seeing not the headstones and catacombs that populated the cemetery, but seeing something else instead.
“Mrs. Throckmorton’s doing worse today,” she said. “Won’t be long now.”
“Exactly how long do you think?” her father asked, looming over his daughter like an eagle studying a mouse. “Because I certainly can’t get there before it’s happened.”
Mariana furrowed her brow and strained to hear the whispers in the ornate parlor a dozen miles over the hills. “The doctor says she’ll be gone within the hour.”
Her father nodded once. “Then I should be off.”
He turned away from her, but Mariana reached blindly for his arm, her gaze lingering another minute in that remote house.
“Could I ride along with you?” she asked. “Please?”
Her father grunted. “It’s no work for a girl.”
No work for her is what he meant. No work for the one who retrieved him clients before they’d passed, before any other caretaker could offer to spirit away the bodies.
The wind picked up, and somewhere many miles beyond the cemetery, beyond the distant village, beyond the whole province, something cooed in the tranquil twilight. It was something Mariana didn’t mean to find, but perhaps something that meant to find her.
She shivered and gathered her velvet cloak around her cheeks. “Hurry back, father.”
“It’ll take as long as it takes,” he grumbled and was off.
Alone among the dead, Mariana listened for the thing in the distance, the creature that had broken through to her, though she wasn’t searching for it. Yet for the moment, it too was gone.
Exhausted from her day’s travels though she hadn’t stirred from the stairs since morning, she curled up on the granite and closed her eyes. But she never slept, not really. Even her dreams were real. In this place where the dead rested, she could hear everything—the deep stirrings within still hearts not even death could quell. Listening to them each evening, Mariana fell in and out of love. She avenged one beloved and betrayed another. She sailed far-flung seas and carried a musket into battle.
And there were other things too. Things even the dead couldn’t explain. Out on the moors where magic drifted through the air like gray mist, people saw odd things—beasts in the night, perhaps like the one that had found Mariana this evening—and, terrified about what it could mean, the people tucked those visions away like precious heirlooms and took them quietly to their graves.
After all, the world contained secrets no plain mortal should know.
Mariana smiled to herself, pleased that she was far from plain.
That night, long after she’d retired to bed and her father had returned, panting and cursing life, Mariana eavesdropped into the darkness, hoping the strange creature might boomerang back to her.
Just before dawn, she rose from her bed, plagued with a nightmare of bloodied fleece.
“It’s on its way,” she said and thought how wonderful it was that she’d at last have a guest to entertain.
The next morning, Mariana waited for the paper to see if it carried news of the beast.
Mr. Miller, the deliveryman from the village, carefully picked his way up the cobblestone path, stopping only when he saw her.
Mariana reached for what he owed her, but he just flung the paper to the ground and backed away.
“Everyone knows about you,” he said, snarling. “You’re a heretic, child.”
She scowled. Being almost twenty-two, she was no longer a child and resented anybody who called her one. “And if I’m a heretic,” she said, circling the man, “then what does that make you?”
His heavy burlap newspaper bag quaked in his grasp as he straightened his posture. “I’m a god-fearing man myself.”
Though she didn’t mean to, Mariana let out a loud laugh like a blue jay calling to its young. “And what about what you did last spring that brought your wife to these grounds?”
The bag of newspapers drooped in the man’s hand. “You… you have no proof of that.”
Mariana smiled and touched her temple. “I have all the proof I need.”
After the man scampered away to his horse, flailing as he went, Mariana scanned the morning paper. Buried deep within the pages was a small item about a flock of sheep a wolf mutilated some counties away. But Mariana knew it wasn’t a wolf, at least no ordinary one.
Still thinking of the soiled fleece, she wandered alone to the far end of the grounds where stalks of green shot up from the earth like stakes upon which enchanters were burned. Her father always warned against crossing out of the cemetery.
“It’s not safe out there,” he said, but there was no implicit danger except, of course, to his reputation. He loathed the very notion of introducing his strange daughter around town, and without a horse, Mariana couldn’t get there on her own. The village was at least a day’s walk, and even once she would arrive, the people wouldn’t welcome her. Like Mr. Miller, they knew all about her.
“That caretaker’s daughter isn’t to be trusted,” she heard them say in the distance.
“She’s a witch.”
“Lock up your children,” the locals crooned.
Their lies ringing in her ears, Mariana picked a bouquet of wilted dandelions and thought how terrible a fate it was to be trapped in a demesne where only decay could touch her.
Around noon, her father found her on the steps of the mausoleum. “What do you see today, girl?” he asked.
She plucked the petals from an already browning flower. “The little Angley boy is filled with black tar. Cancer, I guess. No more than a few minutes left for him now.” She hesitated, her cheeks stained with tears. “So young, that one. Too young to come here.”
Her father frowned. “You saw all of that just now?”
“No,” Mariana said, her hand opening and the yellow petals sprinkling to the ground like rice thrown at a wedding. “I saw it this morning at breakfast.”
“And you didn’t tell me before?”
She shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”
After her father was gone and the sun started its evening dance down the horizon, Mariana rested her head once again and listened for the creature. It was getting closer. Even the people who lived in the earth knew it. They tittered louder by the hour, their hearsay spreading from one casket to another like a silly child’s game of telephone.
But they couldn’t see what Mariana saw. How with each bound nearer to the cemetery, the creature’s every contortion, every feature came into clearer focus. The snuff of its snout, the heaving in its lungs, the wind rustling through its fearsome brown pelt.
At first, like the newspaper said, Mariana took it for a dog. But the dimensions were all wrong. The legs were too long, almost like tendrils, and the creature possessed long, knuckled fingers much like a person. But it wasn’t a person. It had none of the flaws of a self-seeking human. It was too pure—so pure, it was almost perfect. Though given that beautiful fur, Mariana thought, a playful grin upon her lips, perhaps it was still part canine.
“Here, doggie,” she whispered, and faraway, the creature snorted as if it had heard Mariana call out.
Mr. Miller died in the night. He perished at a crossroads, some miles outside of the village near a tavern of ill repute. Mariana saw it happen in her dreams, saw his flesh and his blood, and after the deed was done, that flash of fur vanishing into the night. Upon awakening, she told her father at once, and off he went to claim the body.
At sunset, he returned, a different man than he’d left.
“It was a dreadful thing, just dreadful,” he said. “Old man Miller was ripped clean in two.”
Mariana fidgeted against the mausoleum steps where she’d been resting all day, conversing with the distance. “What do you think did it?”
“Something with claws,” her father said. “Something with teeth.”
Smiling, Mariana relaxed her head against a granite pillar and imagined how well those teeth must have shined in the moonlight as they tore Mr. Miller in half.
Night settled in, casting deep shadows across the headstones and beckoning a brigade of armed men on horseback into the cemetery.
“We need your help,” the men said to Mariana. “You know where it is.”
She peered up at them, already certain if she didn’t cooperate, they would squash her in an instant beneath a cacophony of hooves and gunpowder.
“I didn’t think you liked what I could do.”
“When you can save lives,” they said, “we like you just fine.”
Sighing, she closed her eyes. “I see it. It’s out on the purple moors,” she murmured. “Heading east.”
“The village is east.” The men dug their spurs deep into the horses’ flesh. “We must warn the people!”
Once the men had gone, the bodies in the ground chastised Mariana for her treachery, but she just smiled, tipped back her head to the indigo sky, and waited. Across the silent field, the creature breached the border of the cemetery. It rustled along the weeds and drifted past a hundred gravestones to where it found Mariana at the mausoleum.
“Hello,” she said. “So nice to finally meet you.”
As a welcome, it cooed her a lullaby. She cooed back.
“Mariana? What’s that racket you’re causing?”
Her father appeared, and upon seeing him, the creature roared and gnashed its long, gleaming teeth, which were even more stunning than Mariana could ever have imagined.
Like a baby rabbit in shock, her father quivered and collapsed to the ground, his arms wrapped around his red, sweaty face.
Deep within the earth, the dead chortled, contented to see the man who’d so eagerly awaited their demise at last earn his fate.
“Quiet now,” Mariana said and took the creature’s clawed hand. “We don’t want the men on horseback to hear you and return, do we?”
The creature cooed again, and Mariana smiled. She stroked its fur, a lovely shade of tawny, and when she was certain the creature was calm, she mounted it and held fast upon its back.
“Away,” she whispered, and the creature reared up in glee.
With a smile, Mariana waved goodbye to her still cowering father and galloped across the moors—away from the cemetery, the village, the province.
Toward somewhere no plain mortal would ever know.