written by: Lucy Rumble
Marlowe had always felt too closely acquainted with Nature to be a physician. He thought it a regrettable result of the modern age that he should require such training to practise medicine. His father shared this sentiment and held the spread of Christianity responsible for the western world’s decline. Quite where he had gained these opinions remained a mystery, but few in England shared them, least of all his wife. She had the misfortune of being the youngest daughter of a large family, and thus her future was of little consequence to her father, who married her off to the first man with an adequately stuffed purse. If this had not blighted her notions of an idyllic Christian partnership, these were wholly extinguished on her wedding night when she witnessed her husband in prayer to an unfamiliar god. The sting of solitary living followed her ever since, while his father continued his nightly prayers, passing over two regrettable daughters, until such time as Marlowe was born. From that day on, he devoted every moment to imparting ancient knowledge to his son, schooling him in the truths behind Greek legend, Roman cults, and mystic healing spells. It was here, nestled amongst the tomes of his father’s tiny library, that Marlowe’s love affair with medicine began.
He longed for a return to natural practices. He wished to pass through the market without sighting a row of blue-bottled elixirs, replaced weekly by something “new and improved” (and decidedly more costly). Nevertheless, he pursued an education in contemporary medicine, hoping to establish an independent practice as soon as he had gained the necessary qualifications. He was fortunate enough to be offered a short-term training post at the county hospital on his twenty-second birthday. His father was immeasurably proud, at once commencing the planning process for the acquisition of a private surgery. This joyful time was short-lived, however, as Marlowe’s peers soon grew wary of his unique approach to his medical training. Fanciful tales of dark magic soon captured every listening ear, and this was how he gained a misplaced reputation as a necromancer. The stories appeared to have a foundation when a groundskeeper once caught him slipping into the laboratories after nightfall. Marlowe received a letter the next morning, signed by the lead physician:
You are hereby dismissed from the Essex County Hospital for failure to comply with the rules of your placement. Termination effective immediately.
Almost a year has passed since that day. Marlowe’s father proved to be a great source of comfort in the months that followed, helping to secure him a position as an undertaker attached to the local church, and even naming him heir to his second estate. Marlowe was to inherit this rather sooner than he had expected, as just weeks later his father died suddenly after contracting an aggressive case of influenza. His mother mourned her meagre inheritance.
“So much for one man. That house needs a woman’s touch,” she had berated Marlowe. But he had no interest in marriage and found no stand-out beauty in the rustic, anonymous faces of girls around town. He longed for something more refined, an intellectual companionship to match that which he had so cherished with his father. Alas, his reputation had been soiled by gossip that no well-to-do family would entertain the idea. Thus, Marlowe resolved to live a life in isolation and found solace in his work, grateful that he was still able to practice medicine, albeit in a more limited capacity. After all, his clients were rather past the point of curing.
Nevertheless, as the cold weather crept in, seeping through cracks in his working room floorboards, stinging his skin while he worked, he became increasingly despondent. Marlowe wondered why he toiled each day to preserve bodies which would soon be consumed by the earth. He yearned for his medical training to continue so that he might set up his own surgery, but he knew it was a futile pursuit without the proper qualifications. Each day brought a progressively deeper lament, until one dreary morning in December when he met Estabelle Acker.
She appeared as a heap of flesh beneath a thin linen sheet atop Marlowe’s desk, a copy of the morning’s paper folded over her breast.
Estabelle Acker, age 24.
Passed yesterday. Funeral service to be held this eve.
19:00 at the Parish Church of St John the Baptist in Danbury. Invitation only.
Curiously brief. He turned the page, scanning the text for more information, of which there was none. Just these four lines, nestled on the page with sedate sentimentality, betraying nothing more of poor Estabelle.
He smoothed the page beneath his fingertips and considered. What of her life and its accomplishments? Or her family? And why might she have been taken so young? There was only one thing he could do to reveal more. Slowly, Marlowe peeled back the shroud.
“Quite the beauty, is she not?” A voice called from behind him. He jumped.
“I had not noticed.” Marlowe replied, eyes fixed on Estabelle’s face.
“Passed in her sleep. Parents claim they do not know the cause. They own a crypt in the churchyard, we need her sealed in tomorrow before they depart for Christmas in France. The tomb has been prepared; I’ll leave the key for you.” Marlowe heard the clink as it was left on the metal cabinet next to the room’s door.
Still transfixed, and in the silence that followed, he finally took in the young woman before him, casting his eyes across her whole form. She had a slight figure, no taller than 5’5”. She appeared well-nourished, a healthy layer of fat coating both her ribcage and hips. Her legs were unusually defined for a woman of her age, calf muscles proudly jutting out from their bones. He turned over one of her hands, noticing a speckling of callouses. It seemed she had not led a sedentary life. But this was hardly betrayed by her face, which held no signs of weathering. Its skin was smooth and stretched across angular features, high cheekbones, and a high-set brow. Her cheeks were surprisingly full for such a slender face, and he noticed a slight blush to them, as though she had just laid down to rest. Her eyes were deep-set, slightly too far apart, and Marlowe imagined them to shine an emerald green. The bridge of her nose diverged into two, thick eyebrows. Her hair was a similar shade, somewhat darker, and lay in weighty heaps at either side of her head. Her lips were the most striking aspect of her face, plump and rosy, with a steeply curved cupid’s bow.
He worked for four hours to embalm her body, only noticing that dusk had fallen when he finally set down his tools. At the edge of his vision, he spotted the folded paper that had lain across her breast and abruptly recalled the time and urgency of his task. He had been directed to transport the body to the family’s crypt so why had he been so compelled to preserve it? Perhaps subconsciously he had been repelled by the notion that her beauty was destined to be lost beneath the dusty lid of an old crypt bed. Or perhaps it was sorrow that her family seemed to have forsaken her here in England.
Whatever the reason, Marlowe knew he was not paid to entertain such thoughts and had already over-reached. He thus set about lifting her body over his shoulder and began the slow trek across the churchyard. Upon reaching the chapel, he placed his back to the door, pressing himself against it until it shuddered open. The inside was lit by candlelight, auburn patterns dancing across its roof and sliding down its walls to display an open tomb at its edge. The lid lay against its side, half-covering the name ‘Estabelle’ which had recently been etched into the stone. He set her body down within it, hastening to replace the lid lest he lingered at her side any longer. With no further work to be done, Marlowe gathered up his cloak and returned home.
Seven chimes rang through the near-empty rooms of Marlowe’s house. His thoughts had remained on Estabelle since he first saw her, but upon hearing these chimes his mood took a sour turn. The guilt which had presented itself earlier gnawed away at him still, and he was quite restless at the thought of her remaining in her tomb, unloved and unseen, for eternity. Upon the final chime, he rose from the fireside and snatched his winter garments from their hook. Suddenly he understood how Menelaus sacked the earth perusing Helen. Pulling his scarf over his chin, he braced himself for the biting air which struck his face as he swung open the door.
He waited at the gate of the churchyard until nightfall, slipping between its bounds only when he was sure no one remained within. Having gathered some bottles from his workroom, he hurried down the winding path to the tiny chapel, its marble walls shining with brilliance in the moonlight. Faux Corinthian columns rose out of the ground, joined together by an iron gate, and sealed between walls of thick marble. With some trepidation, he approached. Shallow steps led up to the iron bars, dust lingering on its surface, only partially wiped away by half-caring hands. His feet tapped against their surface, displacing the dust motes filtering down from the rising moon through the overcast trees.
As his hand slipped into the cold grasp of the iron padlock, Marlowe became grounded. He wondered why he had come there, stood at the embellished resting place of a person he had never known, pining after a girl who was dead. But as quickly as this doubt had entered his mind, he cast it aside. He was a firm believer in fate, and his heart had led him here. He removed the key from his cloak pocket and burst into the chapel, his feet smacking against the floor and echoing around the main chamber. He slid the cover from Estabelle’s cage and gathered her in his arms, paying no attention to the garlands and candles he knocked over in the process. With careful strides he removed her from the chapel, stooping as he secured the padlock so as not to hit her head against the marble arch of the doorway.
The drawing room floor was coated by pale winter’s light by the time Marlowe returned home. Still carrying Estabelle in his arms, he used his foot to drag an armchair to the centre of the room, carefully lowering her onto it. Sweat dappled his forehead and he involuntarily shuddered as he became accustomed to the warmth of the fire he had lit some hours ago. He removed three bottles from his cloak and set them beside the chair before disappearing into the kitchen to gather a wooden bowl and a box of salt. He poured half of each bottle into the bowl, swirling the mixture with his finger until it formed a murky liquid. Next, he opened the box of salt and rose from his previous position on the floor, pouring it in a rough circle around the armchair. He added extra swirls and flourishes at symmetrical intervals around its edge until he was satisfied that it resembled the Sigel his father had taught him as a boy. Marlowe was amazed that he felt so calm at such an important moment in his scientific career: finally, he had the means to test his father’s most daring hypothesis. He dropped to his knees, resting there a moment to thank his divine inspirations. He recited the Hippocratic Oath, pledging his commitment to virtue and calling on Asclepios to guide him through this reincarnation.
Then, he pulled himself to his feet and walked over to the squat cabinet which sat flush against the wall, drawing from its depths a thin-bladed knife. The enamel handle felt cool against his skin. He clasped it harder, bringing the base of the blade to the palm of his left hand. Slowly dragging it downwards, he sliced cleanly through the fold of his hand. Pulling the blade away, he saw the cut gape slightly, then turn a deeper shade of red. He quickly made a fist, pressing his fingers hard against the line of skin below the wound. He tilted his wrist, positioning his hand directly above the wooden bowl at his feet. A cool, wet sensation swelled inside his fist, slowly emerging from its base as a single drip of crimson. The drip burgeoned, finally breaking from his grasp and cascading to the floor, landing as a small, irregular splat on the panel below. He blinked, certain that the bowl had been closer a moment before. Then, the knife clattered down beside it.
The noise startled him from the reverie which had begun when he first set eyes on Estabelle. He could no longer look at her but instead clutched his hands together in an attempt to stop the flow of blood, letting out a nervous laugh as he backed further away from the armchair. He was gripped by a sudden discomfort at the corpse inhabiting his living room, and the prospect of his success at its reanimation now greatly disturbed him. He supposed that was why he had stopped, being so certain the spell would work.
He forced his gaze upwards, almost at once overcome by the beauty of the figure before him. He cradled her face in his hands and placed his lips against her forehead, breathing in the sweet mixture of pine extract and salt which lay as a gloss on her skin. He lowered his hand, curling a finger through an isolated lock of hair before slowly releasing the raven twist to fall limply against her neck. He graced his hand across her angled jaw and turned away, his outstretched hand still lingering over her frame when he heard a slight shifting of fabric. He snapped his head round, eyes searching the dimly lit room for a sign of movement. Nothing. He turned his gaze back toward her figure, wondering if it sat more slouched than before. Perhaps the decomposition had begun earlier than he imagined, the outward elements of her body becoming more limber as they fell apart. That was all.
He waved his hand over the candle at his feet and kicked the wooden bowl, its contents spilling across the floor and partially obscuring the powdered lines below. He pointed his toes and dragged them through the salt, breaking the connection. He turned away, faster this time, and paced out of the room on uneasy feet. He twisted the doorknob to his bedchamber, heart pounding, and pulled it shut, hoping to muffle any sounds emanating from the body in the next room.
But a part of him still yearned for Estabelle. As he slept that night, he breached the barrier between dreams and the waking world. He imagined his life with her, not the version of her that was laying limp in his living room chair, but the version which existed in his mind. He imagined her to be deeply pensive, with a sorrowful air which drew him in, and as his love for this imaginary Gothic mistress blossomed, so too did the spell resume. He may not have given his blood, and the Sigel may have been broken, but Marlowe had fed the lingering magic with the very essence of humankind: a pining for companionship. Embers rose from the toppled bowl and for a fleeting moment, the power of his dream sent a spark through the salted lines on the wooden floor. Just enough to reach Estabelle and plant a seed of that imagined life within her being. She remained still, the spark being not strong enough to cause full reanimation. But in a way, the spell was complete.
Marlowe woke late the next morning, groggy fingers fumbling to pull up the sheets which had slipped from across his chest. The air was frigid and biting. He suspected that he had left a window open in the drawing room. Fighting the urge to stay in bed, he rushed to dress himself, goosebumps peppering his skin. Hurrying into the drawing room, he was bewildered by the sight of closed windows. He shuffled over to the fireplace and drew some wooden planks from the adjacent stack, piling them into the ashy pit and flicking a match in amongst the thinner twigs of kindling. He watched the flames engulf its core, spitting blazing flakes at the brick walls of the chimney. Satisfied, he walked through the remaining rooms of the house, hoping to find the source of the icy breeze. He had heard rumours of an Antarctic wind blowing into England’s winter, and he supposed this was it. He returned to the living room, hands stuffed in his pockets and chin half-tucked against his neck in a desperate attempt to conserve heat. He approached the fireplace, suddenly aware of the lack of flames. He had watched it start, but now he saw no evidence of recent activity. The logs were not charred, and when he lay his hand against the bundle, it was cool.
Then, he heard a whisper: a light, ethereal voice, calling his name. He froze, hand remaining firmly on the firewood and breath halted as he listened intently. Nothing further came, and the room was plunged back into silence. He turned his gaze to Estabelle, whom he had not dared to look at since entering the room. Her head was tilted towards him, lips slightly parted as though a breath had just passed through. The voice must have been hers, but Marlowe was so arrested by fear that he had little opportunity to feel any joy at this scientific success.
His throat dry, he spoke in a small voice: “Estabelle, my name is Marlowe. Last night I performed a partial reanimation ritual on you. It appears I have awoken your spirit, but not your body. I do not have the means or the knowledge to reverse such a spell, but I can return you to your resting place tonight. I should not have disturbed you.”
A loud clattering echoed around the room, and Marlowe noticed that the small blade which he had used the previous night had been thrown to the other end of the room. Still kneeling at the cold fireplace, he did not dare to move. Estabelle did not wish to be buried. He shuddered at the thought of her remaining in that armchair, and resolutely decided that he would take her back to the chapel. Suddenly the knife spun back across the room, flying towards him, and slicing at his ankles. He cried out in agony, hand wrenched from the pile of wood to clutch at his bleeding feet. Adrenaline masked most of the pain, and urged him to flee from the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
Marlowe’s chest tightened almost to the point of suffocation. He ran to the bathroom, blocked the door with a small stool and gripped the edges of the sink with white knuckles. As his breathing slowed, he looked up at his reflection. A pallid visage stared back, haunted skin stretched over hollow cheeks, dun eyes set deep within a skeletal frame. One of the eyes was changing, growing white. He blinked, rubbed his eye, and leant closer to the mirror. A brilliant white now shone back from the reflection of his left eye in painful contrast to the right. Then it moved. He snatched the hand towel from its metal hook beside the sink and thrust it over the mirror, his heart resuming its rapid thud. He turned and slumped against the door, watching his breaths emerge as hot clouds into the icy air.
Marlowe remained in this position for some time. Eventually, he reached up and removed the towel from the mirror, now applying it to the congealed blood around his ankles. He carefully pulled back the door, emerging from the small room without daring to look back at his reflection. He paced through the drawing room at speed, grabbing the box of salt as he went and pouring a generous amount across the gap beneath the main doors. Crossing the threshold into his bedchamber, he doused it in salt and continued its path with a thick circle around his bed. He lay down, clutching the sheets, heart hammering as he listened for any sign of the spirit he had awoken. Silence. His breathing slowed, and with the seemingly successful protection provided by the salt, he allowed his body to relax.
Marlowe woke the next morning feeling refreshed. Having been to overcome by fear to leave his room the day before, he found Estabelle’s body where he had left it. He felt confident that all was well, and thus decided that he would grant himself some Christmas spirit before venturing to return her body to the chapel. As surety, he set about opening the pockets on every item of his clothing to add a healthy dash of salt, sprinkling a little more across the outside layers for good measure.
He emerged from his house into a busy street full of joyous, ruddy faces, and smiled. For the first time in recent months, he was excited to see his mother, and so he hastened across the common to his childhood home. Before he had the chance to raise his gloved hand to knock at the foreboding oak doors, his mother swung them open and greeted him with a happy, yet perplexed expression.
“And where is the lovely lady?” she enquired after a quick embrace, anxious eyes darting over his left shoulder. “I am so looking forward to meeting her”.
“So early this year, mother,” Marlowe replied tartly. “You usually wait until after dinner to start.”
“But she wrote to me just yesterday, it was a most charming letter. Surely you knew of this?”
Marlowe’s breathing hitched, and he felt a sudden tightness encircle his wrist. Casting his eyes downwards, he noticed that the sleeve of his coat had risen slightly, and that the ghostly impressions of perfectly formed fingertips were glowing white against his skin.