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The Graveyard Book(2)
Author: Neil Gaiman

“Of course she’s not! Freshly dead by the look of her.” Mrs. Owens put an arm around the woman-shape and spoke to it privately, in a low voice, calm and sensible.

There was a thump and a crash from the high wall beside the alley. The garbage can had fallen. A man clambered up onto the top of the wall, a dark outline against the mist-smudged streetlights. He paused for a moment, then climbed down the other side, holding on to the top of the wall, legs dangling, then let himself fall the last few feet, down into the graveyard.

“But my dear,” Mrs. Owens said to the shape, now all that was left of the three shapes that had appeared in the graveyard. “He’s living. We’re not. Can you imagine…”

The child was looking up at them, puzzled. It reached for one of them, then the other, finding nothing but air. The woman-shape was fading fast.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Owens, in response to something that no one else had heard. “If we can, then we will.” Then she turned to the man beside her. “And you, Owens? Will you be a father to this little lad?”

“Will I what?” said Owens, his brow crinkling.

“We never had a child,” said his wife. “And his mother wants us to protect him. Will you say yes?”

The man in the black coat had tripped in the tangle of ivy and half-broken headstones. Now he got to his feet and walked forward more carefully, startling an owl which rose on silent wings. He could see the baby and there was triumph in his eyes.

Owens knew what his wife was thinking when she used that tone of voice. They had not, in life and in death, been married for over two hundred and fifty years for nothing. “Are you certain?” he asked. “Are you sure?”

“Sure as I ever have been of anything,” said Mrs. Owens.

“Then yes. If you’ll be its mother, I’ll be its father.”

“Did you hear that?” Mrs. Owens asked the flickering shape in the graveyard, now little more than an outline, like distant summer lightning in the shape of a woman. It said something to her that no one else could hear, and then it was gone.

“She’ll not come here again,” said Mr. Owens. “Next time she wakes it’ll be in her own graveyard, or wherever it is she’s going.”

Mrs. Owens bent down to the baby and extended her arms. “Come now,” she said, warmly. “Come to Mama.”

To the man Jack, walking through the graveyard towards them on a path, his knife already in his hand, it seemed as if a swirl of mist had curled around the child, in the moonlight, and that the boy was no longer there: just damp mist and moonlight and swaying grass.

He blinked and sniffed the air. Something had happened, but he had no idea what it was. He growled in the back of his throat, like a beast of prey, angry and frustrated.

“Hullo?” called the man Jack, wondering if perhaps the child had stepped behind something. His voice was dark and rough, and there was an odd edge to it, as if of surprise or puzzlement at hearing himself speak.

The graveyard kept its secrets.

“Hello?” he called, again. He hoped to hear a baby cry or utter a half-word, or to hear it move. He did not expect what he actually heard, a voice, silky smooth, saying,

“Can I help you?”

The man Jack was tall. This man was taller. The man Jack wore dark clothes. This man’s clothes were darker. People who noticed the man Jack when he was about his business—and he did not like to be noticed—were troubled, or made uncomfortable, or found themselves unaccountably scared. The man Jack looked up at the stranger, and it was the man Jack who was troubled.

“I was looking for someone,” said the man Jack, slipping his right hand back into his coat pocket, so the knife was hidden, but there if he needed it.

“In a locked graveyard, at night?” said the stranger.

“It was just a baby,” said the man Jack. “I was just passing, when I heard a baby cry, and I looked through the gates and I saw him. Well, what would anyone do?”

“I applaud your public-spiritedness,” said the stranger. “Yet if you managed to find this child, how were you planning to get out of here with it? You can’t climb back over the wall holding a baby.”

“I would have called until someone let me out,” said the man Jack.

A heavy jingling of keys. “Well, that would have been me, then,” said the stranger. “I would have had to let you out.” He selected one large key from the key ring, said “Follow me.”

The man Jack walked behind the stranger. He took his knife from his pocket. “Are you the caretaker, then?”

“Am I? Certainly, in a manner of speaking,” said the stranger. They were walking towards the gates and, the man Jack was certain, away from the baby. But the caretaker had the keys. A knife in the dark, that was all it would take, and then he could search for the child all through the night, if he needed to.

He raised the knife.

“If there was a baby,” said the stranger, without looking back, “it wouldn’t have been here in the graveyard. Perhaps you were mistaken. It’s unlikely that a child would have come in here, after all. Much more likely that you heard a nightbird, and saw a cat, perhaps, or a fox. They declared this place an official nature reserve, you know, thirty years ago, around the time of the last funeral. Now think carefully, and tell me you are certain that it was a child that you saw.”

The man Jack thought.

The stranger unlocked the side gate. “A fox,” he said. “They make the most uncommon noises, not unlike a person crying. No, your visit to this graveyard was a mis-step, sir. Somewhere the child you seek awaits you, but he is not here.” And he let the thought sit there, in the man Jack’s head for a moment, before he opened the gate with a flourish. “Delighted to have made your acquaintance,” he said. “And I trust that you will find everything you need out there.”

The man Jack stood outside the gates to the graveyard. The stranger stood inside the gate, and he locked it again, and put the key away.

“Where are you going?” asked the man Jack.

“There are other gates than this,” said the stranger. “My car is on the other side of the hill. Don’t mind me. You don’t even have to remember this conversation.”

“No,” said the man Jack, agreeably. “I don’t.” He remembered wandering up the hill, that what he had thought to be a child had turned out to be a fox, that a helpful caretaker had escorted him back out to the street. He slipped his knife into its inner sheath. “Well,” he said. “Good night.”

“A good night to you,” said the stranger whom Jack had taken for a caretaker.

The man Jack set off down the hill, in pursuit of the infant.

From the shadows, the stranger watched Jack until he was out of sight. Then he moved through the night, up and up, to the flat place below the brow of the hill, a place dominated by an obelisk and a flat stone set into the ground dedicated to the memory of Josiah Worthington, local brewer, politician and later baronet, who had, almost three hundred years before, bought the old cemetery and the land around it, and given it to the city in perpetuity. He had reserved for himself the best location on the hill—a natural amphitheater, with a view of the whole city and beyond—and had insured that the graveyard endured as a graveyard, for which the inhabitants of the graveyard were grateful, although never quite as grateful as Josiah Worthington, Bart., felt they should have been.

There were, all told, some ten thousand souls in the graveyard, but most of them slept deep, or took no interest in the night-to-night affairs of the place, and there were less than three hundred of them up there, in the amphitheater, in the moonlight.

The stranger reached them as silently as the fog itself, and he watched the proceedings unfold, from the shadows, and he said nothing.

Josiah Worthington was speaking. He said, “My dear madam. Your obduracy is quite, is…well, can’t you see how ridiculous this is?”

“No,” said Mrs. Owens. “I can’t.”

She was sitting, cross-legged, on the ground, and the living child was sleeping in her lap. She cradled its head with her pale hands.

“What Mistress Owens is trying to say, sir, begging your honor’s pardon,” said Mr. Owens, standing beside her, “is that she dun’t see it that way. She sees it as doing her duty.”

Mr. Owens had seen Josiah Worthington in the flesh back when they were both alive, had in fact made several pieces of fine furniture for the Worthington manor house, out near Inglesham, and was still in awe of him.

“Her duty?” Josiah Worthington, Bart., shook his head, as if to dislodge a strand of cobweb. “Your duty, ma’am, is to the graveyard, and to the commonality of those who form this population of discarnate spirits, revenants and suchlike wights, and your duty thus is to return the creature as soon as possible to its natural home—which is not here.”

“His mama gave the boy to me,” said Mrs. Owens, as if that was all that needed to be said.

“My dear woman…”

“I am not your dear woman,” said Mrs. Owens, getting to her feet. “Truth to tell, I don’t even see why I am even here, talking to you fiddle-pated old dunderheads, when this lad is going to wake up hungry soon enough—and where am I going to find food for him in this graveyard, I should like to know?”

“Which,” said Caius Pompeius, stiffly, “is precisely the point. What will you feed him? How can you care for him?”

Mrs. Owens’s eyes burned. “I can look after him,” she said, “as well as his own mama. She already gave him to me. Look: I’m holding him, aren’t I? I’m touching him.”

“Now, see reason, Betsy,” said Mother Slaughter, a tiny old thing, in the huge bonnet and cape that she had worn in life and been buried wearing. “Where would he live?”

“Here,” said Mrs. Owens. “We could give him the Freedom of the Graveyard.”

Mother Slaughter’s mouth became a tiny O. “But,” she said. Then she said, “But I never.”

“Well, why not? It en’t the first time we’d’ve given the Freedom of the Graveyard to an outsider.”

“That is true,” said Caius Pompeius. “But he wasn’t alive.”

And with that, the stranger realized that he was being drawn, like it or not, into the conversation and, reluctantly, he stepped out of the shadows, detaching from them like a patch of darkness. “No,” he agreed. “I am not. But I take Mrs. Owens’s point.”

Josiah Worthington said, “You do, Silas?”

“I do. For good or for evil—and I firmly believe that it is for good—Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will,” said Silas, “take a graveyard.”

“And what of food, and the rest of it?”

“I can leave the graveyard and return. I can bring him food,” said Silas.

“That’s all very well you saying that,” said Mother Slaughter. “But you comes and you goes and nobody keeps track of you. If you went off for a week, the boy could die.”

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