Home > The Graveyard Book(3)

The Graveyard Book(3)
Author: Neil Gaiman

“You are a wise woman,” said Silas. “I see why they speak so highly of you.” He couldn’t push the minds of the dead as he could the living, but he could use all the tools of flattery and persuasion he possessed, for the dead are not immune to either. Then he came to a decision. “Very well. If Mr. and Mrs. Owens will be his parents, I shall be his guardian. I shall remain here, and if I need to leave I shall ensure that someone takes my place, bringing the child food and looking after him. We can use the crypt of the chapel,” he added.

“But,” expostulated Josiah Worthington. “But. A human child. A living child. I mean. I mean, I mean. This is a graveyard, not a nursery, blast it.”

“Exactly,” said Silas, nodding. “A very good point, Sir Josiah. I couldn’t have put it better myself. And for that reason, if for no other, it is vital that the child be raised with as little disruption as possible to the, if you’ll forgive the expression, the life of the graveyard.” With that he strolled over to Mrs. Owens, and he looked down at the infant asleep in her arms. He raised an eyebrow. “Does he have a name, Mrs. Owens?”

“Not that his mother told me,” she said.

“Well, then,” said Silas. “His old name won’t be of much use to him now, anyway. There are those out there who mean him harm. Suppose we pick a name for him, eh?”

Caius Pompeius stepped over and eyed the child. “He looks a little like my proconsul, Marcus. We could call him Marcus.”

Josiah Worthington said, “He looks more like my head gardener, Stebbins. Not that I’m suggesting Stebbins as a name. The man drank like a fish.”

“He looks like my nephew Harry,” said Mother Slaughter, and it seemed then as if the whole graveyard was about to join in, each inhabitant offering his or her own comparisons between the infant and someone long forgotten, when Mrs. Owens broke in.

“He looks like nobody but himself,” said Mrs. Owens, firmly. “He looks like nobody.”

“Then Nobody it is,” said Silas. “Nobody Owens.”

It was then that, as if responding to the name, the child opened its eyes wide in wakefulness. It stared around it, taking in the faces of the dead, and the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.

“And what kind of a name is Nobody?” asked Mother Slaughter, scandalized.

“His name. And a good name,” Silas told her. “It will help to keep him safe.”

“I don’t want trouble,” said Josiah Worthington. The infant looked up at him and then, hungry or tired or simply missing his home, his family, his world, he screwed up his tiny face and began to cry.

“Leave us,” said Caius Pompeius to Mrs. Owens. “We will discuss this further without you.”

Mrs. Owens waited outside the funeral chapel. It had been decreed over forty years before that the building, in appearance a small church with a spire, was a listed building of historical interest. The town council had decided that it would cost too much to renovate it, a little chapel in an overgrown graveyard that had already become unfashionable, so they had padlocked it, and waited for it to fall down. Ivy covered it, but it was solidly built, and it would not fall down this century.

The child had fallen asleep in Mrs. Owens’s arms. She rocked it gently, sang to it an old song, one her mother had sung to her when she was a baby herself, back in the days when men had first started to wear powdered wigs. The song went,

Sleep my little babby-oh

Sleep until you waken

When you’re grown you’ll see the world

If I’m not mistaken.

Kiss a lover,

Dance a measure,

Find your name

and buried treasure…

And Mrs. Owens sang all that before she discovered that she had forgotten how the song ended. She had a feeling that the final line was something in the way of “and some hairy bacon,” but that might have been another song altogether, so she stopped and instead she sang him the one about the Man in the Moon who came down too soon, and after that she sang, in her warm country voice, a more recent song about a lad who put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and she had just started a long ballad about a young country gentleman whose girlfriend had, for no particular reason, poisoned him with a dish of spotted eels, when Silas came around the side of the chapel, carrying a cardboard box.

“Here we go, Mistress Owens,” he said. “Lots of good things for a growing boy. We can keep it in the crypt, eh?”

The padlock fell off in his hand and he pulled open the iron door. Mrs. Owens walked inside, looking dubiously at the shelves, and at the old wooden pews tipped up against a wall. There were mildewed boxes of old parish records in one corner, and an open door that revealed a Victorian flush toilet and a basin, with only a cold tap, in the other.

The infant opened his eyes and stared.

“We can put the food here,” said Silas. “It’s cool, and the food will keep longer.” He reached into the box, pulled out a banana.

“And what would that be when it was at home?” asked Mrs. Owens, eyeing the yellow and brown object suspiciously.

“It’s a banana. A fruit, from the tropics. I believe you peel off the outer covering,” said Silas, “like so.”

The child—Nobody—wriggled in Mrs. Owens’s arms, and she let it down to the flagstones. It toddled rapidly to Silas, grasped his trouser-leg and held on.

Silas passed it the banana.

Mrs. Owens watched the boy eat. “Ba-na-na,” she said, dubiously. “Never heard of them. Never. What’s it taste like?”

“I’ve absolutely no idea,” said Silas, who consumed only one food, and it was not bananas. “You could make up a bed in here for the boy, you know.”

“I’ll do no such thing, with Owens and me having a lovely little tomb over by the daffodil patch. Plenty of room in there for a little one. Anyway,” she added, concerned that Silas might think she was rejecting his hospitality, “I wouldn’t want the lad disturbing you.”

“He wouldn’t.”

The boy was done with his banana. What he had not eaten was now smeared over himself. He beamed, messy and apple-cheeked.

“Narna,” he said, happily.

“What a clever little thing he is,” said Mrs. Owens. “And such a mess he’s made! Why, attend, you little wriggler…” and she picked the lumps of banana from his clothes and his hair. And then, “What do you think they’ll decide?”

“I don’t know.”

“I can’t give him up. Not after what I promised his mama.”

“Although I have been a great many things in my time,” said Silas, “I have never been a mother. And I do not plan to begin now. But I can leave this place…”

Mrs. Owens said simply, “I cannot. My bones are here. And so are Owens’s. I’m never leaving.”

“It must be good,” said Silas, “to have somewhere that you belong. Somewhere that’s home.” There was nothing wistful in the way he said this. His voice was drier than deserts, and he said it as if he were simply stating something unarguable. Mrs. Owens did not argue.

“Do you think we will have long to wait?”

“Not long,” said Silas, but he was wrong about that.

Up in the amphitheater on the side of the hill, the debate continued. That it was the Owenses who had got involved in this nonsense, rather than some flibbertigibbet johnny-come-latelies, counted for a lot, for the Owenses were respectable and respected. That Silas had volunteered to be the boy’s guardian had weight—Silas was regarded with a certain wary awe by the graveyard folk, existing as he did on the borderland between their world and the world they had left. But still, but still…

A graveyard is not normally a democracy, and yet death is the great democracy, and each of the dead had a voice, and an opinion as to whether the living child should be allowed to stay, and they were each determined to be heard, that night.

It was late autumn when the daybreak was long in coming. Although the sky was still dark, cars could now be heard starting up further down the hill, and as the living folk began to drive to work through the misty night-black morning, the graveyard folk talked about the child that had come to them, and what was to be done. Three hundred voices. Three hundred opinions. Nehemiah Trot, the poet, from the tumbled northwestern side of the graveyard, had begun to declaim his thoughts on the matter, although what they were no person listening could have said, when something happened; something to silence each opinionated mouth, something unprecedented in the history of that graveyard.

A huge white horse, of the kind that the people who know horses would call a “grey,” came ambling up the side of the hill. The pounding of its hooves could be heard before it was seen, along with the crashing it made as it pushed through the little bushes and thickets, through the brambles and the ivy and the gorse that had grown up on the side of the hill. The size of a Shire horse it was, a full nineteen hands or more. It was a horse that could have carried a knight in full armor into combat, but all it carried on its nak*d back was a woman, clothed from head to foot in grey. Her long skirt and her shawl might have been spun out of old cobwebs.

Her face was serene, and peaceful.

They knew her, the graveyard folk, for each of us encounters the Lady on the Grey at the end of our days, and there is no forgetting her.

The horse paused beside the obelisk. In the east the sky was lightening gently, a pearlish, pre-dawn luminescence that made the people of the graveyard uncomfortable and made them think about returning to their comfortable homes. Even so, not a one of them moved. They were watching the Lady on the Grey, each of them half-excited, half-scared. The dead are not superstitious, not as a rule, but they watched her as a Roman Augur might have watched the sacred crows circle, seeking wisdom, seeking a clue.

And she spoke to them.

In a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells she said only, “The dead should have charity.” And she smiled.

The horse, which had been contentedly ripping up and masticating a clump of thick grass, stopped then. The lady touched the horse’s neck, and it turned. It took several huge, clattering steps, then it was off the side of the hill and cantering across the sky. Its thunderous hooves became an early rumble of distant thunder, and in moments it was lost to sight.

That, at least, was what the folk of the graveyard who had been on the hillside that night claimed had happened.

The debate was over and ended, and, without so much as a show of hands, had been decided. The child called Nobody Owens would be given the Freedom of the Graveyard.

Mother Slaughter and Josiah Worthington, Bart., accompanied Mr. Owens to the crypt of the old chapel, and they told Mrs. Owens the news.

She seemed unsurprised by the miracle. “That’s right,” she said. “Some of them dun’t have a ha’porth of sense in their heads. But she does. Of course she does.”

Before the sun rose on a thundering grey morning the child was fast asleep in the Owenses’ fine little tomb (for Master Owens had died the prosperous head of the local cabinetmaker’s guild, and the cabinetmakers had wanted to ensure that he was properly honored).

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