Home > The Graveyard Book(9)

The Graveyard Book(9)
Author: Neil Gaiman

Bod had not experienced total darkness for many years. In the graveyard, he saw as the dead see, and no tomb or grave or crypt was truly dark to him. Now he was in utter darkness, feeling himself being pitched forward in a sequence of jerks and rushes, the wind rushing past him. It was frightening, but it was also exhilarating.

And then there was light, and everything changed.

The sky was red, but not the warm red of a sunset. This was an angry, glowering red, the color of an infected wound. The sun was small and seemed like it was old and distant. The air was cold and they were descending a wall. Tombstones and statues jutted out of the side of the wall, as if a huge graveyard had been upended, and, like three wizened chimpanzees in tattered black suits that did up in the back, the Duke of Westminster, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh were swinging from statue to stone, dangling Bod between them as they went, tossing him from one to another, never missing him, always catching him with ease, without even looking.

Bod tried to look up, to see the grave through which they had entered this strange world, but he could see nothing but headstones.

He wondered if each of the graves they were swinging past was a door for the kind of people who were carrying him….

“Where are we going?” he asked, but his voice was whipped away by the wind.

They went faster and faster. Up ahead of them Bod saw a statue swing up, and another two creatures came catapulting out into this crimson-skied world, just like the ones that carried Bod. One wore a raggedy silken gown that looked like it had once been white, the other wore a stained grey suit too large for it, the sleeves of which were shredded into shadowy tatters. They spotted Bod and his three new friends and made for them, dropping twenty feet with ease.

The Duke of Westminster gave a guttural squawk and pretended to be scared, and Bod and the three of them swung down the wall of graves with the two new creatures in pursuit. None of them seemed to get tired or out of breath, under that red sky, with the burnt-out sun gazing down at them like a dead eye, but eventually they fetched up on the side of a huge statue of a creature whose whole face seemed to have become a fungoid growth. Bod found himself being introduced to the 33rd President of the United States and the Emperor of China.

“This is Master Bod,” said the Bishop of Bath and Wells. “He’s going to become one of us.”

“He’s in search of a good meal,” said the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh.

“Well, you’re guaranteed fine dining when you becomes one of us, young lad,” said the Emperor of China.

“Yup,” said the 33rd President of the United States.

Bod said, “I become one of you? You mean, I’ll turn into you?”

“Smart as a whip, sharp as a tack, you’d have to get up pretty late at night to put anything past this lad,” said the Bishop of Bath and Wells. “Indeed. One of us. As strong, as fast, as unconquerable.”

“Teeth so strong they can crush any bones, and tongue sharp and long enough to lick the marrow from the deepest marrowbone or flay the flesh from a fat man’s face,” said the Emperor of China.

“Able to slip from shadow to shadow, never seen, never suspected. Free as air, fast as thought, cold as frost, hard as nails, dangerous as, as us,” said the Duke of Westminster.

Bod looked at the creatures. “But what if I don’t want to be one of you?” he said.

“Don’t want to? Of course you wants to! What could be finer? I don’t think there’s a soul in the universe doesn’t want to be just like us.”

“We’ve got the best city—”

“Ghûlheim,” said the 33rd President of the United States.

“The best life, the best food—”

“Can you imagine,” interrupted the Bishop of Bath and Wells, “how fine a drink the black ichor that collects in a leaden coffin can be? Or how it feels to be more important than kings and queens, than presidents or prime ministers or heroes, to be sure of it, in the same way that people are more important than brussels sprouts?”

Bod said, “What are you people?”

“Ghouls,” said the Bishop of Bath and Wells. “Bless me, somebody wasn’t paying attention, was he? We’re ghouls.”


Below them, a whole troupe of the little creatures were bouncing and running and leaping, heading for the path below them, and before he could say another word, he was snatched up by a pair of bony hands and was flying through the air in a series of jumps and lurches, as the creatures headed down to meet the others of their kind.

The wall of graves was ending, and now there was a road, and nothing but a road, a much-trodden path across a barren plain, a desert of rocks and bones, that wound towards a city high on a huge red rock hill, many miles away.

Bod looked up at the city, and was horrified: an emotion engulfed him that mingled repulsion and fear, disgust and loathing, all tinged with shock.

Ghouls do not build. They are parasites and scavengers, eaters of carrion. The city they call Ghûlheim is something they found, long ago, but did not make. No one knows (if anyone human ever knew) what kind of creatures it was that made those buildings, who honeycombed the rock with tunnels and towers, but it is certain that no one but the ghoul-folk could have wanted to stay there, or even to approach that place.

Even from the path below Ghûlheim, even from miles away, Bod could see that all of the angles were wrong—that the walls sloped crazily, that it was every nightmare he had ever endured made into a place, like a huge mouth of jutting teeth. It was a city that had been built just to be abandoned, in which all the fears and madnesses and revulsions of the creatures who built it were made into stone. The ghoul-folk had found it and delighted in it and called it home.

Ghouls move fast. They swarmed along the path through the desert more swiftly than a vulture flies and Bod was carried along by them, held high overhead by a pair of strong ghoul arms, tossed from one to another, feeling sick, feeling dread and dismay, feeling stupid.

Above them in the sour red skies, things were circling on huge black wings.

“Careful,” said the Duke of Westminster. “Tuck him away. Don’t want the night-gaunts stealing him. Bloody stealers.”

“Yar! We hates stealers!” shouted the Emperor of China.

Night-gaunts, in the red skies above Ghûlheim… Bod took a deep breath, and shouted, just as Miss Lupescu had taught him. He made a call like an eagle’s cry, in the back of his throat.

One of the winged beasts dropped towards them, circled lower, and Bod made the call again, until it was stifled by hard hands clamping over his mouth. “Good idea, calling ’em down,” said the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh, “but trust me, they aren’t edible until they’ve been rotting for at least a couple of weeks, and they just causes trouble. No love lost between our side and theirs, eh?”

The night-gaunt rose again in the dry desert air, to rejoin its fellows, and Bod felt all hope vanish.

The ghouls sped on towards the city on the rocks, and Bod, now flung unceremoniously over the stinking shoulders of the Duke of Westminster, was carried with them.

The dead sun set, and two moons rose, one huge and pitted and white, which seemed, as it rose, to be taking up half the horizon, although it shrank as it ascended, and a smaller moon, the bluish-green color of the veins of mold in a cheese, and the arrival of this moon was an occasion of celebration for the ghoul-folk. They stopped marching and made a camp beside the road.

One of the new members of the band—Bod thought it might have been the one he had been introduced to as “the famous writer Victor Hugo”—produced a sack which turned out to be filled with firewood, several pieces still with the hinges or brass handles attached, along with a metal cigarette lighter, and soon made a fire, around which all the ghoul-folk sat and rested. They stared up at the greenish-blue moon, and scuffled for the best places by the fire, insulting each other, sometimes clawing or biting.

“We’ll sleep soon, then set off for Ghûlheim at moonset,” said the Duke of Westminster. “It’s just another nine or ten hours’ run along the way. We should reach it by next moonrise. Then we’ll have a party, eh? Celebrate you being made into one of us!”

“It doesn’t hurt,” said the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh, “not so as you’d notice. And after, think how happy you’ll be.”

They all started telling stories, then, of how fine and wonderful a thing it was to be a ghoul, of all the things they had crunched up and swallowed down with their powerful teeth. Impervious they were to disease or illness, said one of them. Why, it didn’t matter what their dinner had died of, they could just chomp it down. They told of the places they had been, which mostly seemed to be catacombs and plague-pits. (“Plague-pits is good eatin’,” said the Emperor of China, and everyone agreed.) They told Bod how they had got their names and how he, in his turn, once he had become a nameless ghoul, would be named as they had been.

“But I don’t want to become one of you,” said Bod.

“One way or another,” said the Bishop of Bath and Wells, cheerily, “you’ll become one of us. The other way is messier, involves being digested, and you’re not really around very long to enjoy it.”

“But that’s not a good thing to talk about,” said the Emperor of China. “Best to be a ghoul. We’re afraid of nuffink!”

And all the ghouls around the coffin-wood fire howled at this statement, and growled and sang and exclaimed at how wise they were, and how mighty, and how fine it was to be scared of nothing.

There was a noise then, from the desert, from far away, a distant howl, and the ghouls gibbered and they huddled closer to the flames.

“What was that?” asked Bod.

The ghouls shook their heads. “Just something out there in the desert,” whispered one of them. “Quiet! It’ll hear us!”

And all the ghouls were quiet for a bit, until they forgot about the thing in the desert, and began to sing ghoul-song, filled with foul words and worse sentiments, the most popular of which were simply lists of which rotting body parts were to be eaten, and in what order.

“I want to go home,” said Bod, when the last of the bits in the song had been consumed. “I don’t want to be here.”

“Don’t take on so,” said the Duke of Westminster. “Why, you little coot, I promise you that as soon as you’re one of us, you’ll not ever remember as you even had a home.”

“I don’t remember anything about the days before I was a ghoul,” said the famous writer Victor Hugo.

“Nor I,” said the Emperor of China, proudly.

“Nope,” said the 33rd President of the United States.

“You’ll be one of a select band, of the cleverest, strongest, bravest creatures ever,” bragged the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

Bod was unimpressed by the ghouls’ bravery or their wisdom. They were strong, though, and inhumanly fast, and he was in the center of a troupe of them. Making a break for it would have been impossible. They would be able to catch up with him before he could cover a dozen yards.

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