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The Gravedigger's Genie

This short story was my Round 3 submission for NYC Midnight's "Short Story Challenge" writing contest in 2019. In this phase of the contest, participants are given a time limit of 24 hours to write a short story that includes a specific character and theme or concept and a maximum limit of 1,500 words; unlike the previous rounds, writers could select any genre they desired.

My prompt for this story was Fairy Tale (genre) / Side Effects (theme/concept) / Gravedigger (character).


The Gravedigger's Genie

In a quiet country hamlet, there lived a man named Collen who was responsible for burying unsanctified bodies in the village cemetery. The lonely life of a gravedigger was all that he had known for twenty years of his life. It was honest work for a moderately dishonest man; Collen frequently helped himself to the possessions of his charges before laying them to rest. His hovel was filled with baubles that would have surely gone to waste if he had left them in the graves. One day as Collen admired his collection, he set to work cleaning an ornate phial that he had acquired from the body of a Moorish traveler. The filigreed bottle dangled on a chain, and the gravedigger suspected that the metals used in the piece could be worth a fortune if he could polish away the layer of grime that soiled the jewel-toned glass.

“I’ll make you as pretty as any gem in the queen’s crown,” he muttered. The phial became painfully hot under his touch, and he dropped it as quickly as if he were handling a live coal. Wisps of smoke gathered into a human shape that nearly brushed the ceiling. A powerful half-naked physique was revealed, draped in gilded chains and shimmering silver silk. The feet were bare, and a shorn scalp gleamed in the weak candlelight. The specter’s eyes flickered like two burning embers as they regarded the trembling peasant. Collen tried to scream for help, but the phantasm raised a hand before he could make a sound. The creature snapped its fingers and produced a scroll out of the air, which hovered before Collen and unfurled without being touched. The illiterate gravedigger could not make sense of the letters on the parchment until an alien thought crossed his mind like a memory of a church hymn:

Greetings, Master, from your friend – the living soul of Fire and Wind.

With this contract, you’re promised this: the attainment of your greatest wish.

Riches, glory, or love’s sweet flower – all these and more are within my power.

Call on me thrice, make known your will, and your desire I shall fulfill.

This being, seemingly gifted with powerful magic, was freely offering its services to him. A shrewder person would have been suspicious, but Collen was a simple man – at that moment, his greatest desire was to soothe the ache of hunger in his stomach. “I don’t know if your power comes from Heaven or Hell,” he said to the figure, “but I sense no ill intent in your proposal. Spirit, I am nearly starved to death. I wish to have a feast worthy of a duke’s table!”

The phantom nodded and wrung its hands like a miser. Food suddenly tumbled into Collen’s lap – game pies, a mutton roast, and a flagon of wine. Every dish was piping hot as though it had just come from the kitchen. Collen ate his fill for the first time in weeks and laughed until he cried.

“Surely you must be a servant of the angels!” he exclaimed.

The specter grinned down at him, its eyes flaring brighter. With its task complete, the phantom bowed to its new master and dissolved back into smoke. Collen draped the chain around his neck so that the phial, now cool, could hang close to his breast. He took another swig of wine and took up his shovel to go about his evening tasks.

A funeral had taken place that day, and the gravesite needed to be filled before he could start work on new plots. Despite the deepening twilight, the mourners were still gathered around the open pit. The family matriarch wept openly in front of her children while her husband twisted his hat to the point of ruin. Collen kept his distance but tried to eavesdrop to determine the quality of valuables that might be buried with the dead relative.

“Mabiley has to stay here forever, Mummy?” asked the little boy.

“Only her b-body – her soul is g-gone,” his mother replied through her tears. “Hopefully the angels have made a comfortable p-place for her.”

“Will she get to have a wedding in Heaven?” the girl asked.

The woman couldn’t speak any further. The children began to join in with her sobs. Collen was moved, especially by the news that this family was burying a daughter who had barely come into her maidenhood. What a precious treasure to lose to a cold, heartless grave! It had to be fated that Collen, a collector of discarded riches who now had a magical servant at his disposal, should be the one to acquire such a desirable prize. He touched the phial and felt it warm again until it almost burned his skin. Once more, smoke transformed into the towering apparition.

“Spirit of the bottle, I wish that they could find the peace to leave this place. Let their grief go away so they can return home with no sadness in their hearts.”

The shining specter nodded and snapped its fingers.

The weeping at the grave ceased.

“Good riddance,” growled the father. “Now we can go about our lives without suffering the shame of her.”

“Damn her,” snarled the mother. “Why did the saints curse me with such a disappointment for a daughter?”

The parents spat into the grave, and their younger spawn followed suit. There was no trace of grief left – it had been replaced by anger toward the deceased girl.

“Come,” said the bitter parents, “let’s leave the gravedigger to his miserable work.”

Collen giggled as he watched them go. “It’s good that I was here! The maid deserves to be honored by someone who truly cares for her.” He threw aside his shovel and sat beside the grave to ponder his next move. This wish would require him to articulate his intent very carefully to avoid playing host to a rotting corpse. Collen rehearsed his words before activating the phial for the third time. “Spirit, I wish that this maiden would come back to life. Return her to the quality she had before her life’s thread was cut short. Let her have no memory of her family, but give her only love for me.”

The specter bowed to him and then reached down into the grave. It helped the girl out of the hole and led her to the astonished Collen. She was slender and petite and bore no traces of decay. Although her head was shrouded in grave-cloth, he saw that she had been blessed with golden hair and a delicate heart-shaped face. He took her by the hands.

“I wish to take you for my wife,” he explained.

“Since you have saved me from the pits of Hell,” she murmured through the cloth, “I am yours, body and soul.”

Collen dismissed the specter with a wave. He led the girl back to his cottage, and as night fell, he provided her with all the pleasures that had been withheld during her first life while taking those that had been denied to him during his years of solitude.

The gravedigger woke at dawn in Mabiley’s embrace. He turned to look upon her form and saw that the shroud had been removed during the night. Although the structure of her face was lovely, he was horrified by the monstrous appearance of its features. Her nose had collapsed into two pits, and lesions stood out against her pale skin. She was no innocent virgin; this was the Spanish disease – the damning mark of an unfaithful wanton! This was the quality she had had before her death, and this infliction had surely been the cause of her demise!

Collen leaped out of bed. “Now I understand your family’s cruelty toward you!” he howled in disgust. “Whore, you’ve put the curse on me now!”

“I thought you were meant to be my family,” Mabiley replied. “I thought you loved me!”

Collen searched for his clothes in a panic. “The spirit can fix this! I can wish it so!” But the phial was not wrapped in the clothing, nor anywhere in the hut. Collen ran out to search Mabiley’s gravesite and saw something shining at the bottom of the pit. When he climbed down, he did not find the beautiful bottle but instead a pile of glittering sand that perfectly matched its jewel-toned glass. The horrible realization struck Collen that these grains were all that was left of the magical phial. The specter had played a cruel trick by vanishing after the last wish was granted, leaving Collen with no way to preserve his life.

The doomed man hurled sand toward the sky and screamed at the heavens, raging against the injustice that had befallen him. When the sparkling grains fell on the mound of grave dirt, the soil began to trickle into the pit. Eventually, the whole pile cascaded in, refilling the hole and burying everything inside.

Collen had robbed his last grave, and as his reward, he would never have to dig another.

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