The Strangers' Graveyard by Aimee Mepham
It was nearly dawn when Jakob woke me with a knock on my door and asked me to go with him to the girl. My head, as it was most mornings, was a kicked hive. My brow felt clammy and throbbed against the door, but I said I would join him. If Jakob’s grave voice from the hallway was any indication, I was unlikely to need any of my instruments. I mixed myself the usual morning tincture, tied the sash of my dressing gown, and waited a quiet moment for the laudanum to take effect. I dabbed my face and neck with my handkerchief, opened the door, and followed Jakob down the hall.
The girl was alone in a room on the top floor of the tavern, one of the more expensive rooms farthest from the stairway just down the hall from mine. Her face was ashen covered in a web of ruptured blood vessels. Her name was Lucy. She worked in the kitchen with Jakob’s wife, helped serve the guests at the long, shared table in the dining room. The bedclothes were a damp table. Beneath the quilt that had been placed over her for dignity’s sake, her legs were stiff and twisted outward. Her nightdress was torn open from neck to waist, her breasts bared. A garland of bruises bloomed around her neck, two violet petals at her throat where thumbs must have pushed down to crush her breath.
“My wife found her here,” Jakob said, “when she never appeared to start the morning fires.”
“Poor, poor thing.”
It seemed I was always arriving too late. I was once a skilled surgeon. I could amputate a gangrenous limb or pull a rotten tooth. In Jena, I lectured on anatomy at the university. Here in the wilderness, most were beyond my care before I was called to their bedside.
The town’s last doctor died suddenly of apoplexy, and when word reached Herrnhut that the village of Salem within the Wachovia settlement was in need of a doctor, I was appointed with the endorsement from a respected university friend. I was a risk, the first doctor within the village was a Stranger, what the Moravians called the men and women who were not members of their church. Unless I converted, I would always be Herr Doctor, but never Brother Vogel. Many in the village looked through me as a kind of poltergeist, a restless ghost pronouncing many deaths and saving very few.
Jakob crossed the room to look out the window, his back to me, while I examined the body. Two of her fingers were broken, and there was crusted blood under her nails. I coiled a lock of the girl’s dark hair around my finger, bent my head, and pressed the curl to my lips. The soft feel of her hair unearthed the tormenting memory of another raven-haired head. I could still feel how the strands of her hair had come away in my hand and fell to the floor, loosed from her head before the fever finally took her.
Jakob lit his pipe at the window. “It looked as though some of those bruises were older than a day,” he said.
I moved the girl’s legs, pulled her blouse closed as best I could, and folded her hands across her breast. I closed her eyelids, smoothed her hair from her face.
Jakob turned from the window when I had placed the quilt back over her.
“Whose room was this, Jakob?”
“The peddler’s. He paid for room and board last night. I sent Joseph to tell the magistrate, but I doubt we’ll ever see his face again.”
“God damn him,” I said softly while I tucked a stray ringlet under the quilt.
“Please, Doctor. Your tongue. He will face God’s justice in his time.”
Jacob’s face was a mixture of misgiving and pity. His look seemed to confirm that my American exodus – the suggestion of my well-connected friend to shake me awake from my nightmare of grief – was nothing but an ill-conceived and lonely experiment.
Since I arrived at the Wachovia settlement, I have lived at the Salem Tavern. The town protested. It was improper for the doctor not to have a house. However, I preferred the tavern, the activity, the energy and conversation of the guests, the constant motion of the transients. There was always the possibility of meeting someone new, someone fascinating. It had not happened yet, but still I hoped it might. The tavern protected me from meals alone in a cold and silent house. In the dining room, it was possible to meet other Strangers, and even though they were passing through, the reminder of the brotherhood of man beyond the Moravian brotherhood sustained me.
It was not what I thought it would be, my self-imposed exile.
I had seen the peddler last night in the tavern dining room, slurping gravy from chicken pie through his tree bark teeth. He had a peasant’s build – muscled arms and a handsome face browned by the sun. He had a habit of tossing his hair when he laughed. He was a frequent tavern guest, a purveyor of potions and wicked whimsy. I had seen him on many occasions set up his wagon full of powders and elixirs that promised to clear cloudy eyes, make boils disappear, and fill a barren woman’s belly with child. I had stopped on my afternoon walk once to hear his silver-tongued fictions and felt the blood rise in my cheeks.
Lucy moved among the guests, refilling glasses of water or wine, dispensing hot rolls from a wooden bowl. She moved with an easy grace and purpose – she waltzed. The men in the room could not help their gaze. She was unkempt but pretty with a small waist and wide hips.
I watched her bend toward the peddler’s table, saw him move her dark curls with his hand and whisper something into her ear.
Not a week ago I spoke to her in the room behind the kitchen where she slept. She told me she was plagued by headaches. The pain affected her work, and Sister Klara was an unsympathetic mistress. I gave her a little laudanum and told her to rest when she could.
“I’ve got nothing for payment,” she said and sat on the edge of her bed.
I thought she meant to offer herself to me, but I was not sure. I had only lived in Salem for six months, and while my English was improving, Lucy spoke in a manner that was at times difficult for me to decipher. Her English was unlike the English spoken by the people of the town, when they spoke English to me at all, and it reminded me of how alone she must feel. She had come to Salem at the age of twelve, wandering in from a mountain town outside the settlement. Her parents had been killed in a raid, and Jacob took her in as a servant.
“Do not be silly,” I said. “We Strangers have to look after one another.”
She examined the little bottle I placed in her hands. “Is this all you can spare, Doctor Vogel?”
She could not have been older than seventeen. She had pulled her curls from her face, tied at the back of her neck with a green ribbon. Her eyes were dark and appeared almost aubergine in the firelight. She was not embarrassed by her question. She looked straight into my face.
I reached into my waistcoat pocket and produced another small bottle. I confess my hand trembled a bit as I handed it to her. “I’m tormented by headaches myself,” I said.
She grabbed my hand and kissed it before she took the bottle from my fingers. Her lips were soft against my skin, her breath hot on my knuckles.
“There you are my dear. Please be careful with this and tell me if the headaches persist.”
As I made my way to the door, she said, “Wait. You could sit with me for a spell. Not many guests tonight. No one to heal, no one to feed.”
The straw mattress rustled as she patted the space next to her. I watched her wide eyes flicker in the firelight. With her hair pulled off her shoulders, I could see the redness around her throat. Her skin was so fair it could never conceal even the slightest blemish or bruise. She always wore the evidence of any undertaking, whether her hands were stained from canning or her neck bore the evidence of a back room tryst. I wondered what the people of the village whispered about her. Perhaps they thought the markings were from the harsh and arduous nature of her labor. I could tell the difference between the mark of the hand and the mark of carrying wood.
I lowered myself to the bed. She moved closer to me. She smelled of the kitchen’s spice and smoke. Cinnamon, ginger, and cedar. It was pleasant and made me light headed. I could feel the warmth of her body through my clothes.
She uncorked the bottle that was still in her hand and filled the dropper. I watched as two drops of the laudanum fell onto her tongue. She closed her eyes, tossed her head back. I watched the muscles in her neck ripple as she swallowed.
“Do you suffer any pain now, Doctor?” she asked.
“Yes, I believe I do,” I said.
She touched my lips and I parted them obediently. He fingertips were rough but her movement was gentle. I felt the bitter taste of the drops, the burn of the ethanol on my tongue, and closed my eyes.
“It’s much better than whiskey, isn’t it?” she asked. “Sometimes I sneak into the Single Brothers’ House after dark and trade with the distillery boys.”
“Trade what?” I asked and instantly felt a fool.
Lucy raised an eyebrow and smiled. Her front tooth was crooked and charming.
She placed her slender hand on my chest and wriggled her body closer to mine. I wanted to put my lips to her neck, to kiss every bruise, but I had not touch a woman with any intention in what seemed like a lifetime. My hands were wet with nerves, but then I felt the first wave of euphoria from the laudanum. I traced the curve of her shoulder with my finger.
“Who does this to you?” I asked. “That peddler?”
“Nathaniel. He’s making his way to settle out west, and when he has enough money, he’ll send for me. I’m going with him.”
Her eyes were cast down. She did not sound convinced, but her words still held a kind of hope, though frayed at the edges. I took her shoulders in my hand, looked into her flushed face.
“Are you so desperate to leave?”
“Yes. Nothing’s keeping me here.”
I held her delicate wrists in my hands. My long, white fingers seemed as though they could wrap around them twice.
“So desperate to escape that you let a man beat you? You must fight and scream when he comes at you. Do you hear me?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Do you think the Brothers will come running for me? Besides, I like it. And I can take care of myself.”
She grabbed my collar and kissed me. Her lips were soft but insistent. She pushed my shoulders to her bed. My weight was pushed into the straw as she climbed atop me. I felt it scratch my back, but every sensation was alive in my body as a kind of pleasure. I moved my head back into the straw, blissful even at the scratch of hay on my neck.
I was so carried away, I did not even mind when she grabbed my hands and wrapped them around her throat. Her neck felt as delicate as her wrists. When she took her hands away, I did not want to let go.
Jakob moved away from the window again as rain began to fall.
“It is a shame that she has no people,” he said and cleared his throat. “She was a hard worker. My wife was fond of her.”
Jakob, I noticed had tears in his eyes as he lied. Klara hurled all manner of insults at the girl any hour of the day or night. She was surely on the other side of the door, ear against the wood, her dimpled fingers grasping the frame.
“Will you bury her in God’s Acre then, as your ward? She may have joined the church given time.”
“I wish I could, Doctor, but she will rest in the Strangers’ Graveyard. We cannot have it any other way. Especially given how – you understand.”
I did not know why I cared. Though I still wished and hoped, calling out questions and appeals into the air or crying out in despair, these entreaties were addressed to a shadow I had stopped calling God. I believed it did not matter where you were put in the ground, that the sand in the desert was no more blessed than the square of soil these settlers called God’s Acre.
I took the edge of the quilt and uncovered her face again. “Is she really such a stranger to you?”
Jakob gave the bedpost a soft kick and would not meet my eyes. If I died in the night with no family to claim my body, I would lie in the same plot.
“I understand that my own admittance is out of the question. I would not want my sins to contaminate your sacred soil. But you’ve known her since she was a child.”
Jakob straightened his waistcoat. An indignant red tinged his nose, his cheeks and neck. He ran a hand through his ruffled white hair. “When you came here we welcomed you as a friend if not a Brother. If you want to stay in my home, Doctor, you would do better to not mock my faith.” His heavy boots punished the wood as he made his exit.
When I eventually returned to my room, I found a bottle of the Single Brothers’ whiskey, uncorked it and poured a glass. I took another little bottle from the shelf and added the drops. I looked through the window, through the humid fog, out toward the plot on the hill. The Strangers’ Graveyard faced east. Women and girls were buried to the north, men and boys to the south.
I imagined the bodies laid to rest there, who they might be. A sharp-tongued politician stopping for the night between speeches who choked on a piece of undercooked carrot. A tobacco merchant who ate little, retired early, and dreamt his way to his death, quiet as an extinguished lamp. An unusual woman in lace skirts, a painter traveling west, alone, who was thrown from a spooked horse. Tinkers – father and son – stricken with scarlet fever.
An unfortunate cast of ghosts. Before taking a long drink, I raised my glass toward the window. To all those orphans fattening worms, blanketed in the folds of our peculiar earth.
© Aimee Mepham, 2012
Aimee Mepham grew up in Dearborn, Michigan. She holds a BA in English from Albion College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in River Styx and Opium Magazine. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Interim Director of the Center for Women Writers at Salem College. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with her husband and their two cats.
The Strangers' Graveyard was read by Seth James on 1st August 2012