Home > The Orphan of Cemetery Hill

The Orphan of Cemetery Hill
Author: Hester Fox

1


   IN WHICH WE MEET OUR YOUNG HEROINE.

 

 

Boston, 1844


   TABBY’S LEGS ACHED and the wind had long since snatched her flimsy bonnet away, but she kept running through the night, her thin leather shoes pounding the cobbled Boston streets. She didn’t know where she was going, only that she had to get somewhere safe, somewhere away from the bustling theaters and crowds of the city. Every time someone shouted at her to watch where she was going, or ask if she was lost, she was sure that they were one of her aunt and uncle’s friends. Would they drag her kicking and screaming back to Amherst? Tabby shuddered. She wouldn’t go back. She couldn’t.

   Her weary feet carried her up a hill lined with narrow houses, and gradually she left behind the streets choked with theatergoers and artificially brightened with gas lamps. After cresting the hill, she paused just long enough to catch her breath and survey her unfamiliar surroundings.

   It was quieter here, the only sounds the groaning of ships in the harbor and the distant call of a fruit hawker trying to sell off the last of the day’s soft apples. Going back down into the heart of the city wasn’t an option, yet a wrought-iron gate blocked her way any farther, forbidding pikes piercing the night sky. Pale headstones glowed faintly in the moonlight beyond the gate. A cemetery.

   Tabby stood teetering, her heart still pounding. Dry weeds rustled in the thin night breeze, whispering what might have been a welcome, or a warning. Behind her was the land of the living with house windows glowing smugly yellow, the promise of families tucked safe inside. In front of her lay the land of the dead. One of those worlds was as familiar to her as the back of her hand, the other was only a distant fairy tale. Taking a deep breath, she shimmied through the gap in the gate.

   She waded through the overgrown grass and weeds, thorny branches snagging at her thin dimity dress and scratching her. Panic gripped her as she heard the hem tear clean away; what would Aunt Bellefonte say if she found that Tabby had ruined her only frock? Would she smack her across her cheek? Would Uncle lock her in the little cupboard in the eaves? Aunt Bellefonte isn’t here. You’re safe, she reminded herself. As she pulled away to free herself, her foot caught in a tangle of roots in a sunken grave bed and she went sprawling into the dirt. Her lip wobbled and tears threatened to overflow. She was almost twelve years old, yet she felt as small and adrift as the day she’d learned that her parents had perished in a carriage accident and would never step through the front door again.

   This wasn’t how her first day of freedom was supposed to be. Her sister, Alice, had planned their escape from Amherst last week, promising Tabby that they would get a little room in a boarding house in the city. Alice would get a job at a laundry and Tabby would take in mending to contribute to their room and board. They would be their own little family, and they would put behind them the trauma that their aunt and uncle had wrought, making a new life for themselves. That had been the plan, anyway.

   When she and Alice had arrived in the city earlier that day, her older sister had sat her down on the steps of a church and told her to wait while she went and inquired about lodgings. Tabby had dutifully waited for what had felt like hours, but Alice never returned. The September evening had turned dark and cold, and Tabby had resolved to simply wrap her shawl tighter and wait. But then a man with red-rimmed eyes and a foul-smelling old coat had stumbled up the steps, heading right toward her. Tabby had taken one look at him and bolted, sure that he had dark designs on her. She had soon become lost and, in a city jumbled with old churches, hadn’t been able to find the right one again.

   Another thorn snagged her, pricking her finger and drawing blood. She should have taken shelter in the church; at least then she would have a roof over her head. At least then Alice would know where to find her when she came back. If she came back.

   Tabby stopped short. Toward the back of the cemetery, amongst the crooked graves of Revolutionary heroes, stood a row of crypts built into the earth. Most of them were sealed up with iron doors and bolts, but one had a gate that stood just enough ajar for a small, malnourished girl to wriggle through.

   Holding her breath against the damp musk, Tabby plunged inside. Without any sort of light, she had to painstakingly feel her way down the crude stone steps. Lower into the earth she descended until she reached the burial chamber.

   Don’t invite them in. As she groped around in the dark for a resting place, Tabby tried to remember what her mother had always told her. Memories of her mother were few and far between, but her words concerning Tabby’s ability remained as sharp in her mind as words etched with a diamond upon glass. The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission, if you don’t make yourself a willing receptacle for their messages. At least, that was how it was supposed to work.

   The only other thing she had learned regarding her gift was that she should never, ever tell anyone of it, and the lesson had been a hard one. She couldn’t have been more than six, because her parents had still been alive and had sent her out to the orchard to collect the fallen apples for cider. Their neighbor, little Beth Bunn, had been there, picking wild asters, but she hadn’t been alone; there was a little boy Tabby had never seen before, watching the girls with serious eyes from a branch in an apple tree. Tabby had asked Beth who he was, but Beth insisted she didn’t know what Tabby was talking about. Certain that Beth was playing some sort of trick on her, Tabby grew upset and nearly started crying as she described the little boy with blond hair and big green eyes. “Oh,” Beth said, looking at her askance. “Do you mean to say you see Ollie Pickett? He used to live here, but he’s been dead for three years.” That was how Tabby learned that not everyone saw the people she saw around her. A week later she had been playing in the churchyard and noticed that all the other children were clustered at the far end, whispering and pointing at her. “Curious Tabby,” they had called her. And that was how Tabby learned that she could never tell a soul about her strange and frightening ability.

   But even in a place so filled with death, the dead did not bother Tabby that night. With a dirt floor for her bed and the skittering of insects for her lullaby, Tabby pulled her knees up to her chest and allowed the tears she’d held in all day to finally pour out. She was lost, scared, and without her sister, utterly alone in the world.

 

* * *

 

   After the first night, it was too dreadful to sleep in the tomb once the sun had gone down. Bugs crawled over her and rats gnawed on the rotten wood of coffins, and on the bones inside them. The shadow of a spirit, thin and almost entirely transparent, had drifted by her in a cloud of incoherent moans and laments. But Tabby had held her breath, watching it pass by, and it had taken no heed of her. Now she slept during the day, coming out at night to look for the church, and to forage amongst the shuttered stalls of the market for dropped vegetables and crumbs.

   She had lost count of the days since Alice had left her, and the gnawing thought that she had forsaken Tabby on the church steps on purpose was never far from the surface of her mind. Had that been Alice’s plan all along, to abandon Tabby? In her twelve years Tabby had learned that you couldn’t trust people, even family. But Alice was different. Alice had taken care of her, looked out for her after their parents died and their aunt and uncle took them in. Alice had suffered alongside Tabby from the interest their relatives showed in the sisters’ rare abilities. No, Alice would not leave Tabby, not unless something terrible had happened.

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