Authors: Mary Downing Hahn
Sophia stopped beside a stone about her height, capped with snow. With a dramatic gesture, she pointed to the inscription, its letters crisply cut and recently done:
Sophia Mary Crutchfield
Only Daughter of William and Susannah
15 September 1871 to 27 January 1883
Our Loss, Heaven's Gain
“Aunt's doing,” Sophia said. “She's one of the few who believed I'd go to Heaven. Poor old thingâshe was so easily duped.”
“Someone left flowers.” I pointed to a half-dozen roses as red as blood against the white snow.
“Aunt again.” Sophia picked up a rose and watched it turn black in her fingers. “As Dawson remarked, today's my death-day. Twenty-seven January. Exactly one year ago.”
She glanced at me slyly. “Odd, isn't it? You know when your birthday is, but not your death-day, even though you pass the date year after year, never suspecting that someday .Â .Â .” She smiled and left the thought unfinished.
I'd pondered the same thing myself many times. Indeed, I supposed most people wondered what date would mark their life's end.
“I don't suppose you like to think of the period at the end of the sentence,” Sophia said.
I shrugged and pulled the collar of my dress tightly around my neck. No matter what I did, I could not keep out the wind. Its busy fingers squeezed between my buttons and pushed their way up my sleeves and funneled down my neck.
“Should we celebrate my death-day? With gifts and cake and song?”
I shook my head and said nothing. I wanted my coat, my scarf, my hat. I wanted to be home, safe and warm by the fire, reading my book.
“No, I suppose one does not celebrate one's death-day.” For a moment Sophia seemed to sink into sorrow, but then she brightened. “Here's something I'm certain you do not know. The dead are strongest on their death-days, just as the living are weakest on their birthdays.”
“Nonsense. I'm no weaker on my birthday than any other day.”
Sophia looked at me sharply. “Don't you feel strangely vulnerable on your birthday? As if the force that birthed you can take you back on the same day?”
“Sometimes,” I admitted, “but I don't understand why it should be so.”
“There's much you don't understand,” Sophia said. “This part I will tell you. I've watched and I've waited for this day, feeling myself strengthen as the months passed. At first I could not crawl out of my coffin, just as a baby cannot crawl out of its cot. It took me a month to climb from my grave, but at first I could do no more than creep around the graveyard like a loathsome worm. By June, I was standing and soon walking. In July, exactly six months after my death-day, I made my way home and began to terrify James. Spratt set me back when he made that charm, but at least I'd made certain James was not enjoying the life he stole from me.”
She paused and smiled, revealing the rotten little stumps of her teeth. “Then you arrived, dear cousin,” she said, “and I knew if I waited until my death-day I'd be strong enough to make you do whatever I wished.”
“No.” I shook my head. “No, no.” But I heard the weakness in my voice, and so did Sophia.
Turning back to her grave, Sophia said, “Just imagine, if you will, that the inscription reads âHere Lies James Ernest Crutchfield, Only Son of William and Susannah, 20 July 1873 to 27 January 1883âOur Loss, Heaven's Gain.'”
She paused a moment to allow me time to imagine. “And then,” she said, “imagine I stand here beside you, a living girl, telling you the sad story of my brother's untimely death.”
I wrapped my arms tightly across my chest, unwilling to picture James dead and Sophia alive. “That's not the way it happened,” I whispered.
She glared at me. “I tell you, it is the way it
“Yes!” She held my wrist so tightly, I felt the sharpness of her bones dig into my flesh. “Think of your body buried deep in the earth, lying there in the cold and the dark, day in and day out, for a whole year. Spring, summer, fall, and winter again. Stars wheeling overhead, the moon and the sun rising and setting, grass growing and dying, and the snow returning. Would you not want to be free of the grave? To live again? No matter who paid the cost?”
I gazed at the grave, knowing I would not want to lie where Sophia's body lay, knowing I wanted to live as long as I could. Pitying her, pitying me, pitying all of us, I hugged my living self as tightly as I could.
Sophia stared at me from her dull dark eyes. “How can you blame me for wanting what everyone wants?”
I shook my head, unable to answer.
“Why should James live and I die? Is he better than I am? Is he more valuable than I am?” Sophia grabbed my arms and forced me to look at her. “I tell you, he does not deserve to live! He took everything from meâhe owes me his life.”
Fed by her own fury, Sophia began to run once more, towing me behind her again. Headstones spun away from us, the churchyard gate flew open, homes and shops blurred as we ran past them, away from the church, away from the village, up the road toward Crutchfield Hall.
HE SNOWY GROUND SLID AWAY
beneath my feet as if I were ice skating, faster and faster until I was sure we'd left the ground altogether and were flying on the wind. When I inhaled, the cold air burned my lungs and drew tears from my eyes. My forehead ached as if it were packed in ice.
At last Crutchfield Hall came into view, its dark stone walls a welcome sight. Down one last hill, across the lawn and the terrace, and through the door we went, Sophia leading, me following.
When Sophia released her grip on me, my legs were as weak as a baby's and my knees shook. I slid to the floor and leaned against the wall, certain I'd never stand or walk again.
“I thought you'd enjoy a fast trip home,” Sophia said, “but I see your body is simply not up to it.”
“Please, I want to go to my room now,” I whispered. “I need to lie down and rest and recover my senses.”
“Not yet.” Seizing my hand again, Sophia pulled me to my feet and led me upstairs and down the hall to James's room.
“Why are we stopping here?” I asked.
“So you may enter the room and remove the charm over the door, the one Samuel Spratt put there. Be very quiet. My brother must not see you.”
“No, I won't do it.” My voice shook and my limbs trembled. I had to force myself to defy her. “The charm is there to protect James from you.”
“You must not oppose me on my death-day.” With a smirk, Sophia added, “I wish to see my brotherâwhether he wants to see me or not.”
Although I did not intend to obey her, I found myself turning the knob slowly and quietly. I knew I shouldn't open the door, I knew I was endangering James, I knew I couldn't trust Sophia, but I could not resist her. It was her death-day. She stood behind me, a force I lacked the strength to resist.
The room was dim. James was curled on his side, his back to the door, apparently sleeping. I turned my eyes from him. I couldn't bear to see him lying there, trusting in a charm to keep him safe.
Slowly I reached above the door and fumbled in the dust and cobwebs for the charm. It was no more than a bundle of twigs, moss, and dried flowers tied together with a green ribbon, so little a thing to keep Sophia away. Holding it tightly, I stepped back into the hall and closed the door behind me.
When Sophia saw what I had, she took a step backwards. “Get rid of it,” she hissed. “It reeks of comfrey and hyssop and other vile things.”
“What should I do with it?”
“Throw it out the window at the end of the corridor,” Sophia ordered. “Be quick!”
With an aching heart, I went to the window, opened the casement, and flung the little bundle as far as I could. I watched it fall into the snow and vanish. “Wrong,” I whispered. What I'd just done was wrong. Why hadn't I stopped myself?
Turning back, I saw Sophia slip into James's room. Filled with dread, I hurried after her.
She stood beside the bed looking down at the sleeping boy. “He's grown taller,” she whispered, “but he's frail and thin and almost as insubstantial as I am.” Her voice was scornful.
“He's ill,” I reminded her.
Sophia studied her brother's face. “First he killed our mother and shortly thereafter our father. Then he killed me. I tell you, he deserves to die.”
“Your mother died in childbirth, and your father died of fever,” I reminded her. “James isn't responsible for either. If he had anything to do with
death, it was accidental.”
James stirred and slowly opened his eyes. He saw me first. “Florence,” he murmured, “I was sleeping.”
“Have you nothing to say to me?” Sophia leaned over her brother, her face inches from his.
“Sophia!” James looked at her with horror. “You cannot come here. The charmâ”
Sophia smiled. “Our sweet cousin did my bidding and removed Spratt's silly old contrivance.”
James stared at me. “How could you have done so?”
I shook my head, too ashamed to answer or even to look at him.
her do it,” Sophia said. “Everyone does what I say. You know that.”
“I'm sorry,” I whispered to James. “Truly, I am.”
“Enough jibber-jabber,” Sophia said. “Do you know what today is, James?”
“Today?” He thought a moment, his forehead as creased as an old man's. “It's January twenty-seventh,” he said in a low voice.
“Does that date have any significance for you?”
He plucked the edge of his blanket with nervous fingers. “It's the day you died,” he whispered.
Sophia made him repeat himself three times until she was satisfied he'd spoken loudly enough. “Now answer this. Who is stronger today, you or I?”
James slid deeper into his bed until he was almost totally covered by blankets. “You are” came the muffled reply.
Sophia pulled back the covers, revealing her brother's shaking body. “I didn't hear you,” she said. “Answer me again. Who is stronger todayâyou or I?”
“You are,” James sobbed. “You are.”
I touched her arm. “Please, Sophia,” I begged. “Don't torment him. You'll make him sicker.”
She shrugged me off. “I do not care how sick he is. He has not long to live.” Turning to James, she said, “Get out of bed and dress yourself.”
“I can't,” he whimpered.
“Do as I say. Now!”
“No, Sophia.” I tried to thrust myself between them, but she shoved me aside as if I were made of paper.
Dragging James from his bed, she said, “We're going somewhere, you and I. We have things to settle.”
Shoving me out of her way, she opened the door and looked up and down the corridor. Seeing no one, she took James's hand and ran with him the way she'd run with me, fairly flying down the hall and up the stairs to the third floor.
FOLLOWED THEM AS FAST AS
I could, but when I reached the top step, they had vanished. Breathing hard, I listened to my heart pound.
“Sophia,” I called. “James. Where are you?”
As I waited for an answer, I heard creaking sounds over my head. Footsteps, I thought. In the attic.
I ran to the door and climbed the stairs so quickly, I tripped on the top step. Sprawled on the attic floor, I saw one pair of footprints in the dust, small and shoeless. I scrambled to my feet and followed them to an open window. When I poked my head out, I saw my cousins on the roof.
Frightened nearly to death, I climbed through the window and crept upward, slowly and cautiously. The wind had blown the snow off the slates, a good thing, but it tugged at my clothing and my hair. Worse yet, it billowed under my dress, threatening to lift me into the air like a balloon.