When we heard the knock at the kitchen door, the next Saturday evening, we knew what to expect.
“Let me in,” he said.
He wasn’t in the clothes we’d buried him in. He’d exchanged those for something else—stolen someone’s washing, maybe. A shirt and pants, both of which were too big for him.
“I’m still me,” he said, when our mother hesitated, and finally, she opened the door.
“Come inside, Henry,” she said.
And he did.
He didn’t understand, that he was dead.
“I was sick,” he said, “and I got better.”
He didn’t remember the coffin, waking up under the earth and scrabbling his way out. My father went out, later, with a spade and a shotgun, and returned the earth to the way it had lain before.
“It’s been raining,” he said, absently, when he returned. “Good thing, too, or they’d know.”
I didn’t have to ask who.
Our family had always lived on the peripheries of the village. My mother’s people had always lived apart, for generations and generations, and we carried on the tradition, living on the fringe of the village, nearly in the woods.
“Close, but not too close,” she said, the year I was six and asked why we didn’t live with everyone else. “We like our neighbors, but we like our privacy, too.”
The other women thought she was strange, for the way we lived. She came to church every Sunday, and so they could not call her a witch with conviction -- she took communion just as they did, and joined prayer circles, when they were called for -- but it was whispered that there was something not quite right about her. She knew things, it was said -- things that no Christian woman should know, how to charm off warts and which mushrooms were edible.
She taught me everything she knew: what plants were good for what, and what was safe to eat, what was not. She could cure most things.
She couldn’t cure whatever had infected Henry.
My mother had recognized the bite, before the rest of us did, and went to the priest, once the fever set in, with her fears. He came back to the house with her, her riding behind him on his mule, and slipped off, his cassock dusty from the road.
“Hello, Eleanor,” he said, when I greeted him at the door. “And how is the patient?”
“Feverish,” I said. “Speaking to things that aren’t there. I’m worried, Father.”
He nodded curtly and slipped past me into the house, emerged a few minutes later to tell my mother he was sorry, and that was when she said we had to bury him in the churchyard.
“Or Henry will walk again,” my mother said, and I didn’t understand, not until he came back, knocking on our door.
Henry didn’t remember everything. He didn’t remember most things. He couldn’t remember what had happened, what he’d been doing, when he’d been bitten -- what had infected him. My mother tried to quiz him: did he know what had happened, was he all right?
He’d smile at her. “I’m fine, Mother.”
But he had no appetite and cast no shadow, and in still water, he had no reflection. I could see myself, reflected on the surface of the scummy duck pond near our house, but I could never see Henry, standing beside me.
“Trick of the light,” he offered, and smiled.
I smiled back, uneasy, and wondered what the future held.
He still helped our father work the fields, harvesting with him until twilight, sometimes, and he was my brother, otherwise. He walked under the sun as anyone else, and though he did not eat, would sit at the table with us and take water. He was sensible, and discussed current events with my father as though nothing had happened, as if he had not died.
I could forget, sometimes, that he had, until I touched him, and felt his skin, hot as a brand.
“I’m so cold, Eleanor,” he said, whenever I brushed against him, though I could feel the heat through his shirt. “I feel almost…”
“What?” I asked, but he could never explain.
“Nothing,” he murmured, and that was the end of it.
It went on this way through the summer, into the fall. We were uneasy at first, afraid of what would come, and then, slowly, we let go. We were never quite comfortable, the way we had been before, but if we couldn't forget, we could pretend.
We didn't talk about the funeral. We didn't ask Henry, what was it like, being dead? It felt strange, wrong somehow. Mother would ask, at different points, if he remembered -- but the rest of us, we let it drop off. We didn't discuss it.
We didn't talk about anything, out of the ordinary. We pressed ahead as though there was nothing different.
There were differences, though.
The first time it happened, I thought I had dreamed it. I woke up, and there was Henry, in the attic loft we shared, the front of his nightshirt covered in dark stains.
"Eleanor," he said, his voice hoarse. "Eleanor, I think something's wrong with me."
His mouth moved, but the movements it made were strange; the words harsh and guttural. There were dark stains, on his lips and teeth. "Eleanor."
I pulled the pillow over my head, and prayed quietly that it was only a dream, only a dream, only a dream.
When I woke, the next morning, Henry was in bed, his face and hands clean, his nightshirt so white, it seemed almost radiant.
"A dream," my mother said, when I asked her about it, in hushed tones, and I accepted this.
If I had looked a little harder -- if I had not been so eager to be reassured -- I might have seen the bloody shirt, in the pile of washing my mother was doing, the salt she'd applied to draw out the stains.
I might have seen it, if only I'd thought to look -- but I did not want to think this, of my brother.
We began finding dead deer, in the woods, that fall. Deer with their throats torn out, strung from the trees, their blood staining the damp leaves.
"Poachers," said my father. "They'll be back for their kill later, most like," and he urged us to stay out of the trees. "You don't want to get between them and their bows."
"Some kind of animal," said my mother, her voice crisp. "There are panthers, in this part of the woods. Remember to lock away the livestock, and don't linger under trees after dark."
"It can't be poachers," said Henry, his eyes tracing the wounds on their throats. "This was done with teeth" -- but he didn't offer any further explanation.
We all knew, I think, even if we did not want to say it.
As the days began to get shorter and shorter, Henry slowly withdrew further and further.
He would not go to church with us, for we all knew what the priest would say, if he saw him, and my mother did not force the point. Nor would he go into town with Father, for there was no good explanation as to who he was; why he walked the Earth again.
After the harvest, when the fields were empty and the birds had all flown south, he refused to go outside at all. He stayed in the attic, instead, and paced. I could hear the thump of his boots against the floor, the slats rattling in place as he walked from side to side.
"It's the age," said my mother, or else: "It's the weather", if it happened to be raining.
I nodded like I believed her, and we did not discuss it.
The second time it happened, I knew it was not a dream.
I woke to the sound of Henry's boots on the attic floor, the incessant pacing.
"Henry," I said, drowsy. "How long are you going to keep at that?"
The thumping stopped suddenly, as quickly as it had started.
I heard the sound of a dry sob.
"Are you all right?"
"No," he said, his voice cracking. "Eleanor, help."
I found a candle, somewhere, managed to light it in the dark. It was a new moon, and there was no light outside.
"How can I help?" I asked, as the wick caught, and I was forced to see...
My brother, half-crouched on the floor, cowering in the light of the candle, his hands shielding his face, slick with --
"Henry," I said, keeping my voice level. "What's on your hands?"
I knew, already, but I needed to hear it from him, an acknowledgment.
"Eleanor," he sobbed, his hands dropping, and I saw his mouth, covered in blood, how it stained his teeth. "Eleanor, I don't know what's happened."
"I'll get Mother," I said, quietly. "Stay here -- do you want a candle?"
"The light," he said, swallowing hard. "It -- does something, I don't know. I remember who I am, in the light. In the dark..."
I thrust the candle at him. "I can find my way in the dark. Stay here."
I woke my mother, told her what I had seen.
She didn't say anything, just lit a candle, pulled on her everyday dress, an apron, and told me to sleep in the chair beside the fire downstairs.
"Don't you want help?" I asked, but she shook her head.
"You can't help with this, Eleanor," she said.
We didn't talk about it, the next morning.
There were stains on the attic floor that didn't lift, but I did not mention these to my mother.
We pretended that everything was the same, even as we recognized it wasn't.
All of us were hollow-eyed, at the breakfast table, haunted, and we didn't speak to each other about what it was we'd seen.
My father had crept out to investigate the woods, after my mother had come back. He hadn't found anything -- no deer, no rabbits, nothing.
We knew, then, that it was almost the end.
Our nearest neighbor came by, around tea-time that afternoon, Mrs. Witham.
"Have you heard?" she asked, breathless, as Mother poured the tea. "The Browns -- their youngest daughter went missing last night. Taken from her bed, it would seem. Nothing left behind but a scrap of fabric from her nightdress. They're blaming the tinker camp -- you know them, the man who repaired my pans last year? Seems that a girl went missing last year, when he visited Summit. The men at the town are keeping him for questioning. There was a lot of blood on the leaves, outside..."
I could hear Henry pacing upstairs, as she talked, and I worried she'd comment on it, remark on the sound of it, as she told her story. Henry, who was supposed to have been dead more than half the year. Henry, whose funeral she had come to, who she had told my mother not to cry over: "At least you had time to know him," because her only son had been stillborn.
I heard the thumping of his steps, in the attic, and I worried that she would note them, put two and two together.
"Eleanor," said my mother, seeing the look on my face. "Why don't you go take some tea to the men working upstairs?"
"Men?" said Mrs. Witham. She was an incurable gossip; an unpleasant woman.
"Can't you hear the thumping?" said my mother, her voice strained with false cheer. "There's a leak in the attic. We're trying to find where it is. Sam -- our hired man -- is taking a look at it."
"Ah," she said. "I'd wondered. Now -- how is Sam, these days?"
I carried the tea up before I could hear my mother give the answer. I set it on the step, at the door for the attic loft. I didn't dare go inside.
I didn't want to tell Henry what I'd heard.
Mrs. Witham left, but the unease that accompanied her visit didn't fade.
My mother had told my father -- I could see it in his face, the worry lines sharp and clear around his mouth. He fidgeted, my father, sitting in his chair, bouncing a leg in the way he had always gently told Henry not to, for "gentlemen don't fidget, son."
"The Browns," said my mother, quietly. "Their youngest daughter -- what was her name, Abigail? Amelia?"
"Ada," I replied. "We are -- were -- in school together. She was in the third class."
"How old was she, Eleanor?" asked my father.
"Ten," I said.
He gripped at the edge of the table suddenly, no longer fidgeting. "Ten," he repeated. "God damn it all."
I'd never heard him swear, before.
"Isaac," said my mother, reaching out and touching his arm. "Something must be done. We cannot -- "
"Cannot what, Caroline? Cannot carry on as though nothing has changed, as though nothing is different? Cannot pretend that our son -- "
"Isaac," she started. "Not in front of Eleanor."
"Cannot pretend that our son did not die, this spring, that what came back to us was no longer Henry, let alone human? Wasn't it your idea, Caroline, to keep up the charade? To pretend -- "
"Not in front of Eleanor!" my mother hissed. "If you want to take me to task, you may do so -- but not in front of our daughter!"
My father laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Don't you think," he said, "that she deserves to know -- just what it is she's been sharing that attic loft with?"
"Henry," I said, finding my voice. "I've been sharing the loft with Henry."
"No," said my father. "Something shaped like him, maybe -- but not your brother. Not anymore. Henry died this spring, Eleanor. We buried him in the churchyard."
He lapsed into silence. From upstairs, faintly, we could hear the thumping as whatever my brother had become paced across the attic floor.
"He's still Henry," I offered, uncertain. "At least -- during the days. It's the nights..."
"The days are growing shorter," said my father flatly. "Soon, it'll be dark well before supper; won't be light again until after breakfast. Do you think we can continue to carry on, knowing that? Do you think we can keep pretending, Caroline, when we have heard about the Brown's daughter, Ada?"
My mother stared at the floor and said nothing.
"You said he wouldn't walk again, if we buried him in the churchyard," said my father.
"I thought -- " my mother started.
"You said he wouldn't walk again, Caroline," he pressed. "And now..."
She shut her eyes. "We've done it my way," she said. "Now, I suppose, you'll want to do it yours."
"Yes," said my father grimly. "It's time to put an end to this."
I walked upstairs, before I could hear their plans.
It was dark, in the attic. I lit the lantern, with its thin kerosene flame, and laid back on the straw tick.
"Eleanor?" came Henry's name, out of the dark. "Eleanor, I..."
I waited, for what would come next, but he said nothing.
After waiting for an eternity, I blew out the lantern.
Henry came down for breakfast, the next morning, looking pallid and wan. It was the first time he'd joined us for a meal in weeks.
"I felt like coming down," he said, anticipating the unasked question. "I think I may eat."
He smiled at us, unsteady, and all I could think of was his mouth, covered in blood; the way it had coated his teeth.
"Of course," said my mother. She gave him porridge, along with the rest of us.
He made an attempt to eat it, but gagged every time he tried to swallow. Eventually he stood, and spat it gently into a napkin; said he wasn't feeling well after all.
"I think I may go back to bed," Henry said. "I'm not feeling quite myself, today."
We sat in silence, listened to the thump of his boots up the stairs, waited for the incessant pacing to begin again.
When we heard footsteps, my father spoke.
"Henry and I will be going hunting, tomorrow," he said. "The almanac says it's supposed to be clear, and there's good venison in the woods."
He was hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked, as though he had not slept, and I recognized his words for the lie they were.
They left before dawn, the next morning. My father was bundled against the cold, with a coat and gloves.
Henry wore only his nightshirt. His feet were bare.
If any of us thought this odd, we said nothing.
"Be back before supper," said my father, with false cheer. His breath steamed in the air, a frosty cloud accompanying his words.
"Yes," said Henry. "We'll be back before supper," and it was hard to stay still, hard not to note the lack of steam when he spoke.
"Be careful," said my mother. I wondered which of them she directed this at.
"Always," said Henry, in his usual easy way.
Mother and I went about the day as usual. We fed the chickens and milked, and later in the day, she had me start bread for baking.
"It's baking day," she said, quietly. "And we'll want something to have with venison, if your father brings any back."
I noticed the if, and didn't say anything.
Mrs. Witham came to visit, again around tea-time.
"Sounds as though Sam is done working in the attic," she said, with her usual bluster. "That's good -- don't want you getting damp and catching cold, now, do we?" She tried to pinch at my cheek as she said this, as though I was not, at fourteen, long past the point of cheek-pinching.
"Well," she said, when neither of us spoke. "I have some good news. Ada Brown has returned. It seems there was no cause for alarm -- the child has been known to sleepwalk, and must have walked outside, night before last, and gotten lost in the woods. She came back this morning, still in her nightdress, with her face covered in blood. Seems she slipped on the leaves outside and gave herself a bloody nose, walking. Suppose it wasn't the tinkers after all."
My mother froze. I saw the tea cup she held in her hand tremble on its saucer.
"Is that so?" she managed, after a moment. "How fortunate for them."
"Yes," said Mrs. Witham. "Not like that other poor family up near Summit last year, what lost their child to the tinkers..."
The conversation changed, slowly, to what the weekly sermon was likely to be about on Sunday, and what other tidbits of gossip she had, and I slipped away upstairs, to stare out the attic window and wait for my father's return.
He came back before supper, just as he'd said he would, dragging a dead deer behind him.
He was alone.
I ran to the yard to meet him, in my house slippers.
"Father," I said. "They found Ada Brown, this morning."
He winced, preparing himself for the worst.
"Alive," I said. "She sleepwalked, out of her own bed, but she found her way home, in the end."
I heard a thump, as he dropped the deer.
"Alive?" said my father, his voice level. "How fortunate."
There was venison for supper, that evening, and we did not talk about Henry. I knew better than to ask.
There were reports, a few weeks later, of a body found in the woods -- that of a boy, around seventeen, badly decomposed, wearing the tattered rags of what must have been a nightshirt.
"He can't have been dead more than three weeks," said the man who found him. "I go hunting here every few weeks, and I baited this clearing with a salt lick not more than three weeks ago" -- but the body was rotted enough that he appeared to have been dead for months, "since mid-spring, at least".
No one came forth to claim him, and eventually, they buried him in the pauper's field, just outside the churchyard.
If there were whispers, about what had killed him -- a gunshot wound, a silver bullet -- I never heard them.
"I did what I had to," said my father, after the body was buried. "I did what I had to, Caroline."
Neither of us ever questioned him.
I wonder a lot how, during a zombie outbreak or the like, you're supposed to carry on with the knowledge of what you've done, if you have to kill one of your friends or family.
Here, I chose something not so cut and dry as zombies, but something else, instead, with a more ambiguous ending. The family tries to carry on, to go forward as though nothing has changed, but eventually has to confront the secret before it destroys them -- only to find that perhaps it did not need to be confronted after all.
Thank you for reading.