They called her a malady all the while seeking her help. For better or worse, she'd agree.
| She wore all black as if she had never stopped mourning. Only a red kerchief hung from her belt right next to the set of heavy keys.
Ever since she had come, death in the village was never the same. After all, Madison May was a special woman – Madison May knew how to raise the dead. As proof of such knowledge, a skeleton bird sat on her shoulder, gently rocking along with her steps. Sometimes, it would crane its neck to send an empty stare down at an unfortunate passer-by. The cracked right socket would follow the retreating figure even to their dreams.
In the pub, she always sat alone, drinking from a low glass. With her back resting against the brick wall that smelled of smoke and spilled wine, she watched all of them hunch and draw into themselves. She listened to the private conversations, and whenever a wary gaze would turn her way, raised her drink in a toast.
She was an open wound and an open secret. Whenever the last drop of the amber liquid ran down her glass and hit the table, she would pass the rest of the patrons that flocked together like sheep cornered by a wolf. Not a single word would come her way, but now and then, Madison May would walk out with a note slipped into her hand with a name written in shaky letters. A note to The Bone Doctor… Banshee… Ghoul.
“Such a beautiful night for work, isn’t it, Bran?” she asked, tickling the bird's side. It pecked her finger in return.
Madison May chuckled and leaned on the shovel she had stuck into the soft soil of a grave. Only a few thin shreds of clouds were trying to obscure the moonlight, and a thick, pungent smell of old leaves tickled her nose. Rather than beautiful, it was a marvellous night. Or would have been if not for a dot of light approaching her from the other side of the graveyard. Local authorities weren’t as sympathetic as other residents. On the other hand, bravery was refreshing.
“Miss Madison May,” the priest called once he was at the earshot, “this is holy ground, and your sacrilegious actions have already gone too far!”
“Sacrilegious? That’s hardly what I would call it. None of my clients has voiced their complaints, and they’ve been to the other side.” She grinned and offered the man her hand. He didn’t take it. “Why don’t you help me out instead? Digging the ground is hard labour.”
“Now, now. I’d offer you a dance in the moonlight instead. Bony partners tend to fall apart whenever I try to take a dip… but I am pressed for time.”
The man sighed. “I ought to have you arrested, madam. So many graves were left torn apart because of you.”
“Who here would dare to drag me to a prison? No. I will do my job. Three minutes of fresh air will do good even for the dead, and then, they’ll be put back into the ground to rest. You are welcome to be my overseer if you wish to.”
The priest frowned. For a moment, he seemed ready to protest, but in the end, put the lantern at the edge of the hole and stepped aside, whispering an apology to his god. The dim circle of light got encased in the stretching shadows of the grass.
Some long minutes later, Madison May unearthed the coffin and walked up to him. “Be so kind and take care of Bran for a moment. He gets fussy when I start working.” Before the man could answer, she placed the bird in his palm. It flapped the stumpy wings once and grew limp – just a pile of dead bones in his hold.
“It's all in the touch, Father Nicholas.”
Madison May hummed to herself, turned on her heel and stepped into the grave. The boards of the coffin moaned in protest, but she didn't mind it.
The creaks when she pried open the wooden box almost drowned another sound – the footsteps of a stranger, uneven and quick. A flighty young man was approaching them, clutching a leather pouch; its strings wrapped around his hand so tightly that the skin beneath had rubbed raw. He kept looking back into the darkness, almost unseeing where he was going. And when he spotted the priest who only offered a stiff nod as a greeting, he seemed ready to flee back.
“Welcome, dear client.” Madison May's words stopped him in the tracks.
What Madison May had seen there, in the grave, remained with her. What they saw moments later were clean bones climbing out with a guiding hand resting on the skeleton's shoulder. The bones creaked. The skeleton man balled a fist as if testing his new state then stood straighter.
“It feels strange. Breezy,” the skeleton man said. His voice rose as a hollow echo from somewhere inside the skull.
“So he does,” Madison May said, eyeing the boy. “Do you have something you wanted to speak with him about?”
“I... he's my cousin. I'm here just to see him one last time, ma'am,” the youngster said, holding the pouch closer to his chest.
“So you are.”
The young man shuffled. Even in the dim light, a nervous flush in his face was clear and bright. Father Nicholas stepped to him, and just like Madison May had put her hand on the skeleton man's shoulder, placed his on the boy's.
“Take your time,” he said. “If you dared to partake in this... event, it must have been important.”
The young man nodded. A few moments passed in silence, disturbed only by the rustle of the wind. Then his expression changed into a more resolute one.
“I, well, we had an important... heirloom. But ever since your death, no one could find it anywhere. Where is it?”
The skeleton man turned to the boy. Darkness peered behind the empty sockets, making the youngster step back.
“I don't know you.”
“You must be confused.”
“I don't know you.” The skeleton man stepped forward, and the young lad flinched.
“I... you last saw me when I was pretty small. Yes, you just don't remember my face, cousin. Maybe because you are... this,” he said, motioning to the bones.
The dead man paused and turned to Madison May who only shook her head. “Don't insult me. I don't do half-baked service,” she said. “Why, are you sure you are related?”
The young man dodged from under Father's hand. He took a few steps to the side and pointed his finger at Madison May, voice rising to a yell. “I-I'm not lying! These are your tricks, aren't they? You make them talk like puppeteer! This is no person standing!”
“Excuse me.” Madison May retreated her hand, and the skeleton fell to the ground, lifeless just like the bird in the priest's hold. She stepped to the young man and leaned close to his ear. Her face twisted with a wide grin. “Yes, I am a puppeteer. So would you like me to make your bones step out of your flesh, to shed it just like a snake that loses its skin? I could let you stagger like a puppet until my touch ceases to bring you life, and you crumble just like him, unable to move or speak, or scream. Maggots would feast on what's left behind, birds would peck your eyes, and people would frown at the stench that reminds of your past life.”
The pouch fell from between the shaking fingertips onto the ground with a dull clang, and a few coins fell out. The boy turned and ran, and her laughter chased after.
Father Nicolas caught her by the hand so that she wouldn't follow as well.
“Madison May! You defile this man's body, you break your promise with that young man, and you dare to laugh?”
“Promise?” She shook her head and stepped to the pile of bones. A moment later, they rose once more. “This is my client. The other one was just an unfortunate guest. A grave robber, I presume. He left quite a treasure behind.”
The skeleton man stood again and turned towards the moon. The echo of his voice reached them before the priest spoke.
“Such a strange disturbance... but to breathe the night air one last time... Let me take it all in silence from now.”
They did. And when the bony figure rested in the ground once more, Madison May sat next to the brooding priest on the dewy ground. Stroking her bird back to life, she gave him a content smile.
“You're silent. For a preacher, that's strange,” she said.
“I was put as an observer tonight. I'm trying to figure out what I saw.”
“This man, Joel Moore, he sent me a request before he died.”
“To resurrect him? It's impossible to outsmart death. Even for someone like you.”
“Outsmart? No. But to see the night sky without feeling illness eating up your body... To me, it sounds like a positive way to say goodbye to life. You bring their mind peace before they rest, Father. And I do that afterwards if they fall short of time. Perhaps to most, I look like that boy. But in the end, you and I – I'd say we are the ones who aren't that different.”