The sun slowly rose from behind the hills in the east, its rays reaching out across the countryside; across fields of golden wheat that stood tall and still without so much as a breeze to disturb them. Beside the wheat fields ran a simple dirt road and beside that a sparkling stream. The road and stream continued past the fields and wound through a small village. The sun’s light fell on the thatched rooves of a dozen or so wattle and daub houses, many of their inhabitants already awake and preparing for the day ahead. The people of the village called their home Bekdorf. The road led on past the village where it crossed a bridge over the stream and wound away behind a small hill.
The stillness of the morning was broken by the sound of weeping from one of the houses. Tobor, the old tanner, had died in the night, age finally taking its toll. Friends of the family gathered at the cottage to give their condolences to Helda, the old tanner’s daughter, and her family. While the rest of the villagers went to check on the crops or otherwise busied themselves with everyday chores, Helda and her family mourned her father’s passing.
About mid-morning, as the sun rose towards its zenith, Helda heard a soft tune coming from up the road. She stepped outside and saw a thin figure pushing a small cart down the road towards the village, singing as she went.
“Weep not, my children,
Death comes for us all,
But you need not fear to
Leave for the Angels’ hall.
Take heart, children, believe,
There’s a happy ever after
Awaiting us beyond the grave,
Full of joy and laughter.
Death is but a sleep
And when we wake,
A summer of eternal warmth
Lies just through Heaven’s gate.”
The young woman brought her cart to a stop outside the house where Helda and her family stood waiting. The girl saw their somber faces and bowed her head in understanding.
“Your timing is perfect as always, Gravedigger,” Helda said after a short silence, trying to lighten the mood just a little.
“When did he pass away?” the girl asked softly.
“Just last night.”
The girl looked up apologetically. “I suppose I’m a little early, then.”
“No, it’s fine,” Helda replied, attempting a smile. “I’ve no wish to keep him here. Unburied corpses bring misfortune, they say.” She turned to her husband and son. “Bertok, Pieter, bring my father out.”
As the two men went inside, the Gravedigger lifted a small sack out of her cart and held it out to Helda.
“I only wish I brought these on a happier morning,” she said ruefully.
Helda took the sack and looked inside, her face lighting up. “Peaches!”
“Share them out among the children,” the Gravedigger said, “I hope there’s enough.” She tapped the side of her nose. “Just another gift from the Lady of the Rain.”
Helda looked down at her young daughter, Dorika, who was gazing up at the Gravedigger with wide-eyed curiosity. The Gravedigger looked about 18, of average height with a scrawny build, lanky limbs and a long face framed by copper tresses. She wore a faded wool dress under a large overcoat that reached to her ankles, while her feet were covered by knee-high boots.
“So, you’re the Gravedigger,” Dorika said hesitantly, taking a step forward.
“That I am,” the Gravedigger replied, kneeling to speak to the girl at face level, “and you must be Dorika.”
The young girl nodded excitedly. The Gravedigger looked up at Helda with a smile, then back at Dorika, who had a curious look on her face.
“My grandfather told me that you took his mother and father away,” Dorika said slowly, almost suspiciously. She paused, then asked, “How many summers have you seen?”
The Gravedigger paused to think, then replied, “Three-hundred and thirty-two.”
Dorika looked sceptical. “You don’t look older than my cousin Kriska. If you really were that old, your hair would be white and you’d walk around with a stick.”
“But your grandfather told you I was here when he was a little boy. Do you think he’d lie to you?”
“Sometimes,” Dorika replied unperturbed, “sometimes he tells stories that aren’t true.”
The Gravedigger smiled in amusement. “I’ll always be here,” she said, “when you have grand-children of your own, I’ll still be here.”
Dorika looked unconvinced. The Gravedigger stood up as Bertok and Pieter came out of the house carrying Tobor’s body and laid the old tanner in the cart. The Gravedigger took the handles of the cart, turned it about and set off up the road, followed by Helda and her family.
“Mother,” Dorika asked, walking beside Helda, “how can she be so old but not look old like grandfather?”
“You see, she’s not really a person at all,” Helda explained quietly, “not like us, at least. She’s more like a spirit, or a fairy. Not really a person at all.”
The Gravedigger made no indication that she had heard either of them. None of them saw the faint smile that crossed her face, contrasting with the lone tear that trickled down her cheek.