PodCastle 775: “The Morthouse”
by Maria Haskins
In her forty-two years on God’s wide Earth, Gerda has read no books other than The Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism, but once, after Sunday service, she heard the sexton say that there are places where the dead traverse a river after death, paying a boatsman to ferry them across the water. Gerda knows such a thing must be either blasphemy or fable, and she knows for certain the dead will find no passage here, not this far north in Sweden, not in January when both the creek and inlet by the village lie frozen, the murky, brackish waters of the Gulf of Bothnia slumbering below windswept ice.
Here, in winter, the dead go nowhere at all, not even into the ground.
When Gerda’s boy was taken by the fever after Yule — once he’d been washed and dressed and laid in his coffin with a page torn from the hymnal tucked beneath his beardless chin — a horse-drawn sled brought him to the morthouse by the church. That small building with its tarred-black wooden door and white plaster walls is where her boy waits still — his pinewood box set side by side with the others who died this winter. Whether they died of misfortune or fever or old age, all of them are waiting. Waiting for spring. Waiting for the ground to thaw. Waiting for the day when shovel blades will bite deep enough to dig new graves.
The morthouse sits just inside the low stone wall surrounding the church grounds and cemetery. It’s close enough to the church that you can hear the bell whenever the sexton makes it ring, quiet enough that you can make out the murmur of psalms on Sundays. Gerda knows this because she’s stood on the threshold of the morthouse every day since her boy was brought here.
Inside, the morthouse is lit only by the wan winter light seeping through the small, solitary window. So little light comes through the dappled glass that Gerda, swept in her black church-coat, grey-blonde braids covered by a black shawl tied beneath her chin, barely casts a shadow on the floorboards. She knows she should let him be. Knows she should not be here, yet she cannot go home because her boy is not there.
January’s teeth bite hard, through wood and wool and marrow. The cold makes Gerda’s fingers and toes go numb. It makes the heartwood of the birches groan. It rimes each coffin lid with a thin layer of frost. Gerda thinks of her boy, wearing nothing but the suit he would have worn at his confirmation next summer, beneath that lid. She thinks of him, as she saw him last alive, thin chest racked with cough, flustered skin so hot it burned her hand to touch him.
There is no warmth left in him now. Nor in Gerda, standing by his coffin, but wherever her boy is, that is where she must be.
When her boy’s fever worsened, Gerda thought of going to Miriam. Some in the village would say Miriam had a mean streak, that she made the cattle waste away if you crossed her, marking how she never showed her face at church. Some spoke of darker things, of pentagrams and poisons, of children strangled in the womb and Miriam’s black cat speaking in an unknown human tongue, chanting the Lord’s Prayer backwards on Good Friday. But Miriam was there when Gerda’s boy was born, had pulled him from her womb safely even though he was not turned the right way ‘round. Surely she’d have helped if Gerda had begged her, if she’d offered to pay whatever price the crone might name.
But Miriam lives in the woods beyond the village, and the trail from the road is hard to find and harder to walk in winter. Besides, by the time her boy’s cough and fever worsened, Gerda’s own veins burned with the same sickness, and she could barely rise from her cot.
Her husband was coughing, too, but Gerda could not find it in her to ask him how he was. He said nothing as the sickness consumed the boy, just sat there on the padded bench by the iron stove, head bent, as if he were praying. Gerda wondered what prayers he had left. She had long since run out of words to say to God.
“Do something,” Gerda wanted to say, but the words were lead weights, sunk too deep for her to reach.
After the boy was gone, Gerda and her husband sank too, descending into a silence as fathomless and cold as the murky waters beneath the sea ice, an abyss where neither words nor grief could surface.
Gerda imagines her husband is still sitting by the iron stove, callused hands clasped in his lap, wondering where she’s gone though he should know there’s nowhere else for her to go but here.
Through the window of the morthouse, Gerda marks the priest and sexton coming out of the church: black cassocks flapping like crows’ wings against the snow, their shapes like smudged soot on paper. They linger outside the church door, and for a moment she fears they’ll look her way, tell her to go home, or worse, try to comfort her. Instead they head up the road, toward the rectory.
When Gerda steps out of the morthouse, the church looms over her with its white stone walls and steep, tarred, wood-shingle roof. It is an old, simple building, no tower or spires, just the two rectangles of nave and transept forming a cross. The windows, round and arched, are set deep in thick stone walls.
Long as anyone can remember, there’s been a church here, and this building has loomed over every day of Gerda’s life. She’s sat beneath its vaulted ceiling every Sunday since she was a babe, has heard the bells ring for war and peace and every holy day throughout the years. She was baptized, confirmed, and wed here. Both her parents were laid to rest in the cemetery, where her boy will join them soon. Standing in the snow, she can almost see herself as she once was, a younger Gerda, rocking her boy to soothe him before bringing him inside to be baptized one sheer June day, thirteen years ago. The weight of that memory, the sudden warmth and sharpness of it in the cold, almost brings her to her knees.
Leaning on the doorjamb, Gerda calls her boy’s name, as she would do in mornings to wake him. He slept hard, that boy, always difficult to rouse, for school, for work, for church. She knows he is not asleep beyond the door, knows he won’t hearken to the sound of her voice anymore. And yet she says his name again, the breath released when speaking it so insubstantial it does not even leave a curl of mist in the air. Again she speaks it, again, again, again.
God in his heaven could grant her this one thing if he were listening, if he had mercy, if he cared enough to take pity on a woman such as Gerda, standing in the snow, her life hollowed out until only the bitter, brittle husk remains. But no matter how many times she speaks her boy’s name, he stays inside the morthouse.
It’s a long walk through the village, between the houses where other people hunker down against the cold with the glow and warmth of stoves and hearths and kerosene lamps, all of it far beyond Gerda’s ken these days. The snow turns blue in the failing January light. Sunbeams still cling to the highest trees, gilding the tops of the pines before the sky turns to lead, while Gerda trudges through the heavy snow toward Miriam’s house.
Gerda has not spoken to Miriam since the woman helped her in the birth-bed all those years ago. She’s only seen her in passing, and whatever Miriam is or isn’t, Gerda always thought it wise to give her a nod and curtsy, if nothing else.
The path to Miriam’s house is narrow as a whisper — deep, hardpacked snow creaking beneath Gerda’s worn boots — and she almost thinks the path has led her astray until she spots the swaybacked shingle roof huddled beneath the eaves of the forest. Miriam is outside, splitting firewood on a rough-hewn stump beside the porch. The thump of the axe rings out dull and heavy between the darkness of the woods and the snowbanks folded high against the silvered timber of the cottage. Miriam is dressed in felted wool and a cape of squirrel skins, a tasseled black scarf wrapped around her scraggly white hair, and she looks no older than she did when she came to Gerda’s bed all those years ago. Miriam’s black cat sits on the porch, watching Gerda’s approach, eyes like gleaming cinders in the dusk.
“What purpose do you have here, Gerda?”
Gerda falters, unsure for a moment if Miriam or the cat spoke. But the cat has turned away and is busy licking its front paw while Miriam holds Gerda’s gaze. The old woman’s eyes are dark beneath unruly brows.
“Long way for you to walk in such a season,” Miriam says and sets up another piece of wood, raising the axe and letting it fall with another dull thud. “You must have a pressing need.”
“I want my boy back,” Gerda says, her voice no louder than a murmur.
Miriam does not look up, just balances another piece of seasoned pine on the stump, raising the axe. “You have your boy. Or has he up and left the morthouse?”
Gerda flinches at that, and on the porch the cat closes its eyes as if it, too, thought those words too callous.
“I want to ask . . . to know . . . if you could wake him. If you might know a word or spell or . . .”
Miriam makes a sound that is halfway laughter, halfway cough. “Raising the dead is not my business.” The axe falls. “And even if it were, you’d not be able to pay the price, Gerda.”
“I’ll give you anything, everything. I know I should have come to you when he first got sick. I should have . . .” Her voice fails.
Miriam shrugs. “Might not have helped. This winter’s fever . . . it burns through blood and bone like fire through fatwood. Not much I’ve been able to do for anyone, even when asked. People overestimate my powers, maybe.” When she speaks again, her voice is not unkindly. “Go back, Gerda. Find whatever solace you can before spring arrives and your boy is lowered into the ground.”
Gerda feels as cold as if she were naked beneath trees and skies. As if her skin and heart were rimed with frost same as her boy’s.
“You know me, Miriam. You know my boy. You brought him into this world. Do you remember? You pulled him out of me and cut the cord.” Gerda shivers, the words like ice in her mouth. “I prayed for years for a child. Thought I was barren, tainted by some sin or flaw. My husband likely thought the same, as did the rest of the village. I know they looked askance at me. But I kept praying, and when you put my boy next to me, bathed and swaddled, when I held him at my breast, I thought God had relented. That he’d heard my prayers for once. But what the Lord gave, the Lord has taken away, and I am done begging him for favours. My boy, he was my only. He was everything I ever asked for myself. He was . . .” Gerda tightens her hold on her coat, as if speaking another word might shatter her. “I’ve spent every day since he passed in the morthouse. I can’t leave him there. Can’t put him in the ground neither.” She doesn’t look at Miriam, but the cat is listening, its yellow eyes fixed on Gerda. “I know what people say about you, Miriam. That you are older than you seem. Th-that you’ve cheated God and death. That they tried to burn you at the stake long ago but failed. That y-you wield the devil’s power. I don’t know if any of it’s true, but I don’t care. Don’t care where the power comes from — if you can give my son back to me.”
Miriam plants the axe in the stump with a firm swing. She looks at the cat, and Gerda is sure that something passes between the two of them, crone and beast, even though no words are spoken.
“Maybe there is something I can do for you, Gerda. But this is no easy matter. If you persevere, you might get what you want, though you will likely have to forsake whatever’s left of your faith to find what you seek.”
Miriam and the cat are watching her, rheumy eyes and narrow embers fixed on her as shadows gather beneath the heavy branches of the spruce. Gerda thinks of the Bible and Luther’s Small Catechism, of psalms and prayers, of all the words she’s read and recited by heart through the years, of everything she thought she knew of herself and God. She thinks of the morthouse, of the pinewood lid nailed down over her boy’s face, of his skin gone blue and icy in the cold.
“I’ll do whatever you ask of me.”
Miriam clears her throat and spits into the snow.
“You must bring me three things and you must not ask me why or how. If you fail, I cannot help you, and even if you do as I tell you, it will be a hard thing to get done.”
“First I’ll need water from the baptismal font. No matter how small a measure, you must fetch me something, even if just a spoonful. Bring that to me and I’ll let you know what’s next.”
The church is empty when Gerda enters, sneaking down the right side-aisle like a sinner come late to worship on a Sunday. She’s waited in the morthouse, too fearful to enter when someone else might have been close, but this morning, with dawn slanting through the church windows, there are no sounds of songs or sermons to fill the high space above the pews. It’s as cold as the morthouse in the transept where the baptismal font stands, placed beneath Christ on the cross and the painted figure of Mother Mary, crowned and robed, her boy child tugging at her wooden robes.
The font is sculpted from grey granite, polished smooth. Angel wings and haloed heads crowd around the bowl, skulls and crouching devils intertwined around the bottom of the pedestal.
Gerda remembers how her boy struggled in his embroidered christening gown as the proper words were said, how he cried as the water wet his skin, how his blond hair lay slick and dark against his soft skull, the weight and warmth of his small body once he was back in her arms. Reaching for the font, she trembles — the memory, briefly, hovering like a mote of dust in the illuminated air before it fades — and she realizes too late that she has brought no cup or glass to carry what she needs. Dejected, she touches the surface of the water but finds only ice, cold and unyielding, beneath her fingers.
A thin, sharp blade of anger cuts through her, then, that this simple thing would be taken from her, too, the water she needs for her boy. Gerda raises her arm and brings her fist down, hard, while Mother Mary holds her babe close, blue eyes painted on wood, unseeing.
“It will do,” Miriam nods from the threshold of the cottage when Gerda hands her the shard of ice. Beyond the old woman’s silhouette, Gerda glimpses the flicker of the hearth, the gleam of cat’s eyes. The ice glints in the sunlight, dappled and veined like the morthouse’s window glass, as Miriam slips it into a copper pot lined with tin. “Next, you must bring me something that sprouts beneath the ground in winter though it is neither tended nor planted.”
“What . . .”
“No questions, just bring it to me once you’ve found it,” Miriam says and shuts the door.
Gerda does not roam the church grounds and morthouse anymore. She wanders the snowy meadows rolling down from the village toward the inlet and the creek, she roves the oat and barley fields and frost-decked gardens. But nothing, nowhere, grows in winter. The earth is frozen solid, and there is no place for roots nor leaves to sprout.
It takes Gerda a long time to guess what she might bring Miriam, and when she thinks of what it might be, she follows the road back past the church to her own house. A curl of smoke rises from the chimney, and the soft light of a kerosene lamp glints in the kitchen window, but she doesn’t go that way. Gerda strides past the house, past the old rowan tree by the barn, to the two tall pines beyond the byre, to the root cellar delved into the earth beneath the boles and branches.
She used to walk here a few times a week at least to fetch potatoes for supper, onions to fry for salted pork, a jar of lingonberry jam from the shelf inside the door. When her boy was little, he’d come with her, tugging at her apron, gawping at the darkness inside when the low door creaked open, scared to enter until she held the lantern high to cast its light around them.
Gerda has no light to raise now. Instead, she props open the door to let in the last remnants of daylight. Even so, the root cellar is dark and close, its walls lined with wooden bins, filled with the potatoes harvested from their small plot last year. Gerda remembers her boy as he was last spring, whole and hale, bending down to plant seed potatoes in the plowed row ahead of her. His narrow back bent, his neck gone ruddy in the sun. The familiar slant of his smile as he turned round to speak to her. Try as she might, she cannot remember what words he spoke, nor even the sound of his voice. She gropes for the memory, but it slips from her grip, a polished stone, sinking in the murky waters of silence that hold her now.
In the wooden bins, the potatoes are dry and dusty, still firm and good for eating. But one is on the floor; perhaps it slipped from her hand one day and fell right there, where a narrow band of light would catch it whenever the door was opened. Now, white and purple shoots sprout like twisting limbs from its eyes.
She picks it up, and the potato is soft and warm in her hand, like flesh.
Miriam takes the tuber from Gerda and places it gingerly in the copper pot before covering it with a lid.
“This will do. Now, listen close. The third and final thing you must bring me is a piece of gold.”
Gerda staggers. “I have no gold.”
Miriam tilts her head. “Are you not a married woman then, Gerda? Do you not wear a gilded-silver betrothal band on your left ring finger? Is it not shaped like two hands clasped? Did your husband not gift it to you on the day he asked to marry you all those years ago?”
Numbly, Gerda lifts her left hand, but there is no ring. She turns her hand over, as if doing so would reveal the missing band, but there is nothing but wind between her fingers. Gerda shivers in that wind. Her hair’s come loose from its braid (when did she comb it last?) and her black shawl is gone (when did she take it off?), and the cold creeps down from her crown, slipping between her ribs, into her gut.
“Did you lose your ring, Gerda? Lose it in the snow, in the fields, in the root cellar, by the water’s edge where the ice lies thick in winter? Or did you leave it somewhere, in a place you have forgotten?” This time, Gerda is sure it’s the cat speaking because the voice does not sound like Miriam’s. It is mellifluous and low, trembling at the edge of hearing, like the lowest note on the church organ. When she looks up the cat is watching her intently, a glint of teeth beneath its whiskers.
“Fetch me your ring, Gerda,” Miriam says. “You’re almost out of time.”
If she or the cat says anything else, Gerda does not hear it, because she’s already gone.
Standing in the yard in the trodden, dirty snow, Gerda looks at the house she’s lived in for over twenty years. A small building with a pitched roof, painted dark red with white trim like all the houses in the village. Wilted rose-hip brambles nestle by the south wall, and in the windows, the curtains she hemmed herself: white fabric, small blue flowers.
Gerda can’t remember the last time she was home. Can’t remember how many nights she’s spent in the morthouse rather than her bed, how many days she’s roamed the woods and village rather than these rooms. Now, she is reluctant to enter, as if she were standing at the door of a stranger’s cottage, and yet she must go inside because her ring is surely there, in the bedroom, on the dresser, in the small glass bowl by the mirror, where she always places it when she heads out to do her chores.
Gazing into the kitchen, Gerda sees her husband, seated at the table. His face is wan and drawn, creased deeper than she remembers it. Gerda taps the glass with cold fingers. At first, it’s as if he does not notice her, but when he does, he looks away. Neither of them moves or speaks for a long measure. Standing outside the window, Gerda can’t remember anything he’s ever said to her or anything she’s ever said to him. All their years together have been steeped in silence. At first, that silence was companionable, perhaps, when they were young and knew what they might want to say, but a look or touch would do instead. Then, year by year, they said less and less, because each spoken word would turn into a barb or admonition. Lately, there have been no words at all. Not of love or solace, care or comfort, no barbs or admonitions neither, nor has she even felt the desire for any of those things.
Gerda peers into the kitchen, her kitchen. The iron stove, her polished pots and pans hung neatly on their hooks above it. The bunches of thyme and lovage bound with twine hanging where she strung them up to dry last fall by the chimney. The narrow daybed where her boy would sleep. For a moment, she wonders what it would be like to step inside, to rest awhile, perhaps, but she knows she cannot enter. Cannot enter the house when her boy is not there, cannot cross the threshold to see his bed and chair empty, the scent of him still lingering in wool and wood and linen.
She cannot. Not even for the gold.
Inside, her husband rises from the table, reaching for his hat on the peg beside the door. He is dressed in his best suit. The one he dons for church, but it’s not Sunday, is it? Can’t be Sunday because she’s not heard the church bell toll. In the stillness, Gerda listens as water trickles off the eaves, as the icicles cry themselves into the dirt beneath her feet.
How did she not notice it before? That the ground is thawing at the touch of sun and meltwater, that it’s already soft enough to dig new graves?
Even as Gerda rushes to the church, to the morthouse, it’s too late, and she knows it. Spring has come. The creek is hurrying over rocks and pebbles; the ice covering the inlet is cracking, heaving, opening to the sea.
Outside the morthouse, Gerda stops. In the cemetery beyond, new graves yawn wide, dark earth bared, coffins already brought into the open, mourners gathering in black, her husband walking, hat in hand, beside the priest. The morthouse’s door is closed, but Gerda knows it’s empty. As empty as the church, as empty as the home she left behind, as empty as Gerda herself.
Miriam deceived her. She never meant to do what Gerda asked. All this time, the crone has only worked to thwart her. To put her off until winter’s gone, and her boy’s been planted in the ground to rot.
The church bell peals, summoning the mourners, but beneath the familiar clang of bronze, Gerda hears a different sound — distant, faint, seaward — it’s a ship’s bell, timorous and hollow, calling her to the shore.
At the water’s edge, at the dock where fishing boats and trading skiffs will gather come summer, Gerda looks across the inlet. The ice has broken, floes dancing in the grey swell, and out there, headed toward the open sea, a boat. It is no boat that Gerda knows. No dinghy or skiff or rowboat, rather a weave of shadows crafted into a slender, high-prowed craft. In the stern, a tall figure, cloaked and hooded, stands with one hand on the tiller, the other sounding the bell that summoned her. And seated in the bow, her boy. Even this far away, even with his back turned, Gerda knows it’s him.
The ship’s bell tolls again, the sound far away and fading, yet it tugs Gerda ever closer to the water.
“I do remember your boy,” Miriam says, ambling up beside her while the cat slinks round her legs, trying not to dip its paws in the snowmelt. “I remember every child I’ve pulled into this world, and every child I’ve pushed out of it. I remember your boy squalling as he drew breath and I remember how you smiled at him that day. I know you feel bereft, Gerda, but no God gave him to you and no God took him away. Your boy was simply born, then he died, and the same is true for each of us.”
“You lied to me.”
Miriam shakes her head. “I might have misled you, but I don’t lie if I can help it. You might think what I asked of you was nothing but a ruse, but I did it with a purpose.”
“To help you remember. Though I had hoped you’d get around to it before now.”
A half-smile tugs at Miriam’s mouth.
“If you’re alive or if you’re dead. You’ve forgotten what you are, and it’s no good for anyone, spirit or flesh, to linger in between. One way or another, you must decide where to go.”
Gerda considers going back: to the village, the church, her house. But there is nothing left but her boy’s coffin and grave back there, her husband already shovelling dirt into the hole where his body will feed the worms. Is there a coffin for her too back there: a grave, as well?
Gerda cannot remember. Cannot remember if the fever claimed her too, after her boy was taken to the morthouse. Cannot remember if her husband closed her eyes, cannot remember if he wept as they laid her in the coffin, cannot remember if her ring is still set upon her cold finger beneath the pinewood lid. She remembers nothing. All she knows for sure is that her boy is in that boat, that he’s found passage to whatever lies beyond, and that she was not here to go with him.
“That boat won’t turn back,” the cat says, looking up at Gerda with fiery eyes, its deep voice barely more than a purr. “It never does. But your boy might hear you, if you call.”
Gerda calls her boy’s name. The wind tears it from her lips, but maybe her boy stirs, maybe he turns, maybe he beckons and smiles that familiar slanted smile, maybe he shouts something, though she cannot make out the words, and now she does not hesitate. Whether she’s alive or dead, spirit or flesh, whether this is blasphemy or fable, no matter. Gerda wades into the murky, brackish waters; she strides between the ice floes, deeper into the churning waves. She needs no boatsman to ferry her across these waters, needs no craft to carry her, because wherever her boy is going, that is where she’ll be.
…aaaaand welcome back. That was THE MORTHOUSE by MARIA HASKINS, and if you enjoyed that, I’ve got good news for you, because Maria is prolific. She’s been at Podcastle twice before, episode 697 Down to Niflhel Deep and 571 The Guitar Hero, and she’s been on Escape Pod thrice, Pseudopod five times, and Cast of Wonders eight times. I’m not going to start listing all those episode numbers and titles else we’ll be here all day, but if you go to podcastle.org to find this story’s post, you can click Maria’s name and there’s links to both our episodes and to our sister casts conveniently collected there for you. And, again, I’d recommend checking out The Deadlands–all the stories are themed around death, and the editorial vision and work from E Catherine Tobler in creating a coherent collection every month is second to none.
Maria had this to say about THE MORTHOUSE: This story is set in a fictional Swedish village that is heavily inspired by the small community of Lövånger in Northern Sweden. The church described in the story is based on the church in Lövånger.
This was an absolute masterclass of a story, in my opinion. I was dragged into the ambience and atmosphere of it from the start; it’s a long time since I’ve read something so evocative and engrossing. But when we got to that climax, I literally shouted out loud “oh fuck that’s good”. I actually hesitate to use the word twist because that often sounds a little derogatory, like that was all a story had to offer, and everything was in service of that moment, but this was so much more. In a very reductive sense this was the same twist as Sixth Sense, but where that was a story all about that final moment, this was a story about every moment; every page built up that understanding of character and grief, and although the climax is a twist in the sense that it twists your understanding of everything that’s gone before, it doesn’t invalidate your initial read; it adds to it, builds on top of it. It’s an incredible piece of craftsmanship–and all that’s without even touching on how insightful it is about the distances grief creates between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the very physicality of the world–and I’m thrilled we got to share this story with you.
About the Author
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and debuted as a writer in Sweden. Currently, she lives in Canada, just outside Vancouver, with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Eleanor R. Wood
Eleanor R. Wood writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee. Her stories have appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical Plots, Nature: Futures, The Best of British Fantasy 2019 and Best of British Science Fiction 2020, and various anthologies, among other places.