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Tim Powers

Hide Me Among the Graves

To Joe Stefko and Th?er?ese DePrez

And mother dear, when the sun has set

And the pale kirk grass waves,

Then carry me through the dim twilight

And hide me among the graves.

— Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti, “At Last”

PROLOGUE

1845: The Bedbug I. So I grew half delirious and quite sick, And thro’ the darkness saw strange faces grin Of monsters at me. One put forth a fin, And touched me clammily: I could not pick A quarrel with it: it began to lick My hand, making meanwhile a piteous din And shedding human tears: it would begin To near me, then retreat. I heard the quick Pulsation of my heart, I marked the fight Of life and death within me; then sleep threw Her veil around me; but this thing is true: When I awoke, the sun was at his height, And I wept sadly, knowing that one new Creature had love for me, and others spite. — Christina Rossetti

THE FELT-PADDED BASE of the ivory bishop thumped faintly on the marble chessboard.

“Check,” said the girl.

The face of the old man across the table from her was in shadow — the curtains were drawn across the street-side windows, and the chandelier overhead hung crookedly because of the gas-saving mantle screwed onto it — and all she could see under the visor of his black cap was the gleam of his thick spectacles as he peered at the chess pieces.

Both of them hated to lose.

“And mate in … two,” he said. He sat back, blinking owlishly at the girl.

She sighed and spread her hands. “I believe so, Papa.”

The old man thoughtfully lifted the ebony king from the board and looked toward the fireplace, as if considering throwing the piece onto the coals. Instead he put it into the pocket of his robe, and when his hand reemerged it was holding instead a thumb-sized black stone statue.

Christina raised her eyebrows.

Old Gabriele’s answering smile was wry. “I carry it around with me now,” he said, “very close. Not that it does me any good anymore. Nothing does.”

He put it down onto the square where his king had stood, and it clicked against the marble.

Wanting to head off yet another melodramatic elaboration along the lines of his Nothing does, Christina quickly asked, “What sort of good did it once do? You’ve said it’s buona fortuna.”

She and her sister and two brothers had seen the little statue on a high shelf in their parents’ bedroom ever since they could remember, and they had even taken it down and incorporated the stumpy little stone man into their games when they were alone, but this was the first time in her fourteen years that she had ever seen it downstairs.

“It led me to your mother,” he said softly, “all the way from Italy to England, and I thought it might keep us healthy and prosperous, not — not destitute and losing my sight—‘And that one talent which is death to hide, lodged with me useless…’”

Christina could see him blinking behind the thick lenses, and saw the glint of the tears that were always embarrassingly ready these days, especially when he quoted Milton’s sonnet about going blind. She wished she had let him win the chess game.

Adopting a manner that reminded her of someone, Christina lightly quoted a later line from the same sonnet as she stood up and began to pick the chess pieces from the board: “‘Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?’” And she smiled at him and went on, “‘I fondly ask.’”

“Yes, you foolishly ask,” he snapped. “Where is your mother, tell me that! Embroidering in the drawing room, could it be? Corpo di Bacho, where is the drawing room?”

It occurred to Christina who it was that her own indulgently dismissive manner reminded her of — her mother, comforting Christina or one of her siblings when they used to wake up from nightmares.

And she remembered that when they had been troubled by nightmares, her father had always dropped the little stone statue into a glass of salted water. She couldn’t recall now whether it had ever helped.

Her mother at the moment was out at work as a day governess, and this rented house on Charlotte Street had no drawing room.

Christina had laid all the chessmen except the black king into the wooden box, and now, leaving the statue alone on the board, she knelt by her father’s blanketed knees and took his cold, dry, wrinkled hand.

“How did it lead you to Mother?”

He was frowning. “‘Light denied,’” he said. “I should destroy the damned thing. This is my last summer. Italy never again.”

She blew a strand of hair back from her forehead. “I won’t listen to you when you talk like that.” Again she reminded herself of her mother, as if she were the parent now, and her father had become a petulant child.

“Is it a compass?” she asked.

After a moment his scowl relaxed into a grudging smile. “You were always a contrary little beast. Tantrums. Cut yourself with scissors once when your mother corrected you! I should never have told you about it.”

“Tell me about it.”

He sighed. “No, child, it’s not a compass. Am I being selfish? It gives you dreams … that are not really dreams.”

“Like second sight?”

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