Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Available Now: Soil and Ceremony by Julia Byrd

SOIL AND CEREMONY
Julia Byrd

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A history of loss and a terrible stammer have led gravedigger Benjamin Hood to a life of isolation.

When a rash of untimely deaths sweeps through his small English village, he cannot stand by in silence. To uncover the truth about the lives lost, he takes up a long-neglected role of responsibility among the townspeople.

As Benjamin questions the victims' families, he finds that beautiful widow Juno Stephens has preceded him in each case. She makes no secret of her odd midnight ceremonies and dark powers of persuasion. The villagers are whispering about a woman bearing a lethal hex.

Is Juno the source of danger in the village, or a victim of it? Benjamin must resist her beguiling ways and decide if he can trust her...until another death sets his smoldering worries ablaze.

• • •

Autumn 1840, near Stanmore, England

It was easy to dig the grave for the infant boy. It should have been difficult, the hardest task on earth to accomplish. Instead, I scarcely perspired as I shoveled dirt from a tiny rectangle. The job would soon be done, and I would be no different for it. I should have wept. I should have torn the calluses from my palms. I should have bled into the dirt.

But after it was done, I stabbed my spade into the rich autumn soil of Maida Green and straightened. I would do it again next week, or perhaps the one after. Babes die too often for a gravedigger to weep and rend and bleed each time. Apart from his mother, who carried him for months beneath her heart, nobody really knew the lad.

My apprentice worked on the other side of the path, hacking at a recalcitrant Cornus alba, a red-barked dogwood. He was watched over by the hulking manor house on a hill beyond the cemetery walls, called Maida House. One wing of the house was over two hundred years old, but Maida Green Cemetery was young, with fifty acres occupied by only a few hundred permanent residents. Its acreage had been portioned away from the traditional Maida House property like a severed limb. On quiet days, working in the cemetery was like working in a verdant park. We cut open the ground for more shrubs than graves, and pillars of smoke more frequently rose from burning leaves than burning incense. No smoke ever rose from the chimneys of Maida House.

“T-Toth,” I said, pulling my gaze from the house’s dark windows. His Christian name, Everett, was too much for my traitorous tongue. “L-l-leave some of th-those s-stems.”

My thoughts were clear, or as clear as any man’s, I suppose, but my words were not. As a result, I mostly kept my lips sealed. But Everett did not mind my stammer, and neither did the dead.

“I will,” he said. “They’ll look right cheery this winter.”

“M-more of them along th-th-th—”

“The south wall, I know. I’ll go over there next.”

I did not like being interrupted, but I liked it better than becoming stuck in a repeating loop, words swirling like a leaf in an eddy. I grunted an acknowledgment and turned for the groundskeeper’s cottage. I wanted to put the shovel away and check the log for burials planned for the next week.

“Ben?”

I stopped, turned, lifted my eyebrows.

Everett crouched over a patch of dirt, peering intently at something. “What used to grow here?”

The cemetery kept no secrets from me, but I never claimed to have memorized all the plantings. I walked back to him, then sank down on one knee in the grass. There was a little hole in the dirt, right beside the Cornus alba. “D-don’t know.”

“Something was dug out.”

I nodded.

He turned dark brown eyes on me. “Did you dig up anything?”

I shook my head.

Everett touched the crumbling edge of the excavation, then rubbed his fingers together, face tightening in concentration. He appeared much more interested in the hole than I was. When I had saved the money to buy my brother’s farm, Everett would become the head groundskeeper at Maida Green. It was a good thought, a consoling thought. He deserved it, and he cared as much about the place as I did. Maida Green had been conceived when the old London cemeteries reached their fill of occupants. In the city, the dead sifted up through the soil, gleaming skulls and unseemly scapulae sprouting in the grass. But in our village, a few hours’ ride northwest from the dome of St. Paul’s, we had plenty of space. The walls were high and the gate strong—to deter the body-snatchers and anatomists from coming to take our fresh corpses. Families paid well for eternal rest.

“Hmm. No scat or claw marks. Not a mole, then, nor a badger.” Everett smoothed dirt into the hole. “Probably nothing. I do wish that Horvath boy hadn’t died. Making me twitchy and mistrustful, and I’m not the only one.”

I rose and started back towards my cottage. The main gravel path had an offshoot, a narrow track that curved behind a group of young trees and led to the groundskeeper’s cottage. It was snug and dry, with a pump in the yard that delivered cold, sweet water. Sometimes, after the gates were locked at night, I imagined I slept in a manor house with my own manicured parkland spreading around me like a green quilt.

As I returned the shovel to its hook under the sloping lean-to on the side of the house, something made me pause. The cemetery’s huge shears, steel-bladed with leather-wrapped grips, hung in the wrong place. Everett could have put them away incorrectly. I could have done it myself. But neither of us had tied a black silk ribbon around the pivot or threaded onto the ribbon a tiny slip of paper. For a moment I just stared.

The ribbon came loose with a tug, and I unfolded the scrap of paper. On it was written two words in a flowing, feminine script.
Thank you.

I jerked my head up and looked around. Was she still nearby? Surely one of us would have noticed a woman wandering the premises. Women frequently entered the cemetery, visiting graves and leaving flowers. But they didn’t borrow my shears.

The silk ribbon snagged on my rough fingertips, and on some impulse, I lifted it to my nose. It smelled of…nothing. It was just a strip of fabric. Had I expected to catch a lingering whiff of rosewater? Lavender? I snorted at my own fancy and jammed the note and ribbon into a pocket.

• • •

Maya Tyler believes in happily ever afters and enjoys writing paranormal romances with an unexpected twist. She's been writing since 2010.

She was first published in August 2012 with her short story "Just For Tonight", part of the anthology With Love from Val and Tyne, published by Breathless Press.

She released her debut paranormal romance novella Dream Hunter, published by Just Ink Press, in December 2014.

As well as her own weekly blog Maya's Musings and monthly Newsletter, she is a regular contributor to The Nuthouse Scribblers blog and #SexySnippets.

She enjoys writing, drinking Starbucks French Roast coffee, and, especially, writing while drinking Starbucks French Roast coffee!

Find Maya Online:

Website - http://www.mayatylerauthor.com
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/maya.tyler.792
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/MayaTylerAuthor
Twitter - https://twitter.com/mayatylerauthor
Blog - http://mayatylerauthor.blogspot.com
Tirgearr Publishing - http://tirgearrpublishing.com/authors/Tyler_Maya




Good Old Bones
by Julia Byrd

Cultures around the world honor their dead in myriad ways, but for me, there is nothing better than a good cemetery. Burial grounds have acquired a creepy reputation in folklore and movies—think Stephen King’s classic Pet Sematary, if you dare. However, consider the last time you actually visited a real cemetery. It was probably daytime, and you might have been sad, even distraught. You might have been reflective and grateful, alone or surrounded by family and friends. You were not haunted. (Probably.) I hope that your worries were diminished, as mine often are, by a glimpse of the awesome time scale of history.

Kensal Green Cemetery, London
My next novel, Soil and Ceremony, takes place partially in a cemetery, where our hero is a groundskeeper. If that sounds a bit grim, allow me to persuade you otherwise.

Cemeteries reflect our best selves: the desire to pay tribute to our dead, to remember. A loved one who was fully human and flawed can shed their complications on a marble headstone. We can ask our stonemason to carve Beloved Father, Brother, Husband or Cherished Aunt, Sister, Wife, Friend and display the truest, happiest facets of our lives.

I love the pared-down simplicity of a cemetery. Birth, death. In between, a complication we aren’t forced to examine. The earth itself, by providing soil and granite tombstones, offers us all a tiny slice of immortality.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans
In 19th century London, overcrowding and the temptation of profit led to the creation of the “Magnificent Seven,” private garden-style cemeteries. The earliest of these and my favorite, Kensal Green, was one of the inspirations for the fictional cemetery in Soil and Ceremony. Kensal Green has a non-consecrated section and a Dissenters Chapel that were in popular use by atheists, free thinkers, and others who didn’t conform to the Church of England.

The author in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York
The renowned cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana, are filled with mini-mansions to house the deceased because the original water table was so high at the foot of the Mississippi River that underground burial wasn’t feasible. You may occupy the shelf within for some time, but eventually you join your ancestors in the pit below, politely creating room for a fresher occupant.

The lovely, historic cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, is famous by its association with Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It also hosts the mortal remains of Andrew Carnegie, a couple of Rockefellers, Brooke Astor, and three of Alexander Hamilton’s children. Sleepy Hollow and neighboring Tarrytown put on a wonderful, atmospheric public celebration in October every year, complete with lantern tours of the cemetery, reenactments of the Sleepy Hollow legend, and a lot of carved pumpkins.

A new personal favorite is the nondenominational Springdale Cemetery in Peoria, Illinois, where tens of thousands of people occupy a wooded, curving valley alongside the Illinois River. The community has been busy restoring their old Civil War monument to fallen soldiers, one of the first in the United States. This February, my family laid my father to rest in Springdale’s graceful mausoleum in a crypt of his own choosing. (“Feet toward the right!” he insisted, as we rolled our eyes.) It reassures me to have followed his wishes, as so many other families have done. Any of us can visit while we grieve, then look around and see the idyllic cemetery is a perfect type of place to spend an eternity.
Hanwell Cemetery, London



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