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Super Terram

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I’m going to tell you a story, and every word is true. My grandmother told it to me, and she was not known to be a liar. When she was young, she worked as a secretary to a village parish. The village was older than memory, and the church nearly as old. For a thousand years it had stood on a hill by the lake, its squat stone tower watching the lives of countless generations.

There came a new vicar, from a big city. He was young and eager to make changes, and on his first day he looked around his church and churchyard in the company of my grandmother, the verger and the grave digger. The new vicar thought the churchyard untidy and overcrowded, and he was surprised to find so many graves which stood untended, the gravestones often broken. It was time, he said, to dig up the oldest graves and move the bones, to make way for new burials.

In a corner of the churchyard there was a small mound, covered more with weeds than grass. On the top there was a small stone, but it was so old and weathered the inscription could not be read anymore.

“Why”, the new vicar said. “If this mound was removed, there would be room for three, perhaps even four new graves!”

His companions looked at each other, and then the verger spoke. And this is what he said:

Hundreds of years ago, there lived a man in the village, and he had a daughter he loved more than anything. Everything she wanted she got, she only had to ask for it. But then she grew ill, and within days it was clear she would not survive. Now this little girl had one big fear, and that was to be trapped under ground. As her end drew nearer, she became frantic with fear, begging her father to not put her down in a grave. Not until her father had promised her he wouldn’t, did she calm down and passed away in peace. Her father kept his promise, he placed her little coffin on top of the ground, and had a mound erected around it.

The vicar listened and said it was a sad story, but it was a long time ago, and it was time for a change. The long dead child could have a new and smaller grave, instead.

So the gravedigger had to dig up the mound, and he told my grandmother the coffin was made of lead, and had no breaks or tears. He reluctantly reburied it, and he couldn’t help himself to talk to the coffin while he worked, explaining he had not wished to do this task.

The next day the new vicar told my grandmother children had been playing in the churchyard during the night. Was this usual? My grandmother said she had never heard of it and thought perhaps he had heard foxes tumbling around. The day after he said they had been playing around the vicarage; he had heard them speak several times, and had barely slept a wink. He thought it must be some kind of prank. The third day he walked straight to the gravedigger and told him to move the little girl’s coffin again, and to re-construct the mound. Then he dug into the church archives to find her name and had a new stone put in place.

The new vicar wasn’t so keen on changes after that, and better at taking advice. A year later he proposed to my grandmother, and by then she was more than happy to say yes. He was my grandfather though I never knew him; he died a few years before I was born.

My grandmother said he never wanted to talk about the third night, not until he was on his deathbed. Then he told her he had gone to bed quite irritated about the child’s voice he had heard the previous nights. Shortly after midnight he awoke to hear sounds outside his bedroom. Sitting up in bed he was ready to speak his mind about naughty children, when he saw a child standing in front of him. He could see her clearly as the room was full of moonshine. She was a scrap of a girl with long pale hair, dressed in white and with an old-fashioned cap which tied under her chin. Though he understood at once she was no living thing, he could see the tears which streamed from her eyes. There was a look of such anguish on her face, his heart constricted in his chest with pity.

“I’m so afraid”, the little girl said. “Why have you put me down in the ground? It’s so dark and cold, and I’m scared.”

My grandfather didn’t hesitate. He promised her he would put her back where she belonged, and as soon as he had said the words, the waif was gone. It was the last he ever saw or heard of her.

I have visited the churchyard, and I have seen the grave mound with my own eyes. It’s covered with grass, and there are flowers growing around the stone. On it you can read the girl's name, and the dates of her short life. And beneath it, two words in Latin; super terram.

Above ground.

End