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At precisely 5:17am on a tangibly crisp morning, a mangy-looking fox padded warily into the local church’s graveyard, its filthy footprints contributing to the already discoloured snow that besmirched the usually idyllic village of Ottery St. Catchpole.
Once certain of the absence of any living persons, the fox, a long-term resident of the village rubbish heap, commenced the customary â€˜grave-sniffing’ -- a meticulous inspection in which this particular fox considered himself a seasoned expert.
The village cemetery was a surprisingly extensive one -- the Village Committee had enlarged it when Ottery St. Catchpole’s annual death rate received a perplexing, drastic increase some decades previously and, due to its vast premises and despite the fox’s expertise and his lengthy stay in the village, parts of the graveyard remained a mystery to him.
It was on this fateful day -- the 29th March 1936 -- that the fox decided to break his usual routine of visiting only those graves he had inspected and approved, and made for a small patch of headstones nestled snugly in a far corner of the churchyard.
The fox had entered full of optimism, but now, as he neared the little group of graves and began to make out some of them, it all disappeared as if down an almighty plughole as he attempted to find at least one half-decent gravestone in the crowd of useless rubble.
Should he pick the cracked, moss-covered tombstone? No -- he had more dignity than that.
How about the one belonging to a post-birth dead infant? No -- he may be a thief and a scavenger, but did possess a morsel of respect.
Then he spotted it: a spanking new, freshly dug grave -- its recently carved tablet gleaming in the rising sun, wet from the melting snow.
The fox scampered towards his find, masking his elation behind a faÃ§ade of reverence, much like an impatient youth who can’t wait to get out of church, and secretly rejoices once the mass has ended.
The fox’s reason for putting on this solemn pretence was that he had recently heard rumours of other foxes who, after getting drunk on sewer-water, were rowdy and disorderly in cemeteries. Those very same foxes later contracted a mysterious, foul disease dubbed by the Scavenging Community as either â€˜Gut Growth’ or â€˜Internal Incubation’, the symptoms of which were repulsive, to put it mildly; the victim had trouble digesting food, which developed into uncontrollable vomiting and defecation. This progressed with an unbearable irritation of the stomach, and ended with a bodily eruption of parasites -- tapeworms and fly larvae were seen swarming out of the poor animal’s eye sockets, the unseeing pupils staring out in a last, silent scream for help.
This particular fox was sceptical as to whether the affliction was actually any form of divine retribution whatsoever -- he suspected that the chosen beverage of the unfortunate animals was wholly to blame -- but he wasn’t quite ready to put his theory to the test just yet.
Once within inspection range of the grave, the fox was irresistibly drawn into orbit around the granite headstone.
Horace Archibald Baskerville
Born October 19th 1854
Died March 28th 1936
“Poor bugger died yesterday.” the fox said to himself as he gave what he hoped looked moderately like a sympathetic smile. A dog’s jaw muscles aren’t built for smiling and invariably contort into what looks more like a rabid snarl or, at best, a pained grimace; foxes are considerably worse at producing the facial gesture.
While the fox struggled with the seemingly simple concept of a smile, two thoughts were mulling over in his brain: one was the speculation of how the old gentleman could have died. The other was the significantly more pressing matter of which side to choose -- the front or rear face of the gravestone.
After weighing out the pros and cons of both surfaces, the engraved side of the stone plaque was chosen and, without further ado, the fox hoisted its right hind leg and showered the memorial with its pungent urine, the yellow liquid streaming down the slab, seeping into the recently inscribed lettering, tainting the immaculate rock with its gagging stench, its sickly stain.
Satisfied that his work there was done, the fox bounced merrily out of the local graveyard of Ottery St. Catchpole, simultaneously bouncing out of this story for ever, never to be seen again.
He left two souvenirs behind in the old churchyard -- one was his discharged fluids. The other was silence.
Overwhelming, deafening silence.
Even the birds had stopped singing.
The last few drops of that first souvenir were still trickling off the face of the tombstone, disappearing into the now sodden earth at its foot, but this was by no means the full extent of its travels.
Once it had conquered the initial barrier of compacted dirt, where grunting men had wielded heavy shovels in an, it must be said, successful attempt to repress the rebellious upturned soil that had fought for its liberation from the sealed enclosure that was the grave, the urine came by a multitude of worms and various other subterranean bugs, whose lack of olfactory orifices prevented them from noticing its subtle passing.
Journeying deeper still, the urine crossed paths with a gnarled old mole who paused in his tireless trip to the surface; his milky blind eyes did nothing to help his detection of the odorous solution but, as the ancient Mole Motto states, “When one sense diminishes, the other increases”.
Finally, when the urine had been all but absorbed into the loamy soil on its lengthy voyage into the Earth’s depths, the solitary drop that remained unabsorbed hit a smooth, hard object that didn’t seem to want the drop to pass through, and so, accepting the fact that, on its own, the drop didn’t stand a chance of making it through to the other side of whatever it had come up against, it settled with the other option of simply soaking into the obtrusive obstacle.
At precisely 6:02am on March 29th 1936, Horace Archibald Baskerville was rudely awoken by a foreign smell that, unwelcome, had overpowered his nostrils while he slept.
He rolled over on the velvet padding where he lay and fumbled in the pitch black for the gas lamp he kept on the bedside table. His hand struck wood. He thought he must have reached too low and hit the side of the bedside table, but when he slowly raised his arm all he discovered was that his bedroom was not as spacious as he had previously thought. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure it was his bedroom at all.
The forms had been signed, the certificates approved. Horace Archibald Baskerville was officially dead and buried. His will had been examined and the contents were due to be distributed to their new owners within the week. His family and his few friends had grieved, the autopsy had been brief and not a suspicion was raised amongst the simple village-folk concerning the hasty and ready-prepared burial.
Fear rose like bile in Horace’s throat. He knew from 27 years’ experience as an undertaker where he was, and how much trouble he was in if he didn’t escape soon. Panic overcame him as he thought about the limited supply of oxygen this underground prison cell held. He tried to suppress it, but when you know you have less than five minutes to live, it’s easier said than done.
He hurriedly ran his hands along the underside of the coffin lid, desperately searching for a weakness in the casing -- the slightest crack in the wood or a loose bolt could offer a chance of escape -- but the craftsmanship was faultless. As his movements became more frantic, his hand caught on a nail that protruded from the lid and a deep cut was slashed into his palm. Blood splashed down onto his agonised face, the warm, salty tang making him queasy, the blood-loss from the gaping wound gradually causing him to slip away towards unconsciousness.
Despite his light-headedness, Horace continued in his futile efforts to break free of the coffin’s clutches. He thrashed about, smashing his aged fists into the sides of the wooden cage and screaming wildly for someone, anyone, to help him. Tears streamed down his face, in a melancholy race against the rivers of blood that now poured from his cracked, mangled knuckles.
His lungs tightened, grasping for the last morsels of breathable air that remained like diminutive islands in a colossal ocean of carbon dioxide.
His flailing arms slowed.
His heart stopped.
The last thing he felt was a trickle of soil that fell onto his blood-stained, tear-streaked face. His incessant hammering had finally cracked the wood.
He lifted a limp hand in a last, half-hearted attempt at escape, but his arm fell to his side as he closed his eyes, never to open them again.
His last thoughts were of his two children, Charles and Edith, and he pleaded that God would comfort them.
“Good day.” Charles Baskerville called out as he shut the front door behind the will’s executor.
He turned to face his sister, who was voraciously counting the considerably large sum of money left to her in her deceased father’s legacy.
“Well, Edith, my dear,” he proclaimed, “prematurely buried relatives do seem to pay handsomely, don’t you think? We really should do it more often.”