Mary Culhane and the Dead Man
This story has many variants. I took a little bit of this and that to tell my version.
Mary Culhane lived in faraway Ireland. She was the oldest of six children and they were poor. Dirt poor, you might say. For her father earned a living by digging graves at the graveyard at the far edge of town.
One day, her father came home…bone tired he was, and he plopped himself down in the nearest chair. She heard him exclaim, “Aye, I can’t believe it. I left me prized black thorn walkin’ stick back at the tree. The only thing me dear father gave me, and it will probably be gone by mornin’.
Mary Culhane ran to get her shawl, “I’ll get it for you, father!” She ran out the door before anyone could stop her – for no one…no one went into the cemetery…after dark.
And indeed it was dark before she got there. A big moon was just on the horizon as she entered the cemetery gate. She had been here many times before and graveyards didn’t scare her. She carefully walked around the graves –for she’d been taught from the time she was a wee lass to not walk over them – it was bad luck. She picked her away around the graves until she saw the walking stick lying against the old oak tree. Why, her father must have stopped there to have his lunch and forgot it. Then Mary Culhane forgot to watch where she was stepping and she fell…into an open grave.
As quickly as she could, she got up on her hands and knees, but as she did she felt someone…or something crawl on her back. An evil voice whispered in her ear, “Ah, Mary Culhane, I have been waiting for you. Now you must take me in town to get something to eat for I hunger and thirst.” Mary knew, she knew this was an evil creature. She could tell by its scaly fingers and its fetid breath.
Mary suddenly had no will of her own. She was helpless to do only as the evil creature bade her to do. She reached up to the top of the grave and pulled with all her strength. She felt as if she were bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders. But somehow she managed to lift herself and the creature onto the soft grass. She lay prone while the creature screamed, “Get up, Mary Culhane, Get up, and take me into town.”
Mary slowly rose, and with that creature riding her back, she trudged towards the village. They came to the main road where the first house appeared, “Now, Mary Culhane, take me into this house so I may feed.” Mary reached for the first step, the second step, and was ready to reach for the third when the creature cried out, “Not here Mary Culhane, for I smell the stench of holy water!” Mary stepped down and went to the second house. “Now, Mary Culhane, bring me inside this house,” but again as she reached the third step the creature cried in pure agony, “No, Mary Culhane, take me away. For I smell the stench of holy water. Mary again retreated and walked down the road until they came to the third house. She took the first step, the second, the third…and the creature said not a word. “Take me into the kitchen Mary and find something for me to eat.”
Mary walked down the darkened hallway to the kitchen. There she let the creature slide off her back and onto a chair. “Quickly Mary Culhane! I don’t have much time.” Mary looked all about. Finally, she said, “I’m sorry. All that I can find is some oatmeal and some dirty water.”
“Ah, Mary Culhane, I will teach these people not leave me anything. Let me on your back.” Again Mary did as the creature commanded her to do. “Now take me up these stairs.”
“No, no!” Mary screamed inside her head. For she knew this family, and she knew that the three boys, her classmates, slept upstairs. But, she was powerless under the weight of the evil one’s spell. She slowly made her way to the top of the stairs. There in the moonlight she could barely make out the figures of the three boys fast asleep on their beds. The creature slid off her back and went over to each boy. He took out a sharp knife and slit each boy’s finger. With the first drop of blood, their breathing stopped; with the second drop of blood, their hearts stopped beating; with the third drop of blood, all life left their bodies. He took the vial of blood and climbed on Mary’s back, “Take me back down to the kitchen, Mary Culhane, so we may feast.” Mary sadly walked down the stairs and into the kitchen.
The creature slid off Mary’s back and onto the chair. He took the oatmeal and poured it into two bowls. Then, he took that vial of blood and began to pour it over the oatmeal. When he finished, he gave one bowl to Mary and said, “Now eat this!”
“No, no!” she cried. She could not eat this bloody gruel – not stained with the blood of her friends.
“Do it and do it now!” She picked up a spoon and brought a spoonful to her lips. The creature satisfied picked up his bowl and began to greedily gobble his portion down. Mary saw her chance. She quickly spoonful by bloody spoonful put the tainted oatmeal into the neckerchief around her neck. She just finished when the creature put down his bowl. “Ah, Mary Culhane, I see you are done. Now, clean up this place, so no one will know we have been here.” Mary reached for the two bowls and began to wash them out. She waited until the creature turned away and put the neckerchief and the two bowls into the cabinet. “Hurry, Mary Culhane! I must get back to my grave before morning.” She slowly walked over and again he positioned himself on her back.
She turned to go back down the hallway. “No, Mary Culhane, we cannot leave by the way we came!” For ‘tis the way with all evil creatures – they must return by a different path. So Mary turned around and went out the back door. She was ready to walk down the steps when the creature laughed, his insane laughter, “Ah, Mary Culhane, tell me what you see?”
Mary looked out on the horizon. “I see the three hills they call the haunted hills.”
“Do you know why, Mary Culhane? I’ll tell you why – because buried in that middle mound is all the gold and silver the evil ones have gathered over the many years…but only the dead know of it.”
Now Mary Culhane began to fear for her own life…for now she knew of the gold.
On and on into the night they went. The creature laughing, taunting, telling her stories – evil stories that no one wants to hear. The moon set in the western sky throwing the sky into pitch black. Finally, they started to approach the cemetery by the back road. As they did, a rooster crowed. “Ah, Mary Culhane, what is that awful noise.”
Mary knew full well it was a rooster and that morning must be nigh, but she said, “’Tis nothing but the bleating of a sheep.”
“Hurry, Mary Culhane, hurry!” Mary reached the graveyard and was trying to find her way around the graves when the inky black sky turned a soft gray and again they heard the rooster crowing. “Ah, Mary Culhane…what is that foul noise!”
“It is nothing, nothing I say, but the barking of a dog.”
“Quickly, Mary Culhane, for I feel myself weaken.”
Mary saw the oak tree. She saw the open grave. She walked slowly towards it. Just then the sky broke open and the first beam of morning drew across the sky and into the graveyard. The rooster crowed thrice. Mary felt the creature fall from her shoulders and into the pit. As it did, it cried, “Ah, Mary Culhane, if I were to know that you were to live…I never would have told you of the gold.”
Suddenly a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders and at once she had her will to do as she would. She glanced down in the grave, but all she saw were the whitened bones of the evil creature. She grabbed her father’s walking stick and used it as she hurried home. She threw herself onto her bed and into a dead sleep.
A couple of hours passed, when her mother ran into her room. “Mary, Mary, wake up! Something terrible has happened in town. Mary, please wake up.” Mary stirred and her mother could see that her hair was matted and tangled and darkened circles smudged her eyes. Her dress was dirty and it looked like blood stained her apron. She backed out of the room. “Mary, get some sleep, but meet us at your friend’s home – the one with the three boys.”
Mary again fell into a deep sleep, but this time it was full of dreams – dreams of an evil creature, the boys, the knife, the blood – oh, the blood! Then she suddenly awoke. She realized it wasn’t a dream. It had happened. But she remembered something else. As they were walking back to the graveyard, she had asked the evil creature if there wasn’t some way, some way that those boys could have lived. The creature just laughed, “Ah, Mary Culhane, there was a way. There’s always a way. You see, if they were to drink of their own blood, they could live, but as you ate your portion. Now there is no way.”
But there was a way! She hadn’t eaten her portion. Maybe, just maybe….
She got herself bathed and put on a fresh dress and headed toward town. When she got to the boys’ home, she could see that the entire village was trying to console the desolate parents. She went up to the father and said, “Please, please let me inside!”
“No, Mary, I can’t do that. What is upstairs in that bedroom is not fit for a young lass to see.”
“But you don’t understand. I think I know a way to save their lives. I beg you.”
“Ah, Mary, if you could save my three sons lives I would give you anything, anything in my power to give.”
“I ask nothing. Just let me go in alone.”
The father cleared the house and Mary entered. She walked down the darkened hallway to the kitchen. She opened the cabinet and there was the neckerchief right where she had left it. She grabbed a spoon and went up those stairs. She saw the lifeless forms of the three boys. She gently went over and put the spoon to their lips. And with the first drop of blood (gasp) the boys began to breathe, and with the second drop of blood, their hearts started to beat, and with the third drop of blood, all life came back into their bodies.
And what rejoicing there was, when Mary walked outside and behind her – the three boys alive and well. For three days and three nights there was a celebration like none before. On the third night the father came to Mary, “Mary, you have made me the happiest man to ever live. You gave me back my boys. And, Mary, I want to give you something. Anything. Name it. Please, Mary, tell me.”
“Well, said Mary, “Would you deed me that land behind your house? The one with the three hills on it?”
“I’d give you that and much more.” So right there, they wrote up a contract. When Mary became of age, she married the oldest of those three boys. And, don’t you know that they built the foundation of their house between the two hills. And, when they dug down, they found gold – gold and jewels and silver. There was enough that Mary Culhane was a rich woman and her father never had to pick up a shovel again. And, even though the events of that night slowly faded away like a bad dream, there was something Mary Culhane never forgot…and that was to keep holy water at the front door.
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