Mary Culhaine lived with her father in a little hut on the outskirts of her village. Her father was a simple gravedigger and her mother, though said to be a cunning woman, was long since dead, so the small family lived in poverty. Mary attempted to help supplement the family’s income by being the governess for the children of a wealthy local merchant, but even so, finances were tight.
One night, after sitting down to dinner with her father, she was alarmed to hear a sudden groan from him. “My blackthorn walking stick!” he cried. “It’s the only valuable thing I have, and my own father left it to me! I must have left it in the graveyard and I’ll have to go back for it!”
Knowing her father had worked a long day and would have one just as long the next, Mary assured her father she would go to the graveyard in his stead and fetch the walking stick. “I’m young and my legs are strong, father. Rest yourself by the fire, I’ll be home soon!”
Imagining it would not take long, Mary grabbed a lantern and made the journey quickly, but she had scarcely entered the gates when she heard a pitiful voice crying out for help. Peering about her with the lantern, she quickly spied an open grave and beheld an old man in the hole.
“Help, help!” he called out. “I was going to visit my wife’s grave when I slipped and fell in here!”
Mary, a helpful person at heart, was immediately moved to pity and raced to his aid. But no sooner had she held out her hand and the old man accepted it than she felt her whole body stiffen, unable to move. As the old man grinned and climbed up the length of her arm, she realized he was the old village miser, a wealthy but evil individual, that her father had buried just that morning.
“Ah, Mary,” he crooned. “I’ve long admired your beauty, and now it seems I finally have you! I’ve long had need of a bride, and you and I shall be together for eternity!”
Mary wanted to scream, wanted to throw the living corpse off, but was powerless to do anything but allow him to climb onto her back and touch his heels to her like he was riding a horse.
“Now, my girl, let us be off to the house where you are governess! That merchant swindled me out of land I wanted, and I shall have my revenge!”
Mary, under the spell of the corpse, dutifully carried him to the house of her employer. Against her will, she drew the key for the house from her apron and used it to open the great door. Horrified, she watched herself ascend the staircase, and slip into the bedroom of each of the three boys she was given charge over. There, the corpse leaned over her shoulder, used a long nail to cut into the wrist of each boy, and caught three drops of their blood in a little vial. When he did so, each boy shuddered, grew still, and died before Mary’s eyes. So under the spell of the corpse was she that she was unable to even shed a tear for the children, though she loved them dearly.
“Now, Mary,” he crooned. “Take me downstairs and make me a porridge with this blood.”
Mary obeyed, though inside she wept, and when the bloody porridge was made she reached for a single bowl.
“What kind of a husband would I be if I ate and left my wife to starve? Make a bowl for yourself as well, my dearest.”
Inside, Mary shuddered, but she obeyed. However, as the corpse greedily slurped up its own porridge, Mary found just enough strength of will to dump her own bites down her neck, into the handkerchief she had tied there. She made quick work of her bowl in this way, and when the corpse sighed in delighted and beckoned her over to him again, she tried to keep her back as straight as possible so as not to give away her deception.
“Now, Mary, the sun comes…we must go back to my grave, our home. Quickly, now!”
Mary set off at once for the graveyard, the corpse riding her back again. As they made the journey, the corpse pointed to a bit of hillside they were passing. “Now that you are my bride and have eaten the food of the dead, you may know what the dead know. That land the merchant bought out from under me was where I was forced to hide my ill-gotten gold. Well, he might have my gold, but I have the lives of his sons, so we’ll be gentlemen and call that square!” The corpse laughed at this all the way back to the graveyard, and was still laughing when he climbed down the grave and into the hole.
“Come, Mary. Enter your bridal bed and let us never be parted.” The corpse made one last, beckoning motion with his hand before the sleep of death again overtook him. But Mary, freed at last from the compulsion, instead turned and grabbed the shovel her father had used to bury the old man. With one swift, sure stroke, she separated the head from the body and rolled it to face down in the dirt, assuring the old man could never rise again.
Straight away, Mary sped back to the house of her employer. There, she was greeted by the wailing merchant, who tried to stop her. “Mary, lass, don’t go in. My son … ah, my sons!”
Mary gripped his hands and pressed a kiss to them. “Fear not. I am my mother’s daughter and know something of cunning work. I will save them.”
Up the stairs she dashed, and within moments of tipping a bit of the bloody pooridge into the mouth of each little boy, they stirred, yawn, and woke as if nothing had ever been wrong.
The merchant was so overjoyed that he asked Mary to wed him, and she accepted. In place of a dowery, she told him about the treasure buried in the hills, and the merchant and his new bride were even wealthier than before. At last, Mary’s father was able to retire from his job, and focus on spending time with his three new grandchildren. The new family lived happily then forevermore.
[Retold by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]