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The Grave Digger of York

By Clare Marsh

Long ago in the ancient city of York Elias Bilby was sexton of St Martin Micklegate. His services were required almost daily, especially in the bleak winter months when the bitter north wind, that harbinger of death, moaned down chimneys and rattled the leaded windows.

Elias frequented a tavern in the Shambles, more for the accommodating female company there, than to consume strong drink. However, his visits to The Swan had been noted by Mr Fishwick, one of the church wardens.

Increasingly sleep eluded Elias at night, yet he was afflicted by terrible tiredness during the day. He would wake to find himself temporarily paralysed and unable to speak. From Mr Fishwick’s contemptuous remarks Elias knew he was suspected of drinking and might lose his position.

It was Christmas Eve and the day of Josiah Sotherton’s funeral. Alderman Sotherton had been Lord Mayor of York until his fatal excesses at last week’s lavish civic feast.

Elias worked through the morning digging frantically. By noon he’d finished and sat on the edge of the gaping hole to eat bread and cheese. Waves of sleep, gentle at first then more insistent, overwhelmed him and he toppled into the void.

A rabble of apprentices raced through the churchyard and stopped at the open grave, at the bottom of which Elias lay sleeping. The boys dared one another to throw in shovelfuls of earth.

It was dark at 4 o’clock when the solemn funeral procession departed the church. Ahead of them Mr Fishwick looked in vain for the sexton. Then he peered into the grave with his lantern. Elias, awake now, but paralysed by his condition and chilled to the very bone saw a familiar face and a swinging light through the soil. Mr Fishwick concluded that a drunken Elias, was sleeping it off down there. Elias’ petrified eyes fleetingly met Mr Fishwick’s impassive gaze.

Knowing the city worthies were impatient conclude the burial and return home to their Christmas comforts Mr Fishwick decided to – say and do nothing. His nephew needed a job and grave digger would do as well as any. The Rev. Potipher intoned the words of the committal as the pall bearers struggled to lower the enormous coffin to its final resting place.


Clare Marsh lives in Kent, UK and is an international adoption social worker. She was awarded M.A. Creative Writing from the University of Kent (2018) and was a Pushcart Prize nominee (2017). She won the 2020 Olga Sinclair Short Story Prize. Her work has been published by Lighthouse, Mslexia, Syncopation Literary Journal, Flame Tree Press, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Oxford Flash Fiction, Places of Poetry, Pure Slush, and Rebel Talk.


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