Prologue:

Preliminary report released to journalists by the police following the recovery of the body:

The naked body of a female student, whose parents wish her to remain nameless, was found beside the river Leesum at 08:10 on the morning of Saturday 10th October. The 22-year-old was found by an elderly gentleman walking his dog. From the state and position of the body (as well as the clothes left beside the river) it seems that she had been bathing on a night which in this region saw October temperatures reach a record high. Investigations are underway into the nature of her death, but there are no signs of violent assault, including sexual, and her eyes were remarkably open, calm and collected when her body was found. The only injuries to be observed were minor cuts to two fingers of her right hand, which as yet must remain unexplained until the area has been scoured by forensic teams. It is possible that she died as a result of prolonged exposure to the near-freezing temperature of the water, or, if such wild bathing was a habitual practice of hers, she may have contracted a virus from pathogens in the river itself. The possibilities of it being a case of Covid are not being ruled out, and venues which the track and trace system can indicate she frequented will be contacted if this turns out to be the case. Her death is a sorrowful loss to her family and a great many friends.

The Rhine Maiden: Chapter I

It was the seventh of October 2020, in a town in eastern England. The days had begun to turn crisper, the clear blue of the sky no longer delivering, or even deigning to promise, warmth. Tessa missed the summer days (which this year had shown themselves to be uncharacteristically inviting hosts to bursts of Mediterranean sultriness), yet nonetheless she enjoyed the change of season. Soon it would be time for woollen jumpers, thick coats, and colourful scarves. As she absentmindedly sat at her desk after a day of writing and gazed out of the window of her studio flat, she vaguely reflected on all this. Then her attention shifted to what she actually saw through the pane. The muddy ochre tones of the fallen leaves being gently encouraged along the pavement by the autumn breeze had suggested the season, but why had she never really considered the graveyard beneath whose railings those leaves clustered, as though themselves huddling up for warmth?

She had always taken the cemetery for granted; it was, after all, a convenient route to the shops on the main road about half an hour away, and it also offered a peaceful setting for a slow walk in the shade still offered by the leaves of the trees. Since the lockdown had taken effect, these wanderings were even more welcome, and even the need to walk quite so far for groceries felt like a blessing. It was pleasant merely to be somewhere which was relatively out of the way, slightly outside the city and – more importantly given all the recent tribulations – decidedly far from the university campus.

So the cemetery offered no terrors for Tessa; she was too serious of an historian to be freaked out by walking among the remains of the dead, and the tombstones and monuments were too quaint (in their classic Victorian way) to shudderingly command her ‘memento mori!’ Besides, it wouldn’t have helped their case that everyone had death, or at least potentially fatal pestilence, on their minds these days; had the stones or spirits spoken, Tessa could well have replied that she was already thinking about her ultimate demise, thanks.

Yet some interesting stories did circulate about the graveyard. Its history was unremarkable, really: in spite of the restrained nineteenth-century demeanour it now bore, the vast area it occupied had once been a sprawling Anglo-Saxon burial site, which the Vikings had also, later, used as a resting place for their fallen heroes. As the medieval period wore on, the site fell into disuse, either because it was too busily crammed with bones or for some other reason which history had at some point forgotten. Trees grew through the corpses, and the area became known primarily as a forest, a wild place for the common people to hunt rabbits or small deer, or collect fallen timber, or allow their pigs to browse among the plentiful acorns which even today always littered the mulchy ground at this time of year. The early-medieval funerary uses of the area were only discovered once the crown had been placed on young Victoria’s head, and after this time (and a handful of excavations) the site was partially cleared of trees and began to be used as a burial place once more for the town’s population, which following industrialisation had reached unprecedented numbers.

More disturbing were the tales you came across if you happened to find yourself in The Weasel, hunched over your sixth pint and animatedly chatting with an octogenarian resident. As recently as 1963 – and newspapers of the time reported this – a group of teenagers, by all accounts ‘bad kids’ from ‘unhappy homes’ had attempted a Satanic ritual. Inevitably, when these tales were told to people who had never before heard them, they provoked a bark of laughter. This had been Tessa’s reaction, too: to her, in her early twenties, in secular 2020, it was absurd to think that anything sinister could come of something like that, and how would the kids have even found out how to perform the ritual in the first place? Yet, like all new hearers of the tale, she felt her smile fall from her face when she was told that the ritual had involved the dismemberment of a local child. Some raconteurs, who had known someone who had known the wife or brother or nephew of one of the investigating police officers, went into detail about the dismemberment itself. Others were vaguer: “You know what a pentangle is? Well imagine that, and think how you might use an infant to… But those were different times, mind: even the cemetery itself was different: it stretched further past Warlick Street and back to Coldwater Way, where the river runs, you know, and…” The free-association monologue went on, and you tried to choose a polite moment to head home.

But such stories were purely sensationalist, surely? Those kids had been sent away to some kind of mental institution, the parents of the child suffered a grief which no words can ever describe as their lives and worldviews were changed irreparably, and the tale only lived on the tongues of the few senior citizens who remembered it. Tessa didn’t believe there was any supernatural element to it: the crime was grisly and sadistic, and that was all (even if, especially to the child’s parents, it was also more than enough).

Remembering the tale for the first time as she sat beside her window, looking across the road through the early evening light at the shadows between the trees, the cold iron railings with their crowning spear-tips, and the fallen leaves (which now seemed to both huddle and cower at the feet of the metal fence), Tessa frowned. Then she shook her head and started to prepare her dinner.

The Rhine Maiden: Chapter II

On the ninth of October, it seemed that the weather had turned. Tessa had awoken to the sunrise streaming through her permanently unblinded window, which showed a sky which was no less blue than it had lately been, but which now bore a colour with a somehow changed quality. True enough, it went on to be a fine day, and after having worn her thickest overcoat for the first time in the year only the day before, Tessa went for her usual afternoon walk through the graveyard wearing only a shirt, shorts and trainers. Even in the shade beneath the trees, she didn’t feel cold at all. She wasn’t even walking briskly, but went at her usual pace, appreciating the details of the area. Today, though, the whole place for some reason seemed more focused, as though she was seeing it in higher definition. She noticed more things: another squirrel here, the rear end of a deer diving for leafy cover there. She even, having on a whim wandered off her accustomed route and along a side-track, came across a grave she had never noticed before, and which bore a surname intriguingly similar to her own: ‘Here lies Susanna Reichenbacher, beloved wife of George, who passed from this life into eternal sleep on the 15th March 1840. May they rest together always. Praise be to God and Christ, the way unto everlasting life.’

She tried to remind herself to ask her parents whether any of their ancestors had lived here back then. As far as Tessa knew, she had been the first of the family to live in this area when she moved from Yorkshire to study at a university further down south. But the sun had its wicked way, and as soon as she got back to her flat, beaming with sheer pleasure at the feeling its rays had stimulated on her bare skin, she messaged a couple of friends to see if they fancied a socially-distanced drink in town later in the afternoon. The genealogical reminder was forgotten, flung into that part of the brain which deals with books to be read, films to be watched, and binbags to be bought. By early evening, she strutted back from the last bar in town, buoyed up by alcohol and laughter, downed a glass of water and collapsed onto her bed.