Clara stood awkwardly at the head of the grave, watching her husband. He had finished the hole, and now, standing in it, he heaved downward with the blade of the shovel, again and again. The dull thud of the metal against a wooden coffin, muffled by the soil covering the rest of it, was one of the things she liked the least about their new profession. She also had a horror of the soil itself, doubtless full of worms who feasted on the bodies of the now deceased. She felt dread as she heard the crack of the shovel blade splintering the coffin; now it was her turn.
She took the long pole and lowered its vicious hook into the half uncovered grave, and hooked the dead man’s head. Pulling the corpses out by their jaws was obscene; their faces stretched open, and the rest of the body hung from the neck in a loose and lolling fashion that one would never see in the living. Sometimes, once she had them up and was hauling them into the cart, their weight and something about the way their arms and legs brushed her made her swear that they were moving on their own. The horror and the humiliation of these moments was a physical sensation; a combination of numbness and sharp prickle that washed over her entire body.
“It’s not right! It’s not seemly, and it’s not godly!” These were the words that she had, in a storm of tears, shouted at Leo after their first outing.
“My dearest dove, I know it’s unconventional. I do. And I know it’s not the life that I promised you when you decided to act in line with your heart and run away with a poor milliner. But now that the shop has burned down, what are we to do for food? For lodging? I promised you the day that we married that I would always look after you. No matter what.”
“Then do it and leave me out of it!”
“Oh my darling, if I could shield you from this, I would, and at any cost to myself, but it’s simply not a task that I can handle on my own. And there’s nobody in the world that I trust more than you, my own sweet wife. What greater testament to our love is there?”
“Who says it’s wrong? Is it in the bible, the Lord’s own word? We’re giving these people a new purpose, and helping with breakthroughs in medicine that could help thousands stay the grave a bit longer. Isn’t that marvelous?”
Leo’s unfailing optimism had been one of the reasons she’d fallen in love with him. Now, after a few years of marriage, she had come to see what an irritating trait it could be. He was a sweet and attentive man, though, and she had to admit that these nighttime grave robberies were the only times that she regretted it. It had been a big decision for her, and it was not one that she made lightly. Her father had wanted her to marry a barrister from a wealthy family, and indeed the man had courted her quite determinedly. Defying her family had left her penniless, excluded her from any inheritance, and left her entirely dependent on her new craftsman husband. And for a while, things had been wonderful. Meager, but wonderful. She and Leo would never be rich, and she had known that when she married him. But there had been love, and warmth, and no cold, damp nights spend in graveyards.
They tried to go the night after an interment, or if necessary, the second night after. The fresher the corpse, the better the price the medical men paid. They would take and light the lamp on the outside of the church; that way, if anyone saw the meager light it cast, they would simply think that the groundskeeper was out and about. This was also the reason why she must wear her hair coiled so tightly to her head; why she wore men’s trousers so baggy that she had to pin them at the waist, and a long baggy black coat. A lady in a dress at a grave at night would arouse too much curiosity.
The men’s clothing also made it easier for her to practice her new craft. There was a bit of a trick to setting the hook in the jaw of a corpse. It took a jerk and a little bit of strength to set it well, and if it were not well-set, the body could come loose and tumble back into the grave. Setting the hook a second time would be more difficult, in some cases near impossible depending on the posture of the corpse. The corded, tendonous tissues of the body would have already started to soften as decay set in, which made the flesh more fragile and setting the hook easier, but too old of a body and the hook could drag clean through the jaw, separating the mandible at the chin or cheek, and the task would have to be abandoned, and the body re-buried half in, half out of the coffin. And yet, one must be careful in setting the hook. The bone in the roof of the mouth was fragile, and the structures above quite delicate; it was easy, with a little too much force, to send the hook up into the head, reducing the value of the body to the anatomist, and as a result, reducing their pay.
This one set well. She could see the end of the hook gleaming dully in the man’s now open mouth. It always surprised her faintly when the bodies came up pale-skinned. She always seemed to expect indians or negroes, even though they had drawn up white bodies before. This was a tall man, and she was struggling to lift his bulk from the hole. Leo came over.
“Sweet Clara, please let me help you,” he whispered, placing his hand on her back. She obligingly stepped aside, and Leo grasped the handles of the hook and hauled the man up to the surface. She stripped the clothes from the bloating body, and tossed them down back into the coffin. They weren’t common thieves after all. The two of them collaborated in levering the corpse’s length into the hand cart, and she waited while he hurriedly filled the grave back in. Keeping the graves tidy, he had reasoned, gave the bereaved less cause for anguish. No reason to leave evidence behind of their loved one’s new profession that might upset them. He had become quite good at it.
Once the grave was filled in and neatly, subtly mounded, they stowed the shovel and the hook with their newly acquired companion. Leo lifted the shafts of the cart and began to pull. She heard him grunt softly as the wheels began to turn and the cart to move. She had always admired his strength. She trailed behind the cart; they had had occasions on which the corpse had fallen from the back of it. She heard Leo’s soft voice drift back to her:
“Let’s go see what tonight’s efforts have earned us, shall we dear?”
And then he began to whistle.