Charles rose from his chair at ten o’ clock, put on his suit jacket, and placed his glasses inside the pocket. He closed the frayed book in front of him, so overstuffed with extra pages that it sounded as if he’d dropped it from above. Massaging the bridge between his eyes, he remembered his final errand with some alarm.
The bell on the door of his shared office space jingled dutifully as he locked it behind him. Slightly paranoid as ever of being harassed by a drunkard or beggar, he looked up and down the streets. There were some hurried figures crisscrossing in and out of the street light, but no one seemed to notice him.
He rounded the corner of Gloucester Street into the warm heart of Russell Square. Raucous laughter and piano songs escaped the taverns and swirled around him in the wind. With his head down, he pushed through the crowds, recognizing only stale cologne, whiskey sours, and cigarettes, hopeful that no one would recognize him, either. He never seemed to find the time or the conversation skills to win over the people of this, his new home town, so naturally, rumors won them first.
Emerging from the Square and entering the foggy, sleepy neighborhoods, he exhaled the tension in his muscles and then felt sad. He wondered if he would ever be capable of having real relationships again and felt longing for the time when he would laugh with a true friend or come home to the embrace of a charming woman.
Seconds after he lifted his head with resolve, a sound caught his right ear; the sound of weak footsteps becoming stronger, closer. He slowed and shifted on the sidewalk, but the person did not pass. In fact, he heard that person slowing down, too, which instantly made the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stand out. Wanting so badly to run, but realizing the growing darkness was the more dangerous direction, he turned around to run back toward the Square, where he could possibly beseech someone in the safety of the bright marquees. But he was too quickly captured.
His eyes fell upon a striking young woman, who stood there softly glowing before him, smiling sheepishly back and forth at him and the glistening pointed shoes poking out under her baby blue silk dress. Her eyes matched her adornments and sparkled ever brighter, even at this hour. She raised her slender knuckles to her lips and laughed a little. “Were you frightened of-“
“No! No,” he laughed back, waving his hands in front of them, “I…Well, yes,” he gracefully conceded, “Yes…I was. But in my defense, I think it’s obvious that you've been following me from Russell Square without a word. I should think that’s enough to frighten anyone. What are you doing out here alone this late, anyway? Do I know you? Do you need something? A cruder man would take you for a charlatan, girl.”
The rose red color drained from her cheeks and her shoulders started to droop the more he belabored her, which made him instantly apologetic. “I’m very sorry, miss. It’s just that people in this town tend to avoid me since- Well, I just haven’t employed my social graces in quite a long time. He took off his hat and held it to his chest. “I'm Charles. What is your name, miss, and how can I help you?”
She was smiling again, pivoting on her heel and clutching her sparkling little purse in front of her waist. “No, I’m sorry; I never meant to frighten you. My name is Anna.” She stuck out her limp hand, gloved in the oceanic blue silk, for him to kiss. He noticed the long glove was too big on her arm and that this sort of formality was altogether inappropriate for such an occasion, but still he kissed her hand, breathing in the faint odor of jasmine and plum.
"I wanted to say something to you, but I couldn’t think of the right words. I was hoping you might have some time to get to know me, and I you. My father just moved us here when he got promoted from Scotland Yard. He’s out there right now trying to find the monster that’s leaving pieces of a woman around London. They’re calling it the ‘Whitehall Mystery,’ have you heard about it?” He nodded nervously and she continued. “I have to wait until the next term before I can go back to school. I know a couple of other girls who are out, but I...” she looked away and her voice trailed off, “can’t keep seem to keep them entertained.”
She fell silent for a long pause, as if she’d simply tired of talking. Her voice had poured a resonant vibration into his veins which continued to hum after her words stopped. But he could tell that she had grown flustered while talking, and how relieved she seemed when she was finished. He sensed that they might share a common anxiety about small talk."
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Seventeen.” Her face rested expectant. The word rose like a question rather than sank like a truth. He figured she was lying by a year or two.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“I’m thirty-six, my lady. The age of your father, I’d bet.” He put his hat back on, anticipating that she would recoil a bit, but she just stared into his eyes and asked, “Perhaps I could accompany you this evening?”
It was he who instantly recoiled in fear and doubt. She couldn’t have chosen a worse time to approach him, he thought. If he told her where he was headed, it would sound like he was indeed a very strange man.
“N-no, you-you can’t, I’m sorry.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and glared at his shoes. “I’m actually quite busy with something very important at the moment. But I’d absolutely love to get to know you another time.”
“Ah, well, we shall see,” she said. It seemed as if she’d completely resigned in an instant. She began taking tiny steps backward, signalling to him that she was going to leave. He truly had been moved by this opportunity to meet someone like her, something for which he'd grown to yearn at least once every evening for these past few years since his wife left him and he moved to London.
“Wait! Can I come by tomorrow?”
Her heart started to beat out of her chest. This was the first boy who’d ever flattered her. She then fully realized how handsome were his long, firm limbs and his soft hair, full of light brown waves, like amber under the yellow streetlight. She wanted to start following him again now and never ever stop. But instead, she answered, “Actually, I’m... helping my mother all day tomorrow. I help my mother all day every day. But perhaps I’ll see you around another evening.”
“You absolutely will, love; I’ll keep an eye out for you in the Square every evening until I see you again.” He tipped his hat to her and they went separate ways.
As soon as she walked into the bright bustle of the Square, a large, sweaty man with wirey, grey hairs hanging out of his unbuttoned shirt collar stumbled into her and latched onto her arms. “Back so soon eh, who-uhr,” he slurred. “I will be quick with you, too peaches,” he said as he filled his hands with her buttocks. He leaned in to slobber on her neck, but she slipped under his arms and pushed him away as hard as she could. People took brief notice and then continued to toast each other. She noticed her father standing far behind everyone with his arms folded, starting at her. The man lunged for her again and she could hear him yelling after her as she turned and ran away. She didn't look back until she reached the spot where she met Charles.
Through her watery eyes, she scanned the darkness past the street lights for any sign that Charles might still be close. Impulsively, she began to follow the steps she thought he must’ve taken, crossing the street, and continuing south a few blocks before she saw him again. She realized she didn’t know how to tell him why she needed help; she couldn’t tell him the truth. And she couldn't go home now. Not yet. She'd never seen her father upset, but she greatly feared the possibilities.
As she got closer, she could see him turning left into the yard around the vast granite cemetery wall. She watched with increasing curiosity as he seemed to walk straight to an opening in the wall, under the enormous, old willow tree, where the root was cracking through. He ducked into the crack and disappeared.
She took a couple quick glances around, but the street and the sidewalk were empty, so she sprang across the street as fast as the width of her slender gown and the balance of her heels would allow. As she inched closer to the crack to peek in, it dawned on her that if she approached him again here, it would certainly cause some confusion. Confusion which she now fully shared, having witnessed his peculiar behavior. Confusion which, she decided, she must dispell.
She stuffed her jewelry into her purse and stuffed her purse into one of the small cracks between the large granite bricks. Holding her dress above her knees, she began to climb the tree, grabbing the thickest bottom branches first. The fourth branch was wider than the first three combined, so that she needed her bare feet for stepping. She kicked off her shoes and was momentarily amused by the way they stumbled down.
Eventually, the more massive branches crossed over the wall and hung twelve feet over the graves. The first of these branches she came to was twice as wide as her, so she began crawling on it with her hands and knees until she was just across the thick, cold wall. Where the branch began to thin, she laid down and hung her head as low as she could, stretching to see more. Immediately, she heard shuffling and grunting directly underneath her. Not four feet below her, she watched Charles, with no coat or hat, sleeves rolled up, laboring over a fresh grave nearest the crack.
By the time the mound of dirt next to him had grown to nearly half his height, she rationalized that he must be a grave robber. She remembered overhearing that her own father's brother had once boasted seven pounds he made from a sapphire broach he dug up. She saw him walk to the head of the grave and pry open the coffin lid with the shovel. He pushed the lid back and then lifted it. It stood upright for a moment as he planted it at the foot of the coffin and then leaned it against the wall to the surface. He climbed into the grave and moved the body to where the arms were raised above the head at the bottom of the coffin lid. The body was just a darker spot than all the other dark spots to Anna, but she watched him wrestle with it awhile and climb back up the coffin lid, stepping on the head for his first boost and then using the traction of his shoe soles and by gripping the sides. He seemed to scurry up quickly and easily, as if in routine. He laid down and reached for the hands and was standing again by the time he pulled the body all the way up. Without any thoughtful pause, he began refilling the grave. She couldn't imagine what sort of grave robber would need to take the whole body.
Feeling both shocked and frightened, she wanted to turn around and run from this, the worst scene she had yet encountered on this cursed night. She managed to get turned around where she could crawl again, but when she tried to rise from the crawl to hug the tree and climb down, her first step forward caught her flowing, slippery silk scarf and forced her down headfirst.
She grappled with the branch as she fell, so that she managed to hug it with her left arm. She tried to reach her right arm up to the branch, but it caused her left arm, getting cut up by the bark, to loosen and her hands slipped right off. She fell directly into the open grave.
Charles saw her hanging right before she fell, but he was stunned when she stood up in the grave. She saw him and started to scream. He begged her to stop and tried to make her grab the shovel so he could pull her up. She didn't know what he was trying to do with the shovel, so she backed away from it and tried to climb out of the grave, drilling her fingers and toes into the dirt wall to try to find some leverage, screaming and scratching and clawing all the way back down. She felt exhausted and fainted over the open coffin.
"What have you done!" He sat down hard and squeezed handfuls of his hair. Distant laughter rang out from beyond the wall and slowly faded. He jumped down into the grave and listened again. Crickets. Then he could hear her breathing. As he watched her chest lightly rise and fall, he was suddenly launched into a warm flash of their future together. He would meet her father tomorrow and gift him generously enough that he might forgive Charles's distasteful reputation. Then they would live out their days in his mansion at the end of a quiet cul de sac and conceive a little boy or girl who would study the stars. A tear welled up in his eye.
She, too was having a dream or a memory of a morning four days ago, when she attended her first funeral. Her mother's funeral in the back yard. Her mother started coughing and getting skinnier and more fevered everyday for no reason until one day she gave up, Anna thought. Anna's father told her and her little brother and sister to pick up a handful of the dirt and throw it into the grave. She thought the dirt felt soft and cool and sniffed it. It smelled of a thousand rains and droughts, of growth and decay. She closed her eyes, immersed in the smell and felt connected with it, and with everything it was connected to. She held up her handful in front of the giant golden sunrise and watched the granules slip through her fingers to join the wind until it was gone.
She awoke in that smell, covered in a thin blanket of dirt. She heard him hovering over her, but did not flinch. Rising slowly to a stand, she wiped her eyes with her wrists and demanded, "Get away from me." Quickly noticing the complexities of the only way out, she hugged herself to get warm and glared at him. The dirt all around her, deeply engrained in her fingernails, filled her with a sense that she was beyond fear, that she'd already overcome the greatest battle this life could ever bring her.
"Get me out of here.” Her jaw and fists clenched, anticipating the next horrible surprise.
His heart broke when he saw the hatred in her eyes, heard the purity in her voice turn hard. “Of course...” he put his hands up between them again. “Just please listen to me.”
She climbed over the coffin and began trying to scale the wooden lid to no avail.
“Let me help you!” He pushed her out of the way and climbed up. Squatting over her at the top, he implored her, “Before I help you out and you run away and tell your parents that I tried to kill you, you need to know that I-”
“I don't have any parents.”
“What? But you said -”
“My mother's been dead four days now,” she spoke softly, as if defeated. The lord took her from this miserable world and put her weight on me. This morning, my father told me I'd wear my mother's only dress and jewels and I'd find men in the street who would pay a pretty lady just to spend time with them. That was one of only a few times my father has ever spoken to me and he said my mother would have done it had she not fallen ill, because he couldn't afford enough food to go around to each of us anymore. That's how I met you.” She began to sob.
He got on his knees and reached down for her. This time she grabbed his hands and scrambled up to the surface, collapsing beside him on her back. He could smell the jasmine seeping through the dirt all over her. He fought the urge of every muscle to hold her and keep her there.
She sat up and looked at the body. A stout old woman in a pale green dress with white shoes and a fake blue flower in her gray hair. She looked content.
“Anna, look, later, I promise you can ask all the questions you want, but right now, I need you to trust me. I can help you and your family with whatever you need. I'm a medical doctor. And this,” he pointed to the macabre scene, “unfortunately, is necessary for my work. Necessary for all of us, to know what's in these bodies,” he pulled at his shirt, “how they work and what happens when they're not working. I'm a surgeon and a scientist, but I am nothing without a cadaver, that's what we call them.There are only a few available in all of England to study and it's not likely I'll get to see one before someone else publishes the research.”
There was a thoughtful silence between them. He looked up at the waxing crescent moon and then at her. She was watching her breath linger before her.
“Your father said what?”
She let out a nervous laugh and picked at the grass. “My father said,” her face changed as she started, “that I'm to meet another man. Tonight or tomorrow.”
He watched her stand and brush off the front of her dress. She stopped and stared at all the dirt on her hands and tears streamed down her cheeks. “My mother's only beautiful dress...”she whimpered. He could see she was shaking, about to buckle at the knees, so he rose and gripped her in his arms. In her hair, the faint scent of vanilla made him salivate.
“Please stop crying, my love, everything is going to work out. Look,” he held her head and looked into her eyes, “I don't want you to meet another man. I want you to come with me and I will buy you ten more dresses. I'll give you a real job around my office and you will certainly afford to feed your family well. Are you still afraid?”
She pushed him away and stared again at the corpse and the empty grave. He became blurred and muffled in her peripheral as he began to shovel the mound back into the hole.
“Everyone around here has been waiting for something like this to happen you know, so they can hang me. But more than anything, I just wish you weren't afraid of me.” He continued talking while shoveling until suddenly she looked over at him, present again. She wiped the wet dirt from her eyes and sniffled.
“I'm not afraid.” She knelt and stared into the dirt. “I'm not afraid,” she repeated with confidence before she began pushing massive heaps back into the grave.
As they stomped the peat moss down together, an infectious giggle began due to the slow unwinding of so much fear and shock and pain. They each grabbed a shoulder of the cadaver's black jacket and dragged it to the crack where Anna could crawl under first and pull it out. They dragged the corpse behind the large shadow of the willow tree, across the grassy nole, up to the street where a carriage was waiting, a driver asleep inside.
“Gregory!” Charles hissed.
He jolted awake. “Sorry, Sir! I seem to have fallen asleep, is everything alright? You look a fright. Who is this girl?”
“Gregory, please, just help me get this in the back.”
“Right away, Sir.”
Once they were settled, Charles introduced Anna to Gregory as a new friend and a prospective employee. Gregory turned his head around to her and smiled, almost winking. “Well, won't that be nice. A little more fresh blood in the house.”
As they bounced along the cobblestones, she felt the thud of the corpse rolling into her back and Gregory's last phrase echoed like from a bell tower in her mind the whole way there.
When she entered the mansion, she was overwhelmed at the sight. It looked like a place for giants and with light enough to shame the sun. Dirt was falling from them, scattering to all corners of the marble floor, as they carried the corpse to the shining steel table in Charles's private lab. Anna's mouth hung open in front of jars of two headed babies and brains and a heart.
After they'd secured the corpse, Charles interrupted Anna. “Gregory will show you your bedroom and you may have a bath. There's a robe on the door and the nurse can bring you some proper clothes in the morning.”
She'd never been in a bath tub so large or slept in such a soft bed. She'd never fallen asleep so quickly.
She woke in the big, white room to a nurse standing in the doorway, staring at her patiently with her hands folded in front of her.
“Morning, flower!” she beamed. She retrieved some clothes from a chair with a folded piece of paper on top. It read, “My darling Anna, I'm at my office, but I'll be counting the minutes until I see you again. I hope I see you again.”
“My lady!” the nurse huffed, “what have you done to that dress?” She poked the iron at the stiff, blue heap with big black holes.
Anna swept her ankles around playfully under the cool down blankets and smiled with her eyes closed. “I won't be needing it anymore.”