CW: Depictions of death/dead bodies and gore.
Death ran in her family.
It was no different than if the Dawsons were carpenters or blacksmiths. Hacksaws were their lathes, corpses their iron, and the smell of wood or molten steel lingering on their smoking jackets and petticoats was easily replaced by the tight stench of furrowing skin. The prickle of death’s smell was as familiar to Ertha as that of ha’penny chews would be to any other eleven-year-old.
Eleven was too old for ha’penny chews. That’s what Ma had said. Ha’penny chews were for the young ones whose teeth would fall out soon anyway, undoubtedly helped by the pull of a Pontefract cake. Ertha had all her teeth now.
Teeth were valuable. You had to look after them like precious jewels, keep them clean and neat and chip-less. The clean and neat and chip-less ones are the ones that get the money, Ma said, so it’s best to get them as good as possible. Make the most profit.
Ma had made her profit twenty years ago. Three bob for the set, pulled out herself. Ertha always wondered why she didn’t leave one. Just to help with chewing, she thought. But Ma had her ways and Ertha had always found it best not to try to understand them.
As for her, Ertha was yet to get her three bob. Ma had said she might get more, the shine was that white, but the bucked-out front two would knock off a few shillings.
Ma said the last part as an insult.
Ertha never took it as one.
She was rather attached to her teeth, not just by the gums. Where would the world be without chewing, she thought? Without chewing there would be no need for pies or puds or aniseed twists and they were some of Ertha’s most favourite things. A world without crusted pastry and fruit cake was not a world she deemed particularly worth it.
No, Ertha thought.
She would keep her teeth.
There was nobody left to tell her otherwise anymore.
And, perhaps, it was rather good that she wasn’t looking for profit from them as now they were chattering rather fiercely, her jaw thrown about by the cold.
Ertha didn’t like the cold.
She had no taste for the gates of the cemetery either – found their iron bars too tall, their stone pillars too ferocious, their snarling gargoyles a nightmare brewing in the back of her mind.
The shovel over her shoulder was cold too, even through the coarse wool of her coat. Ma’s coat, she corrected. Its sleeves hung past her hands, grazing the tips of her fingers, and she was quite sure it looked as if it were swallowing her whole.
Take what you need from the dead, Ma had always told her. Nothing is of use to them anymore.
And Ertha did. It just so happened that the corpse the coat was plucked from had belonged to the same person who owned those words.
In the cuff of the coat, she could feel the roughly stitched letters against her skin.
Dawson and Co.
Ertha had never been naïve enough to think it was anything other than a joke. Regardless of the fact that there was and had never been any ‘co’ in question when it came to the Dawsons, the title as a whole was a stupid notion. Businesses like theirs didn’t have names. They weren’t inked in newspaper advertisements or pasted on alleyway walls. Their business was a silent one.
Ertha had never liked silence.
She particularly didn’t like it at night. And it was night now, unfortunately, because that was what she had been taught. Darkness was good. Darkness kept you hidden. But Ertha didn’t have to like it.
Nonetheless, she had a job to do. She was in charge now.
Dr. Peters needed a scapula.
Old Baker Andrews needed a liver.
Ertha needed the shillings.
So, ignoring how the shakes had now migrated to her hands, she pushed up the latch of the gate and stepped inside.
Ertha had learnt the positions of each grave the same way children usually learnt the alphabet. Ma had her reciting them, adding new names whenever appropriate. The way the dark draped over the graves didn’t matter now, as Ertha had them all worked out in her head.
The fresh graves were at the back.
They were under some sort of tree – Ma had never told her what type it was – with bushes of flowers creeping towards them. The flowers in question were dead for the winter, shrivelled and brown, but when the sun was hot enough and the birds new, they blossomed a vibrant orange that matched Ertha’s hair perfectly.
Ma never liked her hair. Said it was a devil’s colour. Every morning she raked it back with a comb, tying it tightly with a stiff black ribbon. Ertha never mentioned how much it hurt. Neither did she dare mention how close Ma’s hair had been to Ertha’s shade – the pure notion that her mother could be anything other than godly was not a notion ever pondered by the Dawsons.
Ertha swung down the shovel to the ground, dragging it along the stony mud as she made her way over to the young grave pits. She could see the soft soil from here as it caught the moonlight ever so slightly.
Good, she thought.
It would be easy to dig.
And it was – the first slice of the shovel went in with ease and a small, gritty whump. She only aimed for the top half.
Liver. Scapula. Ertha didn’t need anything else. The top half would do.
Don’t waste your own bones on bones you don’t need.
It took nearly two hours to get to the wood. Ma could always do it in one – less than that if Ertha was helping – but Ertha’s arms were still small. They hadn’t yet gotten the muscles that Ma had assured her they one day would.
But it didn’t bother Ertha. She had always liked the repetitive swing and lift of the digging and today was no different. Even with her petticoats caked in brown and her shoes crusted with clay as she crouched on top of the coffin, she still felt some sort of serenity.
With the wood now under her feet, Ertha was quick to grab her saw and begin the tiring rigmarole of cutting along the lid.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
The final splinter of wood split from the rest.
She pulled herself up to the top of the grave, legs swinging down into the pit, and pulled away the now separated piece.
Ertha never liked the old ones.
Their faces were always wrinkled and sagging, teeth usually gone, and they had this grey tinge to them that the other bodies never did. At least this one had its eyes closed.
Ertha got to work.
The liver was the easy bit. Ertha had taken many livers, for your information, and she had quite the skill for pulling them out whole. Once she’d removed this one and slopped it into a glass jam jar, she was onto the scapula.
Ertha was never very good at sawing bone.
The hacksaw never dug in quite right. It slipped and jabbed all the wrong places and Ma had always told her that a poorly sawn bone was proof of a poorly run business. This time, Ertha was careful.
She was in charge.
She was the one who ran this business.
The scapula came away with ease.
Ertha gave a smile.
She wrapped the bone in a piece of parchment and a length of string.
And with that, she pulled the lid back over and climbed out of the pit. Filling them up again was always the easier part. Ertha probably could’ve done it with her feet if she wanted to.
Half an hour.
She was improving.
After a few stamps over the re-filled grave, Ertha glanced down into her sack.
The jar clinked against the parcel.
Another smile stretched over her lips.
Before she could think too much, she pulled a coal from her pocket.
She scrawled three words onto both the glass and the paper.
Dawson and Co.
Ertha was in charge now, after all.
And a family business ought to have a name, no matter if it were in the shadows or not.