I'll admit that I like "semi-scary" stuff on occasion when I read. I don't like blood and gore, nor do I like something that's going to cause me nightmares, but I do like to be, shall I say, "startled" on occasion by reading a good Gothic story or a well-written mystery novel. Hence, my first book was a YA paranormal novel. Now, I'm attempting to write a historical novel that's about a rather gruesome subject; that of stealing bodies from their graves to sell to medical schools. This was a common practice in the United States throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the East where medical schools abounded. Students were sometimes required to "provide" their own cadavers for dissection and study, and fresh bodies were in demand but difficult to come by. Only a very few bodies were legally allowed to be used by schools for study, including those of executed criminals and unclaimed corpses. Schools often paid high prices for fresh cadavers and asked few, if any, questions as to where the bodies were procured.
I've worried and wondered as I work on this. Where is the line between "okay creepy" that maybe sends a few shivers down your spine and the "whoa, that was way too gross/disgusting/horrifying and now I'm going to have nightmares for the rest of my life" kind of scary? Especially when the intended audience consists of kids?
I think that line is different for everyone. That's why I worry.
Anyway, I've decided to post the first chapter of my current "work in progress," which I call: "The Digger." It takes place in Circleville, Ohio, in the late 1800's, and centers around a twelve year-old boy, Cap Cooper, who finds himself working along with his father, Noah, as a "resurrectionist," or one who steals bodies of the recently dead for profit. Here goes, and feel free to tell me if it grosses you out! I won't feel too bad, I promise!
By: Rebecca Bischoff
Resurrecting the dead is hard work.
Cap heard his father’s words in his head as he hesitated, silent, feeling a throbbing inside his chest. His heart felt as if it barely had room to move within him, much as Cap himself felt, squeezed inside a hole hardly bigger than he was. The head of the coffin was inches away. He couldn’t see it since there was no room for the shuttered lamp inside the tunnel they’d dug, but he could feel the splintery wood with his fingers. He gulped a mouthful of damp air that smelled of dirt and decay. Gripping his hammer more tightly, he began to work to open the thin wood of the pauper’s coffin.
“Hurry, boy,” hissed a voice from the entrance to the tunnel. The ugly, guttural tones belonged to Lum, his father’s friend. “He’ll make enough noise to wake the dead from here to New York City,” the man muttered.
Cap felt his stomach clench itself into a tiny, cold ball. It always did whenever he heard Lum speak of him. But a moment later he heard his father’s voice.
"Cap can do it," Noah, answered. “You'll see. He’s smarter than most his age and as brave as any boy I’ve ever known.”
Hearing his father’s words brought a renewed sense of determination. Cap continued his work, tapping the square head of the box to locate where the thin slabs of wood were nailed together. Hearing the metallic ‘ping’ of metal on metal, he felt with his hands until he found the head of the nail, then worked to pry it loose. A drop of sweat rolled down the side of his forehead as he continued, prying away the nails one by one. Then, it was done. Cap pulled away the small, square head of the wooden coffin and shoved it behind him. He realized he was holding his breath. Resurrecting the dead is also smelly work, and Cap dreaded that particular hazard to his family business more than any other.
“What did I tell you,” he heard his father murmur from the head of the tunnel, pride coloring the notes of his voice.
Cap released air from his burning lungs. He had to breathe. Tucking his neckerchief around his mouth and nose, he breathed in through his mouth, trying not to think of anything but finishing his task and getting out of the tunnel. Now was the real test. Reaching behind him, he groped for the thick rope they’d brought along. Bringing it around in front of him, he slowly stretched trembling fingers through the opening in the coffin. After an eternal moment, where his body seemed to shake from head to toe, his fingertips touched a head of thick, soft hair. Cap swallowed again, fighting against every impulse in him that wanted to wrench away his hand, scrabble backwards out of his makeshift tunnel and flee out into the open night air.
He remembered his father’s words when Noah first introduced his son to the “real” family business. “The dead don’t mind, son, they’re dead,” his father told him. “We’re doing this world a favor. Doctors must know how we’re put together, now, don’t they?”
Fighting against the violent tremors that now shook him all over, Cap brought the rope forward and worked it around the head and shoulders of the unresisting body, moving the rope under the arms. The flesh of the corpse was soft, its limbs easy to move. For all he knew, this person could simply be asleep. Long braids tangled in his fingers.
A woman! Cap realized. God almighty, it’s a woman!
He couldn’t help picturing his mother, home in bed, sick with fever, swollen with another child that would probably be born too soon, like all the others. His mother braided her hair when she went to bed.
Stop it, Cap! he told himself harshly. Do your duty. This isn’t Mamma! Father needs your help and we need the money!
With renewed strength, Cap knotted the rope and gave the signal, a high-pitched whistle. Grunting softly, the men outside the tunnel began to pull on their end of the rope, Cap helping as best he could as he scooted out backwards, his own hands clasping the rough woven fibers. Slowly, inch by inch, the woman slipped out of her eternal rest, through the tunnel and into the black autumn night of the cemetery.
Free from his narrow confinement, Cap stood and stretched stiff legs, gulping crisp air that smelled of rotting leaves. The cloud-covered midnight sky that blanketed the sleeping cemetery was not quite so dark, he realized, as the thick blackness of the narrow trench beneath the soil from which he’d emerged. Cap breathed out in a long stream as he gazed up at a tiny gap in the clouds that revealed a scattering of stars. Though he still could not see much about him, those pinpoints of light, like a scattering of diamond dust in the sky, were a welcome, comforting sight.
“Help us, boy!” Lum hissed. “Don’t stand there lollygagging up at them stars. This job ain’t over, yet!”
Blinking, Cap stumbled over to assist his father and Lum as they lifted the slight form of the woman into the back of the waiting wagon. Lum’s shuttered lantern was open only a fraction of an inch to allow the thinnest beam of light to show feebly through. It was like a drop of golden light meant to illuminate an ocean of black ink around them, for all the good it did them. But they needed the covering night.
“What did I tell you,” he heard his father say. “Cap may be knee high to a milk stool, but he’s as full of grit as any boy twice his size.”
“Good thing they don’t pay us by the pound,” Lum muttered, chuckling, ignoring Noah’s statement about his son. “This thing don’t hardly weigh no more than the trout I pulled out of the stream this morning.”
I did it, Cap thought, swiping at the sweat on his face, smearing dirt. He thought he should feel something good. A sense of triumph or achievement, like the day he’d pulled his first fish from the Scioto River, or perhaps when his teacher, Mr. Rankin, had said that Cap’s essay about the history of Circleville, Ohio, was the best in the whole school, even better than the older students’ work.
But Cap felt as if a weight were holding him down; making him heavy and weak. He didn’t feel good. Not at all.
“Ho there, boy, finish your work,” Lum said in his harsh whisper. Cap turned around with a start. Finish what? Then he realized that Noah was already shoveling dirt back into the tunnel they’d created at Lum’s command. Cap still thought that tunnel was a fool idea. He scratched at a trickle of sweat that ran down his neck. Why not simply dig in the already soft dirt directly above the coffin? No one would notice that the recently disturbed soil had been dug into again. Not that anyone cared in this town. Most people called this part of Forest Cemetery the “pauper’s section”. A graveyard for the poor. The dead nobody cared about. But Lum was about as hard as iron when it came to his ideas. And he was the man in charge.
“No, you dolt!” Lum hissed at the boy when Cap moved toward his father. Lum grabbed Cap’s arm and steered him over to the wagon. “Help me with this! We don’t take the clothes, now do we? That’s stealing! Didn’t your Pa tell you nothing?”
Noah hurried over. “I’ll do that,” he said. “My boy will finish with the tunnel. Wait for me to toss the clothing inside before you close it off,” he said to Cap as he handed him the shovel. Cap took it gratefully. He had forgotten. The law said it was illegal to steal from the dead: clothing, jewelry, anything that might have been buried with them. But the law said nothing about stealing the bodies. Bodies weren’t anyone’s property.
“Boy’s gotta learn some time,” Cap heard Lum say with his wheezy chuckle. He could picture the sarcastic, all-knowing smirk on the older man’s face. That’s the expression Lum always wore whenever he talked to Cap. The boy hated that sardonic, mocking look, but more than anything, he hated Lum’s smile. With his pointed, brown-and-yellow teeth, the man had the look of a bloated wolf when he grinned.
“Who’s there?” someone shouted. Cap dropped his shovel.
“Into the wagon, quick!” he heard his father hiss. Cap turned to run, banging his foot on the blade of the shovel he’d just dropped. Recovering quickly, he grabbed the wooden handle and hurtled in the direction of the wagon, now completely blind, since Lum had extinguished the tiny flame they’d been using to guide them. He nearly missed the wagon but caught his ribs painfully on the corner of the box.
“You there, stop!” the man’s voice shouted, much closer.
Cap felt a strong hand grab his arm and he was hoisted up into the back of the wagon, right on top of the dead woman. He nearly cried out but was able to clamp his lips closed against the shriek that wanted to escape his lips. He could imagine what Lum would say. Scrabbling quickly he moved away from the slight, cold form and hunched down next to his father. Up in the wagon box, Lum whipped the old horse, Hilda. The ageing mare took off.
“Stop!” The man shouted once more. But good old Hilda was fast, despite her age. Clouds parted to reveal a sliver of moon, which illuminated this portion of the cemetery with its small leaning markers, a few of stone but most of wood. Trees nearly bare of leaves flashed by as they fled, bouncing up and down on the hard floor of the wagon box. The woman’s body shifted and slid toward Cap, who did shriek this time as he shoved her away.
“Steady, son,” Noah murmured in Cap’s ear. “It’s all right, now. We’ll get away. Lum knows every back alley and dirt track in this town.” Noah paused and shifted until he was in a sitting position. “Here, throw this over it,” he said. Cap felt a heavy piece of rough cloth as it was shoved into his hands. He quickly laid it over the woman’s form and scooted back until he was closer to his father again.
Noah continued to speak, softly, into his son’s ear. “Never knew there was a guard at Forest Cemetery. Could be family, who knows?”
Willing his heart to slow, Cap shifted himself until he was leaning back into his father’s strong arms, his feet in front of him, ready to kick away the woman’s body if it should slide in his direction again. At the age of thirteen, he wanted to show his father that he was no longer a small child who clung to his mother’s skirts. But right now, Noah’s arms felt good, wrapped as they were around his Cap’s thin frame.
Shouts died out quickly behind them. Cap found he could breathe again. As clouds scudded overhead, he caught brief glimpses of the town around him, revealed by the occasional weak flashes of moonlight. They passed the Union Station, silent at this time of night, crossed onto the square in front of the City Hall, and headed past the short row of stately brick dwellings whose occupants slept soundly, safe in their warm beds. Those who lived here were buried in style when they died. No pauper’s graves for them.
They moved on at a good pace, Hilda’s hooves making heavy ‘clip clop’ sounds as they drove over rough streets. Cap was surprised to find that his eyes grew heavy. His father’s arm was warm around his shoulders, and he leaned his head back.
“Almost there,” Lum called back softly over his shoulder. “We’ll have to ditch the clothes before we bring her in.”
At this statement, Cap was suddenly wide awake. They’d not had time to remove the woman’s clothing and leave it in the tunnel. What would they do, now?
“Shove over a bit, son,” Noah said, groaning as he changed position. “Ah, my old bones are stiff.” Suddenly, Cap heard his father’s sharp intake of breath. “What in the—”
The wagon shuddered to a halt as Lum grunted a soft “whoa,” and pulled sharply on the reins. Cap lifted his head above the rim of the wagon box. The area surrounding them was light enough for him to recognize where they were. They were now parked in a narrow alleyway, one he recognized. This alley was directly behind the court house. Cap sometimes used it as a shortcut to school.
The stink of rotting garbage was strong, despite the cold autumn air. Up ahead, Cap could make out a doorway, brightly lit. Noah had said that they’d leave the body at the agreed-upon location, making their presence known by using their secret knock: two short raps, a pause, and another two raps. One who waited for the signal would open the doors. And, Father had explained, all was to be done in complete darkness. But now, the gaslights glowed. Cap’s eyes grew wide as he recognized the building before his eyes. The Round House? Built at the start of the Civil War, the imposing eight-sided house squatted right behind the court house. It was known to be long abandoned. And rumored to be haunted. Everyone said so.
“They’ve got the place lit up like Independence Day,” Lum muttered. “What does he want us to do, waltz in there dragging the thing behind us for the entire world to see?”
“Who?” Cap whispered to his father. But Noah didn’t respond.
“I’ll look about and see what’s happening,” Noah said. “Wait here,” he murmured to Cap.
“I’m coming, too,” Lum growled. “Stay here, boy,” he tossed back over his shoulder to Cap. “Unless you’re too afeared to stay with that thing,” he added, with the ugly, wheezy chuckle. Cap didn’t have to see Lum’s face to know the hated smile was in place.
Then, the two men were gone, scuttling like overgrown rats down the alley and around the corner of the tall brick Court House. Cap was left alone with the body.
He should have known. It made sense that they would leave him here to watch over the “thing,” as Lum always called the bodies he and Noah procured, but he still didn’t like it. More than anything, he hated Lum’s mockery, because the man was right.
Cap was scared. He didn’t like sitting in the wagon bed, all alone at midnight, with the body of a dead woman inches away. He could feel the tiny hairs standing at attention all along the back of his neck, and Cap had to fight the almost overwhelming desire to hurtle from the wagon and run full speed back home.
There was enough light for him to see the heavy canvas tarp he’d thrown over her. It almost didn’t look as if there could be anything underneath. Lum had been right about the woman hardly weighing more than a large fish. Cap swallowed and willed himself to scoot closer to the body. He did so, inching forward while he trembled from head to toe.
Lum isn’t right about everything, he told himself grimly, taking in a deep, shaky breath. Lum was dead wrong about a lot of things, and Cap wasn’t about to let Lum know he truly was “afeared.” He’d prove it. He’d finish the job. He’d take the woman’s clothing from her body so that they could dispose of it somewhere, and he’d show Lum, and his father, that he wasn’t afraid of anything.
Refusing to hesitate, Cap grabbed the tarp and whipped it back from the woman’s face. Then, he shrieked again. This time, he didn’t cry out in fear, but shock. He knew this face.
This was no woman, but a girl. Though coated with mud and leaves, the girl’s thick, golden hair gleamed in the light that came from the doorway up ahead. Her oval face was serene, as if she truly were sleeping. And Cap knew her. Jessamyn Baker had sat across the aisle from him at school. When the teacher wasn’t looking, Cap stole many sideways glances. He loved how she chewed on the end of her pencil as she worked out arithmetic problems, her brow lightly furrowed, and how she knew most of the answers in geography and history even before Cap himself did. Once, their paths had crossed in the cloak room and she’d smiled at him, her wide hazel eyes friendly but somehow shy at the same time. Cap had nearly stopped breathing.
The weight he’d sensed earlier settled over the boy’s heart, solid and unyielding. His eyes filled with tears.
Jessamyn, buried in a pauper’s grave? What of her family? Cap realized how little he really knew about her. He hadn’t even known she was ill. Sure, Cap had missed the last week of school, home to help Mama while she was doing poorly, but Jessamyn had been fine when he’d last seen her.
Swiping away the moisture from his stinging eyes, Cap felt something tear apart inside him. Here he was, ready to sell Jessamyn to some self-important doctors so they could cut her to pieces in front of a gaping crowd of pompous medical students.
“No,” Cap muttered, swallowing his tears. Not this time. Not even sure of what he planned do, Cap gently placed the tarp back over Jessamyn’s pale face and hopped up into the box of the wagon. Nudging Hilda softly, he slowly began to back out of the alleyway, forming his plan as he went.
Cap knew that a few blocks to the west of the Court House there was an old Catholic church, St. Joseph’s, recently converted into an orphanage. He’d leave Jessamyn there at the back door. He hated to think of what the poor sisters would think when they found her, but he felt he had no choice. Cap hoped that by the time her body was discovered and reburied, it would likely be too late for Lum and Noah to get any money for her. If a “thing” went bad, which often happened during the hottest summer months, the medical colleges didn’t want it for dissection.
Fingers of icy wind ruffled Cap’s dirt-filled hair as he drove, and his thoughts turned dark. His was a fool’s errand. It was autumn, and a cold one at that. Odds were that the girl’s body wouldn’t turn bad before she was found. She was yet mighty likely to end up on a table, sawn asunder and gawked at by a room full of strangers.
Cap swallowed hard and drove on. He had to try. He’d do this for her. It was all he could do, now. It didn’t take him long to find the alley that ran behind the old church. Pulling to a stop in front of the back steps, he climbed out of the box and into the back of the wagon. He wanted one more look at the girl’s face.
She was serene as before, eerily beautiful in the dim moonlight. Why can’t you be sleeping? Cap thought, wishing it with all his heart. Then, without thinking, he reached down to touch her soft cheek. As he did so, a brief sensation of warmth shot up his finger and traveled up his arm. His eyes widened in shock. Her flesh was warm? Cap gasped and pulled his hand away. Jessamyn’s eyelids seemed to flutter, a slight movement, no greater than the merest flicker, so slight that Cap though he must have dreamed it. Then, nothing.
Gaping, trembling, hardly daring to breathe, Cap reached down again and touched the girl’s soft cheek, then placed his palm on her forehead. And then, something happened that he never expected.
She opened her eyes.