At Miss Cummings’ Grave

Author’s note: I can’t recall these many years later where the inspiration for this one came from. I think I had probably just discovered that Jacob’s profession had been a thing, and my imagination just took it from there.

Jacob Brookline thrust his shovel into the increasingly well-packed clay soil and found himself missing his recently incapacitated partner for at least the hundredth time.

“Goddam Barnaby,” he muttered to himself, in the unique undertone peculiar to his profession – a tone that was impossible for even the most sensitive ears to detect from more than five feet away.

“See if I don’t sell your bloody head to a cannibal when your time comes, you bastard,” he continued, cursing the groundskeeper who’d shot and maimed his apprentice only three days – or nights – before.

As his horse whinnied and shook itself from behind a nearby thicket of willow saplings, a sharp pain in Jacob’s back cut short all subsequent thoughts of appropriate retribution against Barnaby, reminding him that despite his overall good health and physical strength, resurrectionism was not a one-man profession, especially when that man was pushing fifty and was still battered and bruised from a blind dash for his life, through unfamiliar forest, only three days – or nights – before.

“Goddam,” he muttered through clenched teeth, and as loud as he dared, “I can’t believe this – two breathers before I even hit three foot.”

With that he propped himself up against the expensive marble headstone at the end of the slowly widening rectangular hole and laid his shovel on the ground next to him – being careful not to clink it against the marble, for fear of betraying his presence to any passersby on the road below. God knew he couldn’t handle another bullet-dodging bolt through the woods. If he was discovered here, on this night, he’d either land himself in jail or in a grave of his own.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you Barnaby,” he grumbled, removing a flask, wrapped in an old rag to prevent the moon from glinting off of its shiny metallic sides, from the “doctor’s bag” that he carried from job to job. Aside from the liquid strength that he was now partaking of, the bag contained various other tools of the trade. Among others, there was a small pry bar, several screwdrivers and cutting instruments – ranging from scalpels to machetes – for the removal of specific body parts and organs. On the rare occasion that he contracted with a client who insisted on buying only certain parts, and he couldn’t find buyers for the rest of the body, the various cutting implements could save him a great deal of labor by releasing him from the troublesome duty of removing an entire corpse. Unfortunately for his aching body, and his evidently spasming back, in particular, this night’s contract was a full body order – and that after two nights of rain had packed the soil extraordinarily well. So, after digging through the dense clay, he’d have to pry the coffin open and hoist the young lady’s body up and out of the grave. And Lord knew she wasn’t exactly a petite one, either.

All in all, he had a very long, and probably painful, night of work ahead of him. Nonetheless, he had a reputation to uphold and a contract to honor. So, with some whiskey to warm him from the chilling night air, and the pain in his back subsiding, he slipped back down into the hole. Taking up his shovel, he began again, but more gently than before, to excavate the young Miss Cummings’ grave.

He found that the whiskey had indeed given him strength, and before long he was shoveling away as quietly and as quickly as a young buck of thirty. Though he still felt the loss of his apprentice, and dreaded the additional labor that that loss was going to cost him, he was able to settle into a very respectable one-man pace of efficient, mechanical rhythm. The combination of his smooth, regular, robotic movements and the absence of his apprentice’s subdued, monotony-breaking chatter freed Jacob’s mind to wander as it had not had the opportunity to in quite a long while. Almost immediately, he realized why it was that he hadn’t missed one-man jobs. Alone in a cemetery, making every effort to be as quiet as possible and having only the moon and stars above, and the occasional cowardly animal to talk to, Jacob was free to ponder all the things that he could have, should have, and would have done with his life.

He found himself tracing the series of events that had led him to his life-long profession. He’d been raised in a barely existent village in Virginia. His father, the town undertaker, managed, though just barely, to keep their family of three housed and fed. Though in most respects Jacob had had a happy childhood, he nonetheless longed for nothing more than to escape his meager existence. So, in pursuit of that dream, Jacob studied his hardest and managed to graduate second in his class from the county high school. Having heard tales of marvelous wonders and medical miracles, he set his mind on becoming a doctor. Despite all his studies and efforts, however, he was still stuck in the same dreary town two years later. Though he’d read every medical book he could get his hands on and had built an enormous storehouse of medical knowledge in his mind, he could neither gain acceptance to any of the several universities he’d applied to, nor convince his father to free him from his duties as assistant undertaker and support him in his quest for knowledge.

During the course of his continued study, indeed as an outgrowth of his constant search for things to study, Jacob had become acquainted with every practicing doctor in the county. From them he borrowed reading material, along with the practical knowledge needed to answer his many questions, and, over time, became friends with the vast majority of them. It was, in fact, through one of these doctor friends that Jacob was introduced to his eventual career.

While visiting the doctor of the village just south of his own to return a book he had borrowed, Jacob found their conversation turning again and again to the deceased. After some investigation, he found that the doctor was trying to solicit his aid in a resurrection that he’d planned to do on one of his recently departed patients. He further learned that the doctor had arranged for Jacob to sit in on the anatomy class, at a nearby university for which the body was to be used, in return for his direly needed assistance in removing it. The problem was, the doctor said, that the body had to be removed that very night and delivered before noon the next day. The resurrectionist that the doctor had contracted with, however, had been none-to-gently escorted out of the village before the doctor’s patient had had the time to die – his unavoidable demise having taken longer than expected. Now, the doctor – an alumnus of, contributor to, and occasional lecturer at the university – was faced with the dilemma of having to deliver the corpse himself in order to prevent any tarnishing of his prestigious reputation as a competent and dependable man.

Needless to say, the opportunity to gain access to a university anatomy class was more than enough motivation for Jacob to offer his aid to a friend he surely would have helped anyway. The deed itself, though hideous and deplorable to most, was to Jacob, like the vast majority of medical professionals at the time, not only necessary but proper.

Jacob began to smile broadly as he recalled the terrible details of his first resurrection – the torrential rain, the steep hilltop cemetery, the way the grave kept refilling with the downhill flows of mud each time they thought they’d begun to make headway and, worst of all, the chaotic road trip to the university after they’d finally succeeded in removing the corpse. His reverie was cut short, though, when, in the middle of one of his mechanical movements, his back began to spasm furiously. This time he was brought to his knees in pain and would surely have let the shriek of his agonized back escape through his own lips if not for the fact that, after thirty years, the cardinal rule of resurrectionism – quiet at all costs – had become so much a part of him that he would sooner sacrifice a limb than betray his presence through any form of overt vocalization.

He rested, leaning against the walls of the grave, for a few minutes, allowing the worst of the pain to subside, then gathered himself up and resumed his position sitting against the elaborate marble headstone. As he sipped more of the whiskey from the sheathed flask, it occurred to him – and with all his travels and with all the grand headstones and tombs and sepulchers that he’d seen, not for the first time – that he would never have such a timeless memorial of his life and death as that which he now leaned against.

“Huh,” he muttered with a grim, melancholy chuckle, “like as not, you’ll be buried as a pauper, Jacob my boy.”

To that he raised the flask in a mock toast and took an uncharacteristically large swallow of the burning liquid. Though he knew he’d be feeling the effects of this excessive consumption before he could possibly complete the task at hand, and knew that he might become careless because of it, he found that breaking the sobriety rule of the resurrectionist, a rule almost as important as that of mandatory quiet, didn’t bother him nearly as much as it should have.

“You must be losin’ your edge Jacob,” he said in the same chuckling tone, “meby it’s time you retired.”

At this, he stopped chuckling abruptly and the sour smile evaporated from his lips. Retirement was an idea he’d been toying with for some time now, but one that couldn’t ever be acted upon due to various responsibilities and obligations that he’d felt. Now, leaning against Miss Cummings’ gravestone, he realized that for the first time in years he was free of the oppressiveness of those obligation. This job was his last outstanding contract, after which he’d already decided to weigh the pros and cons of staying in this particular area. As things stood, the cons, embodied chiefly in the ever-persistent and slanderous person of Joseph Barnaby, greatly outnumbered the pros. To be sure, his welcome in this town was wearing thinner and thinner each day.

Though he’d been in this same condition of contractual freedom and disrepute on various occasions in the past – Lord knew it wasn’t exactly a rare condition in his profession – this time he had the added freedom from a more important responsibility, thanks again to the loathsome Barnaby. For the first time in several years Jacob was without an apprentice and partner in his trade. Indeed, the doctors who’d taken up with his injured protégé held little hope that his maimed leg could be saved, an opinion that Jacob himself was unhappy to concur with, and even less hope, even if it could be saved, that he’d ever walk again without a heavy reliance on a cane, thus rendering him virtually useless as a resurrectionist.

So, as things stood, Jacob – contract free, apprentice free, and increasingly unwelcome where he was – had a prime opportunity to implement the retirement that he’d long been considering.

Still, though, there was the question of what to do after giving up his life-long career. Though he was well-to-do by most standards, the commonly accepted fee for his services being what it was, he knew that he was a man who could never be satisfied with simply living off his savings. Jacob Brookline was a man of action, a man who had to be doing something with his time lest his sanity be jeopardized through the boredom of inactivity.

“Speakin’ of which,” he mumbled to himself as he snapped out of his thoughtful inactivity, “I reckon it’s time to get workin’ again.”

“Only a foot ‘er two more,” he said, “and thank the Lord for that.”

As he slipped back into the deepening hole before him and took up his shovel, his horse whinnied and shook itself once again, inspiring in Jacob’s wandering mind what had become, after many years of dealing with many horses, the almost automatic, completely unconscious, uttered wish that the damn horse would keep it down.

As he began the final digging, he found that he was feeling the body-wide ache that was a familiar, and usually, even a welcome side effect to the physicality of his job. He generally relished the dull soreness of his well-exercised body and took a good deal of pride in the fact that, unlike the vast majority of men his age, his body was as muscular as it had been when he’d been young and in his prime. He might even go so far as to say that he was still in his prime – twenty years after it should have passed. However, on this night, the aches of exertion were anything but welcome. On this night, they only added to the throbbing of his already battered and bruised body and to the ever-present spasm-to-be in his back. So, rather than enjoy the soft chorus of a warm, aerobic muscular soreness, he was forced, with every plunge of the shovel and toss of the clayey soil, to endure the unmelodic discord of the real and unpleasant pain that emanated from everywhere within his body.

What was worse, his mind was spinning in circles, grappling with the irreconcilable revelations that, one, he was free to retire and escape what had long since been a laborious and unfulfilling job; two, that he could not embrace that freedom without some other distraction to occupy his time; and three, that he wasn’t qualified to do anything else – unless, of course, you counted …

“Medicine,” he said out loud, almost utilizing the full potential of his deep, sonorous speaking voice as a result of the unexpected suddenness with which the thought had burst upon him. After all, he had been fascinated by and had studied the human body for even longer than he’d been digging them out of the ground. To be sure, he’d met quite a few fully certified doctors over the years, with thriving practices, whose medical knowledge he had easily matched and often exceeded. In fact, there had been several instances when he had been able to determine, even from a days-old resurrected corpse, that the diagnosis of the cause of the person’s death – something that resurrectionists in general found it necessary to determine, before resurrecting, so that they could deliver to the contractor a suitable and non-infectious specimen – was actually wrong. Indeed, he had been saddened to discover on more than one occasion that the very doctors to whom the deceased had entrusted their lives had played more of a part in killing them than their actual ailment, simply because of the misdiagnosis and mistreatment of their ailment.

In short, Jacob knew, as surely as he knew that the sun would rise in less than four hours, that he had what it took to be a doctor as far as mere medical knowledge was concerned. Given this sureness, his mind turned to wondering why the mere thought of practicing medicine had taken him so much by surprise. After a moment’s thought, he decided that the chief reason was that he had picked up, from his life-long study of medicine, the ethics of the profession along with the knowledge. Thus, he had decided, long ago, that without a bona-fide medical degree he could not bring himself to pass himself off as a doctor and practice medicine on ignorant patients.

He grinned at the idealism that had so characterized him as a younger man. Not that he wasn’t idealistic now, he thought, but he had come to appreciate the fact that there were more important things in life than pursuing and living by ideals alone. Nonetheless, this more mature and realistic mindset hadn’t extended itself to the issue of whether he should practice medicine or not until tonight. Why? The only answer to this question, he found, was that he had simply convinced himself that he could never do what he most wanted to do. He silently cursed himself as he realized that this conviction had probably guided and defined his life as much as anything else. Certainly it had acted to keep him in his profession to a much greater degree than the fact that the pay was good or that he had an obligation to train an apprentice.

As these thoughts simmered in his mind, and Jacob came to appreciate the fact that he had been holding himself back for the past two decades, he became progressively angrier. He thrust his shovel and flung his dirt ever harder. He grunted and groaned ever louder, forgetting, for the first time in many long years, the sacred rule of silence. He cared less and less for his profession, his obligations and his life with every passing moment. Then, at last, the familiar sound of steel against hollow wood told him that he’d reached his objective. Despite the unreasonable amount of effort and pain that it had required to get to that objective, though, he found that he didn’t care in the least that his job here was all but finished.

He had long since decided that refilling the grave – a generally beneficial practice as a resurrectionist, and one that tended to fend off the suspicion and fear of the residents of whatever town he might be practicing in at the time – was simply out of the question. He would deliver the girl’s corpse to the contractor and leave town tonight. Everything else aside, the trouble that the damnable Barnaby had been stirring up was reason enough, in his mind, to get out while he still could. So, even if he felt physically up to the task of refilling Miss Cummings’ grave, which he certainly did not, it would serve no purpose – the town’s suspicions were already aroused and his safe tenure was already coming to a close. Thus, leaving the grave open could do him no further harm, provided that he wasn’t around when the violation was discovered. All that remained, then, was to get the body, load it on the wagon that he’d hidden in the nearby thicket of trees, deliver it, and leave.

As these thoughts of escape were swirling through his mind, Jacob had been clearing away the last bits of dirt on the coffin and preparing to open it. He found that the lid had been screwed down, so he took from his doctor’s bag the necessary tools to remedy the distraction along with a quick swig of whiskey to help encourage the dissipation of his remaining anger. Feeling better and more focused, he unscrewed the coffin lid with surprisingly little effort.

“S’bout time somethin’ went my way tonight,” he more-that-muttered, “Um about sick a’ this whole friggin’ deal.”

With that he flipped the coffin lid up, with one practiced and fluid movement, so it leaned against the dirt wall of the refreshed grave – and fell back against the opposite wall in horror at what he saw inside.

In his time he’d seen many terrible things. As a resurrectionist, he’d learned that sights like mauled and barely recognizable corpses, faces with rigid expressions of fear or pain that even death couldn’t erase, and even the occasional prematurely buried body – with its awkward positioning and fingertips that had been ripped away and transformed into pulpy stubs by their owners as they tried to claw their way out – were simply part of the profession. He’d seen them all, been shocked by their hideousness, and then grown immune to them.

What lay before him now, though, was a sight that he’d never been unfortunate enough to see and which, on this night, horrified and angered him more than anything he had yet seen in his trade. The coffin before empty, but for several stones whose purpose had surely been to fool the pall-bearers – ignorant, no doubt, of the worthlessness of the burden that they had so reverently and ceremoniously born to its final resting place.

Had it not been for his present state of mind, and the now overwhelming pain that surged through him with every fury-quickened heartbeat, had this unexpected turn of events occurred on any other resurrection, Jacob would surely have laughed, out loud perhaps, at the cunning and forethought of those responsible for the joke. As it was, he nearly exploded with rage. Had anyone else been present, he thought – especially any one of the evil tricksters who’d played a part in this prank – he would surely have killed them and left the coffin and the grave fuller upon his departure rather than more empty. Despite all his rage, however, he held on to enough of his composure to check the violent and noisy reaction that he wanted to have, gather up his tools and make as hasty a retreat as possible. For all the unventable anger that the empty coffin had inspired in Jacob, he realized, as he reined his horse, pulled away in his empty wagon and left the atrocious mock grave behind, that it was actually possible that he might benefit from this disappointment. Indeed, seeing the empty casket had been the last straw – that final piece of bad luck that had forced him to act on the disgust with which he now fully regarded his trade.

As he’d gathered his things, Jacob had made the decision, for better or worse, to pursue that medical career. He knew that practicing in a large city would be impossible, as most of them required certification of one’s abilities before they allowed a doctor to start a practice. He had heard and read, however, about the western frontier – the land beyond the Mississippi River – where, he thought, a man of his knowledge could probably take up residence in a small town and establish himself, through action rather than certification, as the town doctor.

With that thought and that hope in mind, he reigned his lonely mare into a fierce gallop and, with a vague notion of sending for his few precious possessions when he arrived wherever he might be going, sped off into the now-moonless night chasing, with renewed resolution, the illusive dreams of his youth.

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