It was the third grave I’d cracked that night and the third twitcher I’d found inside. The little girl was curled up in a tight ball, thumb in her toothless mouth. Her shaven head was bloody where the wires had been ripped away, and her lips were covered with sores. I crouched over the broken lid, rope and hook in hand, and nearly pissed myself when her eyes snapped open. I couldn’t tell if their glitter was light from my lantern or a leftover galvanic charge still dancing through wires too deeply embedded to remove.
Swearing, I wormed my hand through the cracked coffin lid and pressed my fingers under her chin, just to make sure.
No pulse. Just—twitching.
I snatched my hand back, snagging my coat cuff on the broken wood and ripping it.
Only a few hours to dawn, and I’d run out of graves. Discouraged, I climbed out of the hole and started shovelling the dirt back into place.
I didn’t have to; I could have walked away and left the factorymen’s substitution to horrify the sexton the next morning. But I fancy myself a professional, and anyway it didn’t seem right to leave the little girl’s dead face bared to the cold. I tamped down the earth next to the wooden marker that said Edwin Lafferty and laid his wilted bouquet back on the grave, even though Lafferty’s body was long gone. Then I tossed my sack of tools over the cemetery wall and climbed out.
Almost dawn, and I was empty-handed again.
Home was a cellar shared with a dozen others. My Bet lay motionless on the cot. Lizzie perched next to her on a broken-cornered crate, her finished piecework in a basket beneath her dangling feet. Her pale young cheeks were pinched with hunger and her eyes bloodshot from squinting at a needle all night, but hope brightened her expression as I pushed aside the ragged curtain. I shook my head and the hope faded. She dropped her gaze back to her dying mother’s face.
In the old days, a resurrection man could make eighteen, twenty guineas off a big one; half a year’s wages for a few hours of dirty work. Harvesting the crop meant taking a few risks, but it was easy enough for a steady man who did his research and kept himself sober, and anatomists always needed fresh bodies to dissect. And if we dug up a not-so-fresh body, well, wigmakers and dentists pay well for human hair and teeth. We’d lived well then, Bet and me, and we’d planned to give our baby girl everything she wanted.
But then the Anatomy Act passed and the demand for bodies plummeted. All of a sudden, medical schools could legally pick and choose from any of the corpses in the prisons and workhouses, and sack’em’up men were left scrounging for a living. Some nights I’d travelled from hospital to hospital, peddling corpses three for one. Those had been hard times.
Then, a year later, that Prussian galvanist discovered vitae, and times got even harder.
At first we thought it was a miracle. Newspapers ran headlines promising universal immortality. But, of course, “universal” was an exaggeration. The Living Contract Act makes it legal for any consenting adult to sell his vitae to a licensed manufactory, but only the poor are desperate enough to trade their lives for a few guineas in a paltry leather purse.
As for us exhumation men, we figured we’d get rich once corpses became rare and valuable resources again, but we hadn’t counted on competing with the factorymen.
The factorymen—thugs with black coats and soulless eyes and pockets crammed with banknotes. While we scrabble in the dirt in the middle of the night, the factorymen simply bribe mortuary workers and deacons to look the other way, snatching fresh corpses out of their coffins in broad daylight and stowing twitchers in their place. The twitchers get buried, the fresh corpses take their place on the manufactories’ inventory lists, and nobody finds out that vitae harvesting isn’t always... clean.
Except us resurrection men.
It’s getting harder and harder to find a grave that hasn’t been pillaged by the factorymen first. And twitchers are worthless. I took one to a hospital once, and the night porter recoiled like he’d seen the devil himself. We can’t even harvest their parts. The manufactories shave their applicants as a matter of course, and although the regular manufactory dead keep their teeth, twitchers’ ivories are always missing. Waste not, want not, the factorymen must figure. Nobody was going to see the manufactories’ embarrassments, after all, and some denture makers pay two guineas for a full set of teeth.
Seems like the only ones who die intact anymore are the rich—when they die at all. And the rich keep locks on their tombs and guards at their cemetery gates.
I leaned over my wife’s cot and laid an ear against her chest. Her breath was shallow and rasping. I’d heard the sound before, back when I’d worked in a hospital, before I’d lost my job and taken up exhumation.
She was dying.
Last week, before she’d slipped into unconsciousness, Bet had begged me to sell her to the manufactories and use the money to take care of Lizzie. But I couldn’t bring myself to sell the woman I loved. I figured I’d get the money my own way.
I’d failed them both.
Grief squeezed my heart and I knelt, holding her hand and resting my head against the edge of the cot. Tears stung my eyes. Behind me, Lizzie gasped.
“No! No, sweetheart, not yet.”
Lizzie abandoned her crate and knelt next to me. I hugged her, furious at myself for frightening her.
She was so tiny, so delicate; ten years old and already working all day and all night. If I didn’t get her out of this cellar soon, I was afraid she’d turn to faster, more lucrative work on the street, like some of the other girls.
“I think we should pray now,” I whispered in her hair.
Some sack’em’up men had started spending their nights at the opium dens and gin houses, where men stumble and fall and aren’t the sort likely to be missed. The medical schools had stopped asking questions; a burker didn’t even have to roll his kills in the dirt anymore to pass it off as grave goods. But I wouldn’t do it. I’d been raised by God-fearing parents, and I wouldn’t risk my immortal soul with murder.
Yet I couldn’t help looking around as I trudged to the parish church. It was almost dawn, but the narrow streets teemed with millers and mumpers, gipsies and molls, opium fiends and everyday drunkards.
Any one of them would bring in two or three guineas apiece, burked and delivered to the right night porter.
I shook the thought out of my head, sickened.
Better to sell myself to the manufactories. I hadn’t eaten lately, but it didn’t show much, not yet. I’d still fetch a good price; maybe even six guineas.
Six guineas would be enough to send Lizzie out to the country. There were still good places there, I’d heard, where the air and the water were clean and a pretty girl could find herself an honest husband. Where people didn’t have to sell themselves to the Black Works to make ends meet.
A man is given twenty-four hours to settle his affairs after he signs a Living Contract. I’d seen them, the living dead, guarded by factorymen as they paid off their debts and gave what remained to their sobbing wives and children.
I wondered how many more useless graves I would have to open before I became one of them.
I reached the church and tightened my fist around the coins I’d been saving. They were just enough to buy Bet a parson’s blessing and a pauper’s funeral. If I’d had any success last night... but all I’d found were twitchers.
The damnable thing was, I knew that as soon as Lizzie and I left the pauper’s field, a factoryman would steal Bet’s body and bury it in the manufactories’ cemeteries under some poor, discarded twitcher’s name. She’d end up with a nicer plot than I could give her, but that didn’t make it right.
A man should know where his wife is buried.
It was with such heavy thoughts that my eyes fell upon the handbill posted by the church door. The Society for the Abolishment of Vitae Collection was organising a protest march on the Millside manufactory that afternoon, to be led by the assistant curate of the very church before me.
I stared at the bill a moment, then straightened my shoulders and pushed open the door.
It seemed I had more to discuss with the reverend than Bet’s burial.
The Millside Street life manufactory loomed over the neighbourhood, its high brick walls topped with three-pronged iron spikes polished to a razor shine. Its iron gates had closed early; supervisors have little to do when all the workers are comatose. A discreet sign over the gates stated Millside Collection Station. Application Hours: 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. It didn’t mention what was collected, or how, or why, or what kind of people might want to apply.
The manufactories aren’t supposed to accept applicants as young as the twitcher I’d found last night, but children vanish all the time in the city, and maybe dying in a manufactory is better than dying in a brothel. Lucky for them she’d ended up a twitcher, though. The quiet dead are transported by rail to special industrial cemeteries outside the city, and questions might be asked if too many children showed up on the manufactories’ burial pallets.
I sometimes wondered how many other secrets the factorymen hid in those coffins, besides the twitchers.
The Reverend Ian Brant rattled the Millside manufactory’s iron gate and shouted. Behind him, our numbers were growing in that mysterious but inexorable process that turns marches into mobs. Finally, a labourer with thick arms and scarred fists lumbered to the front with a crowbar.
“I’ll get their attention,” he growled. The rest of us fell back as he hoisted the bar over his head and brought it down on the padlock chain—four times, five, and then the links snapped.
We surged into the muddy brick courtyard with shouts and cheers. There wasn’t much to see; the manufactory windows were all boarded up and three closed doors lined the nearest wall. A small sign on one of them said Applicants Here.
I imagined I could hear a low, crackling hum emanating from the sinister building’s dark walls.
Somebody pried up a brick and threw it at the windows. It hit the planks with a dull thump, then fell back to the ground and broke. A few more bricks flew, but the thud of stone on wood wasn’t as satisfying as the clean shatter of glass, and the sport soon wore thin. The afternoon shadows grew longer, clawing their way across the manufactory courtyard, and the crowd’s enthusiasm began to fade into uncertainty and discouragement.
My gaze met the Reverend Brant’s across the courtyard, and I knew we were thinking the same thing: something had to happen soon, or nerves would break at the first clack of a charley’s rattle. For a moment I expected that we’d give up and leave, and I felt disappointment mingled with relief, like a man prevented at the last moment from doing something dangerous and irrevocable.
Then one of the manufactory doors opened.
“Here, what’s this, then?” a voice demanded. “Reverend? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Why, hullo, Samuel. Now, listen; it’s come down to this,” Brant said, stepping forward. The crowd shifted closer around him. “Whether you let us in or we crack this place ourselves, we’ve come to send the factorymen a message: godly folk won’t put up with this infernal trade any longer. You’ll want to stand back now, Sam, and stay out of our way.”
“C’mon, Reverend, you know I can’t do that,” the watchman whined, standing in the doorway and shuffling his heavy, scuffed boots. “I got me a job here and a family to support.”
I saw what needed doing and stepped forward. The watchman anticipated me and rocked backward as my fist collided with his jaw, letting himself tumble. I pushed open the door and stepped through, crouching next to him.
“You lie still and pretend I knocked you out,” I whispered, patting him on his stubble-covered cheek. Then I dragged him aside while the rest of the mob flowed in, thumping me on the back and calling me a good ‘un as their wary eyes flitted back and forth. I nodded to the reverend and looked around.
It was dark, that was the first thing; darker than a factoryman’s heart. The watchman’s lantern hung on a hook by the door and cast a small circle of light that was just enough to reveal a low-hanging ceiling and a vast darkness beyond. The humming was louder inside; I could feel it all the way down to my bones. It made me nauseous and a little frightened, as though its relentless vibration sought to dislodge something inside me that I couldn’t live without.
“We need light,” someone muttered. “It’s too bloody dark in here.”
I unhooked the lantern and everyone looked at me as I swung it around and searched the room. This was a labourer’s entrance; there had to be more lanterns nearby. And there they were, sitting in a row along a low wooden shelf. In moments we had them lit with lucifer matches and makeshift tapers, illuminating the room.
A narrow door stood on our left, leading into what I guessed was the applicants’ room. Halls ran to the right and left. Between them was a central square protected by a chest-high brick wall and a cross-hatch of heavy iron bars that ran from the top of the wall to the ceiling.
“It’s the collection jars,” a woman exclaimed. “Look, that’s where they store the vitty.”
We crowded forward to peer through the narrow apertures. The heavy, pale ceramic jars stood about as tall as a young child and were set side-by-side on wooden pallets. A black galvanics lighting bolt had been stencilled on the side of each jar, along with the legend “Millside Collection Station” and a cryptic sequence of numbers. Iron rods thrust down from the low ceiling into the top of each container.
We tested the bars, but they were stout and immobile, as was the door in the brick wall. The crowbar slammed against the door handle a few times, to no avail.
“They must keep the applicants upstairs,” I mused, following the pipes with my eyes to the point where they vanished into the ceiling. “Does anyone see a stairwell?”
The mob revitalised. A few threw open the door to the application office and rummaged through the desks and bookcases while others charged down the hallways, their lanterns setting shadows frolicking across the walls like demons.
“Here!” someone bellowed. “The stairs are over here!”
We rushed up the steps in an unruly horde, lanterns high and voices higher. But one by one our voices fell silent as we reached the top, until the last of us stepped off the stairwell into a horrified hush.
The buzzing, shadow-filled chamber housed hundreds of lustreless silver cases lined up in neat rows two feet apart, like metal tombs enclosed inside some electrified technological mausoleum.
Each case stood four feet off the ground, with hinges on one side and a latch on the other and a sliding metal panel set in the top quarter of the lid. Dark metal pipes emerged from the bottoms and ran along the length of the floor, converging in the centre of the room and plunging through an opening to the collection containers below.
The oppressive vibration of the galvanic process made my skin prickle and my teeth grind together. I pressed a fist against my heart and saw that I wasn’t alone. A number of other reformers and curiosity-seekers hugged themselves, too, some with both arms, as though fearing their chests might burst asunder from the numinous pressure.
“There aren’t any names,” one of the younger men said, looking around with dismay. “Just numbers. Where are the names?”
“Do they all have people inside?” a woman asked, her voice hushed, as if hoping one of us might deny the obvious.
“Of course they do,” I replied with grim assurance, for I recognised a coffin when I saw one. I approached the case closest to me: Number 21. The sliding panel was perforated, and small, narrow vents ran along the sides of the box to its midpoint.
I set my lantern on the next case and slid Number 21’s perforated panel to one side. It was easier than cracking a hole in the lid with a pickaxe.
If only the incessant humming would stop.
The woman’s eyes were closed and sunken, and her mouth was covered by a canvas mask from which a wax-coated tube extended. Her skin was sallow and her eyes moved back and forth under their lids. I caught a glimpse of her head, covered with a short black stubble.
“Dear God,” the Reverend Brant breathed, moving next to me and crossing himself. Others edged up around us. “Is she asleep?”
“Why aren’t there any names?” the young man asked again, sounding anguished.
“Who cares?” I snapped, glaring up at him. “They’re as good as dead, anyway.”
“My mum sold herself to the Works two weeks ago.” The young man’s voice cracked. “How can I find her if there aren’t any names?”
Discomfited, I dipped my head closer to the woman’s face. I smelled the sour reek of unwashed flesh and the sewer scent of beshitten fabric, and over both the stronger, acrid odour of laudanum.
“She’s been drugged,” I reported. “Opium. That must be how they keep them quiet.”
“Now, that would be worth something,” the man with the crowbar muttered, looking around. “Where do you suppose they keep it?”
Several of the less reform-minded members of the mob joined him in his search, while others spread through the room and apprehensively reached for the sliding panels on the silver lids.
I leaned over Number 21 and inspected the feeding tube until I figured out how to disengage it from the wires that fastened it to the lid. The latch on the case was a simple hook-and-eye affair, no more than necessary to keep the metal lid from rattling. I flicked it aside and lifted the lid. The vibration grew stronger, shivering me from balls to brainpan.
She was naked, her body wasted by starvation and, I supposed, a loss of vitae. A thin sheet was wrapped around her thighs like a child’s nappy, stained and soiled. Her wrists and ankles were held down by large padded leather straps, and I saw a leather pad on the cover of the case, right over her forehead. As I watched, she jerked, one arm slapping against the strap that held it down.
The mirrored panels inside the silver case oscillated with captive energy. Gleaming wires coiled around her limbs like a tangled net, running from circular openings in the bottom of the case to small ceramic funnels resting on the woman’s body: on the top of her head, on her forehead, over her throat, over her heart, over her diaphragm, over her womb, and under the fabric covering her thighs. The limp feeding tube dangled obscenely from her mouth against her flattened breasts.
I wondered if Number 21 felt any pain, afloat on opium dreams while her vitae was siphoned away on copper wires.
“I found the drugs!” someone shouted. A moment later metal struck metal. Cries to be careful rose up among the onlookers.
I pressed my hand against my chest again, my fingers clutching my ragged coat collar. My bladder felt full and my back teeth ached. The vibrations from the case were stealing my breath away and seemed eager to take more.
I dragged my hand away from my chest and lifted one of the ceramic funnels. It resisted. I tugged and saw that it covered the ends of wires that had been inserted into the woman’s flesh, surrounded by suppurating lesions. I touched the naked copper and gasped as a galvanic shock ran through me, making my heart stutter and my muscles convulse. Horrified, I wrenched myself away with the primal desperation of a rat whose leg has been caught in a steel gin trap.
Behind me, voices rose in a cheer as the lock on the medicine cabinet broke off. A deep-voiced man began to read labels and pass around bottles. I heard ‘tincture of laudanum’ called out multiple times, to shouts of acclaim. Compound oxygen, iron bitters, and a variety of other elixirs and patent medicines were also received with general approbation. The factorymen took care of their charges at least as well as any hospital.
Still shaking, I lowered the lid and re-engaged the latch. Then I lifted the feeding tube and hooked it back up to its wire support and slid the panel shut over Number 21’s face.
The metal lid vibrated under my hands, and a peculiar emptiness ached inside my chest.
The world had changed; I realised that, now. Inside this dark, buzzing, technological shrine to science, where one person’s death meant another’s immortality, there was no room left for an old-fashioned resurrection man with old-fashioned values.
The Reverend Brant stood a few rows away from me, his expression bleak, and I wondered if he, too, was considering the obsolescence of his profession. For what did God have to offer a world in which immortality was bought and sold at a manufactory’s cold iron gate?
We took the medicines and the copper wire and the lanterns and anything else that might fetch a few shillings on the second-hand market, and then we cut some of the more pathetic living skeletons out of their metal cases and carried them into the neighbourhood bars and taverns. The Reverend Brant pointed toward their unconscious, bleeding bodies and harangued the crowd about the unforgivable evil being perpetrated on the poor to benefit the rich. Outrage spread, as outrage does, and eventually it turned into violence.
The body I’d carried out of the Millside manufactory had felt light, almost insubstantial, in my arms. I abandoned it when the rioting started and ducked through the tavern’s kitchen, nicking a carving knife on my way out. Several hours later, I had new bodies to carry, bodies that felt much heavier as I loaded them into a barrow from the manufactory courtyard.
“Victims of the riots?” the night porter asked, holding up a lantern and peering at them from the back door of the hospital where I’d once worked and still plied my trade.
“Seemed a waste to let the constables haul ‘em off to a pauper’s grave,” I said piously, “when their misfortune might do some good for science, instead.”
The night porter gave a cynical snort and waved me in, asking no more, and after I’d laid the bodies out in the hospital morgue, he counted their worth into my waiting palm. Each coin glinted like an electrical spark, and I felt a surge of satisfaction at having stolen a little life of my own out from under the noses of the rich.
Wasn’t but two days later, the morning after I paid the Reverend Brant a corpse’s price to bury my Bet in one of those private, guarded cemeteries, that Lizzie and I stood on the crowded train platform, holding crisp paper tickets out of the city to a place where the air was fresh and the dead lie motionless in their graves. Choking clouds of ash and steam billowed around us, and shrill train whistles pierced the air. With my sack of digging tools bundled up next to me and the carving knife jammed into my boot, I pulled my daughter close and squeezed her shoulder. She looked up at me with a tentative, uncertain smile.
I still don’t know what, exactly, those manufactories are collecting inside their damnable ceramic jars. The Reverend Brant believes vitae is the human soul, but if that’s the case, then a soul is a heavy thing, indeed. As for me, I’ve been feeling agreeably light of heart ever since I set foot within that dark Millside manufactory.