Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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The Corpse Collector

by Patrick Moloney




It is an ill wind that does not blow well for someone, a simple philosophy the tall gaunt man used as his measuring stick for life. When the populous of the larger towns and cities threw themselves on their knees crying to heaven in despair, George Fernley calmly pondered the merits of what had been visited on them. He carefully surveyed the devastation that befell his fellow man, and in it he saw opportunity. The pestilence spread through the most populated areas like a wild fire, and those unfortunate souls that lived their miserable lives in places of squalor were the first to succumb. However the age old adage held true this time just as it always had, soon death was indeed living up to its lofty reputation as the great leveller. When misfortune found its way to the doors of the wealthy things began to happen, pending disaster had a rare talent for focusing the mind. So the people of wealth and influence focused their mind sharply on their own survival. It was at this time that George Fernley began to avail of the opportunities that he always knew would present themselves.

A fund was set up by these very same rich and powerful people in order to bury the poor of each parish. It was not through any sense of Christian charity, but rather out of necessity to ensure their very survival. It was widely agreed that the corpses of these misfortunate souls represented an additional public health hazard, a man of George’s commercial astuteness immediately recognised the good in this ill wind. The honourable George Fernley esquire found himself in the happy position of providing the relevant authorities with his services, for the princely sum of one shilling per head. George provided a good Christian burial for those who otherwise would lie polluting the air of the towns and cities of the area. Fernley became an undertaker of sorts. Albeit the hearse provided being an open cart on which the bodies were stacked like so many sacks, and the Christian burial being a great open pit where the quick lime soon dissolved the pitiful cadavers. It was an ideal business relationship between the grim reaper and George Fernley; death held merry sway and his coffers grew.

As with all things in this life nothing is really permanent, including plagues and pestilence, and the wild fire eventually burned itself out. But not before it left George Fernley a man of substantial wealth; however, eaten bread is soon forgotten and the very people who courted his services now shunned him. The fact he boasted a far healthier bank balance than the majority of the so called upper class, mattered not a jot in their eyes. George had served his purpose and been rewarded handsomely for it, now the people who employed him wanted him out of their sight. The tall gaunt man could never have been accused of being over sensitive by any stretch of the imagination. However when George would turn up at Church or any social gatherings, in all the finery his money could buy, it would irk him sorely to hear their whispered comments; even people like George Fernley cringed at being referred to as ‘The corpse collector’. But being a man of practical mind, he knew there was nothing to be gained from openly confronting these people.

George withdrew from all social activities in the end, preferring instead to focus his mind on what he was best at. Identifying opportunities and accumulating more wealth, he settled his mind to a simple plan. He would continue to make as much money as he could from this society and he would retire to some place where the source of his wealth would not be questioned or frowned upon. They may have branded him as a scavenger, but the pestilence was to become a blessing that kept giving for George Fernley. It was simple mathematics that provided his next opportunity, the poor and working class had suffered most from the sickness. The plague had wiped them out in their thousands, and he had benefitted from their passing. Now ‘The corpse collector’ would benefit from their absence. Commerce depended on a good supply of consumers. But it also depended on a good supply of cheap labour; the very people who had ostracised George depended on commerce to maintain their positions. An ill wind was once again going to blow well for George, now it was just a matter of how best to avail of this new opportunity.

George had maintained an interest in body disposal, albeit that he now owned a number of respectable funeral businesses in the local. A trip to a timber merchant in the docklands for coffin wood proved fortuitous indeed for George. A ship had just docked the previous day; a passenger had died shortly before they reached port. The timber merchant being an acquaintance of the captain had mentioned George by way of arraigning burial of the deceased passenger. Since little was known of this passenger save his name, the cost of his funeral was covered by barter. George received a sealed trunk of stout wood with iron bands, and a dark skinned woman, who was the passenger’s servant. The trunk was too light to contain any coin; however he could certainly make money from the woman. He could easily sell her into service, or maybe get rid of one of his paid employees and use her himself. George was not an over greedy man, so all in all he was happy with the bargain, especially since the body would end up in a lime pit anyway. George returned to his recently acquired home (a man of his means needed to emphasise his importance, so he had bought a bigger house). The dark skinned woman sat opposite him in the carriage, her gaze never leaving her feet; perhaps she can be a cook, he wondered as he studied his new acquisition.

George was a man of modest tastes really, simple wholesome food was all he required, nothing fancy or over rich. However he immediately learned an important lesson about the dark skinned woman, she would never make a cook. Even to his simple tastes her efforts were unpalatable. All efforts at communication with the woman had come to nothing, either she was mute or could not speak the Kings English. She would stand in front of him head bowed and fidgeting with her hands when he spoke to her, in the absence of any background on the mute he decided to name her Bessy. It had been the name of a girl he had known in his youth, a girl he had never succeeded in bending to his will. However, George Fernley had every intention of getting good use from this Bessy. Later that night he peered through the window of the servant’s quarters as she disrobed. He could never use her to breed an heir to succeed him; the colour of her skin would render any off spring unacceptable in this society. However perhaps on a cold winter’s night she may make a good bed warmer; this idea quickly left his mind when he saw her in the flesh.

Her body was a living map of torment; it was covered from buttocks to shoulders in scar tissue. Angry lines of whip lash scars crisscrossed her back; someone had carved strange symbols in the flesh of her breast and abdomen. These symbols had been carved deep and the resulting scar tissue made them stand proud of the surrounding skin. As if she sensed the watcher outside her window, she turned her gaze in his direction, and she lifted her arms, turning slowly exposing more symbols carved in her sides. Long after she had climbed beneath the thin covers on her bed, the tall gaunt man remained outside her window and pondered on his new servant. George went to bed that night with his mind full of the images he had spied, for some reason he could not identify, he felt this woman had not come into his life completely by accident. The following day he put Bessy to doing simple domestic chores, cleaning out the fireplaces and fetching water anything he could communicate easily to her. George was once again preoccupied with how he could take advantage of the labour shortage; transporting slaves would be too much of an investment and risk even for him. So his days were spent making plans and just as quickly discarding them.

It was around this time that he began to have troubled sleep; he would wake at night from unremembered nightmares, his body lathered in a clammy sweat. His first waking thoughts would be of the strange symbols carved into the dark skin of Bessy. The fitful sleep was beginning to have an effect on him. George would find himself wandering about the house and grounds in a daze with little thought of what he was doing, or indeed where he was going. On any occasion he passed Bessy he would feel her eyes upon his back, but if he turned, her gaze was always averted. On one such distracted wandering he found himself in the coach house; he had no recollection of having walked there and for some unknown reason it bothered him. He sat down and placed his head in his hands. Was he beginning to suffer from some malaise of the mind, he wondered? He had seen people of substance who lost their faculties and in the end their wealth mattered little to them; was the wind about to blow ill for George Fernley, he thought philosophically? Still he was nothing if not determined and he was determined to get back on track, he had not succeeded in life by shying back from adversity and he had no intention of doing so now. George just needed to focus his mind on business matters, the disrupted sleep patterns were just a passing phase he persuaded himself.

Now that he thought things out he felt better in himself, he rose to leave with a better outlook on his future. It was then that George noticed what he had been sitting on, the wooden chest he had received, as part of the payment from the ship’s captain. It took more than a little effort for him to open the chest, in the end it was managed by the use of a hammer and chisel. The documents within had been written on some kind of animal skin as far as he could make out; they looked old and brittle and were unpleasant to handle. The other thing about them was the fact that they made absolutely no sense to George. Whoever had written these had used a language other than the one he spoke. So he now found himself having damaged the only thing of value, the chest itself, leaving him nothing to show for it save the worthless papers. But nevertheless he carried them back inside to his study; there he would be able to get a better look at them. The low winter sun streaming over his shoulder illuminated the writing perfectly, but the documents on his desk before him still meant nothing to him. As he scattered the documents in frustration, something caught his eye, strange symbols in the margin of the pages. George studied each document more thoroughly this time but without regard to the script, instead casting his beady eyes over the symbols. Every page contained some of these strange symbols, some of these he had seen before, etched in the dark skin of Bessy.

The woman gave him a stony look before averting her eyes from the documents, but George was in no mood to pander to her stubbornness. Grasping her short hair he pushed her face within inches of the documents on his desk. At first she stiffened her body in resistance, but when her face was almost touching the documents all resistance evaporated. Bessy reached forward and picked them up, she turned slowly and he released the grip on her hair. When she spoke George was flabbergasted, all this time without a single syllable and now she speaks perfect English. “They are detailed instructions on how to reanimate the dead, think of your Christian ideal of judgement day. When the dead will rise from the ground and walk among us. Now think of this on an individual basis as fast tracking of your judgement day”. George raised his hand to strike her, but something in those piercing eyes stopped him. Instead he ripped her flimsy dress from her body; she stood before him naked and defiant, her eyes burning into his. Up close the scarring was even more horrific, but there was no mistaking the symbols on her body corresponded exactly to some of the ones on the parchments. For the first time in living memory George Fernley found himself clueless about how to deal with a situation.

The mourners had not been gone an hour from the church yard when Fernley and the woman began to dig the fresh soil, later in the basement of his house he watched her carefully prepare the body. Bessy painstakingly painted symbols on the naked body; she had prepared the ink earlier from powders she carried in her bag. When everything was prepared the woman insisted he leave, George opened his mouth to protest but one look at her eyes silenced him. Hours later George sat on the cold stone steps of the basement, his head against the wall in a troubled sleep. A sleep haunted by shadowy figures and scared flesh, her hand on his shoulder woke him. The naked young man was certainly reanimated, but it would be a great exaggeration to say he was alive. The thing, as he thought of it for it was no longer human, walked with an awkward gait and appeared oblivious to the presence of anyone else. Its eyes had the appearance of painted glass, and when it breathed it sounded as if the lungs were filled with liquid. Fernley stared at this abomination and he saw opportunity. The colliers of the midlands were crying out for labour. In the darkness of a coal mine this thing would not look much different than the other wretched souls that toiled in the bowels of the earth.

The woman shook her head violently and stubbornly refused his request. George was furious but he was caught between a rock and a hard place. Realistically there was no way he could force her to do his bidding, the scars on her back bore testament to the fact that she had known brutal beatings. Yet here she stood defiant to his face, that piercing look in her dark eyes showing not a hint of fear. George was a past master in the art of negotiating and was fully aware that pleading was not an option; this was an opportunity he could not afford to let slip by him. The question now was what he could offer this strange woman for her unique services; this was something he needed to ponder on, he could not afford to make any hasty decisions. In the end he left her to take the thing to one of the out buildings. He would need time to formulate a plan to persuade her. The following morning George left before day break, he had decided to visit some of the colliers and find out first hand just how badly they needed labour. A couple of days away would give both of them time to reflect on the situation, but more importantly it would give him time to find a way to outfox the witch. The three days George Fernley spent visiting the collieries only served to whet his appetite even more. They were crying out for manpower and did not seem overly concerned regarding the source of any potential workmen. There was even talk of petitioning the authorities to empty the gaols and send the prisoners to the mines.

Between all of his funeral businesses George was dealing with quite a number of burials per week, a reasonable amount of these souls would surely be suitable to toil in the bowels of the earth. After all, when it was looked at in at a practical manner, they were destined to be below ground anyway. But for the abominable nature of the thing it might have been called a match made in heaven. He found her in the grounds with the thing, she stood watching it as it cut fire wood. Its movements were less than fluid but nevertheless a fine stack of fire wood was accumulating, obviously Bessy had been tutoring the creature while he had been away. Any number of questions entered George’s head regarding the creature, but he thought it more judicious to wait until later to speak with her. Most god fearing people would be horrified to even be in the presence of a body that had been brought back from the dead. However to George Fernley it was an merely a tool, it bore no more relation to a human being than a spade or a mill wheel would in his eyes. In years to come he may even be praised as a visionary; after all, who better to do the most dangerous jobs than something that was no longer alive anyway? There would be endless possibilities once he had the woman on side. His mind raced with endless opportunities this project would offer. Even the dregs of society who ended their miserable lives at the end of a rope could be used in a productive manner; George Fernley was quite adept at weighing up the merits in any situation.

‘Marriage’, the word hung in the air between them like a toxic odour, everyone had a price but this was ridiculous. His first instinct was to burst out laughing in her face, but not for the first time those piercing eyes warned him to be cautious. The dark skinned woman stood patiently waiting for his reaction; her eyes seemed to bore into his head as if probing his thoughts. George frantically tried to think of something to dissuade her from her request, or even to come up with a counter offer. In the end he came to the only practical conclusion, she had him trapped like a rat in a barrel. Still no wind remained ill for everyone and he was already thinking of the positives. If he was forced to marry her than he would eventually insist on her teaching him the skills. George began to feel very pleased with himself indeed, once again he had pondered on a bad situation and found merit in it. Once he became skilled at the process he would no longer have any use for his wife, after all her cooking skills were dismal. Then again he just might resurrect her and keep her around the house as a sort of mascot; her soft laughter brought him back from his muse. For one terrifying moment he had an overwhelming feeling that she had just read his thoughts, but in the end she just repeated her demand.

The look on the old parson’s face really was something to behold. Then again, it was not every day a bride arrived at the altar dressed like a widow complete with black veil. Still, he had been handsomely rewarded for his part in this sham; the man of the cloth was to perform the ceremony than forget it ever happened. However when Bessy insisted on a copy of the marriage certificate afterwards George was furious, still once she was gone all her possessions would be his to do with as he pleased. That certificate would burn as surely as night follows day, he prided himself in dealing with unforeseen circumstances and this would be no different. That night they dined in silence and when the meal was finished she retired to her own room while he fell into a drunken stupor in the fireside chair. George Fernley’s dreams were filled with great lines of undead bringing him bags of silver; however the one that did come brought him a crushed wind pipe and certain death. The dark skinned woman sat beside the gaunt man and held his hand steady as he wrote; she whispered strange words in his ear constantly as he awkwardly wielded the quill. The following morning a woman wearing a dark veil entered the bank, she held the hand of a tall gaunt man who walked with an awkward gait. The woman waited patiently as the manager took the letter from George Fernley’s pale hand, the letter stated that George’s health had deteriorated badly. He wanted his silver deposits delivered to his house the following day, as he intended to retire to a warmer climate. If they heard the muttered comments from the bank staff as they left, they made no sign of it. After all, they were telling the truth when they whispered. ‘The corpse collector’ now bore a striking resemblance to the very cadavers he had built his prosperity from.


THE END


2017 Patrick G. Moloney

Bio: Patrick G Moloney lives in Killaloe, Co Clare on the banks of the majestic river Shannon. Though he has dabbled with writing from an early age, it is only in the last few years he has started to publish his efforts. His writing can best be described as dark fiction, to date he has self-published two novels in this genre.

Patrick chooses to refer to himself as a story teller rather than a writer, as the age old tradition in Ireland calls for. His love for magical and supernatural stories can be traced back to myths of ancient Ireland and a dog eared copy of the fairy tales by the brothers Grimm which was his constant companion as a child.

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