A Gravedigger in the Ten-Tongue Empire
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In the middle of my sixteenth summer, my father died. This presented me with quite the conundrum. My father had been an infamous lout, and the tales of his various scrapes and escapades would fill several tomes over. Naturally, as drunks are wont to, he had fallen into considerable debt with local money-lenders, officials and honestly, anyone he had spoken to for more than five minutes. His body was still warm when the first person arrived, hat in hand, to have ‘an important conversation about my financial situation’. The town had decided, in their infinite generosity, to present me with two options. Either, I could sell my family home to a trust set up in the town, which would settle the various debts and loans I was straddled with. Or, I could work on the land we had for however long it took me to pay off the townsfolk. Some quick sums (I was lucky enough to have been taught to read and write by my mother before she left us) told me that this would likely take the rest of my adult life.

Freedom, with nothing to my name.

Or

Servitude, with a roof over my head.

I had been in a daze since I found out. A numbness pervaded me, like I had been the one who had died and was now a corpse. Perhaps this was what it felt like to be pickled in embalming fluid. I thought back to the one time we had travelled to Königsberg to visit mother's laboratory. This was the choice that I was puzzling over when the Gravedigger came to town.

Our town, being small enough that sanitation was not an urgent concern, still followed the traditional burial rites of the Empire. At least, when it suited the town council. I was certain that when the mayor died, they wouldn’t be leaving his body to rot for a week. But who was to care about the little orphan girl with the dead drunk fermenting in her house?

Traditionally, no-one but the family of the deceased were permitted to touch the body. I wouldn’t have described myself as weak, as I had worked the meagre fields around our house for most of my teenage years. Still, I couldn’t have buried my father without help, let alone embalm the body or conduct the necessary last rites.

The town had sent for a Gravedigger.

He had arrived on the sixth day, which was fairly prompt, all things considered. The road to Königsberg wasn’t easy to travel alone. As I opened the door, he removed his leather tricorn and held it to his breast.

“Is this the Rinn household? I understand that you are in need of my services?”

His demeanour was honestly shabbier than I expected. In my mind, I had imagined someone in sterile black robes, perhaps with one of those beaked masks. Slightly disappointed, I scanned him up and down. He was a haggard looking man. His grey hair was greasy and lay in haphazard strands across his shoulders, whilst an unkempt beard framed a dark-skinned face. He might have been handsome once. His simple white shirt was stained with blotches of brown, and a particular smell clung to him. Cloying, sharp, and excessively pungent. Like the fruit wines we used to brew when I was a young girl. He wore a knee length brown overcoat, stained with dirt but of noticeable quality. Something expensive that had not been given the level of care appropriate to its price. I thought of my mother’s wedding dress, now moth-eaten, but how my father would still take it out and stare at it when he thought I wasn’t looking. Would. Ha. Barely a week and I was already speaking of him in the past tense.

On his back, he carried a heavy satchel, covered in additional pockets and straps. It clinked softly as he walked, and he moved with a ginger yet purposeful step, as if carrying a newborn. Nestled through a leather loop attached to the satchel was what I assumed to be a shovel. For some reason, the head of the shovel was covered in a black felt sheath, like a scabbard.

Startled for a moment, I stood frozen, taking this strange character in. His eyes stared down into me. They were dark and watery, like inkpots, nestled over a sharp nose. After an awkward silence, he cleared his throat and I remembered that he had asked me a question. My tongue fumbled as I stammered out a response.

“Ah, yes. My father is- no, was… he’s upstairs.”

He showed no signs of caring about my awkward manner, which I appreciated. He was probably used to speaking to people in far worse states than I. Had I not taken this entire situation pretty well?

“My condolences then. How old is the body?” He stepped inside the house, hanging his hat against the wall. This struck me as quite forward. I hadn’t really invited him in. Maybe he could sense that this house wasn’t mine. Not anymore, at least.

“A few days.”

“Could you be more specific? It’s relevant.” He looked at me, his face still neutral and placid. Gods, of course he would need more details.

“Um, then, it would be five days and six evenings. He came home in the night, stumbled upstairs, and he was dead when I went to bring him breakfast the next morning.” The breakfast still lay in the washbasin. A layer of blue had sprouted over the buttered bread, but some part of me didn’t want to clear it away yet. It was too… final.

He nodded, and placed his bag carefully on the kitchen table. Pulling at a strap, it unfurled itself with a clunk, morphing into a flat roll of carefully preserved, spotless leather. The inside was lined with felt, and sewn into it were countless pockets. Nestled within were a variety of surgical implements, glass bottles and strange metal globules. Each item looked lovingly cared for. A sense of wonder beheld me as I watched him inspect each one in turn. Craftspeople, I thought, have such a calm energy to them. A surety that in this little slice of the world, they reign supreme. There was a clear specificity to their use, each one designed for some purpose that remained alien to me. I could only imagine what each hook, edge and loop was supposed to do to a corpse.

Having inspected his equipment, he stood without a word and made his way upstairs to my father’s room. I stood awkwardly, but my curiosity had been piqued. This reminded me of my faintest memories, of spending time in my mother’s apartment in the city, the smells of liquids and pastes that I could not name. With mild hesitation, I followed him.

My father had passed away in his bed, so I had just been burning herbs outside his room to keep the smell at bay. The Gravedigger was not fazed in the slightest, whilst my eyes began to water the moment I stepped into the room. The stench assaulted my nostrils. A too sharp-sweetness stabbed into me. It had notes of the week just before the orchard harvest, where too-ripe fruit that had fallen early started to spoil on the ground. Before we’d had to sell the orchard.

This was joined by a low stench. It somehow reminded me of the lowest notes in an old song, lingering right at the bottom of the range. Tasted like curdled sweat. The discordance between the two smells, one acidic and sickening and the other omnipresent and inescapable, left me beating my stomach into submission to not throw up.

On the bed was my father. No, his corpse, I reminded myself. It was much the same as how I’d left it. His bed was a stone slab, covered with a thin mattress of gathered peat moss and hay. I’d managed to pull the mattress out from under him, leaving the slab. It had been difficult to do with my eyes closed. But I wasn’t ready to see his staring face, the way it was clenched tight, pulling his lips back into a horrific grin. A dark layer of sticky, dried fluid had pooled around the body.

The Gravedigger looked over him with an evaluating gaze. It echoed farmers looking at an untilled field. Calculating the difficulty of the job at hand.

“You were right to remove the mattress. It would have been difficult to peel him off.”

I was holding my breath, so didn’t get the chance to inform him that I had been planning on selling it for a few pennies.

The Gravedigger knelt down next to the bed. He clasped his hands together and started to speak.

“Honoured dead. I am come to bury you. In doing so, I ask that you allow me into your family for this one night, so that I might not dishonour your remains with a stranger's touch.”

He stood still for about a minute, eyes shut and hands tightly interwoven. I was not aware of the significance of the words. But I felt the air grow still. A spark of invisible static. The birds outside fell silent. I could feel the breath in my lungs growing cold.

“An accord has been made. Sleep now, brother.”

With that, he reached out and closed my father’s unblinking eyes. There was an air of finality in the room. It hung heavy, like a cloud of gaseous lead, forcing me down into a chair on the far side of the room. There had been power in those words. Power I had heard scraps of, in myths and stories. And then, as fast as it had came, it vanished. I blinked. Had I hallucinated that?

The Gravedigger had unfurled his bag onto the floor, and was setting several clay jars aside. He had put on a pair of leather gloves, and ran a loving finger along the row of implements. Sharply, he turned his gaze to me, as if remembering that I was still there.

“Most people don’t like this part. You can leave, if you want.”

His voice was like water over a stony river bed. Filled with hidden things lurking below the surface. I stood, making for the door, before stopping. If I were to resign myself to a life of mundanity, tilling fields for debts not my own, then I wanted to embrace this last interesting sight before it slipped away.

“I feel like I need to see this through. We didn’t see eye to eye, but… he’s still my father.”

He raised a somewhat accusatory eyebrow.

“I can stomach this.” I lied. In reality, the stench was close to driving me from the room, but something about this stranger had me wanting to stay. His entire person commanded such a calmness, a stillness that quelled my anxiety. As long as I was with him, I wouldn’t have to think about what lay ahead. And, simply put…

I didn’t want to be alone in that moment.

I sat back down in the chair. It was likely the bravest thing I had done in my life up until now.

He smiled. “Rare, but commendable. Watch, then.”

He began by pulling a pad of parchment and a stick of charcoal from his bag. Scratching in a script I did not recognise, he took what I assumed to be a set of general notes. Quantifying the dead into cubits and inches. Placing those aside, he stripped the clothes off the body, discarding them in the corner. He turned to me, assuming the role of a teacher.

“Those can be burned. You will not get the smell out.”

For my dignity, he placed a small cloth over my father’s upper thighs. I silently thanked him.

Gods, this smell did not get easier to handle. It felt as though I were permanently stained. Like some part of this stench would never leave me.

From a felt pocket on his roll of tools, he selected a scalpel and a large wooden block. He gingerly lifted the body from the stone with a faint ripping sound, placing the block under the shoulders. I watched as he then carefully split my father in two, making two incisions in the shoulders and then dragging his scalpel down longways to the base of the stomach. Pulling the skin back, a noxious smelling steam escaped into the air. This was too much for me. The wet sound. I had thought that I could take it. Gods, I had thought that being there would prove something. Bile welled up in my throat.

I ran from the room to the latrine, but only got partway down the stairs before half-digested chunks of bread, bile-coated, spilled from my mouth, staining my teeth with acid.

It all came out together. The grief, like a tide, swept me away and pulled me under. I stood gasping for breath, my throat stinging and raw. I was drowning, I-

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

The Gravedigger stood behind me. Taking my hand in his, he led me down the stairs. He had removed his surgeon’s gloves. Going to the washbasin, he wetted a rag, then wiped my mouth and eyes with a surprising tenderness. I wept and wept, as the grief I had kept bottled up over the past few days came spilling out like a corked up spring. He sat silently the entire time, only moving to clean the rag and allow me to dry my tears. It was only when my fit had subsided, when we had remained silent for several minutes, that he then spoke.

“I would tell you that I know how you are feeling. That I understand your emotions, as if that would somehow lessen their impact. But I can’t. I’ve been doing this for so many years that it barely fazes me anymore. Grief is my life, death is my duty. I am truly sorry that I cannot be a greater comfort to you.”

When the villagers had offered me mourning and well wishes, it had rung so hollow. Not one of them had cared. I knew that, they knew that. The charade infuriated me. But when this man, this stranger spoke, I was certain that he was genuine. Because he wasn’t trying to comfort me. He understood that grief is not rational, that sorrow does not care for platitudes and words. That dark thoughts needed to be expressed.

With that, he stood up, moving towards the stairs.

“It would not be fair for me to abandon this duty. I will let you know whe-”

In a flash of resolve, I stood to my feet.

“I want to be there.”

He turned to look at me. His eyes evaluated me, with the same look he had scanned over my father’s corpse. He seemed to find something he was looking for, as his lips pursed in a sliver of a smile.

“Come then. I will not stop a second time, so try to hold it in.”


We entered the room together. The smell was no easier to manage, but I felt a core of resolve. I could ignore it now. Not forget it, but ignore it. He finished pulling back the skin, and without turning, spoke.

“Would you like to help?”

I stood. “What do you need me to do?”

“Pass me the shears. Third column, second row. The one that looks like a pair of gardening clippers. There should be four.”

I handed him the shears. He placed them forcefully in several locations across the exposed ribcage, keeping the incision open. He then carefully severed ligaments, before forcefully cracking the ribcage free. He carefully placed it to one side. I felt an alien sense of detachment, staring at my father’s bones.

“Fifth column, first row.”

I quickly retrieved the long, sharp blade, watching as he carved out my father’s lungs, heart, stomach and kidneys in quick succession, gently placing each into its own clay receptacle. As I passed him the jars, I inspected the inscriptions on the side. A script that I did not recognise, but faceless figures scratched into river clay ascended from stone slabs to the sky.

Noticing my interest, he gestured, beckoning me to approach.

“We are told that the body accumulates sin as a riverbed accumulates silt. Throughout a long life, it dwells inside us, burdening our lives and causing us to wither and age. Since time immemorial, we have removed these organs after death, lightening the body of its load, and allowing the departed to soar free.”

“Do you believe that?” I asked. I had not been to Mass in several years, my father was no longer welcome there. The clergyman had always preached generosity when asking for donations, but was nowhere to be found when a poor orphan girl found herself beset by creditors.

“No. No, I do not. But those I operate on usually do, and it is my solemn duty to respect their last wishes and bring them to a just conclusion. My own beliefs are… immaterial.

As he spoke, he was slicing the connecting tissues of a large brown mass, pockmarked and covered with scar tissue. His fingers reached around it, searching for something specific, before retrieving a black looking orb.

“Ah.”

He pulled a glass vial from his bag, squeezing a thick ichor from the lump he held. He added some unknown fluid and began to stir the liquid. I felt fully detached now. Like my own heart has been excised. Only curiosity stirred in me as this stranger handled my father’s organs. He spoke, but his eyes did not move from his work as he measured out specific quantities of odd red fluids.

“He didn’t suffer.”

I could almost laugh. My father had seen his entire life as nothing but a long series of tragic outcomes and suffering.

“My father died years ago when my mother left him. He suffered plenty.”

“Sorry- I should clarify. It wasn’t painful. He literally couldn’t have felt a thing as he passed.”

He held the small lump of meat from my father’s torso, and was holding it gingerly in his palm for me to inspect. It was pitch black, and swollen with purge fluid.

“Sorry, I- Gods. That stinks. What is that?”

“It’s his gallbladder. His liver is in even worse condition. Haven’t seen one this bad for a while.”

He placed the lump into a small clay jar.

“Your old man drink much?”

“Constantly. He made his own stuff. Out of turnips.”

He paused, and I could see pieces clicking into place.

“Show me.”

I took the Gravedigger outside to the shack where my father kept his barrels of foul-smelling liquors. He opened one up, dipped his finger inside and brought it to his lips. Even from the door of the shack, the reek of fermenting root vegetables and discarded fruit waged a silent war on my nostrils.

“Hmm. Hrm. Yep. Sorry to say, your father poisoned himself.”

I was not especially startled. Even when we had owned an orchard and made cider, my father has never been a talented brewer. “How?”

“How? He drank enough alcohol to incapacitate a horse. He wouldn’t have felt it if I had cut a finger off. The man had a fierce vendetta against his own liver.”

I hadn’t known it was that bad. “That would hold true for much of his life. His liver was not exactly his sole enemy.”

The Gravedigger looked back into the shed.

“People usually don’t drink this heavily unless they’re trying to forget something. Your mother must have been a hell of a woman.”


After some time, he had finished. He and I took the clay jars in hand, placing them in the wagon he had arrived in. I then helped him to sew up my father’s body and carry it, wrapped in a funeral shroud, down the stairs and onto the back of the cart. We were silent throughout. He was contemplating something. Or maybe I wasn’t as good of a judge of character as I thought and he had grown tired of me. I was silent because I simply had nothing left to say.

We drove for some time as I guided him to the barrows outside of the town. A small tower, preserved more by luck than care, held a stone slab on its roof. Over the following days, birds and insects would come to take my father to the sky. He had been a religious man before drink and sorrow exterminated his better nature. As was tradition, I placed the jars around my father’s body as he lay on the slab, before turning and leaving. He had been my father, but he had not been a good father. He had his excuses, always had. He had cared, during the fleeting moments of sobriety. But now he was dead. And whilst we had removed his accumulated sins, stored them in little pots to be eaten by carrion, they still weighed me down.

But with that, it was done.

“What will you do now?” I asked. I had resigned myself to my fate.

“I have many more tasks to see to. Those in my line of work rarely have time to rest.” He was staring up at the stars. Probably deciding whether to stay the night or risk the open road in pitch dark.

“At least you get to see the world. Travel. Meet interesting people, presumably?”

“Everyone is the same when they mourn, whether they be interesting or not. I have performed services for nobility, artists, paupers and all in between. Fundamentally, grief pushes most people through the same mould.” There was an awkward silence. “What of you? Can you not go out and see the world yourself?”

I explained my situation to him. How I would soon be essentially penniless, or in unsalvageable debts. As I did so, a shadow crossed his face, barely illuminated by the flickering of the torch. We rode in silence under the stars for some time, making our way back to the township. As we passed over the Emmi River bridge, he turned suddenly. There was a fire in his eyes, a passion that had been previously absent.

“Come with me. Learn under me. I will take you on as an apprentice. There is no sense in a sharp girl like you wasting away in a backwater like this, burdened by her father’s sins.”

It struck me like a bolt. I sat stunned for a moment before responding.

“What?! I - I can’t do what you do! I don’t know anything about bodies!”

“You know more than I did when I began my studies under my master. You have the will for this. And I will teach you.”

I felt as though a trick were being played on me. This was something out of a story. This didn’t happen to people like me.

“Are you sure?”

He stared at me with genuine bafflement. I immediately regretted it. He was going to reject me. Clearly, my grief-addled display of confidence earlier had gotten him curious, and he was now disinterested. I was bracing for his rejection before he snorted loudly and began to chuckle.

“You will learn that I am not the kind of man to offer something that I do not intend to give.”

I stood for a moment, paralysed. A Gravedigger’s assistant was not the kind of life I had expected to lead. But-

But-

I thought of years of toil, still in that same stinking house, sleeping in the room where my father had died. Or an inevitable fate of homelessness and vagrancy on city streets. I had been agonizing over the choice that I would make, but when it came down to it, it was hardly a choice at all, was it?

“I’ll do it.”

“Good. Then we shall make a proper introduction, as teacher and pupil. My name is Tarik.”

He smiled, and extended a hand.

“I’m Kaysa.”

I took his in mine to shake, before he pulled me in with surprising strength and embraced me in a hug. I had thought that my tears had ran dry earlier that day, but I found I had more to give.

“A pleasure to meet you, Kaysa Rinn.”

Though neither of us knew it at the time, under the starry sky, a father and daughter embraced for the first time.
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