Memento Mori
by Heather Kroeker, 31st October 2022

This was the part Sawyer hated the most. When they had to touch it for the first time.

 

Depending on how long they’d been under there, the skin would be soft. His fingers would press in when he grabbed hold of them, like gripping onto an overripe peach. And the smell — dear God, that smell.

 

“She ready?” Fletcher was standing at the edge of the hole, shirtsleeves rolled up despite the biting chill. A meerschaum pipe was hooked into the corner of his mouth.

 

“Just a second.”

 

He could tell it hadn’t been long because her skin still had a pleasant milkiness to it — not that parchment yellow most of them begin turning. Even the purplish colour of her lips and cheeks looked only like a flush from the cold, not from hours of death. Sawyer looped the rope around the woman’s neck, his fingers grazing her exposed skin. It was still firm.

 

They lifted the body from the ground, and placed it carefully beside the open grave. Only now did Sawyer finally get a good look at the woman. He was struck by how elegantly she was dressed. Around her neck a large, ornate silvery crucifix had been strung, its edges inlaid with deep red stones. But his heart stopped as his eyes came to rest on her stomach.

 

“Shame, that,” Fletcher nodded at the woman’s swollen abdomen. She must have been close to nine months.

 

“You didn’t tell me she was —” Sawyer’s words caught in his throat.

 

“It’s your last job. Thought I may as well make it worthwhile for you,” Fletcher shrugged indifferently.

 

Sawyer glanced again at the woman’s protuberant stomach. “I dunno, Fletch,” he said. He felt as though something had crawled down his spine. The longer he stared at the woman the more uneasy he began to feel. “Doesn’t feel right.”

 

Fletcher didn’t say anything. Instead, he took a long pull from his pipe, blowing it in Sawyer’s direction. The smoke meandered towards him lethargically, mingling with the dense fog that was twisting around them.

 

“Is it still — you know?” Sawyer asked.

 

“Of course. We’ll get a premium because of it.”

 

Another shiver crawled down his spine and plunked itself deep in his stomach. He’d never had this feeling before on any other job — not even the ones that had barely looked human anymore.

 

“I dunno, Fletch. I just really don’t have a good feeling about this one.”

 

“We’ve come all the way out here,” he said. More smoke billowed from his mouth. “I promise it will be worth the trip.”

 

Sawyer glanced down again at the woman. He knew he was being irrational. But he just couldn’t shake that gut feeling.

 

“Give me a hand, would you?” Fletcher said, nodding down at the corpse.

 

Sawyer held the woman while Fletcher got to work hacking through her clothes. The man whistled a tune around his pipe as he sloppily tore through the fabric. Sawyer tried to pick out the song from the sour notes he was turning. Anything to keep him from thinking about the cold, board-stiff body resting against his chest, and the way her stomach, hard as a marble, kept pressing into his.

 

Once the thick layers of fabric and petticoats had fallen limply to the ground, they gently laid the woman back down so they could re-bury her belongings. As they did, Fletcher noticed something odd about the skin on her chest, where the necklace had been laying. The flesh looked shiny and dimpled, as though it had been cauterised. He also noticed a deep scar that stretched from one hip bone to the other. It was black and scabby, the skin having been crudely knit together. A strange, pungent good appeared to still be oozing from it.

 

“What do you think that’s from?” He asked. Fletcher only shrugged.

 

They threw the woman’s belongings back into the coffin and sealed it. But as they began piling the dirt back on top, Sawyer felt a gaze piercing through the back of his skull. Slowly, he peered over his shoulder.

 

The woman lay where they’d left her, a thin layer of fog clinging to her pale flesh like dust. But one of her eyes had slipped open. Though it was dark brown, it looked filmy and grey, like a cup of tea that had been left sitting too long.

 

Sawyer’s shovel slipped from his cold fingers, falling to the dirt with a thump. “Fletcher, look!”

 

Fletcher continued shovelling. “We forget something?”

 

Sawyer felt frozen in her gaze. The longer he stared into her veiled eye, the more he felt unable to pull himself away. A horrible feeling seeped into him. “Fletcher, her eye …”

 

Fletcher turned nonchalantly and squinted at the woman. “What do you mean, lad?”

 

When at last he blinked, both her eyes were closed. With the fog covering her like a blanket, it looked like she was sleeping. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that had settled inside his gut, heavy as a headstone.

 

“We need to leave her here,” Sawyer said finally.

 

Fletcher’s shovel paused halfway to the earth. “You must be joking.”

 

It felt like a wedge had been driven down Sawyer’s windpipe. The more he stared at the body lying there, the tighter his throat began to feel. “I really don’t have a good feeling, Fletch. We have to leave her here.”

 

It wasn’t often that Fletcher had nothing to say. He leaned casually against his shovel and looked at Sawyer quizzically. The world around them felt impossibly quiet.

 

“You trust me, don’t you?” Fletcher said finally. “I’ve never steered you wrong on a job before. I’ve always had your back, always made sure we stayed out of harm’s way. Do you really think I’d bring you all the way out here just to let something bad happen to you on our last job together?”

 

It wasn’t that Sawyer didn’t trust him. It’s just that he trusted his gut more.

 

“I know what you’re saying Fletch, but really — I just think it’s a bad idea.”

 

“And why is it a bad idea?” Fletcher sneered. “Because you have a ‘bad feeling’?”

 

A brisk wind picked up. The fog began to ripple, flowing like water around the woman’s body. Her skin was starting to sour, was turning the colour of the crescent moon. Soon she’d be like the rest of them — sodden limbs strapped to a wooden table, chest bent open like a textbook for the anatomy students to study. When he looked at her like that, Sawyer realised that she was the same. His nerves, his jitters — he didn’t know why he was so overcome. She was just a body like all the rest. The only difference was what she’d died with inside her.

 

“Come on then,” Fletcher squeezed his shoulder. “It’s a long way home.”

 

Sawyer nodded weakly. He still didn’t feel right. But this was the last time. He repeated it in his head as they bent to lift the body into the carriage. The last ever time he’d have to touch a corpse.

 

Fletcher hoisted the woman up by her armpits. Sawyer grabbed her ankles. As he did, he thought he saw something shift within her stomach. It was such a slight movement that he thought at first that it was nothing at all. Probably just the fog, or death settling deeper in her bones. But when it happened again, Sawyer knew it wasn’t just his eyes playing tricks on him.

 

“What’s the matter now?” Fletcher growled. The woman’s legs slammed into the cold dirt as Sawyer stumbled backwards. Fletcher lost his own grip, the woman’s head crashing into the ground with a hearty crack.

 

“Fletch, I’m not being funny now,” Sawyer whimpered. “I’m telling you, something’s moving in her stomach.”

 

Fletcher’s whole face had gone red. He was about ready to bury a fist in Sawyer’s pudgy cheek when they both heard it. A sound like wet twigs snapping. They both ducked down, the fog coiling around them. They waited for more footsteps, for the sound of voices stretching through the dark, even a light bouncing off the fog. But there was nothing.

 

A sudden gust of wind swept through the cemetery. It scrubbed the fog from the clearing and snuffed their lanterns out. The world had never been darker.

 

They heard the noise again. But it wasn’t the sound of twigs snapping, or of footsteps gaining on them. It was like buttons popping from a suit coat — like tension giving way, of sudden relief.

 

“Shit, I think I’m out of matches,” Fletcher whispered. “Do you have any?”

 

Sawyer didn’t say anything. He could tell they weren’t alone. Something about the air around them had shifted. He was filled again with that same feeling he’d felt before — the one that made his whole head want to cave in on itself. Yet the feeling of dread he felt now was so much more intense. It felt like all of his bones has liquified inside of him. If he’d had to run now, he wasn’t sure he could.

 

“Sawyer, you still there?” Fletcher whispered a bit more loudly.

 

Sawyer knew he shouldn’t move. He shouldn’t dare make a sound if he wanted any chance of getting out of there. He didn’t know what waited for them in the darkness, but it had awakened some ancient instinct in him — one buried so deep inside that he didn’t even know that part of him existed.

 

Another gust of wind swept around them, pushing the clouds from the moon’s face. In the light, they could finally see what the darkness had concealed from them.

 

The woman’s body still lay where they’d left it. But something wasn’t right. The stitches that had arced across the woman’s hip bones had snapped open. Brackish, dark brown liquid was oozing from between it, which fell in thick, steaming chunks to the cold earth. And something was moving within.

 

“Come on,” Fletcher said, tugging at the sleeve of his coat. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

“It’s too late.” Sawyer could barely swallow around the lump in his throat. “It already knows we’re here.”

 

“What do you mean it knows?”

 

Quivering, Sawyer pointed at the woman’s stomach. Two hands covered in long, ink black talons slipped from between the wound. They pierced into the cold earth, clawing their way out.

 

Sawyer doesn’t want to look. He doesn’t want to see it. But something is gripping his chin, has screwed his feet to the ground. He cannot move. Beside him, Fletcher is whimpering through the Lord’s prayer. Every other word is a wheeze he cannot get out.

 

Its skin is like a rotting plum, dark and wrinkled, pocked with tiny thorns. But it’s the piercing yellow eyes that make Sawyer’s stomach churn. Bile rises violently in his mouth, but it feels like his mouth is nailed shut. He cannot eject, has to swallow it back down. It burns.

 

The creature has crawled from within its mother and is now surveying the two of them. Its yellow eyes glower like lamplight. There are no words for the feeling that overcomes Sawyer when he looks into those eyes.

 

“Please,” Fletcher pleads. “Please, let us go. We haven’t done anything wrong!”

 

The creature makes no expression at first as it watches Fletcher. Then its whole face erupts with an ear-splitting cry. Fletcher doesn’t even have a chance to let out a final plea.

 

Sawyer feels the warm splatter against his face. He wipes it off, stares at the red smear across his fingers, then looks to the ground where Fletcher had been only a moment ago. A red starburst is painted across the cold ground. Something pinkish and glistening falls against his foot with a wet squelch.

 

He begins to cry. There’s nothing left he can do.

 

The creature cries once more.

 

It lasts just an instant. But to him, it’s eternity. Every piece of him is wrenched apart. His skin, his cells, his eyes, his heart — all pulled at their seams. When it’s over, there’s nothing left of him even to seep into the cold dirt. Not an ear nor a cufflink nor a shoe even to bury.