The gravedigger locks the gateway
And brushes the dirt from his hands
The air is cold and bitter;
He shivers as he stands.

The mourners have long since departed,
The churchyard is silent and bare.
The clocktower chimes ten-thirty
And the gravedigger whispers a prayer.

The clock-tower chimes ten-thirty
And old Tom’s drinking tonic and gin
While Hare lays down a shilling
And Kip gives the dice a spin.

They’d seen the weeping procession
And heard the priest’s kind speech;
They marked down the watchkeeper’s habits
And picked up a shovel each.

“With God or the devil willing,”
Old Tom stands up to say,
“We’ll have a fine haul up on Burke street
But we must be on our way.”

They slipped into the lamplight
With spade and pick and ax
Hare kept a loaded pistol
And Kip an armful of sacks.

Hare had a scar on his forehead;
It was rumored he’d killed three men.
Kip would be fifteen on Sunday
And had picked his first pocket at ten.

The gate is barred with iron,
A padlock big as a fist.
Tom eyes the gate and grimaces,
Then gives his picks a twist.

The lock was quickly opened
And they oiled the creaking door.
The thieves spread out like shadows
Where mourners had been before.

“She died of a fever on Monday,”
Hare read off his morbid list.
Hidden by night and by silence,
Three fine resurrectionists.

Kip and Tom set to digging,
Piling up hallowed mud;
While Hare stood watch with his pistol
And thought of drawing blood.

The coffin was wooden, not iron
Without even a lock on the lid.
“The surgeons will pay quite a sum for her.
It’s lucky we came when we did.”

They bundle her up with canvas
With a flour sack over her head.
A child no older than Kip, she was,
Now cold and fair and dead.

Tom was the one to carry her
(For they found no more that night)
Though a thief must forget how to shudder,
Kip found he hadn’t, quite.

The clock had struck two in the morning
When the surgeon answered the bell.
He waves them furtively forward;
He knows their faces well.

The doctor is pale as lamplight,
His face framed with lenses of glass.
He directs them to his basement
And looks away as they pass.

“Lay it there on the table,”
He says in a quivering voice.
In the daylight he’d spit at their coattails
But at night, he had no choice.

“I’ve left your coin on the table,
Now leave me to do my work.”
Kip bowed and old Tom nodded
And Hare did nothing but smirk.

They leave through a door in the kitchen
As the doctor lays out his tools.
He hates to know the city’s crimes
But rules, after all, are rules:

A doctor must heal his patients,
But a surgeon cannot work blind.
So he doles out his earnings to robbers
For the good of all mankind.

The church bells ring Sunday morning.
Old Tom’s unconscious with drink.
While Hare jots down their finances
With a feather and stolen ink.

In the farthest pew from the pulpit
The doctor is praying to Christ.
He prays for all England’s anatomists
And hopes that his prayers suffice.

While the men at the church sing their hymnals
The night-folk of London lay down.
Kip sleeps through the rosy sunrise
In a threadbare dressing gown.

He dreams of the girl from the graveyard,
Her dead hair the color of oats,
Whose resurrection ended
With a scalpel and copious notes.

Back to Poetry