An Orphan, Cast Out in the Storm,
Body and Soul Most Lightly Connected,
A Tiny Spark on the Winds of Chance Borne,
To the Fancies of Fortune Subjected.
Rooster Charlie allows as how today he's goin' to see Dr. Graves himself, the bloke what sends Muck around to pick up dead orphans for the di-seck-shun and for the good of science and all, to see if Charlie his ownself can get paid for his body before he goes croakers so's he can have the pleasure of it himself, like.
Me and the others laugh and jeer and say, "Charlie, you ain't got the bollocks. He'll prolly open you up right there, without so much as a by-your-leave." But Charlie, he hikes up his pants and gives his vest a pat and off he goes to sell his body. The pat is for his shiv, which he keeps tucked next to his ribs.
I've been with Charlie and the gang for four, maybe five, years since That Dark Day when me world was changed forever, but I can't be sure, the seasons run into each other so-we shivers and dies of the cold in the winter and sweats and dies of the pestilence in the summer, so it's all one. It's been close a couple of times, but I ain't dead yet.
We begs mostly, please Mum please Mum please Mum, over and over and we steals a bit and we gets by, just. There's only six of us right now 'cause Emily died last winter. I woke up next to her stiff body in the morning in our kip and I took her shift, which is too big but which I wears over me other shift, that givin' me two things I own besides me immortal soul. We tried takin' poor naked dead Emily down to the river and floatin' her off with the proper words and all, but she's stiff and hard to move and Muck caught us at it and stole her away. He gives us a curse for tryin' to get her away and for takin' her shift, too, that which he could have sold to the ragman.
Charlie is the leader of our gang and is called the Rooster 'cause his last name is Brewster, and him being such a cocky little banty, it seems natural, like. He's small, but he's smart and quick. Charlie's hair is straight and red and hangs to one side like a cock's comb. He's got britches that were once white and a once-white shirt and a bright blue vest over that, and he looks right fine, he does. A flash cove is our Rooster Charlie.
Besides him there's Polly and Judy and Nancy, and Hugh the Grand, him what is big and strong like an ox but what is a bit slow in the head. Charlie is fond of pattin' him on his broad back and sayin', "Our Hughie is our muscle and our tower of strength in this world of strife and trouble," and every time he does it, Hughie blushes all red and rocks his head side to side and grins his big dumb grin in his gladness. Charlie takes care of us, and with his cheek and his bravado and his shiv and our Hughie, the other gangs keep their distance.
Since I'm the smallest, I get called Little Mary, even though I ain't near to bein' the youngest no more.
The gang is always changin', as we loses some and we brings some in. Like the girl what stole me clothes before, whose name is Betty, was stole herself awhile back as two of the women from Missus Tuttle's lit upon our little band to find a replacement for their servant girl who had died. They picked Betty and allowed as they was gonna make a fine lady out of her, Isn't that right, Bessie, just like us. So they takes our Betty off, and Charlie says that he'll give it two days and then he'd go see her and if she wanted to come back, he'd steal her back, but after the two days he goes to see, and, no, she didn't want t' come back, she wanted to stay and be a fine lady. And I din't get me clothes back, either, even though they prolly would still have fit.
"Whyn't all us girls go off to Missus Tuttle's to be fine ladies," says I, thinkin' maybe there'd be food there and beds and stuff, but then Charlie tells me to shut my silly girly gob, as what do I know about anything in the world. Then he tells us what goes on at Missus Tuttle's, but I don't believe him, not for a minute. Disgustin', it is. "Such a mind you have, Charlie, to be thinkin' of such."
"Mary, bless you, you'll find out soon enough," says Charlie.
Our kip is up under the Blackfriars Bridge, just where the bridge meets the road real sharp so there's a cave under there, like. We got some straw from the stables on the sly, a little bit at a time, so at night we all burrows in and sleeps in a pile for warmth and comfort. When it rains, trickles of water come down through the black stones, but we knows where they'll be comin' now, so we keeps away. Can't keep away the damp from the river, though. I think that's what took Emily off, the damp and cold from the river. In the night the lights from the city lamps bounce off the waves, and on foggy nights horns sound low and mournful back and forth. It's ships makin' their way to someplace else, and I want to be going somewheres else, too.
Other gangs would like to have our kip, but with Hugh the Grand shakin' his big fists and bellowin' and Charlie wavin' his shiv and the rest of us throwin' rocks, we manages to chase them off and keep our home, at least for the time bein'.
At night, when we're all in a pile, we talks and makes up stories about what we're goin' to be if we grows up. Like Charlie says, he'll be a soldier and all and trade his shiv for a great gleamin' sword and fine red uniform and won't all the fine ladies love him and we girls all says we loves him right now but he says that don't count, us bein' worthless drabs and all and he gets jabbed in the ribs for his cheek.
Hughie allows as how he'd like to be a horse handler 'cause horse handlers have to be big and strong, which he is, and he likes horses and even likes the smell of 'em. We all hold our noses and say phew, but he don't care, he likes 'em, is all. There's lots of horses here in Cheapside 'cause of all the markets and fairs.
Judy's of a practical turn of mind, too, as she wants to go into service and be a maid for a fine lady, but first she's got to get big enough to be useful to some such fine lady and not just eat her out of house and home. Polly, she just wants to marry a good man and raise up babies. Nancy says she wants to get married, too, and maybe she and her man would have a tavern where there'd be lots of good things to eat and drink, but they'd keep scum like Muck out, it bein' a respectable place, like.
I say I want to be the captain of a fine ship and sail around the world and see the Cathay Cat and the Bengal Rat and gaze upon the Kangaroo, which is what I heard some sailors singin' about over at Benbow's Tavern one day and it sounded right fine to me, them all happy and singin' and carefree, it seemed. I'll get rich and famous and spend all me money takin' care of poor miserable orphans, and I get handfuls of straw thrown at me for me sentiments.
'Cut out the middleman!' says I to the worthy doctor. 'Pay me now only half what ye'd be payin' Muck for me earthly remains and I promises to come and lie down on yer doorstep every time I feels sick and liable to die. I'd even carry a note to the effect that if I perished somewheres else, my body was to be delivered to the Honorable Doctor without delay!'" says Charlie, having returned from the anatomist's full of gruesome stories of bloody tables and knives and things put up in jars.
"And Muck himself is there ascowlin' at the notion of his bein' cut out of the bargain, but the doctor says no, it was against his ethics to conduct negotiations with a live body, even though he was sure I was possessed of an admirable spleen."
We're all gigglin' and snortin', and Charlie goes on with, "I owns I got a right fine spleen and if Your Honor would pay me now, I'd be sure to keep it in special prime condition for his later use and joy. Massage it up twice a week to keep it nice and soft and all." Charlie shakes his head sadly, swinging his red mop.
"His Honor would have none of it, and he has Muck put his foul hands on me to toss me out, spleen and all."
"And for that," says Charlie, "I resolves to abuse me spleen most terrible."
We all gets a howl out of Charlie's prancin' around and telling of the stomachs that are blown up and dried like the blowfish we see in the fish market, and other guts tanned and pickled and preserved. But then he tells of seeing a baby's hand floating in some juice and that shuts up my laughing right quick.
I knows me sister Penny is put up in jars, and I suspects that someday I will be, too.
Copyright © 2002 by L. A. Meyer
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