The graveyard was cold and foggy this early in the morning, and the gravedigger shivered as he put the finishing touches to the large open grave he had dug for the poor and lost of the parish. There were six bodies this day, an old woman, an emaciated though youngish man, the usual number of infants and babies, and a small urchin, all wrapped in cheap hessian shrouds. It was only left to place them into the ground and fill the hole behind them.
He lifted the adults in first, gently placing them either side of the grave – he would put the children between them, to protect them in their long rest. Despite the reputation of the Gravedigger, he had a reverence and care for his charges that would have surprised even the closest of his companions.
From out of the mist, he saw small figures converging on him, seeming to materialise from nothing. They were urchins, some he recognised, others were unknown to him. They approached the grave quietly, solomly, though there were no tears. Life was hard for them and death was no stranger in this vast industrial city or to these children.
Each child stepped forward, placing a small something on the body of the late urchin. A knife, a porridge bowl, a spoon, little gifts that the boy might need on his journey. One urchin, that might even be called fat, placed a sugar cake carefully on the body, checking almost fearfully round at the others to ensure his gift was acceptable. A boy with an orange and white tail like a fox nodded solemnly at the fat boy, and he stepped back with evident relief.
The fox boy reached into his pocket, pulling forth a copper coin, crouched down and slid it under the shroud and closing the dead child’s hand around the offering. He looked at the three smaller bodies, reached into his pocket, and slid a small coin under the coverings of each. Standing, he stepped back into the crowd of urchins, and nodded at the Gravedigger, who returned the nod then lifted each small body down with the others. He was about to pull himself out when the fox boy stepped forward again, indicating the two other bodies. The Gravedigger shook his head and the boy reached into his pocket again, pulling forth a coin, then looked back at the others. There was a hurried whispering, and a ragged girl held out a final penny to the boy, who nodded in thanks, then gave both coins to the Gravedigger. He placed one in each shroud – now the adults could go with the children over the river, protecting them until the journey end.
The Gravedigger hauled himself from the damp hole, reached for his spade, and began to fill in from the freshly dug earth. The gathered children watched for a few spadefuls, then drifted into the early morning mist. Last to leave was the fox tailed boy, who turned to the Gravedigger and spoke the only words heard in that corner of the graveyard that day.
“Didn’t really know im, he were new, yer see… but he were an urchin, one of us, an we looks after each other, yer know?”
With that he turned and slipped away.