The Big Issue : Edition 439
22 THE BIG ISSUE 16 -- 29 AUG 2013 forget. Maybe some of the stars were the lights of London and men were preparing to go around the streets and turn them off. Because Pip's stomach told her the sun would be up soon and no one was rich enough to let the gas shine all day too. And there it was. On the horizon, a tiny glimmer sending the ancient elm tree at the crossroads into silhouette. Pale and egg-yolky at frst, it climbed like Pip had. It might bring a hot day with it, here in the middle of the year. It defnitely brought the birds. They were singing. They always came back and sang after the battles. She remembered listening to them while her mother cried. They were on the Peninsula then, when her old dad was killed and the Women's camp wailed with so many lost. There was no tiny painting of her father to remember him by and she had forgotten him. The ghosts fitting through the mounds of dead turned into busy people in the new light. Pip's mother worked hard, so Pip had to stop herself from whining that she wanted her here, now, to get her down. Because now that she could see, she didn't like sitting on the chest of the boy with a fair, wispy beard and the way back down looked perilous. She searched the moving fgures over towards the chateau, which was near an orchard, so easy to fnd now, and imagined the one bending over was Mama. The fgure’s red hair famed just a little. When Mama came back Pip would tell her how brave she'd been, not scared at all. Her mother would be proud. Only the fgure in the distance was moving away, not closer. Pip's stomach gnawed at itself and her bladder started to protest. She had to pee. The dead wouldn't mind, they were dead, and yet Pip fdgeted and knew she had to climb to the ground before she could relieve herself. She closed her eyes in the end and that made it easier. She placed each foot by feel, testing each step. A hand moved under her shoe and she sprang up again. It was only gases, Mama’d always say. They'd have peed and shat and farted their insides out, and with the soul gone to God, the gases had to leave too. She bent and patted the twitching hand nonetheless. “It’s okay," she told it, "Your mama will weep for you, too." She peed over by the comforting presence of the dead horse. Then, with nothing more pressing, she stood, not knowing what to do. Her tongue went back to wobbling her loose tooth. When her frst tooth had fallen out, she’d thought her mother would be pleased, would add it to the bags they collected, but her teeth, it seemed, weren't good enough for the gentry in England and the colonists over in America. They wanted good, strong adult teeth for their dentures. They wanted them white and even enough to make them smile like young men again. There'd be enough from this feld to keep the quacks happy for a while. Maybe her mother and her friends would make enough money to get home and leave her new dad to his fghting. Pip looked around. There were fewer noises now the sun was up. All the men around her, Bonaparte's and Wellington's and Blücher's, had had the time they needed to die. So she could start here, for Mama. She didn't have bags for the boots and weapons, but she had pockets for handfuls and handfuls of teeth and a rolled-up canvas of extra tools tied in her pinny for safekeeping. She undid the knots and the dull bits of metal clanked onto the ground. Pliers, small cutters and a hammer for when the death grip wouldn't let go and they had to smash the bones to release the precious rings. Her mother's pliers were large in her hands. She experimented with the air, opening the metal grips and clasping the nothing of the morning. They moved smoothly after a few practices. "Sorry, Man," she said to the nearest corpse. She felt silly saying it. This was a carcass, not a man, she was kneeling next to. And not a full-grown man either. His red jacket was torn open and a maggoty wound in his belly gaped skywards. The sawbones must have looked and seen there was nothing he could do and moved on. Above the wound, the skin was almost as soft as the horse's muzzle. The circular bones between shoulders and neck sat proudly like the gold torc the fairies wore in her mother's stories. She tilted his head back and opened his stiff mouth. He had fne teeth. She forced the jaw a bit more, her mouth opening in concord as she did so, reminding her of chewing; that she was hungry. She felt more than heard the crack as tendons snapped. The pliers slipped at frst, until she got the right angle on a front tooth, and then she pulled. There was a little tug in return, a slight resisting, like when she helped her mother gathering wild onions from the earth. Then she laughed and polished the fat tooth against her sleeve and set it down on the dirt next to her knee. The back teeth were harder to grip but her hands were small, so she went into the cavity as far as she could. The dentists bought Mama's load by the tooth. There'd never been any waste in her family, so she kept going until she had them all. When the pliers were too slippery she wiped them on the trousers of the carcass and kept going. Singing, Over the hills and far away. The precious chips of human ivory formed a pattern on the ground beside her. She was careful not to put them too close to the black boot of the next carcass; she set them down deliberately, happily. Some looked like tombstones, square and solid, but most were growing things with long, sharp roots. The shape of jellyfsh, like the ones she remembered swimming with off Portugal before her old dad died -- only the teeth were solid. After the eleventh tooth, the pattern began to resemble a mouth, open in an astonished circle. "Pip, Pip?" Pip looked up. She'd forgotten how long it had been since her hunger frst attacked her and that she missed her mother. And it was worth it. Her mother knelt beside her and cradled her head against her breasts. She smelt of sweat and blood and sweet, sweet mother. "You clever thing. These will fetch a pretty penny," her mother crooned. "You are my angel." Pip smiled back up at her. "And we won," her mother sighed. Pip felt the wetness of the kiss on her forehead. "The King will be happy today." Jane Downing WRITES POETRY, SHORT STORIES AND SHOPPING LISTS, AND NOT ENOUGH LETTERS TO HER FRIENDS. HER NOVELS, THE TRICKSTER AND THE LOST TRIBE, ARE PUBLISHED BY PANDANUS BOOKS. SHE HAS A DOCTOR OF CREATIVE ARTS DEGREE FROM UTS.