Nights are always the worst. The loudest. Screams do not the sweetest of lullabies make. With time, though, I’ve found the most incessant sounds can become lulling. A buzzing hum, attracted to a torch burning low. Zzzz…. Zzzz…. The occasional sizzle of an Icarus acolyte.
Nana slept with a citronella candle on her night table, her ever-cracked window an invitation for all kinds of pests. Even in winter, the window remained a sliver shy of its sill. Wind wailed like a whistle through it. Nana whistled along as she lit her candle. As she lowered the match for me to blow out.
They don’t mean to keep us up, Nana said, tucking me in to bed. They’re just lost and scared. You’d cry too. You will. Trust me, Thana. It’s better if you’ve got a light on when the tears come.
On a little hackneyed table in the back room, a citronella candle rests. Dust chokes the wick.
Silence c r e e p s as the sun rises…. well, at the very least, screaming settles into negligible staccato as the living world awakes.
Two beady, black eyes meet mine first thing. A blink. An inquisitive crook of its head, perhaps curious at meeting a pair of eyes darker than its own, and the bird takes off. Too small to be a crow. Perhaps a rook? Or, a magpie? Corvids have called these cemetery grounds home for almost as long as my ancestors have. Lately, the birds have been leaving gifts. Shiny, polished things. Buttons and charms. Detritus of life.
This morning, I find only an smooth, inky feather.
A big stretch dislodges the quilt I don’t recall tucking around my shoulders last night. It’s the silvery one with the threads like comet trails. Must’ve sparkled in the moonlight. I’m surprised the birds didn’t tear it apart.
I leave my feathery gift on the sill for now. The quilts need folding and the salt on the floor, sweeping. Me, feeding.
Mornings are quiet affairs, interrupted only by chirps here and there, accompanied always by a warm mug of herbal tea. Jasmine, today. The only sizzle that unsettles the air is the one that lets me know my omelette is ready to be flipped. Nana made the best omelettes, from eggs Ol’ Sid brought fresh from the farm twice a week.
Now Sid stares in my window twice a week, hollowed gaze like two, bulbous black eggs.
I eat around the burnt edges of my omelette. Mentally add a carton of eggs to the list. When breakfast is done, I clear the counter. Place my plate in the sink. Leave the pan I made my omelette in on the burner. I’ll have another for dinner. Sid keeps his distance when I do.
My fragrant tea comes with me back into the main room. Past a small white table with two matching chairs and a flower to boot. Past mattresses–junkyard and estate sale finds– for walls. A neat stack of quilts. A less neat stack of tomes. Then, another stack beside a tall bookshelf. An open window, glass pane half-cracked. All the way to the mirror by the door. A black shroud hides most of its surface from view. Beneath it, a low shelf, its crevices crowded with more books. Many with Greek titles. Some German, Italian. One in Chinese. All about the dead. Well… all about bringing them back.
I set my mug beside a cluster of half-melted candles and reach for the shroud. Tip-toes are taken to. The stool is by the bookshelf, tucked in between the two haphazard stacks on the floor. Late night reading. It’s why I lost track of the clock. Can’t see it, here, ticking beneath the mirror, from behind a crooked tower of crooked magic.
The silky shroud slips through my fingers. A hollowed gaze, oozing a deep red, meets mine. In the mirrored glass, I watch shadows, grey in this early hour, quickly solidify into form. Torso. Legs. Arms. Neck. Head. Smile. A dainty hand–holding a decidedly less dainty cleaver–raises in a wave.
“Good morning, Mary.” I say, as the rest of Mary’s ensemble appears–a hazy, gossamer shift splattered in shades of crimson and stockings to match.
“Is it?” Mary inquires, drifting nearer. A cloying, coppery scent overpowers the heady smell of jasmine. Tea, is also added to the list. Preferably something strong. Killer, even.
“As good as any.”
Now, Mary smiles a big smile, a slash of white across her grey face. Without eyes to meet, both corners of her grin seem to end in knife points. Incisions where dimples should sit.
I fiddle with my hair. Finally meet my own dark eyes in mirrored glass. Take stock of the darker blood vessels weighing them down.
“Sleep well, Thana?” Mary appears at my side, twirling her cleaver the way I twirl my hair. Both gleam silver.
“You should know.” I shake my head. Ignore my heavier and heavier gaze. Pull my hair back, slipping the black band ’round my wrist around it. A ponytail will do.
Mary laughs from her ruddy belly and I step back from the mirror. A hand without a cleaver but with red caked under its chewed-down fingernails reaches for me before I get far. I whirl on it. They shouldn’t touch. Nana’s voice in my ears. Mary knows better. Knows my rules. The rules, Nana corrects in my head.
“Your feather.” She cuts me off. Hesitantly, not taking my eyes from the ones Mary lacks, I run my fingers through my tail of hair. Towards the end, brush something thin and silky. My gift.
Not turning my back on Mary again, I walk to the window, still open. Sill empty. A faint breeze unsettles the curtains. Fog creeps across the lawn outside, nearly the same gloomy shade as the stones embedded halfway in green. Nearly the same grey as Mary. A deeper hue flutters across. Then another. Crows for sure. A raven, maybe.
Deep in the fog, on the cusp of where green almost completely vanishes, devoured, a dark form too big to be mistaken for a bird. Unmoving. A living shadow. Reaper. The long staff of a scythe juts outward, its bladed head only a vague impression from this distance. But I know it’s there. Have heard the sharp swish of it, echoing across night. Off stone.
Long ago, Necromancers and Reapers came to an understanding–a compromise. Mutual interests intact. Less mutual interests honoured to a point. It keeps us peaceful. The Underworld from chaos. Oft, we live close. Territories not shared but brushing each other. It’s good to have a Reaper on hand. In our line of work. ‘Case something won’t go south, as Nana would say. Did say.
This particular Reaper’s been a little too close for comfort, though. Almost pacing the boundary where our haunts kiss these past few nights. Now lingering as day wakes.
I think about the quilt wrapped ’round my shoulders this morning. My favourite. So shiny. Finger the feather in my hair again. So soft. Corvids have coarse coats. Like armor. They like shiny things. Like to tear off trophies for themselves.
“Thana?” I look at Mary in glass, dragging my hand from my hair, my mind from its thoughts. “The time.” She motions with her cleaver to the clock. I release a curse.
Quickly, I shut the window–deal with that later–and toe on my boots. Shrug on my jacket. Pat my pockets for my keys. Glance one last time at the mirror.
“I look good?”
“As good as you get.” Mary chimes. Then, so does the clock. Again, I curse.
“Stay out of trouble.” I call over my shoulder as I throw open the door.
“If you do the same.” A breathy, almost-whisper.
Before I can pull the door shut, a gust from within does it for me. Then, brass tumblers click into place. I lower my key.
I will. I’ll try.
No time to linger, I hurry away from what looks like your typical, negligible, cemetery grounds shed. Hurry away from the fog. Away from living shadows that have some reason to be leaving peace offerings for living dead girls.
Decided to keep writing this. Enjoy.