Once the corpse is ready to return to the desert, it falls to me to gather her memories. The house where they fester has good bones, but its guts are in turmoil. A stain that looks like bile has seeped through the floor. That means many hours taking up the boards and hauling them to the firehouse. Hours of exposure. Any strong back can haul for the death carts, but carters can’t do their work until I finish mine.
Some of the carters still call me Mother Hrisa, though I haven’t been a surgeon in twenty years.
Sunlight falls from the window slats onto a clay bowl of chicken stew, alive with maggots. A breath of sadness grazes my cheek and I turn, holding out the vial. The vial shivers, consuming a regret over the uneaten meal. A grunt of discomfort from the other side of the house, and I hold out the collecting vial, moving past the array of octagonal mirrors meant to shine light into the cool, windowless bedroom.
My nose and throat clamp shut against the death smell; a ferment of sweat and bowel. The body must have been left long enough for birds and lizards to puncture the organs. The workers tasked with removing the body for burial were either new, overworked, or both—not bothering to scoop up what leaked out and smeared in their wake. Such smears are breeding pools for infection, even without the danger of the dead’s memories to contend with.
It was cleaner when the ghilan ranged the sands, loping approximations of humans that ate our dead flesh and dead memories, leaving the living free to move on. The desert made them, and the desert swallowed them forty years ago. Without them on hand to dispose of bodies, we’ve had to invent new ways to protect the living from the dead. That’s when we started using collecting vials.
There are no candle stands or hand-lamps by the bed. She died alone, encased in darkness.
In ten or fifteen years, this is how I would prefer it, too.
My colleagues were surprised when I announced my resignation from surgery. I had saved many, taught many; but death is like the dust storms. Breezes, siroccos, sandstorms like razors in your eyes, this is the natural flow. Nothing can stop it, or prevent it. It comes. I knew this, I accepted it, and I had no more room in my hands to hold that pain for others. I could not sit in that moment and provide comfort. Forty years of wailing, of births and breaks, fevers, and fears. Thousands of voices begging for aid, for comfort, for release. I was not enough. I couldn’t win. I learned to perceive the dead, and turned to this work a decade ago. For solace. For silence.
I see to the dead, because I can no longer bear the living.
I hear wrenched, hacking coughs; but not with my ears. Eyes watering, I reach out with the vial, a thin silver tube just longer than my palm. The name of the deceased, and the family to whom her memories now belong, have been acid-etched into the side. One soul, one vial, one purpose.
My mind is uncluttered, and open. Once I understand the memory, it’s a matter of threading sympathy into a lure, and down in to the vial it goes.
…sleep sweet, my little one, see you in the morning sun…
My thumb covers the slender silver container with a thup and the memory goes silent. Some families fear secrets more than curses. This takes care of both. The vial gleams, reflecting all that’s left of the sun’s glory bouncing from mirror to mirror.
I cough, dampening the bandages over my mouth. Ears ringing, I return to the light of the sitting room. I thought the cough caused it, but the ringing grows into pressure. The pressure becomes a sweet scent, slipping in between the filth.
Sweet, but not food. New, but intimately known, an instant rapport like the first smile from someone who truly understands you. The sympathetic resonance of these memories is strange, slightly off; the right tune on the wrong strings. A knowing, rather than perceiving. It snuck in, beneath all the other smells, and sleepless nights, and interminable cries, and nestled among the memories that lingered in the remains.
There are two souls here. This vial can only protect me from one.
Across the room, my supply cart rustles. A bottle of disinfecting tincture falls off and rolls under a chair. Two brushes clatter to the floor.
Where is she? comes a strong little voice.
The vial nearly leaps from my hand. That is not the old woman I was sent here to collect.
Where is my mommy?
I squeeze the collecting vial, now full of the dead woman.
“She’s safe,” I call, trying to find the source. “Where are you, little one?”
The floor shudders. Beyond the back doors, the garden is still. The stalks do not waver, the sand doesn’t shift. The shaking is only within the house.
Where? demands the little voice. I’m cold, I’m scared, I’m real!
One hand firmly clamped over the collecting vial, I dash for the cart, cursing my ancient knees. The shaking becomes more violent, and several more bottles of solvents and disinfectants fall off the cart and shatter, adding the piss-smell of ammonia to the mélange.
Bring her back! I’m scared! the sweet voice twists sour, its plump tones stretching and straining, thinning like desiccated flesh left in the open desert, waiting for a ghilan to eat and give it rest.
My knees are on fire. I cannot risk injuring myself here, alone, work unfinished; and I have no tools to collect this spirit. I gasp through the pain in my joints, grab the vial’s amberwood case, abandon my cart, and hobble toward the door. Just as I pull it open, the floorboards buck, ejecting me from the house and throwing me to the ground. The amberwood case skids across the sand. I crawl toward it, then turn over, facing the house. With the vial clutched to my chest, the horrible ringing pulses, slows, and dies.
I tug the wrapping off my face, cough, and spit onto the sand. A spasm shoots painfully through my hip and makes my cheek twitch. My hands shake as I unlock the case and seal the collecting vial inside.
I wonder how the family will lie about this.
The appointment with the family had been set for the following morning on the rooftop portico of my offices. The air scours off the death smell, and sunlight tends to set the mourners at ease. The amberwood case rests on the table, next to a quote detailing a room-by-room cleaning assessment and any relevant amendments requested by the death cart and sanitation workers; a tidy accounting of the spiderweb of reciprocal contracts that characterizes our greatest institutions.
When the family arrives, Deshrin, a gentleman of fifty years and graying temples inclines his head toward me. “I wish to express my gratitude for this meeting, Hrisa.”
I nod but do not rise. “I wish to express my great sympathy for the loss of your mother, Deshrin.”
His wife, Keprie, and their daughter take their seats next to him. The girl might be fifteen, and the veil she wears across her face is a fashion I thought had died out. The women’s hands crossed in their laps, holding their mourning kerchiefs. There is comfort, in grief, to ruin something beautiful, but the kerchiefs’ intricate, brightly colored embroidery is completely clean. They were not close.
“Your kind words alleviate the pain in our hearts. Thank you.” He pulls his sleeve back with one hand and lifts the teapot, pouring a cup for me. The appropriate deference due to a woman of my eighty-four years, despite the nature of our business. Someone raised him correctly.
“Tell me, when you requested my services, it was solely for your mother, correct? There were no companions, no trusted servants or anyone else to be collected?”
“No, she lived alone.” Deshrin’s eyes narrow.
“I’m afraid there has been a complication.” I gesture to the quote, and Deshrin takes up the paper. I lift my teacup and sip while he reads.
Deshrin’s gaze flicks across the document. His breath catches in his throat when he reaches the middle of the page. “A second? What is—who else is there?” he asks.
“Your sister, perhaps. Once I had collected the last memories, a child made itself known. Perhaps it was shocked to suddenly find itself alone. It is not unprecedented, but it will require extra work; up to and including a second vial. I presume you know the danger if this is not addressed.”
Deshrin’s shoulders slump, and Keprie takes the quote from him to examine it. “This nearly doubles the original price.”
“Lower your voice,” Deshrin says. “We cannot pay this. Not on record. We can’t have any record of a soul left uncollected for so long. What is she, buried in the floorboards? The shame would ruin us and destroy the value of the property.”
I hate their voices. I need an apprentice to handle this for me. Even as I look at their faces, all I can see are the shapes of their skulls beneath their skin—the flesh like a mask to be discarded.
“How could this have happened? How could you not know?” Keprie demanded.
After the drought, and the famine, there was a typhoid outbreak. Too many people clustered in the city looking for help. We had to burn bodies en masse. They were dying too quickly for the ghilan to eat, and lingering spirits spread everywhere. I lost whole families, entire extended households to disease caused by the uncollected dead infecting their kin. Those that didn’t die of illness went insane and took their own lives, spreading to others. We couldn’t stop the dead, but we could stop those with infected minds from spreading disease with their corpses. I could tolerate the smell, like cheese left to rot in a pit latrine; but the sound… dry bones snapping like kindling. That, I will never forget.
I gave my life to my work rather than having a family, and that saved me; but not from failure. Healers can only delay death, not stop it; and new parents will say the kin-oath to a newborn, flown spirit or not.
I put my teacup back on the table. “With no more ghilan to eat the bodies and souls as one, we are left with the tools at hand.”
Keprie pours more tea, speaking softly. “Then your mother was…?”
“Actually insane. Because of the spirit,” says Deshrin. “I thought she was just… self-serving.”
“Such infections can account for a difficult manner or chronic illness.” The next, I say with the detachment appropriate to our profession, but it feels more like bracing for a blow. “Your mother has been collected, and whatever she did to keep her child’s spirit contained is no longer in place. Without her, the child’s spirit will try to cling to another.”
“A sister,” Deshrin murmurs. “I never knew.”
He could have said anything at that moment and it would have been the same. He reaches for solace and finds none. His wife doesn’t move, nor his daughter. No wonder the little spirit didn’t infect anyone but its mother. The family are as detached as those in my profession.
“I will do as you ask, and no less,” I say. “The rest is up to you.”
Deshrin collects himself. “What about the public record? Can we keep a second vial quiet?”
“That’s not exactly legal,” I say, stiffly. “The ghilan can no longer be relied upon to… return the forgotten to the sand. Your grandchildren would be at risk.”
Families can be far-reaching, and so can the impact of an uncollected soul. An inaccurate death record could lead to false evidence or inaccurate court proceedings for generations—on top of any consequences to reputation. Vast amounts of treasure could be wasted trying to correct a mistake that was already accounted for.
“Which means yes, for the right price.” Keprie purses her lips.
I incline my head, confirming her assertion. It is an apologetic gesture, as formalized as the bribery itself. “Lineage is both a matter of pride, and of public order.”
He assents, but makes a show of blustering anyway. “It never ends. Even in death she subjugates everyone around her. Her secrets become my shame to carry, and I’ll be condemned as an inattentive heir.”
“So?” says the girl.
Deshrin and Keprie turn to their daughter — whose name escapes me — as though only just remembering she was there. Her voice is strong and clear, despite the modesty of her veil; but the words are garbled, as though they scarcely make it out of her throat. “Eh eer. Ea ah whoo be beh oo-ih.” The girl gestures to herself, then Keprie. “I owe. Ma owe.” She jabs her pristine handkerchief toward me. “Fee owe.”
Keprie offers an embarrassed nod by way of apology, and then translates. “She said, she’s here, and she has to be dealt with. She knows, I know, and pardon me, you know, Hrisa.” Keprie pats her daughter’s leg. Then aside, to her daughter, “Don’t be rude, Yerdra.”
Yerdra. Named for her grandmother. Perhaps a peace-offering between the dead woman and her son.
Deshrin shook his head. “That woman was a tyrant. We owe her nothing.”
A futile one.
“The property is a valuable asset,” Keprie says. “If we get the house we may recover the losses.”
“Of course, with my family’s reputation at stake, your only concern is that house.”
“Someone has to think of these things,” she retorts. “Where do you think the second vial will come from? Those expenses will need to be expunged as well.”
I hold a hand up. “I have made my recommendation. You may safely take another day to decide. I can see you have much to discuss.”
“Uh och. Gama och,” Yerdra says. She makes a gesture of giving, aimed at me.
“What box? Everything in that house is already accounted for in the will,” says Keprie.
“She might have one or two small items we could offer in trade for a second vial. She never liked anyone poking about her things,” Deshrin mutters.
“I owe weh,” Yerdra insists.
Despite her imprecise words, she speaks slowly, filling in the missing consonants with the tone and pitch of her voice.
I know where, she says.
“You’re not going in that house until it’s been cleansed,” Keprie insists. “Leave this for the adults to decide.”
Yerdra is a common name, and I’ve met many Yerdras. I have delivered Yerdras, held Yerdras while their husbands bled, and guided Yerdras into the arms of silence. I wonder about this one.
“Were you close with your grandmother?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes. “Oh,” she says. No. Children don’t typically speak at these meetings, and she has not brought spare paper to write out her thoughts. She speaks again, supplementing her words with gestures. Though I’m starting to understand, her mother interprets, speaking over her rather than for her.
“She only visited once, when she was eight. That’s when she found the box she means to offer you, and she didn’t go back after that.”
Frustration slows Yerdra’s words even more, but her meaning is clear. You didn’t let me.
With that, the girl storms out, with Keprie close on her heels.
Now I know this Yerdra. And her parents’ surprise when they saw her cleft lip and palate. I wonder who decided on the veil.
Deshrin presses his hands together. “I would like meet her, just for a moment, when she’s collected.”
“Uncollected dead cause disease.” I drop my finger onto the relevant line item of the invoice. “As part of your services, there will be a sitting to review your mother’s collected memories before the last mourning day.”
“But we won’t get that with my sister if she’s off the record,” he counters. “You’ll be there. If she will not speak, you can collect her before she harms us.”
He wants to reopen the wound so it might heal cleaner. To feel like he’d done something, even if it was too little, too late. I don’t want to feel his pain. My skin crawls. I want to leap out of my chair and run, but I sip my tea and compose myself.
“The invoice will need to be adjusted, to make sure you’re fitted with safe clothes.”
He grimaces, but nods. We set a time to meet at the house, and he departs.
I’m going soft. I sip my tea.
Perhaps, to the deceased Yerdra, chaining her baby’s soul to her and accepting the risk of dementia felt less insane than putting that empty husk on a bonfire. Clinging to the loss, being hollowed out by it for that long, any person would crack and shatter.
Human beings are not collecting vials.
Keprie, Deshrin, and Yerdra arrive carefully wrapped in surren silk, a pale-yellow fabric that protects the skin from exposure to unclean material. They assure me they received my message and have worn clothes that they are prepared to throw away in the event they accidentally touch conventional filth. I wouldn’t have them risking consumption or cholera through negligence. I show them how to wrap the surren to prevent gaps as an extra measure against infection. With the house still befouled, I carefully inspect their shoulders, elbows and fingers to make sure they can still move without putting themselves at risk.
Once inside, I sprinkle the floor with disinfecting powders and give the maggoty pot to the drowned garden, breaking off the few tall stalks left standing. Today there are two cases on my cart. A second vial has been acquired and brought to the house, a lower-grade silver, and lacking the family crest. It is a courtesy, to keep their secret and privacy.
Inside, Deshrin wrings his hands, looking up at the domed ceiling. “Hrisa, when will—how will she—do we call to her?”
“Memories are difficult to catch in company,” I reply. “Try to make yourself quiet. Hold your feelings at a distance.”
“A distraction, then,” said Keprie. “You said there was a box, darling. Something valuable. Where did she keep it?”
In there, Yerdra says, pointing at the bedroom.
“That area is not safe to enter,” I remind them. “The remains have not been properly disposed of.”
“You’ve been in there,” Keprie says. “Are we not wrapped the same way?”
“Such sights are disturbing. If you vomit in your wrappings you would need to go outside to dispose of them, and I will not permit you back in,” I say.
Yerdra puffs air dismissively and pushes past me.
Deshrin and Keprie start moving choice pieces of furniture to the back garden to sun-bake, and I follow Yerdra into the dark.
She moves lightly through the cluttered space, long and deft as a needle, avoiding contact with the foulness in the room. She is almost blue here, less solid than the outside world of brown stalks and orange sand.
Yerdra stumbles, and glass shatters. A dozen glass bottles had fallen to the floor—nestled into the folds of a table linen that slipped from its place. By the smell, medicine for pain.
“Are you cut? Your shoe?” I ask.
“Uh-uh.” She bends over a writing desk, peering at a half-written letter.
“Can you breathe? The smell—”
She tugs her mask down for a moment—a foolish thing to do, in this filthy room—but the moment is enough. Her mouth looks as though it has been slashed upward into each nostril. “I kah fme.” I can’t smell.
She watches me, challenging me to wince or look away.
The sick, the elderly, the damaged—they terrify the living. Yerdra’s face must be no different. Maybe her parents veiled her to hide from their own mortality.
The dying do the same, curling up in darkness and denial, not wanting to trouble anyone, including themselves.
Yerdra tugs her mask back up. The watering in her eyes is the same as mine; the body cleansing itself of death, whether it can smell or not.
She points to the desk. “Afe?”
“Yes. Only ink,” I reply.
She swallows, then traces one finger along the underside of the desk. She fumbles with a mechanism, and then click, slide, a secret drawer. She pulls out a box made of small, faded green stone. Octagonal. Something rattles inside it.
It is very difficult to understand her, but I listen. I find myself using the same tendrils of sympathy I use in my work to peel back the layers of meaning within the sounds she makes. She is frustrated at her parents. She disagrees with their approach; but it’s more than the chafing and flippancy of one her age. There are pinpricks of regret in what she’s conveying, new understanding, and wrongdoing.
We should have been here, she seemed to say. This Yerdra turns, moving the box out from under her shadow and into the scant light. We should have asked.
A subject that must have been dear to her, having to measure the worth of her words against the value of paper.
“What’s done is done,” I say. I have no wish to use the sympathetic technique with a living person. It is too painful. The effort of listening to her speak, and the care with which she tries to be understood — it feels the way healing felt. The same intimacy dregs up my time in surgery. I don’t want it. Her words burrow into buried places like worms.
It is not my concern. It is my job to cleanse, not to comfort. Not anymore.
“Cleaners are in the business of preserving dignity. Distance is kindness.” I shift away from her and my boot rasps against a sheaf of discarded parchment on the floor. “Death’s shadow is long, yet new babies arrive nearly every day.”
I recall the many that didn’t. When the mothers wailed, rather than the children.
“Kin don’t abandon kin.” She squeezes the box for a moment, like she might throw it. Then she presses the box into my hand. “Here. For the vial.”
She returns to the hosting room, and I fiddle with the lid in the dim light, feeling for the catch. It twists, and then opens.
Inside is a small, grey-green stone, thick at one end, tapering at the other. I squint at it.
It’s a ghilan tooth.
A big molar. I thought they were all gone. Ground up and carefully processed, this could make thousands of collecting vials — or, in the right hands, perhaps we could find out why they disappeared.
“Where did she get this?” I ask, but Yerdra has gone toward the back gate already.
“Yerdra?” I call.
A breeze slips through the window slats and rustles a bit of paper to the floor. The air takes on weight; it hurts my back. I dart into the light of the main room to check on the family. Keprie touches her temple.
Mommy? asks the little voice.
The realization hits me like the death-smell. Yerdra. The spirit heard her mother’s name.
That pressure again, like last time. It moves from my ears to my chest.
I curse myself for my sloppiness. The little spirit was waiting for us, and I woke her up too soon.
Deshrin darts inside from the garden, calling to me for help. “Hrisa!”
I rush toward the cart, the vial, but pain shoots through my knee and I stumble. The house trembles, the chipped red cup smashes on the ground. Across the room from me, Yerdra drops to the floor, choking.
“Stop!” I cry, but I feel as though my lungs are being squeezed.
Yerdra convulses, beyond my reach.
It’s so warm, a heartbeat again! Don’t take her away, the little voice says, to me. I’m real, Help me!
“You can’t have her, she isn’t your mother!” I sputter.
Mommy don’t leave me, don’t lock me away, I’m real! The pressure in the air becomes heavier. My back and shoulders ache, and my knees burn as I try to stand. Yerdra rolls to one side, hunching, yellow ichor leaking into the wrappings over her mouth, nose, and ears. She was the only one not protected by detachment. Yerdra was the only one who cared enough about the dead woman for the little spirit to see her. The child’s spirit recognized only her as family, and it is killing her. I had heard of this happening, but misjudged the strength of its hunger. I cannot lose against death again.
I am already old.
I have been hollowed out by the lives I could not save. I had room within my mind to trap her. All I needed was the right lure.
“You are not real!” I cry. “You have never had, or lost. You do not know what it is to be alone!”
I scrape out the last of my humanity and offer it in trade. I could not stop death, and she had never lived. Each of us has only the memory of closeness, the longing for it. We are at two ends of the same rope, fraying and rotten. If I can convince her to see me as family—as the mother she lost—I can use that rope to pull her into my mind.
Or, the rope could snap. But I am out of options. If my life ends today, let me delay another’s death one last time.
I become a vial, and call the little spirit into me. She answers.
My lungs and throat burn. My eyes swim and my stomach turns. The last thing I see is Yerdra roll onto her stomach.
All at once, the little one is here. She is a weight and a lightness in my mind. Every whisper that I thought long buried rushes up to meet her. Every dancing laugh and crash of sorrow tangles her consciousness with mine. She rakes and sifts through my memories, tasting and pawing, recoiling and savoring them. Time bends and stretches, and I see her as my child might have been. I watch her grow into a young healer, always at my side. Then she’s grown, no longer my shadow but my equal when I quit the hospital. They call her mother, as I was called mother. Through me—with me—she bears witness to a thousand births, and a thousand deaths. She stands sentinel over the ill and the injured, and holds space for the sad and afraid. The little spirit’s voice—not mine—whispers somewhere between my ears and my memory:
I swear to protect you and care for you, I swear to nurture and bestow my strength unto you, I swear to let no one bring you harm who does not first bring harm to me. From my first breath to your last, I swear that you are my kin.
The kin oath, what parents say to their children before their naming, ripples through my mind. The little spirit shows me what roused her. Deshrin and Keprie teasing each other while sandscrubbing dishes. Yerdra’s surprise when I don’t flinch at her face. Then, my office a few weeks ago, giving instructions to my staff and the way they trust me. The sun’s rays gleaming from mirror to mirror, lighting up the bedroom at just the right time. With each scrape, the boundaries between the little spirit and me snap apart. With each snap, I feel something crack and shatter. She is within me, the little spirit; holding my hand. The gnarled roots of my failings seem to loosen and recede, scouring the doubt and regret that had calcified around them. My lifetime becomes hers. She becomes part of me—and I am enough.
The cascade of memory eases and drops me back into the now. The house, the family, my aching knees. I push myself up to a sitting position on sand, not floorboards. They have pulled me outside.
I cough and spit.
“Hrisa?” says Keprie. “I did not see you close her in a vial. Is it done?”
Our wrappings have been stripped off, and the antiseptic smell of the surren silk lingers on my hands. Yerdra holds the octagonal box with the tooth. I must have dropped it.
Deshrin helps me to my feet. My hands tremble.
“Are we safe?” Deshrin asks.
The little spirit should have killed me. I do not know why she didn’t.
“Yes.” I put my hand over my heart, and feel something nestle in, like a child curling against me to sleep. “The child has been collected.”
“The rock?” Yerdra asks, her voice a little thick from her ordeal.
Keprie wrinkles her nose, “what rock?”
“A curio from a darker time,” I say, taking the box from Yerdra. “If you’ll allow me to have it, the bill and public record will remain unaltered.”
“Yes, agreed,” said Deshrin.
“I will stay.” Yerdra spits into the sand. “I will help.”
“The carters will return tomorrow just after dawn to finish the cleaning. I hope you’re prepared to pull up floorboards,” I say.
She smiles, eyes flinty. Her teeth glint through the crests of her upper lip.
Perhaps she could be taught to handle invoices.
The family prepares to depart, changing out of their protective wrapping and into clean clothes. I lean on the outer wall of the house, and the breeze kicks dust over the dunes. I feel lighter, and heavier, the ragged edges of my failures relived, and then relieved. I open the box again and consider the ghilan tooth, heavy with possibility. I wonder if the little spirit’s presence within me will shorten or extend my life, and if there’s time to make more vials, or train others to hear and collect spirits. Or perhaps, to find the ghilan and return them to their lands, freeing human hands from this burden. I consider the weight of them both: the tooth and the little spirit, and whether collecting the secrets and memories of the dead prepared me to survive this ordeal.
I wonder how many vials my death will require.
But for now, my heart is fuller, and my failures quieter. That quiet changes how I hear the family taking their leave. Their chatter is the clatter of a busy kitchen, the creak of doors after a long day, and the murmuring of sorrows shared and laid to rest. It whispers across the sand, glimmers in the sun, and then finally, blows away.