I blink awake at 5 each morning, and I picture your face. I wait for it to hurt less, for your eyes to fade from memory, but it doesn’t and they don’t. I wonder who will be discovered first, me or you and I begin to wonder if it matters, then shake that thought away. Sometimes, you are just a story I tell myself, a ghost I chase The city outside the window is tired, and the pale wash of dawn shows it’s age. The bodies that litter the streets are shushed away before the lie of the day begins, and the scarlet stains run pink and soft into overflowing drains.
I know where the wagons go, and I know where they’ve been.
The shawl covered heads bow low and I am torn between watching and wanting to be seen. My chest feels like a balloon is inflating inside it, as I stand too long at the window, daring them to look up and see me. Lately I am taking longer to step back from the window before the lady in the azure scarf looks up, and I shake today, more than I did yesterday. Coffee spills onto the beige carpet of the hotel room, just missing my night shirt, and I sit on the edge of the bed and wonder if the trembling of my hands is due to my sleepless nights or the job. They call it the Soul Quakes, and I used to laugh about it. After all I don’t have one of those, I would say with a wink. I stare at my hand now and try to keep it still. Something hot rushes up within me and I put my hand on the bed and swallow my coffee. Not today.
The buzz at the door startles me into action, and I hurry into the bathroom, mildly concerned to see the time on the small digital display for the shower reading 5:35. We leave at 6 each morning without fail. I must scrub all trace of myself away, before dressing and it is a meticulous task. I am in the foyer at 5.55, hair plaited, skin squeaky clean and teeth sparkling. Myself and the four others, are all quietly ushered across the hotel’s cobbled courtyard to the black minivan that drives us to the factory, through forty minutes of fields, abandoned farmsteads and clusters of ramshackle houses set far back from the main road. The factory rises from the landscape moments before we reach it, willed to life by our presence it seems, the concrete structure untouched by the sun which crests the horizon as we arrive. I raise my face to it when we cross the car park to the entrance and it feels alien to me, this sun is not mine; it doesn’t warm me like the sun of my childhood summers nor does it stir memories of before. Perhaps it knows.
I hide you when they come to look, hunting for a savior. The Seers despair when I tell them that the moon lied. Sacrifices are made. Chaos erupts for a while as the believers grieve. All wars start with whispers child, and you are the rumor that triggers the last.
I’m not who you think I am, I tell them, and it is true. I would hesitate to turn at my own name these days, the one my mother gave me that is. I’ll show myself again when the time is right I think.
For now I keep you secret. I keep you safe.
Inside the factory, mandatory tests are observed and the five of us are separated and assigned our jobs. Security protocols demand fingerprint and retina scanning, and clearance is provided on a daily basis depending upon which floor you are sent to. I haven’t visited the same floor twice and I’ve worked here for 72 days. I try not to think about that. I follow the blue lights on the corridor floor that lead me to my assignment and don’t look at the bodies on the metal trolleys in the room until the door closes behind me. The room is cold and I feel my nose become numb within seconds. There are 4 bodies today. That will make my total 302. I swallow that knowledge and bury it in the place between the old me and the new. I am good at hiding things. I get to work.
When you are five, you come to me, grubby fisted and in tears because the boy next door called you ugly. Oh my darling, you are not ugly, I tell you. You are the oldest magic. We make apple pancakes, and you eventually stop crying and hiccup instead. I think as I hear your hiccups, and you kick your feet against the kitchen stool legs, frowning at apple chunks on your fingers, that love is too small a word for the swell of emotion you inspire within me. In that moment, I am struck by a fear that one day you will not be so small, and I will not be able to fix your hurts with pancakes or happy songs. I worry about discovery, even then, before the war. You hurt that boy. I found him in the yard, and I bought him back. I do it quietly, carefully; after all, I am supposed to be bound. As if they ever could. There is no word big enough for the emotion that inspires in me either when it works. I dust the grass from his shorts as he wobbles to his feet, I glance up and you are watching from the kitchen window. You are so small. I am still ashamed of the stab of pride your power ignited in my bones.
I do what I must. We catch a bus to the next town over, and the witch I contact is tall, bespectacled and he does the work required. You will not remember. But you remember the bus. He knew what I was, so I made him mine. It’s what we have done since time began, yet I am rusty, since the Judgment, and he comes back wrong. A boy of 5 is a bounce, a witch of 103 is an artful negotiation. Your hands cling to my hair as I heft you at the bus stop to quell your tears, and the knot in my chest loosens. I think, we will survive this you and I.
We visit three other witches before your eighteenth birthday; it gets harder as the years go by. That raises questions, but you never ask them. We don’t talk for a while.
I wonder if death is nothing but endless silence. I don’t want to die yet.
There is a rhythm to this task, and I am happy to say it eludes me. I volunteered because I am selfish and trust no one. The task is grim and thankless. Today I am cataloging the dead. It is better than the other tasks. The ones that make me wake up at 1 am with a crushing weight against my chest pressing me into the mattress. I’m not supposed to care, I remind myself. I still end up pacing on those nights till dawn.
I fingerprint the dead. I take x rays of teeth. I collect swabs. I bag hair. I take photographs of the bodies, from head to toe and this part is worse than the rest. Looking at the the body through a lens, and not waiting for the person to smile, or move or anything at all. The body is a body now, and the person will not pose again, this is the last photograph that will be taken of them, and they are vulnerable and empty and it makes me scream internally with each click.
Some look like they are sleeping. Others look like they fought right to the last breath. There are times when I am so tempted, so tempted to break cover, but I don’t. I am waiting. I am waiting for you.
On Day 73, I think the lady in the azure scarf sees me. I catch a glimpse of grey eyes squinting up at me from a brown lined face. I should report it.
The call comes on Day 74 and I listen silently to the message.
“They know where you are. They will find you.”
I should have reported that old bitch.
“Don’t you want to be part of something special?” You ask me, and I shrug, happy to bask in the shadow of your enthusiasm without drumming up any of my own. Mine is on standby, for bigger things, but I don’t tell you that. It is winter, the weather is miserable with sleet and wind and there is comfort found in knitted jumpers and hot mugs squeezed between cold palms. I want to tell you to be careful but I hold back. Your courage is infectious. It makes me brave enough to keep quiet.
You tell me all about it, this new adventure, this once in a lifetime opportunity and I wonder how you came to be so confident of your humanity. I want to feel proud, like I had a part in it, but I don’t think I did. I nod and try to say the right things. We discuss the war and what it means. We argue, because war does that; divides opinion. There is so much I wish to tell you, but it is not yet time. I think I have more time.
The draft takes us all by surprise. By spring you are gone. The weather warms and the city blooms, even as the people wither and the drones watch from above.
They say we are winning. Those left behind do not agree.
The dead no longer bleed. They no longer do anything, unless my kind get involved, but that was outlawed almost ninety years ago, by the same hypocritical bastards that deemed me suitable for this mission. You people are so vulnerable, you become spare parts in death. Reclamation Plants bottle up your poppy juice, strip your organs and harvest limbs. The Vantyker sold their tricks to you in 1743, and none of you question how a corpse can be recycled when it should just decompose. Strange, isn’t it, how getting the thing you need silences most curiosity about the method. My ancestors were the companions of ancient Kings, Queens, Warlords. They led armies, felled empires. Then the world changed and the Treaty saw the dead left to the Gods. We were shadows of an era too bright for dull eyes to comprehend. I wonder where a God clocks in to the Reclamation Plant, then abandon such bitter thoughts. Our Gods and yours are as comparable as lightning and rain, and ours were silent as my kind were executed. I should know, I listened for them as the axes fell and I watched us die.
Lightning cracked the sky that night, and the Axe man trembled when Death took her masters home. The camera’s turned away from that, the world not yet prepared to know such truths. Death looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back, because I knew we would meet again and I had work to do first.
All of these memories fill my head as I bottle blood and prep hairless lifeless skin for blades, with dotted lines and careful ticks. I mark the boxes on an inventory list of each person, to note the parts left intact to harvest. This job makes me angry. When I reanimate a life, all parts are used but the soul. How is this better? To splice good and bad and old and young? To make monsters of yourselves stains the soul I release, yet I am the abomination? I do not understood you and I never will. You are ugly wretched creatures. I pause, my hand is shaking and I nearly blot a box not meant for marking. I do not have a soul, but if I did, I fear it may be quaking today.
I watch the sky and it is cloudy that night. There are freight trains heading north in the distance, away from the red and cream brick station of the city and I imagine I can hear the bottles of poppy juice clanking angrily in their crates from here.
I wonder how close they are to this place. I wonder if I will find you before they find me. I feel the chase in my blood and it quickens my pulse in a way I shouldn’t like, but I do.
We listen to the radio and worry about rationing and businesses folding as international trade stutters to a halt. The war is a folly. How do you battle the eternal? Who can say who the enemy is, when the enemy hides in plain sight? There is no front, no battleground, no end. We rally in the streets and the world watches, but does nothing. It looks away, dealing with its own monsters. These are ours to eradicate, a legacy from darker days when we played God and the Devil thanked us for it. I tried to tell you before you left, to explain, but you were haunted. I had no right to try and exorcise your ghosts. Families turn on their own and the negotiations begin. The talks collapse as violence escalates across the country. We are not told where our soldiers are. We just know that they are not at home, and the footage played on a loop in the communal squares could be from anywhere and anytime.
Life becomes a jigsaw of broken fragments of old, new, and something other. Work carries on, my office is evacuated sixteen times in one week during a heightened period of violence, and we stand outside and smoke like it’s a fire alarm as the drones hover. The Internet stops working, and four women from the old neighbourhood are executed on a Saturday night when the rain stops in May and I don’t know why and I don’t ask.
The UN send in Peacekeepers and what used to be a country rich with history and culture and poetry turns to bomb sites and barbed wire. The Peacekeepers build Detention Centres and their methods populate them rapidly. When news of a cabal of Ershundi in Uganda breaks, the world starts watching with intent. The Divani reclaim their lands, and fire scorches lay lines across Europe during the hottest summer for over seven hundred years. The old ways return. Something snaps when they kill the children in France; monsters maybe, children never. Darkness stirs and moon meets are held. I wait to be hunted. I’m still waiting.
I wake up to a weight upon my chest unlike the others. Finally I think, I have been found. Part of me is relieved, as hands attempt to choke the life from me. I let them, it sparks something in me, something old and worn. A memory perhaps? Of another life. Another death. Another me and another you. You are lost to me, I think, my thoughts are hazy. My heart screams that it is a lie and for once, I heed it. I may not have a soul, but my heart pumps blood through this body and it knows me as well as it can.
I fight back. I know how, even if I rarely choose to. Other than your touch violence is the only intimacy I am familiar with. It is hard won, my life. I am heaving with exertion when they come to help me dispose of the body.
More will come now, I know as I sit on the edge of my bed. There is an ache inside me that is spreading. I wonder if it is loss or fear. Perhaps it is both. My heart pounds and my limbs ache. I don’t know how much longer I can wait.
The boy next door drags me from the wreckage when the drones hit. They are on our side, whatever side that is, but accidents happen. We are displaced, and the Detention Centre becomes a refugee camp. I ask myself why I stay amongst them, they are not my kind, but I can not bring myself to leave. The dead are loyal, did you know that? They don’t lie, they don’t leave, they don’t love. The dead are perfect and I have been collecting them for a long, long time. They Bound me because of it. Yet the boy is alive and he saves me doesn’t he? What I have can not be Bound. That is something you have to know, and they don’t. Is it my job to teach them? Do they deserve to learn it? I am tired. I miss you. I hide and I am no longer sure who I hide from. Your memory, or mine.
It is time to sign up to the war. The boy and I trek through the city, dodging bullets and bombs to the Keep. At the gates I name myself and their eyes gleam. All our Gods have left the building now it seems. They make their plans.
It is Day 89 when I see you again. At the end of each shift we walk through the Hall of Records, and the walls are lined with the pictures of the dead. One wall is lined with portraits of the dead, and the other, is a “Celebration of Reclamation”. They used to bring classes of school children here, but that ended very quickly. They said a child saw their own brother being harvested, a boy of twelve who died of cancer. It could well be true. The Plants began as an afterthought to war, but not all people are soldiers, and yet they still die. There was outrage, but it soon faded. Kids need new hearts too, you reasoned. And it’s true however chilling.
I see you there, a new addition, and the world stops-or perhaps it is starting again, I am not quite sure I can tell the difference. I wonder which of my co-workers took your picture. My knees buckle and I am horrified at my lapse. I keep walking.
From the hotel window I feel as though the night sky is watching me back, the moon is large and yellow, and the stars are small but fierce. I open the window; it is against the rules, but I don’t hesitate. Not now. The air is cool, and the ornate clock on the steeple of the cathedral sounds like a whisper. From the streets below I can smell smoked meats and the remnants of rain, and I drag a lungful of it in.
I sit and watch the nameless city spread out like a relief map under the stars. The streets are shut eyed and snoring gently, a window open here, and flutter of curtains and sheets on a line there. I breathe along with it, and wonder why they chose this place of all places for the Reclamation Plant, then I recall the woman with the azure scarf. The way the wagons roll up each day to sweep the streets of the dead. You stumble across such towns and cities as you search for a home in the world. They feel out of sync with modernity, unchangeable and unbreakable. Places that remember what the rest forget. Serenity lives in such pockets of antiquity, pieces of peace left behind by the old Gods and their believers. You bask in the warm glow of it when you find it. You cherish it, but move on. You want to keep it safe, and when you are anything but, you must be reverent.
I wait until the bells of the cathedral ring at midnight, and as they echo out I slice my thumb and cast a net.
“Understood,” they say.
I sleep well for the first time in three years.
Let them come. I’ve found you now.
You fell in love once. You were fourteen and strong and beautiful and oh too good for any mortal heart. Too wild and wonderful even for me. You asked them to go to the cinema and they said no. You took them a card you made yourself. They politely declined. You cried so hard. I thought your heart would break, and had no words to fix it for you. We made pancakes, but it felt wrong and awkward and I thought, this is how they kill the Eternal. Life is stealing you from me. This is how it starts. You will be an ache in my chest that will never ever ease. How do these people survive this?
You people fear all the wrong things. Death, pain, lies.
Love is where the suffering is. Hope and love and trust; you chase them, embrace them, give them away. I feel swamped with emotions and I look at you and want such human things for you that I am terrified.
We will endure together. You and I.
“They are here, they know.” The call ends abruptly on Day 90, and there is no more time left. I’ll find you, I have to.
There is no assigning of jobs on arrival today. We run through the corridors like the wild things that we are.
The facility responds with gas seeping through the ventilators. It is expected. When the nest in Toulouse was gassed out two years ago, the deaths were slow. We adapted in the aftermath.
They don’t know about you. If they did I wouldn’t be here. When my belly swelled with you, I knew our Family had not been forsaken by those quiet older gods. My own Phoenix, born of rage and vengeance. You are glory and death and honour and I tremble with the promise of destruction we will reign down on this world.
They stalk me, and adrenalin spikes in my veins down each new corridor. I know you are here. I run, I hide, I fight. They are wary of my power, they know what my own kin do not. Now they are panicking. Jumping at shadows. Eyes wide with the understanding that death is my quarry and I have won.
I finally find you, in a sterile room, and I begin to cry hot salty tears, fat bubbles on my upper lip. They taste like home. I allow the buzz of power loose in my veins, let the heat swoosh up through my bones and I electrify the dead I have touched but not you. You are too big for me to cure your hurts now. The Divani who is setting this place alight, smiles at me, a brilliant white flash as the dead rise and march from the building. She is a charming elemental, and urges me to leave before the flames and smoke become to much to bear. She sees you over my shoulder, and there is a flicker of something ancient and serene in her eyes as she looks at me, then you.
“The Seers were right.” She says, and grips my arms, a fervor in her blood now. “You found her. Our savior, we are sa-”
I slice her throat and let the words gurgle out in bubbles thick and heavy, too heavy for her and too heavy for me.
They sang songs for you my darling girl, do you know that?
They sang songs and lit candles and I watched them lament you with a glee as thick as rope and deep as the trenches they threw my kin inside. In case they wake up, they reasoned, as they dug down closer to the devil and I thought I’m awake right now. They didn’t remember that I was a monster.
I watch you sit up, from the steel gurney, long hair tumbling and eyes opening wider than your old eyes ever did. You are winged and stupendous and you look at me as though you love me despite my sins. For a moment I want to keep you here, but the fire is growing and the dead are calling out my name; the one I stitched into their mouths.
The Ershundi is screaming in the distance and the Vantyker is regretting their ancestors folly as the dead dread army tear them apart no doubt. They are calling for you, can you hear them? Your eyes are blurred, you seem confused, and I understand why.
Oh my darling girl, you were never going to be their saviour. You were always meant to be mine.