Dead Things, by Becca De La Rosa

She comes to the manor screaming. Red hair, a tempest. Blood and bruises. Bare feet drumming the flagstones, disaster breeding disaster. Odile watches from her perch on the newel post. Marvels, shuffles. What a terrible creature, she says, to the oaken banister. The banister creaks in answer.

Today Odile is a black bird. Elsewhere in the manor there is washing to be done, dusting and polishing and sweeping, but she has spent most of the day admiring the green-blue glimmer of her feathers in the ballroom mirror. Against the glow of the candlelight she gleams and shimmers. Other black birds live at the manor, great moth-eaten things forever polishing their talons on the garden walls, but Odile is a bird of her own devising. She is unique, and resolute.

Dark falls: The girl appears, howling. Mud in her throat, skin under her nails. If she is saying words, they refuse to coalesce under her tongue; if she is capable of speech at all, she does not look it. Wild, filthy, snarling. A gasping, many-clawed thing. Safe on her perch, Odile regards the girl with first one eye and then the other. What do you see? she asks the banister.

Storm in a teacup, the banister says, dourly.

Odile laughs. The sound surprises her, too like a squawk, and she jumps, loses her balance, flutters her black wings. The girl on the flagstones coughs, only once. Stops screaming. Lifts her head, to look Odile in the eye. This is the end of the story. The end.

Seven thousand thousand years ago, a seed named Odile germinated in the cool black earth of the kingdom under the ground, called Uisce Dubh, or Death. Odile yawned and shivered and split herself to sprout and shoved green-elbowed and green-kneed from the soil, behold: the girl Odile, a black-winged bird. In the Kingdom of Death a girl might be many things. Bird, hare, moth, cornflower, cool-bellied snake. Handmaiden, scullery maid. Odile scrubbed floors. She baked bread. She rose and set like a moon, endless and changing, and no howling monster fell from the root systems above her to land on the manor tiles like so much wet washing, and she never stepped down from the newel post with her black feathers hanging, never, never, never.

The girl’s name is Anyechka. She says this, offers the epitome of herself whole as a fruit in her hand, as though she does not know any better, to the man in the black cloak. That cohesion of darkness, poised at the mantel. Smiling. “I know,” he says, gently. Voice like the depths of the black river plumbed at last. Voice like the infinite caress of nothing over nothing over nothing. “I know who you are, and what you have done.”

“You were there,” says the red-haired girl. “There with Livia. You—” Her voice cracks. “Is she alive? What—what did you do to her?”

“You made a bargain.” He tips his head to one side. “I kept my word. She is alive.”

“She—” The girl drags her curled fist across her mouth. “Oh god,” she breathes, and then again, and again, oh god oh god. From her hiding spot atop the lintel, safe in the shape of a gray-green luna moth, Odile cannot discern the extremity of Anyechka’s reaction, whether it is horror or relief. “I’m dead,” says the girl. “I’m dead. She’s—she’s alive.”

“Such was the tenor of your bargain.”

“And you’re—”

He laughs. It is not, and never has been, a comfort. “Yes,” he says. Soft, softer. “I am.”

Odile is given the task of caring for the girl. Of bathing her, and tending to the cuts and bruises on her skinny arms, and finding clothes for her from amongst Odile’s own things. The girl says nothing to Odile. Under the blood and dirt she is pale as a cooked egg-white, painted with ink in curious whorled designs, nipped through with hoops of metal. Silver hoops in her ears, one over her lower lip, two gold hoops shielding her brown nipples. Odile does not recognise any of these shapes. The girl’s cheekbones, too pointed; her knucklebones, across which blue ink spells out L-O-S-T on one hand, G-I-R-L on the other. Foreign as mold, and as unwelcome.

With nowhere else to store her, Odile puts Anyechka to bed in her own room: the peaked attic with its windows looking out at a sky riven by root systems. Only once, before she falls asleep, does the other girl turn to peer at Odile. Her eyes are the slightest, most silvery green. “Is that why you’re here?” she asks. Still hoarse from all her screaming. “Did you make a bargain, too?”

Odile stares. The question upends her, little blue teacup, spills her across the floor. “No,” she says coldly. “Go to sleep.”

Once upon a time there was a girl, Anyechka. Her hair was the colour of wildfire and she came into the world burning. Once upon a time (concurrently, impossibly) there was Livia: lovely, terrible Livia, her fingers always folded around a cigarette, or a bottle, or a needle. Anyechka loved Livia, not the way the Kingdom of Death loves its master but the way a match loves the phosphorous that catapults it into flame. Or maybe the way a cliff loves the ocean that abrades and erodes it, in spite of its own better judgment. Livia was good, bright, neccessary; without her the world would lack certain indispensable humors, or minerals, or alchemical processes. Without her the world would wither, and die. So when Anyechka came across Livia in the broken-walled building behind the abandoned playground, cold and pale-mouthed with her works still dangling from her arm like some gruesome vestigial limb, she did the only thing she could: She made a deal. She brought Livia back.

Time passes. Anyechka is there when Odile wakes, and there when she sleeps again, there when Odile leaves the attic in the shape of a bird or a moth or a snake or a slant of light and there when she returns, there as Odile moves through her work, sweeping and dusting and polishing the manor’s many strange surfaces. She does not speak much. At first Odile hates her, her impudent, ugly imposition, the shriek of her presence; after a while Anyechka becomes a familiar nuisance, like the skeletal mice that chitter and gnaw at the manor’s foundations. Just another moping shadow. Just another among the myriad dead, wherever they are. In the end Odile recruits Anyechka into helping with her chores. The other girl obeys without fuss, though she is silent still, and unbearably clumsy with the feather-duster and the long-handled broom.

“Watch!” Odile bursts out one day, after Anyechka has whacked her with the broom-handle for the third time. “Are you blind? Mind what you’re doing, won’t you?”

“I’m sorry!” Anyechka says. “I can’t see right without—”

“Without what?”

The other girl scowls. Twists over herself, leans up against the broomstick. Ashamed, Odile thinks, of showing weakness. “My glasses,” she mutters. “I broke them when—On my way—When I came down here. Can’t see much without them.”

Astonishment shears every other response from Odile’s mouth. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Say what? Say maybe could you take me to the—the underworld optician, say maybe could you make an appointment for me so I can get a new pair of specs? It’s not—”

“Not what?” Odile laughs, though she stops herself when she sees Anyechka’s expression. “Come,” she orders. Takes the girl by the hand, leads her down through the kitchen and out into the vegetable garden, the bee-garden, down through rows and rows of swaying lavender to the greenhouse where Vasile the groundskeeper tends his clippings of sick rowan trees and exotic orchids. Vasile is tall and thin and stooped as a willow, and when Odile explains—chattering, talking over herself—he digs out his drum of geodes, raw gemstones, half-cut cabochons, clumped with dirt and shining dully. From the bucket he pulls a slab of beryl, blue-tinted.

The two girls watch him grind the stone down on his great foot-pedalled grinder. Standing, at first, a polite distance away, and then sitting neatly on upturned terracotta pots, and then lounging back against the wall of climbers, their heads swathed in clematis. Now and then Anyechka’s thigh brushes Odile’s. Now and then their hips graze together, light as insect wings. Vasile passes the crystal discs to Anyechka once, twice, three times, his spindly eyebrows raised. At last she nods. Hum, says Vasile, under his breath. He lashes the discs onto gold wire.

Wearing her new glasses, Anyechka is suddenly solemn, like a creature caught by an unexpected gaze; a fox by the river, a wild rabbit on the steppes, something discrete and self-contained. “What do you think?” she asks Odile, blinking up at her through shards of polished crystal, the kingdom’s fossilised blood curved to make her sight clearer; and is she not unknowable, fey and wayward creature that she is? Is she not unlike everything Odile has ever seen? Odile feels herself flush, and she mutters something incoherent, half-appalled. Anyechka kicks her heels against her upturned terracotta pot. Smiling. Smiling.

Four-eyes, says Odile.

Bug-face, says Anyechka.

Teacher’s pet, says Odile.

Maidservant.

Forest fire.

Poppet doll.

Ghost girl.

Ghost girl, Anyechka repeats. Her hands ghosting through Odile’s hair.

“It’s like,” Odile says. “Oh, it’s like. The thread of you. It is—inside you, a whole thing. The single whole thing, for inside you there is movement and motion and rushing and bustling, but there is a part of you that stays always still—can you feel it?”

“No,” says Anyechka. Swaying on her feet, her eyes shut, face creased with focus.

Odile breathes out frustration. “The body of you,” she says, impatient at her own ineloquence, “is false, is a—an elaborate fable, do you understand? Skin and bones and—and hair and all that, it’s not real, not really. The body is a lie it tells itself. There is only one true part of you, just that one small part. It’s—” Odile scowls, presses one finger to Anyechka’s stomach, the place where her ribs clasp hands. “There,” she says. “In there, the centre of you. If you feel that, if you learn it by heart, you can learn to shape it. Look.” She reaches inward, pulls out the form of a black bird, settles it around herself. Reaches again, shimmers down into the shape of a moth. Again: a black-hatched snake.

“Show-off,” Anyechka mutters.

They are in the parlor, beside the big bay window. Beyond them the orchards stretch out red and green and endless. On the floor at their feet the wash bucket and mop lie forgotten. Odile shudders back into her own shape, naked now, her clothes scattered. “Am not!” she says, indignant.

Anyechka laughs. It is not the first time anyone has ever laughed in the Kingdom of Death, Odile knows, but it might as well be: so like sunlight, so wholly unexpected. Odile’s eyes widen. She laughs, too, in astonishment.

The manor is old, old as the foundations on which it was built, old as the steppes beyond the orchard and the mountains beyond them, and like all old things it has a sense of itself above mortar and brick; like everything, everyone in his household, it carries him in its bloodstream. His demands, when he makes them, echo without words through the planes and curves of the vaulted ceilings, through the pitted grains of the floorboards sagging and sighing over their old secrets. He is not there beside them in the green parlor with its window wide to timothy and pendu plat apples, and then he is. Anyechka does not see him. Odile (black bird, singing scullery maid) is part of the manor, like any good joist or cornice. A girl is a house in which the god of death paces and stalks. She stiffens. The laugh catches in her throat.

“I am glad,” says the god of death, the black heart of the kingdom, “that you two are entertaining one another. It is wonderful to see,” he says, and now he is closer, now he looms and looms, “that you have time to amuse yourselves so thoroughly even despite your work about the manor. Odile?” says Death in her ear, a scintillating breath that coils throughout her musculature, her exoskeleton, the false self beyond the truth of her. Yes, she whispers. “Remember the gifts I have given you,” he says. “Remember how freely I gave them, and how freely I might take them away. Do you remember, Odile?”

Yes, she says.

“Good. Are there no floors for you to sweep? Anyechka, come.”

Odile watches the other girl trail after him, his long, inky shadow. She doesn’t move, not even when Anyechka stares back over her shoulder.

Moth is a gift. Black bird is a gift. White rabbit is a gift, centipede snake is a gift, and lotus flower, and dapple-backed spider, and girl, too; girl is the greatest gift of all, the first and most valuable. Odile does not own herself. In the Kingdom of Death, all people—all beasts, all creatures—owe themselves to the kingdom’s master, the man built from lack-of-starlight, the god of the dead. If he were to take her away from the center of her own center—if he were to unwrite her, swiftly as a bad poem—

The story goes: The god of death eats some part of Anyechka. A tiny thing, an almost imperceptible thing, but Odile notices it when Anyechka slips back into the attic many hours later, and Odile notices it the next day, and the next and the next, when Anyechka is quiet and distant and dulled as an old knife. Once Odile thinks she sees a seam of pink scar tissue elbowing out from the hem of Anyechka’s dress. At night Anyechka sleeps facing away from Odile, her back rigid, unreadable. So many paragraphs in an unknown language. So much Odile cannot parse.

What did he eat? Her soul, like a little bird between his teeth? Her will, that led her to sacrifice herself for her friend’s sake? Something else, something greater? Odile frets at the problem until it frays into silk noil. She takes to leaving the attic in the shape of an animal, returning with her beak or her claws or her hollow cheeks full of snail-shells, acorns, bright leaves, rose petals, smooth stones, river-reeds, owl-pellets, polished bones, and lays them all at Anyechka’s feet, lays them at Anyechka’s feet like gold, like a mirror, like a forest of needles, saying moth-voiced bird-voiced please, please. Anyechka steps over every offering. Behind her crystal spectacles her eyes are dull, cast always at some distant horizon.

Odile sits in the window-seat. Odile mopes over her wash bucket. Odile ties Anyechka’s shoelaces together, grim little hobgoblin, hoping to irritate her into something, something. Anyechka only picks her laces apart with delirious apathy. Beyond the manor the dead till their fields, harvest their apples, sing their songs to the root-split sky.

Where did Odile come from? What brought her here? What keeps her here, washing the manor’s floors, scrubbing the manor’s silver, polishing mirrors that never reflect anything but moonlight and dust? She imagines setting out into the kingdom with only her pack and her good brown shoes, but every imaginary journey feels raw, incomplete. Who will she point to when she sees a spindle-legged spider dancing on its web at dawn? Who will she sing to as she dips her feet in the black river of the dead? Who will sleep beside her, warm and real, their dreams twining together like smoke?

Now and then the lord of the manor calls for Anyechka to come and sit with him in the library. Now and then Odile filters herself down into the shape of an iridescent beetle or a hard-headed woodlouse and creeps in between the floorboards to watch, to listen. The lord of the manor lounges on the velvet couch, surrounded by his six black hounds; Anyechka kneeling at his feet, her head tipped downwards. Now and then the god of death sits quietly, watching the fire. Now and then he speaks.

Once upon a time, says Death, there was a king whose kingdom stretched from the furthest mountains to the distant black sea, and in which lived all manner of dead: man and beast, infants and adults, plants long extinct from the world above, prehistoric rhizomes lifting their curious bulbs from the earth in congregations like so many fields of wheat, or poppies. The king ate death after death after death until each one tasted the same, until nothing assuaged his hunger. No bloodshed, no tragedy, no heroism, no grief. Do you hear me?

Yes, says the girl with the cloud of red hair, her gaze fixed on nothing.

Death says: You do not know what it is like, to eat and eat and always hunger. You do not know what it is like, to look out at your kingdom and see only shadows. You do not understand.

I do not, says the girl.

Once upon a time, Death says, someone died. This was not revolutionary; no great bells rang, not for an event as commonplace as that. The king did not even send more than a fragment of himself to eat the death that had occurred in the world above. But when he arrived, he found an odd thing, an unprecedented thing: a girl with her hands clawed full of mud, screaming at him. At him, at him, her eyes meeting his eyes, her voice in his ear. Do you know what she said?

No, says the girl.

She said: Take me. She said: I give myself freely. She said: Anything, anything.

The girl does not speak. Her fingernails trail down the floorboards.

The king knew, says Death, that he had found something exceptional. That he had found something; love beyond life, faith beyond faith, a heart beating with sentiment more than sentiment, truth enough to be wordless; more, more, more, more, more than the gray stone, the grayest gray kingdom. What did he do?

What did he do? the girl whispers.

He ate her heart, says Death. He plucked it out and he ate it. How else could he taste it, the sweet blood in her chest? How else could he hold it in his own jaws? How else could he hold it, hold it? How else could he know?

Down by the hearth, shivering her maxillae together, Odile begins to formulate a plan.

Girl is death in her own right. Girl is a hall of mirrors. Girl is a star caught on the points of its particular brilliance, falling.

Odile dresses herself in spiderwebs. She dresses herself in silk, in sewn leaves, in moss woven to linen, in glossy black feathers. Odile braids her hair with strands of saltmarsh rushes. She laces her good brown shoes, and brushes the palm of her hand down Anyechka’s cold shoulder, and walks herself through the manor to the library door.

The door swings open before she has a chance to knock. Robbed of her dramatic entrance, Odile stares up at the lord of the manor, his cragged, starswept face. “Odile,” he says. In his mouth her name turns into a river, endless and black. “What brings you here to my door, little moth?”

“I have come to bargain,” says Odile.

Death nods gravely and steps aside to let her in, though now the room he stands in is not the library at all, it is the throne room limned in red and black, and now he is taller, less substantive, his skull a shadow split by curving tendrils of dark like ivy vines questing for sunlight, his eyes—a house with many windows, a mouth ever open, his tread soundless on the throne room floor, his throne rough-hewn from a vast slab of black spinel. “Bargain,” says the king of the dead. Evoking sibilance where there is none. Casting all words into obscurity. “What do you wish to bargain for?”

Odile straightens. “Anyechka’s heart,” she says.

An inscrutable silence. Death tips his head. “You believe,” he murmurs, “you have a claim?”

She steels herself not to shudder. “I do.”

“Then make it.”

Inside Odile’s own chest, her heart is a floundering thing. She stills it like a bird. “This kingdom, and everyone in it, is your right,” she says. “Because you know us, just like—like stories you have read. Like well-known stories, told from memory. Isn’t that true? The Kingdom of Death is you and we live inside you and that is the way you know us, hold us.”

Sitting on his throne of black crystal, the lord of the manor is a rent in the threads of the world. “Go on.”

“You ate Anyechka’s heart,” she says.

“I did.”

“You made her your pet. You preen and cosset her.”

“Odile.”

“You hunger for her,” Odile cries out. “Not her, but for what she did. For that one final act, for her sacrifice. You—it isn’t love, but it if were, it—you love her for the best thing she did; for the most noble thing she did.”

The god of the dead leans forward. Streaking the air around him with absence, drawing Odile closer, closer. Humming, roaring. “And if I do?” he says, gently. “If that is true?”

“You love her for the best thing she did,” says Odile, triumphant now, breathless with it. “What she stands for, the emblem of her. I love her for what she is. For—stubbornness and viciousness and how she kicks the covers off me at night and how she slops wash water on my feet and how she calls me names sometimes like, like bratbird, like sillymoth, how she frets over her hair and always leaves streaks in the glass when she polishes it and then blames me—I know her, I know her, if she lives in anyone she lives inside me, do you see? You ate her heart but it was not your right to do so, you see only a fraction of her. You do not own her, you never could.”

Death twists one hand through the air and the space between them collapses on itself, brings Odile to his feet. He presses a finger to her chin, tilts it up so he can look her in the eyes. It is not unlike being thoroughly examined by a supernova, or a feral lion, or a hurricane. After a moment—a harrowing, billowing moment—the king of the dead laughs. Effortlessly, he unseams himself; like an ear of corn shucking its own husk, or like a flower blossoming backwards from the knot of its non-existence. Inside: a ribcage made of glimmering celestite, calcified black sinter, speleothems in the shapes of teardrops, snakes, and sigils. Perched on the stony outcroppings, a dozen—a dozen dozen—gold-backed spiders. Death reaches for one; it steps readily onto his finger. “Mad little moth,” he says, though he says it fondly. “Lovely magnoliophyta. Sweet seedling.”

Warmth and light. The kindness of familiarity. Hush, says Odile softly, hush, hush. Anyechka’s ribcage open as a flower. The gold-patterned spider nestles into her red chest cavity. Oh, says Anyechka, her eyes full of tears. Her hands on Odile’s hands, her hands on Odile’s face. Both crying. Both laughing. Both reaching for one another. A sound not dissimilar to singing, to music, somewhere in the maze of the manor’s halls.

There are two girls. There are two birds, one white, one black. There is the Kingdom of Death.

fin

Becca De La Rosa was born in Ithaca, NY, though she has lived most of her life in Ireland. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, including several best-of compilations. With her wife, she co-created and co-writes the acclaimed horror podcast Mabel (mabelpodcast.com). For more information, visit Becca online at www.beccadlr.com.

Published October 2018, Shimmer #45, 4000 words

Other Dead Things:

Raise-the-Dead Cobbler, by Andrea Corbin

The Creeping Influences, by Sonya Taaffe

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade

 

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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