Published on 2011/11/13

Keeper of the Dead

Saphron Moule

She keeps the dead in her cupboards. Thousands of souls trapped inside glassware jars and earthen pots. When the weather turns cold, they gnash imaginary teeth and rattle their prisons.

Cold seeps in through cracks in her plaster walls. It cuts between the glass and wood of her unglazed window panes. It inches across stone counter-tops and slips past heavy oak doors. The dead feel it in remembered bones. If they could, they would shatter their bonds and tear her to pieces. She pays them no mind. It is not her place to placate the dead. She is merely their keeper.

They arrive in wood-slated crates, dozens at a time, and are left sitting outside on her covered porch, set beneath the hanging lantern that flickers and shorts in the wind. She does not know where they come from. There is no one to ask. She finds them there in the morning and brings them inside, carrying the crates into her kitchen, where she places them atop age-worn linoleum and unpacks them with care.

There is always room in her cupboards. She thought at first she would run out, they seemed so endless, but there is always space, no matter how many she finds sitting outside. She stacks them in threes, caressing their vessels as she does, the last rite of the damned. For her troubles, they scream and howl and drive ice into her fingertips.

Her life is static. Only the seasons change. In springtime, the sweet scent of lilac permeates the air. The dead are still, as close to peace as she imagines them capable. When the sun is warm and the wind calm, she opens the cupboards and the windows and lets the scent carry throughout the house. She has spent the whole of winter locked inside with them, so she takes the opportunity to escape. She slips outside and walks among peeking crocuses. She revels in the sight of green. She slips bare toes into the creek that marks the boundary of her property. The water, not long thawed, turns her skin blue.

When the last of the snow has finally melted away, she tends rose gardens and plants vegetables to harvest in summer. She mends fences and white-washes the garden shed. She breaks the winter's accumulation of crates into pieces and stacks them in the woodshed, to replenish next year's supply of firewood. There is a lull in their arrival.

Spring turns to summer. The air grows sticky with humidity. The dead bleed condensation and whine their discomfort. The days are too hot for the toil of physical labor, so she spends her days indoors, hidden away from the press of the sun, dark velor curtains drawn against its unyielding scrutiny. She does not let the dead linger on her porch, but brings them in as soon as they've arrived, waking sometimes in the dead of night to keep them from scavengers. They fill her cupboards to bursting, but there is always room for more.

Outside, the cicadas sing, and the crickets chirp, and down by the creek bullfrogs compose elaborate symphonies. The air is thick with insects, clouds of gnats and black-fly and mosquito. The sky at night stretches into eternity, broken thousands of times over by tiny pinpricks of light. She watches the endlessness from her second floor balcony, netted against outside invaders, and listens to the songs of night. If she was capable of feeling, she would be restless. Change lingers on the horizon.

The days are still long and hot, but the dead can sense the coming change, too. The nights grow cold and clear. Tension fills the empty spaces of her house. The greens of summer fade and her gardens begin to wither. The first flush of color touches the leaves of the oaks that line her winding lane. The dead rattle her cupboards.

She takes their cue, and begins the steady process of preparing for winter. The windows are shuttered and the firewood chopped. The gardens are harvested, their contents canned and preserved. The house fills with the scent of sumac and freshly baked bread and apple jelly. She fills her cold cellar and washes her linen, hanging it out in the late summer breeze. The dead grow louder. They greet newcomers with suspicion and hostility. Their hatred for her renews.

She no longer has names for the passing months. Her life is measured in seasons. When the chill of approaching winter paints the land in frost, she marks another year passed in chalk on the side of her wood stove. Without the tiny hashes, she would have lost count thousands of years ago. The seasons march steadily on, and yet she is doomed to this cycle, to the steady press of time unending. She is the keeper of the dead, and they are her damnation.

The first flush of spring's warmth brings a new cycle, the same one she has lived countless times, and yet, there is something different in the slow melt of this winter's snow. She watches it through her kitchen window, already open to catch the impending scent of lilac. There is something coiled in her chest, some unnamed emotion, which makes her antsy in a way she has never been.

She goes outside to seek the peeking crocuses.

And finds a set of footprints in the quickly melting snow.

She can no longer remember what it is to know another being. For as long as she can remember there has only been her and the dead. But these are not her footprints. They belong to another, though search as she might, she cannot find their source. She scours her property; searches the woodshed and the house and through the thick grass that borders the creek. She finds no other trace of life, no other footprints.

The last trace of winter melts away, taking with it any proof that she might not have been alone. She begins tending to her gardens and breaking apart wooden crates. It is days before she realizes the dead have stopped arriving.

She wakes one morning and stands on her porch, staring out over the horizon, trying desperately to remember the last time a crate arrived. She cannot. Inside, her cupboards are still filled to bursting, but the dead are eerily silent, as though they are waiting for something. She reaches a shaking hand to caress one of the vessels, but in place of ice and hatred, there is only cautious indifference. She draws her hand away as though burnt.

Spring moves steadily into summer and her porch remains bare. The first of the year's cicadas begin their song, humidity creeping into the air before a crate next arrives. When she sees it, she is so overcome with relief, she sags to her knees at it side.

It is a long while before she is capable of carrying the crate into her kitchen. She sets it atop her linoleum and pries it open with more care than she has ever given another. Inside, she finds a single earthen pot, worn smooth by the press of time. It is covered in elaborate scroll-work, so unlike the others it steals her breath.

She runs fingertips across the script, but the language is one she has long forgotten. The vessel lifts with ease, seeming weightless in her hand. She marvels at its warmth; at its silence. She does not know what to do with it, so she places it on the counter top and tries not to think of it again. Her resolve lasts until the morning she finds a man sitting at her kitchen table.

It is the first living soul she has seen in many, many long years. She is stunned by his presence, but soon she remembers her manners and offers to make him tea. The man accepts and she begins the steady process of boiling water and rinsing her teapot.

"Why are you here?" she asks when they are seated, sipping from steaming cups, the remainder of the pot on the table between them. It is the first she has spoken in longer than she can remember. She had forgotten the sound of her voice.

Inside her cupboards, the dead are still, listening. She can feel their anxiety.

"I am your replacement," the man answers.

She does not understand. She has been in this place so long she can no longer recall a life before it. The view out her kitchen window shows a never-ending expanse of green. Has she ever known another place? She struggles now to remember how she came to be here, and finds she cannot. What lies beyond her fields is a mystery.

"Am I leaving?" she asks, uncertain. She has wished to leave this place many times, though she has no notion of where she might go.

The man sets his tea down on the table. The cup clinks against its saucer. The tiny blue flowers of its pattern have faded and there is a chip missing from its rim. The man's expression is blank, but his words are soothing.

"Yes," he says. "Your time has ended, just as mine someday will. You have been in my place, now you belong in theirs." He nods to the cupboards, to the elaborately carved, empty vessel that still sits on her counter top.

Her teacup shatters against the floor, her chair skidding back as she stands. One of its legs gouges a scratch in the linoleum. It is not the only such mark.

"No," she says, suddenly desperate to remain, but it is already too late.

She can feel her ties to this world breaking. The man slowly pushes back his chair. He stands and walks to the counter top, removing the lid from her vessel. She stares at it even as she reaches a trembling hand toward it. She can no longer see her fingertips. They have turned to mist. The world around her fades.

She feels warm hands cradling her as she is lifted from the counter top and placed inside the cupboard. For one brief moment, she is overwhelmed by the scent of lilac. It dissipates with the closing of the cupboard. She howls her frustration and throws herself against the walls of her prison. Her brethren join her lament. The cupboards rattle. The man ignores them. It is not his place to placate the dead. He is merely their keeper.

Saphron is a writer living and working in Waterloo, Ontario. Her short story, "Stalker Thy Name is Cupid", will be including in Rebel Ink Press' Tempting Cupid Anthology in February 2012.