by Sarah Milne Das
Do not fear the spirits of the dead.
When our loves are the dead, how can we find them? Scrying mirrors, turning tables, incense, prayers incantation? Left-behind lovers, sisters, mothers, all call the spirits of the dead.
And how must we speak with our dead loves, and tell words that are true from tricks and illusion? Fingertips on glass, a pendulum’s swing, the voice in the ear of a priest or a king?
Then how will we hold them, our loves that are dead? With dreamcatchers, salt and saucers of cream? We’ll know when we find it, the one true rite. We’ll know when we know them again, all our dead.
There is a woman who took out a piece of her heart. She displays it on a plate, on her dining room table, surrounded by artificial flowers in peach and lilac and primrose.
The plate is not of the best china, but the most-perfect specimen of the second-best set. It is important to keep a full pristine set of the very best china, she thinks. The second-best can spare a plate; it is usually used for smaller parties.
Over the plate, covering the hunk of heart, is a Pyrex mixing bowl, upside down. It is protection from the flies and from the air, she says, as if the torn handfuls of bloody muscle are genteel slices of cake.
Once upon a youth she freely gave her heart away, and when its master joined the dead she knew the heart would summon him back to her. So she locked away her grieving, bit her tongue with needle teeth till her cries were drowned in swallowed blood and then she prepared her bait.
She cracked through the safe of her living marrowed ribs, the break a creaking shrieking wail, heartache made sound. Her nails tore a jagged wound-trail into the dark red tissue, her fist twisted the bleeding portion out and up to her lips for bitter blessing.
Through dry sobs, she flung it down and left it there to wait for him.
But hearts are not preserved this way. The piece of the woman’s heart is not in good shape, not heart-shaped; you could not imagine it beating a second, a minute, or year ago.
The heart is spongy, melty, blackening and browning. Stinking of meat, the odour seeping and weeping, escaping the Pyrex. It is a dead thing, a sick thing, a remnant of the abattoir.
“Oh, that old thing!” she exclaims now, when visitors’ eyes enquire. “I almost forget it’s there, you know, it was all so long ago.”
There is a woman who feeds the graveyard birds; she piles blackberry offerings on blackening tree stumps.
She knits, coarse wool in grubby shades: tiny shoes, skew-buttoned cardigans, unpractised lumps of hats.
She hangs the garments in arching branches, in the sprawl of a corner where the soil-womb rests, where great stone angels give way to cherubs, to soft toys, rainbow beads, greeting-card epitaphs.
She prowls the perimeter of the rotting nursery, cooing at the earth and tutting at observers. “Hush!” she whispers, “Babies are sleeping.”
On new moon nights she murmurs lullabies, smears berry juice over the cradle-graves, burns rosemary and waits.
There is a woman who sets a trap for her mirror-self, every day.
Still, still as a stalking wildcat, she stares at the face so like her own that everyone else is fooled, slows her breathing, waits, waits.
She leaps—it is sudden, sideways—she spins, lunges, whirls, jabs. She does not blink, alert, waits for the spirit in the mirror to slip, trip, skip a beat.
Dervishing fast, faster and faster, the not-a-reflection at her heels, toes and elbows, hand to hand and eye to eye, never missing a step or a breath or a howl.
Frustrated she whirls at impossible speed, knowing, knowing, that the lost girl is hiding there, her troubled trickster twin who she will catch, she will keep, will comma-curl around again like in their first nine months.
Friction on flesh and sparks fly, smoke furls and swirls as bare feet grind down to the bone. Ragged bloody ankles, skin and flesh-strings whip like curtains,
her skeleton feet dance on.
Do not fear the spirits of the dead, fear that the rites are the living’s alone, and all our dead loves are gone.
Sarah Milne Das is based in Oxford, UK. When not playing with Excel in a University office, she writes flash and other fiction with a touch of the fairytale, as well as the occasional essay. You can read her work in The Sandspout (Albion Beatnik Press).