Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Feast BeforeThe Fast

by McCamy Taylor



Feast day, and the jonquils were in bloom. The air of Father Friday Cemetery was heady with their perfume. The last traces of snow had vanished overnight, and a warm southern breeze blew over the island of Boymere, marking the end of winter and the start of spring, a season as short lived in Kingís Town as the pink cherry blossoms along High Road.

Despite the early hour, a large crowd of mourners had gathered outside the eastern gate of the cemetery. The Feast was a celebration for the dead as well as the living. The visitors carried wreaths of flowers, bottles of wine, plates of food, artfully folded bits of colored paper, incense sticks, childrenís toys -- offerings for departed loved ones.

The cemetery guardian unlocked the gate. The hinges creaked as the metal door swung open. One by one, the mourners entered. Some bowed to the pitre, others made the sign of the Three. A few shunned him as unclean. There were twelve religions in Kingís Town, and the only thing they had in common was all of their followers brought their dead to Father Friday Cemetery to be interred, cremated, mummified, pickled or returned to nature according to the dictates of their deities.

Agatha, the pitreís assistant, stood slightly behind her master, in his shadow. The girl was tall for her fourteen years, with bright copper colored hair that gleamed in the early morning light. She wore tiny silver loops on her earlobes and a rose quartz encrusted key on a silver chain around her neck. Pink stones were sacred to the Goddess, her patron deity. The backs of her hands were covered with Wisdom runes drawn in henna. Her dress was a sleeveless white shift, and beneath it, she wore man styled trousers. Her feet were bare.

Dominy, her master, had runes on his hands, too, but his were tattooed with metallic ink that caught and reflected the sunlight. Like his assistant, he wore a jeweled key, but his was embedded with a dozen different stones, symbolizing the various gods that were worshipped on the island. Because it was a warm day, he was shirtless. On his back, a red and gold phoenix dove into an azure ocean. Yesterday, his back had been decorated with the image of a ruby eyed emerald serpent swallowing its own tail. Every day, the tattoo changed, and in the six months that Agatha had been the pitreís assistant, she had never seen the same image twice. The rest of his tattoos were more mundane, flowering vines on his arms, serpents on his legs, a Wisdom circle on his chest.

Something else about Dominy had changed, though the transformation was so gradual that Agatha only noticed it today. His hair, which was white as snow when they first met last autumn, now gleamed pale gold in the bright, morning sun.

"Have you been dying your hair?" she asked suspiciously.

"No, child. It changes naturally with the season. Pale blonde in the spring, darker gold in the summer, white in the fall and winter." Dominy was always patient with her, even when she said something foolish or ignorant, which happened a lot, since she had received no formal education before coming to the capital last year in search of the mother who had abandoned her.

In Father Friday Cemetery, Agatha found her mother, Adelphe, a ghost recently dead. Six months later, she still did not recognize Agatha as her daughter. To the spirit of Adelphe Durose, the red haired girl who could talk to ghosts was just the cemetery pitreís helper. Agatha had stopped trying to tell her the truth. Ghosts, she had learned, had excellent memories of the things that happened to them in life and very poor memories of what happened to them in the afterlife. Which, she supposed, was the main difference between the living and the dead. The living could learn, they could grow and change. The dead were stuck the way they were at death forever -- or, at least until their souls got tired of haunting the earth.

Boymere had a problem with ghosts. Since the first settlers had arrived on its pristine shores two hundred years before, those who died here had continued to walk the earth after death. Some claimed that the island was under a spell. Others attempted to find a scientific explanation. All agreed that having spirits roaming the streets was a nuisance. And so, the citizens built cemeteries, special walled cities guarded by magical wards designed to keep in the spirits of the dead. There were five large cemeteries on Boymere, one in each of the major cities, and numerous small graveyards were scattered across the countryside. The largest, grandest and most crowded was Father Friday Cemetery in Kingís Town. The most powerful necromancer in Boymere was the pitre of Father Friday Cemetery, Dominy. And Agatha was his assistant. It was a source of some pride to her -- and also of much vexation. There was so much to learn. Each of the twelve faiths had different funeral rites, and the rituals had to be performed just so, or the dead would take offense.

Two bodies had been delivered to the mortuary overnight. The old woman believed in the Three, and so her corpse was being drained of blood. Once her internal organs were removed, she would be filled with aromatic herbs that would preserve her body and hide the smell of decay. Her family would escort her to her final resting place in one of the cemeteryís many tombs. She had died at peace. No ghost accompanied her to Father Friday Cemetery.

The other body belonged to a little girl who had died of fever. Her parents were devotees of the Wisdom. According to their faith, only cremation could free the soul from the body and allow it to move on. Within the mortuary of Father Friday Cemetery, a fire burned perpetually, the flames fueled by an odorless, colorless gas that bubbled up from beneath a subterranean hot spring. The child -- her name was Iris -- had already been reduced to ashes. These, Dominy scattered over a bed of white azaleas that were just starting to bloom. Irisís ghost watched curiously. She still did not realize that she was dead.

A small army of the dead followed Dominy and Agatha as they performed their morning duties. For the most part, the ghosts were well behaved. Those that attempted mischief -- strong spirits could sometimes possess the bodies of the living by entering the palm of the left hand and following the heart meridian to the lower spine where the spirit lodged, like a second brain -- these ghosts were foiled by the Wisdom runes that the pitre and his assistant wore on their hands.

The morning rites done, they returned to the hilltop mausoleum that served both as mortuary and home for the pitre. A prelate of the Three was waiting to discuss the funeral for the old woman. The burial would be held three days after her death as was the custom for those of her faith. The young priest noted Agathaís rose quartz key and made a sign to protect himself. Members of the Three considered the Goddess a demon and her followers whores and witches.

When the priest turned his back, Agatha stuck out her tongue at him.

Dominy gave her a reproving look, and she ducked her head.

"Weíll want to keep the ceremony as simple as possible," said the prelate. "In observance of Fast. No spirits, of course. No meat. No singing. Mme. Paul was a devout woman." Another anxious glance at Agatha. "She would not want her mourners to break Fast on her account."

Though the Three was not the biggest religion in Boymere, its followers were the richest and most powerful. By tradition, the day before the start of their month long Fast was called Feast, and everyone on the island, regardless of creed, participated in the celebration. There would be parties that evening and a parade. The elegant men and women who manned the floats would toss out paper flowers and silk ribbons and -- most prized of all -- medallions made from wood, shell and even silver. Agatha had caught one of the silver medals when she was a child in Princeís Port, but the Matron who looked after the children in the orphanage had confiscated it from her. Matron called her establishment a boarding school, because she was paid money to look after inconvenient children, but the only thing she ever taught her charges was how to be quiet and do as they were told.

All that changed after Agatha met Dominy. Five mornings a week, she left the cemetery to attend school. After six months, she was reading almost as well as the eight year old students, a source of some embarrassment to her, though the teacher, Mlle. Lucille praised her rapid progress. When the younger children laughed at her, a big fourteen year old who was still in grade school, she scowled at them and threatened to turn ghosts upon them -- an idle threat. The spirits that haunted Father Friday Cemetery and which followed her around like baby ducklings could not venture beyond the graveyard walls. But the pupils at Mlle. Lucilleís school could not see the dead, so if Agatha told them that a headless woman was leaning over them dripping blood, they shrieked and scurried.

There was no school on Feast day. Agatha spent her free time gathering flowers and weaving bouquets and wreaths to decorate the graves of her favorite ghosts. She was placing an arrangement of violets and snowdrops around the neck of the marble cherub that marked little Silpheís resting place, when she noticed a woman wearing a heavy black cloak and veil hurrying towards the mortuary. Had there been another death? She followed the veiled woman, who smelled faintly of lilacs. Hiding behind a gravestone, she watched as the door between the carved angels swung open and Dominy appeared.

The woman threw back her veil. She was beautiful! Hair as black and shiny as a ravenís wing was held back by ivory combs revealing flawless amber skin. Her eyes were black too. The corners crinkled as she gazed upon the pitreís face. She pursed her rouged lips and, standing on tiptoe, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

Agatha ducked behind a gravestone. Her legs went weak. She sank to the grass. Despite the cool marble at her back, she felt hot, imagining the way the womanís soft red lips would feel against hers and then the way that Dominyís mouth would taste. She had never pictured the pitre with a woman. Did cemetery guardians do such things? Apparently so. Could this have anything to do with Dominyís strange transformation from old man to young? Pressing her lips together to keep herself from uttering a sound that might give away her presence, she eavesdropped on the grownups conversation.

"What are you doing?" asked Silphe, the ghost.

Agatha pressed her finger to her lips, signally the spirit to silence.

Silphe giggled softly, a sound like the rustling of wind through the grass. To her, it was all a game, like hide and seek. The sun was bright, the flowers were blooming, and it was Feast day, when even the cemetery was a lively place.

Lillian was shocked at how young Dominy looked. The last time she had seen him, shortly before her marriage, his hair had been white, like an old manís, and his skin had hung loosely on his spare frame. Today, he was like one of the blooming jonquils, golden and radiant. The metallic wisdom runes on his hands gleamed. The lenses of his wire rimmed spectacles caught the light and reflected it like two bright stars.

"Itís so good to see you!" she gushed. Her lips found his again. His smell was the same, lavender and incense -- scents she associated with Church and funerals and -- ever since she met the cemetery guardian -- sex.

Gently, he pushed her away. "Howís your husband?"

"Away on business, as usual." She tried to get close to him again, but he held her at armís length. "You donít seem very happy to see me," she pouted.

His expression was unreadable. "Iím glad to see you well."

"You mean you thought the next time we met Iíd be dead?" she asked archly. "Were you looking forward to draining my blood? Did you wonder what I look like inside? Oh, silly me. I forgot. Youíve already seen me inside." She grabbed his hand and pressed it to the mound of soft flesh between her thighs. Her dress was silk and gossamer thin, and she had left off her petticoats and stays.

Dominyís hand slid upwards, tracing the outline of her very slightly rounded belly. "Youíre pregnant." It was not a question.

Lillian sighed. "Yes, Iím pregnant."

"The child isnít Raymondís."

She shook her head. The scent of lilacs filled the air. "No, the child isnít Raymondís. I was -- indiscrete."

"Whoís the father?"

"No one you know. But heís dark. Almost black. Raymond will know the child isnít his. Please, Dominy!" Her dark eyes were wide, pleading. "You have to help me."

"The priestesses at the Temple provide abortions. Free of charge if you donít have the money to pay."

She flinched as if she had been struck. "You know I canít do that! Itís a mortal sin! Iíd go to Hell!"

"And what you want to do with me isnít a sin?"

She squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "No. Not a mortal sin. If I confess to adultery, the prelate will give me a penance and tell me not to do it again."

"Even though in fucking me youíll kill your unborn child?"

She flinched at the crude word. "Thatís up to the Three to decide. If they want to take the child, they will. Please Dominy -- "

They were interrupted by the sounds of footsteps on the stone walk. A husband and wife come to lay a wreath of flowers on the grave of their child. At the sight of the pitre, their expressions lightened just a little.

"Is she still haunting the cemetery?" asked the wife, a young woman with old eyes. "Is she here now? Can she see us? Is she happy?"

Silphe, the deceased child in question, was standing in her motherís shadow. Dominy could see her, a pale reflection of the girl she once was. Agatha stood behind the ghost, her henna dyed hands resting lightly on the spiritís thin white shoulders.

"Sheís very happy, maíam," Agatha said with a slight curtsy. "I play with her every day. Sheís here right now, if you want to say hello."

The bereaved mother searched the shadows, as if hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughterís ghost. Tears filled her eyes.

Her husbandís eyes were moist, too. "Tell her we love her."

"She knows," said the red haired girl.

The couple lingered, unwilling to be parted from their daughter, even though they could not see her or touch her or hear her voice. Eventually, Dominy suggested that Agatha and Silphe escort the visitors to the gate. Alone once more with Lillian, he opened the door to the mausoleum that was his home as well as a mortuary. "Come inside."

The black haired woman breathed a little sigh of relief. "So youíll help me?"

No sunlight penetrated the central foyer of the mausoleum. The air was still and musty. The marble floor was smooth and cool. Gaslights spaced at regular intervals along the walls provided a sickly, yellow illumination that made the cemetery pitre look old again. "Follow me."

She remembered the bedroom. The walls, floors and ceiling where covered with wisdom runes, making this the only place inside the cemetery where the dead could not spy. The bed was unmade. The trundle bed had been pulled out, and its sheets were also tangled. "Does that girl sleep here? Is that wise? Sheís almost a woman."

"Agatha is my assistant."

"Just your assistant?" She sounded like a jealous wife.

Dominy hid his smile. So she did care about him, just a little. The hard, cold lump within his heart softened. He raised his hand and lifted her shiny, black curls from the nape of her neck. Gently, he laid his lips against her warm, amber flesh. "Get undressed," he whispered.

She was not the first woman he had helped get rid of an unwanted child and she would not be the last. The Three were very strict about matters of birth control. A woman who did anything to prevent or get rid of a pregnancy was a murderer. However, if the unborn child was accidentally killed -- say, in a horseback riding accident -- that was an act of the Three, beyond human control.

A necromancerís seed was lethal to any unborn child except his own. A pregnant woman who had sex with a cemetery guardian would lose her baby. Dominy tried to put the thought from his mind as he coupled with his former lover. His movements were slow, gentle. He handled her the same way he would any grieving client, with care and respect. When the act was complete, he resisted the urge to lie down beside her and take her into his arms. She was a married woman, he reminded himself. He had stopped loving her years ago. But a part of him still remembered how his pulse would quicken when he heard her voice, how her thigh felt beneath his hand when they drowsed together after sex, the way her breath warmed his neck.

Resolutely, he turned his back to her and picked up his trousers from the floor. Behind him, he heard a gasp.

"Your back!" Lillian exclaimed.

He glanced in the mirror. The phoenix from that morning was gone. His back was black as graveyard dirt, except for a rectangular area in the middle where an open coffin lay in the grave. The woman in the casket wore a white lace gown. Her eyes were closed. Her hands were folded over her breasts. Her shiny, black curls were arranged carefully around her lovely, heart shaped face.

"Is that what I am to you?" Lillian whispered. "Dead?"

"If you were dead," he answered softly, "I would have you all to myself."

She shivered. Hurriedly, she dressed. Without a backwards glance, she fled from the room, down the gas lit corridor to the sunlit world outside. The red haired assistant -- Agatha, he had called her -- was loitering nearby, pretending to tend a plot of violets. When she spotted the woman in black, she threw down her trowel and marched up to her.

"You shouldíve gone to the Temple," the girl muttered darkly. Her eyes were amber-gold in the sunlight. Her cemetery key was encrusted with rose quartz. A follower of the Goddess. "They give you a cup of tea, and then you bleed, just like any period. It wasnít right what you did to Dominy."

Lillian scowled. "What do you know about whatís right?"

"I know that Dominy loves you. Or loved you. He wonít love you anymore." She touched her key pendant. She sounded so sure, as if the Goddess of Love herself had spoken in her ear.

Footsteps in the distance. More mourners come to celebrate Feast with their departed family members. Lillian pulled herself together. She did not owe this girl anything. "One day youíll understand," she said.

"If you mean one day Iíll be like you, then Iíd rather die," Agatha said fiercely. The wind picked up. Pink and white cherry blossoms carried over the cemetery wall swirled around her.

"Well," Lillian replied coolly. "Thatís the difference between me and you. The difference between the Three and the Goddess. The Goddess claims that love is all we need. But you canít eat love. Love wonít keep the rain out or keep you warm in the winter. Love wonít stop you from dying an early death from hunger and disease. Only the grace of the Three can do that."

The wind died. Cherry blossoms settled on Agathaís head and shoulders, like a mantle of flowers. Though Lillian could not see the ghosts that crowded around the cemetery guardianís assistant, for a moment she sensed their presence, and she wondered what her own life would have been like if the prelate had not "cured" her of her power to sense spirits. Would she have ended up like Agatha, barefoot and dressed in a pair of Dominyís cast off pants with the cuffs rolled up and a simple, linen shift, the kind worn by women who carried jars of water on their head from the city well because they were too poor to have indoor plumbing?

Because she envied Agatha her youth and her future with its endless possibilities, Lillian said bitterly. "You donít know. It wonít always be like this. One day, youíll look back, and all the happy times will be over. Over before you know it, like the Feast day that comes before the long month of Fasting."

Agatha shivered at the older womanís words. The ghosts that had gathered behind her began to mutter.

"Yes. Yes, thatís just what my life was like. Like a Feast before the Fast."

"Feast day, and no one came to give me flowers."

"Feast day. I caught a silver medallion -- "

"They said if you caught a silver medallion, your wish would come true. But I died before my wedding day -- "

"I died -- "

"I died -- "

"I donít like her," said Silphe. "Tell her to go away so we can play."

Lillianís face went pale beneath her golden tan. For a moment, she had seen Silpheís ghost with her own eyes and heard her words.

"You should go now," Agatha said. "Dominy wonít come out as long as youíre here, and he and I have work to do."

With a rustle of silk, Lillian fled, leaving behind the scent of lilacs. Agatha waited until the smell of perfume faded before going inside. She found Dominy in the mortuary, filling the corpse of the old woman with herbs. Powdered lavender and myrrh in her nostrils and mouth. Crushed mint, rosemary and sage between her legs -- her pubic hair was scant and grey, the flesh withered where once it was supple and pink. The lovely woman would look like that one day, unless she died young. Her family would bring her to Father Friday Cemetery, and the pitre would scoop out her intestines and liver and heart and fill her up with flowers and herbs.

Agatha touched the back of Dominyís hand. The Wisdom runes caught and reflected the gaslight. "You ok?"

He pressed his lips together.

The girl sighed. "After supper, can we go see the parade?"

He considered her request for a moment before nodding. "After supper."

Under Dominyís tutelage, Agatha was learning to cook without meat. The pitre did not eat fish, eggs or milk, either. Sometimes, when the craving for meat got too strong, Agatha would take a few coins from the box in the bedroom and buy a stick of roast lamb or a turkey leg at the market. But over time, she was losing the taste for greasy, sticky food.

In the kitchen, she peeled potatoes and set them to boil on the stove. The beans she had started that morning were soft. She crumbled herbs and stirred them into the pot. A salad of chicory and grated carrots completed the meal. She was laying the table, when the cemetery guardian appeared.

They ate in silence. Since she had cooked, it was Dominyís turn to do the dishes. Agatha went to get ready for Feast. Shoes -- she was so used to going barefoot that even thin leather slippers felt awkward on her feet. Her one pretty dress, brown silk embroidered with real gold thread. She tried to tie back her unruly red curls, but they kept springing free from the ribbon. A fringed wool shawl in case it turned cold once the sunset. She examined her own features critically in the looking glass.

Dominy appeared in the mirror behind her. "Here, let me." He fastened a gardenia in her hair.

The pitre wore his best black frock coat, the one with the carved ebony buttons, over a white silk shirt. However, he refused to put on boots. "I like to feel the earth under my feet."

Agatha kicked off her own shoes. "So do I."

Together, they left the cemetery. The sun was setting over the mountains to the west. Their shadows stretched out on the road before them like giants. Ghost crowded at the cemetery gates, calling to them.

"Bring me a ribbon."

"Me, too!"

"If you get a Fisherís Guild medallion, itís mine. I was a fisherman. I caught a shark onceÖ"

The voices of the spirits followed them on the wind, fading only when they were out of sight of the cemetery. "That woman who came today. She could see Silphe."

The pitre nodded. "Lillian used to be like you and me."

"Used to be?"

"Lillianís from a rich family. A very important family. They arranged a marriage for her when she was just a child. When she started seeing ghosts, they thought she was possessed. They consulted me. When I told them that she wasnít possessed, just gifted with second sight, they persuaded the High Prelate to cleanse her."

Cleanse? Agatha pictured the lovely woman standing naked in a bath while a man dressed in prelateís robes poured pitchers of water over her head, one after another. But that could not be what Dominy meant. He was talking about magic. Despite all their talk about the dangers of witchcraft, the priests of the Three loved to dabble in magic.

They were within sight of the parade route. The commoners gathered along the side of High Road noted the cemetery pitreís distinctive clothes, tattoos and jewelry, and they made room for him and his assistant. The sky was dark now. Glowing paper lanterns hung from the cherry trees, whose blossoms formed a pink and white carpet under foot. Agatha wiggled her toes. There! The first float was coming, a gold painted wagon drawn by horses. The vehicle was full of flowers. In the middle of the roses, orchids and petunias, three women sat, each of them dressed in golden lace. Despite their masks, Agatha recognized one of them as Lillian. She had one hand pressed to her belly as if it pained her, but she continued to wave with her other hand.

"Feast before the fast," Agatha murmured.

"Whatís that?" asked Dominy.

"Your lady friend. She said life is a Feast before the Fast. One day of fun and then a lifetime of suffering."

He frowned. "That doesnít sound like the Lily I know."

Agatha understood suffering. Suffering was being left behind by your mother when she went to marry a rich man who lived far away. Suffering was going to bed hungry every night and waking cold each morning. Suffering was being sold to a pimp and, when you fought back, having the woman who was supposed to take care of you try to poison you. Suffering was a long, lonely dangerous road from Princeís Port to Kingís Town that led to a cemetery where your mother was being laid to rest --

So why did she, who had suffered so much in her short life feel so sorry for Lillian?

She caught twelve ribbons and three medallions that night. One of the medallions was made of sterling silver. On one side was a triangle, the symbol of the Three. On the other was the name of the noble family which had commissioned the medal.

Agatha closed her eyes to make a wish, but she could not think of anything she wanted that she did not already have, so instead she wished that Dominy would stop looking so sad.

When the last parade float vanished into the night, Agatha and Dominy walked back to Father Friday Cemetery. The streets were dark and littered with ribbons, cherry blossoms, bits of crushed paper. Couples hid in the shadows, kissing and making love. The air smelled of rum, flowers and -- very faintly -- the sea. The wind had changed. There would be rain tomorrow. All traces of tonightís festivities would be washed away.

Agatha slipped her hand into Dominyís and gave him a comforting squeeze. His expression lightened. One corner of his mouth lifted, the closest he ever came to smiling. Hand in hand, they entered the graveyard. The gates of Father Friday Cemetery creaked faintly as they swung shut behind them.

THE END


© 2012 McCamy Taylor

Bio: If you don't know who McCamy Taylor is, you're really not paying attention. In addition to her semi-regular reviews of Japanese manga, many of her short stories and novellas have appeared in Aphelion and other print and online publications, and she is the reigning Aphelion Long Fiction editor. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was The Sleep of Death in the May 2012 edition.

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