Big Mouth House, 2015
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Wasp's job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-long ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They're chosen. They're special. Or so they've been told for four hundred years.
Archivist Wasp fears she is not the chosen one, that she won't survive the trip to the underworld, that the brutal life she has escaped might be better than where she is going. There is only one way to find out.
As it did every year in the days that followed the Archivist-choosing day, Wasp's recovery routine kicked in each morning even before she'd come completely awake. It was her third year as Archivist, after all, the third year she'd stayed at least a week in bed so the wounds could knit themselves to scabs, then scars. By now, the steps came to her easy as breathing.
One. Check the bandages.
The smallish ones on her neck, legs, and shoulders, then the wide one at her side where the third upstart's second knife had gone in and stayed--until Wasp had pulled it out and flung it at her head, ruining an ear. Also the set of neat stitches tracking down her lower lip to her chin, and the other one cutting across the old scars on her cheekbone and up into her temple.
For the first few days, this was as far as she had gotten before pain and exhaustion had overcome her, and she'd spent those days drifting in and out of healing sleep, in and out of less productive nightmares.
Today, all seemed sound.
Two. Sit up.
This took longer than she would like, and she expected any moment to feel the pull and gush down her hip where the deep wound had reopened. She dreaded this, of course, but more than that she dreaded another round of festering and a fever high enough she could practically boil water on her forehead when she tried to treat the newly opened wound herself. Exactly a year ago she'd nearly killed herself doing exactly that, but she was fairly sure she'd do it again. A choice between a moment with a heated knife and a bottle of spirits and a rag to scream into, or letting the midwife back at her, didn't seem to her like much of a choice at all.
There was a pull, but no gush came.
The fracture in her ankle screamed but held, and a glance at her bandaged side in the light discovered no bloodstains, no greenish watermarks of pus. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth against what was coming, and bounced a little on her toes to see if they'd take her weight.
If she ground down hard on whatever desperate messages her ankle was firing at her brain, she could push through or outstubborn the rest.
"Finally," she whispered.
Four. Get back to work.
Her injuries were different (and, alarmingly, more plentiful) than last year's, so, as she did every year, Wasp improvised, inching her way back out into the world.
Two weeks in bed had taken their toll. Her arms felt weaker, somehow stiff and rubbery at once, as did her legs. When she bent down to touch her toes, the muscles in the backs of her thighs began complaining even before the wound at her side got its say. Squatting over her pissing-pot was agony. So she tried to stretch her back and instantly her side felt like someone had stuck a pick in it and twisted.
She paced a bit, feeling like a caged cat, trying to outwalk the pain. She wished she could limp back into bed. Sleep, dream, let the Catchkeep-priest set the upstarts at each others' throats until whoever was left standing became Archivist in her place. There would be another soon enough at this rate anyway.
But there was the backpack in a corner, and therewere the jars and knife and saltlick, and she never would have gotten away with it. Wasp knew quite well that two weeks abed was already enough of a display of weakness, without adding any more wasted days on top of it. She knew what the dozen surviving upstarts must be saying about how long it'd taken her to beat the three who'd drawn this year's short straws, and how many wounds they'd given her. How Wasp just wasn't what she used to be. How next year it'd be her on the wrong end of the knife. It had to be eventually. It always was.
She couldn't keep that day from coming. But she could push it out of reach a little longer.
So she limped her way over to the far wall, where the painting was.
The bones of the painting were nails, hammered straight into the wall to pick out the stars of Catchkeep's constellation. And around them She had been outlined in thick black paint, all teeth and legs, Her back curved like a rainbow, caught in mid-leap over a shadowy abyss. On one rocky shore of it a woman stood, tiny in comparison with Catchkeep, Who spanned the wall. She held an open jar out in front of her with both hands. Gray fog drifted from the jar, up toward Catchkeep, forming into figures that clung to Her back as She carried them to the far shore. That shore itself was misty, hard to make out--but green, greener than anything Wasp knew. She wasn't even sure what had been used to paint it.
In little drips of color that same green was radiating off of the gray figures, drifting back toward the woman. There was a book by her feet, and the greenness went there and infused it with a glow. From there it floated off behind her in threads to tint the shadows at her back. On her side of the abyss, it was the only color whatsoever.
Catchkeep Herself was black and red. Stepping close to Her you could make out the outlines of handprints, darker where they overlapped. Wasp's first day as Archivist, they'd rushed her here before the blood of the fallen Archivist could dry on her palms, and to the painting she had added the shape of her hand, which was the shape of her predecessor's death. Sometimes she wondered where that Archivist's handprint was in the painting, whose blood had made that mark. Sometimes she wondered which part of Catchkeep her own blood would redden, whose hand it would be in the shape of.
Wasp didn't need to come close enough to read the words painted in above Catchkeep's beartrap of a head. She'd known them by heart for years. Every day she went out to do the work, she stopped here and said the words first, like every Archivist before her. Now more than ever, she needed them to keep her safe.
She bowed her head before all that long-dried blood.
"I am the Archivist. Catchkeep's emissary, ambassador, and avatar on earth. Her bones and stars my flesh; my flesh and bones Her stars. Mine is the mouth through which the dead world speaks. Mine are the hands that record what the dead world left behind. Mine are the eyes that hold vigil, so that the old world's death does not return to kill the world anew. Protect me, Catchkeep, until another stands before You here, as I stand where another stood. Protect me so that I can do Your work, until my flesh fails, until my bones fail, leaving only Your stars, which light the earth forever."
She felt like a fraud even saying the words. In freeing the last upstart she was supposed to kill, she had spit on the very rituals she was calling upon now to keep her alive.
But she could still do the work, and she'd keep on doing it until she found a way to break free. It seemed to be enough for Catchkeep. After all, Wasp had lost count of her attempts to rebel against the Catchkeep-priest and escape, and Catchkeep hadn't yet come down out of the sky to murder her.
Besides, it wasn't the work she minded. It was everything else. Next to that, the work was downright soothing. What could the dead do to her that the living did not do already?
She shouldered the backpack and stuck the harvesting-knife in her belt. Pulled on her shoes. Gulped down half the stale contents of her water-jug and poured a cupped handful to splash her face. Eased off the bandages, all but the big one at her side, which her shirt would cover. Stuffed some flatbread and raisins in a pocket to eat while she walked. Stopped, one hand on the door, to glare over her shoulder at the room: cot, shelves, braided rag-rug, not much else. A few hanging strings of wild garlic, peppers, apples, drying or dried. A few changes of homespun clothing. The box that held her field notes. Everything but the food had been handed down from dead Archivists, inherited with the little house itself. No knowing how many Archivists had patched and mended those clothes before her. From the look of them, plenty. But Archivists had been adding field notes to that box for four centuries. In them was all the knowledge they had ever gained from their studies, going back and back to when the first Archivist was given the harvesting-knife and learned what it was for.
The upstarts never touched the field notes. Nor did the Catchkeep-priest. They were the only line of communication between that long line of Archivists, and the only way each one learned how to do Catchkeep's work was by reading them. It wasn't like any old Archivists were left alive to teach the new ones.
And then there were the jars. There had to be at least a hundred, crammed on the shelves that lined three walls of four. Clay pots and wooden boxes, made by town crafters or traded for, made up the majority. Much rarer were the glass jars, found out in the Waste. Some with only hairline cracks or chipped rims, some still with the matching screw-top lids that were so precious that scavenger kids would fight over who brought them to the Catchkeep-priest, for they were usually worth a decent meal in trade. Never mind that the Catchkeep-priest only ever took that meal out of the upstarts' share, never skimming from his own.
As though aware of her eyes on it, from somewhere among the jars there came a rattling. As she watched, a row of empty glass ones began to clink against each other, pushed gently, rhythmically, by something from behind. Well, if they fell and shattered, the Catchkeep-priest would have her hide for a coat, bones for buttons, and she knew it. Quickly she scooped those off the shelf, then located the rattling jar behind them and stretched, hissing through her teeth as she went up on tiptoe to bring it down. It was a reddish clay one, the size of her two fists pressed together, with a tooth-shaped chip near the base. With a sinking feeling, she remembered it. The patience of the thing inside it astounded her.
"Morning, troublemaker," she told it, and set out, cradling that jar as carefully as she would old ordnance or a pail of rain, for Execution Hill.
She threw open the door on the autumn and the woodsmoke from the warn-fires and the half-frozen mud and the rotten-sweet windfall smell from the valley--and the first thing she saw was not the warn-fires or the orchard or the valley for that matter, or even the mud, but the Catchkeep-priest, rummaging among the cairns of offerings the people had left by her door as she'd slept.
Apart from what she managed to forage herself, those offerings were all that would see her through the winter, for there was not a shopkeeper who would trade with an Archivist, not a townsperson's roof under which an Archivist was welcome. That was herbunch of wild onions. Herhorseleather gloves. Hernettle-yarn scarf. Hersharpening-stone. And there hewas, picking through her things with those soft long daintyfingered hands that had never seen a callus or probably so much as a blister in all their days on earth.
He had two shrine-dogs with him, hulking and silent. For once, they did not snarl at her. They were much too occupied with eating a loaf of bread the Catchkeep-priest had picked out of her things for them. One, finished, raised its head, and the Catchkeep-priest cooed at it and flung some eggs and jerky he'd unearthed. The shrine-dog set to, slobbering, and the Catchkeep-priest turned to regard Wasp, who forced her face to show only apathy.
He was nibbling at something else he'd found. A pear, and a ripe one, from the smell of the juice Wasp could see running down his wrist. Her mouth watered. She spat.
She would not let him rile her. It was only food. She could find more somewhere, if she looked hard enough. Another cart of offerings would come eventually. She would not show weakness. She would walk on by.
She'd never gotten what was coming to her for disobeying him, disobeying Catchkeep Herself, letting that last upstart live. He was forbidden to kill her himself, but Wasp was sure he'd thought of some way to try to stomp her back down into her place. He always did. She could think of no other reason why he should be here.
Even nearing him, her palms went clammy and she had a sensation like someone had dumped a bucketful of worms down the back of her shirt. He smiled and the sensation intensified.
"A fine morning to you, lazybones," he said, bending to her height. "To think I was beginning to forget that pretty face."
He'd found a kind of necklace in the heap: bits of old glass, remnants of shotgun shells, tarnished rings and yellowed fingerbones, all strung on somebody's lost cat's sun-dried sinews. It looked like the contents of any out-turned pocket of any scavenger kid in the Waste. There was a tiny locket on it with a blue-and-white enamel windmill on the front. He popped it open with a sticky thumbnail to hold it glinting before her.
A shard of mirror trapped a fraction of her face and proffered it. Part of a dark eye. Part of a dark eyebrow. Part of a snarl of five-colored hair, not hers, darkened with two weeks of grease, falling not quite over the eye, not quite over the four long scars, paler and pinker than her skin, that ran the full length of the right cheek, temple to jaw, with which Catchkeep marked each upstart in the womb to do Her holy work--
She grimaced at her grimace. "Pretty face yourself," she mumbled, and began to walk past him. He set a hand to her arm and despite herself she stopped. It was a gentling hand, such as she'd seen him use on the shrine-dogs when they'd gone wrong with too much Waste or too much holiness, a gentling hand to the top of the head while the hidden knife slid in under the jaw and--
"That's better. Now let me look at you. Catchkeep's champion. Wrecker of upstarts. Glorious horror." His tone changed, honey to oil. "Long fight this year. Long heal. What must they be saying."
"Nothing I can't answer," said Wasp, staring straight ahead as the dogs began to growl. They didn't seem to like her tone.
"Today, maybe. Today you have a fresh fierce face to show them. No blood. No bandages. No footholds by which to climb you. No handholds by which to tear you down. But in a year?"
His inspection of her paused. His hand was very near the deep wound in her side. Did he remember it? Her pulse ticked in her neck. Of course he did.
"But in a week, when this has festered and you are babbling on the midwife's cot?"
His fingers dug in, very slightly, and the air went out of her. She could have sworn the dogs were grinning.
"Or in a day, when this ankle, which you are too proud to have set, finally gives out on you, and the whole market watches you hobble up your hill like somebody's toothless granny?"
He drew his foot back, gave that ankle the tenderest of kicks, and Wasp saw stars. She bit down on the cry.
He laughed. Gave her head a little pat, like hunters pat a bear-torn dog's that did its best. Began to walk away. "Won't that be a pity."
"Too bad you're not allowed to fight me yourself then," Wasp snapped, and when he stopped walking she instantly regretted it. She'd let him rile her. She really was losing her edge.
"No point in dirtying my hands on you," he said. "All I have to do is wait. And I am very good at waiting." Half display of wastefulness, half contempt, he turned and lobbed the pear-core at her.
She was meant to stand and let it strike her. She swatted it from the air.
The Catchkeep-priest watched her for a moment, smiling like a shark, licking juice from his fingers thoughtfully as he took those few slow steps back to face her. She expected him any moment to kick her ankle for real, breaking it along the fracture, or tear that ominous wound at her side back open. Or black her eye for her, or split her lip along its stitching. Give the upstarts some fresh blood to mutter over.
Could she take him in a fair fight? She wasn't sure. He wouldn't fight fair, though. Then again, neither would she. She tensed, gauging. If she was fast, she could maybe blind him. Not outrun him, not like this. Not that she wouldrun. She'd never taken a wound to the back in her life and she wasn't starting now.
The window was a few seconds wide at most, and narrowing, before he got the upper hand.
She touched the harvesting-knife at her belt and, just like that, the point of his blade was at her throat. He peered down his nose at her with scholarly interest.
"Well, look at you, with your fire up. Such terrifying confidence for someone who couldn't even finish her last fight."
That last upstart, the third this year. Who Wasp had disarmed. Whose knife Wasp had thrown in the lake. Who Wasp had let live.
For an upstart, or an Archivist, to be killed was to be erased. Swallowed into history. Turned ghost. Already the other upstarts would be forgetting the ones who had died. Their names would be the first thing to rot from their bones.
Aneko, Wasp thought. Her name is Aneko.
"That fight was finished," Wasp said, her voice thickening so that she had to wring it out of her throat. "You want them cut up like chickens, take them to the butcher."
Heal clean, Wasp wished at her, wherever she was convalescing. Then run.Let the Catchkeep-priest say what he would to her. This time, she had won.
"Well, that's the thing of it, Wasp. You see, I tookthem to the butcher. And the butcher lost her nerve." He shook his head sadly. "Do you know it took that poor girl four days to die of her wounds, raving of fever and thirst in the street?"
It struck her like a punch to the stomach. She hadn't known. She hadn't known at all.
"How is that charitable?" the Catchkeep-priest continued, but Wasp could barely hear him over the rush of blood in her ears. It was all she could do not to leap at him with the harvesting-knife. "What are you proving? She's still dead, and people are saying her ghost will walk for all time because it's caught in-between and Catchkeep can't take it across. Nobody's happy about this, Wasp." He chuckled. "Well. Nobody but the upstarts. Next year they'll be fighting over those short straws. What a gift you're giving them. Making things so easy."
His knifepoint went in, just enough to draw blood, and he gave it a delicate quarter-turn, bringing Wasp up slightly on her toes. He smiled.
"Hate them, if it helps. Hate me. Hate every person in this town and every ghost outside of it. But you were entrusted with the tools to do the work, and you will do the work. It's not like much is asked of you. Catch ghosts. Take notes on them. Send them on to Catchkeep. In exchange, your roof is sound. You don't break your back taking rotations boiling water or working the gardens. You're untouchable to every person in this town who'd rather just stick a knife in you and leave you for the bears. Is it really so terrible?"
They only want to do that because they're scared of what I am,Wasp thought. Because of what you've made me. Because they can't deal with the ghosts themselves. Because they have to give me offerings, when they have nothing to spare. They hate themselves for needing me.
But she'd said all this before. It had made no difference then, would make no difference now. Same for everything else she wanted to tell him. I never asked for this. I never wanted this. Well, maybe I did once, but that was a long time ago. All I remember wanting is out.
The Catchkeep-priest saw in her face all the things she was not saying. "If you don't like it," he said, "then next year's fight, don't fight back. Until then, you belong to Catchkeep, which means you belong to me, and you will jump when I say."
The jar in her hand started shifting in her grasp. His gaze went from her face to it and back. She almost managed not to flinch. "The fact that you have not yet sent that one on to Her is an embarrassment to Her and to us all," he said. "Ghosts don't like to be kept waiting, my girl, and neither does She." His smile was kindly, forgiving. She didn't trust it for a second. "When you are finished, do us the kindness of coming down from your hill to break bread with us. Your sisters are all so anxiousto see the results of your convalescence."
Slowly, deliberately, he lowered the knife into Wasp's field of vision. It was not his knife.
There was blood dried onto it. Sand dried onto that.
Somebody'd found it after all.
"Take it," he said, holding the knife out toward her.
She swallowed hard. "I don't want it."
In answer, he set the flat of the blade to her cheek, drawing it softly down along the scar to where it ended at her throat. Flaking dried blood against her skin. "I didn't ask."
Wasp grabbed at it, too fast. Anything to get it off her face. Sliced a finger. Didn't care.
"Really you should have just cut her throat," the Catchkeep-priest mused. "This much blood, you'd think it would have been quicker. Half a weekyou left her wandering, yowling like a cat in heat. Children following her with pockets full of stones I could not let them throw. However long their mothers begged." He shook his head at her, all sorrow. "All you had to do was walk up to her and finish what you started. But no. I hope your little nap was restful, Wasp. I do. I hope your dreams were sweet."
He patted her cheek and walked away, dogs at his heels. As soon as he was out of sight around the rocks, Wasp dropped the knife, then stuck two fingers down her throat and retched. Nothing but bile to bring up. She brought it up all the same and spat on the tamped dirt path where he had stood. No use. Everything still smelled like that pear.
Wasp's tiny house sat on a high hill, perched on a heap of boulders like a nesting hen. From there, the path switchbacked down and down, bottoming out in the valley where an ancient orchard had long since gone to seed and metastasized into a stunted woodland, its maggoty apples a lifeline some years, a staple every year, to the pieced-together little salvage-town of Sweetwater that clung to its westerly edge. All the trees leaned hard one way, toward a lightning-blasted spit of rock. It was jagged and black and its peak was twice as high as Wasp's house on the other side.
It was the one ridge in the whole valley where the people raised no warn-fires. The one whose rock was never used for building, though it was dense and tended to break in clean lines and chunks of it littered the Hill's foot where they had tumbled or been blasted out for that purpose by those long vanished. Now nobody dared touch it, for it was sacred to Catchkeep, so it was the Archivist's property.
Her first year, Wasp had come upon a young couple living with a week-old baby in a sort of lean-to by the market. The baby was a grayish, squalling, starveling thing with more skull than face, and the mother's milk had run dry. There was no food but what they stole, no fire whatsoever. Wasp had brought them the best of her latest batch of offerings, a pot of honey and some bread and cheese, and gave them her permission to use that dense black rock to build themselves some shelter.
When he found out, the Catchkeep-priest had whipped her to within an inch of her life, and it was a long time before she tried again to help anyone but the dead. She never saw that couple and their staring skull-baby again, except in dreams. She had not come upon their ghosts yet, either, but she figured it was only a matter of time. She wondered whether they would come to her starved or stabbed.
The black peak's name--Execution Hill--was an old one. The name was in the field notes, and the field notes did not lie.
On a good day, it was two hours' walk down from her house and across the orchard to the foot of the Hill. This was not a good day. She picked her way down the path, her legs slogging, her feet slipping on the scree. She wasn't letting herself think about her ankle.
Still, the day was clear, and she'd missed the sharp sweet smell of the warn-fires. It was getting cold. Soon she'd be cracking cat-ice on the puddles when the catchment bins went dry. And soon a brush fire in a smoky hearth and the terrified charity of the people would be all that stood between her and the winter. She could starve to rattling bones and the people still wouldn't take her in any sooner than they would a rabid dog.
With the hills now behind her, and the Catchkeep-priest somewhere among them, presumably wending his way back to town, she allowed herself to slow. Still keeping her breath measured. Still not letting herself limp. Still not betraying that the muscles of her calves were already quivering with the effort. That she'd eaten the flatbread and raisins and her head still swam with hunger. That she'd like to sit and breathe that clear cold air awhile and hoard it in her until it began, from inside out, to scrub her clean.
The orchard opened out before her and she headed in. At the first row of trees she stopped to fill what space was left in the backpack with apples. She kept one back to eat, spitting maggots as she walked.
She would have liked to sit beneath the trees a while instead. It might have been her last chance to do so before the snows came. But she knew the Catchkeep-priest was right. No ghost liked to be kept waiting.
Copyright © 2015 by Nicole Kornher-Stace
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