Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2012

The Least of the Deathly Arts by Kat Howard

Once the doors to the Library of Ghosts closed, they opened for no one in the City of Nyx, not even Death himself. Certainly not for someone as unimportant as a Shadow Scholar late for a lecture on memorial architecture. Ghosts, who had acquired an eternity of time upon their death, had not acquired a commensurate amount of patience, and were insistent upon punctuality. Noir glanced at the length of the afternoon shadows, and walked faster.

“A poem, Scholar? A poem for your death? A villanelle or sestina of eternal beauty, Scholar? Perhaps the variety of a limerick? Very popular with the fashionable this season, limericks. Or I could recite the newest offering from Death himself, Scholar. He’s gone back to sonnets, he has. Nothing like a sonnet for a truly elegant death, that’s what I say.”

Noir attempted to continue past the street poet, but he had entangled his hand in the fabric wrapping her arm. She had only recently acquired the cerements, hand-woven silk that shifted between red and black in color, never quite settling on a shade. She endured the poet’s touch for the sake of preserving the delicate garment. Misinterpreting Noir’s stillness, the poet began to demonstrate his extemporaneous ability with lame-footed iambic meter. “Oh Death! Thy touch! All lives it endeth, alas!”

“I require no poem, as I do not anticipate my death any time soon. Yours,” Noir’s smile was all teeth and keen edges, “I could arrange, if you persist in your inane versifying.”

The poet choked on his broken syllables, and clumsily bowed, then skittered away from the trailing edges of Noir’s grave garments. “Of course, Scholar, of course. What need is there for verse when I am in the presence of one whose beauty, wisdom, and grace embody all of poetry’s best qualities? Instead, I offer you the tribute of my silence.”

Noir wished that Death would find a preoccupation other than poetry. The city was so much more bearable when his enthusiasms tended towards funeral baked goods or new fashions in mementos mori. Unfortunately, this season, Death was again interested in poetry. His fascination with the subject meant that all the fashionable of Nyx were preoccupied with verse as well. At least Death had talent in the area. Most of his imitators did not.

Yet even when Death wrote it, Noir misliked poetry. It was mutable, and given to interpretation. Without certainty, words had no power. Fashionable as it might be, she considered poetry the least of the deathly arts.

#

Noir stood outside of the locked doors of the Library, the inconvenience of unscheduled time stretching out before her. She had, of course, been late to the lecture, and now needed to find some way to salvage the wasted day.

Smoke plumed across the sky over Nyx’s northern shore. A Viking funeral. Noir loved watching the flaming ships sail into the horizon, but she had no grave goods to offer as tribute. On another day she might search for something, a bracelet or a bottle of wine, so that she could pay her respects to whatever stranger was making a last farewell, but with the smoke already visible from the library steps, the ship would be consumed before she could get there. One more thing she would arrive too late for.

The Library of Ghosts was close upon the eastern quarter of the city. She could join a funeral parade there, hear the nuances of loss wailed by mourners in their robes of various blues, and breathe the chrysanthemum incense scenting their grief, but she was wearing red. Appearing at a funeral in the guise of a vengeful ghost would be unforgivably rude.

Perhaps, Noir thought, she would sit under a yew tree along the Via Aeterna, and contemplate her own funeral. Not all Shadow Scholars chose death as the culmination of their studies, but Noir had very nearly decided to do so. Death, she felt, would be the appropriate expression of her dedication to her chosen field.

Lost in the pleasures of academic speculation, Noir stumbled on the steps of the Library, nearly falling. A black-gloved hand caught her. The glove lingered on her arm, fingers smoothing the fabric she wore. The cerements slid against her skin like gossamer and night-whispers.

“Such an intriguing choice.” The fabric bled black to red in his grasp. Noir turned toward the voice, breathed the resinous scent of myrrh. Her rescuer wore the severe lines of formal mourning, cravat set off by a jet memento mori, face shadowed by a top hat.

Her finger brushed the cool, smooth skin where his glove fastened, unhooking the button that held it closed. She swayed toward him, as if entering the opening measure of a dance. His hand lingering on the fabric Noir had draped herself in, he murmured, “’Red for death or red for desire?’”

Noir stepped back, and twitched her sleeve into place. “I have had quite enough of poetry today, sir.”

The man offered a brief bow. “My apologies.” As he stood, he met her eyes. His were an infinity of grey smoke, and, for a moment, she saw in them all her futures. In that moment, Noir knew what she had done.

The man she had just admonished was Death.

Mortified at her rudeness, Noir sank into a curtsey, the delicate fabric she wore beginning to unravel as she bent.

“I wish that you would not.” The gloved hand slid up her arm to steady her. She felt as if she were falling.

“Did you come for the lecture on monumental architecture as well?” Death asked.

“I did. But I was delayed, and the ghosts had locked the doors.”

“Delayed?”

“By a poet, my lord Death. Who wished to recite for me one of your sonnets.”

Death’s laughter sent a flock of ravens winging across the sky. “It seems I owe you some recompense. Please, how may I make amends?”

“You are said to have a collection of reliquaries unsurpassed in all the city.” Reliquaries were Noir’s favorite form of memorial art. She loved how they captured transience, the threshold of decay, and placed it in a frame of incorruptible beauty. “If I might see them sometime, I would be very grateful.”

“You might see them now, if you wish. I promise to inflict no more of my poetry on you.” He smiled, placed his gloved hand in the small of her back, and led her down the stairs.

#

Death’s collection of reliquaries was, as Noir anticipated, extraordinary. Silver-plated bones, jewel-encrusted fragments of saints, elegantly stylized bits of holiness balancing the fleeting against the eternal. Moved by the beauty of the Chasse of Champagnat, Noir begged a pen and sketchbook. Yet with the sketch half-finished, she set down the pen. “It will be more beautiful in my memory.”

“Even though memories fade?”

“Because they do.”

Death requested her company at dinner. Noir accepted.

Death poured wine from a bottle of tarnished silver. Noir could not say whether the liquid was blood red, or the pale luminescence of tears.

“Funeral wine,” he said as he poured, “takes its flavor from the memories and longing of each person who drinks it.”

They drank. “What do you taste?” she asked.

“Love’s delight. The swift decay of grace. And you?”

Drunk on the honey and bitterness mixing on her tongue, Noir closed her eyes.

“It tastes,” she said, “like dying.”

#

Noir woke the next morning feeling as if she had taken one step sideways from herself. It was, she thought, the aftereffects of the funeral wine. Not that she regretted the indulgence, but she was grateful the Dead Days marking the turn of the year meant there were no classes in session.

The Dead Days opened with a living danse macabre. The Shadow Scholars of the Memorium costumed themselves as various aspects of Death, and lead the citizens of Nyx in a celebration of mortality.

Dressed as the Lady Death of a favorite story, Noir danced. Over cobbled stone and paved brick. She whirled with pope, empress, beggar, thief. She waltzed with a mercenary, and stepped a quadrille with a child. She danced until the seams of her gloves frayed from contact with so many hands.

Then a gloved hand covered her own, and Red Death pulled her into his arms. Noir breathed in myrrh, graveyard dust, and the smoke of a pyre. Not one of her fellow students, but Death himself, dancing with the people of his city. For the first time since she had parted from him, Noir’s head cleared, and her heart steadied.

Perhaps, she thought, her odd feeling that morning had not been a consequence of an excess of funeral wine but something altogether more common. And mortal.

#

The next day, with the steps of the danse macabre still lingering in her feet, Noir climbed the steps to the laboratories. She intended to check the results of her ongoing research into exsanguination. She was shocked to discover that she was not to be allowed inside the building.

The porter was quite apologetic. “You know the freshly dead aren’t allowed in, Scholar. The energies from the transition bugger up the equipment, begging your pardon for the language.” He shuffled in place and adjusted his jacket. “If you intend to remain resident in the Memorium, I can have your personal effects sent to you there.”

“I beg your pardon, porter. But I am demonstrably corporeal, and thus, unlikely to be dead.” Noir was tired, and out of sorts, but she had been studying death for years. She felt certain she would have noticed if she had died.

“That’s as may be, Scholar. But you haven’t a reflection, and are thus,” he rolled the word around in his mouth as if savoring the taste, “also unlikely to be alive.” The porter gestured at the ornate mirror in front of him, which quite clearly showed a paunchy man with tufted ginger hair in an ill-tailored uniform, and just as clearly did not show a lean and black-haired Shadow Scholar clad in silken cerements.

Noir carefully considered her lack of reflection. It was an intriguing development, if perhaps not the intellectual puzzle she had planned on unraveling that morning. She left for the archive, where the questionable state of her mortality would not prevent her entry.

Noir was cursing the plodding prose of the Historia rerum Anglicarum–William of Newburgh was one of the earliest references on revenirs, and thus the logical starting place for researching her current condition, but the man could make anything boring–when a section of parchment slid loose from the binding. Noir moved to set it aside when a phrase caught her eye. She read further and then, careless of its antiquity, shoved the Historia to the side of the table.

It was a poem. Part of one, anyway. The final stanzas were missing. What remained was hand-written, the parchment covered over in splotched ink and crossed-through words.

Noir hadn’t particularly enjoyed her course in Poetry as Deathly Art, but she had paid attention in it. The reason poetry was taught at the Memorium, the reason it was an eternal craze where funereal customs flickered in and out of fashion like candle flames, dated back to one literary effort.

Death’s lost sestina.

One of his earliest works, uncollected, and rumored to be more than simply lines of verse. The lost sestina’s fascination for Shadow Scholars–for anyone–was the attendant rumor that this had been an instance where words altered the possible.

Death’s power had created a ritual out of a poem, or so the speculation went, and if the conditions in the sestina were met, then a third state would be possible. Neither alive nor dead, an interstitial existence, bound eternally to Death.

Scholars called such a thing fascinating. Others longed for the romance of it.

Noir reread the page:

“What hope then for me, lonely restless Death?

To wait and pray that one might risk my touch

And stand too close and merely breathe, “My love,”

Then move with me in ageless steps. Our dance,

A waltz of longing. Two who meet in dream

Then waking, part. A memory of grace.”

A touch. Noir remembered an unbuttoned glove, and the feel of Death’s hand under her fingers as she stood on the steps of the Library of Ghosts.

She had given away, all unknown, a part of her life. She did not know–even if such a recovery were possible–if she wanted it back.

#

Noir returned to an approximation of life at the Memorium. As she could no longer enter the laboratory, she abandoned her experimental studies, and chose to fill her days with archival research. She catalogued all of the extant Hibernian epitaphs, and, wanting to better understand the art that had caused her difficulty, began a study of memorial poetry.

She felt herself gradually falling away from what she had been. She dressed in nothing but cerements, and when her heart chose to beat, it pulsed in the rhythm of a half-remembered dance.

She would occasionally see Death walking the streets of Nyx. His nearness pulled her, sending the blood running through her veins, and she would recite lists of funeral arcana like orisons, the words crumbling incantations against her longing. Noir had decided not to speak to him until she knew what she wanted. His presence, and the illusion of life it gave her, was false comfort, and she refused to allow herself to indulge.

Noir grew paler and more ghost-like, but the ghosts, puzzled by the clinging stench of mortality, avoided her. She considered transitioning to full death, but found that she was reluctant to unweave the last threads of her life.

Noir no longer passed the time by imagining her funeral rites.

#

Noir felt her heart begin to beat while watching a bokor lead a jazz funeral down the Via Aeterna. The dancers, twirling scarves and parasols blocked the street, and so Noir stood motionless but for the pulse flickering in her throat as Death came up beside her.

“You have been avoiding me.”

“Yes.” Noir unwound the string of her folio, and took out the sestina. “I found something of yours. It explains, I believe, how I came to lose something of mine.”

Noir watched reanimated skeletons caper around the coffin as Death read.

He placed a gloved hand on her shoulder. “It seems I have inflicted my poetry on you after all. I am sorry. The verse was never intended to do anything.”

“Forgive me, but I cannot believe that. If you had never intended the words to do anything, you would have left them unwritten.”

The silence stretched between them. “You are correct, of course.”

“Can you rewrite the ending?”

“I wrote it hundreds of years ago. I could try, but it is unlikely to be identical.”

“Good. If you rewrite it, alter it carefully, I believe the change to the text may be sufficient to give me back the missing piece of my life.”

“A Shadow Scholar who does not long to embrace death?”

“I was planning my funeral when we met. I may well choose death as the completion of my education. But it will be my choice. Not an accident of verse.”

Death inclined his head. “I will send you a copy of the poem when it is finished.”

#

When the envelope arrived, Noir closed her eyes against it. Had she been correct, had rewriting the poem been enough, she would not have needed a slim envelope to tell her it was finished. The beat of her heart would have done more than mark the hours. She would have been able to weep for what she had lost.

She nearly cast the poem aside unread, but then slid a thin blade beneath the envelope’s red wax seal. He had tried. She would read his words.

“Before we part, I beg another dance

To hold as memory of sweetest dream.

A dream I now must let die its death.

A final act, or nearly so, of love.

So that I might remember you in grace

Until the last, eternal, time we touch.

Now caught in dream, we whirl in spinning dance.

I ache with love for your transcendent grace,

And I would give my death for one more touch.”

Her pulse beat in time with the meter as she read, and then continued even after she finished.

Incense heavy smoke rose outside of her window. Flame consumed an elaborately constructed house of paper: a Shadow Scholar’s funeral. Memorium tradition called for any of the other Shadow Scholars in attendance to mark the occasion by burning something symbolic of their own course of study.

Noir leaned out of her window, and dropped the letter from Death. The paper caught, flamed, and disappeared into smoke.

“A poem, Scholar,” she whispered. “A poem for your death.”

#

[The full text of Death’s lost sestina follows.]

A wish. Alone in darkness, seeking touch,

A hand to hold, of which to beg a dance.

This wish, merely momentary, for grace,

For one who might–oh, briefly–pause and dream

Of me. Of my desire for one to love.

But who would love when loving leads to death?

What hope then for me, lonely restless Death?

To wait and pray that one might risk my touch

And stand too close and merely breathe, “My love,”

Then move with me in ageless steps. Our dance,

A waltz of longing. Two who meet in dream

Then waking, part. A memory of grace.

My dearest one, you move with darkling grace.

And I hold you between desire and death–

An instant’s pause. I close my eyes and dream

Of you. I’ll wait until our hands may touch

Eternally. And then, oh then, will dance

With you beneath the turning stars, my love.

And shall I dare to speak to you of love?

Might I begin to hope for such a grace?

To partner you in evanescent dance–

Your breath, and beat of heart, held close to death–

So I might memorize your every touch

Of hand to mine in this most wondrous dream.

Bereft of you, I live in endless dream,

Still wishing I could offer you my love,

Exchange my heart for yours with but a touch

And pledge myself to you in honest grace.

All joys that I will never know. Sad Death

Forever cursed to end, alone, his dance.

Before we part, I beg another dance

To hold as memory of sweetest dream.

A dream I now must let die its death.

A final act, or nearly so, of love.

So that I might remember you in grace

Until the last, eternal, time we touch.

Now caught in dream, we whirl in spinning dance.

I ache with love for your transcendent grace,

And I would give my death for one more touch.

 

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