It would rain tonight.
Reeves Gerfast did not need to glance over his shoulder to know the sky was darkening behind him as black clouds drew in from the East, with a gait made ponderous by the weight of precipitation bellying at their core.
He could smell it— the thick, earthy petrichor. It threaded through the air and billowed past the curtains to curl along the sensitive nape of his neck, stirring the fine hairs with the familiar touch of a lover. Its cooling presence offered reprieve from the day’s humidity, which had left the intoxicating smell of chemicals and embalming preservatives to settle in a soupy mirage.
Gerfast exhaled deeply as the bunched yet frail muscles lining his back and shoulders began to soften under the lull of the receding afternoon heat. Rays of light began to ebb from the walls and floor on silent feet, slinking over misplaced furniture, large jars teeming with body parts, and two bodies with a dark sheet drawn over them.
The accruing darkness did little to draw his attention away from the cadaver set before him on his work surface.
She had been a female overseer with a sunken face and a perpetual look of disdain, even in death, that served to frighten the slaves into servitude. From the golden band still hammered on her right bicep, Gerfast knew her rank was formidable within the lower side of the colony.
Her scarred body spoke of a ruthless life as an overseer. The lengths of her forearms were marked by slices of skin ripped from the nails of slaves, possibly mothers, who fought and failed to save their children during auction separations.
Patches of fur still remained half-meshed in her skin from an incomplete shift. Her tailbone which had splintered through the skin of her lower back now lay discarded in the corner alongside the mortician’s saw.
The sight was nothing new to him.
While she lay dying in the throes of absolute agony, her wolf had tried and failed to take form. Perhaps it was instinctual– to comfort one’s other half in their final breath. Perhaps she had cried out to the animal in a terrible bout of insanity, or maybe… just maybe, the wolf was attempting to escape the mortal body that had failed her so early in life.
For whatever reason, Gerfast did not give a damn.
Her life of opulence, ruthlessness and cruelty had been reduced to nothing but a cadaver in a mortician’s shop for the lowly.
“Death don’t discriminate… no, it don’t,” he muttered while reaching into his chest pocket for a kerchief. A sheen of perspiration surfaced on his forehead despite the lowering of temperatures. “Come nightfall and them body collectors do their rounds, you’ll be with the same people you loathed.”
He swore her scowl deepened at the bitter irony of his words.
Sinking his fingers into the obscene dark of her cavernous thorax, he gripped the ribs and spread them wide, relishing the crunch and snap of bone: a delicacy not only to an undertaker’s ears. He took his time pointing each rib to the ceiling in a parody of jagged mountain tops.
The amalgam of rotted viscera which lay within her had been removed at dawn while the temperatures were still cool enough to prevent the stench of it multiplying. Face screwed in disgust, Gerfast had stepped back as her swollen belly spilled contents cradled within, onto the floor in wet sucking sounds. The foetid odour that permeated from her insides set his nostrils quivering with a burn-like sensation starting at the back of his eyes.
The disease had eaten her through and through and left it dark.
Whatever life still harboured within this corpse creeped and crawled and dove into holes in flesh as they scrambled away to escape the light.
A feeling like loss echoed in his chest as he nudged aside bits of pieces of guts while searching for parts that had been untouched. There were none.
“Goddamn you woman.” If she was angered by the degradation of her body, this must be her revenge.
Crouching low he reached for her femur only for the bone to shatter within the clutch of his grasp and form a chalky paste as he rubbed the contents between his fingers.
Along his periphery he saw movement– an infinitesimal shift of the heart which lay a few centimetres from the table. He watched it struggle to move across the floor like some wounded animal, the sight of it half-perplexing and comical enough to elicit a wheezing breath of laughter through the mortician’s nose.
The sound died at the sight of a handful of maggots resurfacing and curving downwards as they languorously feasted on the thick muscle of her left ventricle.
He threw away the guts bitterly.
Now sitting before the body in the dying light with a forehead furrowed deep enough to pocket a dime, Gerfast considered the ribs with a short stubby liver-spotted finger. Their surface was not as brittle as the rest of the bones in her body. His hand curled around one length tentatively and gave it a gentle squeeze. A relieved sigh escaping him at the feel of it still whole in his palm, he pulled and watched its point of attachment to the decayed spine easily give way.
I can sell it. He thought while lifting the rib for inspection in the dim light of his workshop which smoothed any visible flaws, my rapport might drop but they will pay me.
Should they choose to overlook the flaws and still purchase the bones, for a price he was certain would only keep him alive for another day or two, Gerfast knew that they would fall apart along transportation to the North.
Anyhow, it would be of no use by the time they return for him.
His shop would be closed alongside thousands of others affected by the rot. It had become increasingly evident that the affliction devoured the body from the inside, and for people like Gerfast who relied on selling body parts to the Elites in exchange for money, this would be the forked road by which his career and him would part ways.
“Needed to retire anyhow.” A humourless smile graced his lips amidst the sound of breaking bones. He laid them side by side on an open cloth spread beside her hip and continued plucking the bones like delicate lilies in a garden of black, until all were carefully wrapped and ready for transportation the next day.
Tucking her sternum back in, Gerfast began to sew her shut whilst muttering to himself incoherently and unaware of the figure that loomed by the gaping window watching him.
A disruptive knock on the window nearly led the needle astray and into the calloused flesh of his finger.
A flare of irritation sharply rose to his jaw, throbbing there like an erratic heartbeat.
“Goddamnit I told ’em not to bother me while working— what?”
“Howdy.” The stench reached him before the boy did, like dairy left to sour in the sun for a prolonged period of time it pervaded the room without remorse, leaving the mortician’s nostrils quavering in utter revulsion.
To mask the disgust that twisted his face– for it could be a potential customer– Gerfast withdrew his kerchief and carefully dabbed at the beaded sweat along his upper lip, holding the cloth there in a dull attempt at barricading the smell from him.
He paused and took a few deep breaths to reign in the ire in his voice.
Slowly and with what seemed great effort, the mortician dragged his gaze from the cadaver across the room and to the figure outlined by the dying sun.
The distance did little to conceal the layers of grime that caked the boy’s skin where scars from a pox outbreak could not. His unimpressed stare wandered up the waif’s whippet-thin body hidden beneath a scrawny piece of material that was once a servant’s tunic.
Gerfast could only think of the boy’s foolishness for standing by his window just outside the market. He must be blocking the path for people.
The skin along his scalp was pink compared to the splotchy brownness of his cheeks, pale blue eyes peered at him affably from within the defined collared cups of his skull.
Gerfast looked at him long enough for the boy to shift his weight onto his other foot and lick at the iridescent sweat along his upper lip in apparent shyness.
The mortician turned back to the cadaver and resumed his hunched position over it, stitching away at the hollow gut.
“How are you?” The boy asked.
“I ain’t worth shit. You?”
“Tolerable thank ye.” In the silence that lapsed between, he felt the stranger’s gaze wandering around the room in wary curiosity— flickering from metallic tables laid upon with surgical instruments to the wooden buckets of arsenic brimming with guts and viscera. Those blue eyes fell upon his back with a hesitant touch, “I take it ye the bossman?”
“You see someone else here?”
Gerfast scowled at the corpse.
Had he looked back he would have seen the boy squinting into the room as if expecting an apparition of the boss to appear from nothingness. “I been meaning to ask…” a pause. “I been meaning to ask… ye aint got nary work ’bout here I could do?”
“Who sent you?” Sealing the chest closed Gerfast tied a knot on the string and leaned down to secure the extra length between his incisors, a delicate shiver winding down his spine the cold dead flesh brushed the tip of his nose, and cut it.
“Tell them sons of bitches I don’t need no help, if I needed one I’d of bought a slave.”
“None sent me, I jus’ come on my own.” The boy shuffled on his feet at the first rumble of thunder in the distance: a sound so deep Gerfast felt it reverberate from the foundation and up his arthritic limbs.
Both swivelled to watch the darkness bleed across the face of the city like some heliotropic plague that eclipsed the sun and threatened to plunge the world in a cocoon of near blackness.
People had began to close up shop, wooden boards drawn over stall windows, cart fulls of produce drawn away by severely whipped donkeys, mothers amok snatching their babes while orphans frolicked out in the open fields naked as day with tongues lolling out of their mouths waiting for the free shower.
The slaves were the only unstirred of the lowly. Backs bent like warping branches over the stalks of sugarcane and cotton, they worked hollow-eyed and with quiet apathy as overseers stood in the distance beneath umbrellas suspended by servants while thumbing long leather whips holstered at the hip.
“You ain’t said.” Gerfast blinked in confusion at the sight of the boy still standing by the window with an open look of expectation.
“If you needed help.”
“I need no kind of help.” He bid him away with a wave of his hand, “get on gone.”
“Know anywhere that needs work?”
The fabric of his patience had worn to a final thread that gerfast believed the boy was toying with.
“I don’t,” the boy’s lips parted to speak when he interrupted, “reckon you can find work down the road.”
“Down. Don’t know where down is?”
The length of which the boy stared at him was enough to raise a sliver of doubt within the mortician. Was he deaf? Toying with him?
But then the youth pivoted, the movement so simple yet made awkward with his off gaite. Slowly he swivelled left and right like a guard at watch, pale blue eyes circumventing the expanse of city and people before returning to Gerfast. “Thata’way?”
“Thank ye,” the boy said, “much obliged.”
Gerfast gave him one last half-contemptuous look and turned back to the corpse, already reaching for another set of needle and thread to sew up the hole on its abdomen when the boy stopped and returned back to the window.
“Hey,” he said.
The mortician looked at him in irascible amazement.
“What’s that name again?”
“You ain’t tell me ’bout the place down there, reckon it got a name?”
“Roger’s..” It was the first and only name to conjure in the fog of his worn mind.
The boy’s lips parted to speak then hesitated at the anger that flashed swift as a passing shadow over the mortician’s face. “Well I thank ye.” He donned the cap again and used his reflection on the window to adjust it with the propriety of one might a silk scarf.
Satisfied with the result the youth raised a hand slightly in farewell.
Gerfast stared vacantly until the boy was near out of sight then rose and made his way to the window for confirmation of something dull that niddled the back of his mind. With hands braced on the sill for balance, the man leaned out and gazed at the boy’s slender back marked with thin whip-marks that resembled capillaries networking across the expanse.
Pedestrians that crossed the boy’s path stepped sideways creating breadth to avoid him, and Gerfast finally understood why.
“Goddamn…” The skin of his left leg had peeled off to reveal flesh so dark it juxtaposed against the paleness. Blood and maggots and rot in that blighted limb. Yet the boy moved with a deceptive air of health and smiles, nodding at passersby and halting occasionally to stare through an open window.
Gerfast spat onto the sidewalk and turned his attention to the black pall swallowing the final light of the sun, plunging the city in a quietness that split only when the clouds parted as a skein of rain misted over the rooftops and roads.
The scorched earth was drenched in a flood that gathered swiftly down the alleyways and gutters, washing out the bodies of the plagued that chose to die in the shadows between dawn and dusk. Lightning streaked white and hot across the blackened sky. The body of a child bobbed and floated along the gutter with its belly torn open by rodents, hollow eyes gazing up in slack wonder at the gods.
He spat on it just as it passed beneath his window and wiped the rainwater from his face.
so tapas has a word limit for each chapter which i didn't know about. considering my chapters are around 3-4k words each i'll be forced to split them in two which might disrupt the seamless flow :/
regardless, i hope you enjoy my work and leave a comment if you do :)