Lunch that day was cubes of honeyed melon lightly dusted with sugar. Father placed each cube, one at a time, on Ayako’s tongue, the sweetness filling her mouth with light.
When the last piece of melon was gone, Ayako made her way back to the library. She walked the winding corridors, sometimes of stone, sometimes of crystal, sometimes of meat that heaved like the sides of a dying animal. She walked the corridors and into the library, and to the marble table that held the Register. It continued to count even if the brief time it had taken to eat, and Ayako had to work quickly to catch up. She took up her brush and ink, her water cup, and her blank books, and in the red-orange light from the window, she worked.
There were many singles who had crossed the Veil today, and some new pairings. Ayako took note of them all in the flame-coloured light, copying them from the register into one of the innumerable books lining the walls.
Kathleen entered the room while Ayako was writing. She always thought she was being sneaky, but Ayako always heard her. And Father heard everything. “Do you know that there’s a feast in a few days?”
Ayako dipped her brush into silvery black ink. Joseph and Stanislove; a new pairing. She made a note. “I know. Father told me.” Kathleen hadn’t yet been here long enough to take note of the cycle. Ayako had, but she hadn’t yet managed to unravel it. The feasts came and went, and each castle had them in their turn, but as to the hows and whys of which castle hosted and when…Ayako didn’t know. All she knew was that sometimes the castle was lit with bright candlelight and filled with smoke and sound, and sometimes Father was gone…sometimes Father was gone for what felt like days, while Ayako huddled alone, belly cramped with hunger. He always came back in the end, but sometimes it seemed to take a very long time.
Kathleen frowned, leaning against a set of shelves and cocking her hip. She waited while Ayako began a new line, then said, “I want to be there.”
Ayako shrugged one shoulder, careful not to smear the fresh ink. “Father will introduce us to the guests at the start of the feast. You know that.” They wouldn’t eat, though. Father would come to feed them afterwards, but Ayako and Kathleen never ate at the table. Kathleen was still reasonably new, but she’d seen feasts before. The blazing light in the cavernous hall, the cacophony of eating and laughing and screaming and singing, the smoke and nectar and rot and flowers…and the biting grit of cold, before Kathleen came.
Kathleen herself was shifting deliberately against the shelf, rattling the volumes. Ayako didn’t look up, not even at her impatient huff. “Where does all of the food come from?”
“I don’t know.” Ayako dipped her brush into the bone water cup, watching stormclouds of ink spread through it.
“I’ve never seen any animals, and I don’t see a garden, and outside…” Kathleen trailed off.
Ayako knew what she meant. Outside the land was blasted clean, scorched and smoking. The only visible body of water boiled and fumed sulfurous yellow. The sky was a constant roil of scarlet. No, there was no garden.
“So where does the food come from?”
Ayako sighed. She tried to remind herself to have patience. Everyone had questions when they first came through the Veil. It just seemed sometimes that Kathleen was slower about letting them go. “I don’t know.”
Kathleen’s lips peeled back from her teeth. “You haven’t asked Father?”
Ayako tried to ignore the other woman’s tone. “He’s not here to answer our questions.”
“Then why is he here? We hardly see him, he hardly speaks to us, all he does is give us food and tell you to write! What the fuck is the point?!” She whirled in a temper and leveled a kick at the bookshelf, which trembled but did not fall.
“You’re assuming there is one.” Ayako said quietly.
Kathleen stared at her for a moment, then stormed out of the library.
Dinner that night was strips of almost raw meat, coated with rich spices. Father dangled them from the tips of his long, jeweled fingernails, lowering them daintily into Ayako’s mouth.
“Don’t you ever wonder about anything?” Kathleen said. She was chewing on the ends of her hair, and Ayako knew that meant she wanted a cigarette. There were no cigarettes here.
“Of course I do.” Ayako made a slow brush stroke across the page. A new person crossing the Veil, Dipti. “But I don’t see any point in asking.”
“He tells you more than he tells me.”
“Because I’ve been here longer, and I do the writing.” No pairing yet for Dipti. Ayako felt a stab of pity for her.
Kathleen paced towards the window, the red-orange light from outside carving deep lines into her face.”…where do you think we are? Is this Hell? Limbo? What?”
Did Kathleen think Ayako hadn’t thought of any of these things before? But she was still so much newer to this world… “I never believed in those sort of places.” She said finally. It took a moment, but she set her brush down. Not because she wanted to look at Kathleen, but because she was afraid to smudge a line. “The best I can think is… a different plain of existence. A new kind of awareness. I don’t know.”
Kathleen looked at her. There was no sign of the car crash that had killed her anywhere on her body. “But is this it, then? You write, I hang around, he feeds us… is that all there is?”
Ayako sighed. Her concentration was gone, and the Register was still counting down names. “If it is, then there’s no point in arguing about it.”
Kathleen turned back to the window. “Fuck, I wish I had a cigarette.”
At dinnertime, Father pressed spongy pieces of bitter fruit between Ayako’s lips. The sharpness of the taste brought tears to her eyes, but she swallowed every bite.
“Have you ever seen anyone else here? Anyone human, I mean.”
Ayako shifted on the couch, feeling Kathleen’s weight in her arms. It was strange, lying so close to someone who did not breathe, whose heart never beat. But it was something they’d both grown accustomed to. “No. No one before you.” Ayako lightly touched Kathleen’s softly curled brown hair. “But I know there are others. I read about them in the Register. And sometimes the guests talk about the people in their castles. So I know they’re there.”
“But they never come here, and we never go there.”
“We’re bound here, I think.”
Kathleen sighed, and rolled over, looking into Ayako’s eyes. “Why do you copy down the Register, anyway? Is it just names? Names of…of people like us?”
“Of dead people.” Ayako remembered her last few days at the hospital, the gnawing pain in her guts, the empty eyes of the nurses and the way her doctor had avoided her gaze when she spoke to him. “Yes. I think so.”
“But there must be more people dying every minute than you could possibly…”
“I think it’s only those that die in a particular…I don’t know, maybe a place, maybe a spiritual state, something.” Ayako shrugged. Kathleen’s hands were warm on her own. “And I copy it because Father told me too.”
Kathleen made a disgusted noise and pushed herself off the couch. Ayako let her go. “Do you always do everything he says?”
Ayako closed her eyes. It always came down to this. Kathleen seemed incapable of accepting their life here. “Father was here when I arrived. This is his home. He allows us to be here, he shelters us, he feeds us…I don’t think copying names is too much for him to ask.”
“But why?! Why does he want the names, why are we here, how long are we going to be here –”
Ayako was starting to feel distressed. Ever since Kathleen had come here, she’d been restless, asking questions Ayako had never really dared to. Ayako hadn’t found it difficult to come to terms with the idea that they were here and there was nothing to be done about it…it wasn’t a bad existence, really. Better than some she’d known. But Kathleen… “Hush, Kathy, hush…” Ayako said, sitting up and taking her companion’s hands. “Come and lie back down. Nothing happens without a reason, that much I know.”
Kathleen sighed, but allowed herself to be drawn back down onto the couch. “You said yesterday that there wasn’t any point.”
“A reason isn’t a point,” Ayako said, taking Kathleen back into her arms. “It’s just a reason.”
The meat that night was bloody, and Kathleen choked on it, falling to the floor and gagging. The salt-metal taste of blood nearly closed Ayako’s throat, but she gritted her teeth and swallowed it down. She whispered thanks to Father, and he rested a cold hand on her hair.
There was no fanfare on the day of the feast. The castle’s rhythms went their usual way, and the fire pulsed like blood through the windows. When the guests started arriving, the library thrummed in acknowledgement, and Ayako set her brush aside and left the room. The doorway closed behind her like a healing wound, and Ayako made her way down to the dining hall.
Ayako never knew what to call Father’s guests. The best word that she had was “demons”, but when she’d told Father that he’d laughed. At least, she thought he’d been laughing. He’d said that she could call them whatever she liked, and so demons would serve. When Ayako had described them as such to Kathleen, however, Kathleen had given her such a withering look that Ayako had almost felt ashamed. She’d tried to explain that this was just the best word she could find for them, but Kathleen hardly seemed to listen.
Kathleen was waiting at the doorway when Ayako came down the stairs. The steps today were made of bone, each stair filigreed with silver and no two alike. Kathleen was staring into the dining hall with fevered intensity, and she hardly reacted when Ayako took her hand.
The tables were of ebon wood tonight, though Ayako had seen them of stone, of pressboard, of gold…one night of living, naked humans, all crouched on the floor and all with dead eyes. That night had been bad. But tonight they were ebony, and the platters were bronze, laid with steaming meats, both raw and cooked, sweetbreads, fresh-baked loaves, cakes and fruits, buzzing beehives running with honey. The burning light from outside blazed through the tall windows and the guests took their places, chattering, laughing, screaming, gibbering, moaning.
Ayako and Kathleen waited until Father approached from behind them, diamond hooves ringing on bone. He laid saffron-skinned hands on their shoulders and guided them through the doorway, nudging them as a mother will guide shy children. Ayako went without pause, and so did Kathleen, for once.
The hubbub eased to a lull as Father’s presence became known, and Ayako drew herself straighter. Eyes, bright and dull, single and faceted, blazing and dark, fell on her. “Ayako and Kathleen, my charges.” Father said.
“Ayako. Kathleen.” Was the hum through the room. And the guests acknowledged them with the wave of a hand, the flip of a wing, the rattle of claws on the table. Ayako bowed where she stood, bowed low enough to see the castle floor’s gentle pulsing, and Kathleen curtsied. But Kathleen’s curtsy took her closer than she’d ever gone to the table, when her usual habit had been to hang in the doorway, face pale and eyes wild. As Ayako thought this, Kathleen stumbled, and had to steady herself on the dark table.
Suddenly uneasy, Ayako took Kathleen’s hand again and glanced at Father. He dismissed them, and Ayako drew Kathleen back into the safe dimness of the doorway. “Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Kathleen said, but she was breathing hard, and kept one hand tucked close to her body, like a broken wing. “Just fine.”
“I’ll take you back to the library, if you want.” Ayako said, but Kathleen stepped away from her.
“No. I’m…I’ve got something to do.” She ran, her shoes tapping sharply on the bone stairs. Ayako shook her head. She was tired. But there was still copying to do, before the blankness of full night settled in. The caws and squeals from the dining hall echoed as Ayako stepped towards the corridor.
And paused. She could see the table from where she stood, and the platter nearest where Kathleen had stumbled. And she could see that a piece of crust was missing from the bread. Ayako froze. Her eyes were huge. Her throat was dry. Father was there at the table, but her voice was trapped in her throat, strangled.
Somewhere in the castle, Kathleen began to scream.
Ayako could never be sure later if the floor began to warp in response to the sacrilege that had occurred, or if she merely stumbled. She heard the chairs clattering in the great hall, the scrambling of claws and shoes and the first roars of alarm. And all through it Kathleen’s screams went on and on and on.
The bone floor was cold against Ayako’s cheek, and she was vaguely aware of the thudding, scraping feet all around her. Kathleen’s shrieks were dying down to wet, gurgling moaning noises, and those were rapidly swept away by the chattering and squalling of the demon crowd around them. Ayako’s nails splintered against the bone walls, and she hauled herself to her feet. The demons’ backs were to her, cloth and wings and scales and flesh. From somewhere within them, Ayako could hear low whimpers, and some sound like raw bone grinding against itself. Ayako’s foot nudged against something, and she looked down to see a crust of bread, still bearing the marks of Kathleen’s teeth. Ayako bent down and felt it crumble between her fingers as she collapsed, and the bone floor opened to meet her.
Breakfast that day was crumbs of dry bread, pressed between Ayako’s lips. The taste and the feel of them dissolving on her tongue brought tears to her eyes, but she sucked each fragment from Father’s fingertips and licked the nails clean.
“What happened to Kathleen?” She rasped, her voice grating in her throat.
“You don’t need to worry about that.” Father said, brushing the last crumbs from the sleeve of his robe. Ayako looked down at him, and her tears stained his collar.
“Will she be back?” Speaking was painful. The stone scraped against her cheeks, clashed against the bone in her jaw.
Father didn’t respond. Ayako felt the cool pressure of his hand against her cheek, and the tears continued to come. Her place in the wall was as hard and cold as she remembered it, the constant pressure of the stone surrounding her, and low, thudding rhythm of whatever passed for the castle’s heart. Even singles who crossed over had to be paired, when they were sent to a home. And if there were no other people to bind them to, other arrangements were made.
“Another will come,” Father said, running a jeweled nail over Ayako’s lips. Ayako tried to reach out, to touch him, but her arms and hands were sealed within the castle walls, only her face remained, her eyes to see, her mouth to take food from Father’s hands. “Another will come, and you will write, and things will go on. For now, take this.” Father’s other hand came into view, something small and pale cupped in the palm. He pressed it to her lips, and Ayako’s tongue sought out the grooves and smooth crests of two teeth. Kathleen’s teeth, perhaps still marked with the crust of bread.
Father’s lips, cold and scaled, pressed against Ayako’s forehead. And then she was left, surrounded by brittle stone, smooth ivory warming on her tongue.
by Rachel Verkade