From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Firing the Dead

The pots tick softly as they cool. I can hear them under the rise and fall of the priest’s blessings and invocations. The pots are arranged by size at the front of the church, grey dabs on the bright white of the altar cloth, with a smoked-glass urn standing at the back of the altar to hold Sophie’s ashes. Somewhere out of sight, a half-full slip bucket waits for her ashes to be added to the family clay at the conclusion of the service.

I watch the pots while the priest speaks, while we stand and sit again, while my mother cries softly next to me. Sophie was her favorite aunt, but I don’t know which she mourns more—Sophie’s death, or Tori’s. A family Matriarch is expected to die, eventually, but not an Heir, not my older sister.

The littlest pot, on the end, is mine. It should have been Tori’s. My mother’s pot is the one behind mine—taller, but a little slumped to the side. My pot is just as I’d pictured it, wide and low with a smooth, even lip, just the style Tori loved. I prefer pots that are tall, delicate, and thin, the hardest to make.

I assess it with a professional eye, noting the slip thumbprint along the bottom that wasn’t concealed by any of the firing patterns. I was as critical of the coroners yesterday when they were laying the pyre, swiftly setting the pots in the hot ash of the old fire, covering them in sawdust, the brush and wood piled expertly above that, the pallet for the body constructed in minutes. Last week I built a pyre for a poor child—mostly brush and wood scraps, but still more than sufficient to handle both parts of the job. My pots had been small but elegant, with no stray marks to distract from their inscriptions.

I close my eyes when we rise to sing, picturing clay on a wheel, feeling it writhe under my fingers, smooth and slick, thinning between my thumbs and forefingers as I draw it up, shape it. When I was younger I put my hand through nearly every pot I made. By now I’ve thrown enough to tell in seconds if a pot will hold its shape or slump. I’ve wedged more clay than can be imagined—the pure clay we use to practice as well as the ash-blend for the funeral pots.

We stand again, just the family this time, turning toward the aisle and advancing to the altar. I kneel in turn at the altar to receive my pot from the priest, holding it carefully between my cupped palms. It is still warm, still smells of smoke from the pyre. The priest blesses us both, kissing my forehead and sketching a symbol above the mouth of my bowl. I recognize it. Loosely translated, it stands for the most popular of the Action blessings—”May you proceed in death as you did in life, endlessly onwards for the good of all.” I prefer the Rest blessings, but I am not a coroner. Anymore. I fill the bowl at the font and lead the way as we recess back down the aisle.

* * *

All my life, all I’ve wanted was to be a coroner. Tori was welcome to the rituals and ceremonies. I was happiest pretending I wasn’t next in line to be the Heir. When my friends were making mud pies in puddles, I was digging deep, down to the layers of clay, and making pinch pots to dry in the sun. By the time I was older I was sneaking away from our tutor, hiding out in the coroner’s basement studio. The woman we had then let me amuse myself making coil pots and wedge clay for her. Her replacement showed me how to use the wheel, and his assistant taught me how to dry things for firing.

* * *

Sophie’s wake is tonight after dark. She was our Matriarch, so it will be a grand event. I’ve never gone to a wake before, and I haven’t gone anywhere formal since I’ve been old enough to wear long skirts.

A dress has been laid out on my bed for me—vibrant, dramatically cut scarlet trimmed in gold. The maid who knocked while I was examining the gown fixes my hair properly—pulled back from my face, coiled and covered with a scarf so no hair is visible. I remember my mother dressing for parties when I was a child, and how she always managed on her own, but I am easily confused by the tangle of straps and strings.

My ignorance of formal wear slows the dressing process, and by the time I’ve smoothed out my skirts and rechecked my hair covering, I am running late. When I reach the main hall, I can already see lights entering the courtyard. My mother looks significantly at the clock as I enter the hall. She examines my clothing minutely, finally twitches at an invisible wrinkle in my skirt and nods in a resigned fashion. Even if I did cut the timing so close, she is clearly amazed that I am actually presentable. And probably doubtful it will last. My mother, the martyr.

Sophie’s husband’s family is the first through the receiving line. His nephew is now their Patriarch. He takes my hand in both of his—warm and damp like the hot towels at a hunt breakfast—and kisses my cheek, but only because I turn my head in time. His wife, in purple like my mother, pats my hand gently with one hand and dabs at her eyes with the other. At least their green-clad son is polite and well-mannered. He pins a cluster of whiteflowers to the shoulder of my dress, slipping two fingers between the fabric and my skin to avoid sticking me. I watch him through my lashes, his jaw set with concentration. The thickness of the brocade is clearly giving him problems, and he seems new to the ritual.

“Pinch the fabric up,” I finally whisper, “and run the pin through the fold.” His lashes flicker but he gives no other sign of hearing me. I wouldn’t know he had heard me except that I can feel the pin slide through the fabric, and snap shut. He picks up my hand, as had his father before him—cool and dry, possibly even calluses on the fingertips—and leans down to kiss my cheek.

“Thank you,” so softly I don’t register that he’s said anything until he’s released my hand and I’ve turned to greet the next in line.

By the time the receiving line is finished, my hand is sore, my cheek is chapped, and my voice is scratchy and tired from murmuring “Thank you,” “We’ll miss her too,” and all the rest of the platitudes more times than I could possibly count. By the time we are done greeting people, the jewel-tone guests shimmer in the brightly-lit ballroom in front of us and the table behind us is filled with gifts. Mostly flowers for her corner of the garden—the whiteflower bush most significantly—but there are some other very nice presents—trays of fruits, a few bottles of her favorite wines. Someone has even brought her favorite cookies, and a basket of the bread that she loved.

* * *

“I’ve met you somewhere before,” says an older man in patriarch blue. He does look familiar to me, but I’m in formal wear, not work garb, so he’s not really recognizing me, he’s just hinting at rumors.

“No, truly sire, I think I’d remember if we’d been introduced.” I do remember him from my childhood, but more recently and more damningly for both of us, playing lord of the manor at his mistress’s funeral a few months ago. For a moment I toy with the idea of saying so, of watching his wife pale as he darkens. I turn instead to clasp her hand and kiss her gently on the cheek, smelling the soft, floral scent she’s wearing. He smelled heavy and dark, the scent insufficiently covering up a lack of personal hygiene. When I step back, Ilsa, the Heir, supports her mother with a hand under her elbow. We exchange cool nods, and they move off to mingle elsewhere.

Ilsa, I remember from finishing school. She is a great deal more finished than I am but then, she always was. I remember watching Tori’s classes, Ilsa smoothly polished even then, but still raw and uncut beside my sister. Tori was born to be Heir. I was born just in case. I smooth down my scarlet skirts, wishing yet again for the slippery green silk I’d barely gotten accustomed to wearing.

A hand touches my elbow as they move on, and I turn carefully, wishing for Tori’s easy grace at managing heels and skirts. Wishing for Tori.

The green-clad son who’d given me the flowers, Sophie’s husband’s grandson, stands to my side. I tilt my head questioningly.

“Neil?” Behind us I can hear the butler announce that dinner is served, his voice cutting through the murmurs and quiet chamber music and motivating people to begin slowly making their way to the adjoining room, now transformed by a long table for the food and many smaller tables for couples or groups to eat at.

“Noel,” he corrects me.

I know he isn’t finished speaking, but I interrupt him before he can ask me anything. “Your brother isn’t here.” I’m not hungry, but if he asks me to dinner, I can’t refuse. Diversion is called for. I’ve had years of practice with this sort of thing, carefully freezing out men looking to improve their station in life through me, but Tori always exceeded my skill.

He offers me his arm. “He mourns with us, though he is not present.” I can’t quite tell if he dismisses my comment by rote or with the truth. “Dinner?”

I can’t refuse a direct invitation, and he knows it. I can tell by the light in his eyes, the twist in his sudden smile. I drop my eyes momentarily, beam up into his with the smile I save for charming old men and difficult customers. “I’d be delighted,” I breathe, dropping my voice so he has to lean in to hear me, flirting my eyelashes as Tori taught me. Oh, Tori. My smile wobbles. He tucks my hand into his arm, patting it gently.

“I’m sorry.” Another breath, by my ear, just like before in the receiving line.

My breath suddenly catches in my throat, and all I want to do is pull loose from him and run from the ballroom down to my basement, curl up in the back beside the damp, burlap-wrapped slabs of clay, and cry until I can’t anymore, there in the dark and the damp. I toss my head back instead, looking up at him through my lashes. “I don’t know what you have to be sorry about, sire, but I do accept your apology.” Don’t talk about it, I mean, don’t make me break down right here in front of everyone.

His hand tightens on mine for a moment, and I feel the tears well up again. No one else has even mentioned it. No one had said “I’m sorry for your loss.” Or even “Congratulations on your elevation.” Blunt but at least honest. No one has mentioned that the dress I wear has been cut down to fit me, that this is the second funeral for our family in a month, that I had known nothing until I arrived and she didn’t come down with them to greet me.

I choke, turning it into a cough. No opportunity to mourn her, no pot for my mantelpiece, nothing to look forward to in my life, beyond an almost endless line of receptions and balls, leading all too definitely to marriage and the continuation of the family line. Almost I wish it had been me. Not really, not at all, but almost. Deep inside, where I know I’m not good enough to handle this all on my own. There I am curled up, catatonic, huddled in the cool damp of the basement crying. Here I am smiling and nodding. Noel finds me a table in the corner, and seats me carefully, as though he fears I’ll break. I won’t break, I’m the Heir. I’m stronger than steel. At least, I’d always thought Tori was. Now what does that mean?

I fold my hands in my lap while I wait for him, arranging them just so. My eyes linger on the ring that looks wrong, feels wrong on my hand. It is too big, wound with ribbon where it touches my palm to make it stay on. My familiar emerald has gone back to the jewelry box to wait for my own second born. Tori’s taste was flashier than mine, and this ring is nothing like I would have picked, but there wasn’t time for me to get a new one made for today.

Noel returns with two glasses of wine and the blue glass plates I remember from fancy dinners when I was younger. I eat about half of food he’s brought me, concentrating instead on my never-empty glass of wine, and just pushing the rest of the food around and around into patterns and designs. Noel finally takes the plate from the table in front of me and hands it to the footman before prying my fingers from the wine glass.

“Come,” he says, “Just one dance.”

* * *

He leads perfectly. That, plus the fact that I’ve had just enough alcohol to slow my thoughts but not my reactions, has me dancing better than I may have ever before. Of course, my judgment is impaired as well, so it’s hard to tell. At the least though, I’m distracted from my grief for a while by the steps and patterns. Then I start thinking about dancing lessons, and that reminds me of Tori, who taught me how to do turns so I didn’t have to just dance up and down the ballroom, back and forth. I lean against Noel for a minute, feeling tears welling up inside, and no longer sure I’m strong enough to stop them. He falters, probably feeling my shoulder shake under his hand, and then steers me gently towards the side of the room, towards an alcove with a curtain.

“Cry,” he says, after he’s pulled the curtain to shield us from prying eyes. “Cry for her. You haven’t yet, have you?” I shake my head, sliding down into a chair, exhausted. “Go on then, cry.” He sits in the chair across from me, knees bumping mine beneath the table, and holds my hands in his. “You’re allowed to cry for her.”

I shake my head. “I can’t cry for her. If I start I’ll never stop.”

He laces his fingers through mine. “She would have been my sister too,” he says, so quietly I can barely hear him. “My older brother, not the Heir, but the next one, he was to marry her. And now he’s gone, too. It’s not the same as your loss, exactly, but I do understand. I’m still getting used to the inherent message of greens.”

I feel the tears beginning to spill over. I tug vainly at his hands, trying to get one free to wipe my face, to keep the tears from spilling down on to the dress. He resists for a moment, then releases me, pulls a handkerchief from his pocket for my tears. They fall faster now. “She . . . she didn’t say good-bye,” I weep, echoing the countless mourners I’ve dealt with since I started working. “I never got to tell her I loved her.” I wince at the pain in my voice, the cry of a lost child.

He picks up my hand again. “She thought you were the best sister anyone could have, did you know that?” I shake my head, tears still rolling down my face, my insides still knotted up with pain. “She did,” he continues. “She told me stories about you for a whole evening once. She was so proud of you for getting a job, for having a career, for living your own life, outside of her shadow.” He pauses, still holding my hand. “What will you do about your job?” he asks, as though it has just occurred to him.

It has not just occurred to me. I knew what would have to happen as soon as they told me Tori was dead. I just haven’t wanted to do anything about it.

* * *

The letter is the hardest part. I write draft after draft, sitting in the office that is now mine. “I will not be at work on Monday or ever again, thanks to the fact that my older sister died and left me in charge of everything. I will not be to work again, ever, because I’m too good to work now, because my mother would have a breakdown, because I’d be publicly snubbed by my social circle. I’m not going to be at work ever again, and if any of you ever see me again, please don’t expect to be recognized.” It’s not quite that bad, but it’s what I feel like I’m writing, all prettied up in bows. Crumpled paper litters the floor by my chair—every time I write a letter I could actually send them, I spoil it with tears. “Please excuse me for the rest of my life. I have no need of your money anymore.”

I settle on something less bitter, less angry. At the bottom, I add the line my father dictates to me: “My journeyman fee of course will not be refunded to us. Compensation for all funds already paid out to me will be provided by my man of law.” They will have no legal hold on me anymore.

I seal the letter with the family stamp. I’ll have my own in a few weeks. My mother told me I could even have a coroner’s wheel in my seal if I want, but I don’t think I could stand it.

A courier takes the letter, brings back the rest of my former life. One more piece of my second-born life gone. So few pieces left to go: one more pot to throw, one more bridge to burn.

* * *

I hold the torch as they taught me, both hands clasped around the staff in front of me as though at prayer, flame at eye level. The pyre is smaller than even child-sized, just big enough for a vase the length of my arm, smooth and curved like Tori. Above the sawdust, on the pallet where a body should rest, I’ve laid out a green dress she made me as a child, the scarlet-clad doll she passed on to me when she left for school, the embroidery she was working on before she died. Beneath the full velvet skirts of the dress I can see the clay-stained coroner’s apron I won’t wear again; beside the doll is the coil of wire for cutting clay, the polished wooden tools I used to burnish pots. The sawdust is mixed with spices and whiteflower branches and the tea she loved. The pot took only one try, pure white clay with red slip outlining the inscription of my favorite Rest glyph on it: “Sleep secure in the knowledge that we will wait for you.” I trace the same pattern with my torch; big sweeping lines of fire hanging in the air for a long moment afterwards, and then place the torch at the corner of the pyre, watching it catch, watching it carry my sister into the sky.

I turn away before it’s all caught, before the flames have consumed everything. I turn back to the house, leave the pyre to burn itself out eventually. I’ll send a servant back out here in a day or two to pull apart what’s left of the fire and to bring me the vase when it’s cooled. I straighten my skirts again, tuck a curl beneath my headscarf, and walk up into the gardens.

A coroner never leaves a pyre unattended.

Celia Marsh grew up in Pennsylvania, went to college in Michigan, and lived in DC for several years before moving to Boston. Celia is the PDF editor for, writes science fiction in her spare time, and has no discernible plans for the future.

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