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The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead

Sliver Fictions, Short Stories & an Homage
edition:eBook
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Half Spent Was the Night
Excerpt

 
December 29, 1881

Christmas Day has come and gone, the New Year lies ahead. Strange things happen Between the Years, in the days outside of time. Minutes go wild, hours vanish. Idleness becomes a clever thief, stealing the names of the days of the week, muting the steady tick of watches and clocks. These are the hours when angels, ghosts, demons and meddlers ride howling wind and flickering candlelight, keen to stir unguarded hearts and restless minds.

Tonight, the three Witches of New York, swathed in dressing gowns of velvet and silk, are seated on tasseled pillows before a crackling fire.
 
 
They’ve set the business of potions, spells and con­sultations aside, in favour of quiet contemplation. The youngest, Beatrice, touchstone of spirits, is curious and bright-eyed. The eldest, Eleanor, keeper of spells, is watchful, regal and wise. Adelaide, seer of fate, sits between them, ever ready to speak her mind. Bellies full of honey cake and hot cider, they seek comfort, warmth, companionship and glimpses of the future.

Beatrice scores a chestnut with a small knife to prepare it for roasting. “My aunt Lydia always said a cracked nut means ‘yes,’ and one that burns without cracking means ‘no.’” The fire hisses and pops. A spark flies into the air and lands on the hearth where it pulses, then dies. After placing her chestnut in a shallow pan, she sets the pan on the fire and waits for an answer.

Eleanor watches with anticipation. So does Perdu, her raven familiar.

The bird is keen for the sweet roasted meat of the nut. Eleanor, for a morsel of truth. She knows Beatrice is keeping a secret.

A faint yessss sounds before the chestnut squeals and its shell blossoms in an attempt to turn itself inside out.

Eleanor stares at her young apprentice. Is she happy, sad or indifferent at these portents?
Tugging at her braid, Beatrice bites her lip, then smiles when she realizes how closely she’s being watched.

“Pleased?” Adelaide asks, fishing for the truth she knows Eleanor wants to uncover.

Beatrice doesn’t answer. Nor does she meet the eyes of her companions.

Distracted or determined, Eleanor wonders. Which is it?
Neither. The girl is mulling over the answer she’s received. Yes, she thinks, but when? For weeks she’s been ravenous with longing for a stranger she’s only seen in her dreams. It isn’t love, exactly. How could it be? It’s more a relent­less curiosity. She would follow the Stranger any­where. And she has, on many nights, chasing his dark figure through dimly lit corridors and graveyards bathed in moonlight. In the morning she wakes exhausted, wishing she could go back
to sleep, desperate to return to the last place she saw him. Even if she could explain her state to her friends, she wouldn’t. She’s afraid that once she gives voice to her vision, the Stranger will disappear from her mind forever. Whenever she attempts to write an account of her dreams, his voice sounds in her head: Don’t break the spell. It leaves her puzzled, intrigued. Are the fay-folk Eleanor so often speaks of the source of these visions? Or do they come from someplace else? The girl has plied herself with many cups of dream tea, offered countless trinkets made of mother-of-pearl and coloured glass in order to persuade the fickle creatures to bring her answers, all to no avail. How long must I continue the chase? At least now (if the humble chestnut is to be believed), she knows she’s des­tined to meet the Stranger in the flesh. Even if I don’t know the how or why of it.
Picking the chestnut from the pan, she deftly peels the shell from the meat. It’s piping hot but she’s not concerned with getting burned. She’s thinking instead of the Stranger, of how soon she can go to sleep and find him in her dreams.

Holding the fleshy heart of the nut in the palm of her hand until it cools, she offers it to Perdu.

“Who’s a good bird?” the raven coos before snatching the treat in his beak.

“What if yes or no isn’t enough?” Eleanor asks. She wants Beatrice to perform another divi­nation. Maybe then she’ll be able to figure out what’s on the girl’s mind.

“If you need to choose between different situ­ations,” Beatrice replies, “you must name each chestnut according to your choices, then kiss them for luck before putting them into the fire. The order in which they burst is either the order in which you must address the issues or the way in which things will ultimately come to pass.”

“Situations, or suitors?” Adelaide teases. She’s noticed Beatrice growing more preoccupied by the day—moving about like a sleepwalker, twirl­ing her hair with absent-minded vigour. She’s convinced the girl is having a secret affair. She knows the blush of lust when she sees it. Good for her, she thinks. If only Eleanor would stop worry­ing and leave Beatrice to it.

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