I'd like every novel I write to have a Christmas chapter. This is the one from Scratch.
An hour after she left the Mansion Eva stood dicing mandrake root on the corner edge of a dresser top in a cold, dark second story room. There was a little light straining in from a triangular gap between the layers of gray tape crossed over the window, and that was just enough. The light caught in the slick of grease that had spread underneath the mandrake pieces and blackened the burnt red wood; it turned on its surface, over and over. She lifted her right hand, which held the knife, and used the sharp part of her wrist to push her hair back from her eyes. In that one motion, the flat of the knife caught the light too, and sparked with the grisly quickness of a ghost.
The flash startled Claudius, bungling with sticks and stones in the other side of the room. He dropped something; bending to retrieve it, he jolted his table and another something clattered to the floor. The noise made Eva grit her teeth, and she drew back and pushed away the aide who had swept by with a brush and something to pin back her hair.
“Cripes, man,” she said, as she set the knife abruptly down between the mandrake and the books of prayer. “You’re going to wake spirits.”
“Sorry,” he said from the floor, and clambered onto his feet with the fallen things cradled in a fold of his shirt that he held to his body with trembling fingers.
“You’ve got to be quieter,” said Eva, more evenly, as she tipped her head backward for the aide’s long, searching fingers to tend. The aide touched each fingertip in a chalice of oil before clasping one hand over another in the braiding of her hair, and washed both hands in a pot of boiled water when it was done. The chalice and pot were set side by side on the second table, adjacent the door. The dresser was Eva’s table one. Table three was Claudius’s, made of metal, and it sang in high tinny tones as he emptied the contents of his improvised pocket onto its surface. He recoiled and fretted at the noise, and put his hands over the tin of marbles that had begun to move and chatter against each other, but couldn’t stop it, and he looked at her fearfully.
She sighed and shook her head, and her lips parted to bully him again. She didn’t, though, but turned back to her station. She parted a book and picked up her knife while she regretted her inability to ever be really, truly mean, not even to him – not even to Pontius fucking Pilate, when it had come to that.
She made the mandrake pieces as fine and even as grain, and moved slowly, to expand the time. She put the knife down and paced to the window, where she squinted through the empty space between the tape with one eye. She saw absolutely nothing; the world beyond the glass was wholly white. Either the window was plastered fully over in snow, or everything else was. It might be that it blended all together – white over white, fat flakes choking the air, snow coating the tops of cars and hoods of jackets alike, stuck on shoes like cement and on eyelashes like dust, swirling in whirling winds, crunching under Watchmen’s boots or left in unspoiled sheets beneath Ingets’ black splayed spider-toes. She saw it, but didn’t see it, all there.
She had paced away from the window and back again twice before the door opened with a rush of warm air. A slickly wet but regally poised Viola Scott stood at the threshold with half a dozen plastic shopping bags of various sizes strung from her outstretched arms. Each bag was heavily swollen with a myriad of contents, of different shapes and colors – some round, some with hard edges, and some with dark, pointed parts that slit through the skin of the bag and jutted down toward the floor like oversized spider legs. On the robust Viola, the bags dangled limply like distorted branches on a great weeping tree.
“Nice of you to come,” said Eva, as she slipped with expert quietness across the room to shut the door, and Viola had to jump forward a step to avoid getting her skirt caught in it.
“I’m sorry,” said Viola, as Eva began to unload the bags from her arms one by one, hastily and methodically, and unpacked them across her table. Viola stood with her arms as stiff as steel and watched her – eyeing with particular attention the third bag that Eva took. She craned her neck to see what Eva’s hands, flitting like white birds, would extract from the layers of paper packaging that swaddled the sole item within.
“A lot of the stores on your list were rather – out of the way,” said Viola, whose voice dampened at once in the moment that Eva produced – from a small steel box that she unlocked with a key hung on a chain around her neck – a grape-sized, spherical knot of dark green leaves, woven loosely together and bound with a black oily string. Eva lifted it from its container with both hands, then held it on one palm, where she poked and rolled it over with the point of her finger.
“I did give you directions – with approximations, I remember, of the amount of time you’d need to find them,” said Eva, as she pinched the little ball of leaves and string between her thumb and forefinger and held it up to examine it. “They don’t carry the things we need at the local Neisner’s.”
“Yeah,” said Viola, in a small, terse voice.
“Not that they have Neisner’s in Annaghmakerrig,” said Eva, as she turned carefully in the direction of the window. “Or anywhere, these days – for that matter.” Now adjacent to the window, she raised her hand an inch further upwards, so that the little ball in her fingers caught the single, needle-thin string of light that shot between bands of tape and pierced the room. The ball blocked the beam halfway, so that the light held its sharp, white eye directly on the ball’s surface, where it struck each vein of the ball’s interlocked leaves with a fierce new life.
Viola started to step forward to get a closer look, but found herself stopped short by a gentle touch on her arm. She turned her head and found Claudius, just beside her, who gave her a grim, patient smile. She frowned and jerked away from him, but thereafter remained where she stood. She glanced back at Eva, then allowed her eyes to slide covertly back toward Claudius. He was looking at Eva now, too.
So Viola looked at Eva again, and at the tiny round bundle she continued to hold, as still as a statue, in the path of the pinprick of light. Viola watched, and blinked – and when she had blinked, the light was no longer a pinprick. It was more like a white fingerprint, smudged and stuck on the center of the ball, and steadily growing.
It didn’t expand like a puddle of water, nor inch like the red daybreak sun gaining altitude; it was far more animal-like than that. In a few short, heavy moments, the spot of light on the surface of the leaves sprouted small, wavering fibers from its every edge. In a moment these were growing too, siphoning energy from the long shining tail that still connected the spot of light to the window like a root to its life-source. In the moment after, the fibers became thicker, longer, and waved faster – until they were not fibers at all, but the independently moving members of a complex, living organism: psuedopods working with vitality and with purpose. And they grew ever larger with each second, creeping across the surface of the ball, over and in between each of its leaves, and ever closer to Eva’s frozen fingers.
Then the light was under Eva’s fingers and beyond them, and soon after that each pseudopod – one by one – succeeded in meeting with another on the other side of the ball, joining like so many white fingers clasped together. The amount of dark space between the white fingers grew smaller and smaller, until at last there was no part of the leafy ball that was not coated in the light that seemed to at once cover its surface and soak deeply within it, and the veins of all the leaves burned blood red.
For the length of minutes, it stayed that way: the little ball glowing, its root of light shining, and Viola and Claudius watching in complete silence as Eva Key stood still as stone in order to hold the system in place. Eva’s ghostly aides floated motionless in the high corners of the room, where they draped like long, glowing cobwebs, and it seemed as though there were not a single sound in the entirety of the universe.
Then, in a span of time quicker than a breath, the gleaming ball burst into pure white flames that leaped and licked the ceiling before disappearing as quickly as they had come. The leaves of the ball turned charred and black, and writhed with a sound like the hissing of a tea kettle, before they shriveled into ash and withered off altogether. Where the leaves once were, pinched between Eva’s fingers, was a tiny stone the size of a fingernail and the color of pea soup – which Eva quickly deposited in her pocket.
“You won’t find that at Neisner’s!” said Claudius brightly, who was beaming as he returned to his station.
“Yeah, well,” said Eva, and as if infected, smiled a little too. “That was really just a show. Theatrics, really. Michael Fried would be appalled.”
“I quite enjoyed it,” said Claudius.
“I noticed,” said Eva. “I must remember to invite you over the next time I make Jiffy Pop.”
In the moment after she spoke her face hardened suddenly as if struck by an Arctic wind, and she silently motioned Viola over to the second table.
“I’m going to give you a bunch of things,” said Eva to Viola, as she strode across the room to retrieve a bright red box from the floor underneath her dresser, “and I want you to put them in alphabetical order across your table.”
Viola stood woodenly as Eva opened the box and withdrew a bundle of flowers so faintly pink they were nearly the color of her skin, with petals that were crumpled and fallen like injured butterflies. They were lashed together tightly with black twine about their bruised stems. She passed them to Viola, who put them at the left end of the table.
Next came a small plastic bag of differently colored marbles, which chattered among themselves as Eva passed them into Viola’s hands, and Viola put them in the middle of the table just as Eva retrieved the third item: a single brown egg. Viola moved to place it on the table in between the flowers and the marbles, but Eva stopped her.
“Put it in this,” she said, as she lifted something brilliantly gold and shining out of the red box. It was a life-size sculpture of two hands, cupped slightly and pressed together to form a shallow bowl. Eva’s hands, cradling it, shadowed the gesture and struck an eerie double. The golden hands in Eva’s hands slipped noiselessly into Viola’s, and Viola put the hands on the table and the egg in the hands.
Last out of the red box came a small cast iron handbell, so cold it stung Viola’s fingertips as she put it down between the flowers and the egg.
“That should be everything,” said Eva, surveying the scene for a moment before she said to Claudius, “presuming you have the walnuts?”
He nodded and lifted a jar from his table. Viola squinted to see what was inside. She distinguished the walnuts, light brown and whole, but they were not alone in the jar. There were patches of cottony white mold the size of eyeballs stuck on the inside of the glass in several places, wedged into the pockets created between walnuts, and extending their threads like wisp-like tendrils in every direction. All around these patches, encircling them like a dense scattering of stars about white suns, were tiny green flecks and brown dots, mottled in places and streaked in others, and in one spot, actively dripping.
Viola’s throat tightened at the sight of it, though she did not know why. She had never been squeamish. Death had shot through her early on and numbed what little insides she possessed with the stinging force of morphine, and yet somehow this arrested her. She wanted to know the reason for it; simultaneously she felt that she would, soon enough. It was a portent of what was about to come.
Eva clasped her hands together and rubbed them, gathering what warmth she could in between her palms before she clasped them both to her neck, and she breathed in deeply. She turned her arm and looked at her watch, waiting and nodding her head slightly along with the seconds; on the last nod, she dropped her arm and exhaled in the length of a sigh.
“Let’s get started,” she said and went quickly to the bed, where her hands moved as quickly and delicately as spiders in rolling down the sheet from the corpse that lay there, with its face turned up and mouth still slightly opened, frozen in the motion of releasing its last breath.
The body was undressed, and while Viola watched, its broad areas of pale bare skin became Eva’s canvas as she kneeled and stretched across it on the bed with her first three fingers of her right hand dipped in a bowl of foul smelling red gunk that she held in her left.
She painted crosses on its brow and across its chest. There was one cross for each pectoral and a long cross in between that followed the grooves laid by bone and by muscle like a red river dipping through crevices and sweeping valleys.
She covered the face of the body with dots that she placed in the motion of a circle, beginning with the brow and sweeping gradually down to the chin, and as she did so the marks she made appeared to be wholly random. In the end, however, they converged into a pattern that lay across the skin in the image of the underlying structure. Red marks climbed in a regular line up the slope of the nose and fanned out evenly over each brow ridge. Red marks chased each other up and down the curves of the zygomatic arches, then drifted peacefully downstream, floating on the stable current that each side of the jaw struck beneath the skin.
There were curved red lines across the sinews of the neck and to mark the outer limits of the larynx. There was another cross for the dip of the clavicle above the chest, where the red glop pooled slightly and sparkled.
Eva proceeded down to the body’s arms, which she decorated with crosses of decreasing size, corresponding with the narrowing of the limb toward the wrist, and at each wrist she painted a single circle around, like tromp l’oeil bracelets.
She did the same at each ankle – where she proceeded next – before daubing each foot with a dot to correspond with the position of the metatarsals, and she put a dot right on the fat of the center of the bottom of each toe. The soles of the feet lended themselves to one cross each, their lines distorted slightly by the hollow of the arch.
As her focus on the body rose from ankles to knees, knees to thighs, and to the expanses of skin in between that were covered with a light growth of dark brown hair, Eva was sweating slightly, and her pale face flushed pink. An aide came forward to wipe her forehead with a cloth, but she swatted it away.
There were no decorations for the body’s genitals, except for a semi-circle that swept up from the dimple between the torso and thigh and above the patch of pubic hair like an arch of triumph, mirroring the circle that Eva drew about the abdomen with the navel as its center point.
She summoned Claudius to help her turn the body on its side so that she could work on its back. There she outlined each rib in red, along with the long line of the spine, which connected to the ribs and converged into the form of a tree with every branch wrenched upward in a hard and petrified position.
The last mark that Eva made upon the body was on the back of its neck. For this, she laid the entire length of her palm down into the bowl of red paint, and pressed it once, very carefully, onto the short stripe of white skin below the hairline and above the place where the neck fanned out into wide and wiry shoulders. The result was a perfect print, whole and uniform at first – but as seconds passed with Claudius’s hands holding back the shoulderblades, the red began to run. Little pieces of pigment dripped down and were flushed away into a lighter red and increasingly imperceptible pink between the scapulae. The clear spaces they left behind revealed themselves in hair-thin lines slung across the palm of the print, and looped round and round on each printed fingertip.
They were the creases of Eva’s hand, the most prominent of which Viola recognized easily: heart line, head line, fate line, and the life line that wound in twists and turns and braided itself into other, smaller creases, about the mound of the thumb, before it sloped down and off the area of the palm – down and off into the unknown. It wasn’t that Viola had doubted it, but it was quite a different thing to see, so clearly written, what she could have only imagined before: Eva really would live forever. Whatever was waiting for them all at the end of the universe – whether it slept beneath the spread of its white downy wings, or lay with the length of its spiked and rattling tail coiled around its body, it would be Eva’s task to welcome it: her task and her fate. Her future was set in skin.
Viola couldn’t see her own palm in the darkness; she didn’t need to. She knew what it said – a friend of her mother had deciphered it for her when she was eight years old. The friend’s name was Aletta, and her long finger-claw had dragged across Viola’s hand twice, circling the spaces where the branches of lines, like unruly threads, tangled themselves into loops and knots in the hollow of her little palm, before she said, in a low voice scratched raw by tobacco: “Catherine Viola Scott, you will die and live again.” Viola had never doubted it.
It was not unlike what Eva had told her eleven days ago: “One must know how to die in order to live again in eternity.” It was just after she had asked Viola – over tea at the helm of the Star – whether she would like to assist in a resurrection. Her tone was so casual she might as well have been asking if Viola wanted another lump of sugar. Again, Viola was not surprised; nor did she feel inclined to contest the fate that seemed to be unfurling before her.
It was just another thing she accepted, just like all the things, the various facts, that others had fed her: people who were born on Earth died after a span of seventy or eighty years. But people born in Annaghmakerrig lived for centuries and even millennia, provided that nothing drastic – decapitation or immolation or a steamroller – interfered. No one knew why.
But Eva thought she knew why. She had a theory that Annaghmakerrig was Eden, and that its inhabitants were the descendants of an earlier Adam and Eve that God had rejected and forgotten. These descendants didn’t die because their ancestors had never been expelled from Paradise. And people who were born on Earth, died, and were born again in Annaghmakerrig didn’t die either – because the ground from which they drew their life wasn’t cursed.
There was also a small circle of Earth-born humans who had made their way to Annaghmakerrig before they died, by some means or another, and after spending enough time there – eating the food that grew out of the untainted soil – they lived indefinitely, too. She guessed that Claudius was one of this category. He appeared, like them, to be of a middle-ish age – not young, but without any of the marks of aging, as if he had been captured at the greatest height of his life, just before the sudden lurch into slow decline. Humans of all ages who came to Annaghmakerrig eventually settled into this ambiguous age – young ones aging up, and old ones aging down, until they were roughly the same: equally old as young, and all equally damned.
“Your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing both good and evil” – Viola’s mother had once read those words to her, while lying in a cold bed. One hundred and forty years later, Viola stood poised, as she always had been, between the blessed and the cursed; between the dead and the eternally living.
Across the room Eva fell back toward the wall while an aide washed her gleaming red hand, and she breathed heavily, each inhale punctuated by a high little gasping sound, like the squeak of a mouse. The man on the bed lay on his back again and did not breathe at all. Viola knew it was close to the hour now. She could feel it.
She felt it in her fingertips and toes, which buzzed like flies. She wiggled them in an effort to release the energy that was building up and burned inside of them.
She felt it in her mind, which babbled endlessly with the sound of a million scrambled signals. Suspended between stations, she heard and felt just a little of them all. They were not so difficult to decipher; they all sung out the same thing, in sad and sweetly distant tones – Save us, please, save us … Help us, help us, please … Save us, bring us back.
Eva bounded back from the wall where for moments she had stood, shuddering, with her mouth slack and gasping for air. She staggered like a drunk for the window, her legs straight and stiff and her hands clamped over her ears; she could hear them too – in her ears, each voice roared and cracked like an explosion, and they were all detonating at once.
Eva peered through the triangular hole of tape on the window, through and down into the city that Viola had walked through on her way there just a little while before. The sky had swarmed with snow as the occupants of every building along the main road worked swiftly and diligently to lock their windows behind their shudders, stretching tape over their windows and the keyholes of their front doors in anticipation of what was to come.
By the time that Viola finally turned into the little brick building by the bend in the river, her boots were soaked through with snow, her muscles raw from the strain of carrying ten teeming bags, and she was alone on the street. The last few stragglers had hurried inside moments before and stuffed wet and pungent rags into the gaps under their doors when they were locked. The smell trailed Viola all the way up the stairs and only vanished when she came upon this room, where the stench of death rose up and usurped all other odors.
There was a new smell in Viola’s nose now, pushing up into her sinuses and searing the back of her throat. The temperature in the room was creeping upward quickly, and the herbs and flowers and viscous substances laid across the tables steamed and stank vividly in the heat, but that was not it. This smell came from the body, and it threatened to overtake Viola’s stomach.
It was not the body itself, which smelled only slightly worse in the scorching air; it was from Eva’s paint. It had changed in color, to a dark purple, and it fizzed and bubbled atop the skin as if boiling.
With his nose stuck into the hollow of his elbow to block the stink, Claudius came closer to the bed to get a closer look at the stuff as it simmered ever more actively. As he observed, little drops of paint – darkened now to black – began to jump and bounce on the skin’s surface like tiny hopping insects. One drop hopped wide and high above the body and struck Claudius’s hand just below the fingers, and he jerked backward and let out a scream that slashed violently through the empty air.
Eva’s head whipped round like lightning at the window and her gaze fixed upon him savagely, with eyes that sparkled and shone so unnaturally wide that Viola could see clearly, from across the room, the moment when her iris and pupil shrank and melted away completely into the whites of her eyes.
Claudius, cradling his injured hand, recoiled fearfully from those empty eyes, creeping toward the back of the room, where it seemed he might duck beneath the table and fold himself away. Instead he retrieved a small golden box, which he took with him back to the side of the bed and opened with trembling fingers. There was a single coin inside, stamped with letters and the profile of a man’s head.
“Viola, if you could,” called Claudius, in a small but even voice, “come and hold his head in place.”
Viola came to his side, after wrenching her legs out of the position where they had temporarily ossified. Under Claudius’s direction, she placed her hands on either side of the body’s head beside the temple, careful to avoid the paint that had begun to run down the empty spaces of skin in creeping streams.
Claudius, meanwhile, used two fingers on the body’s chin to peel back its lower lip, and he slipped the coin beneath its bloated tongue.
“Rates are double for the trip back,” he told Viola quietly, with a weak smile, as he pushed the jaw gently closed.
Viola stepped back from the bed and looked toward Eva, whose milk-white eyes were fixed once again at the gap in the window.
“What do we do now?” she asked Claudius in a whisper.
“We wait for her to find him,” he said, and put his hand on her shoulder gently, directing her toward the corner of the room where two wooden chairs were waiting.
Over the next half hour, they sat and watched as Eva, with her pearl-like eyes cast out into nowhere, paced like a sleepwalker back and forth across the room and along the long empty walls. Aides fluttered and flocked all around her at every instant to keep her from bumping into things, particularly the egg, which one of them guarded continuously.
When that half hour had passed, Claudius buckled under the silence and tried to engage Viola in small talk. He asked her what year she had died.
She told him 1878.
“Not a bad year,” he said.
“No,” said Viola.
“You’re old enough to vote, you know,” he said. “Have you been keeping up with the election?”
“I know about it,” she said.
“I was pretty optimistic about it all, at the start of this year,” said Claudius, “but with the way things are going, I’m starting to think that we may all be killed, after all. What do you think?”
“I’m not really into politics,” said Viola, as she watched Eva make a crazy loop in the middle of the room as if avoiding some invisible obstacle.
“Oh,” said Claudius. “Well, that’s all right, really. It will be over soon enough.”
He began to speak again, but was silenced as they both were forced to vacate and move their seats to make way for Eva as she staggered through.
“Is this going to take much longer?” asked Viola, as she swung her chair back into place.
“It shouldn’t,” said Claudius. “I’d say she’s just about got him. Yes, there she is, look – she’s closing in,” and he pointed.
Eva was in the corner of the room, farthest away from the bed, with her brow pressed into the seam of the wall and a hand pressed gently on each side. Her feet were still for the first time in nearly an hour, and she breathed slow and deeply.
Claudius motioned for Viola to stand, as he stood, and she traced his footsteps as he crept cautiously toward Eva – all the while walking high on his toes and rationing his breath as if stalking a wild animal. When he came upon her, he grasped his hands around one of her arms just as her knees gave way beneath her, and she crumpled to the floor with her eyes closed. He eased her gently down.
Viola came to Eva’s other side and put her hands on her arm, only to pull them back immediately; Eva’s skin was scorching hot. Claudius nodded at Viola with encouragement, though, and she took Eva’s arm again, bracing from the heat, and together they lifted her onto her feet, with Claudius’s hand at Eva’s neck to support her head that slackened and rolled about her shoulders.
They put her on the bed beside the body. Viola kept her upright as Claudius went to stand in front of her, bending over slightly with his hands cupped lightly beneath her chin to raise her face to his.
Her eyes, which blinked and wandered and gradually opened, were restored, with slightly dilated pupils and irises that were a rich brown. She gazed at Claudius dazedly, with her mouth slightly ajar and her lips working in complete silence. Little by little, the rest of her body began to move – arms and legs shifting slowly as if exploring their capabilities for the first time – and she spoke in a small, weak voice.
“What’s going … ” she began, but her last word faded quickly away. Her head jerked in Claudius’s hands, and she looked down at her body beneath her and about the room with an increasingly frantic expression. Her hands went up as if grab Claudius’s arms, but fell short of their target and slumped down over her lap.
Claudius put one hand on her shoulder and shook her slightly to focus her attention; the other hand kept her head upright as it threatened to fall to her chest.
“What’s your name?” asked Claudius loudly, as he squeezed Eva’s shoulder more firmly.
“What?” asked Eva groggily, and she raised her hands once more to push him away. Again, she did not reach quite far enough, and her arms dropped clumsily to her side.
“What’s your name?” Claudius said again, slowly and with even greater volume, as he fought to keep Eva’s darting eyes on him.
“Thomas Dark,” said Eva in the same groggy voice, just as her third effort to reach Claudius with her hands met with success; one of her open palms struck the side of Claudius’s arm and forced it from her shoulder, but rather than try to regain his grasp, Claudius stood back and released her completely. Viola was left supporting Eva’s slackened body by herself, her feet sliding perilously across the floor as she pulled back to keep Eva from sliding completely off the bed.
“Eva, are you still with us?” asked Claudius.
“Yes,” Eva said, in a voice that was much louder, and clear.
“Good,” said Claudius, and he patted her shoulder once. “You can go ahead.”
As soon as he had spoken, Eva’s body stiffened and seemed to regain its bones. She slipped from Viola’s grasp and onto silent feet, treading the distance around the bed to the dead man’s right hand side – and when she had reached it, Eva came close to him.
As Viola watched Eva’s movements across the bed, she felt something like a tremor shudder through her mind, whipping up layers of memory with a hurricane force. In its aftermath, little pieces that were shaken loose floated up to the surface where they stuck like oil, laying out a picture in greasy rainbow colors. The picture was that of Lilith, first bride of Adam, hunched over the face of a sleeping child at night. It was a scrap of a story that Viola was told long ago, and that was all, yet Viola blinked and blinked again and could not make it go away: the image of Lilith, bent – and now, Eva, bending – and as Lilith put her mouth on the little child’s to suck out the soul, down went Eva’s mouth as well, closer and closer.
Eva put her lips on the lips of the dead man, and the two images split in front of Viola’s eyes like a stereoscope jerked out of focus. She felt as if she were wrenched down into life from a place four feet above, as if she had been an aide – trailing limbs like spiderweb filaments across the ceiling – just a moment before: temporarily suspended from the anchor that kept her human and herself.
Now her anchor pulled her down with an unusual weight, and sinking her so far as to contort her soul within her body. Her legs lay in twisted, noodle-like mounds at her feet, and her head was squished and stuffed into her heart. She swallowed and felt the saliva drip down her esophagus and into her eyes. This was not how she thought she would feel: one second faint and floating high, the next shoved brutally back into her skin, with not a single moment spent as herself – Viola who had carried a man seven miles through the Ardenne forest to find a patch of land clear enough to catch the eye of the Star above – and when he was safely aboard and the ship shrank to a pinprick in the sky, she had returned to battle with his blood painted in dark streaks like veins on her legs and squelching in her shoes. That Viola, brave but stupid, imagined herself anointed by blood – baptized into death.
But she didn’t know anything about it – not about death, nor any single thing. Now she stood at the other edge of life, a thousand universes away from Ardenne, pickled in her own sweat that seemed to steal away every truth she had ever known with every drop that the heat scorched off of her skin. By the end, she feared, there would be nothing of her life left, and she would be as she was when she was born: without a name, without an identity, without anything to stand between her and the terrible crawl through her living years that loomed ahead like a mountain.
Claudius stood beside her, oblivious to her agony. Eva was oblivious, too, but she was in another world entirely. She was holding the face of the body in her hands, raising his mouth to hers in a gesture that was not romantic, but there was passion in it. Her fingers on his jaw were light and eager, and her back curved over him in a dramatic line, arched as if alive with an energy that she conducted from his body to her lips, and from her feet to the ground. Pressed into his, her face was lit with similarly electric animation. Her eyes were closed, and every part of her face twisted into an expression that seemed to pass rapidly back and forth between pain and ecstasy.
At the very end, Viola saw something like a very white light, shown clearly for only an instant as it peeked through the hair-thin line between his and Eva’s lips. In her mouth, it flickered small and earnestly, like the flame of a candle. Then it passed into his; kindled by the first contact with his lips, it soon swelled like the rising sun, burning away darkness quickly and boldly. It shone through his skin and swept through all of the blood vessels that rose in a crimson lattice on his cheeks and all about his mouth; it sank into his throat, where it swirled and glowed all the way down.
One second later, the egg in the golden hands burst open by itself. The aides swooped down out of the corners of the room and circled like a flock of pecking hens around the hands, lapping up every particle of spattered yolk. Nearly as soon as they had started, they were finished, and vanished simultaneously into the air. Over at the bed, Eva stood up straight and alert with her eyes wide and glistening in the color of the palest sky, and Claudius held a divining rod above the head of the man lying before them to confirm what by then they already knew: Thomas Dark had returned.