Summary: A ghost on an internship discovers a human boy inside a barrel and helps him adjust to life among the dead. Caw is a villain to most people, but even that is subjective. *Allude to Luc Court, who taught me human evolution, and Shakespeare for Tempest.
Length: ~2900 words.
Where do these bodies come from?
Caw hurls the 143rd corpse onto the dock. His face contorts in disgust, his hands are slippery and reek of human stench. He cannot, for the love of his future, understand why he has picked to intern for a lowly mortician. Here he is, hauling corpses onto the Body Dock before the waves wash them up on the shore and scare the sunlight out of the tourists.
It isn’t until he takes off his hat and calls it a day (night, whatever) that he notices a barrel bobbing in the middle of the ocean. Mortician Gore never told him anything about barrels, and for the three months Caw has been labouring his arse, a barrel is the last thing he expects to see.
He decides to check it out.
Caw remembers studying a principle of evolution, the kind that spawned bats and birds. Convergent, that’s what they called it. Where two different species raced each other in the morphology slots, reaching the same conclusion if they were unlucky and crowding the other out if they weren’t.
If evolution is on Caw’s side (as it ought to be) he should be able to examine that blasted barrel already: speeding along the wings of his genetic superiority, empowered by his semi-corporeal form that keeps him from falling when he flies across the waters. Instead, Caw sets himself in Mortician Gore’s bare boat and rows his way to retrieve his object of interest.
The barrel is heavy.
He considers breaking it with his paddle but he doesn’t fancy swimming back if his paddle breaks instead.
Eventually, Caw manages to haul the barrel onto the boat and rows them back to the dock.
“You better be worth it, you unsanitary—”
The barrel moves. It is moving.
He is not hallucinating.
For his sense of self-preservation is unrivalled, he scrambles onto the dock and holds himself flat on the pier.
He hits the barrel with his trusty paddle and gives a manly scream when it rattles.
“Come out, you ratty demon!” Caw says, peeking over the edge.
The boat hovers below him. When his sensibility finally kicks in, he ties the boat onto the dock as he waits for the barrel to retaliate. Caw has always taken pride in his multitasking ability.
“Come out, come out!” Caw cackles and smashes the lid back in when it finally moves. He does it a few more times until he gets bored. “All right. I’m done messing with you. Show yourself.”
Caw sobers when the lid dislodges and two glowing eyes peek through the gap. He holds his breath and waits. The thing inside the barrel seems to be analysing him, on guard in case he decides to smash the lid in again.
Caw does the stupid thing — he drops the paddle and raises his hands. “I am unarmed.”
With curling toes and hunched shoulders, the creature that emerges has all the body language of a shaved ape. It scrambles onto the dock, shivering and shaggy wet hair sticking to its face. Its olive skin is shiny from either respiration or the sea.
“Are you what they call a human?”
The ape nods.
“So you do understand what I am saying,” Caw says.
It nods again.
“Oh gods damn it, put some clothes on.”
He wrangles the clothes from a corpse at the top of the pile and flings it at the ape.
Caw observes it and concludes that it is indeed an evolved ape. From the way it acknowledges his generous gift, the shivering ease it manages to cover itself, this thing is clearly sentient. It does not lack social awareness, that innate, blessed understanding of why it’s considered improper to touch yourself in public, that sort of thing.
“You will come with me,” Caw says.
“Indeed a human boy, or a revenant to be specific,” Mortician Gore says.
“A revenant, you say.”
Caw keeps getting distracted with the way the boy’s fingers balloon out his cheeks as he shoves parsley after parsley into his mouth and swallows without as much as chew. His lips are wet, slimy with bovine contentment, eyes rolled down with placid consideration of the empty plate. Caw wants to reach out and snatch the plate away, make the boy look at him so he can hunt for a sign of intelligence in those moist, dark-ringed eyes.
The boy’s eyes are mismatched in colour, one bright red, the other glowing yellow.
Mortician Gore cackles, amused at Caw’s irritation. “I will keep him.”
“The last I checked, animated corpses are illegal,” Caw says.
“No. Unlike a lykhe, a revenant does not possess a phylactery. He can pass as a regular human,” the mortician says. “Although he may develop odd quirks or a disability that he once did not possess as a human.” At Caw’s continued grimace, the mortician adds tenderly, “This boy is not unlike yourself, Lugnor, except you are the dead and he is the living.”
“He doesn’t even have a name,” Caw says.
The boy immediately looks up, opens his mouth and then frowns.
He tries again.
“I see,” says Mortician Gore.
“The boy has lost the ability to speak. He is a revenant after all.”
Caw grunts. For all he knows, this boy might secretly be a trichosurus vulpecula employed in a masquerade of humanity. Primates and a certain breed of marsupials both have opposable thumbs, though they lack comparative genetics.
The boy writes his name onto the corner of a parchment in neat, perfect script.
Caw stares and seethes at evolution. “Morgenstein. What sort of name is that?”
The revenant — Morgenstein — looks away, mouth curving downwards and trembles. It strikes Caw that this creature has feelings.
“Oh, for the love of— save me,” Caw groans.
For the next two weeks, Caw stays away from Mortician’s home, only stopping by before and after work and never loiters. Although he does not see Morgenstein, Caw knows that he must be somewhere in there.
“Morgenstein misses you.” Mortician Gore visits him at the Body Dock on the fortnight.
“Right. Because your pet-human is fond of me,” Caw says.
“He is no pet, Lugnor. You may be interested to hear what he has to say.”
“Oh, for the life of Death, the boy is mute!”
Mortician Gore gives him one of those looks that clearly says he has crossed the line between snark and offence.
Caw swallows. “Fine. I’ll go.”
When he enters the Mortician’s place after work, he braces himself for the worst.
Hello, a hollow voice penetrates his mind instead of his ears, and Caw whirls around to find Morgenstein sitting on one of the coffins that the Mortician uses as a makeshift bench.
The wooden table between them is piled with books and scrolls. In front of Morgenstein is a bottle of ink and a crow feather quill. From what Caw manages to make out, Morgenstein is wearing nondescript monochrome clothes that are only a tad too big for him. His wild hair has been tamed as well, cropped short but a little sloppy.
I said hello, Morgenstein says without moving his mouth.
“How are you doing that?”
I’ve been practicing what Mortician Gore taught me, the boy says, gesturing to the books on the table.
“Of course,” Caw says, his mind jogging to catch up. “I have only studied Speech in theory.”
It is useful. I just wish people could have done this back where I came from, the boy says.
“Back where you came from, you say?”
Caw invites himself into the seat beside Morgenstein and sighs in relief when the boy does not stink of human stench.
Yes. Some people there aren’t so lucky. I was one of the fortunate ones, the boy says.
“Dolemrok is a world of disease and power struggle. There is nothing fortunate about such a place.”
Morgenstein frowns. I have been reading about that. Mortician Gore wanted me to familiarise myself with how this world views mine.
And Dolemrok is not my world, the boy says.
The Mortician pops out from behind the seashells curtain that separates the kitchen from the front room. He is wiping his hand on a dirty rag that has bloodstains on it. Caw does not want to know.
“I see you’ve been talking,” the Mortician says.
“The idea of another set of the universe is unlikely,” Caw says flatly.
“A Round World. From what Morgue here has described, I believe what he speaks of is a seed of a new world. The brutality of Dolemrok and the magic of Neverearth combined. An offspring. Fascinating, really. Though it’s best to keep this between the three of us for now.”
“Tell me about this world of yours,” Caw says immediately.
And Morgenstein describes everything: its lush history and progression, the different ages throughout time; its countries, religions, myths and lore, of war and love and human nature; the magic of art and medicine, the burning passion for the improbable; of a device to infinite knowledge all possible with opposable thumbs; both the good and the bad, the side-effects of science, consequences of mistaking destruction for innovation; there is the Fool’s Disease but also those who are strong enough to fight it. Above all, in this world of foreign whims, there is always always hope.
“What do you call this world of yours?”
Earth, the boy says.
“That’s a silly name for a world,” Caw says. “A downright copy of Neverearth!”
No. Earth is made of water with a core of fire, the boy says defensively. Earth is round, unlike Neverearth.
Caw isn’t sure what to think.
Morgenstein is so good at impressing him that Caw finds himself second-guessing everything in a whirlpool of calculations. It’s difficult to ridicule these fantastical claims when so much of Caw’s mind is taken up by this pasty-limbed creature. Weeks pass and Caw begins to study him relentlessly, driven for proof.
Morgenstein swings from stupidity to godlike intelligence like a pendulum in Caw’s brain, passing by idiot savant at the midpoint of each arc.
“I have an appointment in Maugaude,” the mortician says, “Do you mind taking the boy out for breakfast? He hasn’t really gone anywhere.”
Caw has just finished hauling the last body onto the Dock. He considers refusing but he realises that he doesn’t actually mind.
Mortician Gore hands him a palm-sized package in brown paper wrapping. “Make sure he wears this over his red eye.”
Morgenstein is already waiting on the porch, arms around his knees, staring inquisitively at his rain boots.
I’m no good at tying shoelaces, the boy says before Caw can even ask.
“I didn’t say anything.”
But you thought it, the boy says.
Caw hands him the package. Before he can tell him it’s from Mortician Gore, the boy accepts it and nods. Thanks, he says.
It is a warg-leather eyepatch, and Caw suspects it must possess some magical properties. Morgenstein puts it over his red eye. The boy looks up at him and, for the first time, smiles. It’s stiff but it’s there.
Caw ignores that creepy look as they make their way into Inner Nubirdth. As the moonlight fades away, the morning sun seeps in through the grey thin clouds that sift apart like sand. Caw has always preferred the Nawkt sky to the rest of the world.
Disintegrating bones pile up on either side of the streets, refracting the skylight like white stardusts. The days in Nawkt are slow, moments that seem to drip into infinity where it’s always chilly wherever he goes, and colder in meadows and flat plains. At least, here, it’s never full-on winter.
For the past week, the strange voices have been growing louder, Morgenstein says, When there are people around it’s as if my head is going to explode.
“What are you on about?”
Thoughts and emotions that aren’t mine, I can feel them, he says.
Mortician Gore thinks my soul has a crack through which the voices creep. He reckons my body is no longer an efficient container for the soul.
“Red eyes are a mark of a broken soul,” Caw says.
Only one eye; my soul is incomplete, the boy says.
“Hence the eyepatch to bar the crack. I see.”
Caw nods. That explains a lot. Yet it doesn’t explain why the boy manages to remain civil for so long. Caw decides that Morgenstein is secretly so gifted that his behaviour is all an act. The connections are there: the speed in which Morgenstein soaks in information, the ability to process data and turn it from theory to practice, the amazing talent at keeping Caw interested with mind-stimulating conversations.
He may just have to take back every insult he has hurled in humanity’s face.
By afternoon, Caw returns the boy back to what may now be the boy’s home. Mortician Gore greets them by the door with some news.
“I talked to a few people at Maugaude Academy of Fear—“
“You want him to go to school?”
“Yes,” the Mortician says slowly, as if daring Caw to oppose his judgment. “So how about it, boy? They’ll take a look at you tomorrow. Might’ve to take an admission test…”
I’m going to school? Morgenstein’s face lights up in a way Caw has never seen before, and Caw thinks the boy is in for a reality check.
They won’t accept him. Caw attends the Terabourn branch himself; he knows the requirements to these establishments.
With great difficulty, Caw keeps his mouth shut.
The following night, Morgenstein sulks around the place while the Mortician sighs every so often, eyes following the boy’s depression cloud.
“They rejected you because you’re not dead? Well, that is plain racist,” Caw says.
He may fail the Art of Tact, but he’d done a fantastic job at predicting the outcome with his superior intellect. Caw’s mind is as sharp as it has ever been.
Stellar. Grade A-plus.
Yet, he cannot help but feel bad for the boy.
So, Caw asks for a day off and uses it wastefully by travelling to the living world. Once there, he takes the train north, stalks into the most prestigious school for the living.
He demands to see Headmistress Bones of Saperaude, because this is the best school in the entire of Neverearth. And if the headmistress is as wise as she is rumoured to be, she would accept Morgenstein with open arms, even when an undead like Caw comes knocking on her quarter in the dead of night.
“Please call me Head Bones,” she says. “Do bring in the boy as soon as you can.”
“I should probably mention that he is a revenant. And he’s mute,” Caw adds.
“No matter. I believe we teach Speech for a reason, Mr Caw. Learning to communicate directly to the minds will be no problem if the boy is a natural as you say he is.”
“He already knows how to do that,” Caw says.
Head Bones quirks her eyebrows, eyes lighting up with genuine interest. “Well then. Go get him.”
When he turns to leave, Head Bones goes beyond his expectations. She offers him a position as part of the school faculty.
“You will be working alongside Ms Liatris Lundherte as a school supervisor. How does that sound?” Head Bones says.
“A Lundherte? As in one of the Lundhertes, descendants of the Wisetrail Brothers?”
For the first time in his non-life, Caw does not know how to react. “I’m not good with children.”
“Shall I take that as a yes?”
Two months find them sitting in the banquet hall of glimmering purple stones. Through the elegant arch windows, the proof of winter is there on the tips of frostbitten dandelion fluffs. Stumbled and tripped, perhaps, like too many shoppers on the ice outside Breath City.
Caw sneaks from the faculty table to sit beside Morgenstein who looks out of place by himself while chattering students are surrounded by their friends.
Good evening, Supervisor, the boy says.
They have been doing well. Caw gets into arguments and snark battles with the know-it-all children, entertains himself by listening to these high intellects come up with world domination plans and then proceeds to tell them off when they start to make too much sense.
Morgenstein is the perfect loner. He is comfortable in the space he finds himself. He tries not to get close to his classmates because thoughts are scary; these people are strangers to him and having one-sided relationships where he knows them more than they know him is just disturbing.
But the boy has found a new life here. He visits Mortician Gore on holidays, and the man sends him questionable (and sometimes illegal) gifts during the school terms. Human creed, a ridiculous show of parental affection.
“Do you recall your life in the Round World?”
Earth, you mean? Morgenstein says, gnawing on his knuckles. He leaves tiny divots behind when he’s through, stapled imprints where his teeth pressed into his skin.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Morgenstein’s deficiencies to understanding table manners (and more) are compensation for a talented brain.
Except that Caw’s got everything Morgenstein has. In fact, he has it better. He knows how to put his clothes on properly in the morning; he knows how to tie his shoes, textbook loops and the rabbit around the tree. He knows how to wear shoes in the first place. Darn those rain boots.
“Do you miss it? Your old life?” Caw asks.
Morgenstein breaks into the multiverse’s most macabre smile.