Today, I make sure to do everything exactly right. I rise long before the first stirrings of dawn, as it is expressly forbidden to make the journey while the sun is in the sky. With the water left after the morning's ablutions, I fill a vessel made of clay from a stagnant fen. I settle the urn upon my shoulder and set off into the night, my feet unshod, just as the pomegranate seller at the marketplace instructed.
"Thais, you must be as close to a newborn babe as possible, clad only in a chiton of white," she cautioned me in her warbling voice.
Initially, I shrink away from the cold of the marble steps leading downhill. However, I soon become so used to its chill surface that the brush of grass, the slithering of worms underfoot, and other signs of life seem like unsettling anomalies. How fitting, considering where I am going.
I reach the Styx, whose sluggish waters remain inky even in the bright of day. Just as my guide said there would be, a queue of people in white chitons similar to mine line the river banks, their lanterns charting its course like a twinkling serpent all the way to our journey's end. I slip into their ranks, keeping my eyes low. The pomegranate seller warned me never to meet anyone's gaze, as parting ways as strangers would be best. I try to look for clues from their feet instead. I observe leathery, calloused feet, soft ones that have never seen a day's work, supple dancer's ones. We're certainly a diverse lot. Yet, our assorted lives mingle into a single tributary, hurtling to the same end.
We walk for so long that time begins to lose its meaning. Then someone exhales sharply. I look up and notice we have reached the start of the Styx, which flows from a grotto's open mouth lined with glinting stalactite and stalagmite teeth. The gloom inside is as absolute as the grave. We hesitate before the gaping aperture. I don't know if anyone else has spoken to my pomegranate seller, but doubtless, someone has imparted to the others the same advice she has given me. Enter the grotto from whence the black river flows and seek the Oracle within, should you wish to commune with the dead. The woman leading the group sighs, her only warning before she wades into the river and disappears into the cave's interior. As though on cue, the rest of the group surges forward and I let them carry me along. So I seal my fate.
The shadows permeate everything within. I only know I'm not alone from the moans and curses of the other travelers stumbling beside me. When I spy a dim glow ahead, I must resist the urge to push past my companions to reach this source of light. We trudge on and end up in a boundless cavern, the scope of which the scant illumination only reveals in part. Rock formations crash in petrified waves upon the roof of the cave, their mineral forms glittering like the star-studded firmament mirrored on ocean swells. This celestial splendour is reflected perfectly upon the still surface of a vast subterranean lake, the heavens inverted.
Amidst this reversal of sky and sea, a solitary boat bobs upon the water, the lantern attached to its prow the source of the phosphorescence that drew us here. Upon a silvery shoreline, I notice a woman, unremarkable in appearance but for the stark white of her waist-length hair and marble sheen of her skin. She sits on a stone bench over a chasm in the ground. From this fissure, vapours unfurl and caress her bare feet.
The woman who rushed ahead of us is pouring her urn's contents into the steaming mouth beneath the Oracle. The curlicues of smoke thicken to a billowing cloud, and a pungent fragrance not unlike funereal incense fills the air. The Oracle's eyes roll back in her head until her pupils can no longer be seen, and she convulses delicately. Suddenly, she becomes placid, her mouth falling open as though pried apart by unseen hands.
Instead of the voice of a grown woman, her parted lips emit the feline cries of an infant whose sole knowledge of living is agony. The smoke turns maroon and clots into a thrashing fetal shape. The woman shrieks, and she plunges her hands into the coagulating vapour before her. The fog disintegrates at her touch, leaving a bloody smear upon her skin. "My baby!" she screams over and over again, beating her head with both fists as a form of futile penance.
I can't bring myself to pay close attention to the ones who come after. I'm vaguely aware of an old woman cooing at her son slain in war and a tortured character hissing that someone's severed ear better not turn up in a pig's trough or else. My musings turn inward, touching upon fears I hadn't dared give voice to even in my innermost thoughts. At this late hour, I wonder what spirit the Oracle will conjure into being for me.
Unlike the others, I'm not here to commune with someone dearly departed. I barely have a past, much less people to mourn from it. Whatever haunts me is wholly alien, a child's disembodied sobs in a voice I swear I could place if they didn't always catch me on the verge of sleep. The cries never rise above a tremulous murmur, but hearing them causes my blood to curdle, my core to ache as though incisions are opening up deep within. Accompanying them are unsettling visions, flashes of disjointed recollections from a life mercifully cut short: a blade mutilating a doll's face, a phantom hand twisting in hair, a dark place permeated by the sour stench of sweat. It matters little to me whose memories they are or what they signify. I am only here to silence whatever calls.
I never have any memory of the moments that pass until I wake, always in a different place from where I dozed off and hours afterwards. This was the state in which the pomegranate seller found me: meandering about the marketplace, trying so hard to catch remnants of the Voice's gossamer strain that I hadn't noticed the urchins throwing olive pits in my tangled hair.
"Something is seeking you and you must answer," She pursed wizened lips stained with purplish-red juice and firmly pressed a dried pomegranate seed into my hand, "To ignore the Dead is to be counted among them, even if your body lives on for years…"
"Next," The Oracle's true voice, soothing as I imagined would it be, pulls me from the depths of my reverie. I move towards her as though on an invisible tether, marvelling at how small and young she looks up close. I've never been a tall woman, and she only reaches my chin. However, she exudes queenly authority, her back straight, and her grey eyes more lucid than a crystalline spring.
She places a hand on my shoulder, halting me as I kneel to empty my urn into that waiting mouth. "You…" Her quiet voice somehow echoes through the chamber, "What have you got there in your robes?" It takes me a while to understand she is looking at where my hand is balled in the cloth. Slowly, I remove it and unfurl the fist I didn't know I was making. We both stare at the withered pomegranate seed nestled in my palm. After too long a pause, she says, a sense of awe rippling her tranquil tone, "It's been a while since I've seen the likes of these. Are you sure you know what you wish for?"
"I was hoping you would tell me, Oracle" I let off a mirthless laugh that belies the frantic hammering of my heart.
"Most times… the living come to me in search of the dead." she takes the seed and holds it up to the wan light, "It's a rare occasion when the dead call the living here. With this seed, you can obey their summons without becoming a wraith yourself." Gasps and mutters from the crowd behind me accompany her words like a tragedy's chorus.
Though the pomegranate seller did mention responding to the call of the Dead, the Oracle's sobering confirmation chills me to the core. I've never relished ghost stories and the thought of becoming the protagonist of one couldn't be appeal to me less. I'm so overcome that I almost don't hear her ask, "Do you have some notion of who this restless spirit might be?"
"Not one," I answer with an effort. I don't remember much of my childhood, but my grandmother who raised me told me that my father left before I was born and her daughter, my mother, died when I was a babe of seven. I can only recall my long-departed grandmother with any clarity, and she was a mild-mannered, vague old woman, nothing like the weeping child specter haunting my hours of slumber.
"No matter. That's what you're here to find, I presume" She gestures towards the barge behind her "Please, embark."
As I take tentative steps towards the vessel, the first thing I notice is the pall of silence upon it that hushes even the swish of my feet on the sand. I could swear I see a cloaked figure backlit by the ghostly lantern swaying at its prow. Upon closer scrutiny, this shadowy silhouette dissolves into the black of the cavern. Stupidly, I ask, "Must I?"
"If you wish to rid yourself of your wraith, yes. You could always turn back, of course. But should you do so, more and more of your waking moments will leave you. You will live more in dreams than in the material realm, becoming a slumbering shell caught between worlds. In the end, the choice is yours. Your reckoning can only be delayed, not escaped."
I swallow and step into the boat. The moment I do, I register a sudden lightness of being. Though the vessel bobs beneath my weight, my footfalls soundlessly as though enveloped in dense cloth. I don't even sense the resistance one encounters with the surface of water, just a feeling of treading upon something barely more tangible than a cloud. I wonder if, in the very act of coming aboard, I've relinquished my own corporeality. I clutch the pomegranate seed all the tighter, the physical sensation of it against my clammy palms comforting me.
The boat doesn't even shift when the Oracle climbs in after me. I'm aware of the shore receding before I realize the boat is moving. The people watching us from the silvery beach diminish to floating, disembodied faces before vanishing altogether. Close to the prow, where an oarsman would stand, I hear rattling breaths. I daren't look to confirm.
From stalactites and stalagmites, the mineral formations around us morph with our passage to anguished faces, spidery hands, tormented cumulus clouds. Their glittering surface doesn't quite imbue them with life, which seems a bit of a perversity in this netherworld. But their gleam suggests a consciousness that is all too aware of us gliding beneath. A luxuriant fog unspools around us and transforms the lake into a dense cloudbank. Just ahead is a tiny isle of sepulchral white stone from whence the fog appears to originate. Our vessel surges towards the land the moment it comes into sight. I too train my eyes upon this beacon, grateful for any way to orient myself amidst this bewildering convergence of sea and sky.
The boat grounds itself upon the isle's pallid shore with a crunch. I notice that instead of sand, the beach is composed of tiny, irregular fragments that could well be broken shells or bones. We alight and I wince as spikes and knobs dig into the bare soles of my feet. Unhelpfully, I wonder if my own remains will be littering this coastline once we are done.
I see a cave-sized aperture in the ground from whence the fog is spilling, the colossal twin of the one we left behind on the previous shore. The hole is massive enough to house some ancient leviathan whose breath could be the obscuring smoke about us. I think of some of the legends they used to tell us when we were children of virginal maidens sacrificed to appease monstrosities. As I stand before the opening and inhale the vapors, moist and disconcertingly humid, I get a sense of my own life cut short before a revelation.
"Pour what is in your urn into it," the Oracle commands me. When I do her bidding, the chasm regurgitates fog that hems us in like a wall. Still, I easily discern the Oracle with stark clarity against the opening. "Are you ready to meet her?" she asks. Her? The confirmation that my spirit has a gender makes this all feel incredibly real, even if I can't be certain that any of it is. I feel as though I'll forever remain caught in this state between waking and dreaming if I do not act soon. I nod. After all, what does one do upon a threshold if not cross it?
We descend into the opening, her hand in mine. In the other hand, I am still holding the pomegranate seed, my only assurance that I will somehow be able to leave. But the further we progress, the more I feel the murk around us begin to settle into my head and take over my senses. I can't be certain if we are going up or down, or even if we are the same people we were before we entered the very bowels of Hades.
Questing fingers have snaked in through any available orifice in my head and are now feeling around on the inside of it. Foreign thoughts mingle with my own and I hear snatches of voices and conversations long lost to the annals of memory. I'm only brought back to myself when I feel the Oracle's hand tremble violently in mine. I turn towards her and witness her under the most savage of spells.
As she did on that now-distant shore, she is shuddering. But this time, the tremors that rack her slender frame threaten to tear her asunder from within. Her ribs heave so insistently against her papery skin that I'm afraid they will break free of their fragile casing. She spasms into hideous contortions no human form should rightly assume. Her face takes on the sunken look of a corpse, eyeballs huge in sunken sockets and cheeks hollow as though the flesh beneath them has melted away. At the sight of her, I'm struck by the lofty horror of her calling.
As though ashamed of her untrammeled state, the Oracle pulls a fold of her robe over her head and hides herself from view. Beneath her makeshift veil, she continues to twitch until she suddenly falls still. I wait for her to return to life and deliver whatever revelation is due. But she lies unmoving for so long that I fear that her attempts to aid me have ultimately claimed her life. As I'm working up the courage to at least prod her with my toe, she bolts to her feet, the cloth falling from her face. Only, it's not the Oracle who peers back at me but a very young girl.
I wouldn't have called the apparition faceless, but her countenance is certainly one in a constant state of transition. By this, I mean that none of her features last long enough for me to commit them to memory. Blue eyes and a pert nose appear and then melt into a terrible blankness. But even so, I have the impression that this is not the first time I've seen her.
I'm just finding any clear recollection of her elusive, as though I've only glimpsed her reflection cast upon restless water. Nonetheless, even as her bruised rosebud of a mouth dissipates, she calls me by name in that querulous voice that has haunted so many of my dreams. "Thais, Thais, Thais..." No mistake about it, she is the one whom I've come to see. However, the very sight of her is more than I can bear. I turn tail and sprint back to the shore.
I make directly for the lake surrounding us, not heeding the shells cutting into my feet. I welcome the burst of chill as I enter the waters and wade further in, hoping to succumb to its depths. I soon get my wish. My limbs feel overly large and unwieldy, as though they've ceased to belong to me.
Before the numbness reaches my head, I cast my eyes back. The phantom I have narrowly escaped is no more. Instead, I see the Oracle again, but bereft of her calm demeanour. Tears glisten on her cheeks and her face is contorted with the anguish of a child abandoned, the thumb in her mouth her only remaining solace. I let the bracing waters claim me after that.
As I sink further and further underwater, I close my eyes and allow the current to take me where it will. After what seems like both a moment and eternity, I touch a soft sand bottom. My unexpected return to a world of physical sensation jolts me from my state of near slumber. I appear to be sealed underground beneath fine, adherent sand. My palm is no longer closed around the little pomegranate seed, but something much larger and harder. With difficulty, I raise my hand to my face to have a closer look and open my closed fist. Nestled in my palm is a tiny child's tooth with a light bloody coating.
The tooth within my grasp is sending me on maddening flights of fancy. What other bits of its owner lies in the earth around me, waiting to be uncovered by a stray movement? But these grisly imaginings dissipate with the realization that I am not alone. The ground begins to reverberate with rhythmic thuds. Someone is treading upon it and from the growing intensity of the vibrations, he or she is heading towards the spot where I am buried. Whoever it may be is enormous both in size and in wrath, heavy footsteps channeling grim intent.
The ground above me swings open on its hinges like a door. I'm so disoriented by this turn of events that I need a moment to notice that I'm not in a grave, but in a chest padded with a worn, soiled blanket whose stale odour I'm horrified to recognise as the sour smell of sweat from my nightmares. A woman nearing middle age peers down at me. Her stringy black hair is unraveling from a hasty bun and veins cobweb the whites of her poison green eyes. Even though the corners of her mouth are turned down, I can tell she is smiling.
For whatever reason, life doesn't look quite right on her. I'm certain I've glimpsed her before, cold and unmoving on a funeral bier as anonymous people stroked my back and told me something wasn't my fault. Only if she returned to this inert state would I feel safe.
"Have you got it, like I asked?" Her voice is raspy with disuse, deepening my conviction that she should rightfully be a corpse. As she leans further over me, I notice for the first time how she dwarfs me. It's either that or I have somehow shrunk in the course of my strange journey. She snatches the fist I've curled around the tooth and digs jagged nails into my skin. It is then that I realise what she wants and I recoil. She tries to pry open my fingers, hissing sinister promises to take a knitting needle to my hand if I don't give her what she wants. Despite the pain and the increasingly fervent threats, I cling to the tooth as though my very existence hinges upon it. Seeing as it is what remains of my pomegranate seed, I suppose it does.
My resistance is for naught. She drags me out easily and through a room, the details of which shift as restlessly as the child's face. But some finer points hint that I am no stranger to this place. I recognize a large wooden bed with a wool mattress that I could swear I've stood on tiptoes to climb long ago. The frayed corner of a dyed red rug brings to mind an abandoned knitting needle, a tool I used to pick at the knots of a very similar carpet to pass hours locked in a dark room. And then, I see a small homemade doll whose sweet stitched face has been cruelly bisected by a blade. This last vision hurts me the most of all, and for some reason, the grief is a familiar one. I struggle against the grip on my arm, as much to pull myself from the brink of remembrance as to free myself.
She throws me down onto the wooden floor, which feels solid enough despite the shifting aspect of the room. Winded by the force of her malice, I stare up at her dumbly. Her lip curls and she bares her teeth at me as if my very presence is an offensive smell. She reclaims my attention with a deafening slap. "Why don't you give it to me like I ask?" Her voice is quiet, but laden with as much venom as an asp's fang, "Are you not useless enough to your mother?"
My mother? Before I can dwell on this further, she draws her hand back and I flinch. In ways I can't explain, her towering height and her restless hands awaken a visceral terror that feels like home. I am diminished to half my size, reduced to a creature whose lot in life is to remain fetal and cowed. I cast my eyes down, hating myself for my weakness and hating her for hating me so much.
She roughly shakes me. It is just then that I realize how loose a couple of my teeth are, tied to me only by threads of gum. Another slap and they'll scatter like ivory beads. I cover my mouth and duck, feeling her hand whistle past my cheek. She hisses through clenched teeth, "You're getting quick on your feet, aren't you, Thais?"
I'm so taken aback at the sound of my name that her next blow catches me full in the face. My loose teeth detach from me with a briny burst and I stand there my cheek burning. I spit the teeth out into my palm and stare at them, milky little things covered in pink slick. How did they get so small?
If my questions aren't answered soon, I shall go mad. "How do you-" I want to ask her how she knows me, but I stop short when I recognise the thin whine coming out of my mouth. I am now speaking with the child phantom's voice.
With a strength purely born of panic, I wrench myself free from her and stumble around the room in a mad search for a reflective surface. Sunlight glinting off burnished copper draws me to a large oval mirror. I dash over to it and stare right into the embodiment of my fears. Instead of my own face, I am wearing that of the little girl. Only it is no longer shifting, but damnably still so her features are mired in reality. I take in the startled blue eyes, the tiny nose like a thrush's beak, and the delicate, breakable wings of her cheekbones. They reconstruct a face I used to glimpse only in mirrors and in bathwater. After all, the face is none other than my own when I was a child.
Memory floods my consciousness with tidal force. Hours spent in that chest with that filthy blanket, carving the underside of its lid with my name. A rickety little stool she made me stand on with one leg while she railed at me. Some days, her diatribes would be about something small like a stain she found on my robe. Others, the tongue-lashings would be for existing at all, for daring to sprout in her womb and chase my restless father from her bed.
I now recall the beatings and the times when she woke me up in the middle of the night to head to the burial plot in our garden. Here, she would deposit bits of me when the mood took her: hair she found around the house, fingernails and my baby teeth when they started coming out. She always raged that she "wanted as much of me out of her sight as possible".
And the little doll. I'd named her Thracia. I'd stitched the details of her face with the most care I could manage, sang lullabies to her, whispered soothing nonsense into her yarn hair. When her face was sliced open before me, I'd been crippled with the kind of grief most mothers might feel watching their children slaughtered, the kind my own mother would never experience for me. I knew that even then.
I hear guttural wailing in the air around me, but I don't immediately notice I'm its source. I'm caught up in reliving each memory as though for the first time. What sheer madness my childhood was, a maelstrom I could neither understand nor escape. Even as an adult, I can hardly make sense of the suffering. How did I bear the weight of it then? I suppose I kept my eyes trained on the ground, scurrying from one moment to another with little more awareness than an insect.
The very thought of a world outside this would have broken me. But it seems I finally did escape anyway, banishing my past and even a portion of myself to the realm of the dead. How?
With great effort, I peer up at the woman I now know was my mother, seeking answers. She seems frightened, her brow wrinkled with what almost appears like concern. I remember this side of her too, how she looked when she feared she'd gone too far. When I bled or stayed on the ground too long, she'd pick me up in her arms, bathe my wounds, even hold me close the way I did for Thracia. On particularly desperate days, I'd hope she would lose control and break a limb. Then maybe she'd manage to love me for a week or two.
"Thais? Girl?" Strange how she always referred to me as "girl" when she came closest to treating me like a human. She reaches down, her proximity now enveloping and maternal rather than threatening. When she picks me up, I sink into her arms, grateful for even this most fleeting of reprieves. She carries me out and lays me onto the bed, reaching down. I tense once more. But then she strokes a hand through my hair and I readily melt back into compliance.
Trust is a luxury I could so seldom afford around her and I'm not prepared to relinquish it just yet. As she continues to soothe me with light touches, I slacken and edge closer towards slumber. I'm just about to give up the fight to keep my eyes open when something she's unfolding from her robes glitters. A knife. I yank myself upright, throwing her arms off me. How had I forgotten this part?
For a moment, she only blinks at me, knife trembling in her hand. Then her eyes darken and her mouth sets, my only warning before she swoops down on me. Fortunately for me, I'm used to running. The old childhood rhythms of dodge, duck, and weave awaken in me and lead me on a grim dance around the room as she swipes and stabs. Her aim starts off true, narrowly missing my ear, four of my fingers, my right eye. But I evade her as though on winged slippers and her strikes become erratic, her breathing labored.
I dive as she strikes at my head and knocks over a terracotta urn instead, the force of the blow shattering it into shards even before it hits the ground. Something in her fractures in sympathy and she sags against the wall. I still remain poised for flight. After my madcap journey around the room, I'm remembering too much to be convinced by this apparent show of defeat. But none of it stops a place deep in my chest from clenching when I see tears map a glistening trail in the hollows in her cheeks.
"It has to end sometime, didn't it?" She gestures with the arm wielding the knife, "We can't go on like this. I can't. Your father and I, we made mistakes. You never asked to be one of them, did you?" Her smile is pained and brave, and it makes me despise myself for being the source of such distress.
But even so, I don't loathe myself enough to stay put when she takes a step towards me. She drops her arms, which were stretched out in a half-embrace, and her expression morphs with frightening speed to project the sort of contempt reserved for betrayers of kin. I trip, scraping my thigh upon one of the jagged terracotta shards littering the floor.
My mother's shadow lengthens and drapes over me as she advances, slow and certain of her own victory. She looms over me, drawing back so I can see the blade gleam with a sort of spectacular hunger. At the sight of it, I'm suddenly angry. For the first time, I realise that it is she who is the aberration, not I. She who brought a child she never wanted into the world and foisted the weight of her mishaps upon it.
The injustice of it boils forth from me, hot and fierce, and I grab blindly at the floor to steady myself. A searing pain in my palm tells me I have picked up one of the dagger-sharp pottery shards. The moment it bites into me, I suddenly remember how I escaped this hell. Ignoring the sting, I grip the shard tight.
I hardly recognize my own voice as I swipe out with my makeshift weapon and slash across four of her fingers. She drops the knife and clutches her wounded hand, her wild gaze telling me I have deviated from a script. I whirl in a drunken, deadly dance, hacking and stabbing to a mysterious internal rhythm.
It's just the same as the first time I did this as a child, the blinding rage driving my strikes, the warm liquid spray as I meet my mark, the soreness in my throat as I scream it raw.
The last image that breaks through the wash of chaos in my head is her belly, which she has so far protected with her now-useless arms. I lunge towards it, and my shard sinks into unresisting flesh. I relive the last clear thought I'd had that first time, that this was the most united we'd ever been, my hand on her abdomen and our blood mingling in a purplish stream.
Darkness blots out my senses, and I let it, sinking deep into a comforting chrysalis state. When an insistent hand prods at my shoulder, I jolt awake, crying out in surprise when I discover I am blind. Cool fingers remove something from my eyelids and return the power of sight to me. I'm lying in the grotto from whence I began my strange journey and I'm surrounded by the crowd that accompanied me here.
Now that I'm looking all of them in the face, I see what their feet told me this morning. They are young and old, lofty and lowly. But their expressions of wary awe that render them all identical to me. The only one I'd know if she passed me in the agora is the Oracle, who is peering intently at my face. When she sees that I am awake, she nods as though she has solved a conundrum that has been plaguing her for a while. "You've returned. Not many do. Did you find the answers you were looking for?" At first, I'm not sure how to answer her. But eventually, I nod.
A sudden smile turns her plain face radiant. She places something in my palm and I look down to see not only my pomegranate seed but two obols with snarling gorgon faces, the currency placed on the eyes of corpses to pay Hades' bargeman. So that explains my temporary blindness. "Charon returns your wages," she says "It is your due for surviving what many could not, a summons from the dead. Go in peace." With that, she turns away as though I have already left her subterranean domain
The onlookers lose interest in me and trail after her, leaving me to slip out unnoticed and make my slow way through the tunnel by way of which we entered the cave.
Accustomed to gloom, I have to shield my eyes the moment I step out into the day. When bright shapes stop dancing behind my lids, I open them and am astonished by a bewitching scene. Perhaps, because I journeyed here at night, I hadn't noticed how the knolls around me coruscate in the sun, the grass upon their crests gently swaying like waves. This gilded sea is broken by blotches of purple, scarlet, and lapis-hued wild blooms, the first signs of spring.
Even in the day, the river remains a stark ebony streak against the auroral splendor. The world doesn't lose its brilliance as I venture back to more familiar climes. Dewdrops enliven the emerald grass on the hills near my home. On the cliffs I pass by every day, pink veins striate through creamy limestone like the subtlest of rainbows.
It's not just what I can see that attains this new lustre. Each individual note of cicada song and wind whispering against the rushes rings sharp and sweet in my ear. The fragrance of fruit ripening on the branch has my tongue yearning for their nectar. Before I realise it, I break into a light skip that I maintain all the way up the winding slope home.
Under the laurel tree in my garden, I see ghostly, long-forgotten scenes flit between shifting rays of sunlight. My mother digs into the ground with her bare hands, casting furtive glances around her like a skittish wild beast. She vanishes, then reappears on the other side of the shallow grave she's dug to toss milky teeth into, sweeping dirt into the hollow with her foot when she's done. Then I see myself, the little ghost girl, prodding the freshly disturbed ground with a toe.
As I approach, my child self vanishes and leaves me standing before the spot where the teeth were buried. I dig at the ground with clawed fingers, stopping only when I unearth two molars that are yellowed and brittle with age. I marvel at how tiny they are, barely bigger than the pomegranate seed. I bury them back in the soil with the seed. When I'm done, I place the two obols above the loose earth-like slate-colored eyes.
Rain prickles the exposed nape of my neck and turns the ground beneath me into a slurry. As the boatman's coins sink deeper into the muddy earth, something swells within me and bursts. I start to dance, gaining momentum as the drizzle escalates to downpour. Soon, I'm whirling, laughing, and flicking out my tongue to catch the drops, caught up in a private bacchanalian frenzy, ushering growth into dead things sleeping in the soil.