“Any last requests?”
She shifts. Barely a whisper of movement, but he notices. Can’t help but learn someone through their silence after nine years of dealing with it.
“Last words or thoughts?”
The corner of her mouth ticks and he can feel the smart-ass response sitting at the edge of her tongue. At least, this is what he hopes. A wishful auditory hallucination. He eyes her mouth, the shape of her lips, the divot of her philtrum willing them to move just this once. Four hundred eighty-six visits and he has yet to know what her voice sounds like.
And now he never will.
He heaves a sigh, then stands, immediately crowding the tiny cell. He’d learned early on in his career to sit when enclosed in spaces like this. It eased the tension inadvertently brought on by his striking height and barrel chest, even allowed a beard to grow in without abrupt defense. Yet, none of it works with her. She shows nothing of her hand; not fear, not defense. Not even a withering sense of emotional exhaustion.
She just . . . is.
Yet, there is something undeniable about her presence. The cold cell is alive with her, not unlike constant static in the air. Tangible yet inexplicable. The first time he’d attempted to counsel her, he left the cell giddy, nearly giggling to himself, but not with happiness or elation.
But with relief.
She’d gone through other psychiatrists and psychologists, therapists, LCSWs, volunteer staff counselors. She’d cooperated with none. Five years, four resignations, a breakdown, and an attack later, he was brought in.
To absolutely no avail.
But he stuck by her for reasons mostly unknown to him. He asked questions expecting no answer, yet hoping for one, shared anecdotes to no response, and at times, shared in the silence with her, often lamenting his own struggles and leaving with a sense of purpose, of direction.
He fears what lay ahead of her now. He understood this day would come, but he’d had more than enough time to selfishly deny its inevitability. The panic nearly causes him to sit back down, the contradictory need to shake her out of her stillness and comfort her through this frustrating him to the point of clenched fists and a tightened jaw. He’d walked into this space over three-thousand days ago counting on the glory of solving the most difficult case in the institution. He’d been humbled by her, by this, by the last nine years of monk-like silence. There was no glory to be had, no praise or recognition.
Only the loss of a life.
Gathering himself, he approaches the cell door but stops when he hears the bed creak. He turns to see her standing, watching him. With a smile on her mouth.
His breath catches as she steps forward, her arm outstretched, a folded piece of paper in between the tips of her pointer and middle fingers. He looks from it to her and back again several times as he tries to remember how to breathe properly. She lifts an eyebrow at him, playing with him, toying with his shock. The smile widens, but she carefully hides her teeth. He reaches for the note, noticing for the first time the graceful swirl of a black-ink tattoo adorning the delicate brown flesh of her wrist. The line dances along a keloided scar, thick and braided and clunky in comparison.
The moment is cut once the paper is in his grasp. She quickly drops her arm, her other hand smoothing her sweatshirt down further, hiding both the deliberate and the desperate. With some effort, he turns away from her again and knocks on the metal door twice.
Before the latches are released, before he can give Bob the tired nod of acknowledgment on his way out, she says, “Read it when I’m gone.”
It is only after Bob has locked her back in does it register that it hadn’t been in his head.
Her voice is like cold dark honey, slow and deep and bittersweet, and he can’t stop hearing it.
He sits in his office at home staring at the piece of paper, knowing she’s been dead for hours now, laid peacefully to rest by a cocktail of chemicals as a handful of people watched. His phone rang when the deed was done. He’d looked at the number, then silenced the ringer, letting the director tell the news to his voicemail. He didn’t need to check it. Made note not to.
Not until he read her words.
At least now he had a template to go by; five words to be broken down and manipulated, turned into phrases and lilts of expression. Making her alive once more.
His cell phone rings. He ignores it by reaching for the paper instead.
With shaking fingers, he unfolds it, his eyes immediately tracing the end for a sense of length. Disappointment floods him once he sees the message is concise, her handwriting sloppy and in block letters, as if the note were an afterthought, not some declaration nine years in the making. He hisses, recognising his selfishness again, then slows down to read.
‘The stories I carry inside me are not mine to tell, therefore my voice is of no use to you nor to me. All the same, a truth must be told at some stage. It is too late for me. Perhaps that has always been the case, having been born with this responsibility. I regretfully pass it on to you, Peter. I hope you do not resent me too much for it, but you’ve been so patient, so kind.
‘I don’t have time to fully explain, but find my body. I am to be buried in lot 218, row 0. My kind does not deteriorate like you, so do this only when you are ready.
‘Because once you begin, the stories will destroy themselves.
‘Do not try to write them as they are told, just listen. You will remember them. You will have no choice but to remember them.
‘My body will die only once all stories are released. Listening to these stories will release me, will release the truth. I am asking you to release me, Peter.
‘You will know what to do once you find my plot.
‘With admiration and hope—’
She didn’t sign her name, didn’t have to. He’d know her soon enough.
“Maybe you should take some time off. You’re allowed bereavement in this case. Nine years is a long time to—”
“Listen to someone breathe in an 8×8?”
The Director smirks, but the joke falls flatter than his mood has been for the last five days. The Director is speaking again, but he can’t hear the words as the phrase “read it when I’m gone” repeats louder than before. It’s been distracting him, her voice, her request. Her burden. He’d been angry at first, resentful of the task he had yet to decide on. But she knew he would, knew it with an infuriating surety that ate at him, robbed him of his sleep, of his concentration. Of his peace.
He jolts, misconstruing the intonation of that uttered phrase into his name, the innate wish that she’d say it just once manifesting into the auditory hallucination he’d experienced back in her cell. His wide-eyed gaze meets that of the Director instead. He nods.
“Yeah. I’ll take some time.”
On the second night of his five-day bereavement, he is standing in lot 218, over plot 0, a shovel in his hand and a royal blue body bag beside him.
The internet never ceased to amaze.
The night sky is crystal clear, the moon nearly three-quarters bright. Security agreed to leave him be for an hour; after that, the hundred he slipped each of them would expire and rounds would resume. With the frigid cold, he could maybe count on an extra twenty, but he set to work quickly. The soil is still loose, but at three feet, his strength starts to wane, his arms shaking violently, hands cramping as sweat froze into little daggers along his beard. Another six inches and the tip of the shovel scrapes at the softened wood of a pine box. Weakened and tired and emotional, he begins digging with his hands, tossing the shovel aside and throwing dirt away from the hole. Six pathetic nails keep the top in place long enough for burial and are no match for the rush of adrenaline fueling him. He yanks the lid before realising what he’s doing, the thin wood landing somewhere above him with a thud.
It’s as if she’s sleeping.
Her hands are crossed at her chest, not her middle, the donated paisley dress fanning around her, drowning her, covering every bit of exposed flesh from throat to naked toes. Her hair has been braided back and close to her skull, tamed from the large afro she normally wore and maintained on her own. He’d asked her about it, nearly dared to touch it for a reaction from her, but stopped himself on more than one occasion. It seems cruel, she’s so lightly dressed, so he takes his long-removed coat and carefully lifts her to wrap it around her shoulders.
For a brief moment, he panics, thinking she’ll awaken, grapple him down into the pine box only for her to escape, her elaborate ruse coming to completion as she runs after burying him in her pauper’s tomb. But no such thing comes to pass as he tucks her arms into the goose down sleeves. He zips her up without incident, then flips her body over his shoulder before crawling out of the hole.
He doesn’t bother with replacing the dirt; her dead weight, his failing resolve, and the beeping of his phone timer all tell him to save his energy for transporting them both to his car.
And so he seals her in the thick plastic, gathers his things, and drags ass towards the back gate where his car is parked.
Three hours later, he is showered and sitting at his desk, staring at the patient who never spoke.
The warmth of his home eased her joints, allowing him to seat her, move her arms until her hands were planted in her lap, move her head until her gaze would have met his while he sat waiting, as if this were a normal session, as if she were a paying client.
As if her eyes were open.
He doesn’t have the heart to peel back the lids, so he sits and waits until embarrassment prickles the back of his neck and heats his cheeks.
“The fuck am I doing,” he mutters.
He stands up, rounds the desk, and sits in the matching leather chair, watching her profile, silently begging for an answer, for a response.
You will know what to do once you find my plot, the note had said. But there hadn’t been any elaboration as to what to after that. He’d instinctively believed this was the plan, to have her in a proper setting to release and reveal. But now he’s lost, his confidence gone, yet his curiosity as strong as ever.
She’s a beautiful woman, just as much in death as she had been in life. Almost startling so.
“Tell me what to do here,” he says, his voice strained. To his surprise, his throat tightens, his vision blurring. Nine years of silence, only to be fucked with by five words and a half page note on composition paper. Frustration weakens him to the point of free-flowing tears, his anger hardly a blip as he begins to weep. All of it comes rushing to the surface and he crumples under the weight, falling to his knees beside her corpse, bawling for the first time since he was a child. He doesn’t know for how long he cries, isn’t even sure how he manages to collect himself, but he sits in the chair again, wipes his face and says,
“Tell me, Mvula.”
And she coughs.
He jumps at the sound, nearly stumbling back out of the chair, but catches himself in time to watch her shake herself, limb by limb, digit by digit. She rolls her neck last, bones and joints protesting audibly as they settle back into place. At last, she sighs, moaning along with it, as if she is already exhausted by the road ahead.
He watches her, too frightened to touch her again, but needing to reassure himself of this moment. “M-Mvula?”
She smiles, full and bright, her teeth startling white. And sharp. There appears to be too many of them, her teeth. A new ice-block of fear drops into the pit of his stomach. “Peter,” she says slowly.
And he immediately regrets everything.
Like a child, he wishes for the last six hours of his life back, no, the last week. He’d been given the option to not see her that last time, had been told that it wasn’t necessary. She hadn’t spoken before, she certainly didn’t seem the type to expunge her soul moments before it was set to be dispatched. He wishes he’d never picked up her file, wishes he’d laughed off the breakroom gossip about that weird Black woman whose cell had some sort of drug being pumped into it.
But none of those wishes matter now.
Every movement, every decision has led to this moment.
Peter feels his lungs deflate as her head slowly turns towards him, feels his heart stutter over itself twice as her grin widens impossibly, feels his head disconnect from his body as her eyes ease open.
“Thank you, Peter,” she says.
She reaches for him then, fingers threading with his, palms matching, grip tight.
“Are you ready to listen, Peter?”
The question is patient, nearly kind, but he knows there is no choice. He has awakened her. He has claimed his readiness. There is no turning back.
So he nods, swallows, then says, “Yes, Mvula. Tell me your stories.”
The smile falters; she can hear the tremble in his voice, he imagines. But then it returns just as quickly, this time a little less bright. “They’re not mine, Peter. They certainly won’t be yours either. We cannot own these sins.”
He frowns, straightening in his chair. “Sins?”
The smile falls further, tinged with sadness. “Yes, Peter. I am a Sin Eater. I pay for the transgressions of others. For a price, of course.”
“You mean yourself?”
She shakes her head ruefully. “No. My death is nothing. The burdens I carried . . .” She takes a breath. Looks at him. “You aren’t ready.”
He opens his mouth to protest, but his voice flees from the lie.
She smirks. “It’s too late anyway. You brought me back for this purpose alone and fucking with the process isn’t an option.” Again, he stops himself from prying by settling back further into the seat. “I hope you no intention of going anywhere for a while.”
“No,” he answers quickly. She raises an eyebrow and he shrugs. “Bereavement.” She tilts her head but ultimately doesn’t ask.
“Well, settle in, Peter, and let me tell you of these sins.”
“How many are there?”
She smiles again, hiding her teeth. “Now? Fifty-one. And none of them are pretty.”
He still has a choice, he believes, though he knows this is a lie. He could get up, leave, call the cops and report himself. But he’s frozen to the spot, that curiosity brewing stronger than ever before.
“I’m listening, Mvula.”
And she opened her mouth and began the tale of the first sin.