No One Really Lives Alone
by Lesley Hart Gunn
When the priest comes to your house to vanquish your demons, draped in ancient symbols with pockets of holy water oozing from her like sap, don’t ask who sent her. She’ll mark your doorstep with a small crucifix that she draws in the air with a careful and deliberate flourish, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from staring at the indiscernible thing hanging above your door long after she steps over the place where you used to keep a welcome mat.
She won’t worry herself with introductions or niceties but will take a deep breath as she takes in the state of your living conditions and begins knocking on the floors, walls, and ceilings, calling out to the lesser imps that stay between the rot in your baseboards and sagging drywall. You can tell her not to bother, not to worry about the little things. It’s just the gnawing of rodents or insect damage. Nothing an exterminator can’t handle. She’ll knock and whisper her way down the hall, stopping to lick the walls, to taste the residue of the burnt offering you served up on the floor. She’ll find the leftover ashes since you didn’t bother sweeping them. She’ll ask you if you live alone, which is a trick question, because no one really lives alone, and she knows that. She knows what hides in cupboards and closets, watching and waiting. That’s why she comes.
She’ll shuffle her way into your kitchen and start opening drawers. Don’t ask her to leave or to respect your privacy as she rummages through your things like a zealous beggar at a yard sale. Try to hide the small bones you procured from the ripe piece of meat on the side of the road. “Bird bones are hollow,” she’ll tell you as she examines them, wondering what wonderful things you’ve put inside. Let her see the collections, the things you’ve tucked away for play, dead or barely breathing, and try not to panic as she clicks her tongue and casts her judgments like dice. She’ll moan and shake as she makes her way through each drawer, searching for something you’d never keep in the filth of a kitchen crusted with decayed flesh and moldy bread. Let her ransack your skeletal keepsakes and grind them with her unyielding boot heels. Look away if it helps, out the window, to where you found your treasures. You can find more there, between the tall grass and dark tree roots. There are always more bones to find. Tuck the pickling jars filled with cursed creatures into the pockets of your dress. She’s not the only one that can ooze caustic liquids. Be careful not to slosh when you walk so she won’t expect to find obstacles, barriers her power can’t easily break.
As she moves further into your domain, she’ll see your writing and find all your chalk, which she’ll crush into a fine powder. She does it to rattle you, to try to reveal your weakness but you can always get more chalk. It’s watching her wipe the invoking symbols, those masterfully crafted ruins, from the walls with her already filthy sleeves, eliminating all you’ve built with an ignorant swipe of her holy robe, that will really get to you. Knot your fingers together and hold your tongue. Let her feed the obsession. Let her sully herself with the ruins of your kingdom.
When her palms are chalky and cracked from erasing every pentagram, don’t cry, please don’t cry. Don’t let her know that you found a strange comfort in the embrace of fire. “Even cinders leave a mark,” she’ll say as she rubs her hands back and forth, tempting dust motes to dance. Don’t clean her hands with your tears. Make her waste some of that holy water she carries. It will muddy and drip into her sleeves, staining her robes and irritating her weathered skin.
As she opens her book of misdeeds and judgements, don’t close your eyes and pray for protection. Don’t call for your legion too soon, this is what she wants, to expose and eliminate every cursed creation you summoned from the underbellies of logs and rotting basements. Plus, they may not be the only ones to answer. A cry for help resonates in all directions and she has people who answer too, and their answers are as bitter and withering as salt on an open wound.
When she takes out her balms, those foul-smelling resins from long ago, don’t hold your nose. She’ll know you want to, and your senses will burn, but don’t let her see you squirm. She’ll touch you with an oil-covered hand and it will feel like fire as it dimples across your skin, but it’s only a distraction from the rites she chants into your sagging roof and beyond. Those counter spells and curses you’ve been practicing are useless against her. She knows how to deflect them. Every inch of her is branded with protections and she knows every incantation to bind your tongue and twist you into a useless heap.
When she’s erased every sanctuary in the house and there is nowhere else for them to go, slowly, like mice to the pied piper, they’ll come from the cracks and corners, their minds heavy with the syllabic rhythm, their eyes wide with fear, and even if you raise your voice she won’t stop. You can cry for mercy, you can claim their innocuity, tell her they’re just momentary possessions, a little lost time, or light hauntings. She’ll use all her Latin words to hold you in the corner as she sweeps your lesser demons into a pile and douses them with holy water. You’ll watch your children writhe and cry out in agony. Even as they burn she’ll tell you this kind of murder is good, it’s cleansing, it’s saving you with a grace you don’t deserve, and all you can do is stand still and bear the pain, keep everything inside. You don’t want things to leak out and reveal themselves, because your lower-level demons are not what she is truly looking for.
If, after all this, you really want to make her angry, because her wrath is not something you’ve seen yet, ask her what she’s looking for. Watch her face lose its determination, droop and fall into the pile of ash that used to be your children. Watch her gently scoop them up, singed pieces sliding through her fingers, as she tells you a sad story about two orphaned children and their lives of discord. She’ll tell you one looked up for help and the other looked down, that one found her calling in the ministry while the other put herself upon the mercy of those that exploit the lost and abandoned. She’ll tell you things are never as simple as good and bad, but she’ll emphasize that there are lines you don’t cross and creatures to whom you never make blood promises. She’ll open your closet and let the dark things scuttle out to make you feel ashamed. She’ll lift the blanket off your bed to show you the residue of a filthy life. She’ll try to scare you with her tale of choices and consequence, but she won’t open her robes to let you inside her own torment. She won’t show you her scars, the corruption of her skin, the recompense for a life of morality and the war for salvation, but you will see the loneliness and pain that keep her eyes in a perpetual squint, and her own demons that cling to the back of her heels.
She won’t offer you a choice, only decimation and rehabilitation with the saccharine promise of redemption. She’ll tell you that one sister was lost to the fire that consumed from within. She’ll say the sister’s mouth was so full of blood that she couldn’t find the breath to beg for her soul. She’ll tell you of the other sister’s promise, to find the scattered remains to bring rest to her sister’s cursed bones and to show her the peace of redemption. The old hag will sing that heartbreak like a lullaby to get you to feel, to let your eyes saturate and spill like buckets, because this is how her anger works. She seeks to torment you, to force you to remember. Don’t let her manipulate you. You wanted to forget. That’s why you opened yourself up.
When each corner of your home has been sanitized of all life and the demonic kingdom you built is nothing but ash, she’ll ask you a question. Keep your answer vague and don’t let her look into your eyes, those cursed windows, those betrayers of truth, glazed over and full of enough red lightning to bloody a sky. She’ll ask where it is; she’ll have something to match it. A small leather pouch full of phalanges, metatarsals, and a femur, barely scraped of skin. You’ll long to hold them, but don’t reach out. Keep your hands tucked away from the string around your neck where the metacarpal hangs. If you let your hands betray you, then her hunch will be a certainty, and once she knows you have it, you’ll see the full force of her holy order and promise crack through the rags of her robes and wrinkles on her face. It will sear the air around you, igniting the liquid contents of your pockets and creating a paroxysm of fervor that will throw you both to the floor. For a moment you’ll lie in stasis, soaked in the fluid of your broken jars, clutching the bone to your chest like a frightened child. She will collect her singed crosses and pull herself to you, her eyes fixated on the small bone.
You can’t stop it from happening. She’ll put her hand on your face and all you’ll be able to do is beg. Beg her to bury the bone somewhere safe. Beg her not to tell the story of the sisters anymore. Tell her not to look for anymore bones. Supplicate at her feet, and she will pull you up, look into your eyes and say, “I found you again,” and maybe, somewhere deep inside your ailing mind, you will finally know that she is talking to me.
She will tearfully embrace you, her voice soft in your ear with memories and happier times you don’t remember, because her words are meant for me. She’ll say she will continue to look for me, to keep her promise, until every bone is found and blessed. I will endure it, possibly even relish it, until I remember that this absolution is what I don’t deserve, until I taste the familiar blood in your mouth as your newly emboldened body resists my presence and struggles to regain power. She’ll tell me to go gently, not to harm you on the way out. She’ll breathe more promises of forgiveness and absolution as her presence (and your will) burns me out from under your skin. I will make you say the words, “Stop looking for me,” before I depart. The words will make her face crumble into itself, showing how old and decrepit she really is, but she will never stop. When I’m in a new body, with a new bone, just like yours, creating another kingdom of demons and debris to feed from, I’ll really be waiting and hoping for her to destroy it again and again.
When you wake up you will be in a stranger’s arms, comfortable in the embrace of a priestess who looks ragged and afraid. You will have no memory of your life over the last several months. You will look around at your house, rotted and covered in the degradation of a filthy soul, and you will ask for her aid. She will nurse and comfort you, and help you regain your lost life. She’ll give you hope to pull you from that sick scent of despair that led me to you in the first place. Her hands and spirit will work overtime, just as she’s done before, and as she will do again, straight through this life and into the next.
But don’t ask her about the newest bone added to the sack around her neck. She’ll tuck it into her robes to warm with the staggering beat of her weak heart and fierce will. And don’t ask how far she is willing to go to find the rest.
About the Author
Lesley Hart Gunn is a writer and teacher who occasionally likes to play with martial arts weapons. She is a Canadian, currently living in Utah with her partner and 3 children. Her work has appeared in Phantom Drift journal and is upcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction. She loves finding monsters in all aspects of life and can always be found putting her feet into random bodies of water, hoping something will be waiting underneath the surface.
About the Narrator
Autumn Ivy is a voice actor, model, cosplayer, twitch streamer, and jack of all trades. PseudoPod fans may be interested in listening to the stories she’s narrated for The Bone Collector. Go follow the links in the show notes for more of her work.