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Our Story Begins on a Frosty Night
Infant snow drifted down in gentle whorls, flakes as large as pancakes glinting silver as they fell. Shaggy trees wore white leaves and moonlight glimmered across a glassy lake. The night was soft and all was slow and snow had hushed the earth into a deep, sound slumber and oh, winter was fast approaching.
For the town of Whichwood, winter was a welcome distraction; they thrived in the cold and delighted in the ice (the very first snowfall was terribly nice), and they were well equipped with food and festivities to keep toasty throughout the season. Yalda, the biggest celebration, was the winter solstice, and the land of Whichwood was electric with anticipation. Whichwood was a distinctly magical village, and Yalda—the town’s most important holiday—was a very densely magical evening. Yalda was the last night of fall and the longest night of the year; it was a time of gift-giving and tea-drinking and endless feasting—and it was a great deal more than that, too. We’re a bit pressed for minutes at the moment (something strange is soon to happen and I can’t be distracted when it does), so we’ll discuss the finer details at a later time. For now, know this: Every new snowfall arrived with a foot of fresh excitement, and with only two days left till winter, the people of Whichwood could scarcely contain their joy.
With a single notable exception.
There was only one person in Whichwood who never partook in the town merriment. Only one person who drew closed her curtains and cursed the song and dance of a magical evening. And she was a very strange person indeed.
Laylee hated the cold.
At thirteen years old, she’d long lost that precious, relentless optimism reserved almost exclusively for young people. She’d no sense of whimsy, no interest in decadence, no tolerance for niceties. No, Laylee hated the frost and she hated the fuss and she resented not only this holiday season, but even those who loved it. (To be fair, Laylee resented many things—not the least of which was her lot in life—but winter was the thing she resented perhaps most of all.)
Come sleet or snow, she alone was forced to work long hours in the cold, her kneecaps icing over as she dragged dead bodies into a large porcelain tub in her backyard. She’d scrub limp necks and broken legs and dirty fingernails until her own fingers froze solid, and then she’d hang those dead, dragging limbs up to dry—only to later return and break icicles off corpse chins and noses. Laylee had no holidays, no vacations, not even a set schedule. She worked when her customers came calling, which meant very soon she’d be worked to the bone. Winter in Whichwood, you see, was a very popular season for dying.
Tonight, Laylee was found frowning (her expression of choice), irritated (perhaps more than usual), bundled (to the point of asphyxiation), and stubbornly determined to catch a few snowflakes before dinner. Fresh flakes were the thickest and the crispest, and a rare treat if you were quick enough to catch a few.
If I may: I know it seems a strange idea, eating snowflakes for dinner, but you have to understand—Laylee Layla Fenjoon was a very strange girl, and despite (or perhaps because of) the oddness of her occupation, she was in desperate need of a treat. She’d had to wash nine very large, thoroughly rotted persons today—this was four more than usual—and it had been very hard on her. Indeed, she often caught herself dreaming of a life where her family didn’t run a laundering business for the deceased.
Well, I say family, but it was really just Laylee doing all the washing. Maman had died two years prior (a cockroach had fallen in the samovar and Maman, unwittingly, drank the tea; it was all very tragic), but Laylee was not afforded the opportunity to grieve. Most ghosts moved on after a good scrubbing, you see, but Maman’s had lingered, floating about the halls and criticizing Laylee’s best work even when she was sleeping. Baba, too, was entirely absent, as he’d been gone just as long as Maman had been dead. Devastated by the loss of his wife, he’d set off on an impulsive journey not two days after Maman died, determined to find Death and give him a firm talking-to about his recent choices.
Sadly, Death was nowhere to be found.
Worse, grief had so thoroughly crippled Baba’s mind that, despite his two-year absence, thus far he’d managed to travel only as far as the city center. In his heartbreak he’d lost not only his way, but his good sense, too. Baba’s brain had rearranged, and in the madness and chaos of loss, no room remained for his only child. Laylee was collateral damage in a war on grief, and Baba, who had no hope of winning such a war, haplessly succumbed to this opiate of oblivion. Laylee would often pass her disoriented father on her sojourns into town, pat his shoulder in a show of support, and tuck a pomegranate into his pocket.
More on that later.
For now, let us focus: It was a cold, lonely night, and Laylee had just collected the last of her dinner when a sudden sound froze her still. Two loud thumps, a branch snap, a dull thud, the unmistakable intake of air and a sudden rush of angry whispers—
No, there was no denying it: There were trespassers here.
Now, this would have been an alarming revelation for any normal person, but as Laylee was a distinctly abnormal person, she remained unperturbed. She was, however, perplexed. The thing was, no persons ever came here, and heaven help them if they did; stumbling upon a shed of swollen, rotting corpses had never done any person any good. It was for this reason that Laylee and her family lived in relative isolation. They had taken up residence in a small, drafty castle on a little peninsula on the outer edge of town in an informal sort of exile; it was an unkindness Laylee and her family had not earned, but then, no one wanted to live next door to the girl with such an unfortunate occupation.
In any case, Laylee was entirely unaccustomed to hearing human voices so close to home, and it made her suspicious. Her head high and alert, Laylee stacked her snowflakes into an ornate silver dinnerbox—an old family heirloom—and tiptoed out of sight.
Laylee wasn’t a child oft bothered by the fuss and furor of fear; no, she dealt with death every day, and so the unknowns that startled most had little effect on a person who could talk to ghosts. (This last bit was a secret, of course—Laylee knew better than to tell her townspeople that she could see and speak with the spirits of their loved ones; she had no interest in being asked to do more work than was already stacked in her shed.) So as she trod cautiously back toward the modest castle that was her home, she felt not fear, but a tickle of curiosity, and as the feeling warmed itself inside her heart, she blinked, grateful and surprised to feel a smile spreading across her face.
Maman was hovering in the entryway as Laylee pulled open the heavy wooden door and, just as the ghost-mother prepared to shout about one new grievance or another, a sudden gust of wind slammed shut the door behind them, causing Laylee to jolt against her will. She closed her eyes and exhaled sharply, her hands still closed around her silver box.
“Where have you been?” Maman demanded, zipping around Laylee’s ears. “Don’t you care at all about my feelings? You know how lonely I get, locked up here all by myself—”
(Right, yes, this was another thing: Maman would haunt their home and nowhere else—not because she couldn’t, but because she wouldn’t. She was a very doting parent.)
Laylee ignored Maman. Presently, she untied an ancient, floral, excessively fringed scarf from around her head and unbuttoned the toggles of her fur-lined winter cloak, hanging both to dry by the front door. The fur was a gift from a fox who’d saved his summer sheddings for her, and tonight Laylee had been especially grateful for the extra warmth.
“—no one to talk to,” Maman was wailing, “no one to sympathize with my plight—”
Laylee used to be more sympathetic to Maman’s plights, but she’d learned the hard way that this ghost was but an echo of her real mother. Maman had been a vibrant, interesting woman, but the gauzy iteration flitting past our heroine’s head had little personality and even less charm. Ghosts, it turned out, were excessively insecure creatures, offended by every imagined slight; they required constant coddling and found comfort only in their romantic musings on death—which, as you might imagine, made them miserable companions.
Maman had settled into a dramatic soliloquy—taking care to describe the monotony of her day in great detail—as Laylee took a seat at the kitchen table. She didn’t bother lighting a lamp, as there weren’t any lamps to be lit. She’d been on her own for two years now, fending for herself and footing the bills, but no matter how hard Laylee worked, it was never enough to bring her home back to life. Laylee had one gift: She had a magical talent that enabled her (and those of her -bloodline—she’d inherited the gene from Baba) to wash and package the dead destined for the Otherwhere, but such heavy work was never meant to be carried out by a single person—and certainly not by one so young. Despite her best efforts, Laylee’s body was slowly deteriorating; and the longer her small person dealt in the decomposition of life, the weaker she became.
Laylee didn’t have the time to be a vain girl, but if she’d ever spent more than a few minutes in front of a mirror she might have blossomed into a fine narcissist. In fact, had her parents been around to encourage her ego, she might well have lost the whole of her mind. It was lucky for Laylee, then, that she had neither mother nor mirror to fill her head with nonsense, for a closer inspection of her reflected self would have revealed a girl of unusual beauty. She was of slim, sturdy build, with long, elegant limbs; but it was her eyes—soft and doll-like—that set her apart. One look at our young friend was enough to flutter the hearts of those who met her, but it was that second glance that awakened their fear. Let us be clear: Laylee’s looks did not inspire admirers. She was not a girl to be trifled with, and her beauty was to her as inconsequential as those who revered it. She was born beautiful, you see; her face was a gift she could not shed.
At least, not yet.
The work she did was taking its toll, and she could no longer ignore the changes in her reflection. Though her chestnut locks had once been lustrous and robust, they’d now begun to fade: Laylee was going silver from the ends upward, and her eyes—which had once been a deep, rich amber—had gone a glassy gray. Thus far, only her skin had been spared; even so, her newly flinty eyes against the deep bronze of her skin made her seem moon-like, alien, and perpetually sad. But Laylee had little patience for sadness, and though deep down she felt a great deal of pain, she much preferred to be angry.
And so she was, for the most part, an irritable, unkind, angry girl, with little pleasantness to distract her from the constant death demanding her attention. Tonight, she swept a defeated glance around the many rooms of her drafty home and promised herself that one day she would do well enough to repair the broken windows, mend the torn draperies, replace the missing torches, and reinvigorate the faded walls.
Though she worked hard every day, Laylee was seldom paid for the work she did. The magic that ran through her veins made it so she was bound by blood to be a mordeshoor, and when the dead were delivered to her door, she had no choice but to add them to the pile. The people of Whichwood knew this and too often took advantage of her, sometimes paying very little, and sometimes not at all. But one day, she swore, she’d breathe light and color back into the dimness that had diminished her life.
Maman was darting in and out of her daughter’s face again, unhappy to be so soundly ignored. Laylee swatted at Maman’s insubstantial figure, her face pulled together in dismay. The daughter ducked twice and eventually gave up, carrying her dinner into the sparsely furnished living room and, once newly settled onto the softest part of the threadbare rug, Laylee cracked open the dinnerbox. The room was lit only by moonlight, but the distant orb would have to do. Laylee dropped her chin in one hand, crunched quietly on a snowflake the size of her face, and thought wistfully of the days she used to spend with children her own age. It had been a long time since Laylee had been to school, and she missed it sometimes. But school was a thing of luxury; it was meant for children with working parents and domestic stability—and Laylee could no longer pretend to have either.
She bit into another snowflake.
The first fresh flakes of the season were made entirely of sugar—this was a magic specific to Whichwood—and though Laylee knew she should eat something healthier, she simply didn’t care. Tonight she wanted to relax. So she ate all five flakes in one sitting and felt very, very good about it.
Maman, meanwhile, had just concluded her monologue and was now moving on to more pressing issues (the general state of the house, the more specific mess in the kitchen, the dusty hallways, her daughter’s damaged hair and callused hands) when Laylee retreated upstairs. This was Maman’s daily routine, and Laylee was struggling to be patient about it. She’d stopped responding to Maman long ago—which helped a bit—but it also meant that sometimes several days would pass before Laylee would speak a single word, and the loneliness was beginning to scar. Laylee hadn’t always been such a silent child, but the more anger and resentment welled up inside of her, the less she dared to say.
She was a girl who rarely spoke for fear of spontaneously combusting.