I was looking for the haunting xidachene of my sister Sonalie when I heard faint laughter among the high stacked stone tombs. I turned a corner to discover a surprising terrace: the ruins of an old rail yard that had once given entrance to gardens, before they became overwhelmed by the dead. Among the weeds and rusted tracks was a strange rug house. Sunlight brought out old colors in the bare patches of tough weft and in the fraying edges of the roof. The soft, colorful glory for years of trodding feet now served as a ceiling.
More laughter and giggles and the edge of the rug lifted. Two small faces stared at me, a well-dressed stranger, though not much richer than they. They grew still, but fear was gone from their eyes, leached out by their surroundings.
“Hello,” I said.
The children let the rug fall back over the table legs. The table, too, was upside down, giving an edge against both damp ground and the heavy rains that had just left us.
The brief view inside revealed three narrow beds in that strange house. They were all in one big pile, but there were three different worn blankets—red, blue, green—so, I assumed, that the occupants might have their own sense of place. I almost envied them, since I was wearing my sister’s clothes, working at her old job, haunted by her xidachene. I’d grown up in a slum for servants, in a city where the destitute used stone tombs for homes, or a mausoleum if they were lucky.
This was a very poor house. This little rug house made of cast-off furniture would be no protection from the rain. Rain had not washed away the smell of cat urine, surprising to smell in a place that stank of death and refuse.
Silence from the rug house slowly turned into whispers, rising to talk and more giggles as I made my way past. A gaunt woman in ragged robes walked towards me. Her gaze was vacant—like the ghosts I expected to see.
That’s me, I thought, for a moment, Dying from the curse of my beloved, dead sister.
A burst of bright laughter from the rug house and the woman’s gaunt face transformed it from dying to alive. I had not that peace.
I should not have come in the day. The only dead I could see were safely in their tombs. The noise of the living, including the tinny sound of an ancient sing-song machine, would have driven them away even without the strings of lights that would no doubt be lit up at sunset. I found only the living, paid to pay respect to the dead their families had no time for. It was probably safer than the shanty towns by the river, where the landlords kept tenants in debt, and the flooding took the rest away.
This place could use a rising river to take away the filth piled between the isles of the tombs. Even the residents refused to walk through their own trash, building rickety, one-plank bridges from one rising row of stacked tombs to another. As I walked along the edge of one stack of tombs, six or more tombs high—I could not tell with the years of refuse piled below—I heard noises of yet more music and watched a family eat a meal over one lone tomb, sitting around it as if a tomb was better table than one that had become a floor and walls to a rug house. Ancient tombs, cracked open by time, had been swept clean of ash and dust and dead, and turned into storage, or cramped bedrooms.
A frail, old woman walked past me. With swollen joints crabbing her fingers she knocked on a tomb with a near passive gesture of acknowledgement. I was sure it was something she was paid to do, and had lost all meaning, but then she spoke to the dead as if to a friend and neighbor. I caught my breath, wondering if she could see the person whose grave she tended.
It did not matter. I did not see any xidachene, even my sister Sonalie. I had not yet found her tomb. I felt weakened by her loss, something beyond grief. Someday soon I would be like her. Soulless, dead, and still a servant—a slave to a tormentor’s whim.
I went back to my home, the rooms I had inherited from her—along with her noisy roommates—when I was old enough to scrub floors of the temple and had inherited her job. I bathed off the stink of the cemetery, wrapped myself in the many layers required by my role, and made my way to work. I did not have to walk far. The building I lived in was a block away from the back of the great temple that I cleaned.
The main hall was gleaming. I tended it anyway.
White marble floors and pillars lifted arches to a gilt ceiling. Rows and rows of pillars with hints of red accents in their carved designs all echoed an ancient queen giving the undead life or death.
The temple was empty between times of prayer, and so I could take the time to clean one row of pillars each day. When the row gleamed brighter than before, I put away my ladder and then went to work on cleaning the morning’s foot prints from the floor. I scrubbed a patterned border by the dais with its red stylized footprints of ancient queen and daughter. I polished them until they gleamed like rubies in the white.
I sat up on my heels and looked to see an underpriest standing near.
“Yes?” I asked.
“You clean the floor as if praying,” Timez said with a smile.
I did not smile back, but said, “If I do, then it is only for the good that I pray.”
“I commend you,” he said, looking down at me. He paused a moment. “If you desire, you can sit in the nun’s alcove and hear the prayers this evening.”
I looked at the red screen to the side of the grand hall. I thought of the rumors. Had my sister seen the inside of that sanctum? How often? Once women had ruled this country, but now if women came to worship they were hidden from view. Few women, if any, came in the afternoons, however. They must prepare the evening meal.
I would be alone there.
“Thank you for the honor,” I said. I looked down at my bucket and my pruned, red hands. “I must go home as soon as I am done.”
“A pity. Another time?”
I nodded. “Yes. Perhaps I would find it interesting to hear your prayers.”
He was new, so my sister could not have known him. I wondered if he knew how often older priests invited the women servants into the old nun’s hall. Thus far, I only had the proof of rumors and whispers of older women who could have used the sound of children’s laughter—in a graveyard or otherwise. All echoed the whispered truths of how my sister had died, and why.
“Lord Khapan is to say them,” he said. “It is a rare service. If you can stay, we would not be disturbed there.”
I took a deep breath. It seemed the rumors must be true.
I shook my head, looking at the bucket of soiled water by my knees. “Forgive me, but my duty lies elsewhere tonight.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. “Do not reject an opportunity that might do you some good, Gazev.” His hand was light. “You work hard for the pleasure of others. Come to hear the prayers.”
“I am sorry, but I am obligated tonight,” I said, looking up at him.
Haphed, an overpriest, walked towards us. Leering. Timez, seeing the man’s face, took his hand off my shoulder as if burnt. His face flamed.
“Forgive me,” he said, and turned. His robes snapped as he stalked away.
I contemplated his retreating back. Perhaps I would like to hear his prayers, after all. Haphed leered at me until he was past. I do not know why. He’d said to me once, “You are not as pretty as your sister, but I guess we only need you to clean the floor.” He’d also said something about not needing to see my face.
I went home, took off my clothes, including that which wrapped my hair, and much of my head. It was a wonder to me that a holy man like Haphed might see a woman under all those formless layers—even one less pretty than my beautiful sister, Sonalie, whose name echoed that of a royal daughter, and with beauty to match.
Earlier I’d bathed to take off the stench of rotting refuse in the land of the dead and those that lived with them. Now I bathed to remove the weight of men’s eyes. Even alone, feeling the burden of shame—my own, and my sister’s—I covered myself with my hands, as I stepped into my bath. I shrank under the gaze of the elder priest. It lingered. I’d known of his gaze long before I worked at the temple, hinted at, whispered about at her death.
I’d inherited her rooms, her work, and the years of their gaze upon her beautiful, bent shoulders. My parents might have prevented me, but what else do servants do?
Once clean, I put on dark clothes. My sister’s roommates were cooking, talking, and not watching the bright colors of the movie box one of them had been given. Apparently they had no other plans for their night. I climbed up to the roof above my room to escape the cacophony. I was not allowed here, but I could not bear the noise they made. I pulled out my hidden prayer matt and cushion. I had sat here for years, watching the sunset to meditate and pray while many feet brought dirt onto floors I’d just cleaned.
I’d only recently noticed those living beyond the edge of the city in the graveyards. I could see them from here. Surrounding and intermingled trees hid much of the ancient stone tombs from view during the day. Their work fires and lights came alive with the stars that grew bright in the growing dark.
I prayed, hearing the echoes of prayers from the temple behind me, and then climbed back down to my rooms. I donned my dark veils and went back out into the night, escaping the teasing of the two women who shared the space. Their rooms, clothes, and interests felt garish to me. I’d long since learned how they’d embraced that uneven attention that had tormented my sister to death. They believed these gaudy gifts were proof of attention, not treats to the servants so they’d behave. For a brief moment I felt Timez’s smooth hand on my shoulder as I knelt before him looking at my hands rough from scrubbing.
I did not care what they thought. They assumed assignation. I only thought that perhaps this time I would see what I had not during the day when the living crowded out the dead in their own homes. If I returned, as I had been doing whenever I could, eventually I might find the tomb of my sister.
Years past, when Sonalie would visit and stay the night, she’d told me that the xidachene came out at night. They were trapped souls. These souls did not walk the cities or jungles, as the lore once said. They were people with teeth red from the blood and brains of those they’d killed to protect their graves.
There was no jungle here, now, but a city. The ancient graveyard was not overcome with jungle growth and vine, but by people with their strings of half broken lights and screeching music that rivaled the screeches and howls no longer heard here. Tinny tunes, broken songs, movies half seen with white noise garbling the filmed features, sounds of dry, tired humping—the living engaging in life.
With the burdens of my sister’s death I could see what time had turned zombie people into: ghosts hiding from light and people’s pretense. I still hoped I would see her, finally, feeding on me, slowly draining my soul because no old woman knocked on her tomb to say, “Hello! We remember you.” Even if the woman couldn’t remember the dead person’s name. Sonalie. Or even, perhaps, Gazev. Me.
However, none of the xidachene dead that I could see, or sense, seemed to feed on the living. Perhaps because these living gave the only acknowledgement of their past, scant and cursory as it often must be.
I did not know where my sister was entombed. How could I tell her, if I never found her tomb, that I remembered her? I did not want to carry the burden of her curse. I still loved her.
There weren’t as many soulless dead here as I had expected. I thought there would be more xidachene. Not finding my sister, as I’d hoped, I wandered back to the city.
Not wanting to go home to noise and talk that would last till the wee hours of the morning—past the point of my exhaustion—I walked. My feet found their way to where I worked every day. I found myself in the temple, empty of prayers and people.
It was quiet. Moon and clouds turned the white floors into shifting silver like the ocean. Without my sponge or broom, I felt too exposed in this great hall. I went to the nuns’ rooms. The weak light still gleamed through the red, painted lattice into the gloom of the room. I could make out the benches rising along the tiers that allowed women to pray and see the priests’ raised pulpit below. I went to the back where I could kneel and bow without a sponge to scrub the floor, only my prayers.
I looked up at a sound like a sigh. There she was. Sonalie. The xidachene that was slowly killing me. I trembled, because now in a sudden glow of unhidden moon, I could see the dead wandering the temple hall below, as well as in this room. There were more here than in the graveyard.
“Sister,” I said.
She looked at me, silent.
As if moving through eons, or the vast distance between dead and living, she spoke, “Why did you come?”
“I could not find your grave.”
“I did not die there.”
I looked around the room. “You did not die here.” I knew that much. They had not told me much; I had been so young. I did know that.
“They took my body away here, and then punished me for it.”
“It does not matter. In one blow, trying to take my life and body into my own hands, I joined them in my torment.”
That blow, I knew, had been her death.
In the moonlight, she was gaunt, and rotting, as if eaten from within. Her teeth were not red, like legends say. And I knew I’d been wrong. She was cursed I could see, and I was dying as well, but she was not feeding on me. I wanted to ask her why I was dying.
Other xidachene wandered around this gallery and the hall below. They moaned and whispered with papery sounds. Then I heard a mockery of prayer from the raised pulpit in the hall. A strange sound that made the hair on my arms raise as it scraped over the prayers.
“He is tormented by being a servant to the wrong gods—not the ones he said his words to to obey—and only just good enough to be pained that he joined his tormentors and became one. He eats, like they did, upon his own flesh and soul, and is tortured more because of his pride for feasting upon mine.”
Guilt, apparently, in the afterlife. However, her words disturbed me. I knew that this man—and probably others—had not been cannibals. They had fed upon her all the same, using her body as they used those of my roommates. I wondered if she’d killed him. There were rumors about this as well.
I looked at my sister, consumed from within. Guilt was not less ravaging than shame.
A sound came into the hall, and the strange tones of the xidachene priest were stilled. All the shuffling movement and moans of the dead faded. Sonalie and I walked to the lattice.
Timez prayed in the hall. He did not take the stairs up to the pulpit, so he could be better heard. Who was there to hear him, but the Divine? The ancient queen? No one, but me. And the xidachene. He did not know this. He merely came, at night, to pray. He did not see or sense the dead that slowly encircled him, unable to keep away from the bright tones of his words. I felt the draw as well, my hands gripping the lattice until it bit into my hands.
We were in the queen’s ancient temple, in a room that honored her past as a woman of faith, a queen who had saved the dead from endless dying. We listened to a man’s honest prayers.
A xidachene touched Timez’s shoulder. It was so old, I could not tell if it was a man or woman. Something in the face was familiar, an echo of a dead look. I remembered the woman walking to a rug house, and the sound of children’s laughter in a cemetery. A place where a woman’s living deadness could transform with sparkling laughter.
The xidachene’s voice joined that of the young underpriest, his hand so light upon Timez’s shoulder. I could hear its hollow voice echo the prayers.
Sonalie said, “He is dead, and undead. I am dead, and undead, denied my own body, and trapped inside it. As I lived, so am I now, dead, and dying. Always dying.”
The xidachene’s face transformed with the prayers. Then he disappeared.
“It’s not as simple as that,” Sonalie said.
I asked my sister, “Can’t you save yourself? Find a final freedom? As he did?”
She shook her head. “That is only a choice of the living.”
I knew that she was indeed cursed, then—and would be for as long as she held onto the sense of shame that had killed her and consumed her in death.
She turned to me. “I can save you. You must choose, now. Before it is too late. You already carry burdens that are not your own,” she said. “You must give them back to me.”
“They are the last of you!” I said, realizing I no longer wanted to let her go. I wanted to keep these deadly burdens for her. The terrible pain and shame she’d carried, that I’d put upon my own shoulders as well; taking her job and seeing what it had done to her, and was trying to do to me.
She reached for me, grabbing hold of what I could not see. She looked at what she held, and then nodded. “Yes, I see. It is not only me you cling to; they begin to watch you now. Let me go to feed upon my past, and ask you: Who owns your body? And like those two different priests down there, who owns your soul?”
Timez’s prayers filled the grand hall like the moonlight, making the marble and gilding gleam and deepening the lines of carved reliefs. My fingers interlaced the wooden lattice, and I watched my sister, and one by one all the tormented xidachene fade from view.
The bright sounds of one man’s prayers filled the space.
And then my voice joined in.
In prayers to the Divine, and an ancient Red Queen, I gave up the burdens of my shame, and that of my sister’s. I could feel the joy of bright laughter that filled the space. That of the living, and that of the dying now alive. Maybe that of the dying now dead.
It was not as simple as that, I knew, but still…
“Be at peace, good soul,” I said.