Part I The Aisle of Unearthing
One Calder was a Fetch, a death escort, and had been since his own death at the age of nineteen. He had been a Fetch for three hundred and thirty years, and so had seen many women in the Death Scenes to which he had been sent. He’d watched women drowning, one with seaweed twisting her gown into a mermaid tail, another in a pond surrounded by lilies that glowed like funeral offerings about her floating hair. He’d seen women lost and broken in ivy- choked woods and in open fields where they lay fallen in the snow, half covered like gravestones. Some died safe in their downy beds, some forgotten in alleys.
He had also seen many women who tended to the dying—this one washing her sister’s face with lilac water, that one praying and weeping with her father. Some had been nursing soldiers, others dreaming beside husbands they did not realize had ceased breathing. For the last three hundred and thirty years Calder had seen thousands upon thousands of mortal women, so he did not understand why, on this day, the sight of this particular woman afflicted him.
On earth it was the winter of 1904. The Death Door had opened onto a nursery, and the dying body was that of a baby boy whose swollen belly was bleeding from the inside. The sight of a dying infant did not shake Calder, for he’d escorted hundreds of them through the Aisle of Unearthing. He had seen babes die alone in their cradles at night, or surrounded by doctors and priests, in dirty huts, in palaces, from cold or from fever, and he had often seen their mothers trying to breathe life back into their small mouths. Calder, like all Fetches, felt sympathy for this pain, but when a human soul—even an infant’s—reaches for its Fetch and slips out of its earthly shell, the cries and shudderings of those left behind are closed on the other side of the Death Door. No mortal terror, sorrow, or anger could ever rattle that portal open again. The Fetch holds the only Key.
So though it was not the first time Calder had seen a beautiful woman, when he first beheld this woman’s halo of reddish-gold hair, he was stung with recognition. And although he had seen many women devoted to their children, when he saw the way this woman held her baby in the nest of her white dress and whispered to him words that were not words but tiny prayers and magic charms, he was mesmerized. She sat, gently rocking in the lamplight, like a ghost singing in a forbidden language. She pulled at Calder’s heart, almost unfurling the stiff pages of his memory--so familiar, but he knew he had never set eyes on her before. Calder tried to remember if this woman looked like anyone he had seen during his nineteen years on earth, but just as the sorrow of the earthbound is shut on the other side of the Death Door, the memories of earth are drawn away from the dying soul. When Calder died and became a Fetch, his old life was eclipsed by his new one—he could remember being human in a distant way, like viewing a painting on a wall through an open door one room removed. Whether the picture of a Fetch’s past life was heavenly or hellish, it appeared serene and remained motionless. Calder’s own painting of his human life was a rich and shadowed thing, deep with color and detail but as still as any canvas mounted on a wall. Before a theatrical arch, under the warm glow of a paper lantern, with his audience of gentlefolk standing or reclining about him, Calder played an ornate drum and sang so sweetly that everyone stopped to listen. At his feet lay a fur cloak, perhaps a gift from his noble patron. What songs he sang and the name of his benefactor were distant to him now in both time and interest. But sometimes as he traversed the Aisle and heard the pulse of music in the Theatre or Feast of the soul in his charge, he would almost recall some snippet of tune or line of poetry that had been known to him on earth. A note that leapt up and hovered, a simple lyric of love unrequited. The memory would flare, then fade before he could repeat it. When this happened, Calder wondered if under this perfect picture of his human life there might not be another painting hiding in pentimento, its darker and forgotten shapes waiting to be drawn to the surface.
Calder tried now to recall women he had known on earth, but he could not remember any sisters or his mother. He imagined what the women might have looked like, those that listened to him sing. Graceful ladies in satin and pearls, nodding with admiration. But none of the feminine visions he could conjure brought him joy like this woman in white. Calder stood still so as not to disturb her, though he couldn’t be seen or heard by most mortals. She must have been the nurseery maid or governess, for she was wearing a simple cotton dress with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, in contrast to the room, which was riiiiichly dressed with brocade curtains, cushioned chairs, and a brass crib filled with lace bedding. Perhaps the baby was only her charge, but it was clear that she loved him as though he was the only child on earth. Calder studied her delicate fingers as she cupped the baby’s head and lifted him to her lips. He watched her heartbeat tap an almost invisible rhythm at her throat. He felt despair pulsing through her, but only the slightest trembling was visible in her shoulders. She was calling all her strength to the task; Calder could feel it as distinctly as he felt his own tremors; she was trying to still her nerves and calm her breathing so that the dying child would sense no fear. Calder watched with a confounding sense of loss. And this was when he did something he had never done before in all his years as a Fetch.
He hoped the child would live. Calder, like all Fetches, was supposed to be indifferent to the outcomes of Death Scenes, and usually that came naturally. Some souls chose to cross over; others chose to stay. And it was not always the sickest who chose death or the one with the slightest wound who chose life. A Fetch was to respect this choice without question and without judgment. Calder had never wished to stop a Death, but when a Death Scene held a single mourner, one human left alone with no relative or friend as comfort, Calder felt an instinct to stay with him, though, of course, he could not.
As Calder gazed down on these two mortals, he could hear men’s voices coming from the corridor—hushed, apprehensive whispers—perhaps doctors, perhaps holy men. This family could afford the best physicians, but some hurts cannot be healed. A gentleman, with dark whiskers and fine clothes, came to stand in the nursery doorway. A woman peered over his shoulder. These were the baby’s parents, perhaps. Calder paid little attention to them, for he was reluctant to turn away from the governess since he would have so little time with her. He knew a good Fetch would not stare this way at a human, but he could not help himself.
Moments later the father and mother had gone, but a child appeared in their place—a girl of no more than four, peeking around the door frame. Calder had no intention of looking at the girl, but she had a strong presence, like a bit of mirror-reflected light flashing in the corner of his vision. Her hair was as reddish-blond as that of the governess, but her face was not angelic—she was like a storybook elf, with pointed chin, a short, round nose, and curious eyes beneath brows arched in a kind of challenge. Calder suspected she was lonely since her governess needed to spend so much time with her baby brother. The girl watched the governess for a moment, then turned to Calder and set her tiny fists on her hips. He regarded her, unruffled. Though Fetches were invisible to most adult humans, very young children could often see them—some animals could, as well. But since the children able