Just after completing her training and passing her deadhandler's exams, Cassie was awarded her certificate. "You've passed," he said.
At hearing this she looked up at her mentor and smiled timidly at him. He returned a grim smile, showing several blackened teeth. She shivered, as she often did when he looked at her directly.
The windowless room had been the site of many hours of practice draining and impromptu cleanup exercises, necessitated by the various states of the dead and, unfortunately, the time of year. In winter she could maintain a clean, presentable room, all the way down to the copper floor drain, but when the heat of Kansas summer wafted in, the floor would become alternately sticky and slippery with various liquids. She prided herself in a clean workspace. As to the smell of the place, it didn't bother her. She rather enjoyed it, in fact.
On her way home from the Salina Mortuary, Cassie never passed by the graveyard without slowing down to read as many headstones as she could. It was an old habit, looking for names she knew, people she'd worked on. Lost loves.
She'd chosen her path, and she wondered if her work with the dead meant she'd get some kind of reward in the afterlife, like a prophet or something. Not likely, she decided, but when she finally went to join them, she was determined not to be accused of Weirding. That could keep a soul betweened for millennia, or so it went.
Weirding, she thought, trying to remember when first she'd heard it. Probably just before the Depression, at the beginning of her training. The demand in her business never stopped, never varied much. Folks died, and that's just what they did. Mostly old, but some young. She loved working on the young because they stayed together. A family wanted their boy propped up in the casket, she could build him up on a wooden frame, and he'd stay put. An old lady, she slid down, collapsed like a burlap sack of corn meal. No matter the body, she loved the challenge and alone time with the dead. But not Weirding, never that.
The old man, Feathers, presented the certificate to her with the practiced dignification of a familiar ceremony.
"Master," she said, looking down at the piece of thick paper, "why isn't my certificate signed?"
"Because, my dear," he said, "you haven't completed the Oath of Weirding. If you like, we can do it right now."
She pursed her lips and busied herself scrubbing the blood from a metal forceps, not ready for this unexpected bit of testing.
Feathers sighed, pulled his overcoat off his back, and hung it on a hook near the door. He fished around in one of the pockets, then turned back to face her. The candle jumped and flashed, projecting dark, dancing shadows on the far wall. A glint from the old man's glasses reminded her to light another candle, which she did and placed it on the table next to the cool body of a dead young man. He set a small block of wood down on the table, and held a knife in his other hand, which he wiped with a damp cloth.
"Okay, let's take this oath," she said. "But what's the wood block for?" Wind outside rattled the old windows. She felt a draft coming through the baseboards, which stirred up the stagnant air.
Feathers frowned at her, split the wood block open to remove a small glass vial, and held up the knife. "Give me your hand." He breathed out through his mouth, and she turned her head to the side.
The living smell so much worse than the dead, she thought. She reached out her hand. He squeezed her wrist and pulled her arm hard. She lost balance and nearly fell into him, but he wrapped his powerful arm around her and shouted at her, "Stay still!"
He slit her finger, caught some of her blood in the glass vial, then dripped it onto the corner of the certificate.
"We shall hereby decree, respect for the dead must come above all carnal impulse, bribery, and convenience. To this, can you agree?" he said, setting the blood-vial down on the table. She felt a strange sense of confusion at his words, and wanted him to leave, But she needed that signed certificate.
The work was steady, especially given the outbreak, and Cassie found herself at ease around the deceased. Now, with abundant competition in town and a windfall of corpses, she began to consider her opportunities. Three mortuaries had popped up over the past few months, and rumors of her skills as an undertaker bounced around like tumbleweeds. Winter stripped the town of its charm, and the winds blew hope away and out into the prairie. Townsfolk moped about or stayed indoors, warming their hands to cookstoves.
She licked the cut on her finger, not looking into his eyes. "I agree."
"Very good. Further, in keeping of this Oath of Weirding, you hereby assert that no parts of the deceased shall be removed unless absolutely necessary or requested by kin." He put the knife down, wiped his hands absently on a linen cloth.
"Yes, I agree." She felt the fire of guilt, and tried to put out of her mind the things she'd done.
"In the Oath of Weirding, you must hereby agree that you shall never deface the bodies of the deceased, nor shall you look upon the lifeless faces in adoration." Feathers shifted his weight, waited for her response. After a time, he repeated himself, "You must hereby agree."
"Yes." She clenched her jaw, just wanted him to sign and leave her to her work. Sweat gathered on her forehead, and she felt something shift in the way the old man looked at her, finally making eye contact. His eyebrows lowered and he didn't blink.
"To this Oath, you must agree. Please say 'I agree.'"
"I agree," she lied.
"Congratulations my dear." He reached for the pen and formed his elaborate signature, overlapping the blood he'd dripped onto the paper. She sighed, but not too forcefully. A weight came off her as he walked out, and she latched the door behind him.
Cassie went back to the young man on the table, and put her hands on his cheeks. Lifeless blue eyes stared out at the ceiling. She tilted her head to one side and stroked his forehead with the backs of her fingers, humming a baroque.In that room only one of them breathed, but when she parted his cold, clammy lips with her tongue, she joined him, if only for a moment.
BIO: Rob Essley is an aspiring fiction writer originally from Wyoming, now living in a forest near Atlanta. He loves to keep it weird. His writing has been published at www.fiction365.com, and you can read much more at www.robessley.com.