art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
The Suicide Witch
by Vylar Kaftan
The suicide witch crushes glass in her leather gloves. Shards crumble like crackers over soup, filling her metal bucket. The witch's fingers squeak together in the damp cellar air. Glitter escapes over the worktable's edge, like white stars vanishing in the low torchlight. A peasant girl lies dead on a funeral board, her dress nailed to the wood in thirteen places.
The witch's name is Yim, but none call her that. She lives under the noble house of Jiang in the province of Kung-lao, in a cellar with puddles like rice paddies. In the summer, fat flies buzz around her face until she swats them down. In the winter, her knees ache, and she coughs in the dampness as if she were an old hag. But Yim's ragged hair is black without silver, and her face shows no lines. She can still see in the dark.
The witch unbraids the girl's hair and trims it around her face, leaving it long in back. She mixes kurao gum with water and rubs it into the hair. Creamy glue coats the locks, tinting them from black to charcoal. The poor girl wears no earrings, so the witch mutters a short verse for her and touches her earlobes. When Yim dies, she will have no earrings either, which is why she gives the peasants this attention. She is gentle with those of no fortune; the wealthy earn her hate.
A breeze comes through the window, bringing cherry-blossom scent over the glue's stink. The witch snorts. The Jiang house stands on a hill, and her window overlooks the town plaza where she can see dances and fireworks. Sometimes, like now, she remembers street life as a girl--in the days before the family purchased her, before she learned her arts from their previous witch. She was eleven then. She remembers playing in springtime mud and dancing to her mother's bamboo flute songs. She remembers rain falling on her hair.
But the streets held hunger and fever, and these memories crush the blossom scent. Yim coughs and dips her hands in the glue. She applies another layer, transforming the charcoal locks to off-white--the hair of a wailing widow at her husband's grave. The hair is ready. Yim shapes protective swirls and characters into the locks--combing, twisting, knotting. As the glue slowly dries to sticky gum, she adds pea-sized glass marbles; these she places at the contact points where an ancestor might reach from the Endless Winter.
Most dead can be buried in peace, marked by fancy pillars or pauper's rocks, with only minimal brushing and dried flowers at their ears. Yim makes decorations for burying the natural dead, when she's not dressing a suicide. But suicides require special care. Their hair attracts the ancestors, who remember it from the world of the living. The suicide's hair must be tangled to foil the ghosts. Otherwise the ghosts will grab the hair's ends and thread their way to the source--and thus the walking dead are born. Suicides draw angry ancestors; marbles placate them.
At her door the bolt moves. She glances up. Her guardians never unbolt the door; they fear ghosts live inside. Yim spits a long slimy trail from her lungs. A tall soldier steps inside, sharp in his green uniform, his broad shoulders marked with the Emperor's gold braids. Three rings pierce his left ear. His black goatee is warrior-short. The soldier peers at her over his nose, disgust on his face.
Yim wipes her mouth on her sleeve. She knows this man. Jiang Kai-hu, second son of the duke. She's seen him outside ordering his army. Once he told his men to burn a peasant's home and killed three for disobeying. Yim turns away from the soldier, because she is working. She curls white strands into a spiral over the girl's neck. Her glue is drying, and peasants deserve the same care as nobles. She adds a marble and twists hair around it.
Kai-hu watches her work in silence. As she gathers a handful of glass powder, the soldier barks, "Witch. Greet me."
She scatters glass into the hair. Snowy ridges appear along the knotted patterns. "I know no formal greetings."
"Address me as Your Excellency."
"Yes, Your Excellency," she echoes, curling the final lock over the girl's breast.
He narrows his eyes and steps closer to the worktable. He comes to Yim's side and waits. She wishes he'd go away. She's almost alone again--just the heavy sound of her breath and the silent chill of her workroom. She straightens her patterns and smoothes flyaway hairs. Finished.
Kai-hu says quietly, "Your work is masterful, despite your manners."
The witch shoots him a look. She dunks her gloves in stale liquor and wipes them on her apron, streaking the leather with dissolved glue. She says, "I have no need for manners. What do you want?"
He inclines his head. "I need your assistance. You will be rewarded."