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art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico

The Suicide Witch

Vylar Kaftan writes speculative fiction of all genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and slipstream. Shes published stories in places such as Clarkesworld, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons, and founded a new literary-themed convention called FOGcon. She lives with her husband Shannon in northern California and blogs at vylarkaftan.net. Her story, Im Alive, I Love You, Ill See You in Reno (originally published in Lightspeed), was nominated for a Nebula Award.

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."
"What reward could there be for me?"
"Freedom. I love a girl called Lo Mei-shen. She's engaged to marry my father the duke, fifty years older than she. Mei-shen and I will elope."
Yim frowns. "You would betray your father like that?"
Slap. The witch recoils, her fingers rising to her cheek. The duke's son glares at her, hand still raised. He wears an emerald ring, which is what hurt so much when he struck her. That ring would feed a large family for three years at least.
"You forget your rank," he informs her. "My family owns you. We give you rice and chicken and clothing--but we could kill you. We could rescue another brat, crying out for her mother--or perhaps a whore, as you would have become without us."
Yim squeezes her apron in her hands, her knuckles tense against the leather, her jaw burning from the sharp edges of his ring. "What do you want from me?"
"I have obtained a potion that will make her sleep as if dead. She will write a note that she cannot bear life any longer. As a suicide, she will be mourned for half a day before she is brought to you. You will help her escape. In payment I will grant you a bed in the village common house and the right to work in the fields."
The memory of rain in her hair flashes past, tempting her. She could be free once more, no longer slave to these lords. But then Yim understands his meaning. She snorts. "Why would I want such a thing? Here I have privacy, and I don't toil in the sun for your family's profit. I don't want to be tied to your land. That's not freedom."
"I offer you freedom and you spit on it?"
"No one commands me and I like it this way. I am the suicide witch. Lovers' schemes hold no interest for me. Besides, if your father found out, he'd torture and kill me. No. I will not help."
Kai-hu smiles. One side of his mouth curls tightly. He reaches into his uniform pocket and holds up something. Yim squints. A pendant dangles from his fist--a red bloodstone with a central hole, glistening in the torchlight. He asks, "Do you know what this is?"
"It's a fertility charm. If you do not obey, I will chain it to your neck. Then I will force babies on you, as many as possible, year after year. And I will sell your sons and take your daughters as concubines, excepting your youngest who will train for your role."
She hisses. "I'll kill myself first. And you'll have no one to dress my hair."
"If you do, I'll shave your head and cut your naked body into quarters. Your ancestors will torment your powerless ghost. You will drag your limbs through the Endless Winter, moaning for help, soaking the snow with eternal bleeding."
The witch spits, hating him. "What is your plan?"
He puts the charm in his pocket. "My father suspects that Mei-shen will flee. He's alerted the border guards to watch for her. After she drinks the potion, you will hide her until I arrive. She and I will escape together before her funeral."
Yim walks to the window and looks at the plaza, considering. On clear evenings like this one, she hears the distant market humming with excitement. "She will not be safe here. The guards bring me food. She must be sent from here immediately--alone."
"Mind your manners, witch. I give the orders here."
"Can she walk or does she have lotus feet?"
"Her feet are tiny, but she can walk. It will be difficult to get her out, though."
"Give her a cloak," says the witch, an idea coming to her. She rubs her gloves together, listening to their whisper-soft sound, and looks at Kai-hu. "A dark cloak, something heavy that your manservant would wear on a cold night. Sew gold coins into the hem. Send her on a warhorse--perhaps your own. If you give her your royal seal, they will not question her."
He throws his head back and laughs. "Do you really think I would provide you the tools for escape?"
She flushes red and turns away, ashamed of her transparency. "I merely sought to free your bride. Why not pay the guards to let her go? Tell them she lives, and will walk freely from here. Are these guards loyal to you?"
He considers and then nods, once. "Yes. I will buy their loyalty. Mei-shen will drink the potion tomorrow night before the wedding. I'll go to Guingshao to await her."
"No, you must stay and see her funeral. Otherwise your father will guess your involvement. She must travel alone. You can join her afterwards."
"Ah. Of course. Much like the plan I had thought of already." He smiles, showing clean teeth unrotted by candies.
Yim says slowly, "She'll need a cloak nonetheless. A well-bred girl will be delicate. I don't want to be blamed if she takes fever in this dampness."
"You must think I'm stupid, witch. I'll handle it."
She shrugs and looks out the window, her voice sharp with venom. "Yes, Your Excellency."
"You'll enjoy life in the village. You can sleep under the stars if you like." His heel scrapes a pebble on the floor as he leaves. The door slams shut behind him.
"Pah!" shouts the witch, returning to her worktable. She coughs and spits, wishing his shoes were near. She scoops glass shards from her bucket and crushes them into sand. Yim stares out the barred windows, looking at the rooftops and the hills and the far-distant Emperor's gardens. She remembers when she could run through streets barefoot whenever she pleased. She could escape here, perhaps, but where would she go with no money? Back to the street, of course. Maybe if she left the province--but no, without money, what would she be? The same anywhere she went. A whore, as he said. Hungry and sick and hopeless.
She paces the wall, running her hand down a narrow crack. In the plaza, children laugh in the flowery evening air. A street performer plucks a melody on a silk lute. Yim's thoughts spiral around the same problem, like designs surrounding a single marble. Her life in the cellar is better than starving. But if only she had money--
As twilight comes, the performer finishes and the children go to bed. Crickets sing nearby. Yim stops, hand paused, and laughs until her throat hurts. No one orders her around. No one. When night comes, she sorts her marbles and mixes more glue, until it's so dark that even she cannot see.
The next afternoon, the manservants bring the girl. She's stretched on an expensive funeral board carved with birds. Yim lifts the sheer red veil from the girl's face and sets it aside. Mei-shen looks dead, her skin pallid as glue. Ruby earrings weigh down her ears, displaying her rank and wealth. Two thin braids hang at her temples, crossing her breasts, and her remaining hair sprawls loosely about her hips. Her gloved hands rest on her scarlet wedding wrap. She wears thick bridal slippers, warm socks, and gloves. Yim measures the girl's hair--seven handspans. Lovely hair indeed. But the witch isn't ready yet--no, not yet.
Quietly, she takes Mei-shen's gloves and earrings and sets them by the veil. She loosens the girl's scarlet wrap and removes it, leaving the cream-colored underdress. She takes off the girl's tiny slippers and rolls them over in her hands. Carefully she slashes their silky heels and spreads the shoes open with her fingers. Yes, that will do.
Yim sweeps the floor with a bamboo broom. Hair slides underfoot, slipping against the dirt like a living garden. The witch watches the funeral board. Soon the girl's eyelids flutter open. Yim picks up her comb and splays the girl's hair into five sections like a starfish. Mei-shen blinks. Then she squeals--a weak, sleepy noise--as the witch strokes her hair.
Mei-shen jerks away. "Oh! You're disgusting!" she cries. She pulls a clove sachet from her pocket and presses it to her nose.
"Stay still," says the witch, yanking on a section of hair. "You don't want to ruin the design."
"What design? Why are you combing my hair? Kai-hu said you'd help me escape."
"Of course. But first we must decorate you for the funeral. If we do not, then the trick is exposed too early. You must attend your own funeral, holding very still."
"Oh," says Mei-shen, with a contented sigh, "then I shall try to wait."
"Start by breathing the natural air," says Yim irritably, taking the sachet away.
Mei-shen sighs and lets her hand fall back to the board. "It was so awful, being like that," she said. "I could hear, and think, but I couldn't respond to anyone! And oh--my skirt rolled up when they lifted me from the bed, and showed my feet--and I couldn't tell them to move my skirt down. I can't even count how many soldiers saw my ankles!"
Yim responds by nailing the girl's dress to the board--thirteen iron nails circling the torso, as she would do with any corpse. Mei-shen's eyes widen and she falls silent. The witch spreads glue into the girl's hair, splitting it evenly into the leftmost and rightmost sections, avoiding the two braids in the front. She smoothes it down with her hands, coating every hair into grayness.
"How will I get this glue out of my hair?" demands Mei-shen.
"You won't," snaps the witch. "But do you want to marry your lover? You must escape to do so."
"My hair! He didn't tell me--"
"Hush. Hair grows back, if you're living. It must be this way. I must prepare your hair." The witch picks up her knife.
"But my--"
Yim coughs into her sleeve. "Do you want to marry the old man, or do you want to escape with your lover?"
Mei-shen scowls and thrusts out her lip. "Ugh! Don't cough on me, witch."
Yim ignores her. In the mess of glue she works quickly--spreading, twisting, and curling hair against the board. She ties each of the middle sections at the base and cuts them off along with the two front braids. The girl whimpers. The witch dips the knots into her glue and sets them to dry together on her table. Next she pulls three thin locks from the knot and bends them into horseshoes. She shapes them into characters of nei, hahn, and ko-shu--no, refusal, and barrier. She spirals the ends like spinning wheels and spreads more glue onto them.
The girl squirms. "It's cold," she complains.
"It must be, or the glue dries too quickly," says the witch, twirling a spiral across the girl's throat.
"Do you have any slippers? I think mine fell off when they carried me here. Oh, of course you have no slippers here. Please cover my ankles! I don't want you looking at them either."
Yim snorts. "Hold still! Pretend you're dead."
The girl sniffs. Yim rinses her gloved hands and shakes them dry. Then she reaches for glass. She works quickly, her hands like a calligraphy brush--glitter lines here at the temples, with long streaky waves like foam on seawater. She marks the girl's eyebrows with creamy white lines like spring flowers.
Mei-shen gazes vacantly at the ceiling, pinned in place. Finally she says, "Jiang Kai-hu is a fine and wealthy man. He will take care of me. He will love me even without my hair. And my hair will grow back. I'll wear scarves until then. Do you have a scarf for me? Even you must have a scarf. Every woman should."
Yim adds seven marbles near the girl's temples, fanning them out like a seashell's spiral. "Do you think he loves you?"
"It's clear from how he attends to me," Mei-shen says, her voice imperial. "Secretly he sends jade bracelets and foreign sweets to my home. And he writes me poems in red ink."
"And do you love him as he loves you?"
"I suppose," the girl says carelessly. "He's not a doddering old man like his father. He's tall and handsome."
"All you desire in a mate, it seems," says the witch, shoving her bucket across the table. Mei-shen starts at the noise.
"It's really cold," she whines. "Can't you take the nails out so I can stretch my feet? Or rub them?"
"No. The glue must dry. Now we wait." She laughs, a long slow noise, hoarse with excitement. The girl squirms, her face contorted, but says nothing.
The witch stands next to the worktable, stroking the severed hair. Water drips in the cellar's corner. Evening is Yim's favorite time. In the plaza, merchants sing the last call to their wares, and sweet evening incense wafts in from the other noble houses. At one point Mei-shen starts to speak, but the witch hushes her.
When it's dark enough that few people can see, Yim says, "That's enough. The glue is dry now." Of course, it was dry long ago.
"Now what?" asks the girl.
"Now we finish," says Yim. She takes off her apron and ties the scarlet wrap over her dirty gray smock. She slides her feet into the slitted shoes--yes, if she shuffles, they will stay on long enough. She balances the severed locks atop her head, arranges them, and ties them in place with the braids. She covers her face with the thin veil--no true protection, but just enough for now, here in the dark she knows so well. She trades thick leather gloves for soft red silk.
Yim steps in front of the girl and smiles. The crescent moon shines through the window, casting light onto the girl's face. Mei-shen's eyes bulge when she sees the witch. She kicks her heels against the funeral board and shrieks, "What are you doing?"
"What I said I would."
"You're going to kill me!"
"No. You'll live through your own funeral," says the witch. "Tell Kai-hu hello from me. I'm sure his father will have questions for you. If Kai-hu doesn't fall on his own sword, his father and brother will kill him. And as for you, you can choose to live with your shame or kill yourself later--and without me here to dress you again, your corpse will join the walking dead before they train a new suicide witch."
Mei-shen sobs, tears running into the artwork. "You've ruined me, you whore. You bastard daughter of a shamed man!"
"You may thank Kai-hu when you see him," says the witch. "Tell him he should respect his ancestors." She cuts creamy fabric from Mei-Shen's hemline and stuffs it into the girl's mouth. The witch knocks on the door. "Ai-yi!" she calls, pitching her voice high like a girl's. The near-darkness completes her disguise. Footsteps approach. The door swings open on rusty hinges. Silently Yim passes before the watchful guards, her pockets heavy with Mei-shen's ruby earrings.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 13th, 2012

Author Comments

I wrote this story for the Codex Halloween contest. Codex is an online group of professional writers, and every year we trade "seeds" to spark new stories. My seed for this story was to write about a mortician who glues hair for special events. Clearly I have some funny ideas about how morticians live.

- Vylar Kaftan
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