You could only catch them by summer moonlight. Souls, that is. Something about winter kept them hidden beneath thick snow, frost like faerie iron to them. But in high summer, when the moon shone down on the thick grasses like a beaming mother, you could stand in the fields with the blades tickling your shins and watch them rise from the earth like fireflies.
They were never in the graveyards. Mother explained that to us, saying: “Graves are for bodies. Souls go whither they want.”
So, we would stand in the grass, Kiva and I, glass jars with metal lids that scraped like soil against a spade when you turned them. We would wait, then run among stalks of burred summer wheat, chaff and soulstuff filling our jars until they glowed like the sun. We’d lie on the soft turf, whispering tales to one another. This one was a pirate. This one a merchant. This one a murderer, but he did it for love, and oh how his soul shines! And then, before dawn, we’d let them go, watch them drift into the sky with the others.
Ten years we had together. Ten years is a long time to a child. Not such a long time to the earth, or to the adults who grow from those children. And to a soul, ten years is the space of the inhalation of a breath.
But time waits for no thing under the sun, not even grief, and so it was that in the third year of Kiva’s passing, a man wearing a frayed suit and hauling a strange machine on a wagon arrived. His knock was like a woodpecker on an oak, quick and sure. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.
I opened the door, pushed a wet flop of curls out of my face. It had been a hot summer, and Mother had passed the year before. That left me alone in our old home with only memory and the lessons she’d tried to impart. For a moment, I stood half in and half out of the door, aware of the violence a man alone with a woman was tempted to. Mother didn’t raise a fool. I kept a knife on a small table beside the door, and my free hand crept toward it.
“Pardon, miss,” he grinned.
He was tall and lanky, a ghost of a man. I didn’t trust him.
“What d’ya want?”
He gestured behind him, at the thing on its wagon. It was the size of a beehive, all silver and brass and glass. A wooden cabinet stood beside it.
“I’m on my way to the fair, and offering folks a one-of-a-kind chance,” he said. “As luck would have it, the road here runs in just the direction I need to be.”
I narrowed my eyes. Mother always said one-of-a-kind chances were rarely that. If you lived long enough, there were few things that didn’t come around at least once more. Still, that machine shone in setting sun, and something drew me to it. Maybe it was the memory of Kiva’s sense of wonder. The way she spun her tales, of men and women and children, souls all a-dance in the gloaming. How she only had one chance at anything.
My hand gripped the knife, and I stepped from the door, holding it in front of me, the steel glinting in the half-light. I hoped there was enough shadow to hide the shiver in my wrist. I thought this man might be more huckster than predator, but I wanted to be sure. He raised his hands when he saw me holding the blade and stepped back slowly.
I lifted my chin toward the device. “Show me.”
He backed to the machine, taking a moment to open the cabinet. From its shelves he drew a softly glowing jar. Emotion shouldered me in the guts and the jar blurred for a moment. I blinked the tears away. For his part, the man didn’t notice. He moved to a tube of brass that protruded from the side, the end narrow and sharp like a mosquito’s needle. With a quick motion, he pierced the lid of the jar with the tip. The soul floated to the hole and slid into the black mouth of the pipe.
The machine lurched to life, humming with a resonance that reminded me of starlings in a grove. A glass globe on the side opposite the brass pipe lit with a gentle glow.
“What is that?” I asked. “Sorcery?”
“Watch now,” the man said. “Just watch.”
The glow in the globe intensified, a soft sun writ on crystal. Then it resolved. Sepia tones of a ship on a sea. A man, his hair and beard plaited, his eyes black and hard. A cutlass in his hand. The swell of the waves, like the swell of the clouds above. A voice, roughened by salt and tobacco, and the scene changed, men bleeding and dying, wild eyes above grinning teeth. Red painted that peculiar brown. And more. The gulls above a hundred ports. Masts bobbing in the sun. The rage of the sea. And then, waves, waves, lassitude.
The vision faded. I stepped back, blinked. Looked at the man.
“What… what was that?” I asked. My voice felt smaller than before. Or maybe it was my world.
“A single life. Haven’t you ever wondered who these souls are?”
He gestured at the field, where the lights rose from the loam. I had. Once. And I knew at least two of them. I kept that to myself. But I knew then one wouldn’t be enough. This was Kiva’s whimsy made real.
“Yes,” he said.
I knew I could not afford it. What money Mother left for me I parceled carefully. What I earned by taking on odd jobs I squirreled away. I had bought an old goat to save on milk, and even that would only pay for itself over a long stretch. The fair would set me back months. He must’ve seen my face fall.
“Listen,” he said. “I saw something in you, just now.”
I remembered he was a man again, and how close he stood. He smelled of metal and oil. I stepped back, raised the knife. His hands went up.
“I saw something light in you at seeing this, is all. I’ll come back next year. And the next. As long as people will pay, I’ll be back. And I’ll tell you what. I’ll take this track.” He gestured to the ruts that led through the village. “Every year.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “What’s the catch?”
“A penny a year.”
“That’s all?” I found it hard to believe. Mother told us to never trust a man who didn’t charge a fair price. He wanted something or wanted to sell you something more.
I had little else to say. I’d seen something wondrous. That I knew. But to be seen out here, with a man in the dark… “Best get on now,” I said.
He nodded and turned to secure his goods. And while he did, I stepped back into my home. I listened at the door, until the creak of wheels and the rattle of wagon boards dwindled down the road. When I was sure he had gone, I stepped outside, sat on the stoop, and watched the souls rise.
That night I dreamt of Kiva, olive skin in the summer sun, hair like honey. I dreamt of her laugh and her smile, and the way we ran through the trees, the light fitful beneath the canopy. Eventually that flicker and fade from dreams woke me. I walked to the kitchen and pulled a dingy jar from a shelf beside its twin. Glass wasn’t cheap, but these had been ours since we were children. I held it for a moment, dusted it until the tips of my fingers were brown, then took it to the field. I stood with supple grass tickling my shins where they were bare beneath the hem of my shift, then sprinted into the field with a low whoop; caught a soul or two. I peered at the glowing embers in their glass prison and waited for that old exhilaration, the sudden wellspring of joy that came from being clever and quick and free beneath the canopy of the night. It did not come.
I hadn’t the heart to make them wait and set the jar on the ground and lay beside it, folding myself into the field. I stayed there until the ground grew cold with the arrival of morning and the stars faded into the pink of dawn. For a while, I could even pretend the tears on my cheeks were only dew.
The next year he came, summer clung to the edges of autumn like a desperate lover. The souls rose in profusion in the fields like stars running to the sky. He tapped, and I peered out, knife nearby. He grinned through the crack in the door. I didn’t know to trust him just yet. But perhaps. He’d kept his promise.
I tucked the knife in my belt and slipped the penny I’d saved from a chipped dish on the table, then stepped out to meet him. He looked at me a long moment. His eyes flicked to the knife, then to the coin in my outstretched hand. He licked his lips.
“You’ve filled out some,” he said.
“It was a good summer,” I said. “Good harvest.”
I wished he’d take the penny. It felt like a lodestone in my palm, tugging me toward that machine and its secrets. A silence stretched between us. Finally, he took it, his fingers grazing my palm. Frisson ran up my arm. I ignored it. I had no time for entanglement. Life leaves little room for new love when you’re trying to live with the ghost of old.
He walked to the machine and I sat in the grass, the blades tickling my shins and thighs. As before, he fit the jar to the needle, and I watched the soul travel inward, the glass globe suffuse with light.
A woman on horseback. The sound of tack and leather creaking. The clop of hooves on desert hardpan. A sabre at her hip, a spear tied to her saddle. Her hair blew in the wind, and dust obscured the vision for a moment. When it passed, the vista opened up, mesa and butte rising from the landscape like fingers searching for the sky. Behind her, a trail of bodies, a cabin, long rotted by the dry winds. A hawk called overhead and wheeled in the sky.
On she rode, and on and on, until the vision faded. I could nearly smell the stale air in that cabin in the distance, feel the bitter taste of loss and loneliness on my tongue and lips. I sat, staring at the dark globe, and the man came to sit beside me. I let him.
“You lost someone.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’ve seen it before. The ones who ache, they sit, and they stare, and they hope and dread they’ll see them again. Grief’s a hard companion to part ways with,” he said.
“And still you do this,” I said. “Why?”
“Why do you watch?” He asked.
I looked up at the night sky. “You ever hope to see a shooting star? You know that moment when they burn high and bright?”
When he didn’t answer, I looked over. He was looking up as well.
“Memories are like that,” I said. “High and bright. But never so close you can see much more than the shine.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I understand.”
We sat a little longer under the light of the moon, until it crested the peak of night. Finally, he stood and dusted his trousers off. He covered his wagon and the things on it, then stopped one last time to look at me.
“Next year, then?” He asked.
I gave a small smile. “Next year.”
The soulman came five more summers. Each summer, like clockwork, he rolled to my door, and each summer, like clockwork, I came with the knife and a penny. He took one and gave the other a nervous smile and showed me the soul he’d collected for me that year.
In five years, I’d eked out a comfortable life, though no less hard. I worked for every penny, and aside from my small bottles of wine, or a round of cheese, I spent on few frivolities. So, when he came, I brought my cheese and wine and sat before the machine, and he played the stories for me and we shared the meal.
A liar and a thief. A lawyer. A surgeon. A herdsman. A warrior. Scenes visceral and bucolic, fantastic and mundane. I marveled at how much the warrior and the surgeon shared, oftentimes the vagaries of their work separated only by the degree of applied violence. Of how the liar and the lawyer layered truth and twisted it to serve their ends. Of the way the horse drove the cattle or dragged the plow to cut the furrows for the cattle to feed from. Everything intertwined, everything supporting everything else.
And I thought of the opposite ends of life, Mother old and gray before she went, Kiva young and vital. And there in the center, me. Alone. And I wept then. I knew that life was pain, and anyone who said different was just trying to sell you something, or so Mother said. But it was hard to distrust this man who had only sold me a distraction from pain. Five years I spent like that, finding sorrow and joy from the man with the soul machine. Five years of living on the edge of a razor.
The sixth year the man came, I was nearly destitute. Rain had been sparse, and what crops there were stood withered and sere. The goat had first refused to give milk, and then refused to live. I walked around, hollow in the stomach and the heart. No one needed odd jobs because no one could afford them. I sold my extra jar, the one I thought of as mine. Glass was precious, and to keep even the two I had was a vanity I should long ago given up. I still had Kiva’s—that I would never part with.
But I could not bring myself to spend that last penny, even for an extra morsel of food.
So, when the soulman came that year, I met him again with my penny and my knife and sat before his machine. He looked at me, and I saw something there that maybe hadn’t been so obvious before.
“You’ve lost some weight.”
“It’s been a hard year.”
He nodded and brought out a basket, sitting beside me. He pulled cheese and bread from it, a bottle of crisp wine. When we finished, we sat in silence. He grew bold, laid his fingers on mine, and I let him. As before, that frisson ran up my arm, and for a moment, I clutched his fingers in my own.
Then he stood abruptly, in the same way someone might change the subject in a conversation they were unsure of. He walked over and pulled the jar from his cabinet, the soul inside bright like fire on water. He pierced the lid and started the device, the globe glowing the warm yellow of a summer sunset.
When the vision began, my heart nearly burst. Kiva stood before me, writ exquisite in that globe. Small and perfect and kind and glowing with life. I grabbed the glass, held my face close until my own reflection threatened to drown out hers. Her face drew closer still, til I imagined I could only touch it if I broke the glass. Instead I kissed the cold globe.
The soulman said nothing. I watched as Kiva and I ran from tree to tree, giggling at hide and seek. I watched as she bit into an apple, the juice running down her chin; as she laughed at a butterfly tickling her nose. I watched as our father came one last time in the night, and our mother turned him away. Finally, the vision slid from high grass to a blue sky, clouds like schooners.
When it faded, the soulman did not leave. Not because he expected, but because I insisted. I would not let him go, and for the first time, he was late for the fair. His name was Thom, and his body as pale as his smile. We finished some time in the small hours.
“What was her name?” He asked.
“Kiva.” A long silence. The chirp of crickets in the summer heat. I wondered even now if she heard them. “Where do the souls go?” I asked.
He lifted a hand, waved it in a dozy haze. “The machine uses them up.”
A knot formed in my chest. “You mean it uses the memory up.”
He shook his head, coarse hair rasping against the pillow. “It uses them for fuel. Burns them right out. Shooting stars, right? Souls are just memories we can’t let go.”
“You believe that?”
He shrugged, the rasp of his shoulders on the sheet loud in the quiet room. “Who was she, anyway?” This last, sleepy, half-mumbled.
I didn’t answer. Rage boiled in my chest. Shame at not asking this before. Then rage again, that he should imply my sorrow chained my sister to this world. As if her plight and her end was my fault. I stifled it, forced my hands not to shake, tears not to spill. I nearly vomited, nearly screamed. Instead, I made myself wait. Made myself calm the way Mother had told me I had to be if a man ever hurt me. Because, she would say, they will.
I trailed my fingers in his sparse chest hair. When he finally drifted off, I found the knife, and pulled Kiva’s jar from its shelf. I didn’t know if it would work, but the moon was high, and so I threw back the curtain. Pale light flooded the room, and I knelt beside him. He nearly glowed in the beam.
“Thom,” I whispered.
He didn’t stir. I placed the jar over his chest. Rise, fall. Rise, fall. I pressed the knife against his neck, watched his pulse bob the edge up and down.
I thought of the memories and brief joys he’d brought me and hesitated. Of the meals we’d shared and the nights, when he’d sit so close, I felt his heat. I thought of the things I’d been taught growing up. Mother had a saying about death: Our lives are like the stars, and the stars make the sky. Some burn bright, others dim, but they are all of the same thing. When they cease, they are no longer stars, but the stuff of the sky. They are what they came from. But I wondered, was this release or true death?
Still he slept. Deep breaths. Breaths of a man oblivious to the path of destruction he wrought. Ignorance? Entitlement? I didn’t think it mattered. I let the rage I’d denied come, and it flooded back with a vengeance, rushed into my hands. Filled my mouth with the taste of pennies. I coughed a sob and dropped the knife, swept the jar from his chest. It tumbled to the floor and cracked.
The blade clattered to the floor, and I let it lie where it fell, bright steel glinting in the moonlight. Numb with sorrow, shaking with rage, I stumbled from the room and fled to the field. I lay in the grass and watched the souls rise to the stars, like embers from a fire, and held my belly. Sorrow ached there like a hollow burned in my flesh, tears streaked my cheeks.
I wondered at his glib claim that the only reason souls stayed behind is because they were chained by our grief. I discounted it as a lie. Had I known about the souls; I would have stopped it. Wouldn’t I?
Was I lying to myself? Did I have a hand in this? Even my rage was not enough to set it right. Was I so lonely I’d overlook this hurt? Had I failed Kiva in this, too?
In my core, where sorrow and joy constantly warred for the truth, I found no answers. Instead, I recalled something else my mother had told me: funerals are for the living. The dead have already moved on, and in that, I found a kernel of solace. Grief is only meant to be held for a moment. Beyond that, it turns from water to oil, and clings, threatens to set us ablaze at the slightest hint of a spark. I’d spent most of my life afraid of fire.
I tilted my face to the sky. Souls danced in the pale light of the moon, an endless procession of the sorrowed dead. In time, Thom made his way from the house, bleary-eyed and confused. He lay next to me, his hand finding mine. We didn’t speak, and I clenched it tight, maybe enough to hurt. He didn’t complain. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I had to start somewhere. I had to move on, or this ache would cut me in two. And though I hadn’t yet forgiven him, maybe never fully would, I found a small peace there among the dead. A small spark in my heart, and for once, I wasn’t afraid.