This story available on Sep 26, 2020
Three Graces in Autumn
Donna J. W. Munro
Lozi’s veil dipped into the coffee that Jacoba set in front of her.
“Sister,” Jacoba chided, “Be careful.”
Lozi’s eyes focused and she jerked back, dabbing the stained ends of her white net veil with a napkin. She didn’t need to. All she had to do was wish it clean and it would be so, but Lozi wasn’t a show-off like Smolder, the other of the three sisters. Lifting her too hot coffee to her lips, Lozi watched Smolder circle the ceiling in lazy, misty loops. Jacoba, the eldest, tutted and shifted the cups and the sugar around the tea table, pretending not to be annoyed, but Lozi knew Jacoba’s moods.
Outside of their house, the whole world waited in suspension for the sisters to end their rest. All the beings at their end time, stood waiting for judgement. And hoping for absolution. Or if they met frightening Smolder, they imagined damnation. But they would have to wait a bit longer. Jacoba led them and wouldn’t start the day without this moment of sharing between them. Therapy, she said.
“The coffee is good,” Lozi said, trying to distract Jacoba from Smolder’s silly, smoky pouting. She’d always been the peacekeeper.
Jacoba shook her head, sipping the coffee, gaze studiously avoiding that swirling form pooling in the corner, finally taking a womanly shape. Smolder flowed across the room, decked in layers of gray smoke, not bothering to solidify the mask of a face that her shifting mass wore. No eyes in the dark yawing sockets, no color to brighten her cheeks, but at least she lowered herself into the chair Jacoba slid out for her.
Lozi sighed. No fight today! Thank the gods.
Jacoba’s pet skull sat on the table, next to the silver coffee pot, chuckling and flashing with the spectral light as the daily “to do” list churned out from between its teeth. Ruinic writings of all the names they’d need for that day’s reaping. Maybe it’d be better named a “to die” list, but Lozi kept the thought to herself. No need to poke the bear.
The bear herself, Jacoba, ignored the list as it pooled on the floor beneath her, but Lozi’s eyes always came back to it. So many names, so many days filled with souls.
“Do you remember…” Lozi started, but when her sisters startled in their seats, fingers white with strength crushing the tiny cups in their grips and loosing the coffee to puddle on their clothes, Jacoba’s neat purple suit and Smolder’s misty cowl, before they wished the mess away, she decided to let it go. Instead, she took another sip of warm, earthy life that swirled dark brown in her own cup.
Reaping was a new trade for them.
They’d been press ganged into the job when the old ways died and the ancient gods fell asleep, one by one. But Lozi remembered dancing in the summer fields before, the three sisters symbols of something else. Something less…morbid.
“Sissssterrr,” Smolder hissed at her, bringing her back.
She had few words, but Lozi knew what she meant. Better not to dwell on what never could be again. Days in the sun, whiling away in the flowers, wondering if this god or that boy loved her, kissing some maiden by the banks of a sparkling river. They’d been the Graces then, serving the world portions of frivolity and beauty with each sunrise.
“Lozi, the world doesn’t need the old ways anymore, remember?” Jacoba said.
Jacoba cleared her throat and tapped her long nails on the tabletop, bring their focus back to the now and what they did each morning before they started work. “Smolder, do you wish to unburden yourself?”
Lozi turned to her diaphanous sister, who waivered a moment in her seat. She’d never been one to complain and even in this harder life had to be reminded that it was okay to mourn her lot. As she considered, Smolder’s eyes formed fully in their sockets and oily tears ran down her ashen cheeks. Smolder reaped the accidental dead and there were so many accidents in this modern world. Car crashes, falls from high roofs, trains derailing, tools misfiring. Her sister bore them all. All the greasy, modern pain of the shouldn’t have dieds, victims of the belching machines they’d made. Smolder took them from their bodies, soaking up the smoke and the heat, carrying it as her burden as she took them away.
Lozi reached out and stroked the soft mist of Smolder’s fingers. “Brave Smolder.”
Her sister smiled and pulled back all the tendrils whipping around her and took another calming sip of her wished piping hot coffee into her formerly broken cup.
“And are you burdened?” Lozi asked Jacoba?
Under her shock of white hair, Jacoba’s perfect features set themselves in the pantomime of placid acceptance. She was the oldest, Lozi knew, and it took so much more for her to admit how the job wore on her. But Lozi and Smolder were patient. The world could wait, would wait, for them to come to terms with what they did the day before and what still needed doing.
“Sissssteeerrr,” Smolder urged with a gentle song.
Jacoba nodded, staring into the creamy brown of her coffee, also restored with a wish. Her job reaping the victims of beauty seeking seemed a strange, narrow calling at first, though Jacoba found herself always busy.
“They aren’t all vain, you know. Some just want to live better lives. They’re trapped in extra skin, bulbous breasts that break their backs and stoop them over, old before their time. Even the ones who seek beauty for beauty’s sake tell me in their last breath how they’d always hated themselves, believed every bad thing the world told them. How they weren’t good enough. I always tell them…” she sobs then catches herself. “I tell them how they are beautiful, but they don’t believe, even in the end. I hope in the next place…”
All three sisters hoped that.
Jacoba’s few tears cost her too much to cry. Smolder and Lozi didn’t comfort her, because she hated that. They waited for her composure to return, sipping coffee and enjoying the peace together.
It was Lozi’s turn next.
But Lozi stayed quiet behind her soft veil of white. Her sweet princess snowy silk gown settled in pools around her, and pearls of pink hanging in bunches around her neck and middle, strands acting like play armor. She didn’t want to relive any of it with her sisters. Reaping all the innocents, all the babies who never got to breathe, all the children dead of disease took a toll. All the suicides, dead without knowing their worth. All the maidens and youths, gone before they’d made their own path in the world. All the simple, special, different souls who died without hurting anyone she lifted to her white arms and hugged them as the breath left them. Their deaths maddened her each day. She wept as she walked between each reaping. She screamed at Death for giving her such a hard job and yet, when she held the innocents, she knew she wouldn’t trade for any other job. She brought them peace in an unfair life. She was theirs alone.
Her sisters stared at her, wanting her to let go of her pain, the burden of the reaping role she’d been given, but she never did.
She kept their memories, remembering each name, each word they whispered, each murmured cry like seeds of a sweet fruit she’d plant again. Once she’d been like them, dancing in the light of the sun, innocent and free until the world struck her down. Until Death came for her and whispered a promise. Offered this job.
This job or oblivion.
The sisters sat around the tea table, sipping their morning peace, bitter loss sweetened by the beauty they brought to death, and Lozi was sure, like her, that her sisters felt more beautiful and more necessary than they’d been as girls throwing flowers in the footstep of dewy bright Dawn and shading Love’s sweaty brow as she tarried with her lover, War in the long shadows of dusk. They’d been beautiful fools. Goddesses of nothing.
This job or oblivion, he’d said, giving them the best choice, the only choice they’d known.
With their final sip coffee, the sisters drew together as they always had, wove their arms around each other and pressed together their foreheads for strength, then they stepped out into the world, their daily reaping list wound tight in their hands.
Together, they let the world spin again.
Donna J. W. Munro teaches high school social studies. Her students inspire her every day. She has an MA in writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University. Her pieces are published in Dark Moon Digest # 34, Flash Fiction Magazine, Astounding Outpost, Nothing’s Sacred Magazine IV and V, Corvid Queen, Hazard Yet Forward (2012), Enter the Apocalypse (2017), Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths II (2018), Terror Politico (2019), Burning Love, Bleeding Hearts (2020), and others. Her upcoming novel, Revelations: Poppet Cycle 1, will be published by Omnium Gatherum in 2020. Contact her at donnajwmunro.com or @DonnaJWMunro on Twitter.
Interview available on Sep 26, 2020