I wish that death were more final.
One year ago, Evangeline’s mother, Maya, was beheaded. They sent her body back to be dropped in a river, buried, worshipped, melted, or eaten in the respective traditions of the five villages. As is right and good.
I oversaw the feast preparations myself — Maya was my only daughter, after all, and a man has certain obligations when it comes to selecting just the right spice. Maya had always been a devoutly contrary woman. Cayenne would go well with her.
Jacobi, Evangeline’s father, clutched his little girl in his fat cacao arms. He dwarfed her; at six, she was a frail, spindly thing, with a head that was too big for her body, and eyes that were like the pits our hunters dug to catch tigers — yawning. Sharp-edged. Consuming everything that dared to step near. That was the reason I had never really held my granddaughter’s gaze. I was afraid of being swallowed.
As I was saying, Jacobi carried his child with him and stood beside me as a pair of men — one of them, my silent brother Marius — pried open the box the Queen’s soldiers had dropped at our doorsteps before fleeing. The lid scraped off and thudded onto the humid ground. It was as I had expected: the body of my daughter, and the severed head just above it, cushioned by Maya’s thick black hair, like it was being swallowed into the night. I reached down to close the staring eyes, but Maya blinked, and her thick lips rippled to form words.
“Where is my baby?” she said.
You’re wondering what Maya did to deserve a beheading.
In this region, there is the winter, spring, summer, fall, and the season between. It is the breath that lasts before death but after dying. Shut off the candles. Huddle together, and continue counting heads to be sure no one has gone missing in between times, that the between season hasn’t snatched them into the nothing-darkness that weighs down our jungle like sweat and a woolen blanket. Sometimes the season is just a few hours long. Sometimes, in bad years, it lasts a month, and there is utter silence, then, for if you speak in the between you will lose your voice. My brother Marius, before he died, once laughed, thinking the between had turned to winter. He didn’t speak again while he lived. It is dangerous to wander in the between. Tense and cautious to eat. Idiocy to speak.
And, as you may have guessed, illegal to conceive a child during the between.
“Where is my baby?” Maya said, and puckered her lips to kiss her darling girl.
Evangeline laughed with chilling glee to see her mother’s head looking around for her.
Marius lifted Maya’s body out of the box and laid her on the feasting table, allowing three women to prepare her.
“Are you going to ignore me?” Maya demanded, still in the box.
My wife grinned, most of her teeth gone, and cackled, but then, my wife never had been sane. I reached to tuck a stray wisp of soft white hair behind her ear. It seemed the only reasonable thing to do.
Maya glared as Marius picked up her head by the scalp, holding it aloft for the rest of the village to see. “Well? No need to wait on my account. Are you going to feast?” The village continued to stare. “Oh, I’ll do it myself.” She glanced down at her body, but her hands didn’t twitch for the spices and her legs didn’t move toward the cauldron.
“Don’t strain yourself,” Jacobi said, though his voice was a bare whisper. He moved forward to take the head from Marius and tuck it neatly under his free arm. “If it’s a feast you want, it’s a feast you’ll get.”
While the rest of my people shuddered into motion, Evangeline clapped her hands and squealed with delight.
“It’s alright, baby,” Maya said. “Everything will be alright.”
Some small part of me thought that we had displeased the Three Goddesses, and that maybe, when we had finished roasting her body, spicing her flesh, and burying the bones, she would be at peace and Maya’s eyes would close. But they didn’t.
Afterward, as a warm night crept in around us, Jacobi carried his daughter in one arm and his wife’s head into the other, Maya cooing to Evangeline all the way to their tent. I don’t know what happened in the very late hours of the dark — I imagined Evangeline’s nothingness-stare — but I heard, close by, Maya singing a lullaby my wife had sung to her when she’d been young:
Love, love. Wretched suffering.
Behind the tent wall, Evangeline applauded.
We had known her father would be next — the crime second only to the woman’s seduction in the between was the willingness of the man to give in to that seduction — but Jacobi refused to flee and leave his daughter. “Don’t be a fool,” Maya snarled at him that morning as her skull swung from the pendulum of hair. “They’ll cut off your head, and then where will our daughter be?”
Jacobi set Maya’s jaws to nestle in Evangeline’s lap, gave his whisper: “We don’t know that they’ll kill me. And Evie needs me.” The little girl looked up at him where she sat cross-legged on the ground, running a comb through Maya’s hair.
“Ow,” Maya gasped. “Honey, could you go a bit more gently with that?”
The spindly, big-headed creature that was my granddaughter smiled and whispered something into Maya’s ear.
“Am I good enough for your daughter yet, sir?” Jacobi asked me.
Wait. You’re wondering what happened to him. If you’re smart, you only wondered in one direction.
They came the next morning for Jacobi. He wrapped his enormous cacao arms around Evangeline so tightly I thought I heard the crack of a frail bone. The Queen’s soldiers kicked at his knees until he went down, and then prodded his arms with knives until he had to release Evangeline. I think I was the only one who noticed that the soldiers avoided touching the little girl. For copulating in the between, they said, Jacobi would be sentenced to die. One of them began to wonder that wasn’t it odd that the criminals’ daughter was so old? No, said his commander. It was some demon’s work of the between that had obscured the parents from justice for so long.
I held my daughter’s head aloft. While the rest of the village watched in solemn quietude, Maya screamed, “Don’t take him! It was all my doing! Oh, by all Three Goddesses, take me! Crush my skull! Just don’t hurt him!”
Demon work, muttered the soldiers, and they tugged their helmets down over the place between their brows, the house of the inner eye.
They took Jacobi anyway. I found myself surprisingly content with this. He had never been good enough for my daughter.
As is right and good, the box was sent back to us with Jacobi’s body inside. We knew it was coming. We had been cooking side dishes and preparing the seasonings all day. Jacobi had been softer-hearted than my shrewish daughter — fresh rosemary would suit his body well. And yet nobody moved forward to open the casket. I finally gave Evangeline a wide berth, crowbar in my hand, and pried the nailed lid off. Jacobi’s massive body was cramped in the box.
But his eyes rolled up to stare at me. His lips worked for a moment before Jacobi said, “Am I good enough for your daughter yet, sir?”
I would have said no, except it is disrespectful to speak ill of the dead. Even if you’re speaking to the dead in the first place.
Maya and Jacobi were placed at the head of the table while servings were doled out. There was an air of celebration this time — friends of the village, still alive! Would the rest of the villagers live on when they were dead, too? They toasted to Jacobi, especially those who had hunted with him, and made lewd jokes about his lips, and even passed him a bite of meat from Jacobi’s own hip. This Maya took eagerly between her teeth. At that moment, Jacobi and Maya looked at each other with such longing that I was glad they no longer had hands to touch with.
I would not bring my child’s head with me to my tent, nor the head of the man who had deflowered her, but Evangeline was still whole, and I supposed my wife and I were the only family she had left. When I opened the flap of Evangeline’s tent to collect her for the night, having made a small pile of blankets for her to sleep on in my tent, I found her with her parents’ heads. She had grasped one in each hand, yanking by the hair, and was pressing their lips together. Maya and Jacobi moaned with soft contentment.
It should have been my first inkling, but my horror drowned out the fact that a spindly young thing like her should not have been able to lift a ten-pound head in her fist, let alone two.
When everyone was dead, it was much louder around camp.
Wait. I’m forgetting some essential part of the narrative. Be patient with me. I’m old and my mind isn’t once what it was.
It took longer than I would have thought for the rumors to spread. Perhaps no one in the rest of the five villages believed the soldiers who had first come to take Jacobi away. Perhaps they were afraid to see that it was true. But come people did, eventually. They came to stare at my daughter and her lover, who attempted to engage the strangers in lively conversation. Unsurprisingly, no guests opted to stay overnight.
Then the soldiers came. Demon work, they said. The whole place was cursed, they said, but maybe more of us than just Maya and Jacobi had committed illegal things in the between. More likely culprits — the cooks, who silently made our food in that breath before winter, those who had grown bigger, those who had coughed or had a fitful dream in the between — all of these were questioned. My people pointed fingers at each other, terrified of being the next to fall under the axe. The next person they took was Marius, my brother. I will not say that I did not shed tears when they took him, and he looked over his shoulder, lips parted with words that the between had stolen forever from him.
That is, until he was sent back.
“Oh!” he cried, once I pried open the lid. “Brother! How long I’ve waited to have a real conversation with you.” I’d almost forgotten what his voice was like — rich and full-bodied. Honey and whiskey would go well with his roast.
Evangeline rushed to take his head, and cradle it lovingly in her arms. He laughed. “Where are we going, my dear?”
“With the others,” she said simply.
This went on until early fall of that year. The bodies in our village dwindled, while Evangeline’s collection of heads only grew. Eventually they even took my wife, who cackled until they’d dragged her out of my earshot. This was the first time I remember Evangeline ever embracing me. Her skin was cool to the touch, and yet had an intangible quality, like trying to grasp hold of a snake.
And still they sent the bodies back, heads and all. As is right and good.
Eventually they came for me, the last of the villagers. I was resigned to it. After all, I couldn’t leave Evangeline alone. But as it happened, I had retreated into the forest — taking care of natural functions that none of my people had to fulfill any longer — when the soldiers arrived. Evangeline told me this, later. “They don’t believe in killing children,” she said with a little pout. “But I think they don’t know I can take care of myself. They think I’ll starve without help. But there are still bodies left, aren’t there, Grandfather? Might we eat, now?”
When everyone was dead, it was much louder around camp. At first, I considered this a blessing. I still had my daughter. I still had all my friends, chattering far more frequently to each other than they ever had before. Is it odd to say that their lack of bodies knit our community more tightly together? Evened everyone out. Nobody was taller than the other, and everyone only weighed about ten pounds.
Evangeline took to carrying around Maya’s head. “Why are you still on two feet?” Maya said to me one day, the warning scowl coming over her face. “When the rest of us can’t move around at all. Do you have any idea how privileged you are, picking us up and putting us down?” I didn’t mention that actually, Evangeline did most of that, arranging the heads like settings at a death-feast to create the highest possible output of harmony among the guests. “To have two hands again. I’d give anything.”
“Honey,” said Jacob, “It isn’t his fault that we had the misfortune to have our heads severed. This is our doing, anyway.” I respected him a little bit more for that. It had been their doing, but young lust was hardly to blame, no matter how foolish.
“Don’t defend him,” Maya snarled, curling her lip even farther than she’d been able to in life — a result of the cayenne, I suspected. “What gives him the right to walk all arrogant while the rest of us are at the mercy of my baby girl? No offense, darling.”
“Mama,” Evangeline said, dragging her by the hair up so their eyes were level. “You said yourself someone had to take care of me. Grandpa’s doing a good job.”
I was smart enough, by then, not to feel warmed by the compliment. I had begun to feel a persistent headache coming on beneath my forehead.
There was no place to put them — their own tents were out of the question, as they couldn’t get in or out themselves and if they had a problem they would simply scream until I came to pick them up. That was when Evangeline said, “We should build a shelf. A big shelf, with squares, and we can put each head in a square, and even write their names on labels, so we’ll never forget who was who.”
Though I was inwardly horrified at the thought, it was a good solution. I’m not bitter. I recognize talent when I see it, and Evangeline certainly had it. So the two of us left in the village began to collect and polish the wood. Evangeline herself had a large hand in the specifications, furrowing her brow in such concentrated childhood that she looked years older. And still not quite human. Her body was growing, but long and spindly, hardly able to manage itself, like a newborn deer.
As I was hammering the boards into place, Evangeline picked up Marius’ head to place it experimentally on his shelf. He was bald, and so she had made a hat out of his own clothes to sit lopsidedly atop his scalp. “What is this?” he asked with good-natured curiosity.
“A shelf,” Maya said with a roll of her eyes, a shelf below his. “What does it look like, Uncle?”
“No matter, no matter. Just curious. Are we going to make tea together again, Evie?”
The little girl grinned. “That would be just lovely in every way.”
On the shelf above Marius, my wife winked at me and flashed a mouth of missing teeth and howled with laughter. Her placement reminded me of some kind of twisted family tree bearing odd fruit.
The shelf was done just before the end of fall. Evangeline arranged the heads and began to mark labels near each one. I helped her reach the higher rows. Everyone chatted eagerly, settling into their preferred spots. Some arguments about ideal shelf-space were quickly remedied by exchanging cubbies. By the time it was done, the shelf was completely full. I was impressed with Evangeline’s perfect forecasting in that regard.
No, that isn’t right. I remembered there was one unoccupied cubby near the top.
I’m still not sure where Evangeline got the axe from.
Wait. Let me start over.
When the between came that year, I bundled Evangeline into my arms and we retreated to my tent. I told her to keep quiet. If she was hungry, she must reach as slowly as possible for the food and eat without smacking her lips against her gums. If she was restless, she must breathe in and out, slowly, and not make any sudden movements, and not jump up and run out to see how our shelf of villagers was faring. If she heard screams, she must not be afraid, but must stay put.
The twilight came.
It bleached all the color from the open tent and the land around us. The trees were gray. The sky was some shade of white. My skin was black. I would say that Evangeline’s skin was black, too, but that does not even come close to the color. It was a purple so deep it wasn’t purple. It swallowed all light.
Very slowly, I pressed my finger to my lips. I had survived many betweens before. This one was no different. An unseen beast howled outside, a hurricane tore at the trees, and yet nothing touched our skins, not even, it seemed, the air. We remained in that nothing-place, surrounded by the thrashing death throes of the season. Presently I became aware of Evangeline staring at me intently.
For perhaps the first time in her young life, I met her gaze. I felt nothing in that time. All of my fears, my trepidations for the future, my sweet and bitter memories—everything fell away, left with an emptiness so refreshing that I thought, for half a moment, I would very willingly do whatever Evangeline told me to do, like a prodded cow pushed to more fertile land. There is comfort in having your fate decided by another.
I’m still not sure where Evangeline got the axe from. It was in her hand before I remember her reaching for it. She must have moved quickly to grab it, yet I thought I would have noticed and chastised her if she had.
“What are you doing?” I said, alarmed, before I could stop myself.
Her teeth flashed with glee. “Mama was right,” she said, and her voice rang clearly through the noise. No, it was the noise. There were monsoons in her throat and hail in her fists and tornadoes in her hair. “It isn’t fair.” She moved too quickly for me to see. Her cool nothing-skin traced the folds of my deep wrinkles. Hairs rose all over my body. Her fingers trailed down to the age-waddle of my throat. “My collection is almost done.”
I don’t remember pain. Isn’t that odd? I remember suddenly being sideways on the ground, unable to move, blinking as my granddaughter used my thin shirt to clean my blood from her axe. “There we go,” she said, and picked my head up, and kissed my forehead, just above my persistent headache. “You are my revered grandfather. Your place is at the head of our village.”
She tucked me gently under her arm, climbed up the shelf I had built and placed me lovingly into the empty cubby in the top row. The between ended abruptly as it had begun, leaving the world perhaps a little rumpled but no less bright than it had been before the silent storm. As is right and good. “My girl,” Maya cooed. “My brilliant baby girl.” Evangeline began to sing: Szerelem, szerelem, and stroked a comb lovingly through her mother’s hair.