Whichwood – Tahereh Mafi

just Laylee doing all the washing. Maman had died two years prior (a cockroach had fallen in the samovar and Maman, unwittingly, drank the tea; it was all very tragic), but Laylee was not afforded the opportunity to grieve. Most ghosts moved on after a good scrubbing, you see, but Maman’s had lingered, floating about the halls and criticizing Laylee’s best work even when she was sleeping. Baba, too, was entirely absent, as he’d been gone just as long as Maman had been dead. Devastated by the loss of his wife, he’d set off on an impulsive journey not two days after Maman died, determined to find Death and give him a firm talking-to about his recent choices. Sadly, Death was nowhere to be found. Worse, grief had so thoroughly crippled Baba’s mind that, despite his two-year absence, thus far he’d managed to travel only as far as the city center. In his heartbreak he’d lost not only his way, but his good sense, too. Baba’s brain had rearranged, and in the madness and chaos of loss, no room remained for his only child. Laylee was collateral damage in a war on grief, and Baba, who had no hope of winning such a war, haplessly succumbed to this opiate of oblivion. Laylee would often pass her disoriented father on her sojourns into town, pat his shoulder in a show of support, and tuck a pomegranate into his pocket. More on that later. For now, let us focus: It was a cold, lonely night, and Laylee had just collected the last of her dinner when a sudden sound froze her still. Two loud thumps, a branch snap, a dull thud, the unmistakable intake of air and a sudden rush of angry whispers— No, there was no denying it: There were trespassers here. Now, this would have been an alarming revelation for any normal person, but as Laylee was a distinctly abnormal person, she remained unperturbed.

She was, however, perplexed. The thing was, no persons ever came here, and heaven help them if they did; stumbling upon a shed of swollen, rotting corpses had never done any person any good. It was for this reason that Laylee and her family lived in relative isolation. They had taken up residence in a small, drafty castle on a little peninsula on the outer edge of town in an informal sort of exile; it was an unkindness Laylee and her family had not earned, but then, no one wanted to live next door to the girl with such an unfortunate occupation. In any case, Laylee was entirely unaccustomed to hearing human voices so close to home, and it made her suspicious. Her head high and alert, Laylee stacked her snowflakes into an ornate silver dinnerbox—an old family heirloom—and tiptoed out of sight. Laylee wasn’t a child oft bothered by the fuss and furor of fear; no, she dealt with death every day, and so the unknowns that startled most had little effect on a person who could talk to ghosts. (This last bit was a secret, of course—Laylee knew better than to tell her townspeople that she could see and speak with the spirits of their loved ones; she had no interest in being asked to do more work than was already stacked in her shed.) So as she trod cautiously back toward the modest castle that was her home, she felt not fear, but a tickle of curiosity, and as the feeling warmed itself inside her heart, she blinked, grateful and surprised to feel a smile spreading across her face. Maman was hovering in the entryway as Laylee pulled open the heavy wooden door and, just as the ghost-mother prepared to shout about one new grievance or another, a sudden gust of wind slammed shut the door behind them, causing Laylee to jolt against her will.

She closed her eyes and exhaled sharply, her hands still closed around her silver box. “Where have you been?” Maman demanded, zipping around Laylee’s ears. “Don’t you care at all about my feelings? You know how lonely I get, locked up here all by myself—” (Right, yes, this was another thing: Maman would haunt their home and nowhere else —not because she couldn’t, but because she wouldn’t. She was a very doting parent.) Laylee ignored Maman. Presently, she untied an ancient, floral, excessively fringed scarf from around her head and unbuttoned the toggles of her fur-lined winter cloak, hanging both to dry by the front door. The fur was a gift from a fox who’d saved his summer sheddings for her, and tonight Laylee had been especially grateful for the extra warmth. “—no one to talk to,” Maman was wailing, “no one to sympathize with my plight—” Laylee used to be more sympathetic to Maman’s plights, but she’d learned the hard way that this ghost was but an echo of her real mother. Maman had been a vibrant, interesting woman, but the gauzy iteration flitting past our heroine’s head had little personality and even less charm. Ghosts, it turned out, were excessively insecure creatures, offended by every imagined slight; they required constant coddling and found comfort only in their romantic musings on death—which, as you might imagine, made them miserable companions.

Maman had settled into a dramatic soliloquy—taking care to describe the monotony of her day in great detail—as Laylee took a seat at the kitchen table. She didn’t bother lighting a lamp, as there weren’t any lamps to be lit. She’d been on her own for two years now, fending for herself and footing the bills, but no matter how hard Laylee worked, it was never enough to bring her home back to life. Laylee had one gift: She had a magical talent that enabled her (and those of her bloodline—she’d inherited the gene from Baba) to wash and package the dead destined for the Otherwhere, but such heavy work was never meant to be carried out by a single person—and certainly not by one so young. Despite her best efforts, Laylee’s body was slowly deteriorating; and the longer her small person dealt in the decomposition of life, the weaker she became. Laylee didn’t have the time to be a vain girl, but if she’d ever spent more than a few minutes in front of a mirror she might have blossomed into a fine narcissist. In fact, had her parents been around to encourage her ego, she might well have lost the whole of her mind. It was lucky for Laylee, then, that she had neither mother nor mirror to fill her head with nonsense, for a closer inspection of her reflected self would have revealed a girl of unusual beauty. She was of slim, sturdy build, with long, elegant limbs; but it was her eyes—soft and doll-like—that set her apart. One look at our young friend was enough to flutter the hearts of those who met her, but it was that second glance that awakened their fear.

Let us be clear: Laylee’s looks did not inspire admirers. She was not a girl to be trifled with, and her beauty was to her as inconsequential as those who revered it. She was born beautiful, you see; her face was a gift she could not shed. At least, not yet. The work she did was taking its toll, and she could no longer ignore the changes in her reflection. Though her chestnut locks had once been lustrous and robust, they’d now begun to fade: Laylee was going silver from the ends upward, and her eyes—which had once been a deep, rich amber—had gone a glassy gray. Thus far, only her skin had been spared; even so, her newly flinty eyes against the deep bronze of her skin made her seem moon-like, alien, and perpetually sad. But Laylee had little patience for sadness, and though deep down she felt a great deal of pain, she much preferred to be angry. And so she was, for the most part, an irritable, unkind, angry girl, with little pleasantness to distract her from the constant death demanding her attention. Tonight, she swept a defeated glance around the many rooms of her drafty home and promised herself that one day she would do well enough to repair the broken windows, mend the torn draperies, replace the missing torches, and reinvigorate the faded walls.

Though she worked hard every day, Laylee was seldom paid for the work she did. The magic that ran through her veins made it so she was bound by blood to be a mordeshoor, and when the dead were delivered to her door, she had no choice but to add them to the pile. The people of Whichwood knew this and too often took advantage of her, sometimes paying very little, and sometimes not at all. But one day, she swore, she’d breathe light and color back into the dimness that had diminished her life. Maman was darting in and out of her daughter’s face again, unhappy to be so soundly ignored. Laylee swatted at Maman’s insubstantial figure, her face pulled together in dismay. The daughter ducked twice and eventually gave up, carrying her dinner into the sparsely furnished living room and, once newly settled onto the softest part of the threadbare rug, Laylee cracked open the dinnerbox. The room was lit only by moonlight, but the distant orb would have to do. Laylee dropped her chin in one hand, crunched quietly on a snowflake the size of her face, and thought wistfully of the days she used to spend with children her own age. It had been a long time since Laylee had been to school, and she missed it sometimes.

But school was a thing of luxury; it was meant for children with working parents and domestic stability—and Laylee could no longer pretend to have either. She bit into another snowflake. The first fresh flakes of the season were made entirely of sugar—this was a magic specific to Whichwood—and though Laylee knew she should eat something healthier, she simply didn’t care. Tonight she wanted to relax. So she ate all five flakes in one sitting and felt very, very good about it. Maman, meanwhile, had just concluded her monologue and was now moving on to more pressing issues (the general state of the house, the more specific mess in the kitchen, the dusty hallways, her daughter’s damaged hair and callused hands) when Laylee retreated upstairs. This was Maman’s daily routine, and Laylee was struggling to be patient about it. She’d stopped responding to Maman long ago—which helped a bit— but it also meant that sometimes several days would pass before Laylee would speak a single word, and the loneliness was beginning to scar. Laylee hadn’t always been such a silent child, but the more anger and resentment welled up inside of her, the less she d a r e d t o s a y. She was a girl w h o r a r ely s p o k e fo r fe a r o f s p o n t a n e o u sly c o m b u s tin g.

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