“Bet Prissy’s never seen one naked. Probably die of shame, wouldn’t you, Jax?” Frank jeers.
Ethan is trying to ignore them. His burger is finished. Frank had told Bill Waters that the bar had good, cheap food. He didn’t mention the cheap women.
But they were going to keep talking. And his nickname didn't help.
“All dogs are,” he says, keeping his head low, folding the napkin into intricate shapes, squares, and triangles.
He’s not stupid. Not like they think. He knows what they mean. He’s heard worse. Doesn’t mean he likes it. It should be enough to satisfy them for now, though, to leave him alone, until they were finished with their own meals and politeness would allow him to leave.
It doesn't work.
“Wait, no, really? Mr. Goody Two Shoes? Spill!”
This was why Leidia didn’t trust him. He couldn’t lie even with his mouth shut.
“It wasn’t like that,” he says, ruffling the back of his curls awkwardly.
“Of course, you could never see a real woman. What was she? Magazine or online?”
“Are you kidding? Kid could never buy it.”
“Probably just an underwear catalog.”
Ethan tries to blink away the crude laughter. They still thought he was a child as if he didn’t know what they were talking about. But the lewd imaginings were desecrating memories. He had held it sacred, kept it simple. You can ruin things with too many words. And they didn’t care anyway. “She was real. But it wasn’t what you think. She was old. And dead. I never found her name.”
“What?” Now every eye is on him.
“It was the ------,” he uses the Masari word, “I don’t know the English. The cutting? Examination? Where you open and look and see? It was in the ----------. House of the Dead?”
He gets up, clenches his fists, tightens his fingers to keep from flinging out insults and curses about how Frank could never afford a wife. He could recite Paretha’s proverbs about the disrespect and Masari warnings about the scrab-faced arrogance of laughing at the dead.
But he says nothing. His mother said to be nice or say nothing at all. His people say that the people who talk a lot know nothing.
He could argue, try to explain. But he’s done that all before. They didn’t get it.
”Where are you going?” Mr. Waters asks.
“Back to the truck. If it is ok?”
“You’ll need these,” he says, tossing him the keys.
“Thank you,” he whispers. He turns back, lifts his eyes to meet theirs. "It wasn't disgusting," he says.
His jaw is still tight. He sorts through the CDs, snaps them all in their proper cases, then goes back through and alphabetizes them.
He gathers up Mr. Water’s gum wrappers. The cab is clean too quickly. His heartbeat is still flooding through his wrists.
He remembers the shocking coolness of stepping into the House, the darkness and the many lights, the intense curling saarika amulets of ivory on the walls, the scent of cinnamon, salt, and alcohol, as they kept stepping deeper and deeper.
Yuusha-sarin was not afraid of death. He told Ethan, “Fear is ibraqi. And ibraqi kills.” So Ethan swallowed and tried to not be afraid.
Even if Yuusha was not afraid, he was respectful, careful. A doctor always was, just in case. The heaviness of the saarikas dug into his shoulders. His breath was too loud in the carved mask. Yuusha said it would keep the dead from recognizing those that cut their bodies.
“It is nothing to worry about,” Yuusha said, “This is a good act. We are bringing life from death. To understand. It is an honor for them.”
“Then why do we wear this?” He jerked every time the ebony amulets swung from his borrowed robe. “If it is ok with you?” It was an honor for him, that a lokarri would even be allowed in here. That Yuusha-sarin would even speak to him was beyond his deserving. He knew that.
Yuusha tilted his head gently, in the way he always did when he was teaching. Ethan calmed and listened.
“Are the living always sensible?”
Ethan smiled, remembering several incidents in the marketplace, “Not always.”
“Why should the dead be any different?”
He nodded. It made sense. If you believe the dead are still around. Which he didn’t, except when he was talking with Yuusha-sarin or Malim, especially. He swallowed. He didn’t understand why he was so scared. Perhaps it was the incense or the music used to disguise their breathing.
The faces were covered, the bodies were naked. Nobody important, of course. An old beggar woman and a former slave.
Yuusha-sarin traced sarrikas on their chests with purifying herbs while Ethan stared at the floor. Then he handed Ethan the knife.
“You remember,” he said.
“I think so,” Ethan said, “First-“
Yuusha-sarin nodded, “I’ve heard you recite. Show.”
Ethan slit the skin under the collarbone. Even with his gingerly cut, it slid right in. He panicked, trying to keep it from going into the muscles. Yellow fat oozed onto his fingers. He stopped to dip them in the alcohol, wiping them off on his robe.
He continued, carefully separating it, preparing it for being peeled back. Focus. Keep your hand steady. Consistent. Shallow. It wasn’t that much different from deer.
Yuusha-sarin watched the boy continue, shoulders hunched in deep concentration. He was quiet, faded into his task. The brown hand remained steady; his head tilted in deep interest.
And the interest continued with precise cuts, Yuusha’s instructions, questions, and his tight notes in his little book interrupted only with Yuusha’s amusement at the boy being too bashful to touch the beggar’s breasts, insisting on covering them with handcloths.
“I just can’t get it. It’s thinner but then it bulges. And the details. The shape is all wrong,” Ethan lamented, pen scratching through the parchment, hands flipping.
“Enough, let it aside. You are bringing ibraqi. It is not good for you.”
“I’m sorry. Sorry.”
“The cuts are good. You have strong control. That is most important."
As they were washing up, Ethan noticed the human grease on the robe. It was strange that all of a life, the way Yuusha’s eyes demanded the truth after his collapse in the desert, the firmness of his hand, the stories of his mother, all of it was in yellow, grey, and rusty mush and meat. In grease and blood and fleshstrings and bones. How simple and so complicated.
He thought he would be shaking, the way he had, going down into the House. But his hands felt steadier. So this was death. And it still felt like a mystery to whisper about. But not like how he thought. Because death wasn’t really the mystery. Things break. People do, too.
The biggest question was life, how something so big could be in something so small.
No, it wasn’t something Frank would understand. It wasn’t something he could explain. It was the same wondering almost-understanding of art or a good story that couldn’t be translated into words because it was something beyond them.
That old woman had had a life, once. Maybe even children. Certainly, parents. A mother had held for nine months, waiting. She had days. She woke up, and spoke, and dreamed. Perhaps, she had argued with all the vendors. Perhaps she had been quiet and cooled herself in the shadows.
And then all her life was laid out for a wide-eyed boy and his tender knife. All her heart, all her words. That her death could be useful, could be honorable. That, even nameless, she could help and teach him to save others.
He pulls out his book with the sketches from that day. He stares at the diagrams, tracing the bones, finding the nerves under his own skin. He is gentle with the parchment, reciting the procedures, the names.
“You could have turned the air on at least," Mr. Waters says as he swings up beside him.
He nods, “I’m fine.”
“Well, at least, open the window a little more or you’ll boil.”
Mr. Waters reaches over and pats the boy’s shoulder. Ethan leans into it.
“He was just joking, you know?”
Ethan shakes his head. Not 8 times. Maybe once, mayhap twice, not eight times. It's not a joke. Not funny then.
“He doesn’t like me,” Ethan says.
“Frank,” It’s the sorrow of a child and the resignation of a teenager.
“How do you say that?” He asks. He’s a little too old for the polite lies of children, that it can’t be true, that he’s too nice. Those worked for his kindergartners, it won’t work for this deep-eyed teenager.
He has to keep from rolling his eyes and coughs to disguise a sigh, “Kid, most of us cuss. Not everyone grew up like you.”
He nods, serious like always. Most didn't. He recognizes that. But Mr. Waters didn't. He tried not to, he'd catch himself and change it to 'flipping'. Ethan had never asked him too.
“But he cusses more when I’m here.”
He can’t argue with the kid. He hasn’t noticed. He can’t say whether he’s right or not.
“So, the dead lady? The autopsy stuff? That was real?”
“Yes. That's where my books are from.”
Bill nods. He had barely seen them, well, beyond their dark, weathered covers. The kid usually snapped them shut whenever he came near. He respected that, didn’t snoop. They were obviously important to the kid. But now, one lay open on his lap, with anatomical diagrams and foreign curlicue letters.
He continues, “Yuusha-sarin took me. It was a great honor,” he stares at his fingers, “He said I had the right hands for it.”
His fingers are long and slender. Bill’s watched his quick fingers at jacks, the precision at untying knots.
“What’s the craziest thing you’ve done?”
“There was a surgery. We cut open his head. There was a, there was a ...bigness we needed to cut out.”
“You did brain surgery?”