The worst part about being an amateur necromancer is that no one respects you, not even the dead.
My older brother, Joseph, is practically crying over the phone, struggling to speak through great gasps of heaving, wheezing laughter. After way too many seconds of this, he finally manages to choke out, “Really? Goddamn—Mountain Dew?”
Irritated, I switch the phone to my other ear, tipping my head awkwardly to pin it in place while I free up my hands for my shovel. “It was the only drink left on clearance.”
Joseph makes a thin, stifled little sound that only darkens my frown. “You—you seriously went to the clearance aisle to buy libations? Where? No, no, wait, let me guess: Walmart. Wait, no. 7-11. Family Dollar. Tell me if I’m getting warmer.”
“You’re hypothermic. Dollar Tree.”
Joseph howls. “Dollar Tree! Fucking Dollar Tree! Holy shit!”
Ignoring his idiotic guffawing and tucking the shovel into the crook of my elbow, I begin to haul the rest of my supplies out of the bed of my truck, which is only a heavy duffel bag containing everything I managed to scrounge up around the house. In the driver’s seat, a pale, skeletal head leans out of the window, glancing back at me.
“Do you need any help, Laurel?” the family chauffeur asks kindly. He used to be a relative, I think; several generations removed and raised sometime in the early nineteenth century, a great-great-great-great-great grandfather of a sort. Since then, he’s seemed relatively content to drive us all around in perpetuity, despite our best efforts to convince him to be laid to rest again.
“No thank you, Marco,” I say. I don’t want to exploit his aging skeleton beyond his chauffeuring. And he is a shockingly sharp chauffeur.
“Hey, is Marco there? Tell him I said hi. Lore. Tell him I said—”
I pry the phone away from my face and say, “Joseph says hi, Marco.”
“Oh, well,” Marco says, bashful. The exact mechanics of his speech are a mystery to me; the man is only bones. “Of course I’m always happy to hear from Joseph.”
“He says you’re a pathetic sack of shit, Jo,” I say into the speaker, and Joseph instantly starts in with his loud protestations, which, like, I don’t really care. I let him finish his tirade, not registering any of the surely airheaded words, before continuing, “And I don’t appreciate you constantly belittling me. Just because I wasn’t born with the talent doesn’t mean I’m not skilled in my own right.”
“Look, Lore, I’m just saying that if you want people to take you seriously, you gotta stop buying Walmart libations and start investing in something that’ll, you know. Actually take you somewhere.”
“I can’t afford—”
Joseph groans. “Maybe it’s a sign that necromancy just isn’t in the cards, you precious baby magician. Remember what Auntie Gertrude said before ma laid her back down?”
“In both life and death, I was frequently of the opinion that Aunt Gertrude should mind her own petty, squalling business.”
“She said, and I quote,” Joseph continues blithely, “‘Maybe you ought to apply yourself to something more your speed, doll, like elemental talents.’ And you know, she could be wise sometimes. Maybe if you actually tried to learn how to light candles or catch rain or whatever elementals do, you could finally start supporting yourself independently instead of constantly trying to force a talent that’s never going to manifest.”
By this point, I’m so angry I can barely see. Hands shaking, through gritted teeth, I snarl, “Perhaps if you applied half as much energy into your necromancy as you do into your self-righteous sermons, you could’ve afforded a wedding ring for Carole that wasn’t a piece of shit plastic with a watermelon candy diamond glued on top.”
“Hey, lay off! Carole and I—”
I hang up as violently as possible without shattering my phone, then hurl it unceremoniously into the truck bed, sending it skittering across the grooved plastic. That utterly arrogant, narcissistic, unceasingly condescending—
“Everything alright?” Marco asks, ever gentle, ever careful. His comforting, fatherly tones make me soften against my will, and I take a deep breath, steadying myself.
“Yes,” I say quietly, lifting my duffel’s strap over my shoulder. “Thank you.” Marco starts to slide back into the car, turning away from me, but I blurt out, “Marco,” and he pauses, bleached white skull half-cocked in my direction. “Do you…” Respect me, I want to ask, but even the thought of voicing it makes my face burn with humiliation. I shake my head, dismissing it. “Never mind.”
“Alright. Have fun, Lore,” Marco says, before disappearing into the car. A few seconds later, the crooning chords of Fantaisie in C Major strike up from the radio, his favorite CD.
I sigh, shoulder my bag, and march off into the cemetery.
“Fun,” I mutter to myself unhappily as I pick my way around the headstones, watching my step in the dark. Nighttime isn’t strictly necessary for necromantic practice, despite the stereotypes, but most of my family has always done it this way. It’s tradition. “Fun is a day at the beach. Fun is a carousel. I’m a necromancer.”
Necromancy runs in my family’s genes. It’s a talent that goes back centuries, as far as we can trace it, beyond even Marco, though he remains the oldest active member of our family as of yet. We always give our relatives the choice to rise or rest after death, and oddly enough, most choose to rest rather than return. Marco is an aberration in that regard.
Joseph and I, our parents’ only children, both bear the responsibility of upholding the family’s inheritance through our necromancy. Joseph is a lazy, boorish slob, receiving paltry under-the-table payments for street necromancy, as if it’s some sort of party trick and not the perfect gift of our heritage. He makes animal bones dance for a cheap laugh, but applies his talent to little else.
And I—I have never raised a single corpse at all.
Not for lack of trying. Ever since I was a child, I was obsessed with following in the footsteps of my parents, grandparents, and all my ancestors beyond them. To honor their legacy with my talent would be the greatest boon of all. My efforts have never yielded fruit. It’s evident at this point that I have not had the gift of being born a natural necromancer; but any talent can be learned.
Contrary to Joseph’s belief, libations do not need to be expensive or refined to be effective—take our cousin Samson’s business, for example. He founded his own independent necromancy practice with little more than a few bags of potato chips and a liter of apple cider, and his raising rituals are some of the most infamous in the nation. No, the quality of the libations doesn’t matter nearly as much as the intention of the necromancer—so my lack of progress in cultivating my skills must be no one’s fault but my own.
The penultimate problem with necromancy—what Joseph assumes as a baseline of reality—is that there has never been a recorded case of anyone learning the skill if they are not born with it. It appears to be a strictly genealogical phenomenon, unlike nearly every other talent in the world.
But I refuse to give up trying. Perhaps my talent is simply latent, or dormant, and all I need to do is study and practice the motions until it expresses itself, finally. What is not possible is failure. I refuse to entertain the idea that becoming an elemental is the only avenue left for me to take. And Joseph can go drown himself in the sea.
When I reach the middle of the cemetery, I choose a headstone at random—the identity of the corpse matters little—and set down my bag and shovel. This is a free use cemetery, where all people buried within it have given their consent to be raised by any necromancer who needs extra bodies for their work. It’s an optimal practice ground for me.
Unzipping my bag, I produce my libations: a liter of Mountain Dew, several packages of beef jerky, and an old Havdalah spice box I’ve borrowed from one of my Jewish friends, for garnish. Other items within the bag include a pair of scissors, a spirit board and planchette, a bottle of spring water, and an ancient, cracked hot glue gun. It never pays to be underprepared for a raising ritual.
Next is where the shovel will be useful. Bracing my weight against the head of the shovel, I begin to dig out the upper layers of the grave, shuffling the dirt off to the side in as tidy a heap as I can manage. This is the most taxing part, and will take me several hours; luckily, the dirt here is soft and sandy, and the bodies are always buried without coffins and no more than two feet deep.
Three hours later, with my arms trembling and sweat trickling down my face, a considerable pile of dirt to my right, I’ve uncovered the corpse.
A woman, interned roughly anywhere between four to six months ago, primarily skeletal at this stage. There are a few remaining scraps of decomposed flesh clinging to her ribs and the thicker meat of her thighs, but the worms have done their work well. I lay my shovel off to the side, then grab my libations.
Intention. Focus. I center myself, breathing evenly, and begin.
“Bone of my bone, body of bodies, I offer you drink,” I say, uncapping the Mountain Dew and pouring a shot of it over the woman’s skeleton. “Bone of my bone, body of bodies, I offer you food.” I toss the beef sticks into the grave. “Bone of my bone, body of bodies, I offer you stirring senses, and bid you rise.” I dump the Havdalah boxes’ entire contents into the grave. Although the skeleton doesn’t so much as twitch, I’m undeterred. “I bid you rise, bone of my bone. I bid you rise, body of bodies. I bid you rise from that deathful rest. Please,” I add after a long, silent pause, a bit desperately.
Nothing. Always, always nothing.
I resist the urge to do something incredibly disrespectful, like throw a rock into the grave, and instead I reluctantly move onto my contingency plan, picking up the spirit board and balancing it on my knees. The practical elements of spirit-talking and actual, physical necromancy are identical; both require calling the essence of a person back into the mortal plane, whether this be ethereally or through the preexisting framework of their bodily remains. One might assume that giving a spirit their body back to anchor them would be the easier endeavor, but nothing can ever go my way.
Spirit-talking is just so personal. It makes me uncomfortable every time to call them by name instead of just raising their bones. Bones don’t have opinions.
Bracing my fingers lightly atop the planchette, I read off the tombstone, “Marie Castanueva, I bid you rise. From deathful rest, I bid you rise. Bone of my bone, I bid you—”
Before I can even finish the incantation, the planchette jerks under my fingers, sliding jaggedly over to F. I hold my breath, unable to believe my luck, and eagerly watch the spirit finish spelling out her response:
My smile fades.
“What do you mean,” I hiss at the board, furious. “This is a free use cemetery, you checked the box on your will that permitted necromantic exploitation, you can’t—”
The planchette skirts to a new letter.
“But it’s the same principle. I would only be briefly tying your spirit to the bones for the purposes of reanimation—”
Marie’s spirit moves the planchette to NO, then holds it fast there, refusing to let me move it any further. After several fruitless seconds of trying to tear the planchette away from her, I let out a short shriek of rage and upend the entire board, throwing the whole thing into the open grave and letting it clatter carelessly onto the bones.
Fine. Fine! I get to my feet, grab my shovel, and start shoveling grave dirt back over the bones, shaking so hard with anger and disappointment that I can barely hold onto the wood handle, nearly dropping it more than once. Fine, universe, you win. I’m never going to be a necromancer. It’s not like I based my entire life and prospects around this one thing. It’s not like this is a spit in the face of every successful necromancer my family has ever produced.
As soon as the grave is filled, I don’t bother packing it back in or smoothing it over—if Marie Castanueva wanted her grave to look nice, she should have let me reanimate her body.
I throw my libations and supplies back into my bag, shoulder my shovel, and stalk back to the truck where Marco is waiting.
He’s moved onto a modern production of Clair de Lune, but he turns it down when he hears me tossing my things into the bed of the truck with a violence that is unbecoming of a woman of my age, so I take a moment of just leaning against the side of the truck with my face pressed into my hands, trying not to cry.
When I collect myself enough to climb into the passenger seat, Marco looks sideways at me with what might be concern, but I can’t read skeletal body language.
We sit in silence for a long time. The soft strains of classical music wafting from the radio give the total void of conversation between us a certain horrible, lonely panache.
“Have a good ritual, Laurel?” Marco asks finally, hesitantly.
“No,” I say, staring straight ahead out of the windshield. “I’m thinking about becoming an accountant.”
“I don’t think you should do that.”
“Why not? I’ve ignored the signs for too long. I’m destined for mediocrity. An abacus can’t make the planchette spell out expletives.”
“Well,” Marco says meditatively, “if that were true, I think you would’ve given up a long time ago. I mean, you’ve been trying to learn necromancy for nineteen years. If you had dedicated that much of your life to any other trade, you would surely be a master by now in anything you chose.”
“But I chose necromancy, and—” My voice cracks and I struggle for composure, squeezing my eyes shut. The pain in my chest sharpens. “I’m nothing without it.”
“Forgive me, but… you’ve always been without it.” Marco lays a skeletal hand on my shoulder, light and unobtrusive. “And I think you’re quite something.”
Sniffling, I swallow hard. Then I reach up and place my own hand over Marco’s. I open my eyes, blinking away the burgeoning tears, and breathe, long and slow. “Okay.”
“Okay? That’s my girl.”
I nod, recollecting myself. “You’re right. I am skilled. I’m ambitious. I can do anything I want. I can’t give up on divination altogether. Thank you, Marco.” I let out a rueful laugh, briefly passing my hands over my eyes. “God, can you imagine? Me as an accountant?”
As Clair de Lune transitions into Danse Macabre, Marco shakes his head in the negative, taking back his hand and wrapping both around the wheel. “Certainly not. And thank you—if you chose a non-divining career, I’d owe Joseph quite a lot of money that an old bag of bones like me simply doesn’t have.”
A tense beat.
He coughs awkwardly. “I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.”
Very calmly and reasonably, I lift my hands and slam them both hard against the dashboard, making the two-faced ossified cadaver next to me jump. Jaw clenched, I say, “Drive the damn truck, Marco.”
“Right. Yes. Sorry.”
He twists his bleached white phalanges guiltily and starts the engine, and we drive home in deathly silence.