The Caretaker

Sylvia held her breath for the last few seconds before the un-light would rain down upon the village. How it changed things, how the world transmuted under that wet darkness, where everything became a secret again and all the world drew into one unsolvable nameless mystery. She braced herself.

So many were frightened of the un-light and the unsettling visions it bestowed. Her mother maintained that it is bad for the skin, that it ages you, that it makes it harder for you to become pregnant, that it's poison, that it's an evil curse best hidden away from, that it can drive you mad.

At present her mother, and all the other villagers, would be hiding in the basements of their dilapidated hovels, shutters drawn and doors barred, pretending that the coming of the un-light would be something that could be thwarted by anything other than the airtight shelters which only The Lords possessed. None of the peasants would escape the un-light, nor were they meant to. Hiding away from it, underground, only diminished its reality-altering effects. It’s true that hiding underground meant the liquid itself would not come in direct contact with your skin, yet the powerful fumes could still reach and twist you.

Sylvia however had walked right out into the street. She wanted the very first drops of it to land on her head. They said those thick drops, the colour of night, felt like hot candle wax on the skin; a flash of heat dissipating into a tingling blotch of numbness.

Sylvia had recently passed the ceremony of adulthood and she had decided that she would embrace the un-light, not hide from it. It would be her second rite of passage: She would meet it head-on, out in the muddy street, barefoot, with her arms stretched out ahead of her, palms facing upwards. So when her mother had barked at her to shut the hovel door, Sylvia did in fact do just that; but from the outside. 

Nobody dared chase after her, nor would it have made any difference if they had. She had always been proud, wilful and stubborn, her family knew this, and the process of marrying her off in the coming years was not something any of them particularly looked forward to. The cost of the dowry demands alone would probably break the bank. All the other girls' families had received at least a few offers by now. Sylvia's had received none. Her mother had suggested that they look to another village for a potential husband, someone less clued-in about her character, or perhaps someone who would put their lust of a dowry over their own peace of mind.

All these thoughts and more passed through her head as she held her breath in that moment before the fall of the un-light. Sylvia wanted to face it up close, to immerse herself in it. To pool it in her palms and run it between her fingers, she wanted to close her fist around it and watch it forge dark rivers down her arm and run off her elbow, feeling it sting and cramp her arm muscles like a dull battery current as it did. She visualised lying down and letting the pouring rivers of un-light bathe her every nerve with that strange dreamlike energy it emanated, pressing her sensations inward and inward still, until there was only be a safe darkness, where the sound of her heartbeat would be the only thing in the universe.

The moment passed. Her ears caught the sparse taps of drops landing on the tin roofs of the hovels around the street. She exhaled, and as she did, she felt a drop meet the top of her head too. The sensation fizzed for a moment like her hair had caught fire, then it spread out, numbing her scalp and making her forehead and eyelids feel heavy. Just that one drop was enough to make her feel dizzy and slightly giddy, the way people in cheap stories fall in love. 

Another drop touched the back of her neck, spreading heat and numbness through her throat, almost to the tip of her jaw. Then one on her shoulder, which shot a jolt down her arm all the way to her wrist.

She felt a sharp pain in her mid-section and realised she had split into two identical copies of herself, both forgeries. They smiled mischievously at one another and held out their arms, palms turned upward, as the start of a burning torrent of un-light began to pour on them. They looked in each other's eyes and thought about how the real Sylvia would never be the same again after this. They would blink and she would be the real Sylvia for a moment, then she would blink again and there would be the two forgeries looking at each other again. It went on like this for a few minutes while the flashes of heat and numbness accelerated and spread over her body while the downpour got going. She willed the fake halves to permanently unite by shaking her head like she was trying to wake up from a dream, and resolved to stay as lucid as possible if she were to gain anything from this experience.

She was committed now. She wasn’t out here because she had ignored her mother's warnings or didn’t respect her heritage, it wasn't even foolish bravery, even though it was clear that's what people would say. It's that she wanted to define her own fate - one that went beyond a village of cowards that rushed to seal themselves away from nature’s wonder every month.

Unfortunately, just as she was thinking this, she realised she was now made entirely out of clothes, there was no more skin for the un-light to touch. This was disconcerting because if the un-light could not touch her it defeated the purpose of her being out in the street in the first place. She could sense that she still actually possessed some little flesh in between the folds of the fabric which she was now totally comprised of, but it felt more like delicate membranes weaved inside a maze of cloth. She knew that if she remained tense then even this little skin would never become exposed, and she would be as isolated from the un-light as her mother and the other peasants presently were.

She tried to relax, to let what was left of her flesh bloom outward from inside the rumpled cloth, to let it seek out the pouring un-light, which was already making her layers soggy and heavy, weighing her down. She despaired that if this kept up she would soon resemble an upturned bucket of wet laundry rather than the girl she once was.

She began to hear a heartbeat. It could not be hers, none of her remaining flesh could beat like that. It came from everywhere at once, and rose into a hammering pulse, like the very world was shaking. She had expected it to be there, but she had imagined it would have come from within.

Meanwhile she was was about to topple under the weight of the drenching un-light, it was inevitable; The only choice was how she would fall. She let herself fall over backwards, exposing her cotton-nested eyeballs directly to the falling un-light. She felt a night-coloured drop splash right into one eye and dart into her mind. She sensed swelling torrents of what felt like hot tar rise around her, spreading her out in layers, carrying her down the street. And as she had somehow foreseen, the world began to grow quiet, sensations dimmed, and everything faded - except that powerful heartbeat, rising from all the way down the base of reality.

She floated inside a womb, detached, wrapped in an orange glow. Long-forgotten memories caught up with her. This would be a young girl she was preparing. A tutor was visiting, she and him were both floating inside a girl embryo.

- "How is she?" he asked.

- "She's quiet. She's been growing very quickly now."

- "It's almost time. Were you able to tell that the mother recently went into labour?"

- "Yes, it started some hours ago I think. There’s such power that’s building up in her. I don't have a good sense of time in here. Has it been a full term already?"

- "Nine months, almost to the day. You’ve done an exceptional job with your first embryo. When her soul enters on her first breath, it will have a very well-tended vessel to fill."

- "I'm so glad to hear that. Will she have a good life?"

- "I'm afraid not."

- "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. I hope it will all mean something to her anyway though."

- "Unfortunately, no. This will not be a good life that awaits her, it will be full of meaningless suffering."

- "Oh, what a shame."

A warm knotted wall of iron bulged against her rear, squeezing her body, pressing the top of her head against the bottom of the womb. The orange glow around her intensified, there were lights out there. There were moans and screams from outside, and she felt her head being furiously crushed into the birth canal, as that wall of iron heaved irresistibly against her, squeezing her out like she was some sort of toothpaste. 

- "What a shame that she won't have a good life. She feels so beautiful to me. I hope you're mistaken, I hope she ends up being the happiest girl in the world."

- "I hope I'm mistaken too. Come on, it's almost time to leave. The new soul will be entering soon. I must say I have noted top marks for you here, you show great promise as a caretaker."

- "I feel so sad to leave her now. Will it always be as sad as this at the end of each term?"

- "It's always as sad, but you will get used to the partings over time. It’s a thankless job to care for someone else’s body. What I found out over my time on the job is that, eventually, I began to care as much about the caretakers as I did about the actual souls, and so I became a tutor to offer my support in tough moments like these, when a young caretaker like you needs it the most."

- "That was very selfless of you."

- "I’ve had many hard lives. That’s how you learn to care, the hard way."

- "Will I?"

- "When you're ready for the lesson. Come on, we're going now."

She was tumbling, completely naked and exposed inside a sea of un-light. She felt base, drunk, rude, reflexively sexual, as fragile and transparent as crystal, cheap loose and open like a brothel, but at the same time grateful that nobody was there to witness it. An impotent feeling of succumbing to every impulse and cellular imperative flooded her insides, as she helplessly observed her exposed limbs sway and tumble like seaweed while the currents of un-light torrented her about.

She knew there was clothing hiding under her naked skin and needed to make it spring out, she needed a shield from the un-light that enveloped her, it was too much. She screwed her eyes shut, tensed every muscle, and pressed with her insides outward. Her pores began to yawn and her skin began to resemble the texture of a ripe mandarin peel. She felt strands of fabric begin to ooze out of each pore, cloth coalescing into furry knots, tangling into globs of cotton, then cloth, wrapping itself around her exposure and nakedness, slowly covering her, returning some semblance of sanity to her head and willpower to her limbs.

As soon as she felt sufficient steadiness and energy flow back into her arms she SWUNG hard at the enveloping wall of un-light, which lazily and easily split into tar-coloured chunks like rotting ham. Hot air met her face. She smelled ozone and ash. She was looking at a hall, filled with large industrial copper coils that poured heated un-light into what looked like porcelain bathtubs. She was certain she had been here before. There were soapy clean memories on the edge of her mind, of stinging eyes and giant palms scrubbing her head, sometimes so hard it would capsize her — how she used to laugh as her feet waved in the air and a hand on her neck would carefully draw her upright once again. Then the coil above her began to buzz loudly and another wall of un-light enveloped her.

She was being crushed inside the birth canal. It was now long past the time to depart. But she couldn't let it go, she still needed to know. She asked the tutor:

- "What will she be called? How will she suffer?"

- "Please don't be concerned about her. Hard lives are needed to help us appreciate what's truly important, to help us break free from the illusions of the world. I’ve had many such lives. You will have those too when it's you time to progress from caretaking to inhabiting."

Each of her cells felt furious, like incensed bees swarming about her nervous system. It now felt that the un-light had gotten inside her, pumping through her veins. To her horror she fought down the sensation that she was about to turn into a boy. Anything but that. But it was pointless to fight. She felt shifts inside her pelvis, felt a part of her soul turn strange, tearing out and unfolding itself between her legs. The backs of her hands were covered in snake-scales. She realised a coat of rough smelly hair was rapidly growing over her tongue, rasping against her teeth and lips, making her cough and retch. Her muscles slithered like snakes and yanked at her bones as if they were fighting each other over her skeleton. Her fingers felt distant and lonely, and her eyes had grown vicious talons that reached all the way into her stomach, filling it with sad autumn leaves.

She screamed. It seemed to re-focus her for a moment. She could see a distorted image of her village now. Was it the real village? Was this their family hovel? Its door swung open. What looked like her mother was looking at her with a horrified expression, mouth agape, with another mouth extending from inside it, and another, mouths upon mouths, until it all formed a glistening red proboscis of dirty teeth and gums, swaying like a snake at her direction and trumpeting a strange worried tone. 

- "What if I didn't leave this baby now? What if I stayed inside her so the new soul can’t come in?"

- "Sylvia, please don't. You have done so well until now, you can't begin to appreciate the great benefits that this discipline will endow upon you over time.”

- "I find it hard to bear that this soul will be destined to have a bad life. I don't believe in destiny."

- "It doesn't matter what you believe. If the intended soul is not able to enter then you will have to live out her life instead, and there is very little you will be able to change anyway."

- "I would actually be born? Surely I'm too young to be alive..?"

- "It's your choice."

- "Then I'm staying."

The downpour of un-light rapidly tapered off, its steaming remains congealing into evaporating gelatinous blobs hanging across the hovel rooftops and spattered across the muddy street. There was some commotion around her but she had a hard time focusing. A strong arm grabbed her right ankle, and pulled her foot out of the remains of a light-coloured blob.

The horrors faded like someone had turned off a television. She turned to look at her mother, observing as her proboscis of mouths folded back into a her normal one. She placed her hands on her own face, mentally felt her body for any irregularities, looked around for any remnants of the visions that she had experienced only moments ago. The powerful heartbeat was still pulsing through the whole world, but she expected it would fade in time too.

- "You stupid girl!" her mother admonished her, "it runs in the bloody family! First my sister, then you. As if the warnings of The Lords about exposure to un-light weren't enough, you had to find out for yourselves why it's a bad idea to--"

- "Oh mommy. This is such a strange world, isn't it?"

- "...yes sweetie, it is."

- "Why does the un-light come?"

- "It just does. And we have to make the best of it. It's bad enough to experience it from the inside of the hovels, you didn’t need to stand right under it. I reckon you’ve understood that now."

- "I think I remembered being born."

- "You're still being born", her mother said, clinched her fists, and then moaned in some terrible agony — Moaned so powerfully that the village burst and collapsed like a warm wet balloon around Sylvia, wrapping itself around her tightly, crushing her like a boa constrictor.

A moment later she felt the crushing pressure ease off her head. She felt cold air and light on her eyelids. Another tortured scream and a squeeze pushed her into the world, and soon giant arms were cradling her head and back.

Someone cruelly slapped her cheek and she gasped.

She began to cry, and never stopped crying, through what turned out to be an unfairly hard, painful, and meaningless life.