by Paddy Kelly
I was the first to smell the dead. It slipped in through the shutters, the reek of wet hair and sun-bad apples, and I snatched my hand away, not daring to breathe. I turned to my family, huddled around the table by the fire. One look at me and they understood.
The dead were passing and maybe none of us would see the dawn.
My mother hissed at me to leave the window. I bolted to my usual seat, across from my father. He didn’t notice. His gaze was fixed on the far wall, hairy hands clasped on the table. I turned to my sister beside him, about to speak, but then froze as if turned to stone.
I’d heard it. A dry rattle from outside. The dead as they began to sing.
It started low, a creak and moan, but as it rose, voices uncurled, pale shrieks slowed to fingernail scrapes. And I could see them, the ones who sang—eggshell eyes, limbs draped with rags, fingers curled into the shape of the very last thing they’d held.
A bark from my father and we formed a circle. I snatched my sister’s slippery hand. To my left lay the baby, asleep in her basket. I slid my thumb between her tiny fingers. The circle complete, we bowed our heads as my father started the prayer, our only protection against the ones who filed past outside in their breathless flood.
The prayer was always my grandmother’s task, but this year she wasn’t with us. She’d been moved to the unlit house on the edge of the village, with the other old ones. They sat there now, praying that it wasn’t their turn, that one more year might pass.
But I knew what would happen. The dead, drawn to the warmth and the life, would pause at that unlocked door and softly knock. Once inside, they’d pick the ones whose time had come and lead them out, hands gripped bloodless, and stagger with them into the haze.
The ones taken would return, year after year, growing paler and slower, until they were like the other dead—just husks of rage and regret, unraveling with every step.
My eyes opened to a noise, and the prayer jammed in my throat. I heard the cold crunch of grass as something passed the shutters. I turned to my mother for comfort, but her face was waxen. So I struggled to rejoin the prayer, but it was too late for that. Too late for anything.
The tide of dead had reached us. They were right outside.
I closed my eyes as their song crawled into my head through every gap. I glimpsed fragments of their lives—warm places, children born and dying, loved ones laughing and lost. Instants of joy, burning bright, then fading, like sparks from a fire.
Above all else, I felt their rage, as they watched us stumble from day to day, passing time, killing hours, and wasting without a thought what they could never have again.
I swayed, drowning in misery, unable to break the surface, and I wasn’t alone. Around me the prayer had dissolved into sobs. Our only protection, shattered.
Trembling, I opened my eyes. The fire was flickering, close to dying. Shadows stained the shutters, the air was like teeth, and frost spread in tiny fingers around the door.
My father leaned forward until his forehead touched the table. I turned from him, seeking comfort in the fire. But it was low now, a sullen flicker, a sigh—and it died.
Shadows reared up, hands reaching in, fingers groping at throats, and then—
It stopped. The song cut off like a severed limb. The flames in the hearth brightened as if blown upon. I took a breath, and I held it as cold burned, not daring to believe.
But it was true. It was over. The dead had passed.
My sister gasped. I was squeezing her hand, grinding the bones. I loosened my grip. She yanked it away, and fell weeping against our mother, who was crying too, mourning her own mother who might already be out there, stumbling away into the night.
My father had lifted his head and now sat, staring at nothing, fists trembling. I knew what he was thinking, that one day he’d be the one leaving with the dead. That no matter how strong he was, or how hard he fought against it, in the end he’d shrivel and fade like all the others.
It had to happen, because the dead were us, and they always would be.
But for now, we lived. My flesh was warming, as the world slid back towards normal. And yet, not. A tingle remained, as if something was wrong. I couldn’t say what, but something had shifted in the fitting together of things. Turning to my mother, I saw in her eyes that same fear. She hushed my sister, pressed a finger to her lips. And together, in silence, we listened.
Outside was nothing, only a dying night creeping into morning. But the change we felt wasn’t out there. It was right inside the house, close to us, just within reach.
And then I knew what it was. The baby was no longer breathing.
There came a knock upon the door, as gentle as a beating heart.