The Language of Knives

“The Language of Knives” by Haralambi Markov is about the death rituals of this secondary world. A strong-willed daughter is guided by her unloved parent in the customs of how to respect the remains of her favorite parent.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.

A long, silent day awaits you and your daughter as you prepare to cut your husband’s body. You remove organs from flesh, flesh from bones, bones from tendons—all ingredients for the cake you’re making, the heavy price of admission for an afterlife you pay your gods; a proper send-off for the greatest of all warriors to walk the lands.

The Baking Chamber feels small with two people inside, even though you’ve spent a month with your daughter as part of her apprenticeship. You feel irritated at having to share this moment, but this is a big day for your daughter. You steal a glance at her. See how imposing she looks in her ramie garments the color of a blood moon, how well the leather apron made from changeling hide sits on her.

You work in silence, as the ritual demands, and your breath hisses as you both twist off the aquamarine top of the purification vat. Your husband floats to the top of the thick translucent waters, peaceful and tender. You hold your breath, aching to lean over and kiss him one more time—but that is forbidden. His body is now sacred, and you are not. You’ve seen him sleep, his powerful chest rising and falling, his breath a harbinger of summer storms. The purification bath makes it easy to pull him up and slide him onto the table, where the budding dawn seeping from the skylight above illuminates his transmogrification, his ascent. His skin has taken a rich pomegranate hue. His hair is a stark mountaintop white.

You raise your head to study your daughter’s reaction at seeing her father since his wake. You study her face, suspicious of any muscle that might twitch and break the fine mask made of fermented butcher broom berries and dried water mint grown in marshes where men have drowned. It’s a paste worn out of respect and a protection from those you serve. You scrutinize her eyes for tears, her hair and eyebrows waxed slick for any sign of dishevelment.

The purity of the body matters most. A single tear can sour the offering. A single hair can spoil the soul being presented to the gods . . . what a refined palate they have. But your daughter wears a stone face. Her eyes are opaque; her body is poised as if this is the easiest thing in the world to do. The ceramic knife you’ve shaped and baked yourself sits like a natural extension of her arm.

You remember what it took you to bake your own mother into a cake. No matter how many times you performed the ritual under her guidance, nothing prepared you for the moment when you saw her body on the table. Perhaps you can teach your daughter to love your art. Perhaps she belongs by your side as a Cake Maker, even though you pride yourself on not needing any help. Perhaps she hasn’t agreed to this apprenticeship only out of grief. Perhaps, perhaps . . .

Your heart prickles at seeing her this accomplished, after a single lunar cycle. A part of you, a part you take no pride in, wants her to struggle through her examination, struggle to the point where her eyes beg you to help her. You would like to forgive her for her incapability, the way you did back when she was a child. You want her to need you—the way she needed your husband for so many years.

No. Treat him like any other. Let your skill guide you. You take your knife and shave the hair on your husband’s left arm with the softest touch.

You remove every single hair on his body to use for kindling for the fire you will build to dry his bones, separating a small handful of the longest hairs for the decoration, then incise the tip of his little finger to separate skin from muscle.

Your daughter mirrors your movements. She, too, is fluent in the language of knives.

The palms and feet are the hardest to skin, as if the body fights to stay intact and keep its grip on this realm. You struggle at first but then work the knife without effort. As you lift the softly stretching tissue, you see the countless scars that punctuated his life—the numerous cuts that crisscross his hands and shoulders, from when he challenged the sword dancers in Aeno; the coin-shaped scars where arrowheads pierced his chest during their voyage through the Sear of Spires in the misty North; the burn marks across his left hip from the leg hairs of the fire titan, Hragurie. You have collected your own scars on your journeys through the forgotten places of this world, and those scars ache now, the pain kindled by your loss.

After you place your husband’s skin in a special aventurine bowl, you take to the muscle—that glorious muscle you’ve seen shift and contract in great swings of his dancing axe while you sing your curses and charms alongside him in battle. Even the exposed redness of him is rich with memories, and you do everything in your power not to choke as you strip him of his strength. This was the same strength your daughter prized above all else and sought for herself many years ago, after your spells and teachings grew insufficient for her. This was the same strength she accused you of lacking when you chose your mother’s calling, retired your staff from battle, and chose to live preparing the dead for their passing.

Weak. The word still tastes bitter with her accusation. How can you leave him? How can you leave us? You’re a selfish little man.

You watch her as you work until there is nothing left but bones stripped clean, all the organs in their respective jars and bowls. Does she regret the words now, as she works by your side? Has she seen your burden yet? Has she understood your choice? Will she be the one to handle your body once you pass away?

You try to guess the answer from her face, but you find no solace and no answer. Not when you extract the fat from your husband’s skin, not when you mince his flesh and muscle, not when you puree his organs and cut his intestines into tiny strips you leave to dry. Your daughter excels in this preparatory work—her blade is swift, precise, and gentle.

How can she not? After all, she is a gift from the gods. A gift given to two lovers who thought they could never have a child on their own. A miracle. The completion you sought after in your youth; a honey-tinged bliss that filled you with warmth. But as with all good things, your bliss waxed and waned as you realized: all children have favorites.

You learned how miracles can hurt.

You align his bones on the metal tray that goes into the hungry oven. You hold his skull in your hands and rub the sides where his ears once were. You look deep into the sockets where once eyes of dark brown would stare back into you.

His clavicle passes your fingers. You remember the kisses you planted on his shoulder, when it used to be flesh. You position his ribcage, and you can still hear his heartbeat—a rumble in his chest the first time you lay together after barely surviving an onslaught of skinwalkers, a celebration of life. You remember that heart racing, as it did in your years as young men, when vitality kept you both up until dawn. You remember it beating quietly in his later years, when you were content and your bodies fit perfectly together—the alchemy of flesh you have now lost.

You deposit every shared memory in his bones, and then load the tray in the oven and slam shut the metal door.

Behind you, your daughter stands like a shadow, perfect in her apprentice robes. Not a single crease disfigures the contours of her pants and jacket. Not a single stain mars her apron.

She stares at you. She judges you.

She is perfection.

You wish you could leave her and crawl in the oven with your husband.

Flesh, blood and gristle do not make a cake easily, yet the Cake Maker has to wield these basic ingredients. Any misstep leads to failure, so you watch closely during your daughter’s examination, but she completes each task with effortless grace.

She crushes your husband’s bones to flour with conviction.

Your daughter mixes the dough of blood, fat, and bone flour, and you assist her. You hear your knuckles and fingers pop as you knead the hard dough, but hers move without a sound—fast and agile as they shape the round cakes.

Your daughter works over the flesh and organs until all you can see is a pale scarlet cream with the faint scent of iron, while you crush the honey crystals that will allow for the spirit to be digested by the gods. You wonder if she is doing this to prove how superior she is to you– to demonstrate how easy it is to lock yourself into a bakery with the dead. You wonder how to explain that you never burnt as brightly as your husband, that you don’t need to chase legends and charge into battle.

You wonder how to tell her that she is your greatest adventure, that you gave her most of the magic you had left.

Layer by layer, your husband is transformed into a cake. Not a single bit of him is lost. You pull away the skin on top and connect the pieces with threads from his hair. The sun turns the rich shade of lavender and calendula.

You cover the translucent skin with the dried blood drops you extracted before you placed the body in the purification vat and glazed it with the plasma. Now all that remains is to tell your husband’s story, in the language every Cake Maker knows—the language you’ve now taught your daughter.

You wonder whether she will blame you for the death of your husband in writing, the way she did when you told her of his death.

Your stillness killed him. You had to force him to stay, to give up his axe. Now he’s dead in his sleep. Is this what you wanted? Have him all to yourself? You couldn’t let him die out on the road.

Oh, how she screamed that day—her voice as unforgiving as thunder. Her screaming still reverberates through you. You’re afraid of what she’s going to tell the gods.

You both write. You cut and bend the dried strips of intestines into runes and you gently push them so they sink into the glazed skin and hold.

You write his early story. His childhood, his early feats, the mythology of your love. How you got your daughter. She tells the other half of your husband’s myth—how he trained her in every single weapon known to man, how they journeyed the world over to honor the gods.

Her work doesn’t mention you at all.

You rest your fingers, throbbing with pain from your manipulations. You have completed the last of your husband’s tale. You have written in the language of meat and bones and satisfied the gods’ hunger. You hope they will nod with approval as their tongues roll around the cooked flesh and swallow your sentences and your tether to life.

Your daughter swims into focus as she takes her position across the table, your husband between you, and joins you for the spell. He remains the barrier you can’t overcome even in death. As you begin to speak, you’re startled to hear her voice rise with yours. You mutter the incantation and her lips are your reflection, but while you caress the words, coaxing their magic into being, she cuts them into existence, so the veil you will around the cake spills like silk on your end and crusts on hers. The two halves shimmer in blue feylight, entwine into each other, and the deed is done.

You have said your farewell, better than you did when you first saw him dead. Some dam inside you breaks. Exhaustion wipes away your strength and you feel your age, first in the trembling in your hands, then in the creaking in your knees as you turn your back and measure your steps so you don’t disturb the air—a retreat as slow as young winter frost.

Outside the Bakery, your breath catches. Your scream is a living thing that squirms inside your throat and digs into the hidden recesses of your lungs. Your tears wash the dry mask from your cheeks.

Your daughter takes your hand, gently, with the unspoken understanding only shared loss births and you search for her gaze. You search for the flat, dull realization that weighs down the soul. You search for yourself in her eyes, but all you see is your husband—his flame now a wildfire that has swallowed every part of you. She looks at you as a person who has lost the only life she had ever known, pained and furious, and you pat her hand and kiss her forehead, her skin stinging against your lips. When confusion pulls her face together, her features lined with fissures in her protective mask, you shake your head.

“The gods praise your skill and technique. They praise your steady hand and precision, but they have no use of your hands in the Bakery.” The words roll out with difficulty—a thorn vine you lacerate your whole being with as you force yourself to reject your daughter. Yes, she can follow your path, but what good would that do?

“You honor me greatly.” Anger tinges her response, but fights in these holy places father only misfortune, so her voice is low and even. You are relieved to hear sincerity in her fury, desire in her voice to dedicate herself to your calling.

You want to keep her here, where she won’t leave. Your tongue itches with every lie you can bind her with, spells you’ve learned from gods that are not your own, hollow her out and hold onto her, even if such acts could end your life. You reconsider and instead hold on to her earnest reaction. You have grown to an age where even intent will suffice.

“It’s not an honor to answer your child’s yearning.” You maintain respectability, keep with the tradition, but still you lean in with all the weight of death tied to you like stones and you whisper. “I have told the story of your father in blood and gristle as I have with many others. As I will continue to tell every story as best as I can, until I myself end in the hands of a Cake Maker. But you can continue writing your father’s story outside the temple where your knife strokes have a meaning.

“Run. Run toward the mountains and rivers, sword in your hand and bow on your back. Run toward life. That is where you will find your father.”

Now it is she who is crying. You embrace her, the memory of doing so in her childhood alive inside your bones and she hugs you back as a babe, full of needing and vulnerable. But she is no longer a child—the muscles underneath her robes roll with the might of a river—so you usher her out to a life you have long since traded away.

Her steps still echo in the room outside the Baking Chamber as you reapply the coating to your face from the tiny, crystal jars. You see yourself: a grey, tired man who touched death more times than he ever touched his husband.

Your last task is to bring the cake to where the Mouth awaits, its vines and branches shaking, aglow with iridescence. There, the gods will entwine their appendages around your offering, suck it in, close and digest. Relief overcomes you and you sigh.

Yes, it’s been a long day since you and your daughter cut your husband’s body open. You reenter the Baking Chamber and push the cake onto the cart.

 

“The Language of Knives” copyright © 2015 by Haralambi Markov

Art copyright © 2015 by Sam Weber

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