Some days my master’s robes smell like fresh flowers and clean linens. Those are my favorite days, when I lay out his robes and run my fingers over the yards and yards of thick, black fabric, feeling its softness and smelling its deep, wonderful smells. Sometimes I try them on, though they are too long for me and hang well past my feet. They are pleasantly cool, like him.
Some days my master’s robes smell like fire, like soot and embers. Some days they smell acrid, like chemicals set out too long. Some days they are damp and smell like decay. Those days I like less. One those days I gently remove his robes when he returns home and wash them, then hang them to dry in the sun.
My master is a quiet man who touches many people but speaks to few. He is feared and loathed and his presence to every party is a dreaded one. He is unwelcome to any occasion, cursed at every turn, and shooed away at every chance. But because he is kind and just, he allows the harsh words of others to easily roll away and does his duty without missing a beat. He serves the people, though they do not give him the slightest hint of thanks. Day after day, I help him shrug into his long robes and off he goes to his work, where he is greeted with curses and tears and hateful words. Then he comes home, and I clean his robes for the next day.
“Does it all wear on you?” I have asked once as I brushed away the soot and grime from his robes. “To be treated so harshly every day?”
He had looked at me that day with a sadness so quiet, so resolute, that I felt my heart sink ever so slightly. “Some days, I suppose,” he told me, “it all becomes a bit much.”
My master reads to me from old books. I sit at his feet and listen to his deep, gentle voice, full of wisdom and intrigue. He knows countless tales, and many are of the people he meets. Once in a while, he says, he meets someone who does not greet him with fear or anger, but rather like an old friend. Sometimes they’re old, sometimes they’re young, and sometimes they’re very young. The very young tell amazing stories, and my master dictates them to me to write down. The reading room is filled with shelves lined with book after book of stories, recorded in the pretty script that he taught me to write.
Most days he works. When he works, I keep his house and dust his shelves, then I make tea and read his books as I await his return.
Sometimes he rests, though not often. His work is unending, knows no time of day or year, and more of it always comes. When he rests, it is usually because I beg him to.
“I suppose they can wait a bit longer for me to come,” he always says as he lays down. “Come lay with me, child.”
On those rare occasions I lay with him on his wide, musty bed. He sometimes puts his hand gently over my waist as he dozes, as if seeking comfort from that simple touch. I feel the weight of my master’s hand and sigh, wondering not for the first time if he might love me as I love him. It is not a question I will ever ask.
“I wish I could see your work.”
My master looks up. I have just helped him put on his robe to prepare for another day. He regards me with a hint of amusement and I worry for a moment if perhaps I had been too bold.
“Forgive me,” I say. “It is not my place to …”
“No,” he says. “It’s merely … interesting.”
“That you should making such a request, on this of all days.”
I avoid his gaze and suddenly feel embarrassed. “It’s just that I’ve never known life outside your house. I only hear your stories and read your books. The world you tell of sounds so big, and the people so colorful. I wish to see them with my own eyes, even just one.”
“Then see one you shall.”
My eyes light up. “Really, master?”
“Dress yourself. Today I will take you with me.”
I hurry off and make myself presentable. My wardrobe is modest, but I find a simple white dress kept apart from my usual clothing. I put it on, cinch its ribbon at my waist, and brush my hair. I look myself in the reflecting glass and think I look proper and nice. I show myself to my master, who nods approvingly.
“You chose well.”
I blush. “I am glad.”
“Come.” He raises his hood, covering his face in shadow. I do not know why he covers his face, as I find his gaze soothing, but seems most others find it unnerving and would rather he not lay his eyes on them unshielded. He extends one hand and I take it. He takes me out of the house and down a winding path.
I cannot tell how long we walk, his cool fingers wrapped around mine. The fog around us is thick and the ground is unsteady, there but not there. The air feels heavy, but somehow comforting. I let my master lead me, his imposing figure towering. We walk until the path ends. I blink and find myself in a white room, a shuttered window to my left casting lines of golden sunlight over a bed to my right.
A woman sits in bed, propped up on worn pillows and thread-bare linen. A pot of withering flowers sit on the nightstand next to her. Her hair is silver like the scales of a fish, and her face is wrinkled with age. She turns to us slowly and I see a flicker of surprise in her eyes. I brace myself for the anger and hatred that so often accompanies those visited by my master.
“Well,” she says evenly. “There you are again.”
“Hello, Margret,” my master says gently. He sits at the foot of her bed. I expect he might remove his hood, but he does not. “Your time has come.”
She looks from him to me. She looks at me with such fixation that I squirm a bit under her gaze. Then, though I do not understand why, tears fill her eyes and spill out like a pool overflowing.
“You brought her,” she says, her voice trembling. “You really brought her.”
My master gestures for me to come closer. He takes my hand and places it gently over the old woman’s. She lays her other hand over mine. Her palms are warm and familiar, though I do not know her. She has never been in master’s house.
“She looks just like the day we laid her to rest,” the old woman says to my master, her voice full of emotion. “All of seventeen, in her favorite dress. She’s still so beautiful.” She returns her tearful gaze back to me. “Do you know me, Rose-Marie? Do you know your mother?”
I look helplessly to my master.
“She does not know you. When a soul is severed from the body, the memories go, too.”
“Ah,” the woman sighs. “That is alright. She doesn’t need to know me. It doesn’t matter anymore. I am just thankful to see her one last time.” She grips my hand as tightly as she can manage. She is shaking. “They told me she was imperfect when she was born, that I should give her up somewhere, have myself a healthy child next time, a perfect one. But I couldn’t, you know. I loved her. Extra chromosome or not, I loved her. She is perfect.”
“She has been a wonderful and helpful companion,” my master says. “I could not have asked for better.”
“I am glad.” The woman lets go of my hand and I step back. I do not understand their conversation, but it must be upsetting me somehow. There are tears falling from my own eyes and I cannot make them stop. “And I am grateful to you, reaper, to have cared for her this long, just so I can see her one last time before I depart. If I had any life left, I would gladly give it to you as thanks for this gift.”
My master shakes his head. “You merely made a request and I complied. She has been welcome company around an otherwise lonely haunt.”
“Will you let her go now that you have fulfilled your promise?”
“Is that what you wish I should do?”
The woman looks at me. I feel that I should smile at her, so I do. “She may do as she wishes.”
“Very well.” My master stands. “Are you ready, Margret?”
“I am. And thank you, reaper. I cannot repeat it enough. Thank you.”
There is light, and I turn away. When I look back at the woman, she appears to have fallen into a deep, unmoving sleep. She must be dreaming pleasant dreams, because she is smiling.
My master asks me if I wish to go on to better places. There are better worlds waiting for me, he says, where happiness reigns and angels fly. He says I could go to where there is nothing but love and peace, and spend eternity in bliss rather than press his ratty old robes day after day.
I tell him honestly that I do not wish to go, because the only presence I love is his, and I can’t imagine being anywhere other than in his home. Our home. My home. He strokes my hair and smiles, then tells me perhaps I could stay a bit longer, that he should miss my presence very much if I were to leave.
And so I dust and clean my master’s house and wait for him to return from another long day, reading his old books and dreaming my old dreams, hoping that today he will take a rest, with his robes hung up and his cool hand on my waist.