One, two, three. Three hundred thirty-two tiny skulls on a string. Toothless jaw, eye-sockets empty. My wrist is not a graveyard; I wear the proud craft of my mother on it.
Your own mother is a pale, frightened rabbit against the turbulent night sea: a portrait made exquisite by the driftwood window frame of my hut. Bangles of heavy lugun, the precious Innachor silver-mercury, can be heard clacking against each other underneath her robes. But the tattoos betray her. The intricate cinnabar lines are not cosmetic but drawn carefully to hide the marks of plucked feathers on her skin. Just by looking at them, I know that one of her parents was Surna, like both of mine were.
“You know I can’t dampen it while it’s still inside you,” I tell her and pour another cup of dandelion coffee. We’re talking about you. “It’s not the way of our people.” Then I add, rather cheekily, “Was your mother Surna or your father? You know that neither would approve of your approach to this.”
Her tattooed features have the solemn frigidity of glaciers as she refuses to answer my question about her origin. She’s learned too well to pretend there’s nothing questionable about it. “I need to get rid of it before the swelling shows.” Bedecked fingers curl in tension on my tamarisk wood table. A ruby shines like blood drop among transparent gemstones. “He... must not know.”
Oh. I’ve seen this before. I sip my thick earthy coffee while she barely touches hers. Star-shaped yellow flowers float inside it. “Did the lady sleep with one of the Surna peasants then?”
“How dare you...” The offense is high. Her mercury-colored Innachor pupils shrink, but the affronted morals are all Surna. “Witch!” She adds the insult that makes me laugh with pity at her odd, lost self, a ghost that wanders. “I... I know something’s wrong with it.” Voice of smoke, trembling. “It’s one of those.”
I squint at her inflection at this moment, at the superstition only genuine Surna can have. There’s only one thing pregnant Surna are so afraid of.
The only thing that can give me back my freedom.
I scratch the burgundy feathers on my wrist—my people’s proud sacrifice that once saved this world—and they get caught between the tiny skulls, pricking me in tiny stabs. The bone never takes my body’s temperature; always cool, always deader than all dead things.
I must not betray myself. I want it, desperately need it, but she must not know. In these cases I must have the upper hand, always. My mother has taught me well.
“You think the child’s a koom?” I ask in a whisper. Koom have names, but they must never be spoken. Koom are all dead in this world, but they very, very much are still alive in another. A Surna word for nightmare means ‘koom’s breath on your face.’
She nods. “My family was cursed. I’m cursed. I’m sixth generation.”
I try to hide a smile at her superstition that koom happen because of “curses” and hold myself from saying that the only curse she has is that Innachor blood running inside her veins. Curses do not exist, but I don’t say it because I need her belief in them. The stronger, the better. Instead, I say, “You’re the lady. I’m a lowly Surna. It takes a lot of nerve to come here and beg for my help, you know.”
She spreads her fingers on the table; leans closer. Bravely makes our eyes meet. “Please. You know koom are dangerous. I must not have any children at all. It must end with me.”
I’m still inclined to turn down this Surna who was lucky to be born with only a few easy-to-disguise feathers and with striking Innachor eyes. But I want the koom she can give birth to, the koom she’s ready to transform your body into.
She is rather desperate, your mother. Desperate to make you disappear, because she fears you. But I am desperate too. I want to hurt her with my words, so I say something I don’t believe. I repeat the words of those who think a dampening must have only certain reasons behind it.
“You married an Innachor and now you’re trying to avoid the duty of bearing him children? Pathetic.”
“Please,” she says. Her voice cracks; she cracks. She lowers those Innachor eyes, and for the first time I can see her the way she really is. “I don’t want his child. Any of his.”
Something of your mother breaks right there; something in her acceptance of my cruel words makes me see how, for a moment, I am the pathetic one. I am wrong to want to hurt her when she is already suffering; I’ve seen those eyes before. I’ve seen them on the faces of Surna girls who come to me to do the dampening and I know what happened; I know they’re carrying unwanted Innachor children inside them. One of those Surna girls could have been your mother’s mother, you know. In her eyes, I see for a moment how even the lucky ones who are pretty and pass and marry into Innachor upper ranks—sometimes, even those with a good life and caring husbands—are still every bit of Surna fate.
Damn. You’re too soft, my mother would say. I sigh. “I told you. The conceived have souls that come from a higher spiritual plane. I can’t dampen them while still inside. The bodies are still too small. The souls must be returned first; then I can dampen the separated body. It must be done right and at the right time, otherwise the soul will be reincarnated and born with the child—and there’s nothing I can do by then. So the only proper way to do this is you have to give birth first.”
What is common sense to the Surna is impossible for the Innachor to grasp. Unborn, to them, means not yet living. To us, it means a reincarnated spirit. One must first return it to the plane it came from, so it can seek out a new vessel, and only then do any kind of dampening. We agree though on one thing: the person who carries the unborn decides. That much, your mother and I have in common.
There is one more thing that I don’t tell.
Had this been any other kind of dampening, through careful ritual I would have driven your soul away while your mother was still pregnant, then done away with the baby’s body that comes out a soulless husk.
But this is different. This is someone ready to bring back the soul of a koom to a new body, to its rightful world. Surna belief is what the koom feed on in their diminished state, while they are suspended in their shadow world. Belief is the thing that makes them stronger, gives them shape, that draws them to the still-forming vessel, so they can latch onto it—with my help, of course.
This is someone who has prepared her mind to birth a koom.
So I’m giving her a koom.
“You are a killer,” she tells me—a word I’ve heard before, so I don’t mind. I understand that for her it’s still a lot to come to grips with. By now its clear that no Surna raised this one; her ideas are all Innachor.
I have decided to not provoke her anymore, but I won’t sit and tolerate insults. “I never considered myself a killer,” I explain. “You are the one making all the fuss. Either let me numb the soul inside and return it to its plane, then commit the soulless body to the earth on the day of its birth. Or let the soul become tainted in the meantime and bring your koom to life.
“You know how it happens, right? You’ve seen it. Reincarnated souls become tainted when you’re cursed. A pure soul, slowly turning. There’s a gnawing feeling at your belly, something ready to tear it from the inside out, yet you ignore it. Then the day comes, and it’s too late. Are you willing to let this happen?” These are terrible lies, but I need them to feed her belief in order to draw the koom.
“No,” she mutters.
“Good. Then you follow my instructions. I don’t care what you do ‘till birth—it’s your problem. Hide your belly somehow. Pretend it’s stillborn.”
“You can’t ask me to go through that, for so many months!” She sounds terrified. Understandably, I can’t ask her such a thing, no. So I soften again, the disapproval of my mother’s voice ringing inside me.
“Alright. We can make it come sooner. The important thing is the purging process and that you follow the preparation to the letter. Giving birth is no easy task, that much is true, but you have my word that it will be swift and that I will make sure you are fine of health and free of children. How is that for a bargain?”
It’s her turn to sigh, to press those lips so tightly together that all color disappears from them. She knows that only a Surna witch can help her. She could go to any dampener, but she chose me. And I, of course, do not tell her the truth.
No one can know about this. That koom do not happen; I make them happen. It’s my duty to the koom. I have an obligation to bring them to life, much like I do with any other birth. I simply borrow the already-formed bodies of those whom the world is not yet ready to receive.
No one can know about this. Because it’s my freedom I’m seeking, too.
“Okay then,” your mother says. “We do it your way.”
Through your mother’s footprints on the beach outside my hut that day, shoreflowers bloomed.
They say they only bloom on sand warmed by the feet of the hopeless.
One, two, three—three hundred thirty-two tiny skulls on a string. Long, toothless jaws; eye-sockets empty, carved in the sinister shape of orchids. Skulls of koom.
There’s only space for a single one more. The last one in this Legacy: a bundle of individual koom, greater and yet no greater than the sum of its parts. The bracelet on my wrist is the Legacy, and yet it isn’t; half-formed in this world but still not quite here. Not until the last one joins the thread. At three hundred thirty-three skulls, I will be free.
My grandmother’s grandmother made the agreement. The koom saved her daughter’s life by giving her a little of their energy—the only power they have in their current state: this steadfast way of clinging onto life, their ability to wait, and wait, in this half-existence—and she promised to save the koom in return. We bring back koom into this world—their rightful world—and we are allowed to live. My life is bound to the koom. My grandmother’s life and my mother’s life and my life—all happened because of the koom’s help, so long ago. This is Surna debt and Surna pride: we all owe them. We are all midwives to them, too.
However, Surna debt and Surna pride can be heavy. Your mother doesn’t know what it’s really like to be cursed. I do. The koom skulls on my wrist remind me at every heartbeat.
I’m in your mother’s stuffy birth-room, ready to draw you out.
I eye the midwife, one of the poorer Innachor who, nonetheless, shoots me haughty glances and tuts at the sight of my skulls, of the dark eagle-sight paint around my eyes, of the cobwebs woven inside my braids as amulets. “I said no other midwife but myself,” I tell your mother, and the tone of my voice makes it clear that I won’t tolerate anyone else in the room. Your mother shoos her promptly. I wipe the sweat from your mother’s brow, murmur soothing songs. She’s giving birth to a koom, true, but I will still provide her with the care I give to all my patients. “Have you prepared as we agreed?” I ask.
“Just get done with it, witch,” she mutters from between her clenched teeth, and I’m holding back my anger, try to stay calm as grandmother taught me. The labor is long and painful, but the child finally arrives.
I feel your head, covered in the jewels of afterbirth. It will soon shrink into a tiny koom skull. It will soon be mine. Yet your head keeps pushing at me in a strange manner, too gigantic, unexpectedly different. It’s round—not pointy. I glance at your emerging face—slits for eyes, not gaping holes in the shape of orchids. This baby is too big. Too normal.
This is no koom at all.
“Is it a koom?” your mother asks, anxious to confirm her terror. You’re barely out when she shouts, “Kill it!”
For only a fraction of a moment, I don’t know what to do. Never before has this happened to me. “Did you drink the herbs every day? Did you pray exactly as I told you? Did you do any of it?” No reply. Stupid Innachor. She believed, but clearly not enough to listen to me. Now it’s too late. “You want me to return a baby, yet you wouldn’t do as I say. You should never have come to me.”
“Just kill it!” she says.
She doesn’t understand, that Surna-blooded Innachor.
But this is the least of my problems now. You come out whole: a four-limbed creature that bears the silver skin of Innachor and only the faintest Surna feather down. You are out way too early; if not a koom, then at least you should have been tiny and unable to live. But this is, apparently, what doing only half the preparation does. It makes you grow fast, for the koom to claim your body, only the koom never does. This, my mother warned me of yet never really told me it could happen. “It’s normal, you silly,” I tell her. “It’s a normal child. You didn’t do as I said, so now I can’t return it. If it’s koom you are afraid of, then don’t be. You can keep it.”
I extend my arms, holding you, trying to make her see you. She refuses, closes her eyes. One of the foolish things people believe is that mothers are saintly and could never hate their own offspring. “No, it’s not,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s koom! I told you I’m cursed!”
By now I’ve started wondering. What happened to this woman to make her think she’s cursed? Who in her family gave birth to a koom? Could it be my mother, or my grandmother, that brought back a koom—perhaps what could have been a brother or a sister to her? Did our work made her fear—fear too much—but, clearly, not believe enough?
I think I understand your mother a little, despite my anger and pity for her. But there’s nothing I can do to help her now.
I must help you instead. By instinct, I draw my arms back again. “This is a reincarnated soul. I can’t do the dampening anymore. Don’t you understand?” I say and vow to myself to protect you.
Your mother finally meets my eyes. The gleam in those Innachor eyes is like cool steel with lugun insets. It makes me shiver.
You’re in my hands; you’re perfect. What should I do?
The window’s open and I steal into the cold night, darkness covering my footprints.
That night, the night of your birth, I return to my hut, make a bundle of my few belongings, and with you on my back I start walking East, away from Innachor lords and ladies. My midwife status will give me shelter elsewhere, protect me from the nobles that might eye me suspiciously. You keep screaming, and I have no food to give you. Not until we reach the village in the morning where I can seek a wet nurse or ask for some gru’s milk. You finally fall asleep way after midnight, exhausted.
When your screams stop, the koom reveal themselves to me. The moonlight draws their shapes in lugun and platinum. Shaky, misty; here, yet over there. Their orchid-shaped eyes stare at me, at us.
“You promised a child. But this one’s not for us.” Their voices bounce from me, voices that can never exist on their own but need to ride the warm print of the lives of other things.
My mouth is dry and full of sands and ashes. “There was a mistake. I’m sorry.”
“You made us come, but you gave us no vessel. This was not the agreement.”
“It wasn’t. I will give you the next one.” I am honest in my promise, and the koom know this. They’ve always been fair and just in their rewards but also in their punishments.
“We came here for the last vessel in the Legacy. We were meant to be whole tonight. Now we are not. You made us come, but you gave us nothing to feed on. We have now consumed all of our strength. We cannot hold onto the vessels anymore. There is no strength left. We must go back to rest. We must start over.”
“You... what?” I lose my words as the koom fade from this world and water washes away from my wrist. “No...”
The skull bracelet dissolves into nothingness. I’m where I was ten years ago, when my own mother died and I was handed the bracelet and the task of returning the final thirty-three koom.
Fool, she would have called me. I taught you, you must not do this with those who don’t believe.
There is a reason we keep the skulls on a string around our wrist. Each skull holds a koom that’s waiting—a half existence, between this world and the other. Waiting, for all of them to finally have vessels, so the Legacy can come back and fully occupy their new bodies. Each child soul I return gives me one koom skull. When I have all of them, they can finally come to life.
The rendezvous was tonight. All three hundred and thirty-three were supposed to come to life when the last child was taken. To fully occupy one skull each and become flesh and bone again.
All of them waited for this night for centuries. And all of them now, all three hundred and thirty-three, are back into the shadow world they’re trapped in.
And with them, I’m a prisoner to my debt again.
The absence of the skulls is painful. The only comfort is the tiny bundle of you, you whom I do not know what to do with, you who are screaming and squirming again, you who finally fall asleep by the rocking movement of my long walk, warm against my back like the cold skulls never were.
You’re sitting by the window, threading the nettle yarn as I taught you. Your hair, your Innachor hair, tight in their braids with cobwebs woven inside them, reflect the moonglow. Your threads are fierce and tight, because you’re angry at me for not letting you accompany me to a childbirth today. You are as stubborn as I was at your age.
What are the koom, you ask me. Residents of this earth before us. Ghosts of some monstrous past. Or present. We fear them, because we took this place from them, long ago, and drove them away. We fear them, because we know they did not leave forever; they simply diminished and hid in the world that is unseen to us but is right here, everywhere, all the time. And they waited. And when the time came, they approached the Surna witches because they were the only ones who could hear them speak.
And the Surna know justice; the Surna saved this place once by merging with birds, changing ourselves forever. The koom noticed. The koom understood that a Surna witch who deals in life and death could be midwife and returner to them too. My family were the ones charged with this task.
Fool, my mother used to tell me. You’re too weak! You’ll never do this right. By now, I’ve figured out one thing about my mother: that she was so strict because she made the same mistake I did.
Daughter, I can’t count the number of mistakes I’ve made, but I know I’ve done a single right thing.
Whenever you look at me, or raise your voice at me, I remember your mother. Not a day passes when I don’t think about her, about her hopelessness and about the ways I could have helped her. Every day I do my best to talk to those in need of my help, Surna or not, show them that they are not alone in this. Even if this has deprived me of some koom skulls. Koom can wait—they’ve waited long enough. Your mother taught me more things about us and the koom than no one ever had—except you.
“Mother,” you ask, trying to reconcile with me, at last. “When will I start collecting skulls too?”
Your fascination with them is uncanny, almost amusing. Ever since I got my first one of the new bracelet, you kept touching it, scratching, kissing it, you Surna child that should have been a koom. “Soon,” I tell you, and I’m afraid it’s true. I would have liked my lie to have meant never, because soon it will end and it will end with me. But three hundred and thirty-three skulls are hard to collect in a single lifetime. They clack once again on my wrist, hard-earned and deathly cold.
I vowed I’d never raise children. Surna witches are always adopted—a child before the age of thirteen, who knows she is a girl even if no one else does and agrees to learn the way of the witch. I vowed I would not do my duty and pass on my sacred knowledge until after I ended the agreement with the koom, after I was free and my daughters and grand-daughters with me. I failed. Now the koom will claim you—you, to whom I’m teaching my art—to be theirs, as I’ve been, to live your everyday counting grains of sand falling one on top of the other in the hourglass and hoping you will have another skull on your bracelet by the time one of them is ready to travel to this world.
I had only one skull left. Just one. And you took all three hundred and thirty-two away.
But I earned you. I would gladly sacrifice a thousand skull bracelets to have you here with me.